Encountering the Elements at Further Scotland
Marcus Nicolson braved the soggy conditions at the inaugural edition of Further Elements in Scotland last month, a 500-kilometer race around the unforgiving Highlands. Find his impressions from the experience paired with a moody image gallery from photographer Rupert Hartley here…
I approached the barman nervously. A wet pool of rain and mud surrounded the area where I’d sat down to eat my meal, and it was evident for all to see. The regular Friday night crowd in this Ballater hotel bar were in jovial spirits, well dressed, and eyed my soaking-wet condition with curiosity. Suspicious glances followed me as I waddled across the room to the bar. My question would only give them more cause for concern:
“I have a rather strange request. Do you have a stapler, by chance? I’m about to cycle through the night, and I don’t have any working zips on my jacket.”
In the next moment, with a hastily stapled together jacket, I was back out in the hotel foyer and pulling on my trusty dishwashing gloves. While other riders had opted for a short supermarket stop to minimise on time, I had promised myself a hot meal, and I wasn’t going back on that. In my brief stop, I had scoffed my large portion of fish and chips, sunk two cans of Coke, and was ready to take on the “unknown” section of hike-a-bike track that lay ahead. The rain was hammering down on the pavement outside, and the dark night did not feel particularly welcoming as I rolled out of town.
Leaving the town of Ballater, riders had covered over 180 kilometres of trails, river crossings, and deep bogs since setting off from the Corrour Estate earlier that morning in the Central Highlands. We were now deep into day one of the inaugural edition of Further Scotland, a new event in the Further series of bikepacking races set up by Camille McMillan.
Details of the route had been typically vague in the lead-up to the race departure. The only certainties were: 1) it was going to be wet, 2) we were likely to get cold, and 3) there would be plenty of hike-a-bike involved. An added twist to the proceedings was that riders could choose between tackling a shorter section of hike-a-bike or a longer road section near the royal estate of Balmoral. With the wet conditions making off-road riding slow and cumbersome, it was a tough choice to decide which option would prove the more strategic decision.
Camille had opted for the name “Elements” to describe this Scottish edition of the race, which took place over the last weekend in October. Yellow weather warnings had been issued for much of the east of Scotland, which is exactly where we were likely to spend the first day riding. Storm Babet had already left its mark on the Highlands the previous weekend. Fallen trees and high water levels made for some interesting river crossings and small route diversions around the circular loop. The track had been shortened to under 500 kilometres to account for the difficult weather conditions and storm damage. I later heard tales of a rider whose bike had been swept downstream in a particularly turbulent river crossing and had to rescue it from the torrent.
Camille insisted that riders test out their camping equipment by sleeping outside the night before the race start. Tents waved and warped in the strong wind gusts that hurtled alongside Scotland’s most remote railway station, Corrour. Those with bivvy bags sought shelter in the aptly named Duck Shed, where huddling together may have provided some extra heat. In the morning, riders made the most of the warm confines of the station house restaurant, eating double porridge portions and slurping big mugs of coffee until the very last moment.
Suddenly, the clock hit 10 a.m., and the race roll-out was on. Camille and the enthusiastic Station House staff hurtled along the gravel track in front of us in the back of a Land Rover truck, ensuring a neutralised start to the proceedings. It was wet and windy, but we were ready to go.
The first five hours of the race were incredibly fast. I had somehow established myself in a small group of riders pushing hard over smooth gravel tracks, quiet roads, and paths as we made our way towards the northern section of the route. A more technical singletrack section near the town of Aviemore divided the pack, and I was thankful for my choice of wide tyres and a squishy fork to tackle these sections with a bit more comfort. Off-road climbs, river crossings, and brutal headwind punctuated the afternoon as we slowly made our way east into the heart of the stormy weather.
As darkness began to fall on a gruelling day of pushing hard through soaking wet conditions, I had eventually hit tarmac again and was approaching the downhill section to Ballater. Suddenly, the track diverted off this smooth descent, and I was spit out on to spongey farm track that followed the river to town. It felt more like we were riding in the river than alongside, with water levels regularly going above knee height. River crossings earlier in the day had been tackled with trepidation and dry feet were a distant memory. Winter boots tend to hold water inside, and my feet were fully submerged in bog water for the duration of the ride. When I attempted to zip up my jacket, the zippers had come off in my hand. Both my rain jacket and vest were fully open, and water seeped down my neck and into my layers of clothing. The stapler trick did something to warn off the worst of the water for a few hours, at least.
