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Underbiking Scotland: An Adventure in Adaptability

Join Tara as she takes on Scotland's Great North Trail, embracing the art of underbiking with her trusty Thorn Nomad. Discover through her eyes how the wrong bike becomes the perfect ally in exploring the rugged beauty of the Scottish wilderness.

Underbiking Scotland: An Adventure in Adaptability

Bikepacking is as much a language as it is an activity. We bikepackers have this habit of combining words to create non-words that best describe a niche within our niche. People who go bikepacking with their dogs, for example, are “dogpacking,” or those who ride with baskets on the front are “basketpacking.” My current favourite, however, is the term “underbiking.” Perhaps the best description of the activity can be found in the article “On Underbiking” from The Cycling Independent. Underbiking is the cycling equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight. Or as my friend says, 'bringing a butter knife to a knife fight'.

In a nutshell, you underbike when you show up with a bike not quite fit for the job. I can assure you though when I underbike, I do so responsibly. I wouldn't line up at the start of the Tour Divide with a road bike, for example. Even with the “wrong” bike I likely won't get stranded - I'll just probably be a lot slower and a lot less comfortable than someone with the “right” bike. In the spring of 2023, I decided to dive into this brave new world of underbiking on the 500 km Scottish section of the Great North Trail, also known as the An Turas Mor route.

For the ride, I brought along my British 2011 Thorn Nomad Mk2 - a very reliable (and my only) bike. I have ridden my Nomad on many rough roads and tracks around the world since 2011 for a little over 40,000km though twenty something countries. It is rigid, has 26” wheels, 2.25” Schwalbe tires and good ol' classic v-brakes. The Scottish section of the Great North Trail is marketed as more of a mountain bike route with rough, rocky sections. One of its bigger challenges was often the weather - rain, wind and lots of exposure in the Scottish Highlands. The “ideal” bike for this route would likely have larger tires, disc brakes and even front suspension. Everyone knows that v-brakes don't work well in the rain, but from experience, I knew I could keep it slow, which is ok.. I was also carrying a heavier load. I preferred to sacrifice speed for some extra comfort.

I knew that this ride would push me - there was no doubt about that. But I have walked (or I guess, pedaled) that line before. I recalled one day in Central Mongolia in May 2015, where I was pushing through sand and into a headwind for hours with the same bike. At the time, I wasn't cursing my choice of bike. In my mind, that was the reality of cycling in a remote desert at the windiest time of year. So, I put my head down and got to work. But not everyday was a grind - many calm and beautiful afternoons followed. I had the same attitude about Scotland - some days would probably test me, but I would manage with what I had. Also, I was too cheap and afraid of change. My bike had already proved itself for reliability and the cost of a new one was essentially the cost of several multi-month trips. On the Great North Trail, I figured that I would get by - just. Riding out of Glasgow, I was overloaded and underpowered, but confident.

Fat Bike Envy

The first few days on the Great North trail were relatively straight forward and not all that thrilling - easy gravel through the woods or smooth singletrack following rivers. At the time, I thought for sure that I had the best bike for the job. When I reached Killin, I stopped at a cafe for the mandatory coffee and cake break - a staple of bikepacking in the UK. There, I met a few hikers along with an older gentleman named Russell riding a fat bike. Right away, I thought it was overkill - why would you need a fat bike for a trail like this? I thought. He eventually left, giant tires rolling along the pavement. Little did I know, I would soon be eating my words.

I pedaled toward Glen Lyon pass. The climb topped out at a picture postcard scene of what I imagined Scotland to be. Brown and golden moorland streaked with slivers of sunlight. Stark, open, spectacular. A really fast downhill along a river eventually brought me to Glen Lyon Tea Rooms - once again, it was coffee and cake time. The UK was magic that way, you would seemingly be in the middle of nowhere and then an adorable cafe would appear. Russell, the fat biker, was sitting there, having a scone and tea. I ordered a slice of orange polenta cake and a Scottish tea. After chatting for a bit, we decided to ride together. When we left the cafe, the real work began - at least for me.

