There’s a distinct camping mat rustle from somewhere behind my right ear, seems like I’m not the only one awake. I’ve been lying here, wrapped up cosily in my bivi bag for an hour or so. Enjoying listening to the morning birdsong, and nothing else but the sound of a gentle breeze softly moving the heather on which I’m lying. Lifting the smallest corner of my sleeping bag a few minutes ago, I saw that it was dawn. The sky is pink and there’s a glow on the horizon that suggests sunrise will be soon, my only clue as to what time it might be. I like that. It’s one of the things I love about sleeping outside. Take away the distractions of technology and the body seems to reset itself, waking when it’s rested enough and when the rest of the world is coming to life. I have nothing to do but lie and listen, take note of the sounds around me, empty my mind of the usual stresses. I’m here with Rachael, Oli, Tom and Sam, and “here” is a large mound of mossy, heathery ground somewhere south of Inverness, off the Great Glen Way, which we found when darkness stopped us riding last night. As bivi spots go, it was pretty good. Especially for one we just stumbled upon in the dark. Exposed enough to let the gentle breeze keep any early hatching midges away, away from any noise of traffic, people, or light pollution, flat enough for us all to find a comfortable sleeping spot, and most importantly, dry. The stars and full moon even put on a good show during the clear, cloudless night, and the temperature was mild too.

The Badger

Last night we started our ride along the Badger Divide in Inverness. The Badger is a 200 mile off‐road bike‐packing route from Inverness to Glasgow along heritage paths, long distance trails, estate and forestry roads, and well‐established rights of way, ideal for gravel bikes.

I’m not sure who came up with the route, or the name, but I think it was a group of Scots having a bit of a piss‐take at the bigger, longer, famous bike‐packing routes like the Tour Divide (which runs from Canada to Mexico). Anyway, I’d added it to my mental “I’d like to do that one day” list as soon as I’d heard about it. Turns out the others had had similar ideas, and a plan had been formulated by Rach and Oli late last year, and evolved into the motley crew we were today. We even had a mascot, Barry, and a theme tune (more on that in a second...), but much to Rach’s disappointment, we’d vetoed Tom’s idea of matching Badger onesie outfits...thankfully.

Yesterday had started early, with a 5 am alarm and a drive to the Hope Factory to assemble the team. A quick van swap and then we were on the way North to Glasgow, via a compulsory stop at Tebay services for coffee, bacon butties, cakes and pies. Is it even possible to drive past here without stopping in for goodies?! The bank holiday traffic was, well, non‐existent actually, and we felt smug heading away from honey‐pot areas like the Lake District, sure to soon be teeming with people enjoying 3 days of sunny warm weather.

Sam had found the theme tune, and it was a bit of an earworm, a song that repeats endlessly in your head all day once you’ve heard it’s simple but catchy sound, driving you to distraction. But the excitement of setting out on an adventure meant no‐one was at that point, and the four words that made up the song were shouted out cheerfully through the van over and over again. When they

weren’t being spoken out loud, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was singing them in my head. I realise now this was probably pretty annoying at 6am in the morning for Rach who was driving!

Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Mushroom, Mushroom, Argh! Snake!

(Sorry...don’t Google it, you’ll hate me forever!)

The ease with which the journey had started didn’t last though. One of the downsides of travelling on a bank holiday is that there are reduced train services, something we were reliant on to get us from Glasgow (where we’d conveniently leave the van so as to be able to ride back to it), to the route start in Inverness. One of the downsides of living in the UK is that taking a bike on a train is stressful at any time, and way more difficult than it should be, even more so on a bank holiday. Despite the benefits that could be made to the health of the nation, not to mention the reduction in environmental impact by having less cars on the road, our transport ministers have decided to make it as difficult as possible to use a combination of bikes and trains (or any public transport) to get anywhere. But let’s not go there right now, there isn’t the time for me to rant! To put in plainly, it simply wasn’t possible to get all of us on the same train.

So with 2 of us on one train, and 3 more on the next train 3 hours later, the badgers were literally divided (see what I did there?!). At least we were all eventually going to get there though.

