In association with…
There are some places you ride that stick in the mind long after you’ve brushed yourself down, cleaned the dust off your bike and moved onto places and adventures new.
The towering peak of Binnean Mor, an imposing edifice of possibility and portent high above the village of Kinlochleven, is just such a place. Deceptively close to the sleepy lochside village that you feel like you can almost reach out and touch it, it is nonetheless a significant undertaking that can catch out the unwary and overconfident with equal uncompromising force.
Vertical drops just yards from the trail, a knife edge summit ridge that will happily catapault both you and bike into oblivion far below and unrelentingly technical trails that will keep you on your toes all the way down to the shoreline, a sleepy giant like Ben Lomond it ain’t. It’s not a punter peak but one that commands respect. Fitness, handling skills and good mountain craft are all a prerequisite if you intend to ride it.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
“Bwaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrp!”, the Sanny phone was ringing. Like Commissioner Gordon to my Batman, it was Ross back at Singletrack Towers calling from the hive of villainy and scum that is, errr, Calderdale (it’s actually nothing like that – Ed) with a mission for me.
Canyon had just launched their new 29er Enduro bike, the on -the-fly adjustable geometry Strive, and wanted someone to really put it through its paces. Did I have any suitable adventures in mind? Why yes, yes I did!
With unseasonably warm temperatures, I was all set for a mid winter assault on the mountain but then Scotland remembered that it had an image to maintain and proceeded to dump snow late into the Spring. However, the delay gave me time to assemble a crack team of riders / unwitting victims who clearly failed to grasp my (albeit unfair) reputation for going on long walks in the mountains with my bike.
Joining me were part time Jensen Button / Chris Martin looky-likey Pete Archer, an always smiling and very handy rider who has refined his not inconsiderable skills in the Lakes and Whistler and my unsuspecting neighbour Rory Hamilton, BT Sport commentator extraordinaire and accomplished split boarder who will happily trudge up the biggest of peaks in search of the perfect line (of snow, that is. Media darling he isn’t!)
Snooze buttons are for wimps!
With the hottest day of the year in prospect, we hightailed it up the side of Loch Lomond at stupidly early o’clock. “I’ve never seen it so quiet!” remarked Pete. “That’s because we are up before some people have gotten to their beds!” I replied dryly.
It was early and no mistake as thoughts of second breakfast sprung to mind. The early mountain sunshine did wonders to create a picture postcard image of the southern highlands. Long shadows cast into deep valleys portraying the landscape in an entirely new light for me.
Familiarity breeds contempt. Many a time and oft I have travelled this road and looked at the surroundings without really seeing them. However, this day was different. Spring was wearing it’s floral finery to perfection. It was hard not to just stare in awe. Up across Rannoch Moor and into Glencoe we went before arriving at Kinlochleven for our appointment with a very big hill indeed.
Any way you want as long as it is up
To say the ride starts with a gentle warm up would be nothing short of a lie. After only a handful of pedal strokes (if you will pardon the mixing of metaphors but I’m sure you get my drift), we found ourselves on the West Highland Way, clawing our way up the hillside. Despite the early hour, it was already hot.
“As climbs go, it is definitely up there for me as a bit of a test piece.“
While the shade of the trees did a fine job of keeping the sun out of our eyes, it was already shaping up to be a bit of a scorcher as we fought our way up the mixture of man made trail and slope eroded down to bedrock. Topping out at some 200 metres above sea level, it is a hard won 200 metres and no mistake. As climbs go, it is definitely up there for me as a bit of a test piece.
Within a few minutes, the sweat was pouring off us. Scotland in Spring. Who would have thought it eh? Being a ride where we were both filming and taking photos, regular stops were called for as we looked to capture the essence of the trail.
Apart from the obvious benefit of being able to take a breather and soak in our surroundings, it gave us each the opportunity to scope lines and tackle the steeper and more technical sections several times. Although normally one for the clean ascent, sometimes it is just fun to play and re-ride the harder sections.
Go on, mister! Gie’s a backie!
This being the West Highland Way, Scotland’s most popular long distance trail, we were soon joined by a procession of cheery walkers who were all enjoying the final day of their 98 mile adventure. All were happy to shoot the breeze and were effusive in their praise as we ( and I’m not ashamed to admit this) showboated a little on the climb.
It is curious that an activity we think of as normal puts us in the category of the super fit / mildly deranged, depending on your viewpoint. One walker in particular stood out, a German chap with impeccable English who proceeded to tell us of his recent cycling adventure that took him across Europe to the west coast of Ireland and back again. When asked what he thought of Wales and Ireland, it became apparent that the wet weather had perhaps clouded his opinion a little. “Shit!” came the pithily succinct reply accompanied by a tooth grin. I do like how we here in the UK have managed to successfully export our sweary words right across the world.
Reaching the slightly forlorn Mamore Lodge, a once grand Victorian building which has fallen out of use, the mountains suddenly seemed an awful lot bigger than from the valley floor. Like the scene in Jaws where the camera moves in on Chief Brody while zooming out, our target appeared to be simultaneously closer and further away at the same time. However, with the sun on our backs and a gently rising Land Rover track to follow, we weren’t complaining.
