Notes from a small island: A Scottish sea to sky adventure

by David Gould 0

In association with Canyon UK

“So I’m off to Arran for a biking adventure” I said with no small degree of excitement and genuine anticipation to my erstwhile riding companion Dave. “Arran? Are you kidding me? That sounds far too dangerous to me. How will you get there? Won’t you need  a visa? Is it even safe?” I looked at him quizzically until finally the penny dropped. “Not Iran, you nugget, Arran. As in the island of. You know, Scotland in miniature?”

Clearly my pronunciation had made me sound like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Alladeen character from “The Dictator”. Well that or my friend has cloth ears! Confusion resolved, a plan was hatched. We would take Caledonian MacBrayne’s finest ferry across to the island for an assault on Arran’s highest peak, Goatfell.

I had hoped the ferry might be bigger!

Nestling at the head of a glen that lives up to its billing of spectacular, the Goatfell ridgeline is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. If you were to ask your kid to draw a mountain range, the chances are they would come up with something closely resembling the Arran skyline. Pinnacles of rock and summit boulder tors abound. The Cullins in Skye may get the plaudits for sexiest mountains in Scotland but for my money, Arran’s peaks have equal claim to that title.

Arran 1. Skye Nil.

After much poring over maps and online research, we (Dave, Graham and I) had a route planned out that would maximise our opportunity for riding while answering the naysayers who suggested that taking a bike up Goatfell was a waste of time and wouldn’t be worth the effort. Too bouldery, too steep, too busy, too hard – heck, even a fellow mountain biker we encountered on the ferry was dismissive of our plan. However, as JFK put it, sometimes we have to do things not because they are easy but because they are hard.

At times I thought we wouldn’t even get this far!

Round 1

With a bluebird day forecast, we were good to go until an unforeseen mechanical scuppered our plans. I have to admit that I spent the next day in a bit of a grump. Such days on Arran are something of a rarity. Regular visitors know that more often than not, it is shrouded in cloud rather like Skull Island in King Kong.  Truth be told, I thought we had missed our shot. With Dave subsequently working in Brazil and Graham on location filming for several weeks, things did not look promising. What were the chances of getting another such day? As it transpired, astonishingly high as Scotland experienced its’ finest May in years.

Ready for action.

Round 2 – Aw FFS!

With Dave unable to make the ride, Graham’s friend Brian stepped into Dave’s shoes. Although not experienced in big mountain riding, he was game to give it a go as the forecast promised wall to wall sunshine and the hottest day on the island in years. The stars had aligned – game on. Except, of course, fate had one cruel trick to play. Rebuilding my bike at far too late o’clock the night before, my front brake decided to stop working.

Me “No problem, I’ll just pinch the XTR brake off my good lady’s bike.”

Fate “Go ahead. It doesn’t work either!”

Me “No matter. I have a SRAM Guide that works perfectly!”

Fate “No it doesn’t!”

Me “ <Multiple expletives deleted>”  and general throwing of toys out of the pram. And breathe.

In desperation, I rummaged through my tool drawers and found a very old but still fully functioning Hayes Mag DH brake.

Me “You can suck it, Fate!” And with that we were back in business, albeit at 2 in the bloody morning!

Mos Eisley. A wretched hive of scum and villainy….or it could just be Brodick.

Over the sea and not so far away

On the ferry with the sun already blazing down, I practically inhaled my full Scottish Breakfast. Big adventures require a big feed and Cal Mac really know how to look after their passengers.

Breakfast. Scottish style.

Making landfall, it felt good to be spinning the pedals with the sun on our backs and wind in our faces. A gentle potter along the old Fisherman’s trail beside the water and play on the rocky shoreline were the perfect introduction to Arran riding.

Brian rocking the shoreline trails.

We had all day to play with and were determined to make the most of our time on the island.

Blue skies. Check. Beach riding. Check.

Besides, it gave us the perfect excuse to put off the long and steep climb up to the top of the mountain for just that little bit longer.

A gentle introduction to island riding.

Heading up the initial road climb, the smell of gorse and wild garlic filled our nostrils, distracting from the steepness of the gradient. Climbing quickly, tarmac turned to fire road before a turnoff marked the start of the climb proper. A rocky, dusty two foot wide path snaked up through the mature forest, a mix of planted conifer and indigenous species. The heat of the sun on the trees created that unmistakeable pine resin smell that speaks to me of Alpine trail rides. I know. Scotland. In May. Who knew eh?

Scotland. In sunshine. And no midges!

As a properly pasty Scotsman who has to practically coat himself in cooking oil to get anything remotely approaching a tan (it looks more like I haven’t washed properly for a few days), I was revelling in the heat. It’s what we Glaswegians refer to as “Taps Aff” weather; a tap being your t shirt as opposed to there being a problem with your water supply.

Logos a go-go!

