Learning To Mountain Bike | Wheels, Whisky, And Walking In The Scottish Highlands
We went to the top of Scotland for 48 hours of frantic outdoor exploration
I’m in the bathroom of a hotel in Fort William, looking at my tired face in the mirror. One eyelid is drooping low like the sad leaves of a dying houseplant. Do I need urgent medical attention? No, not quite. Am I drunk? Yes, very. Exiting the bathroom, with the sole intention of getting through the bar without incident and rejoining the other journalists at my table in the restaurant, I immediately bump into a familiar face; a face I know well, but one that I haven’t seen for a while.
“Hello Dad," I say.
“Mate, how’s it going?" says Dad.
“Dad," I say, “I’ll level with you...I’m quite drunk."
He laughs. “Come on then. Let’s get you home."
My adventure begins 24 hours earlier. It’s just after 9pm on a Wednesday night and I’m at London Euston, boarding the world famous Caledonian Sleeper train. I’m excited. I’m really excited. I have no idea what to expect, but this whole sleepover on a train idea has really fired up my imagination. When I see I’ve got my very own bedroom on the train, with a sink, and a bed, and more than one coat hanger, my enthusiasm for the set-up reaches new heights. I have never been so exhilarated by the prospect of falling asleep.
When I wake up over eight hours later, I’m well rested and confronted by some of the most beautiful scenery you could ever hope to see. I press my face up against the window as big rolling hills, dotted with stoic trees, compete for my attention. It’s rugged, it’s remote; it’s distinctly Scottish. And even though the weather is most definitely “taps oan", as the natives would say, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here. I feel like Harry Potter making his way to wizard school on the Hogwarts Express.
I’ve not travelled this far north, however, to play quidditch and study the finer points of magic. I’ve come here to drink whisky. Drink whisky and check out the mountain biking; specifically the mountain biking on offer at the Nevis Range Mountain Resort. I’m up here as a guest of No Fuss, the team responsible for the popular POC Scottish Mountain Bike Enduro Series, who once again have put together a cracking events calendar for the year ahead.
Because our usual mountain bike writer is out of action, on doctor’s orders, it’s fallen to me to step up and ride the trails in his place. Now, I can ride a bicycle...or at least I thought I could. Because the mountain biking I experience on my day in Fort William is unlike anything I’ve done previously. I soon realise that riding a bike down a normal hill and taking on an established World Cup venue are two very different things.
I stub my toe on a rock trying to make the first turn, I fall sideways onto a tree trying to make the second, at one point I get off my bike to walk down a treacherous looking bit and fall on my arse attempting the manoeuvre. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. During my first five minutes of downhill mountain biking at Fort William, I’m about as graceful as a swan that’s being dragged kicking and squawking to the chopping block.
If there is a silver lining, for my dignity if not my health, it’s that there’s a few other people in our party who aren’t very good at mountain biking either. After surviving the first trail, with no fatalities to report, our big group splits into two much smaller groups; with the people who know what they’re doing going one way and the people who sort of know what they’re doing but not really going the other. I go with the latter group.
I’m still the least talented mountain biker in our smaller group, but everyone is keen to give me some pointers and help me make it to the end of the day in one piece. To say I get the hang of it by close-of-play might be stretching it somewhat but I definitely feel myself improving. The secret to proper mountain biking, I discover, is simple: switch your brain off, and try not to think about how much it would hurt to faceplant the rocks and/or be stabbed in the heart by a tree.
We finish our day of mountain biking off with a “no pedal" race. It’s total chaos from start to finish, with people riding two abreast playfully elbowing each other out the way. And the biggest plot-twist of all... I win the race. No. Come on. Let’s be real. That’s not what happens. I cross the line in last place. But I have fun despite this, and that’s what counts right? Right?
"...as graceful as a swan that’s being dragged kicking and squawking to the chopping block."
My own incompetence aside, it’s clear the Nevis Range has the chops to please all different levels of mountain bike riders. Over 55km of green, blue, red, and black XC trails known as the Witch’s Trails, a 2.82km World Cup DH trail, and the only gondola uplift in the UK are just some of its numerous selling points. Plus, if you are as bad at mountain biking as me there’s the Nevis Range Bike School on hand to help. The school offers all-year round coaching on the Witch’s Trails, and summer tuition on the Downhill and Red Giant trails.
Later, that evening we’re treated to a three-course dinner and whisky tasting session at The Moorings Hotel. I lose count of the whisky tasters I try and, rather foolishly in hindsight, make no effort to write up notes on the different whiskies I sample and my feelings about them as we go. One thing everyone present enthusiastically agrees on though, is that whisky and mountain biking go together like Lennon and McCartney or, if we’re being Scottish about it, Reid and Reid from The Proclaimers. Individually, they’re decent. Together, they’re better.
When the final bottle is done and dusted, my tongue feels like an alien in its own mouth. I nod along in response to the variety of conversations going on around me, and begin sentences with no idea where they’re going or how to get them to their destination.
"When the final bottle is done and dusted, my tongue feels like an alien in its own mouth."
The whiskies that night, I discover later, were provided for us by The Gaelic Whiskies. Based on the Isle of Skye, and established by Gaelic language activist Sir Iain Noble in 1976, the company was setup to provide authentic whisky for the Gaelic-speaking islands of Scotland and is one of just a few independent businesses in the Scotch whisky industry.
