Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham ride Scotland
Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham share our epic coast-to-coast Scotland adventure
It’s early February and it’s snowing outside. Summer and the riding season in Scotland seem like a long way away. I’m sitting at my desk working on the year ahead when I receive a call from an old friend from Anthill Films, whom I worked with a few years ago on a segment for Strength in Numbers, based around Gee Atherton at the Fort William World Cup event.
He mentioned a top secret video idea with Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham and immediately I was interested!
“They want a destination that will challenge them, their kit and their mental strength, and they like the sound of your coast-to-coast Scotland adventure – and the whisky, of course!”
Our coast-to-coast Scotland mountain bike tour is a challenging adventure as it is, but we decided to amp this up a bit for two professional riders from British Columbia; extra hike-a-bike sections, more sweet singletrack descents, bigger river crossings and longer days – make it really epic! After all they said they wanted to push themselves and their equipment…
At H+I Adventures we spent a few months preparing for the trip, the weather was starting to warm up, and it was soon May. The team was arriving from Vancouver, made up of riders Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham; photographer Sterling Lorence and two videographers from Anthill, CJ and Matty.
Once all kit is accounted for (and there was a lot of kit), we set off for the H+I Adventures HQ to build bikes, drink local craft beers and some not-so-local pizza before getting some sleep in preparation for our first big day tomorrow, on this epic coast-to-coast mountain bike adventure.
We meet up early around our 250 year old oak table that lives downstairs in our converted stable, that is H+I headquarters. Pots of coffee, maps, kit and the all new, yet-to-be-released Shimano Di2 XT shifting system that we will be putting through its paces in Scotland, and the reason this team has all come together. After a couple of hours of final packing and planning we’re off, to our start point on the east coast.
As we head north to Bonar Bridge, and the start of our adventure, the storm clouds are brewing. I give the crew a heads-up that this could get interesting, and they shout back in unison, “Bring it on! We didn’t travel to Scotland to bathe in sunshine all trip, we want the real deal!”. “If you’re sure…!” I shout back.
Day 1 of the trip sees us riding our usual route, but with an extra 500m hike-a-bike and unreal descent back down to the valley floor before setting out across the vast Highland landscape. This is no mean feat, especially for the first morning of a long adventure, it’s a hard ride up a forgotten estate track, that has grown over with heather and grass. The guys look at me for reassurance that the descent is going to be worth it, and that what we have planned for them over the rest of the trip is going to be achievable. I give them a wry smile that lets them know it’s doable, but they’ll need to dig deep from time to time.
After they hit this first descent, they understand my rationale the ethos of this adventure. After around six hours of riding we arrive at the last climb and descent that will lead us to our overnight accommodation in Ullapool. We ride over the hill tracks and whoop our way down the descent to this fishing village, known for its incredible seafood.
Day 2 is going to be a big (really big) day. We expect to be out taking photos and filming for up to 16 hours, so we’re up and out of the B&B at 7am and onto the high speed RIB (rigid inflatable boat) that will take us to the start of the trail. As we pedal away from the boat, the wind starts to pick up and blows us to a standstill more then once along the first stretch of riding. After an ‘interesting’ hour or so, the wind dies down and leaves us in peace for the rest of the day, as we ride through Fisherfield, one of the last true wildernesses left in Scotland.
As we pedal along rugged Scottish singletrack, cross full rivers, hike up to 600m and descend to a remote causeway, the smiles on the crew’s faces are amazing and make it all worthwhile. They’ve never seen anything like it before, and watching the guys riding it at their speed is mesmerising. Each section of trail gets the team more excited than the last, and they comment on the visuals and riding at every opportunity, and I could see they were picking up some exciting footage.
It was dark by the time we rolled into town at the end of this epic day in the Highlands, so Mark came out to guide us in along the estate road by van headlamp, closely followed by double dinner for everyone, a few local beers and some warming whisky before some well-earned rest in eager anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.
As some tired bodies arrive at the breakfast table the next morning, plates are piled high and coffee cups are filled and refilled, preparing the body for another Highland experience. But we don’t have time to sit around all day, so we set about packing the kit bags and heading out of Poolewe on our bikes and ticking off two high mountain passes that flank the sides of Loch Maree. It’s windy, rocky and the trails are throwing up all sorts of challenges that have the team smiling from ear-to-ear at the bottom as we all dive in the loch for a swim.
The next two days are spent in the Torridon area, and Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham are particularly looking forward to this segment of the coast-to-coast. They’ve heard a lot of great things about this area, and we’ve been telling stories all week of the adventures to be had, so they can’t wait to get going.
We set off into Torridon with the aim to staying in a bothy, (mountain hut to the rest of the world), which would be our mid point on what was to be an epic Torridon ride.
As we arrive at the bothy after a long day on the trails and some truly stunning weather and views, Mark already has the fire on, kettle boiling and whisky sitting on the table, taking pride of place! We all set about claiming a space to dry our clothes, set up our bed for the night, before heading down to the river for a wash and change out of our ride kit. Once all the chores are seen to we pull our chairs close in around the crackling and glowing fire, cups in hand with the whisky being passed around close friends, like some kind of peace pipe.
In the morning we’re woken early by sunlight streaming in to the dark confines of the bothy, striking us on the face as if we’re being abducted by aliens – or is that just the whisky hangover?
The stove is fired up and we make a few more than normal super-powered coffees on our AeroPress (a great invention for those that like good coffee when travelling), before stepping outside into a warm, dry and dusty Highland scene. Our clothes and bike are all as we left them last night, perched against the bothy walls drying in the morning light.
On this day of our coast-to-coast we have a hike-a-bike that will take us back over to the Torridon village side of the mountain, with views out over Loch Torridon, to the Isle of Skye. When we crest the saddle, we have a 10km descent to the valley floor and the true west coast of Scotland. Upon reaching the coast, Matt can’t resist swimming in the west coast waters around the bay. Not a bad way to finish a hot dusty day on the mountain bike, especially if it’s followed by a local brew at the pub!
The only thing left for us to do on this adventure is to head across the Applecross peninsular on some pristine singletrack that leads us to the bay that cradles the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye. This spectacular sight, coupled with the fast, flowing descent, delicious fresh seafood in the world famous Applecross Inn, marks the perfect end to our coast-to-coast epic.
As we settle down to our celebratory meal, local ales and an array of whiskies (for research purposes only, you understand), our mood becomes more reflective, as we think of all of the sights, sounds and trails that we experienced during this ultimate coast-to-coast adventure. The laughs we had and the weather we encountered. It all makes up the sense of true adventure that we seek, and the adventure that keeps us riding and exploring.
The only thing that remains now is for you to enjoy the video of this ‘epic adventure’, then join us in the Highlands to follow in the tracks of Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham to experience the coast-to-coast for yourself…