Talk turned to the various TV types that Rory had worked with and the multitude of countries that Pete had visited in his time at GoPro. Curiously, my days as a Finance Director didn’t even warrant a passing mention. All those years of debits and credits in Chartered Accountancy school had led me to this! I tactically kept schtum at this point. Accountancy and anecdotes do not good bedfellows make!
“One more time, Dougal. This is small and this is far away!”
Reaching a natural rest point in the trail where someone had rather considerately placed a concrete bench, we stopped to top up on sugary supplies and liquid. The sun was beating down but the sky was remarkably haze free as we played “Name that Peak!” It was like a Who’s Who of the big names in Scottish mountains – Buchaille Etive Mor, the Aonach Eagach Ridge, Bidean Nam Biam, Beinn Dorain – all present and correct.
Not having the Gaelic, we proceeded to mispronounce their names with no small degree of aplomb. While scholars of the language would probably be having kittens at our mis-pronounciations that would put the English policeman in Allo Allo’s murdering of the French language to shame, I’m not entirely convinced that most Gaelic words aren’t made up on the spot to keep the tourists happy.
Back on the bikes, we continued to climb, this time up a well trodden stalkers path. As the riding became harder, the walking and carrying increased until we surrendered to the inevitable and engaged full on hike a bike mode. At this point, Rory admitted to Pete that he had never actually been on a hike a bike ride before. Resisting the temptation to say “Well strap in, sunshine, you’re in for a helluva long one and no mistake!” I merely smiled sagely and pressed on up the trail.
Bench cut into the side of the mountain, its loose, boulder strewn track follows a steady but direct line up to Coire an Lochan.
Cresting the shoulder, the view opens up in dramatic and spectacular fashion. It is no exaggeration to say that the vista across the glinting water over to Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries is nothing short of epic.
I’m sure Robert MacFarlane could wax lyrical about the beauty and grandeur within which we found ourselves but I will leave it to the images to speak for themselves.
Up, up and up some more
After a well earned breather, the conical pyramid of Sgurr Eilde Mor beckoned us to sample its delights. With over a thousand feet more of hike a bike, we could easily have bypassed it but the call of the unclimbed Munro is hard for me to resist. Assuming the classic hike a bike pose, we made our way up it’s unrelentingly steep slope.
With a band of ankle snapping quartzite blocks barring our way, Rory and Pete decided to leave their bikes behind while I carried on, the bit well and truly between my teeth. Anticipating the prospect of some summit drone shots, I was happy to take one for the team. Obligingly, Pete had brought one of GoPro’s short lived drones with him. Although a dead weight to carry, the prospect of blue sky hero shots was too hard to resist.
While Pete fettled, Rory and I made the most of our situation and enjoyed the 360 degree panorama writ large. The drone shots were going to be epic. “Just whenever you are ready, Pete…..any time at all…..ready when you are, buddy……..yup, still good to go!” The thing about technology is that just when you need it to work, it conspires not to.
For whatever reason, it would seem that the drone did not believe that the camera attached to it was actually a camera. With remarkable control and calmness, Pete packed up his malfunctioning kit and we agreed not to speak of it again. At least, only after making piss taking reference to it for the rest of the ride! Not being technically minded, I thought my suggestion for throwing it off the side of the mountain to see if it just needed a helpful nudge was a good one. Apparently not!
Descending the way we came up, we were back at the lochan in jig time and found ourselves skirting the edge of it on a peach of a singletrack path. Relatively flat, it felt good to be making rapid progress as we headed to our second peak of the day, Binnean Beag.
Reaching a fork in the trail, a 100 metre drop stood between us and it, It was decision time. Another peak and a few more hours on the mountain or take the path less travelled and head up the vertiginous corrie that stood between us and the summit ridge of Binnean Mor. As we emptied a bag of Jelly Babies in search of inspiration (I personally consider the red ones the best for such moments, you may disagree but you would, of course, be wrong), a cheery walker passed by.
Within minutes, we had heard his life story. After years of living in Govanhill, one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas, he had upped sticks on a bit of a whim and moved to Kinlochleven, drawn by the call of the mountains. Having recently given up smoking at the behest of his GP, he had made a new life for himself and was loving the freedom he was enjoying. He seemed truly content with his lot and it was a pleasure to hear of his journey to happiness.
My head says sod that! My heart says, aye, sod that!
Seeing him strike up the high path, we chose to follow. Gradually ascending into the very heart of the corrie, I immediately knew we had made the right decision. The trail turned steeper with a series of switchbacks drawing us ever upward, a herd of red deer keeping us company far below. If ever there was the perfect path to carry a bike up, this was it.
A winning combination of easy to navigate trail, sunshine and scenery made for a climb that felt it was over before it had barely even started.
