My mind wanders during car journeys. On a recent drive to visit family in the north of Scotland I
imagined what would it be like to hop
back aboard the steel-framed Peugeot that was my teenage years’
pride and joy? Would the current, approaching-forty me cope without
his lightweight, carbon-fibre steed; would my ageing legs cope
without a compact?
There was only one way to find out, so I clambered into the dustiest corner of my mother’s garage and returned dragging a relic. It needed new tyres, a pair of pedals would be useful, but otherwise it looked perfectly serviceable.
I don’t always appreciate just how advanced my current ride is in comparison to that early-Nineties, utterly basic bike. It’s also true to say that the teenage me failed to appreciate how lucky he was to reside in such great cycling country. I grew up in Fochabers, a village near the Moray coast and on the edge of Highland Speyside. My extended backyard was packed with quiet roads, cracking climbs and the kind of scenery tourists travel thousands of miles to gaze at.
So it was at Fochabers that this nostalgic experiment would begin and end. I’d opted for one of the aces from my riding repertoire — a 60-mile loop around Malt Whisky country with almost 4000 feet of ascent.
From The Square, I headed up the High Street and turned right at the chip shop, mouth watering, not at the thought of fried food but in anticipation of the climbs to come.
I rolled out through the village, struggling with the downtube shifters and double-checking I could definitely get into first gear — knowing from experience that I’d need it.
Onto the single-track road, I passed the start of the Moray Monster mountain bike trails. Reminiscences of my old Raleigh Magnum were blasted away by the short and sharp incline of Hunter's Brae — a rude awakening but a piddling prelude to what would follow.
A half-mile later and the road dropped sharply into a forested valley. A glance up and across
revealed the climb to Culfoldie (pronounced
Ca-fa-lay), a sliver of tarmac pointed inhumanely upward,
looking steeper than I feared and remembered. Culfoldie was my
childhood's Gavia, and I now know through experience that it's just
as steep (surely over 15%) as that Italian monster. Thankfully (or
sadly, as my teenage climbing-obsessed self had thought), it's not
nearly as long.
|Culfoldie - no compact|
I hit the valley floor, pleased the old brakes still worked, straight on to worrying about how I would cope without a compact and carrying an extra 6 kilos (the bike, not me) up the other side. Legs screamed in shock as my right hand fumbled for the gear lever, wishing I had something lower than a 39 x 25 to play with.
After half a mile of agony, I heaved passed the farmhouse at the top, relieved at not having heaved my breakfast up in the process.
The road I was following doubles as a section of the Speyside Way, a long-distance walking route from the Moray coast, inland to the edge of the Cairngorm Mountains. I passed a group of ramblers who'd stopped to admire the view, one of whom shouted, incredulous, “you didn't just cycle up that hill, did you?”
“Aye,” I managed in reply, still struggling to catch my breath.
Five miles later and the road plummeted down a corkscrew descent, round the corner to Boat o’ Brig and my first crossing of the River Spey. At the top of the next rise it was a left turn, before another rise and a descent into Rothes (home to five distilleries).
As usual I smelled the village well in advance — or rather the factory that turns whisky by-products into animal feed. In the past, I always knew the hunger knock was imminent if that odd aroma made my stomach rumble. This time there was no response but I munched down an energy bar, just to be safe.
|Ben Rinnes in the distance|
Out through Rothes, I followed the Spey's flow, swirling salmon pools clearly visible on my left-hand side. In terms of traffic that would be the busiest stretch on the route, a few miles shared with surprisingly courteous distillery lorries.
Just before the village of Craigellachie (another two distilleries), I took a right turn toward Archiestown. A narrow miss with a road-crossing red squirrel (whatever happened to The Tufty Club?) and I began to climb out of the valley.
This was another ascent I used to dream was longer, perhaps part of some Pyrenean pass I'd seen on TV. Not too far removed from that foreign reality, the road was steep and winding, gaps between the trees giving glimpses of the valley far below.
A new distraction came in place of the river: horizon half-filled by the snow-capped peak of 2759-foot Ben Rinnes, to which I was headed.
I distracted myself from thoughts of the mountain by recalling the slavering dog that once prowled
that stretch of road. Memory turned
to prediction when an angry mongrel appeared from out of nowhere.
Rather than attempt a race uphill, only to end up shoeless like David
in the movie American Flyers,
I skidded to a halt. Thankfully, the hound also skidded to a halt,
took my barked commands in good grace and trotted off to pee against
|Climbing out of Carron|
The left turn to Carron sent me onto a single-track splattered with farm debris. Another couple of miles and another left and it was onto a hair-pinned descent that I had always wished was longer.