Switching to hike a bike mode, we followed a steep stone pitched trail that took us past an inviting canvas of exposed bedrock and flowing stream. In winter, this would be a raging torrent of a waterfall but for today at least, it was an invitation to get our feet wet and see just how steep a slope we could ride on before we lost traction. “Graham, you go first” I suggested in the name of taking pictures. Turns out that slopes that are submerged in water for most of the year can be pretty slippy as Graham narrowly avoiding tripoding down into rocky oblivion below found out!

Steeper and slippier than it looks.

“How far away are they?”

Hoisting bikes upon packs once more, the vista quickly opened up in front of us. A vast glacial valley with a fine ribbon of a trail leading our eyes skyward greeted us. On the ridge, tiny moving dots were walkers who had made an early start and were already on the shoulder of Goatfell. All around, exposed bands of rock conspired to intensify the already stifling heat.

 

Trail perfection on a perfect blue sky day.

A puncture (or as it turned out what must be a contender for a record ten snakebite punctures in one go) gave Brian and I the opportunity to take a breather while Graham attempted to fix his tube. It’s not often that you run out of patches on a ride but Graham certainly managed it. When we finally got going again, I stormed ahead. There is something weirdly hypnotic about getting into a metronomic rhythm of a long hike a bike. Years of big mountain riding mean that I now almost look forward to the big carry – it gives me time to let my mind wander and take in my surroundings. Little things like the sound of skylark song or a warm and gentle breeze on my face make me happy. I guess you could call it mindfulness biking.

You can go anywhere as long as it is up.

Cresting the summit, I was met with the most jaw dropping sight. Soaring towers of rock, buttresses and arêtes that positively commanded my full attention abounded. It was impossible not to be impressed. The ground in front of me disappeared in vertigo inducing fashion. I was perfectly safe on the saddle but it was impossible not to be left with a sense of geological wonder. I sat down and stared in silence at my surroundings for what must have been many minutes. Time just seemed to slow down. With nary a breathe of wind, I was definitely the right guy in the right place at the right time. Arran was delivering on its promise of adventure in spades.

Not much margin for error.

“Houston? We have a problem.”

More minutes passed until Brian eventually joined me. “Where’s Graham?” I asked. “Struggling.” Came the reply. “We may have just invented anti-Heli biking. Ride and carry up to be helicoptered off!” With that Brian, dropped his bike and headed back down the hill to help Graham up. A few minutes passed until the two of them reached me. Graham was not looking at his finest. Red of face, breathing heavily and leaden of foot, he was suffering. The sun had clearly taken its toll and he was showing worrying symptoms of heat exhaustion. Shit had suddenly got all too real, as Detective Mike Lowrey in “Bad Boys” might say.

Graham in recovery mode.

Getting Graham to lie down and rehydrate, Brian and I left him to try and cool down.  We would be going nowhere fast, for a while at least, so took advantage of the enforced break and clambered over the slabs, sessioned  the trails, marvelled at the views while checking up on Graham to make sure he was gradually cooling down, which thankfully he was.

Treasure everywhere.

“What is that unspeakable racket?”

Helicopter trip avoided, our peaceful idyll was interrupted by the unwelcome sound of bagpipes. Let me share something with you, dear reader. Bagpipes suck. There. I said it. The sound of the bagpipe fills me with disdain and disappointment. They were clearly invented on a dare and are designed to annoy and infuriate in equal measure. And here, at the top of this rather lovely mountain, the sound of bloody bagpipe music came ever closer.

Enter a group of walkers, one with a phone from which those infernal pipes were blaring. I bit my tongue as he proceeded to tell me how he needed it for motivation. I’m not sure how it was motivating him but I could easily envisage it motivating me to take his phone and throw it over the edge of the cliff! Thankfully, balance was returned to the Force as he headed on his way with the grating sound mercifully fading into the distance.

Brian resisting the temptation to keep going all the way back to the shoreline far below.

With Graham gradually feeling more chipper, Brian and I took the opportunity to carry our bikes onto the northern peak of Goat Fell, the appropriately named North Top. Definitely a blue sky thinking day when they came up with that little gem!

Mountain biking in proper mountains.

The summit is a tangled jumble of boulders and well-trodden path. The riding is hard but spectacular.

A couple of walkers left slack jawed that anyone was bonkers enough to bring their bikes up onto the ridge.

Coming off the top felt more like skiing as we had to link our turns to counter the unrelenting steepness of the slope.  In the dry, it was fun. In the wet, it would be little short of terrifying. One slip and it would be a loooong tumble to the trail far below.

Normally this would be obscured by a thick bank of cloud.

Hitting a ribbon of singletrack that bypassed the top, we headed along the ridge to be met with a soaring wall of rock and boulder. Having boned up on a guidebook before the ride, I knew there was a bypass path to the side that would avoid the tough scramble.

Graham – back in the game.

Starting promisingly enough, it soon petered out leaving the three of us to manhandle our bikes up, over and round rocky outcrops and loose scree slopes. Progress was hard fought and we were all relieved to reach the saddle once more where bikes were unceremoniously dumped on the ground and the remnants of our water and a shared bottle of Pepsi drunk.