Their whiskies are unchillfiltered, a rare choice in modern day whisky distilling and one that means the product is made using the same methods employed by the Gaels when they first invented Uisge Beathe (“water of life"). This approach supposedly means the whiskies have a smoother quality, not something one could say about my mountain biking technique.
Before setting off on my Fort William adventure, I’d phoned my Dad who lives on the Isle of Skye to see if there was any possibility of combining the trip with a visit to his place. I naively thought that the Isle of Skye was just up the road from Fort William but, as anybody’s who been to the sparsely populated Scottish Highlands will know, “just down the road" can actually be a three hour drive in these parts. Still, he kindly agreed to pick me up and that’s how we came to meet in the bar at the hotel. Him: sober, yet tired after a three hour drive. Me: drunk, with one eyelid drooping low. Father and son, reunited.
I pick up my bag, bid farewell to my restaurant companions while Dad downs an espresso, and hop into the passenger seat. Somehow, against all odds, I stay awake for the entire car journey...ensuring in the process that my Dad doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel and kill us both. I may be extremely drunk but it’s nice to know my survival instincts aren’t waving the white flag on me just yet.
We reach his house in Staffin, just north of Portree, in the early hours of Friday morning. The combination of the intense mountain biking and big whisky sesh in the last 12 hours has me absolutely wiped, and my head’s asleep before it’s even in the same room as my designated pillow.
The next morning, I awake with a compilation of aches lingering in my head and muscles. Sandwiched between my half-brothers on the sofa, I manage to regain some semblance of my humanity watching new episodes of Fireman Sam.
Of course when you find yourself on the Isle of Skye, a place with more spectacular landscapes than it knows what do with, it’s important not to spend too much time wallowing on the sofa watching Fireman Sam. The Isle of Skye is for the outdoorsy and, despite my hangover, I’m feeling surprisingly adventurous. Time to shake a leg and do something active.
“Fancy a walk?" says Dad.
“Yeah, let’s do it," I say (my eyelid now completely un-drooped).
We drive five minutes down the road to the iconic Quiraing landslip, and pick a craggy looking hiking line from where the car is parked to the ‘Prison’ rock formation about two miles or so away. The Prison is so named because, from certain angles at least, it looks like a medieval keep; the type of structure that wouldn’t look out of place on Game of Thrones.
We’ve barely been out the car for a minute and, such is the captivating nature of the scenery, I’m already in danger of burning through my entire memory card. Look North - take a photo. Look East - take a photo. Look South - take a photo. Look West - take a photo. And so on, and so forth. A more visually stunning UK destination, you’d be seriously hardpressed to find.
When walking on the remotest corners of the island, you get this feeling that you’ve travelled back through history to a time before people. It’s nature as it should be on the Isle of Skye. You can feel it in your heart, mind, and, in a peculiarly spiritual way, your soul. The anxieties of modern living that come with you simply fade into irrelevance here, scattered to the breeze on the back of those blustery Scottish winds.
Speaking of Scottish winds, upon reaching The Prison we find ourselves in a naturally formed wind tunnel that very nearly blows us off our feet. With one hand, I pin my bobble hat to my head. With the other, I desperately anchor myself to anything remotely heavy. The gale punches violently into the excesses of our coat, as we shout inaudible sentences between us. It’s a primal, brutal, show of natural force and only adds to the sense that the Isle of Skye is not of this world.
After taking some photos, we decide to minimise the risk of literally taking flight by evacuating the wind tunnel post-haste. Finding shelter beneath a ridge, that’s situated next to The Prison, the suddenness of the silence is the first thing we notice. The second thing we notice is the redness of our cheeks, and the feeling that we’ve been repeatedly slapped around the face. As casual morning walks go, it’s been surprisingly intense.
That afternoon, I bid farewell to Dad, his wife Esmilly, and my half-brothers. On the coach from Portree to Fort William, I look out the window for the entirety of the journey and soak up every last drop of the epic Highland views. My book sits idle on the empty seat next to me, untouched and unread, as the sun goes down.
Back aboard the Caledonian sleeper, I reflect on my day of mountain biking in the shadow of Ben Nevis. I think about whisky, about the Isle of Skye, and about those heart-melting Scottish landscapes blurring into one another like a panoramic photo that never seems to end. Sure, I might not be an expert mountain biker but there’s something about doing it in northern Scotland that feels right to me. Throw the area’s plethora of whisky options into the mix, and I’m happy to say it tastes right too.
Do It Yourself:
Caledonian Sleepers are overnight train services running between Scotland and London – getting you to your destination refreshed and ready to start your day.
• Sleeper Seats on Highland Route start at £40.00
• Standard Berths on Highland Route start at £85.00
• First Class Berths on Highland Route start at £135.00
To make a booking, or for more information, please visit www.sleeper.scot or call 0330 060 0500
The Gaelic Whiskies
The office and shop are located in the small harbour of Eilean Iarmain on the Isle of Skye. Pay them a visit and enjoy a free tasting of their award winning whiskies. Approximately four hours by road from Glasgow and Edinburgh, and around two hours from Inverness.
For more information on this whisky company, and details of its opening and closing times, pay a visit to www.gaelicwhisky.com.
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