Sunday, June 23, 2013

A wee bit of everything

Edinburgh Scotland June 23, 2013

Before we leave this wonderful country, I just wanted to jot down a few final thoughts on this amazing trip. I simply love Scotland. I love the people here. 

Since we are from Canada, I think the best way to try to put my thoughts into perspective and help those who have not been here is to compare this country to home. It seems to me that Scotland is to Londoners what the Maritimes are to Torontonians (for my American friends, the "Maritimes" are the four Canadian provinces of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia). Or, for Americans, what Maine and Vermont are to the rest of you. Relative to London, Scotland is a bit distant, is somewhat cold and rainy, has a coastal maritime orientation, and is not densely populated. The parts of Scotland we saw were quaint, charming, and were dotted with little hamlets (much like some parts of the Maritimes). 

But Scotland is also bit like our province of Quebec. There are language issues and a deep-rooted stubborn independent streak. The language issue centres on the future of Gaelic, the somewhat forgotten, and nearly impossible to learn "original" language of Scotland. Gaelic is present on every road sign, train station, and public notice, but hardly anyone speaks or uses it. Even less can read or write it. That's because when it is written down, it looks like a secret code rather than an actual language. It is almost impossible to read, even for native-born Scots. Yet there is a small vocal Gaelic-speaking community here who have won hard-fought education rights for Gaelic speakers and are trying to keep the language alive.

Also like Quebec, there is Scotland's long-simmering urge for total independence from England. They are having a referendum on independence here in Scotland in 2014 and it will be quite the debate. I can't imagine independence will win the day, but who knows. Whatever. In the meantime, Adam and I are having  a great time. 

I still can't get over the different things we have seen/experienced here versus home, like:

-mini-telephone booth-like showers
-power plugs that must be turned on (you don't simply plug things into a wall outlet, you have to turn the power outlet on itself, like a light switch)
-push-button showers
-pay toilets (when was the last time you saw those?)
-this probably sounds gross, but super-deep toilets
-a bit less gross, but still on the toilet topic, toilets that flush with the power of Niagara Falls
-final toilet thought; great toilet paper (and I mean everywhere, like in public washrooms)
-horrible internet
-horribler (is that a word?) cell service
-teeny tiny sinks that are really low (you can't even fit your hands into some of them!)
-shower and sink water pressure that is like a weak trickle (the water pressure must be in use for the power flush toilets!)
-the worst TV in the western world (TV shows about dirt, a reality show about street repairmen fixing potholes...seriously???)
-love of cricket (that is one seriously boring sport)

But Scots have this wonderful outlook on things. "Keep calm and carry on" is a popular thing to see on t-shirts here these days (though I believe it is a throwback to WWII) but Scots seem to have that bit of psyche embedded in their soul. The Scots we have met are calm, polite, witty, and engaging. They approach challenges in a direct matter-of-fact manner. People still smoke here and they definitely enjoy a pint or two as the Scots natural sociability is quite in evidence everywhere you go. 

Plus the Scots have a great sense of humour. The other night at dinner, Adam overheard a cute couple of older ladies talking about how they were enjoying a wee bit of dinner. Adam said (a bit louder than he intended) that in Scotland, there is always "a wee bit of everything". Now in other countries, the people who overheard something like that might have been offended. But the two ladies just started laughing and thought Adam was too cute. 

As for the cycling trip that is now done, it is fair to say that I bit off more of Scotland than I intended (mountain-biking-wise). Like last year's Ride the West trip, I didn't read the brochure carefully enough (in this case, the Wilderness Scotland brochure), and the Wilderness Scotland brochure didn't fully disclose everything in detail about the trip and the nature of the cycling. The brochure described this trip as "challenging" and that "riders should do some training" before they arrive. To me, that was quite the understatement. Let's break those two areas down a little further, starting with the nature of the cycling.

The mountain biking itself was harder than I thought it was going to be, and I think a better word for what we did cycling-wise would be categorized as "expert" rather than "challenging". You know, like double-diamond skiing (experts only) versus challenging skiing (very good skiers or better). The pitches were steeper, the rocks bigger, the ground looser/slipperier, and at times the descents were downright frightening. All that is OK by me. It is hard to nail the degree of difficulty on a trip like this and it's OK that this was harder than I expected.

What didn't thrill me were things not well-covered (or mentioned at all) in the brochure. This includes stuff that was physically demanding (OK...really f-ing hard!). Specifically, pushing our bikes (remember these are heavy mountain bikes) across miles and miles of gross, wet, gooey bog. Pushing our bikes up unrideable trails was no fun at all (unrideable because they were too steep). Having to carry my bike up mountains the height of Mt. Tremblant (seriously, no joke) was NOT in the brochure. I really did not like that. Making matters worse was that on the days we carried our bikes up the mountain we were hoping for an awesome descent but on those two days, the descent was really lousy. It was too rocky or too boggy, and I mostly walked down them.

