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THE DIVIDE

THE SPACE BETWEEN

The space between pictures is where MY story always seems to lie. I don’t take pictures when I’m having the most fun or having the best conversation. I happily fall victim to existing in that moment and that happy distraction. Of course, there are times when conversation and experience have to take a backseat to images, but in every great photo bike riding adventure we’ve ever had, there are a few moments that elude images and only exist in my memory.

This trip includes a large number of those for many fantastic reasons, but one of my absolute favorite moments came in the waning moments of the first day after a brutal climb and an epic crossing of the high route of the Great Glen Way. We dropped down to Fort Augustus on a trail. I feel like I'm doing this stretch of path a disservice by just calling it a trail, because I think it might be the perfect gravel flow trail. It was hard packed dirt, so smooth it almost felt paved in certain sections. It plummeted through the dense forest in a never-ending series of curves, bends, and switchbacks. We blasted down through the ever darkening forest - each of us following the wheel in front of us - existing in a state of disbelief and expectation that it had to end ANY second. But it kept going - and going - and going.

I’ve never experienced anything like it on a gravel bike - and I dream of the next time, if there ever will be a next time.

We all finished beaming - GLOWING lamps of happiness in the near darkness - whooping - wowing - just in complete awe at what we had just experienced. It was a fine finish to a day that could only be described as one of my all-time favorites.

And that was just the very end of the first day.

GREAT GLEN WAY

Let’s rewind a bit though for just a second. What is this Badger Divide? It’s a mostly off-road route connecting Inverness in the Scottish Highlands all the way down to Glasgow, approximately 335 kilometers later. We did it in 465 kilometers and five days on account of a bonus day around the can’t miss area of the Trossachs and the very aptly nicknamed, Gravelfoyle…plus a few detours and add-ons along the way.

The route was created by Stu Allan, and he seems to happily admit that he pulled the classic "your fingers don't cramp when you make a route on a computer, but your legs certainly do in real life" when he created the route: "The first version of the Badger was a bit of a click and hope effort on RideWithGPS. I'd actually planned to ride it as a bit of a giggle with the Edinburgh Fixed Gear Crew.

" Pause for me to collect myself after imagining the horrors of this route on a fixed gear.

Onward!

As for the name itself, it's a play on words referring back to Mexico's Baja Divide, a route that couldn't be much different if they actually tried. I think we would like this Stu Allan guy.

So the first day is chock-full of fun singleishtrack (more on that in a moment). It's also full of some pretty gnarly steep climbs - especially the final climb that takes you up to the High Line in the latter part of the day, just before reaching Fort Augustus. Don't be afraid of a little walking, because the ten or so minutes of walking (at most) that you'll have to do is so, so, so worth the effort. This upper trail is just pure heaven.
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SINGLEISHTRACK

I don’t know what it is about Scotland in particular, but it seems like many years ago they purpose built a lot of paths to act as, well, gravel trails. I know this isn't the truth, but it's fun to imagine someone accidentally building something perfect for someone far off in the future. So often with gravel bikes, we seem to find ourselves in over our heads (and not necessarily in a bad way), but definitely underbiked. On the Badger though, it’s a marvelous lottery win to discover how many singleish track sections (I think of it as single and a half track) there are along the way that are relatively smooth, devoid of humans, and just plain fun to ride.

Of course, this giant land of very, very few humans has its fair share of savage "roads" and "trails." I've bumped and battered my way through plenty enough to know that it isn't all big white puffy clouds and angels singing Christmas tunes.

As for the Scottish Highlands? Go here if you want to get away from the world. It’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe sitting at a whopping 9 humans per square kilometer. England is at 424, Netherlands 421, Belgium 376, Germany 232, Italy sits at 200. When you get into the Highlands, it feels like you leave the mad world behind - and in its place, you get all the dirt roads and trails you can handle, and when you do come across other humans, they seem to be some of the nicest ones you've ever come across.
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CORRIEYAIRACK, PART I

We started Day 2 with the stiffest test of the ride - though, looking back, I would say the climbs of the Great Glen Way on the first day were WAY harder, but the Corrieyairack Pass wins because it's big, and probably the most famous dirt climb in Scotland? Is that an exaggeration? I don't think it's too far off. It's certainly a humdinger to spell correctly.

