There’s an old saying in the Barter household that goes something along the lines of “Dave you bleeding idiot what on earth do you think you are doing?”. It’s been wielded on many an occasion by blood relatives and friends accordingly and is usually responded to by me turning to face the orator, putting down the heavy power tool and shrugging. This phrase came to mind as I stood in the dark facing my car in a lonely Scottish car park whilst frantically pressing every combination of button upon a key fob. The screeching of the car alarm continued unabated threatening to expose my stealth camping spot and bring irate Scottish sleepers to the scene. A week before the independence vote was not a good time to be annoying the natives.
I’d never set the car alarm off before, truth be told I wasn’t even sure I had one but the deafening high pitched security announcement clearly confirmed its installation. Nissan’s manuals do not instruct the user to fling open the driver’s door and frantically press every button on the dashboard in the event of a false alarm. They should, as it worked. Peace reigned once again and I was able to return to my temporary bed in the back of the car.
This was Bryan’s fault. He’d posted an invitation to “The Shindig” upon the Bearbonesbikepacking forum. Bryan cordially invited those with a passing interest in bike packing to travel up to Scotland in September and undertake a leisurely weekend of mountain bike riding close to the West Highland Way. His post read as follows:-
It’s high time there was another less intimidating bikepacking event out there so we’re putting together “The Shindig” on Saturday the 13th September this year.
It’ll leave from Milngavie in Glasgow at 5pm and follow bits of the West Highland Way up as far as Inversnaid before heading for Aberfoyle and then (a) either north for a loop of around 35 miles up Glen Ample and Stank Glen for those wanting a longer run before returning to Aberfoyle or (b) back to Glasgow by a choice of either flat or hilly options…
Total distances still to be calculated but I reckon in the order of 70 miles for the short loop and a bit over 100 for the longer one. Both routes will feature some pretty fine single and double track with stunning views of the West Highlands.
The ride was to begin at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. With the Milngavie start a good six and a half hours drive from my front door. I decided to travel up the night before and kip in the car allowing me plenty of time to get my bike and kit setup prior to the off. Friday night on the M6 lived up to its usual expectations. I averaged 40 mph for the journey up to Gretna Green, got through 3 CDs of a French language course and wished that the British tectonic plate movements had taken a slightly different course with Scotland being located somewhere near Reading. At 11pm I’d had enough, a left turn at Gretna Green took me to an isolated estuary car park south of Annan. I set up my bivy gear in the back of the car, locked the doors and settled down for the night. It took about 30 seconds for the internal PIR sensors to detect heat movement (I blame the lamb and black pudding pie at Tebay) and trigger the alarm.
Fortunately the rest of the night passed without incident as did the remainder of the journey towards Milngavie (or Mullguy as it should *really* be called). I stopped on the way for breakfast at an anonymous service station along the M74. This prompted the mental penning of an angry letter to Trading Standards requesting that the “Hearty Full Breakfast” (£6.99 without tea) be renamed to the “Is that it?”.
1pm looked up from the clock face and spotted me faffing about with kit at the start of the West Highland Way. Soon after, other riders began to appear forming a “clutter” of bike packers as we pointed at each other’s kit, scratched chins, lifted bikes to test weight and each secretly wished that we’d packed the “thing” that another proudly produced from their luggage. There were about 15 of us gathered in Milngavie town centre sandwiched between the “Yes” and “No” campaigns and their last minute politicking. A fiddler appeared and began to fiddle heralding a mass decision that now was a good time to set off. Bryan signalled us onto the West Highland Way and the sociably paced ride of the Shindig had began.
Twenty minutes later I was covered in a thin film of moisture after my internal thermostat had instructed all pores to open and get this heat out! The clement weather was partly responsible but not as responsible as the pace which had tipped the ride-ometer somewhat in the direction of “tasty”. A group of us had set off quite keenly and, as befits male mountain bikers, not one of us was prepared to drag the needle back in the direction of “sociable”. I wasn’t complaining though, I loved it, hammering along a relatively quiet West Highland Way with pause only for the considerate passing of pedestrians. Additionally, the group worked a treat as we encountered gates. Etiquette appeared to dictate that the first arrival stop and hold open for the rest of the group. Each took their turn and as a result we flowed nicely along the trail. I managed to grab brief snatches of conversation, brief snatches of landscape and the occasional breath.
At Milton of Buchanan we hit the road for a short section and one of my most surreal cycling occasions to date. I found myself leading a mountain bike packing chain gang chasing down two road riders a few hundred yards ahead. After a decent turn on the front a thunderous din announced Paul passing me on his fat bike. Here I was in a chain gang of bike packers holding a wheel that would be more akin upon a tractor. Fortunately singletrack intervened and the roadies managed to escape.
The lower Loch Lomand section of the West Highland Way was everything a mountain bike ride should be. Six of us formed a group that flowed along the singletrack gently egging each other on. Each took their turn in every position, sometimes leading, sometimes hanging onto the back. The group split and reformed as hills or technical sections got in the way. At one point myself and Russell lost the group and worked together to recapture their tail nearly coming to grief at a steep man made bridge drop off that would only have been survived by excessive speed.
Our group was back together by Ptarmigan Lodge but our flow was gone as short sections of hike-a-bike liberated banter and swearing in equal measure. Somewhere near 5pm we emerged at a hotel and chatted to a couple of fellow bikers whose day was almost done. Their pints of iced cider gleamed in the evening sun, alcoholic sirens compelling us to stay and abandon our quest. Fortunately Bryan chivvied us onwards up the hill and into the restaurant at the Inversnaid bunkhouse for a well deserved meal stop.