We did more road cycling than I thought we'd do, but that was fine with me. Having said all that above though, we both have to admit that the schlepping allowed us to see parts of Scotland very few people ever get to see. We experienced the most remote awesome vistas you could imagine and got a true wilderness experience. Thankfully we also got a hot shower and meal at the end of each day. Except for the first night of the trip, the hotels/B&Bs we stayed in were awesome and the food was terrific. Our guides Dave and Graham were really nice. They helped us technically, looked after our bikes each night, put out an awesome picnic lunch each day, and pointed out interesting things along the way. 

Maybe I am getting too old but even with all the training I did (both on the bike and in the gym), I can now admit that this trip simply kicked the shit out of me physically. I fell numerous times on the grass, rocks, etc. (minor scrapes, bumps and bruises, that's all), but that is part of mountain biking. Because there was so much climbing condensed into so few miles, that was exhausting. I guess it's back to the gym and road for me if I want to do stuff like this in the future.

By the way, the final stats on the trip were:

-6 days of riding
-399.6 kms ridden
-6,258 meters climbed
-12.8km/hour average speed

I am relatively pleased with my stats, I must say. I forgot to mention that during our trip we rode very close (like within 5-10 kms) to three interesting places. The first was the Queen's summer residence Balmoral (shown extensively in the movie The Queen that Helen Mirren won her Oscar for) in the Scottish Highlands. The second was the setting for the end sequence of the most recent Bond movie Skyfall. The last sequence at Bond's fictional childhood home (called Skyfall) was shot on a Loch not too far at all from Fort William and Loch Linnhe, which we crossed last Wednesday. This location actually looks as remote on screen as it is in real life, let me tell you. Lastly, we were near several locations that were used during the shooting of the many Harry Potter movies. We saw the actual train they shot the Hogwarts Express train scenes for (the train is an actual steam train that still runs, and is called The Jacobite), the aqueduct the train goes over on the way to Hogwarts,  and various remote mountain/lochs they used as backgrounds/settings.

So Adam and I toured around Edinburgh yesterday and today. We hiked up to Arthur's Seat (a defining mountain landmark in the city), which was a bit of a hike (800 vertical feet up) but fun. Arthur's Seat (and many other locations around Edinburgh) were used extensively in the shooting of the classic 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. You can see the entire city of Edinburgh from there and it is really quite beautiful. Edinburgh is a pretty coastal port with hills and heather and the whole nine (Scottish) yards. We walked back into the city along the Royal Mile, where we saw people shopping (hint hint) for all things Scottish. I now can see how JK Rowling got her inspiration for so much of the imagery used in the Harry Potter books/films. The whole city feels like a set for the movie.  

We also spent part of the day today touring Edinburgh castle and other sites with a former riding mate of mine from my 2010 cross-sountry trip (what I now like to refer as my "other cross-country trip" - hah!). His name is Ian Peden and he is a retired police officer who lives south of Edinburgh and was kind enough to drive here today, visit us, and show us around. We toured some cool sights and had a couple of pints in the Cafe Royale a classic Edinburgh pub that was just great. Just another example of Scottish hospitality, which has been top notch, or as the Brits say "brilliant", the entire time we have been here. Even the weather during this entire trip has been very good, with only short periods of rain in what is a normally rainy climate.

So, cheerio and farewell from another adventure. This is your intrepid traveller signing off until next time, whenever and wherever that is.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Another country conquered (in a manner of speaking)

Strontian to Ardnamurchan Point Scotland June 20, 2013

We made it! 

It took us six days to cross the entire country. And let me tell you this is one mountainous country. It is also stunningly beautiful, rugged, and wildly remote in appearance. I can see why poets have written about it. It is hard to convey how difficult this ride has been for me. Not only because my mountain biking skills are modest at best (even though our guide Graham was kind enough to tell Adam and I we were in the top 25% of riders he has seen on this trip). I know for sure that Adam and I did not train enough for this trip, and it really would have helped.

Today we started by riding out of the tiny hamlet of Strontian and mostly rode on narrow lanes/roads for the first 15 kms in a steady but not horrible rain. The headwind however was horrible, as it has been all week (not a moment of tailwind in six days of riding). Apparently the headwinds we have faced this past week have been nothing compared to what the guides have seen here before (headwinds so bad that cyclists were blown off their bikes and the bikes were blown off the road). All morning we rode along Loch Sunart which is stunning even in the rain and is a salt water loch that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.

