I know that a few keen cyclists read this blog, so it’s time for another one of those posts that will have you all gently shaking your heads in disbelief.
A couple of months ago, I went mountain biking for the very first time. For those of you who prefer more mundane activities, mountain biking is to cycling what shopping in Aldi is to buying your groceries. In other words, depending on whether you enjoy the activity in question, it either makes it a more exciting experience, or more difficult than it needs to be.
If you’ve been following so far, you’ll know that it’s taking me a little time to warm to cycling. There are times – usually when I’m zooming along the flat or whizzing downhill – that it’s great fun. Then there are times – invariably involving big hills – when I wonder why the hell I can’t just get off and walk.
Edita, on the other hand, is more of a fan. She really enjoyed our circuit of the North Coast 500 two years ago, and was keen for us to do another bike ride when we visited Scotland in May. I knew that another two weeks on a pushbike would be too much excitement for me, so I suggested the Great Glen Way, a much shorter route between Inverness and Fort William.
My two main reasons for suggesting this route were because I believed we could get it over with quickly, and because it went along a glen rather than up and over hills – it should be pretty flat and we could zoom along in high gear most of the way.
I was surprised when I contacted the bike hire shop, Ticket to Ride in Inverness, and they recommended a three-day route on mountain bikes. Mountains weren’t in my plans; nor was riding a bike up them. Although it’s possible, and perfectly legal, to cycle the Great Glen Way, it’s not actually a cycling route but a hiking route which climbs above the glen to some airy viewpoints which give walkers a bit more strenuous exercise. In other words, we should really be walking it, not cycling.
However, I was already committed. If I didn’t follow through with my plan, then Edita might think me a big girl’s blouse. The damn bike ride would have to be done, and then we could get on with some enjoyable hill walking afterwards.
This is my trip report of cycling the Great Glen Way on mountain bikes. I know that some of you have busy lives and won’t have time to read the whole blog post, so to save you some time, here’s a short 30-second video that provides a general summary of the whole experience.
The second mistake I made in planning (or more accurately, lack of planning) was to cycle the route from north to south. Nearly everyone else walks the route from south to north to keep the prevailing wind at their backs. So not only would we be cycling up hills – something I had been trying to avoid – but we’d be cycling into a headwind. Only one word sprung to mind when we turned up in Inverness and discovered this. Bollocks.
My next surprise came when I sat on a mountain bike for the first time. What big, heavy wheels they have! The handlebars also seemed to be lower than they had been on the hybrids we hired for the North Coast 500. I found myself leaning forward a bit, like a gorilla touching the ground with his knuckles as he motors along. Homer Simpson would probably have been able to relate to the experience.
On the plus side, the bike did have an awful lot of gears. No matter how steep the hill, it really was possible to find a gear where I could keep pedalling, albeit at roughly the same speed as a sloth that has just got out of bed. This sometimes created a dilemma born of boredom. If you end up cycling at a fraction of the speed that you can walk, expending more energy in the process, what exactly is the point of cycling? Surely, it would be better just to get off and walk?
I wrestled with this dilemma several times over the next three days and I always reached the same conclusion. I got off and pushed my bike up the hill. There were so many gears on the bike that it would certainly have been possible to stay on and cycle, but life is short. We are not on this earth for very long and every moment is precious. If we are not careful, our lives are gone; there is a risk we will come back as hamsters destined to run around in wheels. Why waste our time as humans doing something similar?
But anyway, back to the cycle ride. After a pleasant trundle along some wooded aits (islands in the River Ness) it didn’t take long for the trail to leave Inverness and immediately begin climbing up into forest. I shot off up these, pedalling frantically and wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible. I was breathing heavily when I arrived at a new housing development above the town and waited for Edita to join me. She arrived pushing her bike, and told me it was so steep that she had to lie down for a rest.
A little beyond this we were overtaken by Andy James the Walking Machine, who was the star of a previous blog post. Andy is a pleasant, cheerful character, but he doesn’t half walk fast, and we spent much of the first day trying to get as far away from him as possible. Every time we reached a hill or stopped for a rest, he would appear behind us and shoot past on foot. It was a miracle that I didn’t have nightmares about hearing his footstep on the stairs; if anyone ever decides to make a horror movie about cycling the Great Glen Way, I have much of the plot already written, although it would be a bit unfair on Andy, who never meant us any harm.
Andy first overtook us as we left the last fragments of Inverness and the trail climbed through forest into the hills. It was here that I discovered for the first time just how many gears my mountain bike had and how easy it was to keep pedalling. But I quickly became bored. It occurred to me that I wasn’t making a whole lot more forward progress than I would be if I was sitting on an exercise bike in a gym, so I got off to push my bike to the top of the hill.