Slightly worryingly we had sent Sam and Tom on ahead to buy supplies for dinner and breakfast, it’s not that we didn’t trust them not to just buy beer and crisps, but we didn’t trust them.

By the time Rach, Oli and I arrived in Inverness it was almost 7pm, and after quickly loading bikes up with food at the train station, it was time to get pedalling and cover some miles before it got dark. It had been a scorching hot day (for Scotland), and was now turning into a beautiful warm evening, with a light breeze and a temperature perfect for riding, a great way to start the trip.

We took time to snap a few obligatory photos at the official start point of the ride outside Inverness Castle and then we were on our way, Rach kindly reminding us from her Garmin each time we ticked a kilometer off that we still had 330, 329, 328 to go, i.e a long way! We quickly left the city and found ourselves climbing into woodland, following the Great Glen way. The trails were dry and fast rolling, and despite a few adjustments of bags and settling into comfortable riding positions, we were ticking along nicely.

Dry, dusty trails lined with coconut‐scented gorse made it feel like a perfect summer evening to be outside. It was 8pm and we were riding in t‐shirts and shorts, setting out on an adventure whilst those in the city were heading back to their homes for the night. It was hard not to smile and feel very lucky about that.

A comfortable pace was soon adopted and as usual, Rach and I used the time to chatter away about this, that and everything as the miles ticked by, the boys choosing to be just far enough in front presumably to get some peace and quiet. The views were opening up, and it was remarkable how within a short space of time we had left the city behind and begun to feel like we were out in the wilds. The sun began to drop lower in the sky as sunset approached, turning the horizon into a giant paint palette of colour. I love how taking trips like this means that you are often outside at the most magical times of the day, and get to be in places and see things from a perspective you don’t normally have.

Ainsley Harriot, all‐time hero of bike‐packers, provided the main course of a quick dinner that night with his legendary cous‐cous packets. Throw in some cheese and chorizo and it’s a mini feast in a bag, no washing up needed either! Oatcakes and more cheese, beers, and chocolate finished the meal off nicely, the boys had done good after all. We crawled into sleeping bags and bivi bags and settled down for a night outdoors under a full moon, the repetitive beat of a tune like a metronome sending me to sleep...

Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Mushroom, mushroom....

DAY 2: Over the Corrieyairack

It wasn’t long before everyone was up and awake, and with fresh coffee on the stove, porridge eaten, and bikes loaded up again, we were away and riding by 7.30am. This is my favourite time of the day to be out on bikes...we were the only ones about and had the feeling we were stealing extra time from the day while others were still at home. You could feel that it was going to warm up and be a lovely day once the sun got a bit higher too.

We pedalled our way along the Great Glen way, undulating up and down along trails perfect for gravel bikes with views of the deep dark Loch Ness always to our side. Wild yellow primrose was flowering all along the side of the trail and adding bursts of bright colour to the forest greens and brown. There were some fairly spicy steep loose sections as we headed down towards Drumnadrochit that would have been more suited to mountain bikes, but were a fun challenge on fully loaded gravel bikes. Fortunately the consequences of failing to make it round the tight steep corners was simply a run‐off into the heather!

We were riding a mixture of bikes, all kitted out with Hope components. A brand new bike from Juliana Bicycles, the Quincy, had arrived for me just in time for our trip and was ideal for the route. The lovely crew at the Hope factory were able to build it up with beautiful purple Hope components including RX4 calipers, and 20Five wheels, specifically designed for gravel and road biking. As a massive fan of Hope MTB brakes, it was great to know the same stopping power and modulation was going to be available on my drop‐bar bike, something I’m definitely not yet as confident on! The hardest thing though...despite being utterly in love with my new steed, I couldn’t tell anyone about the bike, share pictures or show it off as it was pre‐launch and had a media embargo on had to be a secret!

Back to our journey, and timing it to perfection, we descended into Drumnadrochit just in time for the café to open and us to grab bacon sandwiches whilst we filled water bottles up and made brews outside the public toilets in the car park...oh the glamorous life of the bike‐packer!