At 3 a.m., with around 290 kilometres of the ride behind me, I decided to seek some shelter in the waiting room of a train station the route passed. As quickly as I could, I peeled off my soaked layers of clothing and pulled on the warm and dry kit that was stashed deep inside my saddlebag. I lay on my sleeping mat for two hours, drifting in and out of sleep, listening to the heavy showers clattering off the metal roof. While it may not have been the most restful sleep, it felt amazing to rest my legs for a short while and recalibrate my body for what lay ahead.
The rain hadn’t eased much by the early morning as riders covered quiet country backroads. Flooding on meant riders had to be wary of deep water that could prove treacherous if approached unexpectedly at speed. A sharp turn into a cow field and we began a section of Perthshire gravel hill climbs that led us west along the southern section of the route. The climbing gave way to spectacular views of the open countryside, and we passed a misty reservoir on our way back down the valley.
On one particularly steep grassy descent, I flew over the handlebars. It was a soft landing for me as I glided along the mud on my back. However, when I picked up my bike, I noticed that I’d snapped my rear brake lever. There was no choice but to ride the route’s remaining 100 kilometres with only a front brake. Far from ideal, but it would have to do. I tried my best to exercise a cautious approach as I traversed mountain bike trails that led down to the small village of Comrie, hopping over slippy logs and unclipping one foot on the tight corners that led down the hill.
After finding a cafe, I quickly ordered a breakfast roll, a much-needed coffee, and a cheese toastie that I strategically stuffed into the rear pocket of my jersey. The warmth from the toastie radiated through my body from my lower back and provided some motivation for getting over the hill to Killin and on to the final section of the route. Descending from Ben Lawers, one of the highest road climbs in Scotland, was an interesting experience with just one brake. Blind corners and plummeting temperatures also kept me on my toes as I weaved my way down the hill.
Next up was the Bridge of Balgie off-road climb and a long section of boggy doubletrack that also features on the Badger Divide and HT550 routes, skirting around Loch Rannoch. I’d been dreading this section, which was precluded by an extra section of boggy hiking thanks to storm damage on a bridge. By this point, I was feeling rather depleted of energy, and darkness was beginning to descend on the second day of riding.
While I may be somewhat biased, the Road to the Isles gravel climb that leads to Corrour station is one of my favourite bits of off-road riding in the world. Stags gathered and dotted the hillside as the sun went down on another long day of riding, and I made my way back along to the finish. The only noises to be heard were the grinding of my chain and the squealing of well-worn brake pads as I guided the bike along this final section.
Camille greeted finishing riders from his wooden shack by the side of the youth hostel, appropriately named “the bin shed.” He poured out generous measures of whisky to the tired and bedraggled finishers as they rolled in. At the head of the race, Neil Phillips and Laurens Ten Dam had battled it out consistently—without sleep—for the win but decided to finish together in a time of just under 27 hours.
Not all riders had sought to finish in the fastest time possible, with some making interesting bike and riding choices. Lee Craigie, Alice Lemkes, and Philippa Battye had taken on the route as a group ride, making frequent pub stops to keep things fun and boost morale before requesting to be disqualified from general classification at the end of the ride. Elsewhere, Mark Schmid completed the route on his trusty Brompton folding bike, an equally ridiculous and courageous feat.
As the finishers rolled back in to Corrour, we gathered around the fireplace in the station house, eating delicious meals, having a well-deserved beer, and sharing tales of the conditions and surprises we had faced along the route. I would like to extend a thanks to Camille for bringing us all together in this wild and wonderful part of the world. We were put through the elements in every sense, but we persevered and survived to tell the tale. The event could not have happened without the generous support and encouragement from the staff at the Corrour Station House who kept riders fed, watered, warm, and even provided showers at the finish line.
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