After an hour or so of riding we stopped for coffee (the Brits can not go an hour without tea or coffee – you were right about that daughter Lauren!) at a tiny roadside cafe that had the best croissants I have had this side of France. That was a surprise – Paris-quality croissants in the middle of nowhere. Then we continued on until we reached a mountain biking trail and made our way to someplace called Singing Sands beach. This was a beach used extensively for training during WWII, specifically for the D-Day invasions in 1944 due to its resemblance to the beaches in Normandy. It was very sobering to stand there and think about all the boys who trained there and didn't make it back. The place had an eerie desolate sad sombre feel to it, as it probably ought to have.

More trail riding led us into the westernmost mountains in the UK, which (like yesterday) we got to climb/hike over pushing and then carrying my 40 pound mountain bike. And yes, like yesterday, we got to walk over icky sloppy wet moors. Just gross. On a side note, my cycling shoes are so gross that even washing won't save them so I am leaving them as a gift from me to the entire country of Scotland. They were good shoes and they don't owe me anything. They took me across the US, down the Pacific coast, and across Scotland. Over 18,000 kms on those shoes! Goodbye stinky wet shoes. 

After we crested the mountain, my riding mates started riding down a singletrack trail no more than 6-8" wide that hung precariously along ledges on the slope. I didn't ride more than 2-5% of this trail and basically walked my bike down the mountain. No fun! After that nonsense, we had our final picnic lunch in the rain and set off for the last 20kms to Adarmurchan Point lighthouse, which is the westernmost point in the UK. 

I wish I could report that it was an easy ride for the last little bit but it was not. It was into a driving rain and nasty headwind, plus we must have climbed over 1,000 feet just in the the first 10kms after lunch. We did however see our third herd of red deer this week which were speedily jaunting across the moors. Finally we caught a glimpse of the lighthouse in the distance and made a dash (yes...uphill...into the rain...into the wind...notice a recurring theme here???) to the end of the peninsula. 


At the lighthouse we stood and gazed at the Atlantic Ocean, the distant Scottish isles to the west, and thought about the past week. Then our guides Dave and Graham gave each of us a celebratory shot of local 12 year old single malt scotch to celebrate the successful crossing. Very nice, and it helped warm us up. What a tough ride. Day for day it was way harder than either the cross-country 2010 trip or last year's Ride the West trip. Mountain biking like this is different from road cycling and I will admit probably a tad too "extreme" for this middle-aged Jewish guy. But it was a great experience nonetheless and getting to spend a week with my boy Adam was unforgettable. 

Now on to the the rest of the summer which will include golf lessons (HELP!) and annoying my wonderful Duchess. I'll have more to report from Edinburgh when we get there this weekend.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Words fail

Spean Bridge to Strontian Scotland June 19, 2013

Words fail me right now. I don't even know what to say about today. The day started innocently enough with a superb breakfast at the Distant Hills B&B in Spean Bridge. Tres gourmet. I had Scottish hotcakes which were smaller and denser than our pancakes but were delicious just the same. My boy Adam had eggs, sausage, and his new favourite blood pudding which is too revolting to describe here. The forecast called for rain all-day but it was merely cloudy and windy (of course in our face) when we left.

We started riding along roads and then went along a 15-20 km stretch along the Caledonia canal. This canal bore a striking resemblance to the Erie Canal near Rochester. It was pretty but not spectacular compared to what we have seen the last few days. We ended that segment of the ride in the busy little port city of Fort William which is actually a port on the North Sea, so technically, we have made our way coast-to-coast across Scotland, even though our ride does not end until tomorrow. There was a sign for a yacht race in a yacht club we passed enroute that said finish line, so I proudly rode through that, took a few pictures, and went on my way. However, we are far from done with this ride.

We made our way through the town of Fort William and found our way to the ferry dock to catch a 12:20 ferry across Loch Linnhe, a mile wide stretch of sea water that separates two parts of Scotland. After another 25 km stretch along some lovely but not too memorable roads, we had a great picnic lunch by a river. After lunch, we set off  for the afternoon's adventure. I didn't know what to expect, but holy shit, was I in for a surprise.

We rode for about 10 minutes when the skies opened up and the wind kicked up fiercely in our face (about 40-50km/hour winds) as we rode along the eastern shore of Loch Shiel, a beautiful loch that looked a lot like the California coast (sans sunshine). It was hilly, windswept and quite pretty. We rode that for what seemed like an eternity when we turned off the road and onto a mountain bike trail.

That is the point in the day where, when describing what we did next, words fail me.

We started riding up a 1,500 foot high mountain, with pitches ranging from 25-30% on loose rocks. I mostly walked/pushed my bike up (I did ride a 25% section though) but our guide Graham and another rider Patrick actually rode a few of the hills/cliffs. We made our way up about 1,000 vertical feet in about 45 minutes when the fun started. The trail we were on ended and became super steep. Our guide Graham then told me that we had to hike up to the top from there.

