Quiet, picturesque, remarkable: An Aberdeenshire cycling adventure
Words: Dave Everett | Photos: Harry Talbot
“I’m an absolute fool, a complete muppet. Why have I been so damn blinkered all these years?”
These were the thoughts that quickly formed in the first few kilometres of my latest road trip for CyclingTips. This time around it was a Scottish tale, an Aberdeenshire adventure. Now, I’m not averse to admitting when I’ve been a fool, and this is one of those times. In all the years I lived in the English Lake District, why hadn’t I dashed up the M6 on to the M74 then the A9 cutting north east to Aberdeenshire?
Aberdeenshire is tucked away in the northeast tip of Scotland. It’s not generally the first place that would spring to mind for a road trip when heading over the border, but as I’d find out, the region is ideally suited to us in the lycra-clad clan. It ticks all the boxes, and now with the region promoting itself as a sports destination, I’d like to think I won’t be the only one regretting not heading there sooner.
I’d been invited to the region by North East Adventure Tourism (NEAT), a project set up to help develop and promote the region’s adventure tourism offering, with support from Scottish Cycling, Opportunity North East, Aberdeenshire Council, Scottish Enterprise, and VisitAberdeenshire. I’d have three days to take in as much as possible. I quickly found out it wouldn’t be enough time. For road cyclists, the place has an abundance of quiet (and I mean outrageously quiet), picturesque, and challenging roads on offer.
First off, Aberdeenshire is stunning. You quickly understand why the Queen has her little timeshare cottage in the area. Though why she’s not thrown her regal legs over a road bike in all the years she’s been popping up this way is anyone’s guess. She certainly is missing out.
It’s as if someone has put the whole region through the Clarendon filter on Instagram. You know, the one that “pops” everything. Then, to top it off, they whacked the lux up to 100%. Greens – oh so many shades of green – pop in 4K resolution, vegetation feels like it’s been somehow doubled up as if the locals have found a way of planting twice as much grass in one area than is naturally possible. Trees seem taller than they should be, there’s rolling farmland with roads that snake through and up the open land. It results in a deeply lush vista.
To add to that, most of the time you’re cutting through it all on near-empty roads, and traffic just isn’t a problem. Mix in the countryside air that feels wholesomely thick and you have a destination that is prime for long days on the bike which, luckily, is possible. Being so far north, running out of daylight on an epic all-dayer in the summer months isn’t something you need to worry about. The sun can rise as early as 4 am and set after 10 pm, so there are no excuses (apart from your fitness level) for 300 km days with multiple cafe stops.
Day one kicked off in the small fishing town of Stonehaven. Situated 25 km south of the capital of the region, Aberdeen, the town is a little delight. The town’s harbour is exactly what you would expect – just imagine the village from the British TV show Doc Martin, transfer it north, and add some local tough granite buildings looping around the small beachfront, and you have an ideal starting point for three days of bike riding.
My guide for the day would be Nat. I was told she’s a bit of a local legend. I could see she knew her stuff, recommending we meet at one of the many independent coffee shops in town, the Old Pier Coffee House. With a quality brew and the first of what would turn out to be many cakes, we set off via a quick stop at the local bike shop, BikeRemedy, for a few emergency spares.
The day’s aim was to tick off some of the Aberdeenshire Ascents. Ten climbs have been cherry-picked by NEAT as the must-do hills and passes of the region. It’s a real mixed bag of climbs; there’s something for everyone. Some are challenging and will see action in the upcoming stage 1 of the Tour of Britain; others are just little kickers that you’ll want to take your time climbing to soak up the stunning scenery.
Rolling out of Stonehaven was the first time I realised that the region certainly doesn’t have a traffic problem. Riding two abreast and chatting without trouble from cars would be a recurring theme throughout the three days. The aim for the day was to head out to the Cairn o’ Mount, one of the more challenging climbs. But first we had to get there.
As you’d expect, this part of the UK has its fair share of historical buildings. On numerous occasions we’d turn a corner and out of the blue we were greeted by what I’ll describe as a “modest” stately home or a small chapel, all looking pristine and picture-postcard-perfect.
The lay of the land from Stonehaven is undulating and once away from the coast you’re thrown into the rolling countryside. With it being a farming area there are heaps of little lanes to choose from. These old tracks are now tarmacked over so that if you haven’t got a local guide or a plan, they could make for an absolute field day getting lost amongst the innumerable little woodlands and rolling hills that stretch inland from the coast.
