In association with dhb
One of the more curious aspects of mountain biking is that it is easy to get into a headspace where you think that everyone else lives in a mountain biking mecca and are out having whizz bang epic adventures all the time while you are stuck inside driving a PC and staring wistfully out into the sunshine.
I consider myself very fortunate that as a stay at home dad who writes for this esteemed publication in his spare time, I get my fair share of big mountain adventures. However, I also recognise that the edited highlights of other people’s social media postings often bear no resemblance to the unedited reality of their day to day lives. Not everyone gets the time nor opportunity to go to Whistler or up sticks and hit the Alps for a few weeks.
With this in mind, I set out to go on a mini adventure that would start and end at my own front door without the need to jump in the car. The rules were simple. It had to be local. It had to be an adventure. And it had to be fun! But who to rope into this mini adventure? None other than my good riding companions (good in that they put up with my appalling jokes and penchant for terrible puns) Dave aka Genius McConcept (on account of an old and now very much broken Scott Genius he used to ride) and Graham the Sound Guy (so called because he works as a sound guy!) You’re right. Not much thought went into those names. I really must try harder!
Are you ready? Good, then we shall begin.
But where to ride? Being based in Glasgow, we are blessed with having the Kilpatrick Hills and the Campsie Fells on our doorstep. In the right conditions, they offer a heady combination of the promise of remoteness, incredible views and a multiplicity of route options. However, in anything other than hard frozen or baked solid ground conditions, they can be somewhat, errrr, challenging. Like wetter than an otters pocket challenging. Still nursing the after effects of a turkey induced meat sweat hangover from Xmas, I was desperate to get out on the first big ride of the year. To my astonishment, the stars aligned and we had the makings of a perfect winter’s day – blue skies, hard frost, a light dusting of snow and sphagnum moss laden bogs being closer to solid than liquid. In your face, Global Warming!
Ice ice baby!
Spinning up through wooded suburbia, I couldn’t help but smile. We were going on a dawn to dusk ride at the start of January and there wasn’t even a breathe of wind to be felt. With a starting temperature of minus 7 degrees C, that was no bad thing. My ice tyres crackled like popping bubble wrap as we made our way across hard frozen fields, the low sun on the nearby Campsie Fells repeatedly drawing our gaze. Coming across a partially frozen flooded section of field, we took it in turns to see how close we got to the middle before the ice cracked.
Don’t worry, health and safety fans. I knew the water was only a few inches deep at the centre so we weren’t risking life and limb for your reading pleasure! As it was, I reckon I won as my back wheel broke the ice with an almighty crack while the fracture lines extended in all directions. Of course, not thinking beyond winning the challenge, while my tyres had spikes on them, my shoes didn’t and I looked like a heavily pregnant duck as I slipped and slid my way back to solid ground.
Leaving the scene of my dubious victory behind, we moseyed on past High Craigton Farm onto a little used track. The now burnt out farmhouse has a sad recent past. It was here that Alexander Pacteau tried to dispose of the body of young nurse Karen Buckley whom he had murdered. I said a prayer and upped the pace as I had no desire to linger. As we climbed ever higher, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between the beauty of my surroundings on such a fine day and the terrible events of just a couple of years ago.
My mind wandered until we came across the oddest of things. A metal box stand for an evening newspaper seller. Quite what it was doing here none of us could quite figure out.
How the heck did that end up here?
”Dai-ly RECORD!” Dave belted out, much to our amusement. I had visions of some very drunk students trying to one up their pokey hat stealing mates by nabbing the box and depositing it high up in the hills. Or a klepto sheep with a liking for tabloid journalism. Who knows? A couple of switchbacks and some ice laden trail led us up onto our first high point of the day, Craigmore. At 333 metres, it isn’t exactly a mountain but the views from it are little short of stunning. To our south and east, Glasgow, Tinto Hill and in the far distance, the Pentland Hills just south of Edinburgh.
Directly east, the lumbering hulk of Dumgoyne and the Campsie Fells. For such a wee hill, it is instantly recognisable from a great distance away and stands out. It is truly Glasgow’s Hill. To our north and west, big sky country. The Luss Hills forming the gateway to the Highlands.
Is that Glen Michael I see?
