What happens when you take a lapsed mountain biker who hasn’t ridden for a very long time and take him out on an old school classic ride?
Words and pictures by Sanny. Video by Mark Huskisson.
Produced in association with Specialized UK
The advent of the e-bike has marked a major step change in mountain biking and it is fair to say, it has not been without controversy. Accusations of it not being proper biking or it being tantamount to cheating were commonplace on internet forums and even out on rides. There was almost a presumption that you should have to in some way apologise for riding one or try and excuse it on the basis of ill health, incapacity or lack of biking fitness. To be frank, it was an utter nonsense and reeked of riders trying to somehow make themselves feel superior by putting down other riders. If your self worth is defined in that manner, you really need to have a long chat with yourself. Thankfully, the hostility has dissipated as sales have boomed and even dyed in the wool XC whippets have to come to realise what the early adopters already knew; e-bikes are just bloody good fun. Moreover, they have opened up biking to a whole new group of riders who might never have considered themselves as cyclists as well as bringing lapsed riders back into the fold.
Case in point; meet Dave. Dave is what might be regarded as an old skool biker. Growing up on a diet of rigid Stumpjumpers, homemade disc brakes and stupidly long stems, Dave is very much a product of nineties mountain biking in the UK. It was a golden era but also saw us put up with some truly awful concepts and products like drilling your crank arms to save weight (thus keeping the nations’ fracture clinics in business) or thinking that 150mm was a sensible length for a stem (it really wasn’t!) Competing in the trials scene at the time against the likes of Martyn Ashton, Dave has skills but over a decade and a half of living in France snowboarding and not touching a bike aren’t exactly known for maintaining bike fitness.
Which got me thinking. What would happen if I were to take Dave and throw him in at the deep end by taking him on his first ride in years on a challenging off-road ride in Highland Perthshire? I am not entirely that awful a friend and would afford him the advantage of a little assistance in the form of an e-bike. I know several friends for whom e-bikes have proven to be the difference between cycling and not so it seemed like a bit of a wizard idea to rope in Dave as my test subject guinea pig for an exercise in pain and suffering, sorry, empirical evidence gathering, to determine if an e-bike really is the easy gateway drug back into biking.
And so it was that Dave and I found ourselves in the picturesque village of Pitlochry on a crisp (to the point of being bloody Baltic) and clear December day as the lazy winter sun slowly popped its head over the horizon, chomping on that pre-ride staple of McVities Gold Bar (truly the undisputed king of the biscuit aisle), Empire biscuit and flask of tea. Joining us was my good friend Mark Huskisson. An accomplished filmmaker and former downhill racer, Mark has long been an advocate of e-bikes and brought his for good measure while I would be steadfastly old skool and opted for my fat bike.
Are you ready? Then I shall begin.
Nestling in the very heart of rural Perthshire, Pitlochry exudes well-heeled charm and a pervading sense of old money. A regular Britain in Bloom contender, it doesn’t feature as prominently on the mountain biking radar as its neighbour Dunkeld but for my money, it is the superior location. Home to Escape Route bike shop and award winning cafe, it has a vibrant and flourishing riding scene where the trails just happen to start from the centre of town. Wanting to set a proper test for putative crash test dummy Dave, I opted for a circuit that had a little bit of everything and which would take us into (and hopefully back from!) some remote locations that mixed big sky scenery with a healthy dose of technical riding. To enjoy a long descent, we would of course have to do a bit of climbing in order to earn it. In other words, a proper day out on the bike.
Dropping down towards the river, we found ourselves on leaf covered paths through mature woodland on a trail that rose and fell gently. Passing what appeared to be the remains of an old wooden gardeners garage, strangely removed from any nearby buildings, we found ourselves at the Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre. Home to a 310m fish ladder built to enable spawning salmon to swim upstream, it reminded me of something Spike Milligan once said, “Fishing is complete and utter madness”. Waiting for hours at a fish ladder to watch a salmon bob up momentarily is definitely up there in my humble opinion. Opting sensibly to keep riding, we passed a small group of hardy open water swimmers. “Care to join us?” they called. Not being one for freezing ones nether regions voluntarily, we graciously declined and kept riding.
Cutting along the very edge of the River Tummel, the trail here is really rather special. Bench cut into the steep sided slope where a pedal strike could propel you to a watery interface, the mixture of exposed roots, blind corners and undulating gradient make for a cracking piece of trail. “What do you reckon, Dave?” I shouted back. “Yup, liking this!” came the reply. So far, so good.
And so it was for the next few kilometres that we continued, the dappled sunlight breaking through the trees and creating that special golden hour feeling. For variety, it was hard to beat – steep ascents, long bench cut drops, sharp turns through the trees, a little bit of exposure, shoreline pebble fields – all were found in plentiful abundance and a good reintroduction for Dave to biking. Rounding a corner, we met the wooden steps from hell.
