2022 Sisters in the Wild Gravel Camp Scotland: Event Recap
Earlier this summer, Sisters in the Wild collaborated with Annie Evans to host their first Gravel Camp. Twenty-five riders from across the UK and Europe came together for five days of riding, camping, and bikepacking in the Scottish Cairngorms. Find two perspectives and a beautiful gallery of photos here…
It’s only 10 a.m., but I feel like everything is going array. Our intended campsite is currently a field of long grass, the caterer is on the phone about some impending catastrophe, and our riders are battling with train strikes and might not all make it. Why on earth did I think I could help organise an event? I’d messaged Charlotte from Sisters in the Wild on a whim to say we should organise a trip up in Scotland, near where I live. Now, it’s six months later and that Instagram message had turned into real, actual people arriving and expecting a well-organised, fun weekend. At least the weather was looking good.
I really wanted to share the amazing landscape where I live. Although people tend to think of the Scottish Highlands as big and rugged with steep hills and rough trails, in Strathspey, we have lush rolling hills with beautiful old-growth forests and flowing clear streams feeding into sparkling lochs. It seemed to me like the perfect inclusive riding venue.
Late afternoon and we are swooshing along gravel tracks through the forest, the sound of chatting and giggling drifts from the group, and we stop for photos and to pick the odd blaeberry. It’s always the people who make an event, and we seemed to have the most amazing collection of interesting and inspiring women. I relaxed, knowing it was going to be a good few days.
We set out for our bikepacking overnighters with a fair amount of trepidation. Would the bags work? How long were the climbs? How hungry were the midges? Do you really poo in hole? With a mixture of experienced and new riders, questions were asked and answered from a variety of perspectives. I love that there is no one right way to do things in bikepacking. The value in having different riders sharing their learning is huge, and the supportive environment meant no questions were off limits.
I’ve come quite late to women’s-specific spaces. I never realised what I was missing out on until venturing into one. They are spaces that allow both the deepest conversations about life and love and everything in between, but also for silliness and joy, free of self-consciousness. Watching this amazing group of riders play, learn, and open up to each other over the course of five days was incredible, and it felt humbling to play some part in enabling it.
We ended the camp already planning next year’s reunion. Maybe next year, the farmer will remember we’re coming, and we’ll have a beautifully mowed meadow to camp on. Maybe the trains won’t be on strike, and maybe everything will go just as we planned. But then where’s the fun in that?
Words by Lisa Radell (Germany)
We were about halfway through our round of introductions when it dawned on me: “This is it. These are my people.” It had taken me a little over two years from getting my first gravel bike and going out on solo rides to finally feeling like I belonged – right here, in this circle of female bikepackers, in the middle of the Scottish Highlands.
I don’t really like calling myself a beginner because that implies that a) I’ve just started and b) I’m training to move past this stage. Well, I’ve been at this since the very first lockdown, and I’m not training to go anywhere.
I love being in nature, I love riding my bike, and I want to challenge myself with small bikepacking adventures. But my love came without chasing personal bests or QOMs and aiming to get faster and faster, and that concept had seemed quite foreign to most of the cyclists I’d met before. Hailing from the notoriously flat north of Germany, I’d been surrounded by roadies-turned-gravel bikers. I could never keep up with any of the group rides I joined. I would end up in the back of the pack alone, or with whoever was injured or recovering from sickness that day. But it was never about speed for me, so I resigned myself to riding as a party of one.
Until a well-targeted Instagram post and a very impulsive decision led me here, to this incredible group of like-minded women gathered by “Sisters in the Wild.” The introductions made clear that we were all very different and that we all had our stories to tell. Early 20s to early 50s, complete bikepacking newbie or Great Divide Mountain Bike Route finisher. But at the heart of it all, we were here to ride our bikes, enjoy nature, learn from each other, and have a good time.
And have a good time, we did. The same Scottish landscape that I’d hopelessly fallen in love with years ago really pulled out all the stops for us. The undulating hills! The magnificent heather! The crystal clear lochs! Thanks to Annie’s incredible route scouting (and some very good fortune in terms of the weather), our rides were nothing short of spectacular. Whether you chose the shorter or the longer routes, you could always count on some marvellous views, a decent technical challenge, and some very interesting conversation. Never before have I seen a group of people move so effortlessly from topics like sports bras and menstrual cups to career plans and mental health – and back.
