The Cairngorms National Park has a superb new mountain biking centre. Don Currie went to try it
Photography: Paul Masson (top) John Paul (below)
A sheet of paper nailed to a post is the only clue that these wooded slopes near Tomintoul are any different to all the other swathes of forest in the Cairngorms National Park.
Glenlivet Bike Trails, the sign reads, and as I follow the twisting forest road upwards there’s a definite buzz of chatter wafting through the trees.
I turn a corner and there in front of me is a handsome timber lodge, resplendent in the sunshine and packed to the tastefully exposed rafters with excited people.
Stylish logos on the windows tell me this is the Coffee Still, and the champagne corks popping inside say something special is going on here. And this day will turn out to be an important one indeed for Glenlivet, for the Highlands and for the sport of mountain biking.
Two new trails that start and finish here, one blue for novices such as myself and one red for seasoned riders craving thrills and spills, are set to earn a place on the mountain biking map, prized as much as the established venues in the south of Scotland that make up the 7Stanes collection.
Inside the Coffee Still â€“Â where I depart from the script by asking for tea â€“ farmers are chatting to funders, planners connecting with politicians and mountain bikers munching cake. Warmed by the wood-burning stove and mellowed by the bubbly, they all seem happy to be there.
It’s a stakeholder event held the day before the centre’s public opening, and the only bikers invited to sample the slopes on this occasion are a group of wiry young enthusiasts who have won a competition â€“ and me.
But first, to delay my fate, I chat to fellow guests. Alan Macbeth, a development officer with Moray Council, is sporting a nasty bump above his left eye, from which the stitches have just been removed. He’s clearly a biker â€“ but how did he sustain his injury, I ask? “My carrier bag got caught in my spokes in Asda car park and I came off,” he says.
Ah. If Asda car park can do that to a man, I wonder, how am I going to fare among the berms, drop-offs, jumps and rollers that await me outside? More delaying tactics are clearly called for.
Richard Lochhead, the Moray MSP and cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment, is working the room, and I ask him whether he’s a mountain biker himself. “I used to go out now and again,” he says. He quickly rediscovers those skills as he gets in the saddle for a photo opportunity, and looks only mildly shaken by the experience.
I seek out Andy Wells, head of countryside management for the Crown Estate, of which Glenlivet is a part. He’s very upbeat about the new centre. “It’s a product of real love and dedication by a lot of people, and it’s going to be very successful.”
A theme is developing â€“ many people predict that with the Glenlivet centre’s arrival the north of Scotland will begin to build a mountain biking momentum to rival the draw of the Borders and south-west. If Glenlivet can promote itself in harmony with venues such as the two Paul Masson creations mentioned above and those at Golspie, Fochabers and Abriachan, above Loch Ness, then the balance of pedal power might shift.
But that’s for the future. In the present, Paul is beckoning me outside to don a helmet, pick a bike and join him on the trail â€“ the less forbidding blue trail, at my insistence.
“Let’s get warmed up,” he says, and vanishes round a bend. I follow the winding, undulating course out on to an exposed hillside with endless views across the Cairngorms, and eventually catch up, though only because Paul has stopped to wait.
He explains some of the features of the trails. Both the 9km blue trail and the 22km red trail are “as dug” â€“ that is, they feature no materials brought in. He walked up to 30km per day during the design phases, seeking out routes that will satisfy riders while felling as few trees as possible and plotting a line to ensure that surface water will not wash the paths away.
“I believe in working with the landscape,” he says. “There are no big rocks on the site, so I had to come up with other ways of making it exciting, and I think I’ve succeeded. Parts of it scare the life out of me.”
These parts, thankfully, are all on the red route, which includes a 6.5km continuous downhill section, possibly the longest in the country.
As a keen road and path cyclist only, I find the blue route quite exciting enough. And even though it’s a metre wide â€“ more than twice the width of the red route â€“ I still manage to slide off the trail and take a tumble. Paul’s so far ahead he doesn’t witness this.
He pays tribute to the digger drivers and other workers who made his vision a reality. “They were superb. They put so much care into it.”
One berm, or embankment, typically represents two days’ work, so it was a huge undertaking. Yet the Glenlivet development is set to grow further, with plans for a skills centre and pump track.
Unlike many mountain bike centres, where the route takes you downhill from the hub and then back up to your starting point, here you head upwards and come back down, avoiding a hard slog at the end, which seems to me a plus point.
This beautiful part of the Highlands has long been famous for its whisky, distilled just a few miles from these trails. Now it has something else to cheer us.
Video – James Slater takes a trip down the Glenlivet trails
Update: 8th November
Paul Masson has posted a great account of the build process on his Cycletherapy blog.