Tom discovers that it’s not just a good route that makes a Classic Ride. Great company helps, too.
This article first appeared in issue 96 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
Words by Tom Hill, pictures by Jenn.
We sat in the bar of the Sligachan Hotel, sipping coffee and trying to ignore the sleety rain drumming against the glass. Scanning the satellite images on the Met Office app offered us some comfort, showing the worst of the weather would pass shortly. Unfortunately it did also remind us that while we were still very definitely experiencing the tail end of winter in our little corner of an island hanging off the north-west coast of Scotland, the rest of the country was enjoying the kind of spring day that includes short sleeves and beer gardens. I braved a glimpse out of the window, then set about trying to catch the eye of the grumpy bar manager to order another round of caffeinated will power.
Coast to coast.
Glen Sligachan is a deep glacial valley that runs pretty much north to south, coast to coast, across a distance of no more than ten miles or so on the lower midpart of the Isle of Skye. It splits the Red Cuillin to the east and the Black Cuillin to the west. When in the proximity of mountains – any mountains – I have a yearning to be standing on top of them, to enjoy the 360° views that they offer and enjoy the adrenaline rush of descending several thousand feet in one hit. For all their might and beauty (and I don’t believe there are many mountain ranges in the British Isles that can compete with the Cuillin Ridge for sheer wow factor), their summits (and in particular the Black Cuillin, which form the Ridge, and are sharper and more perilous than their hulking Red neighbours) are not really accessible by bike, unless your name happens to be Danny MacAskill. If you’ve watched the making of The Ridge, you’ll know that even he was doing a fair bit of carrying and rope work, and had no snow or ice to contend with – though of course he did have to battle the midges.
What I love about Glen Sligachan, however, is that it doesn’t particularly matter that you aren’t up there and in amongst it. It gives you the opportunity to step back and view the sheer size of the landscape you are part of – remembering that many of the mountains towering above you are Munros, with the majority of their 3,000+ feet above your near sea-level viewpoint. It’s the kind of ride where you don’t know whether to look up at the view above, concentrate on the engaging riding below your wheels, or hunt the valley floor for deer and other wildlife… and often end up simultaneously failing at all three.
In short, it is one of my most classic of classic rides; one that is maybe not the best of any one thing, but bundles up a true mountain package into something relatively accessible and achievable. Unusually though, I felt nervous about tackling it this time. It’s one I’ve done many times, and it’s well within my modest capabilities, but I was looking at the landscape, the trail, the situation, with different eyes today.
Today was an altogether family affair. With me were a wife, brother, and brother-in-law who all ride as often as I do, and a sister who has grown into mountain biking later than we did, for whom this would be her biggest, most serious, most technical and most spectacular ride ever. I had a natural ‘big bruv’ sense of care, but I wanted this to be the most brilliant ride she’d ever done, too. I wanted Gemma to get a sense of the passion that I have for being ‘out there’; for the beautiful remoteness that can be achieved through a few hours of effort on a bike. I wanted her to feel that passion too. I wanted her to have that big mountain taste, in a way that would leave her hooked and wanting more.
Ready for the off.
And so we rolled out of the Sligachan car park, just off the main Broadford to Portree road. As usual it was populated by coach parties and rented hire cars, their passengers piling out, pausing to take pictures of the gates to the Cuillins – the river rolling over bedrock, the old bridge. Tourist stuff. Comfortable. Next stop for them would be the distillery for a dram before more hours staring through rain-splattered glass. We shared the usual ‘rather you than me’ jokes, knowing that it worked both ways – but I was longing for the fierce wind ripping across our backs to subside, and the dark cloud moving our way to dissipate.
I guess that cloud did dissipate, but not before precipitating briefly and heavily as we climbed up the initial steep ramp, quickly leaving the few hardier tourists who had walked that little bit further from the car park. The trail here has a very man-made feel, especially in the early stages. Like many of the Scottish mountain paths, they are also made with walkers, rather than those on two wheels, in mind. Singletrack snaking around bedrock and bog has its flow broken by regular water bars, ranging from ‘just ride straight over’ to ‘best to pop the front wheel just to be safe’ to ‘full bunnyhop required’ depending on your skill level – or get off and lift the bike over, remount and then ride for a few metres until the next one. Repeat.
And repeat on a regular basis, for long enough that you might start to question whether the entire ride will be as stuttering as the first couple of miles. Fortunately the water bars gradually peter out, the trail finds a more natural flow, and we settle into a rolling rhythm, gradually gaining height, usually via short sharp ramps in the trail punctuating flatter sections that traverse across the eastern side of the valley floor. The poor weather had driven herds of deer down to lower levels, and whenever we paused for a breather and to look around, there would be a handful perfectly camouflaged against the browns and muted greys of a still-wintery valley. Invariably, we’d already been spotted and were being intently watched, our best bright photo-friendly clothing perhaps less suitable for stalking than traditional tweed.
The dead-end trail is frequently split by stream beds, torn out by torrents of water running off the rocky mountains as quickly as it falls. On previous rides I’ve crossed these streams when they were no more than dry, jumbled-up rocks, but I have seen photos of mates up to their waists in surging white froth. We were fortunate that the rain and sleet we were experiencing in the valley was falling as snow higher up, the tops of the hills gaining an icing sugar dusting around their glazed peaks. Back down nearer sea level, this meant wet feet and some careful wading, but relatively uneventful crossings punctuating the seamless thread of singletrack.
Where’s the ice cream van?
We could sense the sea long before we could see it. The valley broadened out, the sky felt that much bigger, but a plug of rock obscured our first sight of the coast until we were all but dipping our toes into the brine. All that stood between us and the bay was the longest true descent of the ride – a fun mix of bedrock, loose jumbled fists of stone and sandy singletrack, which soon gave way to the grassy arc of Camasunary Bay.