I suddenly asked myself...was this in the f-ing brochure???? I don't think so! I would have remembered that little bit. But, I really had no choice and had to soldier on upwards. Graham showed my how to carry my bike across my back, using my Camelback to help support the weight of the 40 pound mountain bike and we began trudging our way through the slop, mud, and goo of the mountainside moors (the worst thing in the world to walk you are walking on a wet sponge). Another hour or so of hiking with my mountain bike on my back and we made it to the top of the mountain, all the time looking forward to an exciting downhill run. Sadly, the exciting downhill run was not to be, as the way down was a rocky, sloppy, muddy gooey mess guessed it...moor. It wasn't a ton of fun and was kind of frustrating but our guides Dave and Graham helped us navigate our way down and we made it. Over ten hours of riding/hiking today. Tired??? I think so.

So we just finished drinks and dinner here (I had numerous Macallan shots) and am half in the bag as I write this. I have to say, the food in Scotland has been terrific including tonight's dinner. The owner of the hotel we are in is also named Graham. When I ordered a beer/cider at the bar (one that is made in Ireland) he jokingly asked came to Scotland and ordered an Irish cider?? That's when I told him I would make up for that faux pas by drinking a nice Scotch. A couple of Macallans later, here I am, sitting in Graham's office (because the internet wifi in our room sucks, and Graham said...go ahead...use my office) writing today's blog and downloading pictures and video. 

I also have a big surprise for my Harry Potter-loving daughter Lauren if I can get a video to download, so my fingers are crossed. Talk to you all tomorrow as we finish our ride across Scotland.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Epic 2.0

Newtonmore to Spean Bridge Scotland June 18, 2013

Each day gets more and more incredible here but each day gets harder and harder. Even though our mountain biking technical skills are improving each day, this is seriously challenging terrain. At various points today, we felt like we were in Western Canada. I had no idea that Scotland was so mountainous. Snow capped peaks are staring us in the face from every direction.

Oh a couple of things about Scotland before I get into what we did today. Here's a list of things you won't find in Scotland:

-a car with automatic transmission
-a box of kleenex/tissues
-strong internet connections
-tipping (waiters/waitresses/cab drivers)
-air conditioning/room ventilation (you simply open the window here)
-a glass near a sink for when you brush your teeth
-ice cubes
-an unpleasant person

This country is truly special. I can understand why ex-pats long for a wee bit of the homeland. And...their accent and manner of speaking is just lyrical. It is lovely to listen to.

Well, on to today. For me, today was Epic 2.0. On my cross-country trip in 2010 (or should I say my "other" cross-country trip!) we had a day where we visited Mt. Rushmore that I remembered as being epic. Today was another version of epic.

Epic 2.0. 

It started with a benign enough 30 kms through Glen MacDonald, a vast valley bordered by rolling hills and mountains that used to be the domain of the clan MacDonald. On the way we went into Laggan Wolftrax, one of Scotland's best mountain biking trail systems. After a huge climb into Laggan Wolftrax, we had a super-fun run down a single-track trail nestled in a forest. It was like being on a toboggan run. Really fast and twisty. 

Mountain biking at it's best.

From there we rode along a road through MacDonald Glen, not really doing much when a herd of red deer appeared to our right and then crossed the road in front of us. Then a few miles up the road on our right we saw another herd. Just magnificent. There are an incredible number of "hunting estates" in Scotland for deer hunting (hey Joe Schroeder, here is your chance at revenge!) and even more deer shelters/camps in weird out of the way places. It is big business here. They call it "stalking". We had a great picnic lunch. 

Then we set off across the moors where we basically schlepped our bikes across wet bog/peat/crud for two hours. The bad news was that we only covered 8 kms in two hours. 

Mountain biking at it's worst.

The good news was that the moors led us into Glen Roy, a positively awe-inspiring mountain valley that we actually rode up and over, which as I sit here writing, I can't believe we really did. Glen Roy spilled out to a narrow road that clung to the side of the mountain and ran up and down California-coast style for 15kms into a 40km headwind, which on heavy mountain bikes is no fun. Utterly exhausting. However, there were thousands of sheep along the way and a steer even began to take a run at me as I rode along the road. We half-crawled into the tiny town of Spean Bridge, went to dinner, and are half comatose on our beds in another charming B&B. More work tomorrow as we face climbing, riding, hiking, a ferry crossing, and more.

