Velo Club Moulin

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Deeside Trail Group Start

Idly browsing on a Monday evening I read a forum post about the group start of the Deeside Trail. Interesting but not practical as it's only 5 days away and my mountain bike has broken forks and practically no front brake. Nevertheless a seed has been planted in my brain.

I browse a bit more and find myself checking the forecast for the weekend, it looks great.

By Tuesday morning the idea has grown and I drop an email to Adam to say that I'm keen to ride if I can fix my bike and find somewhere to stay before the 8am start.

A few hectic evenings later I've rebuilt the fork and most of the rest of the bike and it's looking like it might all work out. I try to book some accommodation for the night before but it's much more difficult than usual and most places are booked. After a bit of indecision I decide to drive up in the morning so I'm up and out the door by 5.

There are 4 of us signed up for the group start and it's good to catch up with Brian McCardle who I used to regularly race cross against. Bob McGregor has completed the route multiple times and he's tackling it on a singlespeed and Colin Calder has a completion to his name in 2020.

I rode the route in 36 hours in 2018 but between damaging a brake hose on the first singletrack descent and getting caught in a thunderstorm it wasn't the smoothest ride. I stopped for 3 good meals and enjoyed the luxury of a tent. I'm not sure that I can ride any of the sections much faster so if I want to get round quicker I need to stop less. Straight after I emailed Adam I ordered a bivi bag from Alpkit, my untested theory is that I need to be less comfortable to go quicker. My theory is about to collide with reality.

After a quick hello we roll into the sunshine at 8. Brian and I are slightly too busy catching up and it takes a while for us to realise that we've ridden past one of the early turnings, we retrace our route and after an extra km or two we're back on the route.  

After regrouping with Colin and Bob we all ride together for the next couple of hours, probably slightly too fast given what's ahead of us but it's fun and the early stages of the route pass quickly under our wheels. At the end of the Carnferg traverse my seatpost slips and it takes me a few minutes to sort it. Eager to catch up I set off down a fun descent that I don't remember from last time. Ah, that's because this fun descent is off route. I work my way back up and join the Fungle Road singletrack, it's so engaging and fun that within a few minutes I've forgotten about the mistake. 

I catch up with Colin on the next big climb and for the next hour or so I ride pretty hard to try and catch up to Bob and Brian. I assume that they are together and I don't spot Bob filling his water bottle at the side of the trail so I keep chasing shadows. After a while it dawns on me that I've got a long way to go and I better rein it in a bit. There's a long fast bumpy descent off the hill but the grass is damp and there's definitely the potential to get it very wrong so I take it easy.

It's a bank holiday weekend but I've never seen Ballater so busy. Even a quick Co-op stop takes an age and thanks to the sunlit uplands of Brexit the shelves are decidedly empty and they don't have any water. I eat a fruit salad and strap a sandwich to my saddlebag before setting off for Loch Muick.

I'm surprised when Brian catches me on the climb as in my head he was miles up the road never to be seen again. He's had a more leisurely lunch stop in Ballater. It's good to have some company and we ride together for a while but he's obviously going better than me up here. I stop to eat my sandwich in the shade while he presses on.

Climbing into the sun above Loch Muick

The climb up to the shoulder is tough, I remember this being mostly ridable but in the heat I'm reduced to pushing. My knee feels sore when I walk and I have some doubts about whether I'll complete. I've got two choices, turn around or get over the top and I focus on getting to Braemar and push on. The descent to Braemar is as fast and as easy as I remember it and now that I'm heading downhill I can enjoy the warmth of the afternoon.

Super fast descent towards Braemar

I'm surprised to find Brian and Bob outside of the Co-op in Braemar. We have a quick chat and it turn out they've had a meal in Braemar. By the time I make it out of the busy shop they've moved on but as I'm sorting myself out Colin rides past. After 8 hours of riding we've all ended up in Braemar within a few minutes of each other.

Crossing the Quioch Water near the top of Glen Quoich

I catch up with Colin in Glen Lui and we ride together for a couple of hours. It's good to have some company through Clais Fearnaig, up the side of the Quoich Water and into Glen Gairn. I'd built these sections up in my head to be the crux of the route but we get through them without too much trouble. Glen Gairn in particular is easier than I remember it, there's even a reasonable path through most of it.
I ask Colin how he managed to pack so much lighter than me and I'm surprised to discover that he's planning to ride right through and isn't carrying a sleeping bag or mat. That explains how he's managed to do without a seat pack and I'm slightly envious of his dropper post as we cover some of the more difficult sections. The conversation plants another seed in my mind, maybe I can ride further than I thought I could? My initial plan had been to get through this section then bivi in lower Glen Gairn.