So much happened in such a short amount of time, it would be a total violation of the experience if I didn't present this as a three part series...broken up with essential bits and pieces from the route as a whole. If you've made it this far, you're in no major rush.

Back to the story: the start of the second day saw us take on the biggest climb of our trip, the old military road up and over the Corrieyairack Pass, courtesy of General Wade in 1731. We took it on from the much longer, more vertiginous side starting from Fort Augustus. The other side is shorter, but it’s a LOT rougher. We enjoyed the smooth, longer side of the climb to start our morning. We even believed that the beatufiul sunrise and colorful morning clouds were a sign of a golden day in the Highlands.
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MAGICAL FORESTS

The name Highlands by its very nature seems to preclude the idea of magical forests, but trust me, forests are plentiful, and the forests are indeed special. Thick, deep, dark. I would hate to pick between the forests, the wide open moorlands, the glens, or the lochs. Thankfully, everything is so close together, you never have to choose! You can have everything, just keep pedaling - a new amazing, beautiful, different scene is likely thirty pedal strokes up the road/path/trail.
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CORRIEYAIRACK, PART II

Approximately seventeen minutes (I could be wrong, it could be ten minutes) after predicting a sunny day in paradise, the golden orb disappeared, the clouds rolled in, and not long after, the rain started falling. There was a roughly five second moment where sun and rain converged, and I just so happened to be holding my camera in my hand, and I got to see one of the prettier displays of light I've ever seen.

Speaking of light - I've never seen prettier light anywhere in my whole entire life. The ever changing weather (and I really do mean ever changing) makes for this magical concoction of clouds and sun and clean, fresh air (on account of the never-ending rain). I'm a firm believer that changing weather makes the prettiest light - and Scotland is the beacon in my argument.
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PAUSE FOR SQUASHIES!

"Chewy, fruity, and of course, squashy! These delectable Smarties Squashies marshmallow candies feature a sweet and sugary Raspberry flavor and an irresistibly chewy texture, truly the perfect candy snack!"

Everyone outside of our UK contingent got a life lesson two thirds of the way up the Corrieyairack Pass courtesy of Fraser. Thank you, Fraser, for broadening our sugar horizons and providing us the needed carbohydrates to continue forth into the gloom.

CORRIEYAIRACK, PART III

Just as it seemed we were in for it and were about to get a mega weather beating, we began the descent and could almost immediately see the sun peeking through the gloom. The descent is marked by a brutal road surface - rocks, monster drainage crossings, larger rocks, switchbacks, sea turtle size rocks - and the ever present power lines. When I think of Corrieryairack, I think of beautiful remoteness, a stern climb, and power lines. They all kind of go together.
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CORROUR STATION

So, the first part of Day 2 was pretty eventful. We were only about 40 kilometers into our 120 kilometer day when we finished the Corrieyairack part of the day.

This is when reality hit me square in the face. I was cracked and quietly panicking.

It worked out though, like it always seems to. I just got back on my bike and started pedaling and let the group bring the smiles and energy back - and it did return, slowly.

I rode most of this section in a state of mostly dazed and cracked, but the beauty still trickled into my addled brain. I was mesmerized by it all - just gawking - with no idea how to take a picture without making a production of it - aka getting off of my bike and getting back on it again - so we just rode, and I mumbled wow a lot. It was a funny moment to endure a soul search - a pretty gorgeous one, that's for sure.

Looking back at the images now, I love them and want to return, but it’s also ever so simple to take one step to the right, and suddenly, you’re Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote from Kidnapped: “A wearier looking desert a man never saw.”
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RANNOCH MOOR

I felt significantly better after our extremely relaxed lunch at the Station. Almost rejuvenated. We left bundled up and shivering and started the rough climb away from Loch Ossian - and I loved it. It was raw and rough and doubletrack almost feels like a misnomer, because the two tracks were so divided by tall grass - it felt like dueling singletrack. I thought about that a lot.

