THE BADGER DIVIDE – REVERSE LITE

If you are looking to explore Scotland by gravel bike you will be hard-pushed to find a route much grander than the Badger Divide. The route, curated by Stu Allan, links up existing sections of gravel to forming a 210-mile route from Inverness to Glasgow that is packed with stunning valleys, mountains, beaches and forests.

A word of caution, the route is a dark horse. On paper it appears moderately easy-going, wiggling its way from glen to glen on well-established tracks and trails. But when tyres are on the ground it’s a whole different story. The route preys on those who are not prepared mentally or physically. Rough sections test bike handling skills, weather can challenge determination and long remote sections demand effective planning. While some miles are testing, they don’t go unrewarded as the Badger links up some of the most spectacular gravel riding in the UK.

With summer 2019 getting into the swing of things, Matt and I were eager to get out for an overnight adventure. To tackle the Badger Divide properly you really need to get an early start on the first day. We were keen to ride the route but were limited by work commitments so getting the train to Inverness the night before wasn’t feasible.

However, Matt had a cunning plan. We would ride South to North and cutting out the West Highland Way section into Glasgow with an early morning train to Dunblane. Picking up the route in Callander, we would head north through all the best bits of the route for a Badger Divide Lite experience. The only snag, we needed to be in Inverness by 6pm Sunday to assure we caught the train home or else we would be trapped in the North.

Our day started with a quick blast along the road from Dunblane to Callander where we stopped at the Mhor Bread Bakery for breakfast pies before getting started on the good stuff. We picked up the Callander & Oban Railway cycle path which would take us to the start of Glen Ample.

FOLLOWING THE BADGER

We were now en route and straight into the thick of it. A steep climb up to Glen Ample prepared the legs for the day and soon we are rewarded with the first grand view of the day overlooking the length of Loch Lubnaig. The climb continued and before too long we were descending through Glen Ample, the empty valley stretching out in front of us.

The first section of off-road dispatched and spirits were high as we approached the Achmore Path. I remembered pushing up this track the last time I rode the Badger and thinking it would make a great descent. Now we were riding the route in reverse we would find out. Flowing from corner to corner, the Karate Monkey skimmed over the loose and rooty surface and dived through corners with a surprising agility that shouldn’t be possible on a rigid loaded mountain bike.

After a lunch stop in Killin, we picked up Glen Lochay. This stunning road segment continues for the next 20 miles. The gentle climb up the valley is interrupted as you reach Kenknock, turn right and through the gate onto the old hydro road. This climb is a closed road that twists cruelly up the hillside and hoists you into the neighbouring Glen Lyon.

In the heat of the day we were sweating as we crept up the hillside, our jerseys unzipped, exposing as much skin as possible to any hint of a breeze. Over the top and off the brakes, the ride down the other side is super fast. Full concentration was required as we dodged potholes that, even though we were on mountain bikes, still posed a serious puncture threat.

The road down Glen Lyon could be a contender for one of the most picturesque in Scotland and we cruised along the smooth twisting tarmac. Our next break was sooner than required but an unmissable stop at the Glen Lyon Post Office for some coffee and cake, especially as we knew this was the last refuelling opportunity until Corrour Station.

REMOTE RANNOCH MOOR

The route turns from the tarmac and begins climbing up the old Kirk Road. The track starts smooth and as you climb further the trees are left behind and the trail becomes rougher. The rocks that make up the road have become exposed, worked loose by the weather making climbing more difficult. Little streams cross the path and as we began descending towards the Black Wood of Rannoch I rolled hard through a stream and punctured.

Photo: Matt Hawkins.

No problem until I pulled out my spare tube and tried to fit it. It was quickly clear something wasn’t right, instead of a 29er tube I had accidentally grabbed a 26in. Luckily Matt is more organised with his spares than I am and soon we were back on the move if not a little more cautiously as I couldn’t risk another puncture with only one tube between us.

A brief ride under the cool dappled shade of Black Wood of Rannoch before dropping into the landrover track blast to Bridge of Gaur. By now our minds were thinking about dinner and the fine venison stew at the Corrour Station.

