A classic ride in the wide open spaces in the middle of Aberdeenshire.
Words Gavin Baxter Photography Alex Doig
The deep, dark winter can be a pretty bad time of year for getting out on a big ride. That’s especially true in Aberdeenshire, at 57° north, where weeks seem to go by with the sun only making a half-hearted attempt to illuminate and dry the trails. Storm Ciara, swiftly followed by big brother Dennis, had done nothing to help our plans for a ride on this chosen Sunday.
Crawling out of bed I see a little fresh snow on the ground outside and almost immediately the phone starts pinging with messages from our riding group. This is classic group psychology, where motivation is tested and probed. I threw in ‘It could be a bit rough up there’, which I hoped was positive enough. Euain countered straight away with ‘Time for the ice spikes maybe?’, which was maybe a little too obvious. We both knew there was no way that we would cancel. It might be chucking it down pretty much all over the UK, but we’ve got keen legs and we’re looking at pristine, snow-covered hills and blue skies. The looming threat of a weekend trip to the shops proves decisive and a final ‘See you in 20 mins muppets’ from Shaun seals it!
The Mother Top
Lying as it does in the shadow of the Cairngorms, Bennachie (pronounced ‘Ben a-hee’) can stay rain-free when the rest of the country is getting battered. Bennachie is not a single hill, but a large expanse of granite, heather and forest, with several taps (the local name for tor) reaching just over 500m. Mither Tap (Mother Top) is the most prominent peak at 518m and easily visible across much of Aberdeenshire. Today that was going to be our goal, but first we had a bit of riding to do to get to it.
A quick drive saw us popping wheels on at the Bennachie Centre car park. Euain and Shaun were already getting prepped. We’d done most of this route in parts together, but today we were also riding with Neil, a keen local rider, Clark, who runs the excellent Bennachie Bike Bothy and finally Alex. I’ve known Alex for quite a few years. He’s a great rider and he also has an uncanny ability to create magic with his camera, whether it’s on a mountain top in the Cairngorms, or catching the local summer evening road races.
Pre-ride chat is kept brief. Our attention is focused on getting moving as rapidly as we can. Standing in the lingering shadows of mature Scots pines in the middle of February is no spot to loiter. Nippy toes and fingers warm quickly though, as the first part of our day is spent gaining altitude; a gentle climb at first, then it ramps up as we pedal past the old, abandoned settlement, known locally as the Colony. This was a home to squatters from the beginning of the 19th century until 1939 when the final resident died. Following the main signposted path towards Mither Tap the smooth track gives way to more broken track, interspersed with worn, polished roots, and later granite steps and blocks, massively grippy – depending on the capacity of your legs and lungs. Climbing higher into the immaculate pine forest, our first objective is in sight – a faint piece of singletrack leading off to the left of the main trail, taking us to our first descent, The Line.
Threading its way down through the forest, it’s time to acclimatise to the style of riding here. The trail feels narrow and demands every bit of focus to keep the wheels rolling smoothly. The trees are close. Concentrate! Pedals bash off roots, then rocks. Ruts appear. Up ahead I can see Clark’s bike fishtailing wildly. Is he schralping or just skidding? It’s a great opener, and after the whoops have subsided, it’s time to pop saddles back up and wind our way across to the outlier of Bennachie – Millstone Hill.
The climb across to Millstone is almost all on wide forestry tracks, so we keep the pace high, eagerly seeking the next piece of Bennachie gold – the appropriately named Ice Queen. Turning right off the forest track onto a narrower trail, the gradient kicks up quickly. Even with the wonders of dinner-plate sized cassettes, we’ve run out of gears long before the trail kicks up again for the final few twists before we escape onto our descent. Euain and Clark take the lead, having ridden here most recently. We traverse at first, popping over some big rocks and a fallen tree, before the trail plunges down without warning. The bumps and twists of the trail have escaped the overnight snow, but the rain that preceded it has made grip challenging. The trail then drops more sedately down towards the River Don through denser woods, where the early morning sunlight vanishes. With a couple of stops, I’ve somehow taken the lead and I’m struggling to pick out the line. I can hear Euain laughing behind me, as he knows what’s happening. Finally, we escape onto the final section of cleared hillside allowing light to return and the trail tumbles onto another forest track 100m or so above the Donview car park.
