Prostate cancer. That’s the disease that old guys get when their pisser is broke, isn’t it? It is a common misconception that it is only old guys who end up having to go to the toilet in the middle of the night but when my friend Iain got diagnosed with the disease at the age of only 48, I was genuinely shocked. For Iain, it came as a hammer blow. Thankfully, he has made a good recovery. However, through the course of his treatment and following surgery, he came to realise that the NHS isn’t set up to deal with men of his age who want to get back to their active lifestyle before their illness.
Questions such as if and when he could get back to regular exercise met with a mixed response, talking therapy groups being mostly filled with men who were much older while the notion of being active post-surgery didn’t always meet with a positive response. To be frank, the received wisdom and information available was less than encouraging.
However, a chance posting on the Singletrack Forum introduced Iain to Mark, a fellow survivor who had been through the process and come out the other side. Their numbers increased as recently diagnosed Jim who was in the early stages of treatment contacted them and friendships were born. In effect, they formed their own self- help group. Jump forward to the present and a plan was hatched to do a charity ride to raise awareness of the disease in younger men and to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK in the process. With my friend Frank having had the disease for a number of years, I was keenly aware of its impact and was thus keen to join them on their adventure. With riding buddies Pistol Pete, Stuart, Chris, Dan and Kenny coming along for the ride, Team Prost-8 was born and like the A Team, a plan came together.
Something is wrong, it isn’t raining!
Meeting up in the bar of Glenmore Lodge at the base of the Cairngorms, our motley crew gradually assembled (think more Kelly’s Heroes than The Magnificent Seven) , greetings exchanged and maps pored over, giving a hint of the adventure to come. Joining us for day one were Colin aka Scotroutes from the forum and Iona, the first woman to complete the Highland Trail 550 while, unbeknownst to her, being in the advanced stages of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the time.
Listening to their conversations, it quickly became apparent that when it comes to supporting people with active lifestyles to get back from cancer, there is a disconnect between intentions and reality. The motivation to raise awareness was laid out in front of me in spades.
A good night’s sleep (if you call guttural snoring, farts and random burps as conducive to such things) followed and a hale and hearty breakfast set us up for the day ahead. This was our gentle introduction to the trip, taking in some of what I would consider to be the highlights of the area. Loch an Eilen with its castle in the middle of the loch, the much admired Cairngorm Club Footbridge (it being a welcome sight for many a weary traveller), the soaring pine trees of Rothiemurchus and grandeur of the Pass of Ryvoan came and went in a haze of dusty trails played out to the accompaniment of pine resin scent heated by the midday sun and the sound of skylarks high above us. Despite a mixed forecast, the dry and bright weather with the sun on exposed skin made for a very welcome companion on this part of our trip (as did Colin’s local knowledge of the trails helping us to sniff out some particularly fine sections of singletrack).
Passing a couple of lady walkers with their dogs, one asked where we were going. Tomintoul came the reply. “Is that where all the signs are for?” she asked innocently to which Dan in a wonderfully dry and quick witted manner replied “If they say Tomintoul, then yes!” This was to be the first of many “Dan-isms” that he would regale us with over the course of the trip. Other classics included –
When someone let one go, “A bit more choke and she might start, sir!”
When asked if anything could improve upon the splendour of the Grampians, “Titty Bar” was the immediate response.
When another of our group let one go that was particularly loud, “I fear that last effort me be accompanied by a hint of regret!”
You may detect a theme here, dear reader. What is it about men cycling, energy bars and the exponential increase in the need to break wind that follows them in a miasma of brown wherever they may go? The gloriously refreshing and fragrant smells of the great outdoors? My arse!
May the wind always be behind you
Thankfully, the wind was behind us as we travelled, convoy style, ever deeper into the Glens and hidden tracks of the Cairngorms. A mercifully dry river crossing took us into the pass of Eag Mhor. Steep sided, scree lined slopes rose high on either side of us, the perfect location for an ambush were one so inclined to part travellers from their valuables.
