Mountain bikers from across the country have been descending on the Nevis Range since a top new trail launched earlier this month. Gayle checks out the ‘game changer’ trail and other, less daunting, routes.
I love most adventure sports but I’m not the bravest going downhill on a mountain bike. This might well be down to the fact that my biker pals have, over the years, regaled me with many a tale of broken bones, bruises and raw rears.
When I was invited to try out the newly opened 8km Blue Doon trail at Nevis Range – the UK’s longest blue grade uplift trail – I felt a slight twinge of anxiety, combined with huge excitement.
Would I be courageous enough to face my fears and hurtle down the slopes of Aonach Mor in the shadow of Ben Nevis?
After being reassured that I could challenge myself as little or as much as I fancied, I decided to give it a shot.
I arrived the morning after the Blue Doon had launched and there was a major buzz about the place, with a queue a mile long full of tough-looking riders, mostly male, all desperate to try out the new trail.
My first mission was to get kitted out with a bike and helmet, and I did so with help from guide Findlay Morrant.
After explaining I didn’t want to do anything too daring, Findlay produced a snazzy looking e-bike and helmet supplied by Nevis Cycles.
The Blue Doon trail is aimed at intermediate bikers with off-road skills, so we decided to stick to some of the lower level forest tracks around what’s known as “The Witch’s Trails”.
Following a brief induction, Findlay set me a series of balance challenges which involved weaving in and out of cones. I was fairly tense and rickety, and embarrassed myself by shrieking and almost crashing into a tree.
The trick is to be relaxed, I know, but that’s easier said than done when you’re faced with the prospect of injury.
Findlay, bless him, told me he was “well impressed” with some of my manoeuvres but I suspect he was just being polite.
Heading uphill into thick woodland, we let the e-bikes do the work for us.
While it felt a bit like cheating – especially when we overtook a couple of hardcore cyclists, their muscles straining with the exertion – it was also really liberating to make speedy progress with minimal effort; no sweat was broken!
Once I’d got the hang of switching between modes (eco, tour, MTB and turbo), we rode along the scenic “Puggy Line” – a path following the route of a narrow gauge railway.
“It was built for the construction of the 15-mile tunnel through the mountains from Loch Trieg to the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme,” Findlay told me, pointing out the remains of some train tracks.
We crossed bridges galore, including an odd shaped one Findlay referred to as the “stolen bridge”, and paused to drink in stunning views of Glen Loy, Loch Lochy and the Great Glen.
While we avoided horribly technical trails, we did tackle a few berms (steeply banked corners), rocks, roots and drop-offs (steep and sudden drops).
Findlay also set me the tricky challenge of leaning out to touch trees as we rode along tracks on tight bends. Scary!
A highlight was pausing to eat some natural snacks including blaeberries (yum) and wood sorrel, which tasted a bit like apples.
Heading back along a gravel trail, we put our bikes into super speedy turbo mode – yeehah! – and were treated to cracking views of Aonach Mor, the Blue Doon trail, and the north face of Ben Nevis. We arrived back at base unscathed and smiling widely. I enjoyed it, nothing bad happened and no hospital visits were required: bonus.
The fantastic thing about the bike trails at Nevis Range is that they cater for all levels of riders, wimpy ones like me included. Enjoy a relaxed adventure or tackle the steepest trails alongside pro-racers – whatever floats your boat.
After coffee and cake in the Pine Marten Cafe, I jumped on the mountain gondola up to the top station at Aonach Mor. At 650m, this is where Blue Doon begins, so it was great to be able to see what those more daring than me were up to. The views are incredible – of the surrounding landscape and of daredevil bikers in action way below.
There are also two relatively easy viewpoint walks from the top station, enabling visitors to appreciate the true magnificence and ruggedness of the area.
I’d travelled to the area from Aberdeenshire early in the morning so was glad to be staying in Glen Nevis Youth Hostel that evening as it’s a fair old drive back. The hostel is eight miles from Nevis Range and is clean, cosy and comfortable, with private en suite rooms, a small bar, log burning stove and panoramic mountain views.
I enjoyed hanging out in the communal living area, eating food I’d bought from Morrisons in Fort William. Normally, hostellers can make us of the fantastic self-catering kitchen to cook themselves up a storm, but Covid had put a pause on that during my visit.
After a scenic stroll along River Nevis, I returned to the hostel where I sat on the outside decking, gazing up at mighty Ben Nevis and swigging back a few wines. As darkness fell, I picked out groups of walkers making their way down the mountain, their headtorches bobbing and flashing as they went.
Breakfast the next morning was of the continental version and was certainly enough to set me up for the day. Toast, jam, cereal, yogurt, orange juice and fruit ensured I didn’t go hungry.
Whether you’re serious about bikes or just fancy a potter about in a gorgeous part of Scotland, it’s well worth coming to Lochaber for a fun and truly memorable experience.