Single Track/Single Malt/Single Gear
(or, The Essence of the Scottish Mountain Bike Experience)
by Ken Eichstaedt
If mountain biking has lost some its appeal for you, you need to go to Scotland. In Scotland, I rediscovered the essence of mountain biking.
In the early years, when mountain bikes were just coming into existence, mountainbiking bought with it a sense of simplicity, a feeling of floating unencumbered. I wanted to have that feeling again.
It's my belief that this distillation of biking is most easily found on an elegant, simple, handcrafted bike. So, it was decided: a fixed gear mountain bike would be my tool. But where would I ride it?
I wanted the harshest and most glorious beauties, the most incredible trails imaginable. There was only one choice: Scotland, unique for its unequaled vistas and the challenging terrain it offers so freely to the offroader. Land access is no problem. Few trails are offlimits.
With the bike on the drawing board and the magical trail beckoning, a last, essential ingredient was needed--the whisky, also known as the elixir of life or aqua vitae.
The Single Malt
A fine single malt whisky is like the view you see from the top of a Munro, after an invigorating climb, looking down into the heather-filled glen below. Whisky is the taste of Scotland.
Every single malt encapsulates a view, a landscape, a part of this country. The tumbling burn, the purple swathes of heather, the rough-hewn glen, the green fields of barley, the sweet air and the mountain peaks are distilled into a taste that expresses the essence of its birthplace.
Each dram will have you reliving the exhilaration of the climb up the mountain or the single track down the glen. As you ride on and the scenery changes, so do the color, smell and taste of the local whisky you enjoy from your hip flask. Just as the fixed gear lets you experience the pure beauty of the land, the whisky lets you taste it. Whisky and biking join in perfect harmony!
A remarkable phenomenon occurs as you drink a single malt. The later into the wee hours of the morning it gets, and the more that the bottle is emptied, the less exaggerated and more down-to-earth the stories become. Amazing!
For my trip to Scotland, I got the most amazing machine that ever existed. This bike floats. This supple lithe tool is pure, direct, unencumbered by unnecessary technology. Imagine a 15 lb fixed gear (55 gear inches) mountain bike. This is the supreme ride.
It was handcrafted by Paolo Salvigione of Swift Cycles in Sausalito, California, a craftsman of the highest order. Through his hands, metal is molded into bike perfection. From the luscious welded aluminum tubeset to the one piece titanium stem/bar/bar ends, this bike is a kinetic sculpture deserving of a museum showcase.
Is there anything better than sex and ice cream, combined? Yes, this bike! Whew... now, there's a brash statement!
Get to the Highlands and hear the baritone chorus of the glens, and your whole being is refreshed. You take in life with each breath. Just about every ride is a pedal over some ancient trail, massacre site or lesson in history.
Take, for example, the bloody Glencoe massacre, brought to brutal life in the movie Rob Roy. As history has it, the English bought off the Campbell clan to forego the practice of showing hospitality to a wayward traveller, even an enemy. The Campbell traitors betrayed that Highland hospitality by slaughtering the MacDonalds. Personally, I never eat Campbells soup (but then I rarely eat in MacDonalds...)
All this happened close to the Devil's Staircase on the West Highland Way. You can ride the trail today, see the landmarks from the story. History right there, right under your wheels.
Mind you, there's sharp rocks there, too. The Staircase is a good proving ground for suspension forks, tires and nerve. When we rode it, we crested out of Glen Coe and began the descent into Kinlochleven talking with the Devil. Nice guy. He was glad that we weren't feeling guilty with all the fun we were having. (You should never feel guilty about riding.)
Calling the Devil's Staircase a descent is putting it rather nicely. In truth, it is trail scratched into a boulder field. Three foot drop-offs with knarly rocks all around awaiting your unexpected detour. This is a trail made infamous by the famed Scottish Moonters - the Dangerous Brothers. The coordination-challenged need not apply.