Cresting the pass, a flowing section of singletrack beckoned us ever on. The almost claustrophobic pass was replaced with grand, sweeping views in all directions marking a change in geography from rocky and imposing peaks to rolling hills of a gentler nature, our only companions being a pair of horses who eyed us with wary suspicion.
Joining a minor road, progress was swift as we headed up past one particularly impressive old shooting lodge which wouldn’t have looked out of place in “Legends of the Fall”. A long but gentle climb paid back with a fast rolling Land Rover track descent into Glen Brown. Having been warned of the damage sustained in the winter floods, I was pleasantly surprised by our ease of passage. Water levels were low meaning that we only had to contend with wet ankles at worst; hardly a hardship in the warming May sunshine.
All too soon we rolled into sleepy Tomintoul on a Friday night. To say it is a bit of a one horse town is perhaps disrespectful to one horse towns but the reception we got at our hotel and neighbouring eatery was warm and generous with both proprietors insisting on contributing to our cause. Entertainment for the night consisted of sitting in the bar and watching what we suspect was the wife becoming increasingly unimpressed by her husband’s attempts to impress a couple of young female American tourists with his knowledge of all things outdoor. If looks could kill……As we retired to our rooms, the sound of the receptionist throwing up into a bucket as we climbed up the stairs made for an “interesting” memory of our stay in Tomintoul.
Please sir, can I have some more?
Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much of the ride south down the Glen to reach Loch Builg. On the map, it looks like it will be a dull affair but the combination of warm sunshine and blue skies revealed a fine side to the glen. The lack of singletrack was more than compensated by the impressive views which were opening up in front of us.
Reaching the intersections with Glen Avon, Stuart and I stopped to admire a particularly impressive shooting lodge. I’m not sure quite why I was so impressed by the pointing or what that says about me (Weirdo? –Ed) but whoever owned it clearly spent a lot of money maintaining it. As it transpires, it’s Madonna. Say what you like about her music but the girl sure has good taste.
Arriving at the northern end of Loch Builg, we enjoyed a nice section of technical singletrack which skirted along the shoreline. I’ve always enjoyed this particular section of trail but this time round I had my sights set on trails with a bit more meat to them.
Regrouping for lunch on the tiny sandy beach at the southern end of the loch, I found myself pondering our next move. Several of the guys were happy to head over the long fireroad climb that would eventually take them to Braemar but I had other plans. My friend Rob had told me that the trail along the glen that would take us into Gleann Slugain was something special. Always keen to ride new trails, I was joined by Chris and Mark who were up for a bit of adventure.
The start was inauspicious, the turn off being somewhat indistinct. However, a quick check of the map and we were on our way. The trail ahead wasn’t obvious but the further we rode, the clearer it became. What looked like a grassy bench cut trail proved to be just that. It initially wasn’t the kind of singletrack that you see in magazines heading off into the distance but it was easy to follow and relatively easy going to boot with nothing to catch you out.
What I suspect would be sections of bog in the winter were dry and hard packed. River crossings were more stream crossings as we headed into a steep sided section of the valley. Grassy trail turned to hard packed, rocky singletrack as we gradually gained height.
Crossing back across the valley, a final rise that I had expected to see me off and walking surrendered to the power of my one by drivetrain. Traversing the high point, the scenery took a turn for the majestic. If you have never been to Gleann Slugain, go now. It does impressive well.
With the flanks of Ben Avon and the cliffs of Beinn a Bhuird towering above us, it is easy to imagine how challenging a winter expedition here could be. We were in big mountain country again and damn, it was good to be there.
The Secret Howff
In my effort to sell the trail to Chris and Mark, I had spoken in hushed tones of the Secret Howff. Long since part of the folklore of Scottish bothy culture, the Secret Howff was built in the early fifties as a shelter from storms and a base of operations for weekend adventures in the Eastern Cairngorms before the days of everyone having a car and Gore Tex underpants. To disclose its location would be to break the Omerta – part of the reason that it retains its considerable charms are that its location isn’t common knowledge and I for one am not about to alter that. If you want to find it, you’ll just have to go there yourself. For those who happen upon it as we did, it’s a real wee treat.