The Wilderness Scotland guides (Dave and Graham) are really nice, knowledgeable, and are very proud of their history/natural surroundings. Plus they are just nice guys to ride/hang with. They definitely are a lot less strict than the America By Bicycle people. There are no forms, no rules, no rap sheets, etc. But they do watch us carefully as we ride, give us pointers, and are very encouraging.

I just wish that could ride my bike for me. Starting tomorrow. I am tired. I am sore. I am sleepy. Good night all.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A wee bit of liquid sunshine

Tomintoul to Newtonmore Scotland June 17, 2013

On paper at least, today was billed by Wilderness Scotland as the signature day of this trip, and it did not disappoint. We left Tomintoul and the fabulous Argyle B&B run by the too-nice Diane and her husband Steve, both of whom hailed from South Africa originally. Each morning here we are treated to what they call a "full highland breakfast". Do you know what "full highland breakfast" means in Canada-English? It means a boatload of food, that's what it means. 

Your first course for a full highland breakfast is cold cereal, porridge, or yoghurt and fruit. Then the second course is like a full breakfast of eggs, sausage, blood pudding (say what??), toast, croissants, butter, jam, fruit, cheese, coffee, tea, juice, and more. It is awesome. Unfortunately for me, my titanium mountain bike frame crumbled under the load of all that food this morning. Seriously. Actually, it didn't, but it is a lot of food nevertheless.

Well, we sure needed that breakfast today, I will tell you. What a day of touring, mostly on the north side of the Cairngorm Massif, which is the defining topographical characteristic of Scotland. They are Rockies-like in scope and size.Today we started up a mountain bike track and followed a river until we crossed another in an endless series of sheep pastures/bogs/grass. That just sucks I must say. Thereafter we climbed (or shall I say we walked) a 20%+ grade to the top of a small mountain and then had a cool descent to a coffee break/SAG at the Wilderness Scotland van. 

Guess what...after coffe (the Scots love their coffee) more sheep pasture/bog stuff (which again sucked) and then a stiff climb to a mountain top vista that was spectacular. What followed though was unforgettable. It had started to rain (what the Scots call "a wee bit of liquid sunshine") and yet, despite the rain, the next part of the descent was beyond description. We rode between two mountains down a glen and then into a carpeted forest canopy that had the most lustrous verdant shades/hues of green that I have ever seen. Lunch was next (great picnic by the river) and even the rain stopped at that point. After lunch we had thrilling descents through lush forests. Twists, turns, river crossings (I rode across a 20 foot wide river today –  a first for me), jumps, rock gardens, and more. It was tons of fun. It was also a ton of work. Lots and lots of climbing. And the climbing is steep. And the steepness is covered in wet, loose, rocks/stones/boulders. Mountain biking requires a different toughness than road cycling. 67kms today was about five hours of riding and I would equate this to a 125-130km day because the climbing (about 3,000 feet) is compressed into 40 or so miles.

Anyway, Scotland is beautiful, the people are beyond friendly, and this is quite the experience. Each day I am getting more comfortable with the technical stuff. Today I went over a slippery rock field in the rain and rode over a fast-moving river without thinking twice, which is something I would not have event thought about doing two days ago. But I am tired and I do have few boo-boos from the riding. 

We have a big day tomorrow and I am going to sleep now. Maybe I will wait for Adam though before I go to our room. Right now he is outside this lovely B&B, drinking local scotch, and listening to the guides play bird calls on their iPhones. We are having the best time together.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

As advertised...WIlderness Scotland

Aboyne to Tomintoul Scotland June 16, 2013

There are no words to truly describe Scotland's raw natural beauty. It is so different than any place I have been. I know there are cities and towns across Scotland (we have seen a number of them ourselves already, so we know they are there) but the sheer emptiness of this country staggers the mind. I know some clever writer some time ago remarked that there are more sheep than people in Scotland, and based on what we have seen so far, that does ring true to a certain extent. The country is awesome to look at up close, the way we have the past couple of days. 

At one point today, as we were riding through a glen (valley) in the Cairngorm mountains, Adam looked at the vista and referenced both the tour company we are with and our environs when he simply remarked "as advertised...Wilderness Scotland".

Today was an incredibly long hard day of mountain biking, at least for us (about 40 miles and over 3,000 feet of climbing). The other rider with us (Patrick) is way better than we are so there have been times when he and the guides have had to wait for us at certain junctures. They aren't complaining (yet), so we'll just have to push on. 