We climbed out of the village to cheers from a couple of excitable Chinese tourists who videoed and snapped photos of us like we were part of some important race (it was the only reason I kept going on the steep hill and didn’t get off and push...I didn’t want to disappoint them!)

The trail continued to contour the hillside above the picturesque loch before dropping all the way to Fort Augustus, a hub for Nessie hunters and coach tourists on a whistle‐stop tour of Scotland’s famous places. It felt a bit bizarre to see so many people bustling around after a night and morning of barely seeing anyone, and we definitely got a few strange looks from people who clearly seemed a little bemused at the sight of our loaded bikes and already sweaty kit!

The café here was a chance to fuel up for the next climb, the biggest by far of the route, and so pies, sandwiches, chips, ice creams and coffees were all devoured in readiness. The weather was changing too, and checking the forecast, it seemed the heatwave we’d been promised was being chased out by a weather front moving across from the North West bringing rain...we were heading East now, the question was would we outride it?!

Our climb was over the Monadhliath mountains via the Corrieyairack pass. This would be a relatively obscure pass if it wasn’t for the fact that General Wade’s military road passes over it, linking the Great Glen with Strath Spey. General Wade was a military officer who in 1725 was appointed commander in chief of His Majesty’s forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain. Over the next 12 years Wade directed the construction of 240 miles of roads and 30 bridges, no mean feat at that time.

The road is rough, steep, long and high, and the toughest climb on the Badger divide, taking us to over 770m through remote terrain. A seemingly endless grind with loaded bikes, at the limit of what our legs and lungs could manage. A line of pylons rising up from the valley and over the pass now detract slightly from the otherwise very wild and remote feel of the area, and provide a depressing indicator of how much is still to climb too. As we slowly winched our way upwards though, I silently thanked General Wade and his soldiers, the thought of what boggy hell this route might have been like before his road was built was something I was glad we didn’t have to imagine!

When I’m faced with long climbs where I don’t know how long they’ll go on for, I have a few mental tactics that I naturally seem to adopt to keep me going. One of them is to get a repetitive song in my

head that I walk or turn the pedals in time to. No prizes for guessing what it was on this occasion (although the tempo was a little slower than it had been earlier in the day!)

Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger, Mushroom, Mushroom, Argh! Snake!.....

Lenticular clouds and a growing muggy atmosphere suggested we were not going to outride the rain approaching from behind us, and sure enough, a few drops began to fall. Warm refreshing summer rain at first. Reaching the top after an hour and a half of tough climbing, it was a little different though, celebrations were brief as the rain was becoming more persistent and jackets were needed. It was the kind of place that felt like even on a warm still day the wind would blow through making it feel fairly inhospitable.

The descent lay before us invitingly, descending out of sight as a rough wide track through rugged mountain terrain. We had earned this!

It was even rougher than it had looked, bouldery loose rocks and deep rocky drainage channels, rubble‐filled corners and sharp square edged bedrock. On a skinny wheeled gravel bike it was about the limit of what I could ride and hold on for! White knuckles and blistered palms from the full‐on death grip I was adopting meant I needed to stop for a rest every so often, and heavier rain was making it slippier too. It was brilliant fun though. Gravel biking has opened up to me a whole new level of challenge in riding trails I’d previously have done on a mountain bike, in fact come to think of it, it was reminiscent of how descending on my old 80mm travel hardtail with my seatpost up used to feel about 15 years ago! I reminded myself that it had probably been done on a fixed gear road bike by someone in the past and I probably just needed to stop wincing and get on with it!

Our plan had been to ride until dark again today, hopefully covering another 30‐40km. But with heavy rain now set in, by the time we reached the bottom of the pass our clothes were drenched, we had no phone signal to check an updated forecast and no tarps to make shelter for a bivi. The prospect of continuing on to a cold wet night without shelter was highly unappealing.