A steel roof atop boulders placed by hand many years before coupled with a proper wooden floor makes for a brilliant place to tarry a while or stay overnight in. Reading the bothy book, the Howff is treasured by the few who are careful to keep its location secret. The first page I happened upon was filled in by the relatives of one of the builders who had made a special trip to mark the anniversary of it being built. As I read through the book, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for those few hardy souls who built it. Given the location, it must have been back breaking work all those years ago.
I was sorry to leave the hut behind but a bit of local knowledge had pointed us in the direction of Glen Quoich and a lovely ribbon of flowing woodland singletrack that would take us there. You won’t find it on any map but it is there if you look for it. The odd section of bog and bit of trail long since washed away by the river did not detract from the feeling that we were truly blessed to be on this trail.
The smell of the pine, the sound of the river flowing below us, the whump of tyre on loamy, pine needle covered trail – all the boxes were being ticked. When finally we forded the river and started to make our way down Glen Quoich, pausing for a short while for a blether with a fellow wilderness traveller as he settled down for the night, the evening sun came out and treated us to fine dappled woodland trails.
Only the chirrup of my phone interrupted the idyll as we realised that time was marching on and we had a dinner reservation to get to in Braemar. With a fair wind, the final spin on the singletrack tarmac road was a genuine pleasure with stunning views to the north begging for our attention.
Post dinner, we retired to the Youth Hostel which immediately reminded me why I no longer use them. The bike shed was about as secure as a biscuit tin at a weight watchers night out, the hostel had a depressingly tired and unloved feel to what was once a grand Victorian villa while the icing on the cake was the dreadlock sporting trustafarian who had clearly not washed for some time. Quite why he took off his shoes and exposed the lounge to a malodorous smell that would have killed a cat at fifty paces or prevailed upon us with his terrible musical accompaniment on his guitar – well of course he had a bloody guitar – I do not know. I chose not to linger unlike his fetid trench foot feet. I’ve never smelt gangrene before – until now.
Day 3 – The final push for home
It’s fair to say that we were taking things easy on the trip. The route is one that could be done in a very long day but that was never the raison d’etre of the trip. Instead, with time on our side, we got to enjoy our surroundings and the trails ahead. Leaving Braemar on another glorious day, we headed west for White Bridge which marks the cut-off point between heading south to Pitlochry or west to Glen Feshie and Aviemore.
A brief stop to admire the fine architecture of Mar Lodge and nearby waterfall did little to slow our pace. Heading west past the ruins of an old estate house, the hills were more rolling in nature than the previous two days while we climbed, almost imperceptibly to the watershed.
Glen Geldie has a reputation for being a little boggy but on this May afternoon, it was anything but. As the doubletrack faded, singletrack came to the fore. At first grassy, it soon assumed the character of rocky bedrock and coarse granite sand which it would follow all the way to Glen Feshie.
On my Cannondale fat bike, I was in my element. The balloon tyres handled every trail imperfection and rocky interjection with aplomb. The more the trail rose and fell, twisted and turned, the faster I found myself going. I had to remind myself to slow down and wait for the guys several times but the lure of the trail was hard to resist.
Riding over the shonky Eidart bridge, I was glad that I hadn’t looked down to the left as I crossed as I would have seen a sheer drop that could have ended badly for me. Regrouping, we continued ever onwards down the glen.
While a Land Rover track was the obvious choice to take, a sliver of singletrack hugged onto the side of the hill and beckoned us to ride it. Falling left would not have been a wise option. Fortunately, none of us did and we all made it through unscathed. With the skies assuming an ever greyer hue of menace, rain didn’t feel far away as the singletrack ended and we entered the Middle Earth-esque valley of Glen Feshie. What was once a simple river crossing has through the force of winter storms become a jumbled mess of boulder field and trees torn from their shallow roots and now lying prostrate across the valley floor.