Glen Gairn 'singletrack'

As we get towards the end of the difficult part of Glen Gairn I look back and there is a reasonable gap to Colin. I can see that he has turned his lights on but if I'm going to ride on I don't have that luxury quite yet. I was planning to bivi so I've only packed the small battery for my light. It's been great to get through these sections in the daylight and luckily the skies are clear and there is still a bit of twilight.
It's around this time that I notice a problem with my Garmin. I've never used the map in the dark before and with the default colours it's almost impossible to see the route when the device is in night mode. Unfortunately I don't know that this is the problem until later and the issue plagues me through the night and I have to stop frequently to check that I'm on the route.

I stop once I reach the better track to put another layer on and can't decide whether I should wait for Colin or not. The midges quickly make the decision for me and I start riding into the beautiful evening. My legs feel remarkably good and I'm onto easy terrain at just the right time. For the next 45 minutes or so I ride into the darkness before I am forced to turn my light on.

The golden hour in lower Glen Gairn
I'm starting to consider riding through the night as a serious prospect so I stop at the main road to put on my warmer layers; leg warmers, dry socks, jacket, hat and long fingered gloves. The next section is relatively easy riding and I make good progress to Ballater. I've got plenty of food so I ride straight through.

It's about midnight when I arrive at the Cambus O'May woods which turns out to be one of the highlights of the ride. As I climb the hill  music gets louder and louder. There's a house party nearby but it feels more like a personal soundtrack encouraging me to the top and down the sinuous singletrack descent. I'm soon crossing the road towards the paths around Loch Kinord.

Sound System Singletrack 

On the grassy paths I can clearly see the tyre tracks that Brian and Bob have left in the dew. It's slightly magical how clear they are and it removes the loneliness of riding at night. The tracks abruptly disappear in Tarland and I guess that they have both stopped there for the night. 
I'm starting to plan how I should approach the rest of the ride. It's still 5 hours until dawn and I don't think I've got enough battery to make it through. If I run out of light somewhere inconvenient I won't have many options. After 17 hours a deep tiredness has started to set in, I could make it through but I'm not sure I'd enjoy it. 
The thought of waking up and pushing for an hour up Pressendye seems awful so I might as well get it over with and sleep near the top. I push slowly uphill into the mist.

I eventually reach the plateau at just after 2am and fall into my bivi bag. I set my alarm for 5am and fall asleep within minutes.

When my alarm goes it's unexpectedly dark and wet but I'm soon moving again albeit slowly up the final climb to the summit. By the time I hit the descent the light has improved enough to turn my light off. It feels a bit odd to be riding fun singletrack descents before 6am.
The Pressendye descent is quick and relatively easy but it's overgrown in places at this time of year. 
Breakfast is a miserable afair in the drizzle. A squashed, barely recognisable croissant that has been in my back pocket since Braemar, a Peperami and a packet of cashew nuts. It's followed by a struggle to lift my bike over a locked gate and another steep hill. The euphoria of riding through the night has evaporated, my spirits reflecting the change in the weather.

It's not long before I hit the fun, swoopy descent into Lumphanan which lifts my mood. It's just before 8 and by a stroke of luck the shopkeeper is opening the village shop early as I pass. It's not long before I'm enjoying a second breakfast of coffee and a chunky Kit Kat. I'm take the opportunity to top up my water bottle which is a bonus. The last section of the route is more urban and there aren't many chances to get water.

A big road climb leads to the Hill of Fare which is easier than I remember. I'm closing in on the finish and without too much more effort I'm back in Banchory, just over 26 hours after I set off.

The mist lifting on the Hill of Fare

I've only been back at the car for 10 minutes when Bob arrives. It's good to catch up and compare our experiences of the ride. 
I was sure that someone must have already finished as I had been following tyre tracks in the mud all morning and had a vague memory of hearing disk brakes howling as I was falling asleep. We later heard that Colin had ridden through the night and finished a couple of hours earlier while Brian finished slightly later in the day after a more relaxed overnight stop.
This ride was a great experience. It's a brilliant route which includes lots of fantastic singletrack but it does have a bit of a sting in the tail. The weather on the first day was fabulous and I was lucky that I felt good at the right times and made it through the difficult sections in the daylight. I was able to knock 10 hours off my first attempt, partly by riding some sections quicker but mostly by reducing how long I was stopped for. Using a bivi bag encouraged me to stop for less time and it was far quicker to set up and pack away.

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