Singletrack just as it should be.

Hearing voices, I knew we were mere minutes from the summit which encouraged us to press on with one last push to, as Edmund Hilary so impolitely put it, “Knock the bastard off!”  Cresting the summit, it felt we had stumbled onto Sauchiehall Street at closing time. It was heaving with people. We were late in the afternoon but there were still a healthy number of day trippers present who would be cutting it fine to catch the last ferry.

Things about to get tricky.

As Brian fixed a puncture which he appeared to have gotten while carrying his bike, Graham and I soaked in the views.  Far below us, a thin ribbon of inviting trail could be seen heading up Glen Rosa while in the distance, the peaks of Beinn Bharrain and Mullach Buidhe (just don’t ask me to pronounce them, ok?) vied for our attention.

One last push for glory.

With time pressing on, they would have to be left for a future adventure.  With nary a breathe of wind and the sun on our backs, it would have been easy to tary a while longer. My mind turned to thoughts of a bivvy on a summer’s eve but time, tide and the 7.20 ferry wait for no man.

We could be heroes, just for one day.

Not your traditional descent.

Dropping our saddles, we must have ridden for all of twenty yards before we were off and carrying. Fortunately, I had prepared the boys for this indignity of carrying our bikes both up and down. The path, such that it is, is a messy jumble of stone pitched staircase and randomly strewn boulders.

“I thought this was the descent?”

It is entirely unfriendly to bike but it does hold the promise of a great descent from the shoulder of Goat Fell a few minutes further down the trail. It seems wrong to drop the best part of 200 metres without turning a pedal but the pay off when it came was spectacular.

“No, really! I thought this was the descent!”

Well it would be were it not for the fact that my left shoe decided to morph into an spd flip flop. Two years of hard mountain riding and multiple home repairs with shoe goo had finally taken their toll. Each step down was and exercise in “will it, won’t it?” fall apart. Each step taken was done softly in the hope that it would hang together until the end of the ride. By some miracle, the sole didn’t completely detach meaning that when we were at last able to ride, there was no way I was stopping.

Riding again.

With precious few walkers on the trail, we were able to descend unhindered save for the odd “Is it ok for us to pass, please?” and gratefully cheery “Thank you!” Everyone was unfailingly polite and obliging. The sun had clearly brought out the best in everyone.

Multiple lines abounded.

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeee!

With the way clear, we whopped, hollered and grinned our way down the track. Although not as technical as some Scottish mountain descents, there was more than enough spice to keep us on our toes.

Now this is more like it!

Slabs of grippy bedrock mixed in with stone pitched steps and loose baby head sized rocks to make for an intoxicating descent that was both engaging and exhilarating.

Maximum concentration required.

The vista to Brodick far below us opened up meaning that one eye was on the view while the other was kept firmly on the trail. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, brilliant.

Graham IS Derek Zoolander!

The stars had aligned and we were getting to experience Arran at its finest. Reaching a river crossing, bikes were dropped and we proceeded to stick our heads in the chill mountain stream.

Graham and Brian recreating that scene in The Force Awakens.

Rarely has water tasted so good. Refreshed, we headed through the final tree lined descent. With the early evening sun dappling through the trees, riding under the forest canopy made me feel like Luke Skywalker on a Speeder Bike in Jedi with an on the edge front wheel drift on a loose corner doing little to take the edge off.

A blur of dust and he was gone.

The descent had been hard won and at times had looked unlikely but in the end we had ridden it in style and as Brian pointed out, gotten down safe and sound. Regrouping in the shadow of Brodick Castle, we contemplated our options.

Contemplating the early ferry or ice cream? Hardly Sophie’s Choice!

A fast road blast back to catch the ferry or ice creams by the shore? Hmmm. Let me ponder that little conundrum for a while. Ferry or ice cream?

Graham in full aero tuck in the race for ice cream.

Funnily enough, the latter option won hands down and as we stood in the water gazing back up at Goat Fell, we reflected upon what had been a most excellent mountain adventure.

All rides should end like this.

Fate might have done its best to try and scupper our adventure but we had come through it and were eager for a return trip. And what of the shoe? Well it made it all the way back to the car before finally giving up the ghost leaving the sole clipped in as my upper made a break for freedom. Perfect timing one might say!

 

Well that’s one way of saving weight!

For the ride, Canyon provided us with their very latest Spectral mountain bikes, clothing and bags. Despite our best efforts, the bikes easily saw us through our little adventure, albeit looking a little worse for wear by the end following numerous crank, pedal and mech / rock interfaces. Canyon asked us to take them on a proper mountain ride and document our adventure. As adventures go, I reckon we succeeded rather well on that score. Here’s to the next trip to Arran and Scotland in miniature.

Battered and bruised but still working!

The gear

Sanny and Dave were riding the Canyon Spectral CF 8.0 & Spectral CF 9.0 PRO

Canyon’s Spectral CF 9.0

What were they wearing?

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