Episode 4 – A New Hill
The words “B974 Banchory – Fettercairn” may not mean much to you. But if I was to tell you that from November through to February they are generally accompanied by the words “closed”, “snow”, and “Cairn O’ Mount” on radio traffic bulletins it’ll give you an idea of the topography of this road. “High”, “narrow” and “steep” to drop another 3 words. For this reason, the northbound route up “The Cairn”, starting a few miles outside Fettercairn at the quaintly-named Clatterin’ Brig restaurant, features as the Strava OFFICIAL 100Climbs No 64. 2.0 miles rising 1061ft at average of 10%. What with getting organised for the journey, and driving the 500+ miles to Aberdeen I’d been off the bike for a couple of days or so, so what better way to get prepared for the weekend’s upcoming 100-mile, ~10000ft of climbing (yes – almost ten thousand feet) Etape Royale than tackle this? (also, it’s one that Simon McG. HASN’T ridden…)
Given that my brother-in-law lives in Fettercairn and there are a number of nice coffee shops in Banchory, how could I resist the temptation to load the bike into the car and find an excuse to appropriate a car-parking bay outside said B-in-L’s flat? (note: I did go into his flat and spent some time chatting with him before changing out of my civvies and into some tasteful DPCC-liveried lycra) Fortunately, my trip north coincided with a nice wobble in the jet stream also moving north, in the process depositing a nice stable high pressure region over most of the UK for the next 2 weeks and meaning that my end-of-September ride took place in mid-August-like weather.
After riding 3.5 miles of gently rising road as a warm-up you reach the advertising board outside the Clatterin’ Brig restaurant. And UK Road Sign number 524.1 – the one that warns of a steep hill upwards ahead, with 20% gradients. My father – who was a traffic engineer – tells me that in the “old money” pre-metric days this climb was actually indicated as “1:4.3” – which is over 23%… Look at an OS map and you’ll find there are 4 sections indicated by chevrons as being steep. 2 are at the bottom, just after you cross the clatterin’ bridge, when you’re nice and fresh. No bother – a quick out of the saddle effort in the granny ring of my triple chainset. The other 2 are a mile and a half later, at the last few hairpin bends as you near the summit, when your body feels like it is on fire, and mean that you can’t actually see your target (a quite impressively tall cairn by the side of the road) until you’ve practically reached it.
From there it’s basically downhill all the way to Banchory – there are a couple of short uphill sections, but you can carry a lot of speed into them from the downhill ride to get a fair way back up again. Early on I passed another rider on his way up – we exchanged nonchalant waves of acknowledgement. In the middle of nowhere, at the junction with the turning to Aboyne and Finzean (pronounced “Fing-in”, for any aspiring radio traffic news reporters), you pass an oddly in-place looking wooden AA telephone box (for those younger readers out there, telephones used to use long lengths of copper wire to communicate with one another, rather than the 800-3700MHz region of the electromagnetic spectrum).
One coffee and flapjack at Banchory’s Birdhouse Cafe later and it was time to do the return journey. From this side it’s 12 miles to the top for effectively the same change in elevation, so a much gentler average gradient, but it still manages to pack a couple of short steep sections requiring warning signage (20% and 17%, if I recall correctly…). These come early on, after which it was just a case of finding a comfortable gear and spinning my way to the top, albeit into a fairly gentle – but definitely noticeable – head/cross wind. On the way up I passed the same rider I’d exchanged waves with an hour or so previously, on his way back down. Once again we exchanged waves of recognition.
Of course what goes up must come down, and potentially come down very fast, and I must admit that the final downhill section from The Cairn was not entirely pleasant, what with sharp bends and stone bridge parapets coming immediately after the steepest downhill bits. I swear I could smell my brake blocks burning by the time I reached the bottom. Maybe a compelling argument for disc brakes?
Back at my Brother-in-Law’s, my mobile had remembered the settings from the last time we visited him, a year ago, and automatically connected to his wireless network to upload my ride to Strava. Can’t complain with 3 Overall Top 10 trophies on what wasn’t a full-on, eyes-out effort, as I knew I’d have to retrace my route back over The Cairn an hour or so later…
Next Up (coming soon): Episode 5 – The Etape Strikes Back.