Variety is the spice of life.
A combination of constant shade, leaf cover and a temperature around freezing meant Dave and Mark sensibly opted for Shank’s Pony while I relied on the power of the fat bike tyre to ride down it. Thankfully crash free, we soon headed over the old steel footbridge that traverses the River Garry at Killiecrankie. Stopping to look down into the gorge, we spotted the cage used by bungee jumpers to launch themselves off the nearby road bridge. The phrase “Sod that!” came to mind. Personally, I prefer to take in the glorious red, golds and dark greens of late autumnal colours from the comfort of my saddle rather than when having my stomach feel like it is coming up through my mouth.
A fast blast along the other side of the river brought us to the “Steps of Death”. Named by local riding legend Kev Dangerous, the steps have a brutal transition at the bottom that has caught out many with uncompromising and sudden effect. As Dave and Mark manhandled their e bikes up the steps, I opted not to ask them to ride back down for posterity. I’m pretty sure I heard mutterings about this being a typical Sanny ride involving bloody hike a bike as usual but I chose to politely ignore it. What followed was another classic section of Scottish trail. With the banking dropping sharply to our left to the raging white waters below, a token wire fence was all that stood between us and being a watery footnote in the local rag. Despite the exposure, Dave seemed at ease as he managed to power up a couple of steeper, technical sections. “This e biking thing is pretty good” he remarked. So far, so good.
It was all going too well.
“Sanny, I think I’ve forgotten my phone” said Mark ruefully. I looked at him incredulously. We were several miles in and the lack of phone was something of a worry. No phone meant no drone footage. Borrowing mine was a complete non-starter as my steam driven number pretty much predates the internet while Dave struggled to download the operating software onto his.
Falling on his sword, Mark opted to take the road back to the cars to retrieve it while we waited further up the glen. Expecting a long wait, we met local Jamie and his young collie Dexter working on the roof of the old church and Sunday school for the local homes and farms that spread the length and breadth of the glen.
Our chat turned to the influx of second home owners negatively impacting upon the local community and one particular character who has taken to throwing paint at tour buses and cutting his lawn in the nip. Well they do say that it takes all sorts! Happy to blether in the warming winter sun, we were genuinely surprised to see Mark return in jig time.
Strike that up as a win for being motor assisted. Bidding our new friends farewell, we headed up Glen Fincastle and played spot our new favourite house. Each one seemed to beat the last. It’s that kind of place with my favourite being one bathed in sunlight at the very crest of the hill nestling in a copse of trees.
Stunning scenery, cracking trails.
Leaving the singletrack road behind, we hit a gently rising section of singletrack before heading up steeper doubletrack into the forest. Stopping to take in the scene, I had almost forgotten how spectacular this part of the world is. To our east, the looming presence of Ben Vrackie writ large on the horizon, its mass covered in a blanket of deep, fresh snow while to the north, we started to catch glimpses of the Drumochter Munros, a riot of many shades of white against an aqua blue sky. While Dave played Zoolander to Mark’s Mugatu, riding the trail several times in a row, I was happy to just stand and take in the passing scene and snap off a few stills.
With the now working drone safely stored away, we headed up through the treeline, the trail quickly turning white, our tyres crunching over fresh snow atop hard packed ice. Although not steep, it climbs for some way and it was interesting to see Dave positively relishing the experience of electrical assistance. “I would probably be struggling by now” he offered up, a smile on his face. My experiment was going well.
Clearing the treeline, we made our way along clear felled moorland. In the distance, the iconic peak of Schiehallion made its presence felt while Storm Arwen did the same; several uprooted large Sitka Spruce blocking our path thus requiring a bit of creative route finding up, over and around. As we made our way off track, the biting cold hit us. Keeping moving was fine but any stops away from shelter quickly reminded us that winter was well and truly upon us, Dave’s fingers being the first to suffer.
For every climb comes a descent.
Dropping out of the snowline, we reached the shores of Loch Bhac and the welcome shelter of the fishing hut. A fine spot to rest, we met a couple of bikers who had come up from London on the sleeper and were riding from Dalwhinnie to Pitlochry over a couple of days on a mini tour. Wondering why they were sitting on a bench in the cold, the unwelcome presence of a padlock on the hut drew my ire.
Having visited the spot many times, the hut has been a gratefully received place of shelter but clearly the fishermen have decided that offering shelter to the weary traveller is no longer the done thing. Being so remote, it is unlikely to attract wild parties of inebriated teenagers so it was a real shame to witness this rather unwelcome development. On the plus side, the loch was flat calm and the views easily up to standard.