Rearing up, the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Arrochar Alps and front and centre, Ben Lomond, resplendent in its winter coat. Of course, we played name the mountain. “There’s The Cobbler” I said, pointing to its distinct summit. “And look. An Casteil and Beinn Chabbair!” I expleted in a faux Gaelic accent. To be sure, if a Scotsman tries to speak with a Gaelic accent, you can almost guarantee he is making the pronunciation up as he goes. “And over there. Is that Ben Kingsley and the Isle of St Clair?” Dave cast a withering look and a sigh. He wasn’t going to fall for that old chestnut again!
In the space of an hour, we had ridden from the heart of the city and could genuinely claim to be out in proper hills, taking in everything about us. Not a sound could be heard. It was not bad. Not bad at all.
Dropping down from our high point, we skirted an unnamed lochan and battled our way through a clearing in the forest. Despite the sustained period of cold, the sheltered boggy ground hadn’t quite frozen as my right foot discovered. Aye, waterproof boots are great right up to the point you overtop them! No matter, keeping moving would keep me warm.
Popping back into the sunshine, we rode up another steep rise to yet another viewpoint. Things were looking promising. In the distance we could see the high point of the Kilpatricks, Duncolm. It may be a bit of a rounded lump at 401 metres but reaching it would signify that we were on the return leg of our journey.
It’s gravy all the way.
Now normally, we would take the long way round but emboldened by the conditions, we opted to follow a faint singletrack path around Cochno Loch. In warm weather, this would be a boggy morass that would challenge even a fat bike but today was no ordinary day. Progress was rapid as we made our way round and up onto the singletrack of Cochno Hill. We were on familiar ground. The trails here are well walked and easy to follow. See a trail and follow it. There is treasure everywhere.
Dropping down to Greenside Reservoir, we were faced with The Climb of Despair. It is something of a test piece round these parts. It is definitely a breaker of even the most die hard one-by fan, make no mistake. For me, the combination of frozen ground and ice tyres meant nothing would stop me from cleaning it while Dave did the same.
When we finally reached the cairn, we were hungry and sweating! I practically inhaled my Caramel Log and wolfed down some water. To the slack jawed couple watching us, I can only apologise. It must have seemed like feeding time at the zoo.
Who did that?
The glorious silence of the hills was punctuated only by our chomping, snorting, slurping and subsequent farting. Oh to have the wit and wisdom of Jane Austen to describe our scene of rural idyll. “Why, Mr Darcy! Did you dare to break wind in front of me? Why, Miss Bennett! I didn’t realise it was your turn!” By now, we were growing so accustomed to our surroundings that we were almost blasé about them. In the far and I mean FAR distance, the top of a mountain peeked out. Could it have been the Merrick some seventy miles to the south? If it was, it was a first for me.
Human popsicle in the making.
With the sun gradually dropping, we pressed on snaking our way across the hill tops on buff singletrack. Reaching another natural viewpoint, a fellow biker could be seen charging up the trail we were about to descend. Clearly, he thought it was the summer judging by the lack of gear he had with him. Hopefully he didn’t have an off as he would pretty quickly find himself a human popsicle!
Progress towards Duncolm was rapid although we were all beginning to experience a raging thirst. So much so that we stopped at a bank of snow (not yellow!) to refill our water bottles.
Thinking I was clever, I popped the bottle inside my jacket to try and defrost the snow. Good in theory, not so good in practice. All I succeeded in doing was getting a chilly stomach and creating a not very appealing Slush Puppy that had all the flavour sooked out of it. It was like being ten again as I got brain freeze! Who says with age comes wisdom?
One more push, lads!
Down, down,down we went across heather filled moorland, following the faintest of trails. It is a trail I have ridden many times but today, it was in exceptional nick. Tussocks that would normally grab at your front wheel acted as mini moguls, knocking our wheels from side to side but keeping us going in the right general direction. I was feeling particularly smug right until the point at which I managed to find the one bit of soft ground in the whole ride. My front wheel stopped dead. I didn’t as momentum played its unbeatable hand. My knee smacked off my steam and I landed in a crumpled heap. Normally, this would not have been an issue but having lent my knee pads to Graham and Dave for the ride, I took one for the team. On the bright side, at least the cold reduced the blood flow to a trickle in double quick time.
