Scotland is a mountain biking paradise, take it from a mountain biker who lives there. It may not have the hour long descents of the French Alps, or the dust of California, but what it lacks in those departments it certainly makes up for in its rights of access to land. A Land Reform Act passed in 2003 established a right of access for mountain bikers to most land in Scotland. Spotted a Munro (Scottish mountain over 3000 ft) that you fancy conquering by bike? Get a Hook-A-Bike and soldier on. A coastal path you’d like to bikepack the length of? Lather up in chamois cream and crack on. The freedom that mountain bikers have in Scotland is unmatched the world over, particularly in comparison to neighbouring England and Wales where multi-use paths are, relatively speaking, few and far between. These access rights are granted on the basis that they are exercised responsibly. To make sure you “Do The Ride Thing” on your trip, click here. This is the story of our mountain biking trip in Scotland’s North East, Aberdeenshire.
Chances are, if you’re planning a mountain biking vacation in Scotland, or the UK as a whole, you’ve already got Fort William near the top of your list of riding destinations, what with its Downhill World Cup allure, and the infamous Torridon Hills, also on the west coast providing that ‘Big Mountain’ feel. Comparatively lesser-travelled by mountain bike is Scotland’s North East. We’d been up to Ballater once before and ridden the classic “Heart Break Ridge” route; a lung busting fire road climb followed by a super fast open-top mountain granite rock descent with unfathomable amounts of grip. Like many a rider before us, it left us wanting more. In the safe hands of a local knowledgeable guide, Chris Roper from Ride in Peace Adventures, we tell the story of the mountain bike offering of Aberdeenshire, featuring the UK’s largest national park, the Cairngorms.
There isn’t much in the way of trail centre in Aberdeenshire, so hiring an MTB guide is going to make your life a lot easier and your trip more memorable. With just 4 days of riding we barely scratched the surface of what the area has to offer, so rest assured there are heaps of big mountain loops and enduro tracks to be ridden, more than enough to satisfy a week’s worth of vacation. The terrain is super varied, ranging from the tough hike-a-bike ascents and technically challenging boulder-field descents of the Cairngorm munros, to the open-top mountain granite rock trails through blooming heather, to the wild hand-cut enduro tracks hidden away in Scots pine forest. There are also a couple of old school downhill tracks to be found as well which are really fun to ride on a trail bike.
Our choice of ride: The all-new Nukeproof Reactor Trail Bike
We rode the newest addition to Nukeproof’s mountain bike lineup, the Nukeproof Reactor, a 140mm rear wheel travel 650b all-mountain/trail bike. The Reactor was a good all-rounder, versatile enough for Aberdeenshire’s wide variety of terrain, just as a good trail bike should be. To see the Reactor in action on the wild enduro trails at Pitfichie, click here for the bike check video. Click here for the full tech low-down, or here for the first ride review.
Check out this short video for an overview of our trip, before digging deeper into the details on how to plan your MTB trip to Aberdeenshire.
We based ourselves in the small town of Aboyne, in the heart of Royal Deeside, staying with our friends from Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland. Aboyne itself is surrounded by heaps of natural singletrack in the hills that sit either side of the river Dee. The SUSTRANS-maintained off-road cycle route, the Deeside Way, links up many of our riding locations, running all the way from Aberdeen out on the coast, through to Banchory, Aboyne, and onto the historic village of Ballater. Anywhere in Deeside is a good location from which to base yourself for a mountain biking trip, leaving you with no more than a 45 minute drive to travel to any of the other riding spots mentioned in this article. Ballater Hostel has secure bicycle storage (and a bike wash!), as does the Glen Tanar Estate which offers higher-end luxury holiday cottage accommodation.
If you do stop in Aboyne make sure you head to the green to ‘Toss the Caber’. Tossing the Caber is a traditional Scottish sport played at the annual Highland Games. The Caber weighs 175 lbs and the aim is, as you might imagine, to toss it as far as you can. If you can lift it off the ground in the first place, that is.
Mountain Biking in Aberdeenshire
On day one, we met our guide Chris in Aboyne and set off on some of Aberdeenshire’s more tame mountain bike trails on Birse Hill and the Glen Tanar Estate. Our first taste of singletrack was provided by the 2km trail ‘Oh Deer’, naturally formed over many years by the Red Deer and Roe Deer that roam freely on the Glen Tanar estate. A nice flowy trail, this one doesn’t pose any real technical challenge for the experienced mountain biker with a max grade of -20%. Those of you who rely on Trailforks to seek out your singletrack are going to miss out on a lot of what Aberdeenshire has to offer. Some trails are on the App but most you’ll only find with the local knowledge of a guide, or advice from a local bike shop.