We’re going to repeat the final climb up to Ice Queen, but we’re now 60m below where we last started it from. This means we’ve got another few minutes of pain to get our altitude back, then the final climb to Ice Queen and this time we continue on the path and on to our first short hikeabike. Cresting the ridge below Millstone, bikes still on our backs, the view ahead explodes in front of us. The overnight snow has mostly been dispersed by the sun and the brisk wind. The powdery flakes have clung to the paths cowering below the height of the heather, highlighting them across the landscape. A quick regroup, drop saddles and a load of gears, and we’re off across a fast, open piece of trail. There’s solid bedrock, then built path, but it’s covered in a few centimetres of snow, so I’m holding back a bit. We hit the next challenge – sleepers, lots of them. Apart from the indestructible granite, the landscape here is delicate. Too many boots, or wheels for that matter, have caused some trails to become rutted, boggy messes. This particular trail has short sections reinforced with parallel railway sleepers, covered in chicken-wire and, today, snow. We all have to focus to get through it intact, before the trail turns sharp left at a loose corner, then presents a series of large steps heading down to the end of the descent. Some are easily despatched with clear landing spots, others spit you straight at the next drop before you have a chance to recover so it’s with some relief that we all make it down in one piece.
Once more we climb, this time on the Gordon Way, up and out of the forest. The sky is a deep azure. Looking to our southwest, about 60km away, we can clearly see the main peaks of the Cairngorms, glowing in their fresh coat of snow. There’s no need for lengthy speeches from anyone. What we have here is very special. We need to get moving though, as pausing for too long means numb toes, reminding us that although the sun is shining, this is also February in the northeast of Scotland. Shouldering bikes once more, we head up the rocky steps. Hikeabike number two is shorter than the first and so less than five minutes later we’re back on our saddles again, but still climbing. The striking, craggy knoll of Bruntwood Tap off to our left starts pulses racing even faster. Our next target.
The rough traipse across the heather is short and we’re soon rewarded by reaching solid granite. The trail narrows, then plummets down. We regroup, and a few gentle warnings are passed around the uninitiated for the next section. With barely enough time to get going again, the trail drops away. It’s steep. Really steep! The granite grip on offer is incredible. It’s not just a simple ‘point and shoot’ though – there’s a line to hold, but if you can keep to the line, it just works! A few walk it, but within a minute we’re all safely down and working our way quickly back into the treeline and some exquisitely tight corners.
Hitting the forest track, we traverse right for just a few brief moments before picking up Hindu Kush. There’s not much in the way of granite here, and the rain and snow from the previous few days have left the exposed roots needing 100% focus. It’s relentless. After a few minutes, we pop out on a forest track, but the respite is fleeting as we immediately drop into the lower half of the trail. While the gradient eases slightly, the technicality certainly doesn’t. It’s a trail that wouldn’t feel out of place at any enduro race in the country, but today it’s just us enjoying its delights. Reaching the end, we break out onto a forest track and assess the damage.
Climb, you fools
Amazingly, everyone is intact, even the bikes are fine, despite the pounding they’ve been subjected to. It’s just as well really, as the next climb’s a beast. We’ve dropped down to about 170m, and now need to climb up to just below Oxen Craig, the highest point on Bennachie at 529m. We settle into a rhythm, Neil’s cross-country training pays off and he pulls ahead. With a few tactically played stops to pull off layers, we finally regain the Gordon Way, which cuts just below Oxen Craig. We push the last few metres up the rocky steps, but before collapsing for a break we’re reminded of why riding here is so very special – winter afternoon light, the merest hint of warmth from the sun, lingering snow and endless views.
Turning our back on Oxen Craig, we ride bedrock at first, the trail using the natural ridgeline, but before long we’re on a built trail. It’s brutal. Rock steps just the wrong distance apart. This is a full-body workout just to keep on the bike, but soon the steps ease enough that features can be hopped or jumped, rather than bulldozed. This is classic Bennachie riding now; we keep the pace going across the plateau, skirting Craigshannoch, to our final climb of the day. Looking towards Mither Tap, its little sister, Nether Maiden, sits proud beneath. A vague trail leads off east under its gaze, taking us directly towards our marker post.
Let’s end this madness!
