‘Brute force meets ballet’: Off-road biking in Scotland

Training to ride forest trails – and not fall off – gives Peter Murtagh the right kind of grounding

Peter Murtagh riding a forest trail on the Inveraray Castle estate in Scotland

Peter Murtagh riding a forest trail on the Inveraray Castle estate in Scotland

 

Why don’t more of us to go Scotland? There’s no obvious answer to that but one thing’s for sure, when you do, you’ll soon be wondering “why did it take me so long to do this?”

The place is a delight and it’s only just up the road, as it were.

For my travel companion Geoff, it is literally up the road – the Antrim Road and thence to Belfast’s ferry port. For me, its an easy skite up the M1 from Dublin to rendezvous with my old biking partner in grime.

The Stena ferry took us to Cairnryan in just over two hours. It was a lovely calm sailing and, land never out of sight, you really do see just how close we – Ireland and Scotland – are to each other.

The air is crisp, the sky blue as we trundle off the ferry at Cairnryan and straight onto the A77, heading north to Inveraray and some serious off-road biking tuition with MotoScotland.

Rounding a bend at Ballentrae, Ailsa Craig island presents itself all of a sudden – a small rounded hump of magnificence in the Firth of Clyde, a granite volcanic plug standing solitary in the sea, the softer rock into which the magma burst eons ago now all weathered away.

The place is uninhabited, save for countless puffins and gannets. Ailsa’s granite is quarried for curling stones, sufficient of the rock extracted some years ago to keep the world’s curlers fully stoned up until 2020, so they say. . .

The road hugs the coast, which is speckled with caravan parks and summer chalets but we press on, skirting around Glasgow, anxious to get to the mountains and lakes that signal “real” Scotland.

And it doesn’t disappoint.

The banks of Loch Lomond are indeed bonny. In fact, the whole lake, Britain’s largest, looks stunning under a clear blue sky and against a backdrop of mountains, the water still, the air silent.

You can cruise the lake in season but for us, and several camper van couples, just stopping and drinking in the view is enough to replenish the soul.

The view across Loch Lomand
The view across Loch Lomand

We reach Inveraray, crossing the Arrochar Alps and skirting around its tallest peak, Beinn Ime. A clue as to the contested history in these parts comes from the fact that the road into the former garrison town is a military road.

Inveraray (Inver is Gallic for mouth; aray is the river) sits on the western shore of saltwater Loch Fyne. Entering the town with the loch on your left, you’d hardly notice the seat of aristocratic power over your right shoulder – Inveraray Castle, country pad of the Duke of Argyll, chief of the Campbell Clan.

It is an 18th century pile, a story-book gothic structure that would not look out of place beside the Rhine or Loire. The dukes have been good to the area and the town is, essentially, an estate town currently undergoing major restoration, the old barracks being refurbished for accommodation.

The area thrives off the 50,000-acre estate as none will acknowledge quicker than Clive Rumbold of MotoScotland. Basically, the duke and the bikers and the Inveraray Inn have done a deal: the bikers have the run of a large lump of the estate and stay in the hotel for an irresistible £44.50 dinner B&B, from April through September.

Rumbold’s base camp for his off-road biking school is a former stable yard and sawmill on the estate. There next morning we have a choice of Portuguese AJPs and Italian SWMs. I take a 250cc AJP and we head off along a forest trail. . . to a rough gravel clearing, a flat place that trucks might use to turn.

He has us haring diagonally across the gravel, standing up on the footrests, and using the front break hard enough to create a front wheel skid.

It’s all preparation for when it might happen out on the course, so we’ll know what to do. And he’s correct.

A huge amount of the morning’s training is spent doing things very slowly, getting the balance correct (standing and counter leaning, your body in one direction, the bike in the opposite), and manoeuvring through tight spaces at low speed.

Any fool can get on a bike and rip along a forest trail at high speed but they’ll probably come off at the first acute bend. It takes skill to mix fast and slow, matching speed to terrain, negotiating ditches, gullies, rocks and tree trunks without making a total eejit of oneself. (All things are relative. . .)

After lunch, we put the training into practice, up and down forest trails, through muddy, water logged ditches, around tight turns; fast and slow, and taking all the tight turns.

(Well, almost all. There was a tumble or two in the swamp behind the gravel area but no one saw me come off. So it didn’t really happen.)

That was Level 1 training, which includes learning the knack for picking up a bike (and it isn’t muscle power alone). Level 2 is more of the same, but in greater depth and how to tackle really steep off-road gradients. Level 3 includes momentum climbs and steel descent control, berms, and jumping a bike.

For me, Level 1 was exhilarating and incredibly useful. Rumbold showed that there’s something about off-road trail biking that has a “brute force meets ballet” quality to it. Sitting that evening by the open fire in the George, an ancient, low-ceiling pub, we felt we had earned our pints.

And then it was home. Next time, it will be on up further into the highlands and the Hebrides.

They’re only up the road, after all.

By the numbers. . .

MotoScotland courses range in price from £249 for the one-day Level 1 to £459 for the two-day Level 3, including use of bike, kit and refreshments. Details from motoscotland.com 0044-1499 320460.

Inveraray is full of cute shops selling Scottish stuff, not least whisky. The town is can be explored on foot and steels has a garrison outpost feel to it. There are several decent pubs, including the George, and restaurants. We had a fine meal in Samphire which specialises in seafood. We stayed at the Inveraray Inn, inveraray-inn.co.uk 0044-1499 302466), a lovely old world hotel (it dates from 1755) that has been done up recently.

Stena Line -- stenaline.co.uk - has up to six sailings a day between Belfast and Cairnryan, with return fares for rider and bike from £40.

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