We also rode the long winding singletrack descent section of the historic Fungle ‘Road’ dating back to the 1600s when it was thought to have been used as a whiskey smuggling route. You’ll notice that much of what we rode on this trip was on terrain surrounded by vast amounts of purple heather. The heather is in full bloom in August, our main reason for visiting in this month. However, as much of this land is home to wild deer, sheep, and other mammals, it does have a lot of ticks; small biting arachnids (though they do look like insects, they actually have 8 legs) that can latch onto you unnoticed. They aren’t dangerous in and of themselves but they can carry a bacteria causative of Lyme Disease which can be transmitted to humans if the tick remains attached for a prolonged period of time. That said, it isn’t particularly common and shouldn’t put you off visiting. Advice is to check yourself over every evening after riding to make sure you don’t have any ticks attached to you, and if you do have one, make sure you remove it properly with the use of a tick remover, a small tweezer-like tool that can be picked up for under £5 in most outdoor lifestyle shops. More advice on ticks and Lyme disease can be found here.
That evening we headed out on Loch Muick, a 2km freshwater loch that sits within the boundary of the Royal Family’s Balmoral Estate. Our plan had been to take a bike rafting trip along the River Dee or the River Don, but a huge amount of rain the week before meant the rivers were running too high and too fast for the inexperienced paddler. We hired Alpacka rafts from Backcountry.scot in nearby Aviemore. The raft itself straps onto the handlebars, and the paddle breaks down into 3 separate pieces to be stowed into a rucksack.
Within around 20 minutes, we had inflated the rafts with the use of inflation bags, and secured the bikes onto the hull with the wheels and non-drive side pedal off (to prevent Kingpin-induced bursting).
Chris can offer weekend-long bike rafting excursions, integrating big mountain loops in the Cairngorms, with a gentle paddle across Loch Muick to finish, or enduro days in Royal Deeside followed by rafting on the River Dee for the more experienced paddler.
A major highlight of our trip was our enduro day at Pitfichie forest. For the last two years running, Pitfichie has been host to the Scottish Enduro Series, and has been a round favoured by most racers. Though not heavily advertised, as they were originally built without landowner permission, Pitfichie has plethora enduro trails that have now been sanctioned by the landowner due to the fine work of the Aberdeenshire Trails Association (ATA), an organisation made up of volunteers from across the riding community. Be warned; these are not tame trails! Though nowhere near as steep as enduro trails found in the Tweed Valley, in the South of Scotland, these trails pose a proper technical challenge with granite rock features such as steep slabs and rowdy rock gardens.
On our third day, Chris served up a 35km day in the Cairngorms National Park, a classic Aberdeenshire big mountain loop, including over 1200m of climbing, much of which required carrying the bike up unrideable boulder fields. Before driving out to Loch Muick where we began our big ride, we stopped off at the local bike shop in Ballater, Cycle Highlands, to stock up on some spares, do some suspension fettling, and to pick up a hike-a-bike aid, the Hookabike.
If you’re coming to Aberdeenshire without your own bike Cycle Highlands have a big fleet of well-maintained hire bikes to choose from, including hardtails from £40 per day, high-end full suspension bikes from Santa Cruz, Ibis and Kona from £80 per day, and a big range of E-MTBs from £50 per day. Besides hire bikes, the shop is super well stocked with any spares you might need and the guys are good chat so stop in for some pre-ride advice as they have up-to-date knowledge of the entire trail network.
Before hitting the hills for our big adventure we got a proper feed at the Spider On A Bicycle Cafe in Aboyne. The Spider serve up a superb cup of specialty coffee, a good range of brunch options (we went for smoked salmon with avocado and egg on toast) and a huge selection of cakes – the millionaire shortbread is highly recommended!
Our ‘big mountain’ day started at Loch Muick; the first climb was a big effort, steep doubletrack with a sandy surface, but the reward was sweeping views of the Glen and full length of the Loch, soon to undergo development with a hydroelectricity scheme.
Our descent of the Capel Mounth road actually took us into the neighbouring county of Angus, into Glen Doll where a visitor centre provided a welcome spot for refuelling. The 15 minute descent wasn’t particularly steep but rock-filled ruts and off-camber traverses kept us on our toes. Though nowhere near as treacherous, and with lots of ‘B-lines’, some sections of this are reminisce of Kinlochleven’s infamously terrifying trails, a spot where Joe Barnes of Hazard Racing cut his teeth.
After learning a bit about the flora and fauna of the area and refuelling, we headed off up ‘Old Jocks Road’, a mountain pass connecting Ballater to Cullow. If you’re into your history, Old Jocks Road is steeped in the stuff; it is said that over 700 highlanders took to this road in 1746 heading to the Battle of Culloden, the final confrontation of the Jacobite Rising.
For the Hike-a-Bike efforts we used the Hookabike backpack bike carrying system, which can be hired from local bike shop Cycle Highlands in Ballater. The main hard plastic body attaches to the top of your backpack, while a metal hook attaches to the downtube via a velcro strap. Lifting the bike over your head, you slot the metal hook into the Hookabike. Your bike is then suspended on your back with ergonomic weight distribution, and your hands are free to help you balance and scramble your way up steep inclines.