Yes, I was usually towards the back, and yes, I pushed my bike more than I rode it on that one evil hill. But never once did anybody make me feel like I was not enough. We waited for each other to catch up to the group, we cheered for each other when we’d conquered a climb, we encouraged each other when we were facing a challenging descent. And all the while, our three lovely guides shared practical tips, general wisdom, and the incredible stories of how they got here.
I can honestly say I have never enjoyed a bike ride more than I have these five days of group rides with Sisters in the Wild. Forgotten were the annoyances of dragging my bike on a plane from Germany through a transport system that seemed designed to be inaccessible to bikes. Forgotten were the midge bites covering more and more of my body each day. This was pure joy on wheels, for days on end.
Looking back, this trip held a lot of firsts for me. Some practical ones: the first time taking my bike abroad (and praying that I’d be able to reassemble it). The first time wild camping. The first time riding Scottish “gravel,” which I’m 99% sure in Germany we’d just classify as “big fat rocks.”
Some light-hearted ones: like the first time I was instructed on how to dig a proper toilet hole or the first time I rode my bike in my underwear (the exact circumstances of which elude me now). But also the first time, I felt like there truly was room for me in this vast, intriguing cycling world, and that I was ok the way I was, slow climbing and all. I am so grateful that I got to spend these unforgettable days in the most amazing scenery with these truly inspiring women. That I got to share rides, laughs, cartwheels, and tears of joy with them. And above all, that I got to experience this overwhelming sense of community, camaraderie… and, well, sisterhood.
Words by Amrita Baines (London, UK)
Much of cycling for me is utter present momentness, in physical and spiritual union with the bicycle, the body and the ever-immersing landscapes. Seamlessly gliding along, looking down at the crank and watching the revolutions, it’s hard to believe those engines are your feet.
My engines usually carry me to work, or loops from South London, as a somewhat experienced road cyclist. However, the discovery of the Sisters in the Wild community has allowed me to taste a new version of freedom and motion.
Spending days powered by your own steam; a small dot of a human reduced by the vast scale of natural beauty. It provides so much perspective. Perspective of a world that is much bigger than the monologue running in one’s head, and the never-ending to-do list. I learnt so much from the generosity of spirit shared by the cyclists on that trip and I learnt just as much from the landscape itself.
Riding side by side with others, from different walks of life with different reasons for being there. It reminds you of many of the important lessons about humanity that we lose sight of during the daily balancing act. Yes, we can connect and relate to people who are different to us. Yes, we can fall off, and get back up. Yes, bravery and vulnerability cohabit. When cycling and camping in a setting that stretches far beyond what the naked eye can see, time bends to create more room for reflection and compassion.
Conversations of fitting in and belonging, something baked into the human condition. Yet here we are in this rich eco-system; in nature it all co-exists harmoniously in the knowledge that one cannot exist without the other and that they are perfect as they are. I wanted to be mad at the midges, but here I was on their turf. Offering up 170cm of uncured vegetarian flesh for them to devour. Riding between exposed tree roots or lashing through a clear water stream stills the mind to focus. The shifting between relaxed and tensed muscles is yoga. Other times, the flow state of peddling through shifting landscapes allows for a broader vantage point to reflect than I find in everyday life.
By day three, this vantage point was coupled with a really sore arse and the realisation that I haven’t cycled for more than three days in a row before. Being grumpy amongst the most breathtaking limestone hills and rich purple heather is such a juxtaposition that I really had to laugh at my own human frailty.
In bikepacking, traversing the varying terrain from uphill and downhill, you come to see that the beautiful and the painful are two sides of the same coin, just like the weather and the delicate balance of the eco-system. This is of course, all beyond one’s control, and you have to learn to accept that. My tired brain, high off nature, started to think. You churn up over that never-ending gravel, quads burning and shoulders aching, so you can squeal like a child on nature’s amphetamines down the descent. One minute you are seamlessly gliding, and without so much of a blink of an eye, you’ve flipped into a ditch wondering how you will ever get out. Intricately balancing just to stay afloat, laughing hysterically, or aching in pain with each pedal stroke. I began thinking about many of the ascents and descents that inevitably lie ahead for a meaningful life. There are times when you feel on top of the mountain. And times when you’re pulling out the grit. Perhaps we can cope with the strain, just like the trees and hills before us, and the trees and hills long after us too.
Next up for Sisters in the Wild
SITW are hosting the UK’s first bikepacking rally for women, non-binary, and trans people this October, taking on the East Devon Trail, followed by a Canary Island Gravel Camp in January. Sign up here for details.
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