I’d not planned to eat in a hostelry, my frame bag contained a packet of Ainsley Harriot’s finest Morrocan cous cous. Unfortunately the cous cous was not contained in the packet as poor packing had perforated the pissing packet (the bike packing five p’s). Therefore I was not adverse to a meal stop as it saved me the humiliation of having to empty my frame bag directly into my cooking pot.
Six sweaty messes sat down at the table and each ordered a pint of coke. This was delivered by the bunkhouse owner on a single tray in the form of two cans each. I’ve never seen so much coke in my life and a brief mental calculation showed that there was 408g of sugar about to be injected into this bunch, what would it do to the subsequent pace! We ate cheeseburgers and chatted. Raja joined us a short while later and was coerced into the obligatory two cans and cheeseburger by the rest of the group. Most of us departed into the fading light, heading east towards Loch Arklet Fraser’s riding day was at an end as he’d shrewdly booked a bed in the bunkhouse.
The ruddy evening light dressed Loch Arklet as a wild watery fiery princess forcing us to stop on a track above and unleash our cameras. Pools of helmet light began to frame my view after the sun finally dropped. Undulating track sped us on at a reasonable pace towards Aberfoyle. We met Jez and one other above Loch Ard. They’d found a lone picnic bench and were bedding down for the night with a fire and a few tins of beer. Their ride had certainly not been roses. A thief had broken into their van at Milngavie and triggered the alarm (or was it an idiot looking for somewhere to sleep). The police had been alerted and tracked them both down forcing a retreat back to the start. Admirably they’d saved the ride with a quick van journey to Aberfoyle and a ride back into the hills.
The temptation of the fire proved too much for Russell who announced that his day was ending here. Bryan, Alistair, James and myself pressed on to Aberfoyle and a planned beer purchase at the Co-op. The Co-op had other ideas and shut early for stock taking, a licensed chip shop took its place instead and provided four bottles of beer along with Ian and his excess of chips. Ian had ridden the Lakeland 200km off road route the day previously in a time of 27 hours. During that period he’d had more limbs than hours of sleep yet had still managed to make his way to Aberfoyle and join the ride.
The five of us ground our way up the steady climbs out of Aberfoyle onto the planned bivy spot overlooking Loch Drunkie Bryan knew this place and it was an excellent choice, a relatively flat clearing, nicely isolated yet big enough for a decent number of bivys. The hard peg bending ground and reasonable temperature quickly encouraged me to forget the erection of my lightweight tent. Raja joined us a few minutes later and we bedded down for the night. I managed a fitful night’s sleep in a bag on a sleeping mat only disturbed by the excess of caffeine from the two cans of coke.
I’d set my alarm for 6.30am as remainder of Bryan’s route required seventy miles of pedalling. I needed to be back at the car at a reasonable hour in order to get some of the drive home done in daylight.
At 6.31 I dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and noticed Raja was awake as well.
At 6.35 I was rummaging for porridge and stove in my frame bag.
At 6.36 Raja was off.
He’d clearly stopped time, packed up his tent, dressed himself, eaten, loaded his bike and then restarted time again. I’ve never known anyone get ready so quick. I bade farewells and left the others somewhere around 7.15 am and made my way onto the northern loop, travelling clockwise.
The riding was straightforward all the way to Strathyre a mixture of easy track, road and nicely surfaced cycle path. The village shop owner in Strathyre took my money in exchange for a macaroni cheese pie some oat flips and a disdainful look before un-merrily wishing me on my way. Things got a bit more interesting climbing out of Strathyre on some singletrack and then a bit more tiring after a huge doubletrack climb through the Strathyre Forest. Eventually I turned south and followed tracks into Glen Ample meeting Raja coming the other way.
I hadn’t thought to check with Bryan which way the loop was to be ridden and in true Barter style I’d gone the wrong way. Raja reassured me that this wasn’t a problem as the Glen “went” in either direction. So I got on with the business of some proper offroading including a chocolate right foot at a mistimed stream crossing. A decent period of climbing elevated me away from Glenample where I spied three riders huddled around a bike. This was James, Ian and Bryan. James had punctured and dented his rim crossing a water break, I provided pliers and oat flips to aid with the repair then made my excuses as the clock was ticking on. More tracks and a little more climbing saw me climb out of the glen and dash down through forest back to the cycle track traversed in a northerly direction earlier.
A while later I found Jez climbing towards Aberfoyle. We chatted about bikes, magazines, the CTC and bike packing in general until Jez decided to take a breather. I pressed on lost in my thoughts. A random fragment of our conversation had triggered a lot of introspection which was amplified further at a short rest stop where I murdered the macaroni cheese pie. I looked back to the Welsh Ride Thing event four months earlier. This had propelled me into bike packing. Barely a month later I was having a go at the Highland Trail, a few weeks after that a Welsh coast to coast followed by a ridiculous thrutch through Wessex after a night sleeping with cows. This is where I belonged. Out in the British countryside, slightly uncomfortable, cursing occasionally, fairly ripe smelling and slap bang in the middle of adventure.
The ride back to the start underpinned this. I had no idea where Bryan’s route was going to take me, I’d not even looked at the map. I blindly followed the GPS trail through woods, along roads, up hills, onto singletrack and at one point through the middle of a huge private estate. Any pain or discomfort was lost in the sense of belonging liberated from my macaroni cheese pie revelation. I don’t quite look right in a Velodrome, would be ordered off a downhill course in the name of health and safety and am far too impetuous for a road race. But out here where it’s all a little bit strange, I fit in quite nicely.
Somewhere near 3pm I rolled off the West Highland Way and into Milngavie. I packed my kit away then turned and saluted the Shindig. Bryan’s event had cemented memories for years to come along with reaffirming my desire to adventure further into the wilds with the bike and a macaroni cheese pie for company.