Words by Anna Barensfeld, photos by Ursin Gabriel
The burly bottom bracket of my bike was digging into my neck. I’d overhead-pressed my rented Yeti SB5 just one more time for the final hike-a-bike up and over this remote rocky pass in heavy wind and a soaking rain. With a chunky trail and steep incline, pushing was an inferior tactic to dead-man-hoist-style, the preferred method of our guide, The Bear. I could see his reasoning.
They say there’s no bad weather in Scotland, only bad clothing choices. I have to concur. Traveling in Scotland (this was my third trip, and the place has an undeniable pull on me—I’ll be back), I find myself adopting the casually resolute indifference to weather that natives display. If you want to play outside, you’ve just got to deal with the rain, the mist, the cold, the wind. After all, I had all the latest chi-chi fabrics at my disposal. In the quiet, personal moments of huff-and-puff hike-a-bike, I found myself musing on the hardships my outdoor adventure forebears faced, armed with little more than wool, waxed cotton, and dogged determination. I could barely wrap my head around how lucky I felt cocooned inside layers of Gore-Tex and petroleum-derived fleecy bits.
Thing is, Gore-Tex isn’t waterproof when the wearer submerges it in water. Just before the latest hour-long hike-a-bike, I’d attempted to ride across a 15-meter wide hub-deep mountain stream and only made it 12, T-boning a lurking submerged rock just when I’d thought I would make it across without a dab. I crashed into the stream, bashing my shin on the villainous rock while water surged under my layers, soaking my favorite cheap polyester riding shirt. It was totally ignominious and completely in character; anyone who’s ever ridden mountain bikes with me knows I’m always trying to do stuff I should admit I can’t, and crashing hilariously. Did I say it was raining and we’d just spent forty-five minutes pedaling into a fierce, blustery headwind on boggy, leg-sapping, will-demolishing marsh land? (I’d tried to tuck behind my at-minimum-6’5” Norwegian mate, Ole, for as long as I could—a modern Viking makes a fantastic wind break, but damned if they don’t have strong legs too.) This was a classic adventure-style ride—the best kind, in my book. Not even Type II fun; pure Type I sufferfest, so long as you’re in the right headspace.
The Norwegians crushed some Nutella and PB wraps and I swapped my dripping shirt for a dry long-sleeved wool layer while The Bear inspected my shin; deep enough to need some cleaning at some point, but good enough to pull up my wool sock and deal with it later. Secretly I was kind of excited; I knew I’d have a memento of Scotland and would be able to daydream about this ride for years to come.
I crested the pass, carefully unloaded my carbon pony from my shoulders, pulled on a fresh pair of gloves, dropped my seatpost and slotted in behind Heidi, a totally Swiss specimen of descending precision—the woman is as poised and exact in steep downhill switchbacks as I am a blunt weapon on wide-open chunder. The mountain, Beinn Fhada, featured a hard granite trailbed that was slicked with rain; flagstone waterbars casually spat my overmatched Ardent rear tire sideways if I wasn’t careful. In fact the Scottish waterbars did far more than just keep me honest on that one descent—as sharp, square-edged hits in the middle of fast, flowy singletrack, ranging from no-gap to two-foot gap to triple bumps, they chew up and spit out riders with brutally honest reminders of less-than-perfect bunny-hop timing and magnitude. I wish I could say I never fell victim and flatted, but that’s between me, The Bear, and the occasional swarms of infamous Scottish Highland midges.
Another stream crossing—I rock-hopped this one on foot—and the trail began to level out. About 1200ft below the pass, the sun chased the clouds away and painted everything gold and brilliant green. I peeled my soggy layers away as we picked up speed back to our start in Morvich, on the banks of Loch Duich and the jagged Atlantic coast of the Highlands. A huge plate of ridiculously fresh seafood and a celebratory pint was calling my name.
H&I Adventures Torridon & Skye mountain bike tour
7 nights/8 days, $1748
If you like rugged, long days in weather-exposed terrain, this trip is for you. H&I rates it as an Advanced+ difficulty level. They rent Yeti SB5s and recommend longer travel trail bikes for this trip if you bring your own. Don’t bother with the Ardents; bring burly enduro-style tires with beefy sidewalls. In addition to classic big days like Morvich and Torridon’s riproaring Annat descent, The Bear (eminently qualified guide and first-class story teller Chris Gibbs) proudly shared brand new, personally handbuilt local trail in Laggan (loamy, roosty, steep, technical, grin-inducing) and Fort William’s mix of fast flow and picky, attention-demanding rocky woods. Expect days to end with simple, comfortable lodging and handpicked local food and drink like the not-to-miss Oyster Shack in Carbost on the Isle of Skye. And no, it doesn’t rain all the time in Scotland—but bring your best rain kit just in case.
Editor’s Note: H&I Mountain Bike Tours did not sponsor or offer compensation of any kind for this post. It was simply an experience the author had that she wanted to share.
About the Author: Anna Barensfeld is a reformed roadie who lives in Western Pennsylvania with two killer barn cats and a wide selection of bikes in and out of working condition. Her standards may have slipped but her appetite for pushing herself on the bike is as voracious as ever.