Scotland has developed a built-in defense mechanism for the protection of its beauty--the weather. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. You'll need good apparel.
Natural wool is a fine choice, being warm, nonsmelly, and a departure from the shiny corporate billboard Lycra look. However, there is significant problem with wearing wool. You see, there are sheep in Scotland. Sheep in multitudes. They've been a major industry ever since the lairds shifted the country folk off their land in pursuit of wool profits during the Highland Clearances.
In Scotland, the wool-clad rider must be ready to sprint in quick order when he there are sheep about. Imagine it: you ride past a sheep. That sheep has recently been shorn. He's freezing his mutton off. If he recognises his fleece, he's gonna be pissed.
Be vigilant. Be ready to hightail it.
Remember: Don't fleece a sheep!
The area of Deeside, west of Aberdeen, is the most northerly royal family retreat. Yep, Prince Charles was grinding up to Ballatar Mast on his mountain bike while his nuptial regrets were being solidified. The ride over Mount Keen, a peak that teeters through the glacial cleft of Glen Tilt, will blow your mind.
We climbed Mount Keen in August. In four hours we had hail, snow, rain, and then sun again. We climbed 3,000 feet to the top trying to not let our tongues get caught in the spokes and then descended into the ancient forest of Glen Tanner, listening to the cuckoos.
It has been said that the reason that many of the Scots left Scotland was because they could not get along with each other. But that is pure bunk. The Scots are GDIs (Gawd Damn Individuals.) They left because of either the government or a hope for a better life.
Let's put one generalization to rest. The Scots' reputation for frugality is false. You will never encounter a more generous bunch of people than the Scots. They will give a total stranger shelter and a bed for the night or share the last morsel of food 20 miles from the end of an epic ride. The bond of a Scottish friendship is like a strong weld. When a Scot thinks of you as a friend, it's a lifetime commitment.
After Deeside, we went to the Orkney Islands. Here you hug coastal single tracks beside precipitous and fantastic cliffs that plunge 1000 feet into the sea. Just inland are neolithic settlements.
This is the place for Highland Park Single Malt, distilled right here on the islands. For me, this was the place where bikes, whisky and history all came together like a good fillet-brazed joint, so smooth I couldn't see the join.
The essence of mountainbiking is to use the bike as a tool to experience the land, take in the scenery and be with your friends. In Scotland, I rediscovered the Marin County mountainbiking scene of the 1970s and early 1980s. In Scotland, I found that Team dfl (dead f---ing last) lives, flourishes, under the Caledonian appellation of Moonters. The Scottish Moonter understands that the mountain bike is a tool to a higher ground, both figuratively and literally.
Riding in the Highlands brings to mind a simple question. THE question, in fact. Is it fancy and fad, or is it feeling? Even as mountain bikers across the world are losing sight of the answer, the Scots know it in their bones. In Scotland, mountain biking is feeling.
What is the ultimate test of mountain bike equipment? If you're thinking of taking all that purple, green and blue anodized titanium bike bit jewelry into the wilds of Scotland on your bike, think twice. The ultimate test is simply to ask "has anyone taken one of these down the Devil's Staircase?"
The Scottish Moonter is repulsed by the evolution of mountain biking--a dapper new Klein perched on top of a gleaming black Jeep Cherokee. The Moonter is a practicing philosopher. First he looks for fun: enjoying freedom, the outdoors and friends. Only then does he seek competition.
For the true Moonter, there is only one must-have trick add-on. Forget all the anodized titanium bike bit jewelry. What you need is a pair of whisky corks for your bar ends. They are most effective if you shared the bottle they capped with a good friend, telling amazing stories of past adventures.
When you venture into the wilds of Scotland, remember this: one can go where things are predictable or one can choose the wilderness. In the wilderness comes reverence and revelation. Scotland provides the latter in abundance.
Be a Moonter and go ride Scotland. Experience the essence of mountain biking. And have a wee dram of whisky for the love of riding and the living that goes with it!