August 13, 2021 9 min read
Most people arrive at Scotland's bothies on foot and seeking some sheltered refuge from a long day walking in the hills. However, Paul Brett isn’t most people. Below, Paul tells the story of an epic cycling adventure across the Cairngorms, linking up several bothies that sparked the idea for an all new, super high quality cycling magazine - Proper Cycling.
Back in November 2018 Shackleton whisky approached us to document a biking the bothies adventure for Proper Adventure magazine. Shackleton embodies the spirit of Ernest Shackleton a British polar explorer to the Antarctic. Like us Shackleton’s brand is all about adventure. The team consisted of myself - Paul Brett, Amy shore, cat Sutherland and Donald shearer. Amy and I collected the bikes from Shand cycles the previous day. Shand had kindly loaned us their wonderfully named Bahookies and Stooshie bikes that are hand-built in Scotland. We looked forward to testing them in the Cairngorms challenging environment.
Once we met up with Cat and Donald in Aviemore, we geared up, set the bikes up and heading to the starting point Glenmore. It as meant to be a fairly easy loop around the north of the main Cairngorm Massif to ease us into the saddle. The plan was to spend the night in Ryvoan bothy, a single roomed bothy with a sleeping platform for four. We were hoping we’d be the only ones there for the night.
Ryvoan Bothy was a fairly easy cycle up from Glenmore lodge with some steady climbs and downhill sections. It was pretty enjoyable for Amy and myself as we were only getting back into the saddle for the first time in a while. We stopped at the famous green lochan for some shots and and realised that we had forgotten the firewood which wasn’t ideal on a cold October night in the Scottish highlands. After a brief debate, we decided that we would head to the bothy anyway and see if there was any wood left by its previous occupants. Unfortunately for me there, wasn’t and after emptying my bag I had decided to cycle back in the dark to get the firewood. I must say, cycling downhill with just my head torch guiding the way was an interesting experience.
The cycle back up to the bothy was tough, with the climbs feeling longer in the dark and the weight of the wood making it a testing return journey. I was joined by a small herd of deer, keeping me company and randomly crossing my path. I was glad to see the candlelight glow from the bothy window as I finally made it back.
Once back at the bothy, Donald fuelled the fire and we settled with some hot food and a few drams around the fire for what was to become a long and disturbed night. The idea for Proper Cycling magazine was born in this bothy. As I was waiting for my water to boil for my freeze dried pasta, my brain went into overdrive for an all new cycling magazine… There was a penny dropping moment as I lay in my sleeping bag in Ryvoan Bothy wide awake as a couple who had also decided to stay in the bothy snored so loudly. We had had a lot of content around cycling coming in for our other title Proper Adventure and this trip was for a project with Shackleton Whisky and Shand Bikes. I was thinking there’s not a super high quality cycling magazine that covered all things cycling and it was like, WOW! we need to do this.
At 4am Cat made an amusing highlight of the night when she sat up declaring- ‘I can’t take it anymore. Im going to sleep outside!’ - and off she went. I also decided that enough was enough and headed outside for a hot cup of tea. Luckily, I got to see the sunrise over the bothy that made up for the snoring.
A couple of hours later the bothy door opened and the source of our problems stepped outside. ‘Good morning’ he said ‘sleep well?' Unsure whether this was a sarcastic or genuine question I mumbled something about the weather and headed inside to pack up my kit for the day ahead.
At 7 am, with my mouth still full of porridge, I felt energised as we set off for our main day of riding. A herd of deer observed us from the ridge above... My guess is they were probably the same deer as entertained me the night before on my right back to the bothy. Slowly, one by one, they disappeared over the ridge.
After a fairly easy cycle on our first day, day two was looking like a more serious endeavour. Our route would cover a whole load of terrain from tarmac to gnarly single track, through the ancient scots pines and a few tricky river crossings, only to finish at Feshie bothy, Ruigh Aiteachain. We would then have a feast prepared by Pete Roobot of FireChef cookware. Throughout the day, I kept hoping that I'd sent him to our intended bothy… “Time will tell” I told myself for the hundredth time.
Once we got off the tarmac track that led us right into Glen Feshie, we could see down the glen. With a heavy flowing river as our only company, I began to wonder about the river crossings ahead. The first one was negotiated with ease as we cycled into the forest, going up and down some lovely trails, marvelling at the ancient giant pines that land either side of the trail. When we entered a single track covered by a few rates here and there, Amy put her Endura helmet to the field test with a crash that brought her over the handlebars, resulting in a nice dent in the helmet, but thankfully no serious injury.