The Cairn o’ Mount is only about 4 km long but don’t let the relatively short length deceive you. With parts tipping up to 16% this pulls the legs. Nat kindly didn’t rip it up; she was saving her legs for an enduro race that weekend, thankfully.
We started the climb at the Clatterin Brig crossroads. From here the climb kicks up quickly and you’re just as quickly out of the lower rolling hills to wide open mountainside. The day we hit it the weather was slightly against us, but the view was still spectacular. On one side you can see the Cairngorm National Park, on the other the North Sea. I really would love to see how far you can see on a clear day, an excuse I’m sure I’ll use at some point to get myself up there in the future.
From there it was a rapid descent to yet more pinewood forests and back to our hotel for the night in the town of Banchory.
On the second day of the trip I could go at my own pace – no suffering on Nat’s wheel. I was on my own. The starting point for the day was the little village of Monymusk. If you’ve seen the ‘80s kid’s TV show Postman Pat just imagine the village of Greendale where he lives – Monymusk is almost a carbon copy of Greendale brought to life.
Even though the village is home to just 900 people it’s got all you need: a good cafe, and a bike shop, Bike Bothy Pitfichie, built inside a small chapel.
From here the day’s route would give me the chance to tick off a few more of the Aberdeenshire Ascents. Again, just like day one, I had the roads practically to myself, but you could see that this area certainly is a draw to local cyclists. I spotted multiple groups out on a mid-week spin.
The first Ascent of the day was the small kicker The Lord’s Throat – nothing too troubling but one that I wanted to tick off purely for the name of it. It was a good starting point to warm the legs up for what lay ahead.
What lay ahead was Lecht, a climb that I was told I’d know I’d arrived at before I saw the sign.
The road to Lecht like the day before was varied, from farmland that in a few months would be a blissful sea of rolling golden corn, to woodlands that had nothing but the chirp of birds chattering to keep me company. Short sharp inclines jumped out of nowhere at times, lifting the heart rate but then rewarding me with a dash of empty road to shoot down.
But the locals had been right – I knew I was at the start of the Lecht climb before I saw the sign. Swooping around a right-hander my concentration was on a large white castle sitting on the hillside against the patchwork fells. Once past the castle my eyes turned back to the road, and I was immediately greeted by the road rising upwards at an alarming angle, and for longer, than most would appreciate. This is Lecht, a climb that eventually drops you off at the Lecht ski station.
It’s a brute. It may only be 3.5 km long but it quickly lets you know you’re not going anywhere fast with the road hitting 20% straight out of the gate. Don’t worry though, as it’s not all like this. After levelling out the climb kicks for a second time, and once around the following left-hander, you get the breather you’re after.
Once up and over that last leg-breaker the view opens up in every direction. The tarmac drifts off in front with small gravel roads darting off into the hillside every few hundred meters. You just know this region is a gravel cyclist’s paradise too.
The climb reminded me oddly of the Col de la Loz in the Pyrenees. Both kick up violently at the start then ease off, revealing a strip of empty tarmac on the way to a ski station. And it’s that final stretch of tarmac that really rewards. After reaching the true summit, and after snapping an obligatory photo at the sign you get a wide-open road that points straight downwards. The beauty of it though is you can see it all – no sharp corners are hiding any unexpected danger. It’s one of those descents that begs you to see how fast you can go. A perfect end to the second day.
Day three and I was back with local guides, Amy and Mark. We started the day in what must be a tourist centre for those that appreciate the Royal family, Ballater.
The quiet town sits aside from the River Dee and is surrounded by pine trees on all sides creeping up the hillside. Once over the river, you’re out of town and within a minute, you’re on to narrow lanes flanked by thick grass verges and deep forest. Plus, like every other ride, it’s peacefully quiet, which is something else as the region’s prime tourist trap, Balmoral Castle, is only a few kilometres away. You’re there before you know it.
The Queen didn’t inviting us in for tea (we’ll forgive her – she’d had a busy week with the Jubilee) so we continued, rolling past the iconic Heartbreak Bridge MTB trail riding towards Balmoral and over the River Dee again. Turn right at the end of the road in Crathie, on to the A93 and in few hundred meters you’ll find one of my new all-time favourite cafes: the Highlanders Bakehouse.
Owned and operated by couple Andy and Shone the place is one of those gems that if you lived too close to, you’d be in trouble of not fitting in your cycling kit.