Leaving Glen Lyon Tea Rooms, we started to see bikepackers in droves and almost all of them had mountain bikes and next to no luggage - it looked like they were set up for an overnight trip or race. I felt like I was packing twice as heavy. This was a bit worrying.

The next pass was super steep and I got off a few times to push. A lightly loaded bikepacker whizzed past and Russell was already way ahead. The trail got rockier and rockier, dipping into small streams full of large rocks that I had to get off and push over every time. Russell was gliding over all of it no worries - I think he was winning with his choice of bike. The climb topped out at another surreal sort of “moonscape” but with maroon-coloured scrub and patches of bright purple heather. I eventually caught up to Russell further down the road. I was exhausted after lots of pushing, but I made it. We decided to camp together. Russell had traveled to and guided in sixty something countries, but the entire 1188 km Great North Trail through both England and Scotland was his first off-road bike trip. We decided to keep riding together - even though “together” often meant a distance of a few kilometers apart.

The route continued along rough, rocky doubletrack. It was rough enough to once again slow me down dramatically. I eventually caught up to Russell and the terrain wasn't being kind to him either. The braze-on for his rear rack had broken, ripping a hole in the frame in the process. I gave him my spare rubber straps to hold it all together until we reached Rannoch Moor Station a few hours later. After the usual coffee and cake stop, he managed to reposition the rack to a different mounting point and figured that it would hold the rest of the way. Onwards we went.

While Russell carried on kilometres ahead, I would rattle along slowly behind. There were no expectations, no stress and we enjoyed one another's company when we happened to meet up. But I was envious of his giant rubber pillows for tires. It took mechanical trouble or an extra long tea break for me to catch up. I was only able to pass him on longer pavement stretches - for once I didn't feel like I was “underbiking” and perhaps I could accuse my new friend of “overbiking” with his extra fat tires. This never lasted long though and we were soon back on the trail with my comrade miles ahead. Russell told me that he didn't mind waiting, even though I never expected him to. My own lack of proper bike choice was apparently having a positive ripple effect. He told me that he enjoyed slowing down and savouring the trail a bit more, especially after the tougher southern sections through England. No matter the steed either of us was riding - it turned out that neither of us were in a rush. There was just so much to slow down and admire. Eventually, however, the idyll came to a bit of a pause -at least for me - once we hit the crux of the ride - the Corrieyairack Pass.

Into the Mist

At the start of the climb, a power line formed a spine along the brownish green hills, obscured in a chilly mix of rain, mist and fog. Russell told me that the Scots had a word for this type of weather - dricht. Eventually Russell disappeared ahead of me, swallowed by the fog. The trail was rocky and painfully slow. This climb was really meant for mountain bikes, wider tires or perhaps a more skilled rider taking the underbiking approach. I was wet, cold and dragging a heavy body while I pushed the bike up. But as I learned from years of challenging pursuits, I didn't let these physical sensations overtake me. A younger, newer-to-adventure version of me would have become overwhelmed, flooding my thoughts with self-criticism of my own ineptitude. Instead, I allowed myself to feel, but not let it become me. Yes, it's cold. It's wet. The trail is rough. I'm slow, but who cares. Keep moving - it's the only option to stay warm. Eventually, the fog spat out Russell again in the distance. I slowly caught up to him, taking a break on the trail.

“Cup of tea?” He asked.

He already had a pot full of boiling water prepared, with some mint tea steeping.Soon, I had a warm cup in my hands and I briefly drifted away from the cold, the drizzle and the fatigue. After the brief stop, we pressed onwards towards the summit. “Let's get to Fort Augustus,” Russell said. I continued forward, mostly pushing over the rocky trail and Russell once again disappeared into the mist.

