Long after the rest of us had fallen silent with effort, after we’d sunk into the reverie of toil, pushing the cranks round and wrestling our bikes up the rough track beneath the black crags, one member of our cycling party still had breath to talk. Dave, the fittest of a group of six, chatted all the way up Glen Clova, the starting point for a gruelling circular ride through Angus in north-east Scotland.
At Bachnagairn, beside a series of waterfalls and a stand of larch, the track became even steeper. It was unrideable. We shouldered the bikes, grunting like a stone age hunting party, and climbed on foot. We crossed the roaring River South Esk and zigzagged up the shoulder of Broad Cairn into the mist. Finally, Dave went quiet.
At 650m, the path levelled out. The toughest part of our route – from Glen Clova over the spine of the eastern Cairngorm Mountains down to Glen Muick and home – was behind us. “No turning back now, lads,” Tom said, proffering snacks.
The previous day we had turned back. In drizzle, we’d set off north from another of the five Angus Glens to circuit Mount Keen via Deeside. It was an ambitious ride for mid-November. After two hours of steady climbing in the rain on an old drovers’ road, we had ascended 250m into low cloud and covered a fifth of the route. All six of us were soaked. Morale was deteriorating. We stopped to share a Thermos of Dave’s “winter warmer” – a hot blend of hooch and apple juice.
With rain running off his nose, Rohan, an ex-barrister, made a convincing case that we abandon the ride. An hour later, we were back at the car park; 30 minutes after that, we were in the Drovers Inn at Memus eating steaks.
As a group of friends, we’ve ticked off most of the UK’s decent mountain-biking spots. We’ve ridden the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia, Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Peak District, the North Yorkshire Moors, the Black mountains, the Monadliath mountains and Knoydart.
For 15 years, we’ve met annually to take on the fells, tors, gills, garths, bryns, cwms and beinns of Britain. These weekends satisfy a need to escape, but at their heart is the physical and emotional pleasure that comes from exercise, self-reliance – and a hint of jeopardy.
Mountain biking in the Cairngorms at this time of year always entails risk. Daylight is limited to eight hours, and the weather can change from bearable to hazardous in the time it takes to say “I forgot to pack my survival blanket.”
Over the years, we’ve had everything go wrong – from broken chains and bent forks to snapped derailleur hangers and buckled wheels – so we know to carry a good tool kit. This year the problem was brakes: bent discs, worn pads and air in the fluid on hydraulic brakes; grit in the blocks of old-fashioned, cantilever brakes.
We discovered this at the beginning of the long descent into Glen Muick. On cue, the mist lifted and far below, Loch Muick lit up with patches of lustrous gold. Pausing to fiddle with the brakes, we spotted Glas-allt Shiel house, built as a retreat by Queen Victoria. It looked like a Hornby railway station beneath the grey mountain, Lochnagar, where Lord Byron wandered as a youth.
The descent was excellent, save for the stone-lined drainage dykes dug across the mountain. We had to “bunny hop” them – at speed. This manoeuvre involves dropping your weight on to the bike as you approach the obstacle, then thrusting upwards to make the bike hop. It’s all in the timing. “Get it wrong and it could be a long walk home,” Paulo said.
We passed a red stag and his harem of hinds, moving up the hillside; a dozen grouse went flashing overhead on the wind. While we ate sandwiches in the heather, Vicky pointed out an eagle circling above the mountains.
From the loch, we ascended again, for 2.5km. On the steepest sections, it took great will and concentration to keep the upper body still and the pedals turning smoothly: too much power and you lose traction; too little and you fall off. After 40 minutes of climbing, we were in the mist again.
The descent off Capel Mounth down into Glen Clova is described as “challenging” in local mountain-biking guides. It begins with several fast switchbacks on a rocky single-track path, down to Capel Burn; the next section weaves steeply through heather. Inside the forest, the path dips and curls through the pines, crosses the burn and finally plummets down to rejoin the River South Esk. In all, the drop is 420m over 1.5km. A decade ago, it’s unlikely we would have attempted something like this, but mountain bikes have improved faster than we’ve aged.
The mountain bike – the most significant development in cycling for almost a century – was created in the 1970s by a bunch of hippie bike bums in California. These athletic, mechanically minded cyclists began modifying old single-speed bikes, known as “clunkers”. The object was to ride them downhill, off-road, in the hills of Marin County, north of San Francisco.
Non-essential parts were stripped off, tyres got fatter and knobbly, brakes were improved, cranks got longer, chainsets got better; in time, derailleur gears appeared. At first, mountain-bike manufacturing was a cottage industry, now it is big business, with most bikes starting at about £1,000 ($1,600). (See Kitbag, below.)
Sitting astride his own expensive piece of equipment, Tom peered down over the switchbacks and said: “Looks like a belter. Advanced technical downhill skills required. Who’s first in?”
I was. The key to riding the top section was “feathering” the brakes, to avoid locking the wheels and getting into a skid, and releasing them altogether to roll over the biggest obstacles. On the steepest section, it became hard to keep my weight centred over the balance point of the bike: too far forward and I went over the handlebars, too far back and I couldn’t steer through the clumps of heather. In the forest, I concentrated on looking ahead, keeping my upper body relaxed: this lets the bike roll over tree roots and accelerate out of the banked corners.
Tom had the best crash – man and bike both performing a forward somersault. Save for the scratches, no one was hurt. “They are incredible machines,” Dave said, skidding to a halt beside me. “That was just tremendous fun.”
In fading light, we rode slowly back along the valley floor to the hotel. We were all silent again, not with effort this time, but with the knowledge that we’d stolen a day from underneath the nose of winter.
‘It’s All About the Bike – The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels’ by Rob Penn will be published by Penguin in 2010
To see the route that Rob Penn took, go to: www.bikehike.co.uk/mapview.php?id=2320
Lapierre Zesty 314
A bike that can tackle the lot – muddy byways, steep scree slopes, Alpine single-track, peat bogs, sandstone drop-offs. With alloy frame, Fox shock and forks, Mavic CrossRide hubs, Shimano SLX and XT derailleurs and San Marco saddle, this superbly balanced bike climbs well and thunders downhill.
£2,149.99, www.evanscycles.com, 01293 574900
No expense spared
Specialized S-Works Stumpjumper FSR Carbon
The 2010 incarnation of this benchmark model sees a return to its best, with carbon frame, redesigned adjustable suspension, SRAM XX and Shimano XTR gears, Fox shocks, Custom Avid XX brakes. Pricey, but it wants for nothing and does everything.
Orange P7 Pro
Made in Yorkshire since 1988, Orange bikes are a reliable choice. The P7 is their bestseller. It isn’t the lightest or tightest bike, but it’s well balanced, comfortable and ideally suited to Britain’s cross-country trails. Made from Reynolds 631 steel tubing, it will take a hammering – and last for years.
£1,529.99, www.orangebikes.co.uk, 01422 311113
Boardman Comp FS
There are few full suspension bikes under £1,000 worth riding: this one is worth owning. It has a touch of class, like the British cycling legend behind the company. No big new ideas – just a simple, carefully thought out, good-looking bike that’s light, fast and fun to ride.
Hand-built frame made from Reynolds 853 or 953 tubing
For a perfect fit (or a machine that stands out) consider a hand-built and hand-painted frame from Brian Rourke, who has been making bespoke bikes for 30 years. You also get to choose all the components.
Frames in 853 and 953 tubing from £725 and £1,450 respectively, www.brianrourke.co.uk, 01782 835368