Hostel-hopping: A solo gravel bikepacking adventure on a ‘70s singlespeed
You’ve probably seen some of Markus Stitz’s adventures here on CyclingTips. His solo bikepacking trip through Kyrgyzstan. His ride tracing the Iron Curtain across Europe. His treatise on the austere beauty of riding in the dead of winter.
In his latest dose of inspiration for CyclingTips, Markus takes us along for a three-day gravel bikepacking trip through the Scottish Highlands on a route that links together a handful of hostels. But Markus wasn’t riding the latest and greatest gravel bike for this particular expedition; rather he was on a Claud Butler singlespeed from the 1970s – he was on a refurbished town bike he’d had converted into a touring rig. Take it away, Markus.
I was cycling to work one day, listening to CyclingTips’ Nerd Alert podcast, when I had a call from Scottish Hostels, asking if I would be interested in riding between a few hostels and writing an article about my experience.
There is still a substantial network of hostels left in Scotland, mostly run by Scottish Hostels, an umbrella organisation for most independent hostels, and Hostelling Scotland. Their accommodation offer has changed over the years, with most hostels now offering private rooms as an alternative to bunk beds. Big bathrooms are often replaced by ensuite facilities, but the social spaces and the opportunities they offer haven’t changed too much over the years.
And while human interaction is often curbed by people staring at their screens or listening to music with big headphones, you can still find interesting people in hostels, sometimes resulting in friendships that last a long time.
When I looked at an itinerary for a three-day trip linking hostels like these together, the Badger Divide off-road route from Inverness to Glasgow popped up. I wanted to include a bikepacking route that didn’t require people to carry everything with them, and the Badger Divide looked like just the ticket.
In the natural progression of life there is usually a stage where we actively engage with things and keep pace with everything new that happens. When I worked as a DJ for 12 years you would be able to quiz me about new releases easily, but now all that is left is a deep appreciation for what I define myself as good music. It doesn’t matter at all when a song or album was released.
My passion for riding bikes has taken a similar path. There was a time where I actively followed what was happening in the industry. These days any technical question will be the one I will skip in a talk or interview. This will explain why a bike roughly 50 years old is my favourite bike.
When I took the call from Scottish Hostels I was happily hobbling along the cobbles of my new neighbourhood in Edinburgh on a 1970s Claud Butler, which was given a new lease of life by Velow Bikeworks and has since served me well as a town bike. It had mudguards, straight bars, 28 mm tyres and rim brakes, and a singlespeed drivetrain with a 42/18 ratio – sensible gearing for my local area.
Why not use that on my bikepacking trip, covering 380 km across the Scottish Highlands in three days with more than 5,000 metres of climbing?
The bike already worked a treat as a conversation-starter on the train up to Inverness, as two other travellers wondered where I would be heading with my setup. I wasn’t the most talkative person on the train, but had a good chat with Lyndsey, who came all the way from South Wales, in the Black Isle Hostel, which was my base for the first night. Looking for some peace and quiet I opted to cook my own food (pasta and pesto), and enjoy a nice hoppy beer.
Day one of my journey broke and I looked at my route options again. While I had planned to ride the Badger Divide route, it seemed much more tempting to head a bit further north and ride into Glen Affric, on a route I had previously ridden with Jenny Graham for part of my book, Great British Gravel Rides. A nice breeze kept the midges in bay, and I had always skipped Plodda Falls on my previous visits. One of Scotland’s hidden treasures, with a spectacular waterfall cascading past towering trees, this was worth a stop and a small detour.
Most of the beginning of my trip was on tarmac. The test for the bike was still to come. By now I had already appreciated using mudguards, with the morning haar briefly turning into rain. The steep climb away from the falls into Guisachan Forest was the first proper challenge for me and the bike, and at times I had to get off and push.
Loose gravel and sharp corners provide tough terrain for any geared gravel or mountain bike, but with 28 mm tyres they were an obstacle that was one notch too much for me. I enjoyed stopping and turning around, admiring the commanding views to the Five Sisters of Kintail and the mountains further north.
The rest of the path over a fairly barren landscape and past lochs was rideable, and my initial fears of puncturing faded the further I progressed towards Fort Augustus. Descending a loose gravel track required more attention and foresight; the only downside to my 1970s setup was the brakes. Someone introduced disc brakes for a good reason. At times I really hoped for them to magically appear on my bike. Filming one-handed and braking proved to be a real challenge, and I had to add an extra few stops to let the rims cool down after a long descent.
But those were minor things. Despite skinny tyres and unsuitable brakes I made great progress and finished day one at Saddle Mountain Hostel. Run by Helen and Greg, two experienced cyclists, the hostel was the right place to chill out for the evening. The map and book shelf, now a copy of my book richer, helped me plan day two on a comfy couch.
I had secretly hoped that the small shop in the petrol station in Invergarry would have enough of a choice to cook a meal myself, but after some consideration I called the local hotel and retired over a tasty meal and a nice pint of IPA.