Corrour Train Station is an odd place, only reachable by foot, bicycle or – unsurprisingly – train. The station is both the highest mainland railway in the UK and one of the most remote, isolated on the moor with the only vehicle access along a 15-mile private gravel road. As we were approaching from the Rannoch side we only had 10 miles of rough track to pedal before we would be sitting down to eat.

With the vast expanse of empty landscape that surrounded us, void of buildings or roads, it’s bizarre that just over the hill is a train station let alone a restaurant. The four-mile climb felt long as we burned the last of our lunch calories. Once crested we cruised towards the small nest of buildings in the distance.

For a restaurant that’s fifteen miles from the nearest road and only serviced by a train that stops three times a day, there is a real risk of it being fully booked. As we pulled up we could see a sizeable walking group already tabled – not a promising sign. The barman broke the bad news, the kitchen was full. Our dejected faces must have resonated with another staff member who took it upon herself to save the day with a big bowl of chips to share. Not the venison feast we had hoped for but beggars can’t be choosers. It wasn’t all bad, we got a free crumble for dessert which we romantically shared between us.

Leaving hungry but thankful. The landscape was bathed in a golden light of the setting sun which cast long shadows behind us. Our goal had been to reach Melgarve Bothy which would put us in good stead for the next day. However, half a bowl of chips each hadn’t done much to fortify our legs for the last miles of the day. As the light quickly dropped and the bothy was still a 10-mile stint away we realised it would, in fact, be a fine night for sleeping outside.

With a cloudless sky, we were confident the chance of rain was slim. The sun began setting and the temperature dropped settling at a cool but pleasant ambient temperature. A nice change from the scorching temperatures earlier and a signal to our bodies it was getting close to bedtime. Luckily Matt and I had the perfect spot in mind for camping out. 

Just past Lochenna h-Earba it was a short descent before we pulled up at the proposed spot. Sleeping bags were laid out on an idyllic beach on the shore of Loch Rannoch, all the snacks that could be spared were eaten and we settled down for the night as darkness peacefully absorbed the vista in front of us.

DAY 2

Photo: Matt Hawkins.

I woke from one of the best bivy sleeps I have ever had, to one of the best morning views I have ever had. A crack of morning sun caught the tops of the mountains that surround Loch Rannoch, I lay for a while tucked up in my bivy looking out onto the peaceful landscape.

There is always a finite time you can lay in a sleeping bag awake before inevitably needing to get up for the toilet. I have learned when nature calls it’s best to resist getting back in and instead to start packing up. Soon Matt was stirring from an equally comfortable sleep, bikes were packed, wanderlust photos were taken and a less than hearty breakfast of our remaining cereal bars were consumed.

The first task was to ride the previous day’s leftover miles which consisted of some off-road and the tarmac access road to our intended stop over. Realistically we could have easily carried on last night even with our minimal lumen capability but were both happy with the decision to sleep outside instead.

It wasn’t long till we reached Mulgarve and the start of the Corrieyairick. Melgarve is a big bothy with two large empty bedrooms upstairs and two well-furnished living rooms below. More than enough luxury for weary travellers looking for a dry overnight stay. Two people were set up in one of the bottom rooms when we poked our heads in for a look around, further solidifying our decision to spend a night under the stars.

THE MIGHTY CORRIEYAIRACK PASS

This old General Wade military road is the biggest climb of the Badger Divide and arguably one of the crux sections of the route. When tackled from North to South it’s a long drag of over 2300ft from Fort Augustus. South to North is less of a challenge, beginning the climb with a 1000ft already banked however the climb is more technical with steep washed out switchbacks and drainage gullies that unsettle grip and break climbing rhythm.

We reached the switchbacks and made a good go of them before tyres began scrabbling for traction and energy was needlessly wasted. I am a firm believer that when riding speeds slow to a walking pace, continuing to ride is an exercise in stubbornness and it’s often better to just get off and push. After all, a change is as good as a rest. It wasn’t far to push before we crested the Corrieyairick, passed the little concrete building marking the top and embarked on the ten-mile descent to Fort Augustus and an overdue refuel.

