Destination Showcase: Ben Cathro Rides Aberdeenshire
Scotland’s up and coming destination
Video: Alfie Marsh
Photography and Words: Ross Bell
Riders: Ben Cathro, Tom Cole, Finn Watts, Dan Milne, Mike Ellington, Lewis Watson, Neil Pritchett, Chris Roper, Kev Nelson, Clark Sutherland, Katie May, Will Clarke
Tucked away on the northeast coast of Scotland, Aberdeenshire might not be the first place to spring into your mind when you think of Scottish riding destinations. The likes of the Tweed Valley, Fort William and Torridon have traditionally been the more “fashionable” locations to head to but over the past few years… but the winds of change have been blowing. Aberdeenshire is flanked by the rugged Cairngorm mountains and the North Sea whilst the Dee and Don rivers run right through its heart, a topography which conveniently lends itself rather nicely to the passing of mountain bike tires. From meaty Munro mountain missions to local enduro laps and everything in between, Aberdeenshire has a wide variety of trails to cater to an abundance of tastes and abilities.
The region has benefited from a passionate local riding community which has put in the hard graft to create the great network of riding which exists today, but making trails is one thing, making sure they’re sustainable is another problem in itself. Luckily the locals are switched on and in 2018 the Aberdeenshire Trail Association was set up to do just that – building harmonious relationships with local landowners and making sure trails are looked after in the correct way. With the legacy of Aberdeenshire’s trails already being looked after I can only see it continuing to blossom into one of the UK’s finest riding destinations.
Our first stop was the picturesque village of Ballater which might well be the jewel in Royal Deeside’s crown, it’s an absolute must. The Queen’s holiday house Balmoral Castle is just down the road but it’s the iconic “Heartbreak Ridge” which has been drawing mountain bikers here over the last few years and once you’re up top it’s not hard to see why! We met up with Tom from the Aberdeenshire Trail Association and Finn and Dan from CycleHighlands, the local bike shop in Ballater. After pedalling through the quaint village we then got stuck into the close to 500 metre climb in the midst of a Scottish summer heatwave. After passing a bothy we traversed across the open moorland with Ballater far below us, eventually reaching a cairn which marked the top of the trail. The trail is a flat out blast through the heather with some monstrous granite rock slabs thrown in for good measure before it eventually weaves its way into the pines. “Heartbreak Ridge” somehow has a big mountain adventure feel to it when in reality you’re not really straying too far from Ballater. The only heartbreak we found was when the 4km descent ended! Those looking for more riding can lap themselves silly on the more traditional enduro style tracks on the hills either side of the village, we’d definitely recommend checking out “Mastermind”. Be sure to sample the ice cream from Shorty’s before departing!
There’s no better way to explore new trails than by following the wheel tracks of local riders.
Pedalling through Ballater and beginning the just shy of 500 metre climb to the top of Heartbreak Ridge.
The views from the open hillside are so incredible it’s hard to keep focussed on the track!
The ice cream from Shorty’s is highly recommended – try out the Ballater creme.
Following the meanders of the river Dee downstream we arrived in Banchory to tackle the steep and technical enduro trails of Scolty Hill which sits proudly overlooking the village. After a hearty breakfast and caffeine hit at the Coffee Bothy we pedalled along the street to link up with the boys from 20Twenty bike shop who were our tour guides for the day. On the climb up you’re taunted by quick glimpses of trail which will have you impatiently pedalling your way to the top. Thankfully, it’s an easy enough hill to lap! Will (who put in all the hard work organising this trip for us!) described Scolty as an enduro rider’s paradise and he certainly wasn’t wrong. Roots, rock slabs and general tech lay in wait for anyone wanting to sample Scolty’s delights. It was great to have some local lines to follow and drag us up to speed through the day. Some personal highlights were “Squamish” “Corona Time” and “Dee Drop”, the latter rather conveniently spitting you out right by the river ready for a refreshing dip.
Thanks to Mike and Lewis from Twenty20 bike shop for guiding as around their local hill.
Pedalling alongside the River Dee was a nice way to warm up before the real climb up Scolty Hill began.
Granite rock slabs seem to be a staple around Aberdeenshire.
A quick dip to refresh after another sunny and sweaty day on the bike.
It would be rude not to stop by Lost Loch Spirits to sample their gin.
After watching Cathro successfully toss the caber we headed for Balfour Forest to sample some of the slightly mellower and flowier options that Aberdeenshire has to offer – a refreshing contrast to the previous two days along with the weather which played to Scotland’s cliches. After a pleasant spin through the mist we arrived at the top of “Chutney”, another trail which the Aberdeenshire Trail Association has taken under its wing. It was interesting to hear from Will how they’d been working with the landowner on trail changes that have stopped potential conflicts and issues from arising. After a brief open section up top the trail then ebbs and flows through the narrow corridors of a pine forest, it was distinctly like nothing else we’d ridden so far and we all had some big grins on our faces after riding something fast and flowy. There’s plenty to choose from in Aboyne with lengthy descents and technical trails too in and around Birsemore and Glen Tanar. It’s got a lot to offer, particularly when it comes to catering for a wide range of abilities. The day was finished off by sampling the tasty treats at Spider on a Bicycle, a cafe in Station Square – well worth checking out for a pre or post ride fuel up.
