A classic summer’s day in Lochaber

Sometimes, you get so fixated on finding new, better trails that you forget the quality rides that are sitting right in front of you. That elusive dream trail is still waiting out there somewhere, but in the meantime there are all the old favorites waiting for a chance to show you why you ride your bike again. In August I went with Seb to revisit a ride that I’ve somehow driven past for the last 3 years: the traverse from the head of Glencoe over the Devil’s Staircase, dropping into the fjord-like Loch Leven via another classic trail, before retracing out steps back over the Staircase towards tea and medals.

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We left Edinburgh under a bluebird sky and made it all the way to Doune before the inevitable happened and we hit a rich seam of caravans and foreign tourists to keep any dreams of speedy travel strictly under wraps. Soon the clouds came too, but when we got out of the car at the King’s House the thermometer was still the right side of 20 degrees and it was still only mid morning, so off we span to warm up on the traversing section of the West Hghland Way to meet the Devil’s Staircase. Even this section of rough singletrack sets the scene, and soon memories of my last visit were coming back, mostly of not having left the vans till 2 pm due to mechanicals and standard faff, before hitting puncture time before the ride proper had even begun. The intervening three years seemed to be allowing a more flowing ride though, and it wasn’t long before we stood at the cairn on the high point, having given the stiff climb out of Glencoe our best effort, pulses going double-time and sweaty palms spinning on the grips.

In the muggy sunshine of July, it’s easy to forget the Staircase’s history as an ancient, sometimes dangerous transport route as you take in the unavoidable panorama of Rannoch Moor and the Buachaille. Patrick MacGill’s autobiography Children of the Dead End describes the time he spent as a navvy working on the Blackwater dam project at the start of the 19th century; he recalls men from the camp traipsing over the pass in winter for a drink at the King’s House, not all of them returning, and the bodies of the unfortunate ones reappearing with the spring thaw.  The thin ribbon of the old road through Glencoe, a singletrack lane that is dwarfed by the modern road, is another reminder that the hills have been shrunken relative to our own ability to access them easily.

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In all honesty, the reason I hadn’t been back to ride the Devil’s staircase is because I remembered it as being fairly mediocre, even unengaging. About thirty seconds after leaving the start gate at the cairn, though, the reality of marbly corners and surprise rocks to keep it all above board suggested that my memory is dangerous and can’t be trusted.  The only sounds were tyres sliding over loose gravel, freehubs and the occasional puckering when a loose corner presented a sneaky water bar right on the apex. Like other heavily featured classics like the Torridon trails, it was clear that the Staircase was seeing more and more two-wheeled traffic; some of the corners have begun to look distinctly berm-like, and the smoother lines through rocky straights show the marks of years worth of tyres. On the whole though, it seems to be standing up to its celebrity status well. The trail seemed to have gotten longer, faster and ten times more excellent than before – we reached the double-track at the conduit scratching our heads and bouncing up and down, as keen as someone only discovering bikes for the first time. We then traversed quickly along to the dam, definitely not using the massively handy Blackwater conduit super-highway just below and definitely not crossing the dam either, as that would be naughty. Conveniently though, we did find ourselves on the other side of the dam at the head of Ciaran path, a trail that made its race debut in the Bluegrass Enduro Tour back in June.

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Armed with a little more familiarity than 2 months earlier, and realising how much better it was with a Reverb fitted, the rocks were just as enticing to front wheels and the sharp climbs were just as punishing. Unfortunately, the bracken had rocketed up on either side of the trail to make sections almost unpassable at any real speed, so top tip: come here in early summer or autumn when the undergrowth has a little less say on where your bars are pointing. The Ciaran still arguably deserves the title of Britain’s best singletrack that was bestowed on it by MBR a few years ago, though. The few really technical sections of rock drops and woodland exposure above the river below give it an alpine feel, and to ride it all continuously, or even at some form of race pace, is serious business.

Tactical brake pad changes aside, the path didn’t claim any bike or human sacrifices that day, so a quick dip in the river and a box of Cornettos were well overdue when we rolled into Kinlochleven. The sun was shining and the rolling caravan roadblocks seemed miles away. I remembered that it was about 5 pm the last time I had been here, and the puncture tally by then was already creeping skywards. The double-track climb out of the village was as savage as ever, though, and with brutal effectiveness we were launched up and away from Loch Leven to meet our route from the morning at the conduit and the foot of the staircase. The return route over the pass is brilliant and infuriating in equal measure due to the fact that it’s tantalisingly rideable, but in a way that makes you wish you had two hearts to share the strain, and more tyre to scrabble some grip out of the loose surface. Lost in the challenge, the summit cairn came quickly. I managed to puncture twice on the only brief respite, where the climb briefly descends. Time passes, but the faff is the same old.

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If the northwards descent of the Staircase is good, then the southern side is even better. The ancient corners have sunk into the earth with the passing of so many pairs of feet, and the natural berms that have formed spit you out faster and faster in the search for the next one. Rocks and water bars passed under our wheels without contact before the gravel swept us into the next berm, and the glen rushed towards us quicker than we expected or wanted.  The best descents are usually over too quick, but at least we had a quick zip back along the West Highland Way to the van, which given the weather could only be followed by an evening fishing to use the remainder of the day. Slightly burned or not, the fish dinner closed the curtain on a proper classic ride. Maybe next time I’ll shorten the gap between visits though.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. kat1989 says:

    Fantastic photos! I rode it on a very grey day back in August and doing the Staircase and Ciaren path in a day was a killer for me! You’ve inspired me to go again! Fingers crossed for blue sky at the end of the month!

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