When I finally got to the top of the climb - I was relieved… sort of. Great mountaineers say that getting to the summit is half the battle - you still have to get down. For most in this situation with the right bike - the downhill is no battle - it's a reward. Unfortunately, I was equipped with v-brakes that are notoriously terrible in the rain. I couldn't say that I didn't do it to myself. I am also a chicken when it comes to steep, rougher downhills. It must have been hilarious to watch me rolling down - 50m at a time, then screeech, another 50m, screeech. During that time, several lightly loaded rigs ripped past me, having the time of their lives. I wasn't necessarily having a bad time - just not the best and it was slow going. I was eager to get to Fort Augustus, home of the fabled Loch Ness monster.

Rolling into town was a bit of a shock - the famed Loch Ness obviously brought in the crowds. I eventually found Russell. I was amazed that he was still there after what felt like an eternity for me on the trail. He seemed happy to wait around and was ready for his second lunch when I arrived, after polishing off some fish and chips. We hung out at a coffee shop for a bit, while I crushed a few homemade biscuits with jam. I thought again that maybe this 'underbiking' thing wasn't so bad. We decided to continue on together. “As the saying goes - a good fish and a good friend smell after three days,” Russell said, “But this seems to be working.”

The Lighthouse

After the Corrieyairack Pass, everything felt easier, even though I didn't get any faster. A few days later Russell and I ended up splitting up. All of the wet riding was wreaking havoc on my feet. Days of cold and wet footwear led to some swollen and itchy toes, which required some treatment and a day off. Back on the road, I had a few wonderfully sunny days, descending to rich blue lochs speckled with bright yellow gorse shrubs along the shores. Then, I pedaled through narrow river valleys, with green and brown hills rising steeply like tidal waves. Next were impressive boulder fields - this was a remarkable route. I soon reached Durness and after a short ferry crossing, I was ready for the final stretch to the iconic Cape Wrath Lighthouse.

The ride was a bit of a slog - within an hour it went from sunny skies to light rain, fog and a fierce headwind. I ended up meeting Russell on the way in, riding with a friend who had come out to meet him for the final stretch. We said our final goodbyes. I arrived at the Cape Wrath lighthouse, took a photo and went for a hot drink at the very remote Ozone Cafe. The UK is really amazing this way - if you are brave enough to reach the back of beyond, there will be a cafe to reward you for your efforts . It was cold inside, with the constant sound of the wind slapping against the building. There was a tiny snack bar and some drip coffee. I didn't linger too long as I couldn't get properly warm. I stuffed myself with a few pastries and started the ride to Kearvaig Bothy situated on a spectacular bay, where I would spend two nights.

Scottish bothies are like mountain huts for hikers and cyclists and Kearvaig Bothy was an absolute dream. I had one entire side to myself complete with a fireplace and several bunks. Over the two days spent there, hiding out from the elements, I had some time to reflect on my own journey. I had survived my great Scottish underbiking adventure. But honestly, the idea of 'underbiking' is relative. Some friends of mine, Marcus Mumford and Kirsty McGaul, a couple from England cycled over 47,000km around the world in 46 countries on a tandem bike. In some situations, they were much more brazen underbikers than me.

“There were times when our brakes didn't work in the rain and I had to try to put my feet down to stop!” My friend Marcus said, “Nobody died though.”

An Ode to Underbikers

Well, I guess I could say that I survived my Scottish underbiking expedition. In a way, there was something sort of fun about using the “wrong bike.” I almost felt like a mischievous child purposely trying to disobey their parents, shouting out “I'll do what I want!” Sure, there were some very difficult times, but now, I look back at them fondly as I got through them. In short, I would do it again. I also really enjoyed riding and camping with Russell. Fat tires or thin tires, we both got to the same places, just not at the same speed. For future rides, I will only get a new bike if I really need to - a route with deep sand like the Baja Divide, for example. In the end, it isn't just about the bike, but the attitude and experience of the rider So, go with what you've got - chances are it's good enough.

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