Phil Simcock took part in the Cairngorms Loop event and tackled the wintery conditions…in spring.
I didn’t expect that the Strathpuffer was going to be the perfect cold weather preparation for this race. Surely it was going to be short sleeves, suntan cream and tan lines – after all it was northern Scotland in the spring.
This was the Cairngorm Loop 2015 on the Spring Bank Holiday. The weather report was dry and calm on the Saturday with a nasty storm from the south hitting about midnight bringing sub-zero temperatures, gale force winds and snow. As I said, not what I was expecting!
The race consisted of 185 miles of off-road riding taking in a couple of loops around the national park. My race strategy was to ride as hard as I could on Saturday and get as much done before the storm hit and then see what happens. I decided to carry minimal gear but enough to survive if I was forced to stop. I also had an eye on Aidan Harding’s 2011 record, which still stood at 22hrs 30minutes.
Thirty people had signed up for the event but only twelve or so were now standing on the start line. Had the others made the right decision because of the weather?
We all set off and following a quick chat with fellow riders Alan Goldsmith and Greg May, I pushed on. The need to get some early fast miles in precluded any chit chat! The first section up to Glenmore Lodge was a bit lumpy but fast. No major climbs or technical sections to slow you down apart from a few river crossings. What to wear for this race had been a real dilemma and I don’t mean the colour of my top!
The good weather a few weeks earlier had meant my winter riding gear had been pushed to the back of the cupboard and forgot about. It seemed wrong to be pulling it back out again but I knew I needed to keep warm and protected. I would probably overheat during the day on Saturday but be thankful of it through the night. I also decided to wear my winter boots. There are numerous river crossings on the route, so by being careful I planned to keep my feet as dry as possible for as long as possible.
The first big climb and the highest point on the route is up and over Lairig an Laoigh. Snow was expected but no-one knew what the conditions would be like. The snow line was much higher than I had expected but the climb was still tough. My legs didn’t feel great and I was pushing more than I would have liked, which wasn’t a good sign for the first major climb.
As I reached the summit there was a lot of snow, which had mainly drifted into the track making the going slow. This was frustrating as it meant you were continuously on and off the bike. From the summit right through to the Fords of Avon it was tough going. Pockets of snow or too many boulders maintained the frustration and I found myself getting angry as I felt I was wasting good daylight and dry weather. After too long, I managed to reach rideable track and pressed on.
Aidan had completed the inner loop in about 10 and a half hours and I was on target to achieve this but was sure the slow going over the tops would have affected my overall pace. The remainder of the inner loop was mainly rideable and fast tracks. I had never ridden in the Cairngorms before but anticipated the views to be breathtaking. I wasn’t disappointed! I would have to come back here and savour the landscape when I had more time on my hands – I think I said the same about the Highland Trail last year.
I completed the inner loop quicker than expected and surprisingly found that I was 52 minutes up on Aidan’s time. I would need this cushion with the impending storm heading my way.
The outer loop heads north and east past Aviemore on a mixture of road and trail heading towards Tomintoul. I hoped to get there before the storm hit but didn’t quite make it – as night fell the wind picked up, the cloud lowered and the temperature dropped. I hadn’t stopped since the beginning of the race over twelve hours ago. The plan was not to stop, whatever the weather, so as the rain and sleet hit I quickly put on my waterproof shorts and coat, changed into winter gloves and cracked on.
Heading into the storm didn’t feel too bad but as soon as I turned south out of Tomintoul and into the direction of the wind, my pace dropped dramatically. The sleet turned to snow and the winds were strong – gale force at times depending on my location. I was in for a tough night.
I broke the rest of the race down into small chunks and just concentrated on grinding out the miles. At times the wind was unbearable whenever I was in an exposed section, but there was respite every now and again when the route deviated from a southerly direction. The temperature was low, not quite sure how low, but I knew I could cope with it with the clothes I was wearing. The wind chill made things colder than expected and I knew if I had to stop for any period of time that I would cool down very quickly. I had a lightweight down jacket with me in case of an emergency but really didn’t want to test whether it would be sufficient.
It was now the middle of the night, pitch black and no-one else around for miles. With the storm raging around me I felt very exposed. More so than I had been on any previous adventure. However, I was confident in my ability to cope with the conditions, so pushed any dark thoughts to the back of my head and kept riding as hard as I could. As I passed through Braemar there was not a soul to be seen – everyone was wisely tucked up in their warm beds.
The following trail and climbs are now a bit of a blur but as I pushed on and the snow started to settle on the ground, the wind did ease for a short time. There were numerous river crossings on the route and it was only now that my winter boots started to fail, and my feet became sodden and numb. They had held out longer than I thought, which I was thankful for.
I completed the northern part of the outer loop and passed the junction with the inner loop that I had followed over twelve hours before. All I now had to do was complete the loop back to the start. From recollection of the route profile, I knew there were some big climbs in the last thirty miles, so the run in wasn’t going to be easy.
As the light slowly started to filter in, a sense of relief that I had made it through the night during a heavy storm gave me a boost. At this point there was some amazing sections of singletrack, which were a welcome treat and I had just enough energy and enthusiasm to enjoy it. This was then rudely interrupted but a fierce section of hike a bike up to Glen Tilt. I wasn’t expecting it and it wasn’t welcome – although it did warm my feet up which was appreciated.
The next twenty miles were tough. I had been riding for near twenty hours and this punishment had taken its toll on my body. My legs screamed on every climb and my energy levels were low. I couldn’t face any more energy food and wanted something savoury, which I didn’t have. The high winds and snow had returned and my slow pace meant I wasn’t burning enough energy to keep me warm. I then reminded myself that it doesn’t matter about the conditions or the route at this stage in an endurance race. You always feel rubbish towards the end and you just need to push through it. It will end soon and you’ll quickly forget the bad bits and just remember what you’ve accomplished.
At this point I checked the time and although I was ahead of Aidan’s time, minutes were ticking away and I didn’t know how many climbs were left. Each climb I did was slower than the last. Then finally the track started to go down and continued to go down. I was flying and enjoying the speed that had escaped me for many hours. I continued downwards and then saw Blair Atholl through the trees. I had done it. I rode through the town, found the train station and checked the time when I found the station clock.
I had completed the route in 21 hours 38 minutes – a new record! All the hours of hard training through the winter had paid off.
Thanks to Steve Wilkinson for a great route. If you like long distance rides, then this should be up there on your ‘To Do’ list. Just keep an eye on the weather report!
Thanks as usual to Team JMC and USE Exposure for their unwavering support. Thanks to my family for dropping me off and picking me up and also a big thanks to the Blair Atholl Hotel for letting me sit in their lounge after the ride and filling me up with tea and bacon sandwiches.