Matt took a more relaxed approach while I left the brakes open and aero tucked out ahead. I roared into the descent letting gravity do the work, keen to cash in on some fast free miles. Unlike the rugged south side with its loose rocks and drainage bars, the track to Fort Augustus is fairly smooth and eye-watering speeds are easily achieved. Picking up velocity the corners become tighter, loose dirt and rocks begin breaking free and small humps kick the bike airborne.

Accelerating down a straight there was a sudden bang from the front wheel before the unmistakable clatter of rim on dirt. Holding on for dear life and with some gentle braking, I brought the squirming bike to a standstill.

Signature snakebite holes. As I was still only carrying a useless 26″ tube I would need to resort to patches but was thwarted when I opened my kit to find only a single patch. By this time Matt was now approaching, he had a spare tube I could use. Assuming I had just stopped for a Kodak moment he rode straight past, not realising I had punctured and disappeared down the hill.

There was nothing for it but to begin the long trudge down towards Fort Augustus. I walked for a mile before I saw a figure below me furiously pedalling up the climb. Matt had been waiting further down for a photo opportunity and had become concerned when I hadn’t passed shortly after and feared the worst. Donating his second spare tube to my cause, I got to work. Matt sat at the side of the track catching his breath, looking very relieved he hadn’t found me smeared down the side of the pass.

With the last of our tubes fitted we gently rode the rest of the descent and on to Fort Augustus. Lunch was long overdue and we stocked up on pies, snack’s and found a shop where I replenish Matt’s depleted tubes.

THE GREAT GLEN HIGH ROAD

Photo: Matt Hawkins. Rugged good looks: yours truly.

When ridden in the devised direction of North to South, the Great Glen Way acts as an ability regulator at the beginning of the route. Sorting the fit from the unprepared with its steep gradients and rugged sections, struggle through this section and the likelihood of completing the Badger diminishes. Matt and I have both tackled this section several times and knew what was ahead. Today the climbs were not torturous, although on other days they certainly can be. With morale and energy levels high, each incline was another countdown to the next stunning vista and shreddy singletrack descent.

Our arrival at Drunnadrochit was met with a hard decision. We had a strict deadline thanks to the train schedules. To avoid an impromptu night in Inverness we made the call to leave the route in favour of a time-efficient ride along the road. The 16 mile TT along the A82 was not the ending we had hoped. Despite the impromptu road miles, lack of dinner and moderate levels of sunburn, we arrived in Inverness sticky, dusty and on time. Stoked on the last two days of adventure and some of the best bikepacking we have ever experienced.  

If you are interested in checking out the Badger Divide here is the full route or follow the Badger Divide Instagram.

We picked up the route from Calander and headed north covering almost 180 miles in two days. You can see my Strava activities here and here.

BIKES FOR THE BADGER DIVIDE

It is hard to say what the perfect bike for the Badger Divide would be. With long fast gravel sections, a gravel bike with 40mm tyres seems like a no brainer but when riding the steep slopes of the Great Glen Way, rough double track sections or degraded military roads the extra security of a mountain bike can be welcome. In reality, no bike is perfect. Matt and I opted for mountain bikes this time to maximise fun on the descents and shakedown our setups for later trips. Although we had both gone for roughty-toughty mountain bikes from Surly our setups were quite different.

My Surly Karate Monkey is shred happy and keen to rattle down descents. Restrap front roll housed all my sleeping stuff and a Straight Cut Design full frame bag packed with snacks, tools and spare clothes. This was my first trip using fork-mounted bottles and it was a game-changer, they didn’t fly out on the descents and were easy to reach and refill.

Matt’s Surly Ogre was a little calmer, rolling along offering comfort no matter the terrain or pitch. Wildcat saddle bag stored sleeping stuff and the matching front roll stored everything else. A zippy front pouch was full of things that might need to be grabbed quickly.

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