As we made our way across the mercifully shallow river, a nagging sense of doubt filled my thoughts. Something was amiss. A quick scan of my map and sure enough, we were off course. Instead of riding on a narrow sliver of off camber trail that hung precipitously above the river, we were on a wide doubletrack path. With the guys now on a mission to get back to base, I bade them farewell and re-crossed the river. Where there once had been a rickety bridge, there was nothing but rotten posts and jagged gorse bush waiting to rip flesh from bone at either side of the river. Oh well, wet feet and scarred arms it would have to be would have to be.
At this point, I could have just ridden parallel with the guys but not riding the singletrack felt like a missed opportunity that I was not willing to give up on. It wasn’t long but it was a joy to ride in both directions as the sun broke through the ever darkening skies and afforded me the bonus of a stop at Ruigh Etchecan Bothy. Dodging a brief but heavy shower, I was back on the trail again heading for Auchlean.
Colin had warned me on Friday that a couple of sections had become badly eroded – if anything, he underplayed it. What was once a lovely stone pitched descent and easy river hop looked like it had been hit by a rockslide of mammoth proportions. Fully loaded, it was an awkward and expletive ridden clamber down and back out. Having ridden it many times, I was grateful for the advance warning as I would have in all likelihood hit the drop in at speed only to find myself spread-eagled over the rocks below.
Time for tea?
A ping on my phone saw a message come in from Iona. She was waiting for us at the car park at Auchlean with cake, fruit, biscuits and Pepsi – what a legend! I was only ten minutes away so put the hammer down. “Where are the rest of them? Did you manage to lose or break all of them?” she enquired jokingly. Being the last man standing on this side of the river, I was in calorific heaven. We sat and chatted in the warming sunshine. This must be what it is like to have a support team, I mused. Bidding her farewell, I was on the final run in on the trails and tracks of the Glen. In no real hurry to end the ride, I headed along the newly built Speyside Way trail between Kingussie and Aviemore before arriving in Aviemore. I still had a few miles to go to get back to Glenmore Lodge but the lure of a 14 inch pizza from La Taverna was too much to resist – so I didn’t. Eventually rolling in to the bar at the Lodge as the sun started to drop in the sky, I learned that the guys had been caught out in a two hour downpour while I had ambled my way back to base. It had been a truly memorable ride. The guys had done it and I was delighted for them, all the more so as they had managed to raise over £5,000. A super fit racehead could have done it as a day ride but that was never the point. It had been a personal challenge which the guys had met head on in good style. As the socks say, “Fuck Cancer!”
THE IMPORTANT BIT THAT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE!
Despite what you may believe, Prostate Cancer doesn’t just affect old guys. In the UK, 1 in 8 men will develop it at some point in their lives.. Older men, men with a history of it in the family and black men are more at risk but it doesn’t just affect them. Signs to look for include needing to urinate more than normal, difficulty starting to urinate, straining or taking a long time to urinate, a feeling that you haven’t fully emptied your bladder, dribbling after you finish (from your wee fella, not your mouth!) and needing to rush to the toilet.
The test is simple and can be carried out by your GP. If you have concerns, book an appointment. Some men get embarrassed about the thought of a rectal exam but just look at it from the GP’s perspective. They are the ones who have to do it! Women don’t make a fuss about getting examinations of their plumbing so men just need to “Woman the fuck up!” and get on with it.
For more information, click on www.prostatecanceruk.org or call one of their Specialist Nurses on 0800 074 8383. It could save your life!
Special thanks for their generosity and support go to
The Richmond Arms Hotel, Tomintoul www.richmondarmstomintoul.co.uk
The Clock House Restaurant, Tomintoul www.worldslargestwhiskey.com/clockhouse
Glenmore Lodge www.glenmorelodge.org.uk
www.prostatecanceruk.org who kitted the team out with ride jerseys
and everyone who so generously donated to the charity.