Once up on top, things became much easier. The Great Glen is an obvious feature on any map of Scotland. Four long, narrow lochs – Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy, and the sea loch Loch Linnhe – form a diagonal line that cuts across north-west Scotland from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It was this geography that had deceived me into thinking the Great Glen Way would be flat and we’d find ourselves pedalling along the shore of lakes for most of the way. But in its northern sections, the trail climbed up into hills above the lakes and we ended up trundling above the glen.
Still, with the first big hill out of the way, the cycling was now fairly comfortable. We raced along a path through forest, and stopped for lunch when we emerged from the forest into in an open area looking across moorland.
The next section was great fun. A long, flat trail on top of a ridge. We joined a quiet back road and whizzed along on tarmac for a few miles. Here we passed several hikers coming the other way. These road sections are the ones that are boring for hikers; by contrast, for a cyclist they are more enjoyable. We made good progress and the going was easy.
When we turned off the road and back onto the trail, it was more of a mixed bag. It was the sort of trail that I imagine experienced mountain bikers would love. I enjoyed some of it too. After a quick whiz through forest on a narrow trail, then another short climb on a dirt road, we emerged onto moorland high above Loch Ness.
The view was magnificent across the loch, but the trail was rough and fell steeply to the lake shore. For much of it I had to keep my hands on the brakes and avoid stones, but very little pedalling needed to be done as we shot down the hill.
Things were manageable while we remained on a dirt track, but as we got closer to Drumnadrochit, our destination for the first day, we were reminded in no uncertain terms that this wasn’t a cycling route but a walking trail. It narrowed to a single track, little wider than a bike wheel. Sections were so steep that it was too dangerous to cycle.
I stayed on the bike but straddled the cross bar and shuffled forward, my feet on the ground. There are more comfortable modes of travel than this. I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but I’m going to call it bum shuffling. It’s not something I’ve ever done before and I’m not keen to do it again soon. Had the bike slipped from under me, then the prong of my bike seat would have connected with a couple of parts of my anatomy, both of which are quite tender. On the plus side, I would be much better at singing Bee Gees numbers.
There was also gate after gate, none of which could be passed through without getting off our bikes, wheeling them through and closing the gates carefully behind us before getting back on again. They might as well have had a series of signs saying Fuck Off Cyclists in case we were still in any doubt this was a hiking trail.
The weather had been pretty good all day, but the heavens opened as we reached the road into Drumnadrochit, and we cycled the last 2km into the village in a rainstorm.
Drumnadrochit is not quite on the shores of Loch Ness, but in a little side valley where the hills subside and the road takes a loop away from the shoreline to cross Glen Urquhart. Its main tourist attraction is Urquhart Castle. Quite why I don’t know. The castle was abandoned in the 17th century and left to go to ruin. There’s not much of it left.
We stayed the night at the Drumnadrochit Hotel, which had once been a grand old stone building beside the main road. This grand building is now the Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre – not the only grand stone building in Britain to celebrate something that doesn’t exist. The hotel is now a series of wooden chalets around the back. But the accommodation was cheap, cheerful and all we needed.
Day 2 from Drumnadrochit to Fort Augustus followed in a similar vein. As it had the previous day when we left Inverness, the trailed climbed high through forest to leave Drumnadrochit. At the top, we again found ourselves on a quiet, tarmacked back road, and zoomed along in comfort for a few miles.
When we reached the trail again, we found ourselves high above Loch Ness. There were glimpses of the water through the trees and it was time to do something I’d been wanting to do since we left Inverness.
‘My god, did you see that?’ I cried.
Edita slammed on her brakes and came to a sudden halt.
‘What is it?’ She looked down at her tyres.
‘I thought I saw something ducking into the lake,’ I said, the trace of a smirk crossing my lips.
Edita sighed. She wasn’t as amused as I’d been hoping. In fact, she wasn’t amused at all.
‘You scared me. I thought I was going to ride over something. But you’re just pretending you’ve seen the bloody Loch Ness Monster.’
The trail broadened and we reached a fork. A high trail turned right and climbed above the forest into open hillside. Had we been walking, it would have been a no-brainer to go up that way, where on a clear day, we could expect views south to Ben Nevis.
Instead we went down down down a dirt track on zigzags into gloomy forest. We stayed on this forest track for a few miles. It was flat and boring, but the final indignity came when it rose again as a hiking trail and I once again had to get off and push.
It was here that I heard Edita cry out behind me, and I looked back to see her on her hands and knees, fiddling with her bike. The chain had broken, and neither of us had much of a clue how to fix it.