A conveniently situated bothy right at the side of the route was a good spot to get inside, take stock of the situation and collectively come up with a plan. As we walked through the door I think all of us knew we weren’t going back out! It was a fairly unanimous and easy decision to choose to stay in the cosy bothy and get a decent sleep in a warm dry place. We also knew that we had just made a decision that would mean finishing the route as planned was now highly unlikely in the time we had available....but we would deal with that tomorrow!

We lit the fire, hung up damp kit, and generally made ourselves at home as we were the only ones there. Impromptu yoga and stretching to release fatigued muscles, tasty food (vegetarian cottage pie and chocolate pudding on tonight’s menu), and good chat in the absence of technology for people to get lost in antisocial was great. Old sofas that must have seen thousands of weary walkers and cyclists collapse into them at the end of a long day in the hills were a welcome change from saddles, and a luxury in a bothy! We set the alarm for a 5am start, and settled down to a good night’s sleep as the rain continued to fall outside.

DAY 3: The long day

We woke to a misty morning, last night’s rain dripping from trees and lying in puddles on the track, reinforcing the justification for spending a night under a roof rather than hunkered down in a bivi bag. But the clouds were already beginning to clear as we set off at was going to be, NEEDED to be, a big day, and fingers crossed the weather would be on our side.

The section of the route between Fort Augustus and Killin does not pass through any towns or villages, meaning there is nowhere to restock on food for a long way. We had known this, but we maybe hadn’t quite planned out what food we actually needed for this stretch. Taking stock of our remaining bars, tunnocks wafers, dried fruit and nuts and a bag of sweets....It might sound like a sugar‐hungry kid’s dream, but looking at those rations and the distance on the map we had to cover with it, it didn’t seem like a lot for 5 hungry would be many many hours before the chance of finding proper food.

The first hour flew by on relatively flat fast tracks, past a beautiful beach at Loch Laggan and old forests where vivid green moss coated the ground, sparkling where last night’s raindrops caught the first few rays of sun. The next climb was on wide forestry roads, recently used by the look of the huge log stacks lining the side of it and the pine‐fresh scent lingering in the air. My legs were feeling the previous day’s efforts and felt heavy and sluggish, but somehow, when you do long trips like this, you reach a point where your legs constantly feel tired, but can still keep was nice to have the knowledge from previous experience that the body is capable of being pushed harder than you realise if the mind can tell it to keep going.

Crossing another awkward deer fence with a 6 point turn through a kissing gate, the views opened up to a beautiful loch. Our trail ran alongside this for about 10km, and despite appearing to be an idyllic smooth trail, it was in reality a very rough loose, boulder track into a strong headwind that slightly detracted from the immediate beauty of the place! It was stunning though, and despite grimacing through sore hands and bum being bounced around on skinny wheeled bikes, you couldn’t help but smile at where we were. It was bank holiday weekend and we had this incredible place all to ourselves. No sooner had this thought popped into my head, and I considered the fact we hadn’t seen anyone for many hours, than 2 guys appeared out of nowhere on bikes with fishing kit! What were the chances?! I think they were as shocked as we were to see anyone else up here.

A long fast descent was a good respite from the climbing it felt like we’d been doing all morning, but on a route like the Badger, inevitably meant another climb would soon follow. The gradients compared to yesterday’s Corrieyairack Pass climb were much kinder though, and it was possible to find a gear to spin slowly upwards whilst chatting to each other or simply taking in the views around us. Streams were full from the previous night’s rain and we took the opportunity to fill our bottles and wash faces in the crystal clear water whenever we passed one.

We were heading across towards Corrour station, the highest and most remote station in the UK, located in the middle of wild Rannoch moor, with no road access. We were also praying for the station tea room to be open, if it wasn’t, we were going to be in trouble. We had almost finished the supply of sweets and biscuits, and what was left needed to be kept in reserve for the stretch after Corrour in case the station wasn’t open...we had another long track and a long way to go to find anywhere we could buy food! Stomachs rumbled and groaned and legs felt empty as we covered the last few kilometres alongside Loch Ossian towards the station, stopping only briefly to rescue a family of frogs who were dicing with death as they crossed the track from the loch to the forest.