Like any good business, it’s blatantly a passion project for the couple. Everything from the thick rich coffee to the lovingly made bread and pastries make this a destination in itself. The fact that the riding in the area is a pleasure is a bonus. I could easily wax lyrical for the next 1,000 words on the place. All I’ll say is if you’re in the area, hunt it out.
Filled up with far too many scotch pancakes and butteries we continued on our way. On to the next climb of the day, a 3 km pitch along the B976 towards the picturesque Gairnshiel Bridge.
As the climb tilts gradually upwards you go from wooded farmland to rolling hillsides that open up to yet another of those ribbons of tarmac. Once at the top the slither of tarmac tilts downwards. It’s another descent where you need to have trustworthy brakes. With no cars and wide swooping corners, you can easily hit 80 plus km/h. Before you know it you are down amongst the River Gairin.
This was where I had to say bye to Amy and Mark. They were off, believe it or not, to take on a 300 km Audax ride in the region the following day. But as they told me, if my legs still wanted to take on more climbs it was easy enough to continue on and link back toward the Lecht ski centre again. As much as I’d have loved to suffer up that climb again I thought doubling back and making a beeline for the cafe was a wiser move to round the day out.
Aberdeenshire surprised me, as I’m sure you can gather. It has so much to offer. Sure the climbs aren’t alpine long but some are absolute leg-breakers – short, sharp and rewarding in the views and wildlife they lead you to. It almost feels like a region that has refused to get on board with the rush of the current times. I can’t remember a time when I’ve been on the bike and been able to count the cars that passed me each hour on one hand.
The two words that keep coming back to me when thinking about the riding in Aberdeenshire are “wholesome” and “meditative”. You return feeling full, not just from the good coffee and food along the way, but also from the tranquility and space that’s been yours for the day.
I’ll be back for sure, there’s no doubt about that. If not for the cycling (maybe to complete the Aberdeenshire Ascents?) then at least for a buttery or two.
What you need to know
Aberdeenshire may be tucked away in the north east of Scotland, but it’s easily accessed. Aberdeen is serviced by an international airport, which I’ll add is an absolute breeze to dash through. With over 100 destinations on offer, many major airlines fly there: EasyJet, British Airways, Ryanair, KLM and Scotland’s very own LoganAir, amongst others. Trains from Glasgow and Edinburgh arrive hourly or there’s the east coast line for access to Newcastle, York, and beyond. If you are heading from London, there’s always the Caledonian Sleeper. For timetables or to book tickets visit the Scotrail website.
Aberdeenshire seems to have struck it lucky in the British weather department. Being in the shadow of the Grampians it’s generally a dry climate, with areas of the coast receiving, on average, just 64 cm of rain a year. Summers are mild, tipping the scales in the mid-20s ºC – perfect for a long day on the bike without cooking up. Bring arm and knee warmers and pack a light rain jacket and you should be able to ride all day, every day, throughout summer.
Aberdeenshire’s got you covered on this one. I couldn’t get over how many independent bike shops seemed to be in the region. For instance, we based ourselves in the town of Banchory. With a population of just 7,400, you have not one but three bike shops on hand. We frequented REMBikes and Coffee Bothy: it’s ideal for either starting or finishing a ride. It has it all. Not just a well-stocked shop but also a bar and a cafe. It’s a destination in itself. If, like us, you head to Stonehaven, BikeRemedy is worth a visit. Based in an old bank they have the local knowledge and a shop stocked to the rafters. All you need to know is that no matter where you are in the region, you won’t be far from a helpful mechanic and local knowledge.
Food and drink
Just ask for a buttery; that’s all you need to know. Again, why I’ve never had one of these is beyond me. The pastry may be chock full of calories, but they’re tasty calories and if you slather it with lashings of jam you’ll be able to ride from dusk till dawn.
Cafes are plentiful and on the whole extremely good value. You can get a good coffee and a decent Scottish breakfast for around £10.
I’ve mentioned it already but the Highland Bakehouse just around from the Queen’s holiday home is a destination in itself. Just make sure you aim for a big day on the bike, as you’ll want to eat and eat.
Just keep in mind this is Scotland and not Spain, so cafes shut relatively early – around 4 pm – but are open for business early so you can get that quality breakfast in before a day’s ride. We didn’t find one bad place to eat, and finding good coffee was pleasingly easy, and always from independent coffee shops. Perfect.