Mountain biking up (and down) Ben Nevis

On Tuesday 10 May 2011, a bunch of mates and I biked up Ben Nevis, and back down again. We’d been planning it for quite some time, as we’d previously mountain biked Snowdon, and it got us thinking about the next level.

We knew Nevis would be a much bigger challenge, especially with bad weather, but given we’d had terrible weather when we did Snowdon, we figured ourselves fairly well prepared for it. Planned as part of our mountain biking Scotland 2011 8-day riding trip, we sandwiched the Nevis ascent between a couple of days biking Glentress and Innerleithen, and the rest of the trip afterwards that included Fort William DH and XC, Laggan, Golspie, and Balblair.

Snowdon’s summit is at 1085 metres above sea level, and took us 2.5 hours to climb on mountain bikes, up the Ranger’s path (which starts around 50m above sea level). Ben Nevis is 1344 metres above sea level.

We stayed at the Ben Nevis bunkhouse, which is conveniently sited right at the start of the trail up the mountain. The night before, we prepared well, by having a big dinner at the Ben Nevis Inn, and sinking quite a few local beers. We also discussed safety, made sure we each had maps, knew the route, and had the right kit, including  waterproofs, layers, walkie-talkies, first aid kits, whistles, torches, spares, tools, tubes, food, drink, and something to celebrate with at the summit…



On the day, the weather was poor, but not terrible. Some wind, and some rain, but not torrential, and not too cold, so we kitted up and set off around 11am. Just a few pedal strokes from the inn, we found ourselves pushing and carrying our bikes, which was to be the style for the next few hours. The first section, up to the lake at 570m, is stepped and rocky, with rocks worn smooth by years of walking boots passing by. This was pretty tough stuff to carry bikes up, as the steps are just that bit too big for a wheel to roll up. Those of us with heavy full-suspension bikes were struggling a bit compared to the guys with light hardtails. We passed one poor chap who looked in a pretty poor condition, and Joe kindly provided him with some painkillers so he could make it the rest of the way down after hurting his leg earlier on.

We both passed, and overtook a few groups of hikers, and almost each and every one expressed some form of surprise or disbelief that we were biking up there. One very hairy and Scottish trail maintenance guy described us as “fucking hardcore”.

We had a few stops to regroup, and got to the lake within two hours, I believe. From there, there actually is a bit of riding for a while, and as long as you can hop the drainage gullies, you can get a reasonable ride out of it. Soon, however, it begins to steepen, and get considerably looser, so that even if you could find the strength to climb on the bike, I doubt you’d find the traction. This is where the trail begins to zig-zag up the mountain, and the loose scree, rocks and pebbles make it tough going, so you’re either pushing the bike and frequently slipping your footing, or lifting the bike up and over the boulders in your path. It’s more punishing for your arms than your legs.

The cloud level must have been about 850-900m on this day, so visibility was poor – we could easily see the path ahead of us (usually), but we never saw any decent panoramic views across the mountains. Up here, even in May, there was quite a bit of snow, and the temperature noticeably dropped. We could tell we were nearing the summit when we came across a 100-metre stretch of deep snow to climb, which required innovative technique to haul a bike up and not slip back down with every step. Once over the snow, it’s a gradual loose scree path winding up to the summit, avoiding the two nasty looking gullies to the north. The summit itself felt somehow even colder, quite suddenly, so we all very quickly climbed up onto the cairn with our bikes, took the appropriate photos, and got back down to find some shelter to have a quick snack before the descent.

Mark celebrated his ascent with a can of very Scottish BrewDog punk IPA, while I preferred the more traditional slug of whisky from my hip flask. That combined with a more sensible Torq energy bar and gel, prepared us for the descent. This was the bit that I was most looking forward to.

Imagine one of the most technical downhill trails you’ve ridden. Now imagine it with extra rocks and loose scree, at around minus 15C, wet, windy, and tired. Now imagine you’re nearly 1.5km above sea level, and where you’re heading is just 20m above.

Until you’ve warmed into the descent, it’s quite tricky, and easy to pick a wrong line, slip the tyre, or grab too much brake, but once you’ve warmed into it, it becomes actually quite flowing. The descent through the snow simply requires a little speedway-style foot-out drifting down, using the rear brake and foot to modulate your speed. Once over that, and into the zig-zags, you can let go a little, but with cold fingers and bad arm-pump, the constant braking becomes hard work indeed, so the stops to regroup and wait for the slower riders to catch up involve quite a bit of arm-waving, clapping, and fist clenching to bring the blood back and loosen / warm up.



Down to the lake, you can pick up some quite high speed, which is probably unwise this high up, so careful braking and gentle turns are the name of the game, watching out for the drainage gullies that are just wide enough to drop a front wheel into. From the lake for the next 300m or so down is certainly not rideable in the wet, with tired arms, as the steps are big and close together. A good trials rider could do it, and a skilled downhiller might be able to nail a few sections in the dry, but it wasn’t to be on this day.

