Singletrack World Classic Ride 150: Ben Mac Do It

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Each year my friends and I take a trip to Scotland for a week during May bank holiday to enjoy the freedom of wild camping, the right to roam and Empire Biscuits. The tradition is to visit new places and our list was a healthy one this year. With plenty of safe choices (safe, meaning ‘built for bikes’) such as Glassie Bike Park in Aberfeldy, Tarland Trails in Aberdeenshire, and a good dose of technical woodlands in Dunkeld, we decided to tick off a Munro. It’s not a successful Scottish road trip if we haven’t enjoyed some large glacial formations and marvelled at the grip that granite offers.

Our chosen Munro this year is Ben Macdui, the second-highest mountain in Britain standing tall at 1,309m, a mere 36m shorter than Ben Nevis. We’ve got a loop that a local friend has confirmed is the best route for mountain bikes, though she did warn us that there’s still snow at the top of the mountain. The route is actually a lollipop with a bit of the stick poking out the top – that being the point at which we choose whether to touch the summit or decide the snow isn’t worth the kilometre yomp to the cairn.

In choosing Ben Macdui we get a bonus Munro: Carn a’ Mhaim. This will be our summit around one-third of the way into our ride, and it peaks at 1,013m, followed by a ridgeline down the saddle towards our climb to Ben Macdui. Two Munros, a ridgeline, a granite playground and the promise of spectacular views in only 35km? Bargain!

Linn of Dee hop

Our journey begins at the Linn of Dee car-park-come-campsite in Muir – a large, pan-flat National Trust site with temporary toilets in the summer months, and a daily charge of £3 to park. It’s worth noting that this area is a signal black hole, so you’ll need to have downloaded any GPX files and completed your life admin in advance. 

Given that a mountain day needs to be taken more seriously than a few laps at a pedal-up bike park, I quiz Aaron on his riding pack when I catch him pulling empty wrappers out of his hip pack. He assures me that he’s cleared enough space to pack sufficient fuel and tools and removed his lucky pork pie that he’d been carrying around beyond its best-by date. Vicky is a pro at fitting a lifetime supply of Jammie Dodgers into her pack (…and body), so I don’t worry about her preparations, and Rhys is methodically Tetris-ing all the edible food he can find in the van into his big backpack. A quick bolt check, kit check and weather check (due to the lack of phone signal this is achieved by looking up through the trees and all agreeing ‘it’ll be ‘reet’), and we’re ready to go.

The lollipop stick is 5km each way along a well-maintained gravel track with an inviting view of the mountains ahead, and the reassurance that you’re not completely isolated courtesy of Derry Lodge, an old hunting lodge located next to a popular bothy, the Bob Scott Memorial Hut. Thanks to a slight undulation, it’s quite an effortless start to the ride and we’re at the hut in no time. This is one of several bothy options along the route, and as we pass it we notice a disorderly pile of touring bikes that were clearly parked up in exhaustion. No sign of the bikepackers, we quietly make our way to the bridge over the ford that marks the beginning of the loop.

Circling The Lolly

In harsh contrast to the wide gravel track we’ve travelled out on, the route takes on a vague and frustrating form of tussocked and overgrown grass, hiding both the bogs and the path. We spread out, each taking our own approach to the terrain. Vicky shamelessly ploughs her way through the bogs with no concern over wet feet for the day, while Rhys and Aaron cautiously locate the path and grumble some concerns about the day ahead. They soon get over it as we scratch our way along a sandy, rocky trail lined with deep purple heathers to guide us.

At around the 8km mark we face our next challenge – a river crossing. Given it’s the earliest point in the year when it’s wise to tackle this route, I’d hope the crossing would be easier in the summer months. Today it’s a case of carrying our bikes carefully across the boulder stepping stones and trying our best to keep our feet dry – or in Vicky’s case, cleaning the bog off her shoes. My depth perception is poor, but my friends are used to this and they patiently wait for me to take my time over it. The lack of urgency on the day is welcome, and we stop for a snack and another assessment of the sky while all agreeing that the route is fairly obvious from here, as there are some stone steps to walk up.

The remainder of the ascent to Carn a’ Mhaim is a typical mountain pass. Narrow in places, varying gradients, and plenty of technical challenges. It’s engaging enough to allow time to fly and we’re pedalling along the top section in awe of the huge views and in need of our next refuel in what feels like no time at all, but in reality is well over an hour later. At this point of the route there is only around 300m ascent remaining*, so we celebrate how efficient we’ve been. Vicky and I share a sigh of relief that we’ve seemingly got the hard part out of the way, and look forward to the descent down the saddle of this Munro and onto the summit of our chosen one.

