Whoosh 2023, Day 2: 58 miles (via minor roads); 60.4 miles (via old railway line).

After a first day’s riding on Friday when north-east Scotland’s weather failed to live up to the worst fears of the 28 riders participating in this year’s Whoosh, Saturday produced an unanticipated surprise. We opened the windows of our cabins in Braemar to the sight of snow – damp, large flakes but still unmistakably snow.

But, although it was cold and damp, that was not the decisive factor in my experience of the first part of the ride. Instead, having missed the other riders’ departure and, because my navigation app was not cooperating, I dashed down the road towards Ballater desperate for the reassurance of seeing other riders.

The experience was certainly not wholly miserable. Amid flurries of snow, I was treated to some remarkable sights. Looking to my right at one point, I could see a deer silhouetted on a hilltop. I pedalled as hard as I could amid the light brown trunks of towering Scots pines. The roads were mostly quiet and peaceful.

But I was struck by the fundamental human need for company. I found myself scanning the road ahead for the bright rain jackets of my fellow riders. I felt a little pang each time I saw none. Then, as I approached the royal estate at Balmoral, a patch of yellow told me I was catching up. Turning off the main road by the gates of the Royal Residence, I came upon a cluster of my fellow riders inspecting the estate’s war memorial.

The experience was a reminder of some of the principles inspiring the charities that Whoosh’s annual rides support. People feel better when surrounded by supporters, even when faced with unexpected surprises. Those can be worse-than-anticipated weather or more serious misfortunes. That is certainly the case with to FareShare UK, the charity that this year’s ride is supporting. FareShare seeks to make the best possible use of food that would otherwise go to waste to help people through the cost of living crisis.

It occurred to me as I rode that FareShare UK’s Grampian region – which the ride is particularly supporting – must face particular challenges with the region’s extremes both of weather and inequality. Heating houses in areas where snow falls in late April must feel particularly urgent. It is hard to imagine that housing is cheap or easily obtained in tourist centres such as Braemar.

My experience was transformed by the feeling I was in it with others. While I quickly overtook the initial group I had encountered, I felt safer and more protected knowing I was in with a wider group. I soon caught up with other riders that I knew rode around my own pace. As the snow stopped, we rode briskly along rolling minor roads, mostly empty of cars, using the descents to provide momentum for the next climb. Passing pine trees, herds of beef cattle and the gatehouses of large estates, the ride at points felt something like cycling perfection.

The support of others went further. Neither I nor my riding companion at the time noticed the point where we were meant to turn onto the old Ballater to Aberdeen railway line – an omission we regarded as a piece of serendipity. Had we noticed it, we would have missed the exhilarating ups and downs of the back roads.

When we encountered other riders during a coffee stop in Aboyne, they told us the old railway line, while pleasant, was muddy. I urged some of us continue along the back roads, a choice that others endorsed even after it turned out to take us over a substantial climb on an old military road. A waterfall at the Falls of Feugh near Banchory was particularly picturesque.

The day finished with four of us sprinting through the picturesque River Dee into Aberdeen. We urged each other on and helped each other with wayfinding. We arrived buoyed both by the pleasure of a rapid bike ride, as well as by the feeling of togetherness of having undertaken it together. It remains a fundamentally trivial pleasure, which we are privileged to enjoy. As I scanned the horizon in the morning, however, there was a reminder of the pain of being alone in the world. My relief at being rescued from that hinted, I felt, at something still more profound.

FareShare UK

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