Today started with a nice breakfast (great waffles) at the hotel we stayed at in Aboyne. To say last night's hotel was a dump, is doing dumps a disservice. It was the second worst hotel I stayed at in my life (the worst being a hotel in John Day Oregon three years ago on my bike trip where someone found a half-eaten burger under their bed). This hotel had a room that had two squished mini-beds, no drinking cups, a little TV with no remote, and had heat pouring out of every radiator in our room and throughout the building. Our windows would not stay open, there was no place to hold a roll of toilet paper, the room had flies in it, the shower was the size of a phone booth, and there was no internet. Oh yeah, at 2AM a drunken bunch of idiots had a party and because the walls were paper thin, I was up all night (Adam slept through it though). Adam and I lost 5 pounds last night. It was like being in the hot box in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai. Tonight we are in a charming B&B with hot water, a cool room, internet, no flies, and a South African owner by the name of Diane who (after she insisted I ask her on bended knee) offered to do our laundry (we better buy her a nice gift). What a difference this makes after a long day of riding. 

So let's review what we did today. We left the shit-hole hotel and charming little village of Aboyne at 9:15 in sunshine and made our way along another bike path that was once a railway line. These paths (Britain's version of the US "rails to trails" project) are everywhere and they are great to ride on. We rode this path to a mountain bike trailhead and did some amazing single track routes and worked on our skills (which are sadly lacking for this terrain). We did really well during the first part of the morning. We stopped at a cute town for coffee (Adam had a scone) and then did a not-so-fun trip through a sheep pasture that involved a lot of walking and mud and trudging through gorse. I could have lived without that.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that yesterday we saw a deer, and both days we have seen thousands of sheep, rabbits, and other natural wildlife.

We stopped for a picnic lunch by an ancient stone bridge and then proceeded to work our way up and through the eastern part of the Cairngorm mountains. This was a 30km ride that involved a ton of climbing, numerous technical descents and more than our fair share of walking. However, this terrain was simply incredible to ride through though. Immense mountains (still with some snow), vast glens, raging clear streams, and thankfully no rain. There was not a human being in sight. Sheep, sheep, and plenty of sheep. What incredible views though. Just staggering. Adam and I (by necessity) have been learning mountain biking skills at a fast pace. Today we did some stuff we have never done (and still can't believe we did!). We rode up rock gardens, down rock gardens, through mud and even rode across several 15-20 foot wide streams. That was hard work but it was fun too.

But boy is mountain bike different than road cycling. The hard paths are just fine. As soon as we are on what they call "single track" though, things change in a hurry. Your riding slows to a crawl, you are constantly worried about falling, the ups and downs are steep, and the descents themselves are hair raising because of exposed rocks, tree roots, streams, and mud. We are doing the best we can, learning as we go, but it is a whole new experience for both of us and is thrilling in a "theme park-roller coaster" kind of way.

So we just came back from an excellent dinner (who said the food in Scotland isn't good). The guides we are with are so nice and our riding mate Patrick is a super nice interesting guy. All-in-all it is quite the adventure for Adam and I. More to come tomorrow, as we cross the mighty Cairngorm mountains, home to the highest peaks in the UK.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Don't worry if you get lost...

Aberdeen to Aboyne Scotland June 15, 2013

What an incredible day we had today. We were picked up in Inverness by one of our Wilderness Scotland guides Graham and he drove me, Adam, and the other cyclist on our tour (Patrick) from Inverness to Aberdeen. The drive took 3 hours and was quite nice. Once we got to Aberdeen, Graham found our other Wilderness Scotland guide Dave and we linked up at the coast (the North Sea to be precise). There we were fitted to our rental mountain bikes (very nice equipment with full suspension). The guides are very nice and so is our riding partner Patrick, who is a vastly superior mountain biker to us, having taken mountain bike trips to India, Turkey, and Greece, just to name a few spots.

Anyway, Scotland is just beautiful, and the weather thus far has been un-Scotland-like. Today was partly sunny with some threatening clouds, but thankfully we stayed dry. We had a headwind almost all the way, but as the locals described it, it was a wee headwind.

Getting back to the title of today's blog...when we started riding, Graham said to us, "don't worry if you get lost...just keep riding into the wind for six days, and you will find your way to our final destination". He laughed as he said it, but at the beginning of a long day, that was not what I was dying to hear. Yes, we did ride into a stiff headwind, but given that we were dry and relatively warm, it seemed like a good trade-off.

We started off in Aberdeen on a converted railway bed that took us right out to the country. We moved off the trail and went off-road for the next 15 or so kms until we had a picnic lunch in a small village on the way. Then we rode for about 15kms into the wind on quiet Scottish side roads, but we were trucking uphill into the wind which was a drag. 

By the way, kudos go to our old ABB riding mate Ian Peden for learning how to ride on the "wrong side of the road" so well in 2010. We have had to learn to look back over our right shoulders while on the road, and looking left for car doors opening. It is weird and definitely takes getting used to. 