A quick caber toss to loosen off for the day of riding ahead.
Heading into the pines of Balfour forest just outside of Aboyne.
The long tunnels of trees we were blasting through made the trail feel even faster.
The Spider on a Bicycle cafe in Aboyne went down very well after our ride.
The trails of Pitfichie have a special place in Scottish downhill racing history, not least with Pinkbike’s very own Ben Cathro who was quick to remind everyone possible about his previous wins there… After Cathro took us on a trip down memory lane on the original granite laced downhill track we were then joined by Chris from Ride in Peace Adventures, Kev from Aberdeenshire Trail Association and Clark from Bennachie Bike Bothy for a sunset lap from the top of White Hill. The lengthy Scottish summer days are somewhat of a novelty and something to be savoured, allowing you to ride late into the evening should you desire. Pitfichie has an extensive network of trails and given its proximity to Aberdeen – the airport is round twenty minutes away – is one of the most popular riding spots in the region. After watching the sun colourfully sink out of sight from atop Whitehill we departed the moorland and dived back into the trees via a teeth chattering and rim dinging rock garden. There’s nothing better than charging down a ribbon of singletrack in clouds of dust, jeering and cheering at each other’s riding antics as we skid back into the carpark in near enough darkness. Aberdeenshire had spoiled us and our final fling certainly did not disappoint.
A quick trip to Bennachie Bike Bothy before hitting the trails.
Cathro enjoying getting back up to speed on the original Pitfichie downhill track.
Heading up for a sunset lap with Chris Roper and Kev Nelson.
Aberdeen can be reached by road, rail, sea or air and when you get here Aberdeenshire is easily accessible by public transport, car or bike. Aberdeen International airport has daily flights from many major airports including London Heathrow, Paris and Amsterdam. The airport also has many direct routes to most UK cities as well as many key European destinations served by EasyJet, British Airways and KLM amongst others. Trains arrive hourly from Glasgow and Edinburgh or use the east coast line to travel from cities such as York or Newcastle. Scotrail provides an express rail service direct to Aberdeen from many major cities. For timetables and to book your train tickets to Aberdeen visit the Scotrail website. Aberdeen can also be reached overnight from London on the Caledonian Sleeper. As the gateway to the Highlands, and only a 2.5 hours’ drive to Edinburgh or Glasgow, Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are also the perfect point to start your Scottish road trip.
The Climate & Wildlife:
Aberdeenshire is a generally dry climate with significantly less rainfall than many other parts of the UK. Summers are mild and winters can be cold with snowfall. The climate and unique natural landscape make the region an ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife. Visitors should be aware that there are numerous Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Nature Reserves and protected species sharing the landscape with riders.
Local Mountain Biking Groups:
Aberdeenshire Trail Association work with many landowners across the region focusing on volunteer trail maintenance, trail advocacy and developing the trail network. Since forming in 2018 they have secured 10’s of thousands of pounds to invest into the local network and contributed over 10,000 hours of volunteer time with tools on the trails. Get in touch, follow or donate to ATA via their website.
Bike shop and repairs:
Aberdeenshire is well stocked with friendly independent bike shops. If you find yourself in Ballater Cyclehighlands can provide everything from an inner tube to a demo bike from their Santa Cruz range. In Aboyne Aberdeenshire Bicycle Works have everything to cover trail riding and adventure riding stocking and hiring a full range of bikepacking gear alongside a healthy mix of mountain bikes. Banchory has several bike shops to choose from whether it be custom build enduro specialists at 20Twenty or road and e-bike experts at REM Bikes . If you find yourself exploring the vast Donside trail network Bennachie Bike Bothy is the one stop shop for route advice, dream builds and last minute spares! In the south of the region close to the Drumtochty trail network you’ll find Bike Remedy in their new headquarters set up to cater for all riders.
Aberdeenshire has a whole host of trails and adventures but some extra local knowledge is key to making the most of your trip – As well as the hugely helpful shops and trail association guides from Ride in Peace Adventures, e-Guide Scotland and Macdui Adventures can help plan your ideal route or multi day trip!
Food and Drink:
Ballater: Rock Salt and Snails, Shortys Ice Cream, Sheridans Butcher.
Aboyne: Spider on a Bicycle Café and Boat Inn Pub.
Banchory: The Coffee Bothy & The Douglas Arms, RIDE Coffee House.
The Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire region is famous for its dramatic coastlines, 263 castles and rolling landscapes of Royal Deeside. But that’s just the beginning. Awash with a fascinating history, vibrant street art colours the Aberdeen city streets, with numerous festivals and performances year round drawing visitors and locals to see world class artists. The newly refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery is a must visit. Those in search of luxury need look no further – the region is home to five Michelin Guide restaurants, traditional whisky and modern gin distilleries and BrewDog – leaders of the craft beer revolution while The Fife Arms in Braemar was recently named The Sunday Times UK ‘hotel of the year’! The region has also inspired literary classics and hosted Hollywood blockbusters and Netflix series. From Bram Stoker to Walt Disney, Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire has helped creative movie magic.