Topping out abruptly on the shoulder of the mountain, we made rapid progress along the summit ridge. The closer we got to it, the airier our surroundings. Small drops became big ones, a misplaced pedal stroke offering the prospect of a permanent early bath. You would definitely top the Strava leaderboard for fastest descent though! We treaded carefully until finally reaching the summit proper.
Surveying the route up that we could have taken, part of me realised that it had the potential to be a bit of a horror show of a scramble – that part being my brain. We had clearly chosen wisely. Afternoon was turning to early evening and despite having some three and a half thousand feet of almost uninterrupted descent ahead of us, none of us felt the need to make a move any time soon.
There are times when you realise that you are very much in the right place at the right time. This was definitely one of those times. To the walkers we met earlier in the day, taking our bikes up here placed us on a bit of a pedestal, admired but at the same time having our sanity questioned. And yet here we were, ready to cash in our gravity chips.
Growing in confidence
At first, we gingerly retraced our steps along the ridge. After all, it would be a shame to have come all this way only to have to be stretchered off. No way was I going to watch a member of the local Mountain Rescue Team take advantage of all my hard work as they rode my bike back down the mountain for me. However, hitting the broad summit ridge, our confidence grew along with our speed.
Popping off the lateral moraines, we all found ourselves drawn towards the lip of the corrie at a slightly alarming rate. Sgurr Eildh Beag provided the backdrop as we sped towards the gloriously sharp switchbacks of the stalkers path.
Having spent many happy visits perfecting my euro hop skills on the tightest switchbacks Switzerland has to offer, I was keen to reacquaint myself with these beauties. Were they as fun as I remembered? Oh yes and more so.
“I can’t do left hand switchbacks!” exclaimed Pete. “Who are you? Derek bloody Zoolander? Can you not hang a louie?” I replied, laughing as I did so. “Just do what you do for the right handed ones but in reverse!”, I offered unhelpfully followed by the equally useless “Just do what you are doing but better!” Really, I should have been a teacher with such nuggets.
While Pete found his southpaw chops, Rory pressed on with growing confidence. For someone who had never been on a hike a bike mission before, he was more than holding his own. While he would happily get off for the odd technical section that he admitted was beyond his perceived ability, he had a big grin on his face the entire time. I could tell the Munro biking bug had bitten.
Reaching the stalkers path we had carried up, the lines and route choices we had committed to memory on the ascent were downloaded for operation human pinball. The loose rocks felt even looser on the descent meaning that we had to strike a delicate line between speed and control. Sudden stops were not an option as Pete nearly found out to his cost when a moment of inattention saw him airborne without his bike. Fortunately, only his pride had taken a knock.
Our mouths drier than a bedouin’s sandal after many hours in the saddle under a blazing sun, we were glad to reach a stream crossing where heads were ducked and litres of water practically inhaled.
The descent had required full concentration thus the enforced stop was a welcome one indeed.
Variety is the spice of life and the trail was doing its very best to provide it. With the sun now approaching golden hour mode, we found ourselves being able to relax and let the bikes just do the work beneath us. Boulders became bedrock interspersed with longer sections of dusty singletrack that ebbed, flowed and snaked its way down to the Land Rover track far below.
Our speed grew as the potential for disaster diminished. We were letting loose, whooping and hollering like a bunch of frat house jocks – albeit without the crew cuts, the too many hours spent at the gym and the casual misogyny! Actually, we were nothing like them. But I digress, this was fun with a capital F! Binnean Mor was delivering the goods by the bucketload.
Oh Ambassador, you are spoiling us!
Just when we thought we had experienced all the mountain could offer, the trail fairies smiled upon us for they had one more ace to play. For those in the know, Kinlochleven has become something of a playground for the Enduro set.
In the trees above the village and high above the Grey Mares Tail waterfall are a series of trails that criss-cross their way down to the shoreline. Long considered classics by locals and well travelled bikers alike, they are worthy of an article in themselves.
It has been a couple of years since I last rode them and their increased popularity coupled with the eroding effects of Scottish winters has definitely changed their character. What were once narrow lines of singletrack have become multiple in nature, smooth trails have succumbed to the effects of greatly increased traffic.
I am not saying that they are worse, just different. As such, once familiar lines took on an entirely new hue as I found myself hitting drops and channels that I didn’t even know existed. Speeding down the very last section of trail, I couldn’t help but feel that a return visit was required. New lines deserved to be ridden and learnt. After all, it would be rude not to!
“But how to celebrate such a ride? A cheeky wee Botanical gin and Fever Tree tonic?“
Rolling casually back to the cars, we couldn’t help but congratulate ourselves on our good fortune. Everything had clicked into place really rather nicely. We had taken our bikes up a couple of uncompromisingly big Scottish mountains and come back with grins on our faces and with all of our limbs still intact. But how to celebrate such a ride? A cheeky wee Botanical gin and Fever Tree tonic? A fine glass of vintage wine perhaps? A post ride glass of the amber nectar? Don’t be daft, such rides command nothing so high brow. No, we headed for the golden arches for a dirty burger, fries and the liquid magma wrapped in deep fried pastry that is their hot apple pie. And let me tell you, it tasted bloody good!