Back to today. The ride took us through an incredibly remote part of Scotland. Barren, untamed, and near-mountainous. The final part of our ride saw us cut across sheep/cattle pastures past an incredibly creepy castle called Brise Castle. We rode 10kms up and over a big mountain with pitches of 15-20%. It took us forever. Then we had an incredible descent into this little village. Because of our late start today, we didn't get to the hotel until 7:30PM. We quickly showered in our little phone booth shower (standard Sottish hotel size). We just got back from dinner (delicious fish and chips) and are definitely ready for bed. It is almost 11PM local time. Whew!

Sorry I don't have time to write more tonight, but in the next few days, I will talk about the Wilderness Scotland tour company, mountain biking versus road cycling, Scotland in general, and how my boy Adam is doing (i'll give you a hint...he's tired and was just a tad cranky going up the mountain today...).

Check back in tomorrow for more news from gorgeous Scotland.

Friday, June 14, 2013

You’ll not see the monster at Loch Ness today…

Inverness Scotland  June 14, 2013

"You'll not see the monster at Loch Ness today". That was what we were told by our cab driver Jim as he drove us out to Loch Ness for our two hour cruise of the Loch and subsequent tour of the Urquhart Castle ruins. I asked Jim why we weren't going to see the monster (or Nessie, as the locals refer to her). His response...

"Because the monster woke up in my bed this morning." 

Adam and I laughed our asses off at that one even though Jim has probably delivered that line dozens of times over the years. His timing was perfect I must admit, and then he did go on to tell us his wife was truly a wonderful person. That was the start of a great day here in Northern Scotland, and it only got better. We went to bed last night at around 8PM. We were up a few times but basically slept until 8AM. Wow, were we tired. Last night we had pasta/pizza (pretty good), then a McFlurry (no ice cream shops near us in Inverness), and conked out quickly thereafter.

This morning we had breakfast and then booked the Loch Ness cruise. The cruise left from the dock of the Clansmen Hotel (note that thankfully the Clansmen is spelled with a "C", not a "K"). Shockingly, there was a Nessie gift shop nearby. That was surprising! We boarded the boat and sailed south on Loch Ness in sunny, mild weather. What an incredibly beautiful area. Wild, semi-mountainous, green, and the loch is like a gash in the mountains. We cruised for about 30 minutes down to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. This is a fort that was strategically located on the west side of Loch Ness and was built over 700 years ago. It was cool to walk through the ruins and see the way the castle must have worked when it was being lived in.

Here is the wikepedia link on Urquhart Castle:

Then we grabbed a cab and went to see Cawdor Castle on the other side of Inverness. On the way, we passed the Culloden battlefield where an important war was fought in the 1700's. The battlefield didn't look like much to see despite it's significance historically. Anyway, Cawdor Castle was really interesting with amazing grounds and gardens (mazes, perfectly manicured hedges, classic English lords and ladies stuff). Unlike Urquhart Castle, this castle is in fine shape and Angelika Cawdor, the Dowager Countess Cawdor still resides in the castle seven months of the year when it is not open to the public. What a fun thing to see. It also had a nine hole golf course on its grounds. This castle was mentioned in Shakespeare's Macbeth as well (even though it was not built until after the Macbeth character would have lived). We saw pictures of the Dowager Countess in the castle – what a beautiful woman. Just stunning. Then we read stories about how crazily dysfunctional the modern Cawdor family is (to this day).

Here is the wikepedia link on Cawdor Castle:

We also had great cab rides with colourful talkative drivers. The Scots love to chat and there is always music playing no matter where you go. That reminded Adam of a funny line from the show Arrested Development. As narrated by Ron Howard, the line goes something like this:

"That's the thing about Scottish music. You can't tell if it is good music played poorly, or poor music played well". 

No disrespect intended (because we love the music we are hearing), but that is a pretty funny line nonetheless. We're going to shower now and walk into town for dinner. We'll go to bed early tonight because we start riding tomorrow, and I think, given all the mountains we can see from our hotel, we are going to need all the rest we can get.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Planes, trains, automobiles, buses, taxis, and bikes

Inverness Scotland June 13, 2013

We made it to Scotland today, but we are still on the train to Inverness which is in the northwestern part of the country. The way this ride is organized, we meet the tour leader/guide in Inverness Saturday morning and then we drive back to Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland to start the cycling westward across the country the same day.

Needless to say, it has been a full day. Actually, it has been a full week or two.

Just over a week ago, The Duchess and I took our kids (including Adam’s girlfriend Jess) to Vegas. We had a great time seeing Santana (awesome), improv superstar Wayne Brady at the Mirage (and yes, his show was one of the best shows I have ever seen in Vegas), as well as the spectacular "O" by Cirque de Soleil at the Bellagio. We hung out in the sports book (where we lost money on the Blue Jays), the pool, the gym/spa, and the casino. We didn’t do too badly gambling and had a great time with the kids.