Maiden Causeway has long been a very popular trail on Bennachie with its current-day granite armour giving it resilience to boots and wheels, but also a strong likelihood of causing a pinch flat or two. Tight, technical switchbacks at first, but then the flow starts. It’s never ‘full gas’ though, as there’s too much going on, and there’s still ice lurking in the shadows. Just as I catch a glimpse of the rapidly approaching cairn marking the exit onto the next more meandering trail down to an old quarry, I mistime a bunnyhop over a big, solid water bar. With that sickening thud and hiss, the back of the bike lets me know I didn’t get away with it. Damn! A few minutes later, pumps are packed away and we’re rolling again, this time down through widely-spaced Scots pines allowing the trail to flow gently to the final steep drop and slide into an old, abandoned quarry and out onto the homebound trail as thoughts turn to warmer toes and the chance of some late lunch.
Aberdeenshire, unless you live there, probably doesn’t feature high on the hit list of too many riders, or tourists for that matter. It boasts dozens of castles, a devastatingly rugged and beautiful coastline and rather a lot of whisky. The language can be colourful too. This part of the world is home to the Doric dialect, which you’ll hear in many of the shops and cafés in the area. Your first encounter with it could well be when greeted with ‘Fit like?’, when walking into a shop. The response is definitely not ‘Why yes, I’ve been on Zwift all winter thanks’. It’s simply the local way of saying hello, or how are you doing, to which the response is ‘Nae bad’!
Aberdeenshire doesn’t have a trail centre in the classic sense. The riding here tends to be rough, steep and technical. Bikes, and in particular wheels, take a hammering, so plenty of tyre volume helps. Without detailed signposting and map boards, riding here perhaps needs a little more planning, but help is at hand at the usual online mapping sites, as well as popping into any of the local bike shops for pointers.
There are top-quality riding spots dotted all across Aberdeenshire, several of them used as venues for SDA, SES or SXC races over the years. There are many others, though, that hide in plain sight, and just keep getting better and better. Scolty Forest, Durris Woods, Balfour Woods and Hill of Fare, as well as the incredible trails around Ballater that are starting to draw people in from far outside Aberdeenshire.
In recent years, much of the credit for the improvement in the trail management situation has been due to an organisation called the Aberdeenshire Trail Association (ATA). Formed by local riders with support from Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), they work with local landowners and forestry to maintain sustainable trails in the area, organising regular trail maintenance events through the year.
The trails around Bennachie are incredibly varied, offering rocky, armoured trails through to entirely natural lines through the forest. The area is home to amazing wildlife. Red squirrels, deer and increasing numbers of pine martens grace these hills. The relative proximity to towns means that the area attracts many visitors, most of them walking the trails to explore the landscape. It’s nowhere close to the levels of traffic that the Lakes or Peak District get, for example, but respecting other trail users and slowing down for all walkers is really important.
There are plenty of options to vary your route too – while we rode our loop from the Bennachie Centre, there are a few other car parks around the perimeter of Bennachie which are equally good to start from: both Donview to the south and Rowantree to the north give great access out onto the hillside. Within minutes of leaving any of these car parks, the silence of the forests will creep into your awareness. The trails we took were a good mix of technical and fun, but there are endless options here to link sections together or shortcut using the built trails to save your legs. There are also some much harder trails lurking in the woods, so either tag along with a local, or else check out any features on foot first.
- Distance 28km
- Elevation 1,306m
- Time 4–5 hrs
- Maps: OS Explorer 421 (Ellon & Inverurie) & OL62 (Correen Hills & Glenlivet)
There are plenty of options in and around the nearest main town, Inverurie and in the surrounding villages. Check out Thainstone House on the edge of Inverurie or the Grant Arms B&B and Café.
Travel to Bennachie by car is simple, sitting 10 minutes off the A96, the main road between Aberdeen and Inverness. Inverurie boasts a railway station with easy connections from Aberdeen or Inverness. It’s about 5 miles from the station to Bennachie with no big climbs in the way.
Bennachie Bike Bothy is run by Clark in Fetternear, pretty much in the shadow of Bennachie. He’s a qualified guide, as well as doing repairs, suspension servicing, stocking a sizeable demo fleet of Bird bikes and running weekly shop rides. He supports some high-flying local riders, as well as the ATA and is definitely a guy to speak to if you want some local advice and guidance.
Pedal Power in Inverurie is a welcoming little LBS, covering sales, repairs and advice.
Food and drink
The Bennachie Centre itself is open from April to October, and has a tearoom (toilets open all year round). Check out the very special Old Post Office Tearoom in Chapel of Garioch (two miles from the centre) or else the Grant Arms Café in Monymusk listed above, which also gives doorstep access to the incredible trails around Pitfichie.
This feature was produced with support from Komoot.
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