The trail suddenly came to an abrupt end with a massive drop down to the river. Donald informed us that the bridge had one stood there, but it was swept away in a storm a few years back. “Some storm” I thought to myself. On the steep and loose ground, we made it down to the river and picked our way across. Our feet were wet, but fortunately, we weren't too cold as we scrambled to the other side, stopping for a warming dram and some photos.
As we continued down the Glen, we could see that the weather was changing. The sweeping belts of rain and angry clouds were now in store for us. We focused on that delicious bowl of warming stew that awaited us at the bothy as we approached the next obstacle, our old river friend; the third crossing of the day. As we debated on the point of entry and exit, we are greeted with what turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, a magical white horse. It appeared out of the bushes and stood there watching. As we plunged into the fast-flowing ice-cold water the horse continued to stare. Donald had impressively cycled over the obstacles but cat Amy and myself decided to push through it using the bikes for balance.
As the river hit knee level and the cold water nipped at my exposed skin, I was glad I had decided to push - unlike Donald. I would have probably crashed and been seriously soaked. Our horse friend kept a watchful eye on us as we cross the river and hit another climb up the side of the Glen. Thankful for some tarmac as the rain started to fall, we realise that we had unnecessarily crossed the river… our bothy was now on the other side of the river. The fourth river crossing of the day lay head.
As we search for a suitable point, Cat commented on her seeing a giant of a man carrying what looked like a bouldering mat on the other side of the river. That must be Pete I announced with optimism. But the mystery man had now disappeared from view. While were crossing the river one more time, a Land Rover defender with some happy passengers drove across. I curse them under my breath wishing it was me as I ease my sore backside back into the saddle. However it wasn't too long before we arrived at our destination. Another cyclist was outside and asked for curiosity are you the guys that big man is cooking for? I hurried inside to greet Pete and listen to his story of how he carried an incredible amount of ingredients and kit including massive cast-iron pot from the same starting location as ourselves.
We selected our sleeping points for the night in what can only be described as the lavish surroundings of the feshie bothy are the most comfortable and welcoming bothy that I'd ever been and I was looking forward to an evening of food and whiskey. However before such pleasures were to be ours we needed to do more cycling. In front of us there was a Munro Mullach Clach a’Bhlair the most westerly point of the Cairngorms looking angry surrounded by clouds and rain. We headed in its direction with the plan of summiting before supper. Unfortunately it wasn't meant to be. What's the weather and time against us because it quits on one of the most painfully steep claims and headed back to the bothy. As it came into view we could see the smoke billowing out of the chimney and as we open the door we were greeted with a delightful smell of Petes cooking and excitable welcome from Nelson the dog who had arrived for the humans where we had been away.
Settled in the darkness with head torches and candles we eagerly awaited our supper. Oh, was it worth the wait! Venison and dumpling stew with seasonal veg followed by pancakes with a butterscotch and whiskey sauce. What a feast to ease the tired limbs! With the fire roaring and an ample supply of firewood and whiskey we drank, we chatted, we laughed and we listened to music into the early hours of the morning before settling down for a snore free restful sleep.
We awoke early the next day feeling fresh and ready for a final day in the saddle. The plan was to head to higher ground and attempt to find a shelter in the Cairngorms - the secret Howff. Remarkably its location is a closely guarded secret and as such it is not marked on any map. It was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack! However with the weather closing in on us, zero visibility and a heavy frost we decided to give it a miss and have a low-level right back up Glen Feshie to the warmth of our vans and the long drive back to Edinburgh.
Amy and I said goodbye to Clare and Donald and our biking the bothies adventure came to an end. It was an unforgettable experience! We made some amazing memories and we came home with a few bruises, aches and pains as souvenirs. The Cairngorms National Park had provided a unique and challenging environment for adventure and I can't wait to get back out there and do it again!
Undertaking a trip like this depends on your experience on a bike, for us on this trip Cat, Donald and I were all experienced mountain bikers. Our photographer Amy wasn’t and she covered the terrain at her own pace which was the sensible option, rather than pushing yourself to keep up. She also delivered an incredible set of images and was carrying various camera kit, so she was amazing!
Researching your terrain and having proper kit to cover all weather options, it’s a fine balance not to weigh yourself down to much as you’ll get tired fast. Always have a worse case scenario plan, for example us forgetting firewood when it was freezing and we needed heat. I cycled back in the fading light (around 15km) and loaded my backpack up with enough wood to last the night. Coming back up to bothy in pitch black was interesting but I was used to hiking in the dark, so was fine. I was very happy to see the flickering candle light of the bothy though. Staying within your limits, not pushing the adventure vibe too far and building experience and knowledge of terrain are all important for bothying on bikes.
A massive thanks to Paul and Amy for the terrific story and images! If you want to get your hands on a copy of Proper Cycling magazine it’s available to buy in our Meander store or onlinehere.
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