Remounting our bikes, Dave audibly winced as he succumbed to the perils of “gringo butt”. Even with liner shorts on, a lack of saddle time was making its presence painfully felt. “Backside like a rasher of bacon?” I interjected somewhat less than helpfully. “Yes!” came the plaintive reply. At this point, Dave pointed out that on a normal bike, he would just get out the saddle but doing that on the e bike would just make him go much faster and leave Mark and I behind. Not knowing the route, that wasn’t exactly an ideal option. As bad as it was, things were about to get a lot tougher for him.
“Do you think that is wise, sir?”
The singletrack trail that bisects the moorland is worthy of the term classic. Gently rising to a high point, the unfolding scene is nothing short of stunning, offering unparalleled views of the southern Cairngorms in their finest winter finery. Directly ahead, the hulking Beinn Ghlo massif sits broodingly in wait while further north, the many Munros of Drumochter lie in glorious repose. Think of it as scenery of Ultra 4HD quality. As if that is not enough, the unfolding trail is one that keeps on giving. Peppered with tracts of standing water that lie in wait to catch out the unwary, you can either attack them or ride through with caution. Running five inch tyres, the boys suggested that I was either on the Jesus bike or the Moses bike, depending on whether I seemed to float over the top or part the ways. Being a Sunday, they probably had a point!
While I cheerfully rode with a mix of caution and abandon, Dave went full attack mode. While this made for some great water splashes, it also made for sopping wet feet. In the summer, this would not be a problem but of course, this wasn’t the summer. As we progressed down the trail towards the treeline, it kept changing in character – rocky and waterlogged one minute became fast and hard packed grassy speedway track the next. It kept us on our toes, not least because the unfolding scene as we approached the distinctive shape of Blair Atholl castle in the shadow of Glen Tilt demanded we kept one eye on the scenery and the other on the trail itself.
For Dave, his feet now at the painfully numb stage, he was in for a tough end to the ride as we were still a good ten miles away from the cars. Even the joy of the last section of descent through the leaf stripped trees in the gradually setting sun wasn’t quite enough to take his mind off the pain. For Mark, his unplanned phone-induced excursion was catching up with him; his battery dropping to a single solitary bar of power as we left the trail made our way along the long since abandoned A9 which sits on the very edge of the River Garry. Now barely a patch of tarmac covered in grass and leaf mulch, it is funny to think that not so long ago, this would have been the main road north. Nature really does always find a way.
Home, Jeeves and don’t spare the horses.
With the skies taking on that silvery light that is a precursor to going black, we had a decision to make. My plan had been to take us up past Bruar falls then follow the river back to Killiecrankie where we would rejoin the riverbank singletrack that we had so enjoyed in the morning. However, with Dave now experiencing the triple whammy of cramps, the hot aches and gringo butt as Mark’s battery finally gave up the ghost, we instead had to take the B road back to base. Stopping for some welcome sustenance in the corner shop in Blair Atholl, Dave took spells of towing Mark while I helped push him up some of the sharp rises. Being in possession of a full bag of Haribo Tangfastics, Mark knew how to keep us both happy.
Despite being a bit of a ragtag bunch, we kept together until we crested the climb out of Killiecrankie whereupon Dave finally succumbed to the pain of the hot aches, his shoes visibly frozen and decided to make a break for it and time trail back to the warmth of the cars. Having been there myself, I know just how sore it can be and any opportunity to minimise it has to be taken. At the risk of sharing too much, I once wee’d on my own shoes, so cold were my feet on a ride. It seemed like a good idea at the time until about 2 minutes later when my feet were just as cold but also covered in wee. Not perhaps my finest hour…….. Meanwhile, back on the ride, Dave engaged Turbo mode and was soon not even a speck in the distance. As for Mark and I, we took it easy and I was happy to keep him company (well, at least until the Haribos were all finished in which case it was definitely going to be Sayonara, Pet!)
Finally reaching the comfort of my heated Volvo seats a good half an hour later, Dave was still feeling the effects of the cold in no small measure. Ever the evidence gatherer, it did not stop me showing all the tact of the pressman when asking Mrs Lincoln “So apart from the shooting, what did you think of the play?” and enquiring of Dave whether the day had been a success. To my delight, he said that he had genuinely loved it and was already trying to justify buying an e bike. As a fact finding exercise goes, I would say that my hypothesis was proven correct. E bikes really do open up a world ofpossibility of making biking accessible to a lot more people, many of whom might not have even considered riding bikes previously or who had drifted away from them. He might have been sore of foot, cramping up and struggling to sit down but the power of the e bike had clearly worked its magic.
Now that I call a win.
Brought to you in association with www.specialized.com
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