*unless we were to descend. And, oh look, a huge descent… 

Carn a’ nage

The route from Carn a’ Mhaim is a brilliant challenge. It introduces itself at a -20% gradient of big rocky switchbacks that are barely rideable if you’re sensible enough to recognise how remote you are, and how little phone signal you have. As soon as you break through those, the trail opens out into a more manageable test of line choice through big granite boulders, trying its best to distract with a snaking view of the trail ahead and Ben Macdui towering over it in the distance. We’re still under the impression that the remainder of the day is mostly descending, so we play around on the big smooth rocks and marvel at the weather we’ve been gifted. It’s not as chilly as expected and, despite being mid-May with snow-peaked mountains in every direction, a windproof jacket and summer gloves are more than adequate.

As we giddily hit the base of the descent, eager for more of the same, Vicky, Rhys and Aaron all blitz ahead to begin the remainder of the climb to Ben Macdui. My Garmin chirps up with the ClimbPro feature, something that I rarely pay much attention to. I go to swipe the screen back to the route guide and have to double-take the information: 500m gain at an average of 21%. Aaron had mentioned earlier in the day that the route guide he read claimed a ratio of 1:1 for this section. If I had bothered to process that, I would have realised that means a gradient of 45% at some point. Surely not? Is that even possible? I guess we’re about to find out.

Boulder Hell

I can confirm that a one-kilometre stretch of boulders at an average of 20% is possibly the toughest hike-a-bike you’ll ever attempt. In distance it doesn’t sound so bad, but all other metrics dictate that this is brutal. A mix of sizes and stability for the boulders means that you can’t get a rhythm, you can’t stop concentrating, and you can’t wait for it to be over. The smaller rocks don’t move, but they’re sunk down between the bigger ones so require a strong quad to boost back out of. The medium ones almost all wobble underfoot, and the large ones are mostly reliable but every now and again surprise us by being unstable. Aaron and Rhys don’t hang about. Vicky is pretty strong, so she isn’t far behind them, but I’m flagging and the gap between us keeps increasing. After quite some time, I realise the mental load of fighting my poor depth perception has crippled any resilience I had remaining. I’ve been wobbling on the same large boulder, trying every next step available and ultimately getting back to the one I started on. I clumsily lower my bike to the ground and it’s immediately swept up by a gallant Rhys who had powered to the top knowing I couldn’t manage it and would need saving.

I’d like to say that we missed a turning and there was a better route up, but I’d be lying. The boulder field is your only option, so get some food in you beforehand and make sure to look for the mini cairns along the way that reassure you that you’re heading the right way. If you ride SPDs like me, you’ll want your softest-soled shoes on.

Following a lengthy discussion about how terrible that was and another round of Jammie Dodgers, we realise we’re pretty much at the top. There’s a large sheet of snow to show us exactly where we want to be if we’re to hit the summit and without hesitation we all see how far up it we can pedal before dismounting and walking the remainder. Group morale has peaked at the highest point of the ride as we cheer each other on to crank the last stretch to the cairn. On arrival, total calm sweeps over us as we take in the view. Clear blue sky above us, 360-degree mountains as far as our eyes can see and clouds touching many of the distant peaks. We appear to be on the only mountain that has sun on it, taken as confirmation that we made a great choice today and the mountain gods are looking out for us. It’s moments like this that can erase any doubts you may have about a ride.

Etchachan sketchy

After a healthy respite and many photos of our bikes, we begin the descent from the top. Unlike Carn a’ Mhaim, Ben Macdui is rather tame from the top. A very gentle gradient over chundery, yet small, rock gardens take us to the snow patch, which proves to be much easier to ride down than up. We’re all skidding, drifting and whooping our way down and over-enthusiastically pedalling more speed into the descent. The snow feels inconsequential and with that fills us with flow and confidence for the next section of the trail.

