A heavy downpour during the previous night had left the roads shiny and just a little damp. However although the clouds were low we were spared an early morning soaking. Once again we were prepared for a tough day, another big climb, another ski centre and more miles, all on legs that were a little sore from the previous day. The morning started with a pleasant ride on an almost deserted A93 through heavily wooded areas towards Balmoral. No, we didn’t catch site of any royalty and the signs warning motorists not to stop on the verge reminded me of the childhood holiday in Scotland where my father decided to ignore the advice, only to have a number of men run towards the car to ward us off (something to do with a range rover in a field, some dogs and a lady in a green jacket).
A short distance before Balmoral we turned northbound on the B976 towards Tomintoul. 2.5 miles later and 600 ft higher up we were perched at the edge of the moorlands, a stunning but somewhat bleak scenery.
The B976 stretches out into the distance and save for a single tourist bus and a couple of cars, it was our only companion for 5 miles. Having acquired all the height at the start of the road, the next 2.5 miles had us descend at a moderate pace to Garnshiel Lodge where we joined the A939 northbound. We were to stay on this road all the way over the Lecht ski resort and on to Tomintoul, however I don’t think we had planned to do quite as much climbing so early into the ride. Over the next four miles, the road climbs over 700 ft to a high point of 1800 ft. Fortunately the weather held long enough for us to reach the rather scenic highest point and grab a short rest. In true mountain style, the view back along the road we had climbed was spectacular and relatively sunny, but the view north to where we were to go looked less inviting.
We cycled approximately a quarter of a mile before the rain shower hit us which, when combined with the effortless descent, had us reaching for our waterproofs to remain warm. Onwards we passed what seemed to be the only tea shop for miles, opting to press on to Lecht where we would grab a drink and some warm food.
If your afraid of climbs on bike tours then this route probably won’t be at the top of your must-do list. After passing through Cock Bridge you are presented with a warning sign of 20% climbs. Most of the time these signs are a little pessimistic but I have to say that on this occasion the gradient certainly wasn’t far off. Over the next mile, the average gradient is 12% and at times reaches over 20% (the GPS readings indicate a steepest incline of 26%). Walking up here would be tough, cycling up here on a fully loaded touring bike is just plain painful. I’ll be completely honest and confess that I was cycling so slowly that whilst negotiating both hairpins, I wobbled into the gutter and fell off. At those points it is so steep that I could not start pedalling again without falling off again. So with a hint of resignation I pushed the bike the 10 or so yards around each bend until the gradient eased off enough to allow me to start pedalling again. By this time Madeline had already taken the option of walking the bike up the mile, an action that is unheard of for Madeline. I’m pretty sure that with just a little bit more control we could have cycled up the steepest sections but I was certainly glad to have a triple to help me up the slope.
Once the initial 20% climbs were over, the gradient flattened out for a short distance until we reached the start of another one mile stretch of steep road, with gradients ranging from 5% to 18%. Again this is a lung buster of a climb but with appropriate pacing it’s more than manageable. There was certainly no chance of falling off during this climb. Unfortunately the weather had really closed in so the views of the glens and the slopes were somewhat limited. Still, with only a short descent and ascent between ourselves and the ski centre we pressed on. Until this tour I had not visited a ski centre in the summer months and I have to say that my impression of them is that they aren’t pretty. The machinery that makes so much sense in the snow seems ugly when surrounded by the lush greenery that the slopes offer in the summer. However given the weather and climbing that we’d done, I forgave Lecht and settled down to a late lunch of fishcakes.
Exiting the ski centre we said ‘Hi’ to a pair of cyclists who had just completed the ride up. In fact I think the words I used were ‘Bitch of a climb isn’t it?’. For some reason we thought the cyclists were Dutch – if so, I’m sure I could have used stronger language to describe the fun they must have had getting up there! The ride into Tomintoul was fast, cold and wet. The lack of exertion coupled with a heavy and persistent drizzle meant that for the first time in the holiday we felt a little cold. With so much variation in weather from glen to glen, we thought that our luck had changed as the rain stopped. Ha! Just as the weather changed in our favour our second mechanical gremlin appeared. My left pedal had started to emit a rather worrying grating noise and it’s motion had become notchy. Being in the middle of nowhere there was no option but to press on the remaining 14 miles to Craigellachie where we could attempt any running repairs to the bikes.
The final leg of the day brought us into serious whiskey territory. Nestled in a amongst the rivers and countryside we passed the Glenlivet distillery and skirted by the Glenfiddich distillery. After the slog up Lecht, both Madeline and I were feeling somewhat tired and a combination of persistent drizzle, a stiffening breeze and some heavier traffic tested out resolve. Looking back on it, forgoing a warm cup of tea and slice of cake in Dufftown was the wrong decision, and it certainly made the last 5 miles of the day feel like 20.
Our accommodation for the evening was to be the Highlander Inn. Craigellachie is a very small place but it is served by a very fine pub/B&B. With over 250 different bottles of whiskey to choose from, if you like your single malts then you really do have to spend an evening at the Highlander Inn. In a piece of poor planning by myself, I’d not checked whether the Inn could store bikes. Whilst normally they would ask you to secure them around the back of the Inn in a public area, the proprietor of the Inn kindly let us pop them into his office for the night. In fact, I can’t any fault with our stay at the Inn – it was a great example of a B&B.
The prognosis for my bike was a little more worrying. As feared, the bearings in the pedal appeared to be suffering mechanical failure. Indeed, an inspection of the pedal showed that many of the little metal balls had disappeared. I don’t know where they went but I’m sure they are having a wonderful time rolling round the Scottish Highlands with their newly found freedom. Thanks to the wonders of technology we managed to track down three bicycle shops in Aviemore, our destination for tomorrow. The plan was set, we’d cycle to Aviemore, get the pedals replaced and just hope that the problem pedal would last the 50 or so miles required without leaving us stranded somewhere.