Day Ten: Aberfeldy to Spean Bridge

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Monday morning, and rather than mounds of email I had real mountains to get over. This was the start I was most concerned about, opening with a 1000ft climb from Aberfeldy, all of which was immediately spent downhill to the foot of a second climb of similar stature, before another descent to a third.

Part way through yesterday’s ride, as we worked steadily up from Glendevon to the top of the mountain pass above Aberfeldy I started to fall in love with riding in the Scottish hills and, foolishly, to allow myself to imagine that all our ups would have similar profiles. This morning, with a head full of fresh air, I could feel those three sharp peaks jabbing away at my confidence as we left Aberfeldy. These were no gradual 10-mile ascents, instead they were Devon-style climbs at solid 8-10% gradients but rising to three times the height of our home hills.

It’s hard to say what we would have made of them two weeks ago, but this morning we picked our way up steadily, Tom moving ahead with his distinctive in and out of the saddle style. Climbing hills like these always seems revelatory. No matter how confident I am on approach, for the first 50 metres it seems barely possible that anyone could drag themselves up and over, particularly looking up as the road rises and twists, then the slow rhythm takes over and I’m alone with my breathing and on and on the bike and I go.

Today, working hard for 20 minutes at a time, then spending all that height in giddy 4 minute descents, was wonderful, almost ecstatic in its effect. It felt like this could go on for ever, as if my body itself was gaining and losing energy whilst climbing and falling.

We stopped at 1400 feet and, as Tom urged me to take in the silence, we heard his parent’s car ascending the mountain behind us. Riding into these hills, their enduring mystery and appeal seems much more apparent. It also seems immediately clear why they’re called The Highlands. These aren’t just scattered peaks rising throughout the landscape, as they might seem when viewed from a car. They are an entire kingdom hidden away at 1000ft, complete with forests, lakes and rivers. It felt like we’d earned our entrance this morning.

Rob joined us for the rather less picturesque ride along the A9. Tom opted out and hopped onto the nearby cycle track to Dalwhinnie. Unfortunately it seemed to run directly alongside the busy dual carriageway, but with a much worse surface. It rained, lorries went by, we got through it. We stopped at a pottery for tea and cake and then pushed hard along the banks of Loch Laggan, losing Tom for a spell along the way as he chose to take a break and read his book by the river. Flattish riding isn’t Tom’s thing. Whereas in the Tour De France it tends to be the mountains that break the time-trialists, for Tom I think it would be the other way round. The monotony seems to frustrate him.

Tomorrow we’ll be riding along the Great Glen, taking in the whole of Loch’s Lochie and Ness. It’s the longest day of the ride at 95 miles. We can sense the end of the road around the bend and over the hill, but Day Eleven feels like a significant hurdle on the way to reaching it.

804 miles down.

P.S. Pop fans! Spent all day thinking about Aberfeldy, the Edinburgh band named after yesterday’s stop-off point, who unexpectedly, for me at least, topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty about 10 years ago. Just looked them up. Turns out I was thinking of Melys.

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