On day two I continued towards Spean Bridge, knowing from a previous ride on the next section in the opposite direction that some hike-a-bike lay ahead. So when I rolled into Spean Bridge I pulled out my phone and checked train times. Lucky enough I arrived at 7.30am, with a 7.57am train that would take me to Corrour.
For a short moment I thought that taking the train was cheating. On the other hand I had a more-than-100 km-day with loads of climbing ahead of me, on 28 mm tyres and brakes that required extra stops potentially. I gave myself 10 minutes to think over a fresh cup of coffee, and decided that the train was the best option I had.
My decision was further justified when I arrived at Corrour Station. By now the fog had cleared, with the surrounding mountains basking in beautiful sunshine. My attempts to get the drone out were swiftly cancelled by relentless attacks of thousands of midges. While the landscape here is some of the most beautiful Scotland has to offer, there was absolutely no joy in stopping.
Thankfully midges can’t cope with movement, so simply riding on was the best way to avoid them. And much to my surprise I could cycle almost all the way up the double track. Despite the rocky surface, the Marathon tyres still showed no signs of puncturing. Any stopping and fixing a flat tyre would have radically changed my opinion about my bike choice. But despite my best efforts, they held up just fine.
There was something very joyous in cycling this route on a 1970s singlespeed bike. I could picture the hardy women and men of the Rough Stuff Fellowship traversing the Scottish Highlands in the 1950s and ‘60s. Back then the choice of hostels would have been much greater than nowadays, while the bike choice was very limited.
I enjoyed a close connection to nature here, a feeling amplified by the bike I was on. I could feel every up- and downhill in my legs. There was no cushion from wide tyres on the rocky descents, and technical limitations – a singlespeed drivetrain and rim brakes – forced me to stop more often. It was different riding this bike off-road, but it was a whole lot of fun at the same time.
At Bridge of Balgie I savoured a brownie and cake and chose to follow the Badger Divide route through Glen Lyon and along the old coffin road to Killin. Scotland’s longest and loneliest glen provided a majestic ride. And I was able to use this section of my ride to spot suitable spots to document GBDuro, which takes the same route and would bring me back up here a week later.
Tomrannoch Hostel was initially difficult to find, but impressed me with splendid views across Loch Earn. I was warmly welcomed by Liz and Colin and, to my surprise, had the whole place to myself. Enjoying pasta and beer from the comfort of a sofa, I prepared my route for the last day of the journey.
Day three had more amazing riding in stock, and still no punctures. The former railway line from Lochearnhead to Comrie proved a bizarre combination of seemingly abandoned infrastructure interspersed with sections of smooth tarmac. The aim of the Loch Earn Railway Path project is to create a high quality shared use path between Lochearnhead, St Fillans and Comrie. For now it is cycleable with some concessions.
Like other former railways in Scotland, it was opened at the beginning of the 20th century with high hopes, and closed in the 1950s when cars finally took over. Today the path proves a good alternative to the road, which at times can be scary to cycle.
I cannot imagine a trip that goes smoothly all the way, and the moment of questioning my route choices soon came when circumnavigating Cultybraggan Camp in Comry. The river path was narrow and riddled with roots, and even with my best efforts, not suitable for cycling. Glen Artney, which was to follow, made up for the lost time and disappointment.
Connecting Comrie with Callendar, this is one of the best gravel routes in Scotland, especially on a clear day like today. Heading further, towards Scotland’s gravel mecca Gravelfoyle, the cloud cover increased, but the rain that was forecast stayed away. I earned some respect when a bunch of bikepackers passed me. While they were pushing their heavy laden bikes, I was still cycling.
Despite my best efforts I had still not punctured, nor had the initial fun I had riding this bike given way to the climbs and roughness of the route. The last three days had been cycling at its best – pure, simple and at times demanding.
Safely back at home, I poured myself a beer and looked back through the book I had just published. It said:
For me gravel riding isn’t defined by the shape of bars or tyre width, nor by geometry or clothing style. The technological developments since the term was coined around 2012, when Kinesis introduced the Tripster ATR and Salsa the Warbird, have been significant. Both tyres and bars have become much wider and bikes have become even more capable.
But the idea of gravel riding wasn’t born with the Tripster or the Warbird. It didn’t start on the 29th May 1955 when ‘forty members who, in pursuit of their pastime, traverse the rougher and less beaten ways’ attended the inaugural meeting of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship. What we call gravel riding has been around ever since people took their bikes off the beaten track, often in pursuit of adventure.
It was nice to read those words, as they were still true. You don’t need the newest and fanciest gravel bike to have a great off-road cycling adventure.
You can buy a copy of Markus’ book ‘Great British Gravel Rides’ in good book stores, on Amazon, or order a signed copy directly through him here. The 272-page book features well-known riders like Jenny Graham, Mark Beaumont and Josh Ibbett, alongside people who simply share a passion for cycling and gravel riding with Markus. Find out more at greatbritishgravelrides.com.
Scottish Hostels are independently owned and run hostels in Scotland, with brilliant facilities for bikes. More details on the route above and the hostels mentioned can be found at the Scottish Hostels website.