I described this little incident in more detail in a previous blog post, so I won’t repeat it again here, but for an hour or so our trip hung in the balance. Would we have to wheel our bikes all the way to Fort Augustus, seven miles away, and hope we could get Edita’s chain repaired there?
Some of you will doubtless be saying that we shouldn’t be setting off on a bike trip like this without learning some rudimentary bike mechanics. It’s not rocket science to fix a puncture, replace an inner tube or repair a bike chain. Every half-decent cyclist should be able to do these things.
I don’t disagree with this. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly. Before I do another trip like this, I really should learn some rudimentary bike mechanics.
But this ignores one very important point. I’m not a half-decent cyclist. I’m not even a quarter-decent cyclist. If I’m really generous with myself, I can just about claim to be an eighth-decent cyclist. That’s about 12.5% of a cyclist. I reckon 6.5% of that involves the skill of wheeling a laden bicycle up a hill. That doesn’t leave much left for cycling, let alone engineering.
In any case, if we’d been able to fix a bike chain, we’d never have done what we did next. We rolled down the hill to the village of Invermoriston and sat in its very nice pub drinking beer while we waited for the very nice Colin from Ticket to Ride (an ex-marine, we learned, who has taken up more peaceful pursuits since leaving the armed forces) to come and fix the chain for us.
Now that, IMHO, is a much more enjoyable way to carry out a bicycle repair than what you’re recommending.
The rest of the afternoon to Fort Augustus was another of those where the trail diverged. A short distance beyond Invermoriston, a high trail for hikers disappeared up a hillside, but we kept on the low trail, a forestry road through – that’s right – forest. In places it was muddy with vehicle tracks. One part of the footpath was sectioned off behind a wire fence, and later on we passed a bulldozer coming the other way. The few hikers we passed on this section must have regretted their decision to take the low road (if you’re on foot, then always take the high road – it’s a golden rule).
I always enjoy visiting Fort Augustus, a neat village of pleasant pubs and cottages at the southern end of Loch Ness, with a staircase of locks leading up to the Caledonian Canal and a grand old school in parkland that looks like Hogwarts. We spent a pleasant evening in a restaurant that was a log cabin looking out over Loch Ness. This time I didn’t make any jokes about seeing the Loch Ness Monster. I was worried that Edita might spill her red wine, and that would arguably be worse than causing her to fall off her bike.
Day 3 was flatter and much easier. For the first ten miles we zoomed along the Caledonian Canal on a tarmacked towpath. Beyond the swing bridge at Aberchalder, we joined the trail along the shores of Loch Oich, the smallest of the four lochs that run the length of the Great Glen. The loch is so shallow that a channel has been cut in its bed to allow larger boats up the glen.
The trail was a dismantled railway line that formed a narrow corridor between the lake shore and cliffs on our left. At the southern end of Loch Oich we rejoined a short section of the Caledonian Canal to reach Laggan Locks. A queue of boats had formed, and we waited as the lock keeper opened the gates and let them through.
We watched the boats surge through into Loch Lochy, the third of the Great Glen’s lochs, and the most stupidly named of all Scottish lochs. I don’t know who was responsible for naming Scotland’s lochs, but whoever it was must have been having a bad day when they got to this one. They obviously couldn’t be bothered to do it properly. Either that or it was named in a Twitter vote, narrowly pipping Lochy McLochface.
We trundled along the forest track through the Woody Woods on its western shore. This was the only hilly section of the third day. The track rose and fell, sometimes dropping all the way to the lake shore, sometimes climbing above, but always offering glimpses of the loch. Up to our right were two Munros. I don’t remember their names – Ben Benny and Hilly Hill, I think – but we went back to climb them the following week in thick mist (Editor’s note: 935m Sron a Choire Garbh and 917m Meall na Teanga).
We were glad to reach a tarmac road at Clunes and the rest of the way was easy. We had sandwiches on a beach, looking across the loch at its widest part, then enjoyed a pleasant trundle along a quiet back road through forest.
We rejoined the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy, and I steamed along the canal towpath for the last ten miles into Fort William. We were cycling into an unpleasant headwind now, but I didn’t let that stop me. I was keen to catch the 3.30 bus back to Inverness, to get us back in time for a good night out in the town.
We made it with time to spare. The third day had been fun and I’d do it again, mainly because it was flat. But mountain biking – are you crazy?
As for the Great Glen Way, I would definitely consider walking it in the other direction, keeping to the high routes whenever there is a variation. It would make a nice four or five day extension to the West Highland Way. You could start in Glasgow and walk all the way to Inverness. Now there’s an idea.
If you enjoyed this post and you want to read more about my cycling adventures, then I can recommend my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, which features our bike ride around the North Coast 500.