Badger Divide day 1
By JRtB, September 2021
Contact us on social media @justridethebike
The Badger Divide is a long way. A gravel bike (or MTB) ride across the Scottish Highlands, from Inverness to Glasgow. It was fantastic, awful, beautiful, terrible, and everything in between. This is JRtB's version of events.
Route name: Badger Divide
Route: Inverness to Glasgow
Distance: c. 340km/ 211m (depending on where you stay etc)
Travel overall: Home to Kemble station. Train from Kemble to Paddington. Ride across London; from Paddington to Euston. Caledonian Sleeper; London Euston direct to Inverness OR
Drive to Bristol Airport; fly from Bristol to Inverness.
Cycle from Inverness to Glasgow
Hire van to drive home from Glasgow.
Things to think about: Travelling with loaded bikes. Accommodation, eating.
DAY 1: Inverness to Laggan
The Badger Divide is a fantastic challenge: an off road journey from Inverness to Glasgow that has epic views, testing climbs, varying surfaces and fast, technical descents. It’s not to be taken lightly. And let’s be clear, there is going to be a lot of ‘if we did this again,’ going on in this review. If you’re reading this with a mind to riding it yourself, then the best advice is to not do what we did at certain points. There are a few things, big and small, that we would change; and that would make the Badger Divide a) more enjoyable b) less stressful c) cheaper.
So, take a seat, clip in and see what you think of how we rode the Badger.
Two of us chose the experience of the Caledonia Sleeper. It is a splendid achievement. Jump on, put the bikes in decent bike racks (unlike Great Western train to London – appalling), find our rooms following advice from really helpful staff. Dump our bags and head off to the dining car for some drinks. Best advice for all train travel is ‘The man in Seat 61’. You can access the dining car if you have a room; it’s not accessible for people who book a single seat, which is only because they ask you for your room number. The romance of sleeping through the night, to wake up with the train whizzing through the Highlands, is a strong one. It’s therefore beyond disappointing to find out that the view from your window is grey cloud; that the train arrives over half an hour before expected, so most of the time is spent trying to pack your gear into tiny bags, in a ridiculously small space; and that it costs about three times more than flying (not that we justify flying on a sustainability basis). To cap it all, it was drizzling as we disembarked.
Waiting at Inverness station for our third compatriot (who took a flight from Bristol), the drizzle was getting heavier, and the grey skies seemed never-ending. Eventually R arrived, looking far more rested and ready than the two weary train travellers. Typically he’d already had breakfast, the reason we were waiting for him. So we grabbed something at the café in the station, and finally headed out. This was a false start though, as we rode to the Flora Macdonald statue, the official start of the Badger Divide. If you’re going to make all this effort, we said, we might as well do it properly. Even by this point, there was some hope for improvement, as the skies were looking lighter with a distant view of some sun. Very quickly, we were off road, and along the river side; the River Ness flows south from the city. Crossing the beautiful bridges across the river islands was an incredible way to leave the city and primed us in no way whatsoever for what was coming that day. Still, at the time we were optimistic, and excited to finally be underway after months of planning, 18hrs of travelling and a shed-load of faffing.
The first climb of the day was tackled at, frankly, a colossal speed. There was no way this was sustainable over the next seven climbs, let alone four days. Fortunately, the pace setter saw it this way as well. After negotiating a busy building site, and a group of Scouts wild camping, our ride slowly transitioned into what felt much more like ‘The Trail.’
The trail is that mythical travel route, never near built-up areas, never busy, always rideable, that stretches off into the distance, and takes us to new horizons. Certainly, there were moments like this every day and the start of the ride always carried the most time for reflection on its mystical existence and how long we might spend in this rarefied state of being.
Even better today the trail carried on. If you’re from the more crowded parts of the World, then the feature that really stands out on the Badger Divide is how long the trail stretches ahead of you. At times it seemed endless. Especially when it starts gradually descending. There were moments on Day 1 where the sun was shining, and the trail rolled on and on. It might sound weird but the trick is switch your mindset, like you would a gear, away from what you know of local rides where the trail is always coming to an end, to embrace the spectacular, and the distance and the scale of the Badger in the moment, and not think about what’s still to come.
On the map, after rolling out of Inverness it’s not long before you’re alongside the mighty Loch Ness.. “Alongside a lake, oh that will be straightforward and easy,” we said. But you’re alongside high up on the hillside looking over the lake, on the Great Glen Way, not on the shoreline. It is a magnificent route to follow, but there’s only one way to get there, and it ain’t downhill.
Once we’d actually got to the Loch, we were bowled over by the scenery. The views are genuinely fantastic, and Loch Ness looks enormous, which at 36km long it pretty much is. One photo stop follows another, follows another. At one we met a couple of walkers, with rucksacks that seemed bigger than they were. They were really friendly. Which brings up the next excellent point about being in the Highlands. All the walkers we passed (which on Day 1 around Loch Ness, was a fair number) were incredibly friendly. Enough, clearly, for us to pass comment. Even from a distance, they would move to one side, and then be chatty and smiley when we came past. This was such a 180 degree turn from cycling off road around the south of England. If nothing else (and there is clearly plenty) commends riding your bike in the Highlands to you, let it be this.
Quietly, stealthily, a second theme was developing. The 36km which seemed initially not that far (hey, we do 36km on a Wednesday evening pub ride) - was getting longer and longer. We finally rolled into Café Eighty2 in Lewiston for a lunch. We’d identified Café Eighty2 as morning coffee location – but lunch? The café itself is a recommendation from all of us. Great service with massive toasties, just the kind of food you want on a big bike ride. It also came with ‘the worlds’ hottest soup’ (trademark JRTB). Poor Mike: he suffered with this for many days, and despite trying soup at every lunch stop, we couldn’t get anything that was even close to this volcanic temperature. Even with this, the most alarming thing about Café Eighty2, is not the soup, it’s the simple fact that it’s not even halfway down Loch Ness. But I think you’d guessed that dear reader. This is not the news you want to discover as the afternoon is wearing away.