Our prayers were answered and we arrived at the station to find it bustling with walkers waiting for the next train, and delicious smells wafting from the café. We feasted on toasted sandwiches, chips, pots of tea, cakes, and anything else we could fit in our bellies! The place was like a little oasis in the middle of a very big wilderness. Something had been feasting on us too...ticks! Increasingly becoming the bane of anyone who spends time in the outdoors, fortunately we had tick removers with us and the wee beasties were removed before they had chance to cause problems. Sam was clearly the tastiest (or maybe he just spent more time in the heather!) as he won the prize for most removed.

Stocking up on even more chocolate bars before we left, we’d also had chance to look at the map and consider our options...

Choosing to stay in the bothy, needing to stop to take photos, not allowing ourselves realistically enough time in the first place, these all meant it was becoming clear we weren’t going to finish the entire route this trip. We were going to have to find a way of catching the train back to Glasgow and our van. Unfortunately that was easier said than done. The direction we were heading for the final stretch of the route contained no train line. Our only option was to get to Crianlarich, off route, but an easy ride on road from Killin, the next bigger town we would be heading towards. It wasn’t ideal, but it would work, in fact it was the only option we really had. Phone calls were made to purchase tickets and bike reservations, and then we were committed. It was still a long way to get there though, and we had some more miles to cover today to make the train tomorrow. Checking the map again, this time in search of possible bivi spots and more importantly, places to get food for tonight, we suddenly realised that Killin was the only town where we would find shops or restaurants at all....the race was now on to make it to a pub before they stopped serving food tonight!

Powered by the thought of missing dinner, and fuelled by the feast we’d just consumed, we began the next climb with renewed energy. Fast rolling wide estate tracks passed the scenic Loch Ossian and climbed steadily, the strong headwind soon putting paid to the “fresh‐legs feeling” we’d had on leaving the tearoom. Another fast rough descent dropped us down towards Rannoch station and the edge of Rannoch moor. Bearing in mind I could count the number of other riders we’d seen all trip so far on one hand, you’ll imagine what a surprise it was as we passed a bike‐packer heading in the opposite direction, who suddenly shouted out “Julia!”. It was Johnny, a friendly Scot who I’d guided in the Alps a few years previously, out riding roughly the same route as us in reverse. What are the chances!

Time was pressing on, and so with the need to make Killin for dinner, our first detour from the route meant a pedal along a quiet rolling road beside Loch Rannoch. This part of Scotland is one I’d never travelled through before, and the pleasure of seeing new sights and places for the first time had me ignoring the growing fatigue in my legs and smiling as I took it all in. Beautiful houses and tiny bays where if time had allowed it would have been perfect for a swim, made me vow to come back and spend more time here. It had turned into a beautiful sunny day, and it was nice to feel the sun’s warmth and have the wind on our backs for a change. A lovely forest trail climbing alongside a deep valley took us over towards Glen Lyon. The sun casting beams of light through the tall trees, highlighting the undulations in the trail, a good distraction from how hard these were beginning to feel for our tired legs!

The descent to Glen Lyon was another fast and furious rough track. By now my hands were feeling pretty sore. The position of my handlebar bag meant I’d been unable to use the drops when descending, relying instead on the hoods. With powerful Hope brakes this was no problem, and what I’d normally use on rides anyway, but on a longer trip such as this, with lots of rough descending, the option to switch things around a bit to give sore hands some relief would have been nice...lesson learned for next time!

The next part of our detour was an amazing one. Usually when there’s an option to be off‐road I’d always take it, but in this case there wasn’t time, so we were resigned to the tarmac. What I wasn’t expecting was the incredible single‐track road we found ourselves on. It wasn’t a famous pass, or one I’ve ever heard anyone talk about, or even really noticed on the map, but it was stunning, and completely empty. The grind up was tough with the ever‐persistent head‐wind to contend with, but the sun still shone brightly and the views and sheep lazily roaming across the road that we needed to dodge provided good distractions.