As a final treat, Ben Nevis provides an awesome and fast last 10 minutes of trail back to the Inn. Rocky, fast, technical, switching, and unpredictable, this section rewards a fast rider with kickers over mini-rock gardens, drops into turns, and enough pump to build up insane speed without pedalling. Through the gate, and we were back at the bunkhouse, where our good friend was waiting with hot coffee, dry towels, and more beer.

Note: the photos aren’t quite in the correct order, but you’ll work it out.

Edit: You can even see the detailed tracking information here.

The constant battle between motorists and cyclists.

All this debate about cycling and motoring (usually presented as a confrontation between the two) is getting tiresome. I’m a motorist and a cyclist too, like many people. I don’t commute to work on my bike, but I ride for leisure and have ridden competitively. I ride off-road a lot, but also quite often on the road too
If we’re going to get anywhere with this debate, I think we need to agree on a few key points:
1. Cycling is good, and should be encouraged. It’s good for the environment, good for congestion, and good for the health and fitness of the cyclist.
2. Cyclists are vulnerable. With just a lightweight helmet and clothing for protection, motorists need to be aware that what might be a minor accident for them, can mean death or serious injury to a cyclist.
3. Cycling is hard work. The shorter a cyclist’s journey can be, the better. Stopping and starting is also hard work. In a car at traffic lights, a green light means you lift the clutch and push on the throttle, on a bike, you get up out of the saddle, pump those legs, and exert a lot of energy in order to get up to speed.
If all motorists were properly aware of those facts, they might not be in such a hurry to condemn cyclists. I know it can be frustrating to drive behind a cyclist, waiting for space to pass, and it can be a surprise to see a bike weaving their way through a queue of slow traffic, and sometimes around junctions, you have to wait for a cyclist to get out of the way before you turn right or left, but that doesn’t mean the cyclist isn’t aware of this. Cycle paths are often terrible. I’ll often ride on the road instead of a cycle path, because cycle paths can be so difficult to navigate. Lowered kerbs (especially on a lightweight road bike), potholes, convoluted routes around traffic junctions, and the way they seem to suddenly end and reappear a few hundred yards down the road all mean that the actual road is often a better place to ride.

specialized enduro mtb

Motorists and pedestrians alike seem to have a few regular things to say about cyclists:
“Cyclists don’t obey the highway code.”
Neither do motorists. Not all cyclists are angelic, considerate, and polite road users, but neither are motorists, and we don’t start every debate about driving with how many drivers exceed the speed limit, drive after a beer or two, drive recklessly or don’t pay attention. Why do it to cyclists?
Cyclists aren’t entirely without blame though. And I’m not *just* talking about the reckless, junction-skipping, red light jumping, no-lights or helmet ones. The cyclists that are too slow, too hesitant, and too timid are equally as bad. Be bold, obvious, and clear about your intentions, and you won’t have many problems with traffic. And don’t be an idiot.
“Cyclists jump red lights.”
I’ll admit to this. Partly because of item 3 above,  if it’s obviously clear and safe do so, I see no problem with a cyclist going through a red light, carefully and at an appropriate speed, bearing in mind that it’s their own welfare at risk.
“They ride the wrong way up one-way streets.”
One way streets and footpaths. I’ve cycled the wrong way up a one way street, when the alternative would be to add over 10 minutes to my journey – it’s no big deal to drive an extra half mile around a city centre to obey street regulations, but it’s a whole different matter on a bike. I’d only do it if it was clear, safe, and not busy, of course. This often applies to pedestrianised areas too. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if town planners took cyclists into account, but they so rarely do.
“If cyclists want to use the roads, they should pay road tax.”
We do. Most of us have cars too. And anyway, there’s no fiscal link between vehicle excise duty (road tax), and the roads themselves. Roads are funded by general taxation, so cyclists have paid just as much as motorists.
“Roads were built for cars, not bikes.”
Bikes were here before cars. Horses and carts before either.
“Motorists have to have insurance, so cyclists should too.”
Actually many of us do, through cycling clubs or as part of our other insurance policies. But this is a more complex issue than just insisting cyclists are insured. Cycling is cheap, and obliging cyclists to be insured would mean many either couldn’t afford it, wouldn’t bother, or would just go back to driving their car.
As a cyclist, I’d like to see better cycle routes, town planning that actually aids cyclists rather than hinders them, more encouragement for recreational and competitive cycling, and and better integration with public transport. If drivers could treat us with respect, that’d be great too. We need to encourage more people out on their bikes; if just 10% of motorists got out if their cars and into their bikes, imagine how much less congested the roads would be, how much healthier and happier we’d be as a nation, and we wouldn’t spending so much on petrol either.