The north of Scotland is where it’s at for UK mountain biking. It’s a bold statement but I stand by it, in particular in relation to the area to the north and east of Inverness, Ross-shire.” So says Doug Macdonald…
What a lot of people don’t realise is that this is one of the driest areas in the UK and doesn’t suffer from the dreaded midges. The access is also easy, either by plane to Inverness airport or, my personal favourite, on the Sleeper where you can board at London, have a nice bottle of wine and wake up to the clean air of the Highlands. Booking through Bargain Berths can secure you a real bargain too. Inverness is a great city, with a great choice of pubs, live music and cheap accommodation options, it’s a great location for a weeks’ riding. Importantly it also happens to be within 45-minutes of all the routes in this article and the fantastic riding at Aviemore.
So, to the riding. I’ve picked my favourite 4 days riding and am listing them in order of my preference. There are also heaps of more natural unmarked routes which I’ll touch on at the end.
Number 1: Contin and Strathpeffer. (Intermediate – Advanced, 30 minutes north of Inverness)
The best place to start here is in the main square in Strathpeffer. You need to follow the A9 north, then branch off for Dingwall and Ullapool before taking the turning after Dingwall for Strathpeffer. There are two main courses here, there is the Contin XC race track which is at an intermediate to advanced level. The riding is on natural woody singletrack which is littered with tricky roots and rocks and is linked together by the main fireroad which climbs from the forestry car park at Contin. It takes between 1 and 2 hours to complete a lap of this course but without a doubt you will want to do it two or three times. This is my favourite bit of singletrack anywhere in the UK! The second main course here is the trail that is used for the Strathpuffer 24 hour race. It’s more intermediate in level but to ride it fast takes skills and nerves. A lap will take you about between 1 and 2 hours again but it can be combined with the XC race course to form a bigger loop. The trail is quite rooty and rocky in places but also has some great sections of surfaced singletrack which have been purpose built for mountain bikers. Some of the trails are marked but a lot of them aren”t and it”s impossible to describe a route. If you visit SquareWheels bike shop in the centre of Strathpeffer they will sort you out with a map and directions. The shop is also an Aladins cave and there’s a good workshop there. See here for contact details: Square Wheels Bike Shop
Number 2: Golspie Wildcat Trails. (Intermediate – Advanced, 45 minutes north of Inverness).
It’s easy to find these trails, just follow the A9 north until you get to Golspie and the trails are marked from there. Ben Bhraggie used to be famous for supporting a hugely unpopular statue to one of the most ruthless landowners of the highland clearances, now it is gathering a rightful reputation for being home to what is probably the best man-made singletrack in the country. If you haven’t ridden here then you need to; it’s as simple as that. If you’re up to the whole black route then you’re treated to a 7km singletrack climb with plenty of challenges to distract you from the pain and a 7km descent as a reward! Starting off fast with lots of berms and jumps, it changes character many times on the way down; from rocky and technical to swoopy and fast, never disappointing for a second. It’s really worth the trip north for this trail alone. Less experienced riders can use the same climb and descent as the black but not go to the very top of the hill, where the hardest sections are.
Number 3: Balblair and Carbisdale. (Intermediate – Advanced, 45 minutes north of Inverness).
Heading north of Inverness on the A9 again, towards Bonar Bridge and Carbisdale castle where you will see signs for the trails. There are two new trails here. There’s a red trail at Carbisdale castle, which is fun and swoopy, but nothing too technical. The trail at Balblair is a black and can be very intimidating. Made up mainly of natural bedrock linked by woodwork sections it’s a real challenge to put together into a clean run. The youth hostel at Carbisdale is a great place to spend a night if you don’t fancy the drive back to Inverness.
Number 4: Learnie Red Rocks. (Beginner – Advanced, 15 minutes north of Inverness).
Follow the A9 north of Inverness, cross the Kessock bridge and follow the dual carriage way until the roundabout. Take a right towards Cromarty and you will come to the Learnie car park. Learnie used to be my favourite trail in the area. Then the forestry did some clear felling which removed one of the very technical black sections. There”s still plenty to keep intermediate riders happy with a good red and blue trail, set of doubles, and a fun, rocky black section. The old black section will apparently be rebuilt but I don’t know when that is planned. It’s a real pity. Other trails: There are lots of other trails for bikes in the area, however they aren’t marked and are very difficult to find or to describe. The best bet would be to speak to some of the local bike shops or clubs. Fyrish Bikes is a great local club who sometimes organise club runs.
Doug McDonald is a mountain biker from Ross-shire, now running a bike holiday company in the Basque region of Spain. Check out BasqueMTB: Mountain bike holidays in the Spanish Pyrenees for further details.