Whoosh 2023, day 4: Banff to Grantown, 66.1 miles, 4,236 feet of climbing

When people who don’t ride bikes imagine the prospect of doing so, the worry they most often mention is the challenge of getting up hills. Those of us who ride a lot get used to the hills. But we fret about windy weather.

The start of Monday’s Whoosh ride from Banff, on the Moray coast, to Grantown offered ample evidence for our worry. As we headed west from Banff along the coast, we struggled to keep upright while powerful gusts of wind shoved us leftwards. As I overtook other riders on the initial climb out of Banff, I sensed that the conditions had exacerbated the tiredness produced by the 170 miles of riding and many thousands of feet of climbing.

But the wind-battered coast offered reminders of other things besides the weather. Off Banff, an oil product tanker, the Amundsen Spirit, was waiting to load its next cargo. There were also multiple yards offering services to the oil and gas industry. It occurred to me that we had now come across all the factors listed in John McGrath’s 1973 play about the unfairness of Scotland’s economy, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Previous days’ riding had taken us past many of the large estates devoted to deer-stalking that the play criticised. We have seen thousands of the sheep – originally mainly of the Cheviot breed – that landowners used to replace the people that they evicted from the area in their thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our ride, I realised, was taking us through an area where poorer citizens have long suffered particularly acute injustices. It felt fitting that our ride is raising money for the Grampian branch of FareShare UK, a charity using food that would otherwise go to waste to supply food banks.

The difficult circumstances facing us, meanwhile, were a reminder that even the best planning and organisation can take a battering when unpredictable circumstances arise. For us, riding bikes for fun, the changes were relatively minor. For less fortunate people, the position can feel far more desperate.

Still grappling with the weather, we headed along a disused railway – another reminder that the area’s economy has seen past booms followed by busts. It felt like a relief when we finally turned inland to follow the valley of the Spey and had the wind at our backs. We were soon amid scenes of remarkable natural beauty – and hugely demanding riding.

Amid the light brown towering trunks of Scots pines, we followed roads that plunged up and down, alternately riding beside the Spey and its tributaries and scaling the steep sides of river gorges. One particularly steep ascent, shortly after our lunch in Fochabers, struggling for breath. One steep descent twisted down towards the valley floor, leaving us struggling to keep our machines under control. The thick forest was a welcome reminder that, while deer and sheep have denuded much of the landscape, pristine pockets survive.

There was, no doubt, still evidence of how north-east Scotland’s resources have often been extracted rather than developed. There were areas where all the trees had been felled. It was hard not to wonder how many of the returns from the famous distilleries we passed flowed to north-east Scotland’s people.

But we came to an accommodation with the conditions. After a long climb past the Macallan distillery, we found ourselves on a quiet side road. The climbs mostly followed descents that gave us the momentum to get up. It felt easier to appreciate the view of the broad Spey at the bottom of the valley and to take pleasure in the sharp ascents. “What a beautiful road,” Aileen, one of my riding companions, said as we neared Grantown.

It felt appropriate, however, that the day had been hard. Our ride seeks to address tough issues while also affording us the less consequential challenge of a bike ride. We arrived exhausted but also exhilarated. We had conquered some of the difficulties of an area that has proved challenging in every sense.

FareShare UK

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