We had spread out at this point, each of us climbing at our own pace, whatever our limbs could manage by this point. Bizarrely, I was enjoying it. It felt good to be pushing myself and my body in this way on a long route again, something I hadn’t done for a couple of years. I was in a good place, with my thoughts mainly of being reminded why I love bike‐packing. The simplicity of condensing everything you need into a small amount of bags you can carry with you, and the basic routine of pedalling, eating, sleeping, and repeating with little else to have to worry about are what I love about trips such as the one we were on. Putting the phone down and reconnecting with nature and being outside too. Sure it can feel physically tough and challenging, but it’s easy really compared to normal life where my mind is constantly busy and trying to think of all the things I have to do on a daily basis. Here, despite the pain in my legs, which was actually fairly easy to put out of my mind for a while, I felt relaxed.

By the time we’d all reached the top of the road the sun was dropping below the surrounding hills and the reservoir at the top was dark and shady. Out of the sun the wind felt bitter and it was no place to hang around, plus, dinner was calling! The descent on the other side was fast! Low light making long shadows as we raced down, looking out at high hills across the glen, and enjoying being able to freewheel and to be off the climb, it was bliss for tired legs. A time trial along the road at the bottom brought us into Killin at 7pm, it had been an epic day. It was hard to believe that at 6am that morning we’d been setting off from the bothy...was that actually the same day?!

We found the nearest pub that didn’t look too fancy to take in 5 dirty smelly cyclists who’d been wearing the same clothes for 3 days, and ordered all the food and beer. Food never tastes so good as when you have truly earned it and today we could safely say that was the case. No‐one wanted to move far after stuffing ourselves, so we rode a few minutes away to a small patch of woodland by the side of the river and away from too many houses, and set up our bivi. There was a vague smell of poo all was hard to tell at this point if the smell was coming from us or the sewage treatment works! Let’s hope it was the latter, but honestly, at that point, none of us really cared about anything except lying down and sleeping.

I slept well, a long day, a good dinner, and the soothing sound of the river sending me to sleep as soon as I closed my eyes, and only woke at sunrise as the birds were beginning to sing and the bright beams of light began to pierce the tree canopy.

Day 4: Heading home

All that remained was 20km of road riding to Crianlarich to catch our train. It was a glorious morning, and I felt a little bit sad already that we were on the last section of our journey. Already my thoughts as we pedalled along were turning to what we could plan as the next adventure.

The station café provided a suitably greasy Scottish breakfast. We may not have had far to pedal today, but the previous few days we’d burnt enough energy to feel entirely justified in still eating lots!

The train journey back south provided time to reflect on all that we’d seen and experienced in our action‐packed few days, and that fact that not a single one of us had had any kind of mechanical issue with the bikes or even a puncture! A testament to the durable and reliable quality of the Hope components we were all using!

Arriving in the centre of Glasgow was a stark contrast after the solitude and peace of the Highlands, but also amazing that within a few hours by train it was possible to see both. We cruised back the 10km to where we’d left the van at a member of Oli’s family’s house, along the banks of the Clyde, full of a sense of satisfaction at having filled our bank holiday as full as we possibly could. I don’t think any of us felt too disappointed that we couldn’t complete our route.

We had set out on an adventure, and an adventure was what we’d had. It may not have been exactly what we’d planned, but it was arguably better. The best adventures come from the unforeseen circumstances that cause plans to change and spontaneous decisions to have to be made. Those are what make it memorable and a true adventure, the uncertainty of what is ahead. Unpredictable weather, overambitious riding targets, a lack of planning ahead for carrying enough food, bank holiday trains...all things that make me smile looking back on it now...not to mention that theme tune....Badger, Badger, Badger, Badger...

With bags full of stinking clothes, questionable tan lines (were they dirt tan or sun tan?!), weary bodies, dusty bikes and happy hearts and minds, we headed south across the border and home from our highland gravel adventure.

The Badger Divide had been divided, we’ll be back for part two another time!