Mountain Biking in North West Scotland
Mountain bike leader Sean Benz takes us out for an afternoon on his favourite ride: The Postman's Track route as featured in the new Cicerone guide to Mountain Biking in West and North West Scotland. This is a stunning ride through mountains and coastlines on the Isle of Harris and Lewis with some of the wildest and most rugged mountain biking in the UK.
Every week there seems to be some new destination or ‘a must go’ to place for mountain biking, each one offering more kilometres of single track or a gnarlier descent than the one before. We all go in search of these new and exciting destinations but as the old saying goes, ‘more is not necessarily better’.
Scotland is a very proud and passionate country blessed with history that is both dark and joyous. It’s a history that many others wished they had; it has strong identity, rich culture and passion. For such an old country it’s only recently that it has found its voice again as it searches for independence and its place on the world stage.
As a mountain bike destination, Scotland is already on that world stage.
What makes it different, why does it stand out from the crowd, how do we measure it against these ‘new’ destinations? There’s no doubting that Scotland has some of the best trail centres around, each offering something different – but even then some of them don’t receive the limelight they truly deserve. Tucked away in the far north is Balblair, with its maze of technical slab rock riding, and Golspie, with its sensational black descent. It plummets down to the sea from the summit of Ben Bhraggie on one of the longest descents in the country.
Away from the all the manufactured trails is what truly makes the area such a special place to ride.
For those who are willing to leave the confines of the trail centres behind, they will find an assortment of routes, each offering its own mini adventure.
Looking up from the trail you’ll experience a magical world of stunning landscapes and an environment that is both harsh and beautiful. In many ways the riding in the north west of Scotland resembles the malt whiskies from the area. You can taste, smell and see the colour all around you on the trail.
Picking up a malt whisky and swirling the golden liquid around in the glass I see the leaves and larch needles of autumn scatter across the trail as I blast past. I see the bracken ablaze across the hillside in the fading light of day as I descend from a high corrie. I can smell the ocean, sea spray and the pungent aroma of seaweed as I tackle a rocky shoreline trail. I can smell the sweet scent of peat burning from a remote crofter’s cottage. Letting the liquid roll around in my mouth, it’s smooth and gentle like the start of a ride but as it lingers in the mouth I can feel the lungs and legs burn on a killer ascent or on the race to get home before the weather turns. Each sip brings back memories of mini adventures and long days in the saddle of mountain biking in Scotland.
We all have a different formula for determining the perfect mountain bike ride. Mine would certainly be: wild, plus climbs, plus descents, plus single track, plus spectacular scenery, plus wildlife, equals Scotland, equals Harris, equals the Postman’s Track.
From the moment of boarding the ferry on Skye for the Outer Hebrides, the anticipation builds as I know that I’m heading somewhere special. As the ferry pulls out of Uig I find myself looking west across the Minch searching for the rounded shapes of the Harris Hills. Drawing closer it weaves its way between small islands and I’m continually scanning the hills looking for the trail and relishing what’s ahead.
The last time I rode the Postman’s track was on a late summer evening on a break from guiding during the day. The air was still warm, there was no wind and I was keen to have a blast. On the previous rides I had spent time taking pictures for the guidebook. Knowing the good weather was here to stay, I kept my gear to the essentials. With head down, I took off from Tarbert towards Scalpay. The warm up was brief with a short climb before the start of the trail at Urgha Beag. Turning off the road onto the trail down to Lochannan Lacasdail my exuberance almost got the better of me as I lost control. I soon regained my composure as the trail levelled out heading to the north end of the glen.
Now fully warmed up, I tried to keep a steady pace up the grassy climb to Braigh an Ruisg knowing that there was still a lot of climbing to come. It was a stiff pull on the final section that left me struggling to control my breathing. The trail’s not a steep descent the other side, so there’s plenty of time to shift the gaze from the trail and look north to Clisham and the other wild hills of Harris. It was great to let the bike straight line down the trail with no obstacles to worry about before turning off onto the road over to Reinigeadal. It’s a very tough climb from Loch Seaforth, one that certainly wouldn’t be out of place on a mountain stage of a grand tour.
I locked off the front fork and got out of the saddle on the steeper corners trying to keep the wheels turning. The sweat was dripping down from my helmet onto my glasses and I knew I would feel the chill on the descent down to the next section of single track. Taking my gaze off the road I looked up towards the craggy summit Todun where I could see a Golden Eagle soaring high above the cliffs. The lyrics of a Big Country track sprang to mind:
Alone among the hills and stone
Through summer sun and winter snow
The eagle he was lord above
The descent to Reinigeadal was approaching so it was time to zip up my top and get into a tucked position on the bike, in an attempt to reduce the wind chill. I needed to be mindful of a cattle grid that marks the spot to slow down, otherwise I would miss the track and descend further to Reinigeadal.
It was now onto the final section of trail, which is what makes this route so special. Hugging the steep hillside high above the waters of the Minch made for easy progress with only the occasional gate slowing my progress. Loch Trolamaraig was like glass and I stopped thinking I’d seen something resembling a dorsal fin break through the water surface. Scanning the glassy surface my initial spot was confirmed as I saw a number of fins rise close to the rocky shore. You just wouldn’t get this experience at a trail centre!
Mountain biking in Scotland will usually involve some sections of hike and the Postman’s Track is no exception. I shouldered the bike just after a wooden bridge in a secluded bay and tackled the ascent. The climb was in shade with the long shadows of evening reaching across the bay. A couple of hundred meters of climbing later I was back on the bike for the final pull to the top. With the gradient easing I could savour the surroundings. No matter how many times I’ve hiked or biked this route I can’t help but marvel at the magnificent scenery. The views extend far across the Minch to Skye and the islands in between. A fleeting thought of the fantastic riding on Skye beneath the Cuillin sprung to mind but I still had to keep moving, so better leave that for another day.
There was no time to hang around as the night was drawing in and the air had the chill of a late summer evening. The descending trail is not as a narrow as the rest of the ride but this is a cobbled track that has been built to stand the test of time and all the wild weather that the Hebrides throws at it. The superb pitched trail drops nearly 300 meters back to the road to Tarbert. There was still plenty of opportunities to play with the trail and take some air off the numerous rocky steps.
By the time I reached the bottom my arms and body were aching and I was wishing that I had been on a full suspension. With the end of day drawing near and time running out, I felt cold, tired and hungry and made one final push back on the road for Tarbert.
Once back in Tarbert I had a hot shower and some food then sat back in the bar of the Harris Hotel. I picked up a glass of malt whisky and swirled it around, taking a sniff before sipping the rich golden liquid. Memories of the evening’s ride came flooding back and I relaxed thinking of my equation for the perfect ride – I was right after all.
From an early age the bike has been integral for mini adventures around Sean's native Liverpool where a modified bike was used to weave and race through the narrow alleyways of the local allotments. With Scottish roots, countless holidays were spent north of the border, which eventually led to Scotland becoming home. Sean's mountain bike adventures have extended to Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia, although one place remains dear, and that's Scotland and its Highlands and Islands. From mountain bike races, adventure races, outdoor education and guided mountain bike trips as a qualified Scottish Mountain Bike Leader, he has built an extensive knowledge base of the Highlands and Islands.View Articles and Books by Sean Benz