MY SPECIAL RIDE
80-mile Scottish stunner
‘Trees disappear as the road uncurls across moorland hillsides’
Not many 80-mile rides will change your life, but this two-hour run around the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands just might – no-one would blame you for selling-up and moving to the region (and not just for the roads, scenery and clear air; plenty of distilleries nearby to savour, too). It’s an unmissable north/south alternative to the busy, speed camera-tastic A9 trunk road to Inverness. And for boxtickers, the route also takes in the highest road in the UK.
The route starts, north to south, just outside Grantown-on-spey on the A95. After crossing the Spey, turn left following the A393 for Tomintoul. The road climbs past shimmering silver birch, inching towards low hills and fir tree plantations on your right. It’s not classic tarmac immediately – pockmarked and narrow – but you get the sense of building towards something special and gradually the brown and purple Cairngorms reveal themselves, crowded and bruised, brooding like a distant storm on the horizon. The trees disappear as the road uncurls across moorland hillsides, scrawny roadside heather nagging in the wind. Hairpins appear at the Bridge of Brown – don’t ask – and it’s time for a cuppa at the tea-room.
Then onwards, through more plantations, following an old military road first laid in the middle of the eighteenth century – you soon stumble suddenly into Tomintoul, a rigid noughts-and-crosses grid of houses and streets designed by Scottish military nobleman Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon, in 1775. Resist the urge to salute and ride straight through; turn left, staying on the A393, for Braemar, then right soon after.
The road surface has now improved to swirling blacktop, eventually climbing steeply towards the Lecht ski centre and then, as you drop towards Cock Bridge, the magnificent vistas are kill-me-now breath-taking. More hairpins, then hook a left, still on the A939, across even more bristling heather and speckled Christmaspudding hilltops. At Gairnshiel Lodge, swoop left onto the B976 and follow the rickety road up and over, cutting the corner off the main, tourist route (or carry on to the A93 at the Bridge of Gairn). At Balmoral (say hello to the corgis, have a cup of tea at Queenie’s), pick up the A93 left, and start the long climb to the Spittal of Glenshee – the highest road in the UK. Fast, flowing, sweeping between the hills and mountains jostling for position to dominate the roadside, the way is often soaking wet and shrouded in low cloud (so be prepared!). But, once over the top, it’s a dramatic roller-coaster romp of switchbacks and blind hillocks running down to Blairgowrie – pillions are advised to hang on.
Fuel is available just over the bridge – but chances are you’ll want a break to catch your breath and silently thank the old soldiers who paved the way 260 years ago.