In Carron I took a left before the mothballed Imperial Distillery, then another crossing of the Spey, passed another distillery and back to climbing. This one wasn't as steep as memory suggested (around 10%) but felt longer (it was about a mile). By the top I was relieved but aware that worse would follow.
|Ben Rinnes up close|
A left onto the main road to Aberlour (home of Walkers shortbread) then as quickly again it was a right onto the single-track toward Ben Rinnes. The Whisky Mountain, as it's known, loomed very, very large.
Right turns at each of the crossroads and, despite legs and lungs wishing otherwise, I grovelled persistent towards the Ben. I was back to first gear (had barely been out of it) reminding myself that, despite how it felt, I would skirt the mountain, not ride up it.
Atop the next rise, the icy wind blasted into my face, and then the subsequent rise didn't want to stop rising. Now I understood why some of the older guys in Elgin C.C., my former club, had detested this ride. I still like climbing but even I was having second thoughts.
I was cursing the mountain, the wind, my idea of riding a heavy old bike round such a route — and then came the top of the climb. Grimace turned to grin: I was keeping pace with my teenage self — just.
I plunged down the mountainside, clinging to the drops to stop the swirling wind from flinging me
off the road. Tyres still on tarmac, I
took a left for the descent into Dufftown. It was there, sometime in
the late Eighties, that I recorded my highest ever on-bike speed,
fluro-pink Avocet computer clocking 56 mph – aided by teenage
abandon and a hefty tailwind.
|Dufftown - whisky galore|
The older, wiser and slower me rolled into the town that produces more whisky than any other in Scotland, where I only had a thirst for electrolytic energy drink. I stopped and sat on a bench at base of the 19th century clock tower, (once a jail, now a tourist information centre) and soaked up some of the struggling sun’s rays.
I was about halfway round, worst of the climbing done, beginning to believe that my old Peugeot and I might make it home before sundown.
What goes down must go up, so I headed straight on through town, took the left fork toward Keith and was back to climbing.
The road was wider and less abrupt than my most recent ascent but long enough to leave me dreaming of lightweight frames and rigid rims. A short drop, then a climb past the castle at Drummuir, and I hit one of my all-time favourite stretches of road.
With the wind at my tail, I rode the six-mile rollercoaster, zooming round the bends, up and over undulating humps, happily in contact with the juvenile spirit of fun that cycling never fails to deliver.
The small town of Keith (three distilleries) arrived too soon. I ignored the café, keen to press on, aware that the skies ahead had turned an ominous shade of grey. A left toward Inverness and then it was another quick left toward Mulben.
Those foreboding skies then spilled their contents; the headwind drove sleet into my face. (Odd that so many of my cycling memories feature warmth and sunshine — perhaps I imagined it all?) After five miles of that joy, I passed the peaked pagoda roof of Glentauchers distillery and turned right for my day’s penultimate climb. It was no monster (a two-mile, roughly surfaced drag) but the cold, accumulated fatigue and the trials of my old bike added to the effort.
The sun was back by the time the road tilted downward and slung me on and through a crossroads.
Sticking with the single-track, I followed the
sign to Braes of Enzie for the final climb. Two miles of toil and the
hills were literally behind me (Ben Rinnes still looked immense
despite the distance). I now caught my first view of the sea, the
Moray coast stretched out below. No need for a map from here; head
toward the water and take a left when you get there.
|The last climb almost done|
I made full use of that 53-tooth chainring, half expecting to see teenage cycling buddy, Glenn, come whizzing by (I used to cheekily attribute his downhilling prowess to an excess of puppy-fat “ballast”). The two-mile descent swished and swooped onto the coastal plain’s fertile farmland.
|Costa del Portgordon|
Past the maltings (a factory that turns grain into malt for the distilleries), and I zipped down into Portgordon for that left turn. The sea and sky seemed impossibly blue, a stark contrast to the leaden heavens from which I had descended. The air smelled salty and fresh, turned my mind to fish and chips. Another energy bar from the back pocket and I joined the Moray Coastal Trail, headed west.
I passed close to Spey Bay, the village at the mouth of the river, once famous for its salmon nets and WWII fighter squadron (the poetically named Beaufighters), now better known as home of the Scottish Dolphin Centre, and a
|Pondering man, leaping salmon|
great location for spotting the bottlenose variety. Down the little hill by Bellie (site of a 1st century Roman marching camp) and I hit my last signpost. “Fochabers 2 miles,” it read. Almost home and nearing the end of a nostalgic journey — for me and my trusty (and a little rusty) old steed.
Check out the full route on Strava here.
Photos by Katja Rae-Hansen.