The only choice was to crack on.
The weather seemed benign, which helped with motivation. The route continues with the rollercoaster ups and downs. Nothing too drastic in terms of gradient – more of that later – but still energy sapping and slow. The KMs were going down very slowly: and then a self-inflicted crash. Mike again – clearly his day – over onto his elbow and shoulder. After the adrenaline wore off, there were genuine concerns he’d broken something. We kept going because, well, that’s what you do on the Badger Divide. But we were clearly all pleased to finally roll down into Fort Augustus, grab a coffee, and to have finally finished with Loch Ness.
For even strong riders that’s you done for day one. If you ride the Badger Divide, we’d fully recommend stopping here for the night. It is what most guide reviews suggest. As a tourist spot there’s plenty of accommodation and places to eat and drink. You’ll have already done a tough 80km or so in the saddle, so you can feel very satisfied with a long but rewarding day across some magnificent scenery.
What we would not recommend is the much less appealing alternative that we took. We’d actually booked night one in the Laggan Hotel (unsurprisingly, in Laggan). However, currently lying between where we were at Fort Augustus and Laggan was the Corrieyairack Pass.
Corrieyairack Pass is starting to build itself something of a reputation. It uses General Wade’s Military Road, a network of roads designed by Major-General George Wade in 1724, on the orders of King George, to tackle insurrection in the north. According to scotlandinfo.eu:
“The lowest and most accessible route was through the Corrieyairack Forest, but this would involve a 2500ft climb and over 18 switch-back traverses to cross. It was a feat of unparalleled engineering at the time; but it was essentially unviable. Of all Wade’s roads this is the only one that never developed into a modern highway; but it makes for a great long-distance walk in fine weather.”
What it does not make for, is a great off-road ride in the wind, rain and dark. It’s a 12 km climb, 761m of vertical ascent, all of it on a track that is at the top end of what I’d want to ride a gravel bike on, and at a gradient that is not impossible, but is pretty close. It feels like a feat of unparalleled cycling. Having said that, even with hindsight, it is difficult to reflect on three individual experiences. We all seemed to lock down into our own heads and trudge our way up as best we could.
The wind picked up, the rain started coming down horizontally, and the daylight turned to dusk. My experience was about riding all of the way up. Not because I thought I was tougher, or more gnarly, but because I found it easier than walking. I tried a bit of walking, but I found it harder than just cycling very, very slowly, so I just pedalled on. I put my shiny new coat on, which helped keep the rain off pretty well (shout out to the Fox Ranger 2.5l waterproof jacket ). But I was getting cold, and tired. The most mentally challenging aspect was the arrival at any bend, hairpin or supposed summit only to be presented with a view that simply had more of the track stretching up into the distance. The temptation to stop was only muted by the thought that there was nowhere to stop. Once you start the Corrieyairak pass it’s only forwards, or back the way you came.
I paused at the top, and we were soon a group again. We started to descend. It turns out this was actually the most mentally challenging part, not the going up. That was tough, but the coming down, which relied on skill, vision, bike handling, dealing with large rocks and mud, as well as streams and especially drainage ditches, walled with large slabs, running across the path – added together, plus the failing light made this very tough indeed. I was well at the back, I walked the bike across another stream, which I trod in and cursed loudly about. The conversation at the front consisted of ”Dave’s found the stream then.”
After about the third stream I completely threw my toys out the pram, with a massive hissy-fit. Time, it seemed, to have a word with myself. After I’d settled down, I realised the thing to do was to sit on R’s wheel. He is by far the best descender and is happier on a Mountain bike than a gravel bike or a road bike. One of the first things that leaves when you’re tired is the ability to make good decisions. I reasoned that this single act would stop me having to make a constant set of what might be extremely poor decisions. Having taken this option, we set off in the slim beam of our front lights. Have I mentioned the failing light? You lose it an hour earlier in Scotland depending on the time of year. It was now completely dark around us, and so luckily for me there was no context to what might happen with a bad move, a slippery rock, or a poorly judged jump. I don’t recall a great deal about this descent. Certainly, it was the most gnarly thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t like to go back and see what we rode down quite so fast. And even on a full suss mountain bike I would not have made it more quickly, or deftly. Mike took the alternative, and infinitely more sensible route, of taking it slowly, and walking across the streams and drainage ditches. When we stopped to wait, he did say he couldn’t even see how we had ridden some of the obstacles. I barely remember doing so, for which all credit must go to R.
Once the track finally arrived at the valley floor it was, to our surprise, tarmac. It may have been the smoothest, fastest, flattest, most brilliant tarmac I have ever been on. We also suddenly had a phone signal, and it gave Mike a chance to call the hotel to tell them we were late (pretty obviously) and to please save us some food, we weren’t fussy what it was.
The smooth tarmac with no traffic at all, lasted an astonishing 11km and brought us directly to Laggan, and the Laggan Hotel. To their absolute credit, they delivered us up not only a room indoors to store the bikes, but three plates of roast beef and a choice of pudding. We'd survived, the bikes - one aluminium NS RAG+, a titanium Dolan GXT and a titanium Titus Goldrush (mine was the NS RAG+) - had survived. We had ridden 106.77 km in about 11 hours and burned 5000 calories. Only 3 more days to go...
All credits: JRtB, 2021