Skirting the beach, we passed the only inhabited building and carried on around to the bothy which perched on lawn-like sandy grass, with the arc of shingle stretching out in front of a small, single-storey building. I’ve stayed overnight there before, as part of longer adventures; sunbathing, drying socks and shoes while wriggling my feet in the sand. Today, it acted as a welcome shelter from the prevailing weather; a chance to swap layers, add more insulation, eat and drink and just not be outside for a short while.
It’s pretty much bothy rules to check each room when you arrive; a kind of ‘Through the Keyhole’ curiosity to see what is behind every door. We shared stories with a sea kayaker who had paddled over from Elgol a few days ago, and become trapped by bad weather. With plenty of provisions, he was content enough to sit out the storms and enjoy just being in this special place. I had a longing to stay too, to stop and relax, to just watch and be part of the landscape, rather than move through it, but we weren’t staying. Another rain shower blew through. As the worst of it passed, we too moved on and re-saddled our bikes.
Pausing for obligatory photos at the ruins of a farmhouse, with ‘Sligachan’ and an arrow whitewashed on the wall, it reminded us that the only problem with an out and back ride is that there is a back – and you know exactly what is in store for you, as you’ve already seen it all. This is not an issue when standing atop a peak, double-checking shock pressure and dropping saddles ready for a gravity-assisted return to the pub. But faced with a stiff climb, into an even stiffer headwind with more miles under your belt already than you are used to, retracing your tyre tracks is a daunting ask. There is only one thing to do when at the furthest point of your ride though, when you think you can’t go any further: push on the pedals. Get closer to home one crank revolution at a time. And there is only one thing that your riding buddies can do at this point: let you get on with it, and offer regular bribes of rhubarb and custard Haribo.
Perversely, even though it’s the return leg of the journey, climbing away from Camasunary Bay feels like leaving safety and civilisation behind. It’s amazing what a couple of remote buildings does to the psyche, especially when brooding snow-capped mountains are clinging on to another rain cloud. Onwards, homewards. More technical, stop/start, pick-a-line-any-line (but not that one), climbing returned us to Loch na Crèitheach. At which point the weather seemed to sense our collective tiredness and relented. The sun beamed through breaks in the still-inky, sleet-laden clouds. The wet black gabbro and gneiss rock shone with ice-like brightness, highlighting subtle breaks and imperfections in the rolling, lumpen cooled magma. The Glen transformed in character, from the portal to hell to something that bit more welcoming and less threatening.
Riding in pace with my sister, I was taken back to family walks in the hills as children. Big days out for shorter legs, with heavy leather boots and long cagoules. I can still recall the sense of camaraderie between us on some of those walks. The silly games that we played, in-jokes that still get told, the dumb songs that we constructed and repeated ad infinitum, and more importantly the love for the outdoors it instilled in both of us.
We rolled and chatted, as Gemma moved into the unknown territory of further than she’s ever ridden before. Settling into relentless forward progress, the Pandawagon (don’t ask) rolled on. We slogged our way up for longer than it felt like we were descending – back to the watershed point, and not long afterwards were gifted our first view of the Sligachan Hotel, shining white in the distance, feeling equally incongruous and utterly part of this wild place.
Mentally, as well as literally, the back of the ride had been broken. There are no long, pedal-free descents on the return leg, but gravity is there to lend a hand more often than not, and there is plenty of trail furniture in the way of rocks, alternative lines and little drops to play on. I could pretend that in no time at all we popped back into the car park, throwing high fives and fist bumps. In reality, technical trails are hard work for tired bodies, and the early evening light was making for beautiful pictures.
Progress was slow. By the time we made the final short drop down to our starting point, the light was beginning to die and thoughts had already started to move on to a big meal, a real fire, and curling up with a dram of Talisker whisky.
For Gemma, it was indeed her biggest, and happily, “bestest” ride to date – confirmation that she is more capable and competent on the bike that she would ever give herself credit for. For the rest of us, it was a great day spent together, an extended group of siblings getting the chance to enjoy being with each other, rather than simply trying to catch up on the latest news. It was proof that it is so often the people that make classic rides classics, rather than the trail or the scenery – even when the surroundings are as utterly glorious as Glen Sligachan.
Time: Three hours if you want to blast out and back again. All day if you want to enjoy the setting, play on the beach, and do things properly. Circular variations are possible, usually using (pretty quiet) roads to close the loop but, for me at least, they do not add much in terms of pure riding quality.
Ordnance Survey Explorer 411 – Cuillin Hills.
Places to stay:
The logical option is the Sligachan Hotel, its bunkhouse or the campsite immediately opposite (sligachan.co.uk). Skye isn’t a large place though and it’s geared towards holidaymakers who want to experience the beauty of the island. There are many, many B&Bs, cottages and hotels dotted across the island. If you are interested in staying in the bothy at Camasunary (a new one is due to open shortly as the owner of the current one, quite understandably, would like their house back!), please visit the Mountain Bothy Association website (mountainbothies.org.uk) to read up on the Bothy code and consider becoming a member.
Places to eat:
The Sligachan Hotel has a great climbers bar, doing suitably hearty post-big-day-out meals, a good line in beers and an astonishing whisky selection. You’ll not be surprised to hear that there are no food options on route. Bring plenty of snacks, and some more for emergencies. Consider stocking up at the Skye Bakery (isleofskyebakingco.co.uk) in Portree for a posh pack-up or the Co-operative in either Broadford or Portree for something a little less posh.
Skye is a long way north from anywhere south of the Highlands. The nearest train station is Kyle of Lochalsh, on the mainland. Practically, driving is the best option for getting around. Depending on where you travel from, you may want to fly to Inverness and hire a car from there. There’s ample parking at the start of the ride.