From here we return to Typical Mountain Pass territory. Narrow rocky sections of trail divided up by technical sections that call for discussion, and fast sandy smooth sections here and there. As we reach the eastern point of Loch Etchachan, the route makes a right-hand turn to begin the final fling off the mountain. The trail from this point all the way down to the Hutchison Memorial Hut, our second bothy option, is wild. You need confidence in your technique to step down boulders that are on the limit of being rollable, and you need to keep your eyes up to make sure you’ve made line choices before you arrive at the scene. It’s a full-body workout and so rewarding to get a clean run down it. The bottom of this descent hits us with a splash as we cross a very narrow and shallow ford at the hut, and regroup to celebrate how great a reward the descent was.

The fun continues as we complete the rest of the loop back to our lollipop stick. The trail increases in both speed and ease, turning into what feels like a blue flow trail at a bike park. Big bermed corners, jumps, small gaps over water bars and optional drop-offs here and there. We’re back at Derry Lodge with tears streaming down our faces from the speed of the ride, and all agree that the direction we rode is absolutely the best way to do this mountain day. It’s so tempting to jump into the river to cool down at this point, as the sun is back out and we no longer have altitude cooling us down. We decide to get back to the Linn of Dee car park and consider going for a paddle in the gorge, yet the moment we arrive at our vans the heavens open and deliver a day’s worth of rain in the space of 15 minutes. That’ll be those mountain gods shedding tears of joy at how much we all loved their Munros.

Why Bother?

I realise there are three sections of this ride that I’ve described as being rather tough, but I had to force that onto paper… I simply forgot the bad parts as the great parts outweighed them. In terms of distance and elevation this is a big day, but it’s not a huge one. Yet we had breathtaking views of the Cairngorms for the entire time, we rode descents that lasted up to ten minutes each, we passed wild camping spots that would allow you to break this into a two-day adventure, we got to ride a ridgeline and we ticked off two Munros. If you’re mountain-day-curious, I would rate this as fairly achievable, assuming you take enough food and fluid. If you’re well versed in mountain days, this has some really challenging sections but plenty of flow to feel really rewarding. It is a short (and beautiful) drive from Braemar, so you have pubs, restaurants, a Co-op and a mountain equipment shop nearby. The Linn of Dee car park welcomes overnight stays as long as you respect the area – keep it clean, don’t light fires, and clean up your mess. As a bonus, during summer you have the wonderful River Dee to swim in at the end of the day.

The Knowledge

  • Distance: 34.5km / Elevation: 1,319m
  • Time: 5 hours moving, up to 8 in total
  • OS Map: Explorer 403
Full members can download the marked OS map of this route.

Getting There

Make sure you’ve planned your parking, hotel, camping or whatever before you arrive in Muir, as it’s unlikely you’ll have a phone signal to figure anything out while you’re there.

Accommodation

Booking.com

As mentioned, the Linn of Dee car park is ideal for van/caravan camping. There are toilets during the summer months, but that’s all for amenities. Braemar has a youth hostel and a small handful of hotels, and Ballater has guest lodges, hotels and some Airbnbs.

  • hostellingscotland.org.uk/hostels/braemar

Food and Drink

As with all mountain days, you need to take sufficient food and fluid with you on the ride. There are no cafés along this route, nor are there any at the very beginning. The closest places for supplies or eateries are Braemar or Ballater.

Bike Shops

Ballater is your best bet for any last-minute fettling – either Bike Station Ballater or Cycle Highlands. Bike Station Ballater has bike hire, a workshop and sales of e-bikes. Cycle Highlands carries some high-end brands, so you’ll struggle to walk out without the urge to spend some money. The staff are really helpful, there’s a bike wash and free parking in a big public car park right next door.

  • bikestationballater.co.uk
  • cyclehighlands.com
Author Profile Picture
Amanda Wishart

Art Director

Amanda is our resident pedaller, who loves the climbs as much as the descents. No genre of biking is turned down, though she is happiest when at the top of a mountain with a wild descent ahead of her. If you ever want a chat about concussion recovery, dealing with a Womb of Doom or how best to fuel an endurance XC race, she's the one to email.

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Viewing 3 posts - 1 through 3 (of 3 total)
  • Singletrack World Classic Ride 150: Ben Mac Do It
  • goby
    Full Member

    Really enjoyed the article and love the extra photos on this only just realised about them! Looked an awesome ride will be one to add to the list 😁👍

    Pauly
    Full Member

    That’s a great write up with cracking pics too.

    Sea-Urchin
    Full Member

    Same route I did last year, amazing fun..! SOME of the boulder field can be avoided by heading far right. It doesn’t avoid it all but makes it a little more manageable…. and you can push the bike a bit more….

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