The summit of Old Jocks Road gives incredible views back down into Glen Doll. We were also rewarded with a wee bothy-like shelter called Davy’s Bourach. The Bourach would provide amazing shelter from an overnight storm, should you be unfortunate enough to be caught in one, and a cracking view to wake up to in the morning. We stopped in for a snack before heading down the ‘Glittering Skellies’ descent.
Brush up on your bunny hopping skills before heading out on any big mountain loops in the Cairngorms. There are drainage ditches everywhere and if you keep hitting them square on you’re in for a long day out on the hill fixing flats. Our final descent of the day took us back to Loch Muick down the ‘Streak of Lightning’. This is a narrow path with lots of drainage ditches and boulders to navigate, a few of which are ripe pedal catchers hidden under the bordering heather, so keep your eyes peeled or risk face-planting the heather as I did. At least it was a soft landing.
Our final ride of the trip was a bit more chilled out, following our epic 7 hour Cairngorms adventure. We rocked up at Cambus O’May in Deeside to shred some local fresh-cut enduro loam, followed by a tour of nearby Loch Kinord.
Cambus O’May is littered with really interesting giant rock features which are fun to session. They are generally hidden away off the main trails so you’d have to do a bit of wading through the ferns and heather if you’re going to try to find them without a guide.
Location: Aberdeenshire, Scotland
When to Visit: August is the best time to see the hilltop heather in full bloom. Unless you’re really into the Royal Family, avoid the second week of August if you want to miss the shenanigans of Victoria Week in Ballater, a traditional festival initiated in 1987 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession. That said, it is probably a good shout if you want an authentic taste of the Scottish Highlands culture, with Highland Games on as well as Ceilidh dancing in the evenings. Aberdeenshire is one of the drier parts of Scotland, and you’re likely to get decent weather with temperatures in the region of 15-25°C from May/June through to August/September. Though many might consider it a year round mountain biking destination, it is also the coldest area of Scotland, and I wouldn’t fancy my chances during the winter months.
Terrain: Granite rock singletrack, fresh-cut loam enduro trails, from the tame to the terrifying
Bike: We rode the Nukeproof Reactor 275c RS, Nukeproof’s new all-mountain/trail bike with 140mm of rear wheel travel, and 160mm fork travel. The Reactor is an excellent all-rounder, an efficient pedaller, and handles itself with a lot of dignity on those big mountain rocky descents. For the first ride review click here, or to see it in action on the enduro trails at Pitfichie forest, click here.
Tyres: The Reactor 275c RS is spec’d upfront with a Maxxis Assegai 2.5″ WT EXO+, the version with the lightest casing. Though we only got one puncture the whole trip (in the most unlikely of places, a loamy trail) I would still recommend going for a tyre with heavier casing to provide extra puncture resistance on descents where plethora drainage bars are likely to cause pinch flats. The grip of the Assegai was exceptional. We ran a tubeless set-up with slightly more psi than we would normally due to the rocky terrain.
What to wear: Nukeproof kitted us out with some quality mountain biking apparel, including the Nirvana and Blackline shorts and jerseys. We particularly liked the Nirvana shorts which are super lightweight but very durable, made of Cordura to protect against rips and abrasion, and with a DWR finish so we stayed dry in light showers. Keep an eye out for a full review of Nukeproof’s ride wear coming soon. Even in summer, you’re going to want to wear a quality base layer in Aberdeenshire, especially on long days in the Cairngorms where the weather conditions can change rapidly. We wore merino wool base layers from Scottish brand FINDRA.
Other useful things: Take a proper tick remover to remove any ticks that latch onto you to reduce your chances of contracting Lyme Disease. Also, pick up a Hookabike at Cycle Highlands if you plan to do any big mountain days with lots of hike-a-bike. It will make your life easier!
We ate at the following cafes and restaurants and would highly recommend all, though the favourite has to be Spider for the quality coffee!
Spider on a Bicycle Cafe, Aboyne Station Square, Aboyne AB34 5HX
The Boat Inn, Aboyne Charlestown Rd, Aboyne AB34 5EL
Rocksalt and Snails, Ballater 2 Bridge St, Ballater AB35 5QP
Lochnagar Indian Brasserie, Ballater 2 Church Square, Ballater AB35 5NE
India On The Green, Ballater 9 Victoria Rd, Ballater AB35 5QQ
Thanks again to all of our partners for making this trip possible; Nukeproof, Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland, Ride in Peace Adventures, and finally the Aberdeenshire Trails Association for keeping these trails running sweet!
Special thanks to Will (and Angus trail dog), the Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland Aberdeenshire Coordinator, for hosting us, and for cooking us a fry up at 21:30, and finally to Rob Hinds for the shredding.