As soon as we got back Adam and I pressed on with our training the best we could. Adam’s shoulder was quite sore and the weather has been horrible, so our training was limited. We did manage to squeeze our mountain biking lessons in though, which was a good thing. To paraphrase a quote from a movie I love ”...what we don’t know about mountain biking is a lot...” (who can guess the movie?). We signed up for mountain biking lessons with a company called Sacred Rides and our instructor was an incredibly nice/talented guy named Nate Lessnick. He was very patient with us and taught us fundamental mountain biking techniques, many of which are entirely unrelated to road cycling – stuff like the ready position, ratcheting, hopping, and where to keep one’s weight when going uphill, downhill, or on rough terrain. We had no idea how much we did not know about mountain biking technique. It was incredibly helpful and gave us a much needed shot of minimal confidence. We rode all throughout the Bayview ravine which has incredible mountain bike trails, right in the heart of Toronto. We definitely did not do enough training for this trip, but the last week was good for us. It doesn’t matter now though, we can’t train anymore. The die is cast I guess.

In between training, I played golf a couple of times including my first competitive match ever. I lost 5&4 (which in match play means I lost after the 14th hole). I played poorly but at least the guy I played was nice. Then Duchie and I played a mixed match and we lost on the 18th hole when our opponent sunk a 6 foot putt to beat us. Duchie played really well, but I was like an anchor. Too many missed tee shots, and I failed to convert a crucial 5 footer of my own that might have been the difference in the match. The Duchess said something afterwards to the effect that she was tired of carrying something all day during our match, and I don’t think she was referring to her golf bag. I wonder what she meant by that????

I also forgot that my cousin Jenny was in town last week on business so we took her to our favorite Chinese restaurant (Lee Gardens), fed her a lobster in black bean sauce (which she loved) and had a great time. Jenny is a great girl and we had such a nice time with her. Then just this past Sunday, Duchie had the whole family over for a BBQ to celebrate Lauren and Sam’s graduation and to send Adam and I off with a flourish. Way to go Duchie!

So here I am writing this blog on a wifi-less train in Scotland. The weather is sunny and warm here, but we are not optimistic enough to think this will be the weather we’ll see all week. So far, Scotland has been beautiful to look at. Rolling hills, snow-capped mountains, and everything looks charming and old. has been a long day. We left our house yesterday at 4PM, departed Toronto at 7ish, landed at Heathrow at 6:30AM local time, rushed through Heathrow via the buses that schlep you from terminal to terminal like it was 1972 (what a shitty global hub), passed through UK customs/immigration, walked miles through terminal 5 to find our gate/flight to Edinburgh, found that the gate had changed and ended up having to board another f-ing bus to get to our plane. On the bus to that plane (just as we approached the plane) the bus driver hit the brakes so hard that a few passengers almost flew through the windshield. Jesus H. Christ. Oh yeah, on our flight to London just as we were starting to drift off to sleep, the flight attendant first paged “passenger who knows cousin Mohammed please identify yourself”. Then they paged for a doctor. Then they paged to see if anyone on-board spoke Swedish. Seriously, I am not joking. My boy Adam was a little put off by all this so I took a walk to see what the f—k was going on. I couldn’t find anything out (too big a plane), but it turns out that someone opened an overhead compartment and was nearly knocked out by a bag, so they needed a doctor. They actually found one on board but he was Swedish. Just a  little added drama to keep us from relaxing too much in this fab post-9/11 world. Anyway, our connecting flight to Edinburgh was delayed because the flight we were on was supposed to be at the gate our Toronto flight came in on but couldn’t go there because of “a medical emergency” (what are the odds of that – our flight to Edinburgh delayed because of the person who got hit on the head with a bag on our flight from Toronto ???). Then once we got our bags in Edinburgh, we had a 40 minute cab ride into that very cool city (we will spend two days there at the end of our mountain biking trip).

Hence the title for today’s blog post. We’ve been on every form of transportation except donkey at this point today.

Anyway, I am so excited to have this father & son adventure with my boy. I don’t know what to expect but I can tell you I wish I traveled by train more. We are zipping along gazing at the rich ancestral fields of Scotland, a little weary but ready for anything. Next stop is Perth, where we change trains for the last leg into Inverness. Should be there by 3:30PM local time. Our plan tomorrow is to film the Loch Ness Monster Nessie (for those of you that don’t know, Inverness is located at the northern end of Loch Ness), and sell the footage for millions. Failing that, maybe we’ll find a pub and get hammered. Better it be beer than Scotch though. I still haven’t acquired a taste for that yet, but who knows, maybe this week I will.