At the northern most point of the Kilpatricks is the curiously named Whangie. Coming from the Scot’s word to cut or slice, the Whangie features a fairly impressive crag, supposedly split asunder by the Devil as he flew overhead. Or it could just be a geological fault line that split over the centuries to create its distinctive features. #justsaying. It was our final high point for the day and held the promise of a long and flowing technical descent back down to the valley floor.
With us now in the clutches of the golden hour, the dying embers of the day fading below the horizon, what is normally a hard won ascent was despatched with remarkable ease.
After a customary slap of the trig point, saddles were dropped (or rather forced down given that the cables on both Dave and Graham’s dropper posts had frozen) and we hightailed it down to the crag.
It is only when you get up close and personal with The Whangie that you realise it is even there, so well hidden is it from the trig point. If you know which path to take, it is easy to find (Funny that! – Ed) but many people fail to do so. The somewhat chossy rock towers a good ten metres above you, it’s separation from the adjoining hillside being both impressive and intimidating in equal measure.
It is a favoured spot for climbers and walkers alike although back in 2002, climber Keith Falkingham was trapped by a fallen boulder when a belay gave way and pinned him by the leg. On the plus side, at least he had a nice view to enjoy as he lay there in agony. Most folk like to go up at dusk on a summer evening although I reckon winter at dusk is the true connoisseur’s choice. The clarity of light as night falls is hard to beat, the sky ablaze with fiery reds and russets.
What followed was meant to be a highlight. Unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans go down the pan with the rest. An innocuous off saw David nursing a bruised and bloody shin while what had been a frozen but rideable trail the day before had turned to long sections of sheet ice. In the absence of rain and snow, the ground water had clearly been forced up to create great swathes of slippy peril.
I was fine, my ice tyres coping admirably with the conditions (well done me!) but for Dave and Graham, they were starring in their own version of Bambi on Ice. To add insult to injury, with the sun now gone, the temperature plummeted. My cheeks felt like they had been smacked repeatedly with a box of Captain Birdseye’s finest when we eventually hit the road for a few hundred metres. It instantly reminded me why I’m not a big fan of road riding in Scotland in the winter. Aside from the drivers who believe that three inches is a more than generous passing distance, the pot holes and the lack of grit, it’s cold. Really bone chillingly cold. Snow and ice, bring it on. But there is something about that peculiar west coast damp cold that goes right through you.
Turning onto the West Highland Way, it felt like we were riding into a freezer. Extra jackets were donned, hoods pulled over helmets and teeth gritted as we rode back down dark, tree lined trails, our tiny lights guiding our way. When I checked the weather later, we had ridden in temperatures close to negative double digits. I laughed to myself as I remembered a previous ride on this very section of trail where my feet were so cold that in my frozen logic, I thought that peeing on them would be a good way of warming them up. It was…..for all of two minutes. And then they froze and I had frozen pissy shoes. It wasn’t one of my finer ideas.
Eventually reaching civilisation, Graham cracked. The lure of an open coffee shop proved too much temptation to resist leaving Dave and I to ride the final section of road home. By the time we got home, the temperature had dropped to well below freezing. Sitting on the sofa, covering my right foot in a fleecy blanket to try and coax the blood back into it, I reflected on an outstanding adventure.
Hard frozen trails, incredible scenery and great company. And all from my door. All I had had to eat all day was banana and peanut butter on toast, a Clif Bar that had been fermenting at the bottom of my bag for the last six months and a Caramel log. I should have been utterly spent but I wasn’t. I just sat back and smiled. How far had we ridden? The distance didn’t really matter to us as sometimes it’s not about the destination but the journey.
Well that and the fact that the cold weather had put paid to the battery life on our phones. If you want to know how far we got in three hours, I could tell you to the metre…….just not the other six hours! Who says you need to travel far to have a big sky adventure?
This article was brought to you in association with dhb.
Dave, Sanny and Graham were able to stave off the biting cold wearing the following dhb products:
- MTB Trail Pro Baggy Shorts,
- MTB Long Sleeve Trail Thermal Zip Jersey,
- Merino Short Sleeve Base Layer,
- Windproof Windslam Gloves,
- MTB Short Sleeve Trail Jersey,
- Winter Merino Trail Socks and MTB Trail Hooded Softshell Jacket.