You’re never far from the moors in the Highlands. That is, an area defined as land that is neither forested nor under cultivation. Think wide open expanses with low, scrubby vegetation with a healthy dash of heather.

And in the game of remoteness and beauty, Rannoch Moor ranks very high.

Undiscovered Scotland says this way better than I could ever dream: It’s been said that the mood of the Scottish landscape depends on the weather more than anywhere else on earth. And Rannoch Moor is probably the most extreme example of that.

The cool thing about Scotland is that you can get ALL of the moods in approximately one hour of riding - at least, I think it’s fair to say that we did on our ride from Corrour Station to Loch Rannoch. We had deep gloom, a burst of sun around the end of the day, and then the clouds rolled back in and the gray settled in for the remainder.

The descent from up high down to Loch Rannoch near the end of the day was my last real memory. It was fast, and just smooth enough to dare the daring to let it go, but bumpy enough to make you question your sanity and what the point was of going so fast - everything to lose, nothing to gain - but at the same time, just relishing the adrenaline and giving caution a wee time-out for a (mostly) brake-free flight downhill to remind you that bikes CAN go fast.

Note: I did not take any pictures on this descent, and yes, Fraser did flat at the bottom.
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SURPRISES

The next series is a four part number. It turns out, Day 3 was my favorite (Kinloch Rannoch to Loch Venachar). I think it might have been Ash's as well, and I won't speak for anyone else, but I am extremely confident that no one thinks this was the worst day, so you can go forth with that much.

The third day didn’t seem like it could hold a candle to the barrage of superlatives from the first two days - especially after the Hall of Fame second day. It didn’t even have all that much dirt, and it had a significant section of pavement - ew, yuck.

Turns out, all the research in the world can’t tell you everything about a route. The first forty five or so kilometers of that day will live forever rent free in my head. It started with us riding along the quiet shores of Loch Rannoch before turning on to an even quieter dirt road. Unbeknownst to me, we were about to pass the Black Wood of Rannoch, which contains some of the largest areas of ancient pine forest in Scotland. We didn’t get into the middle of it, but the path we followed along the edge was stunning - and should have clued us in that there was something special just a little bit off to our right. Instead, we just kind of wow'd and ooh'd like normal and continued on quite slowly, because I wanted to get some cool pictures in that forest. I didn't. I tried really hard though.

PART I: UNNAMED PASS

After coming out of the deep forest, we passed through evergreen crop forest, before entering the wide open moorlands up high. The internet tells me this is the old Kirk Road. It’s definitely a pass of some variety, but I couldn’t find a name, and I kind of love that it exists as the Unnamed Pass (though I’m sure there’s a name, just let me enjoy my ignorance). I do know that the old “road” passes beneath the two mountains: Meall a’Mhuic (to the west) and Beinn Dearg (to the west)

I don’t know what it was about this section, but it hit me in all the right ways. The double track was rugged and sometimes really rough, but it felt like we had gone through some kind of portal into a world where nothing else existed: just us, this lonely little rocky road, its accompanying one thousand and one mini creek crossings, and those deer on the ridge on the far side of the valley.

We went desperately slow through this section - took tons of pictures, video, chatted, even had an impromptu fashion shoot (see below). It was the pinnacle of our slowness project, and I think that could be one of the reasons I love it so much - we had a chance to truly appreciate it and marinate in its beauty.

The descent was wild and fast, but just right. You could go as fast as you dared, but I never wanted to stray too far from the brakes - the risk of rogue rocks was high - but the reward for speed was even greater. I think. Maybe. I didn’t flat - or crash - and I had a blast, so I think I won out in this case. This time.
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PART II: IMPROMPTU NOWHERE SHOOT

I mean, what else are you supposed to do when you're on top of a gorgeous climb seemingly infinity away from anything?
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PART III: GLENLYON POST OFFICE

And just like that, we were down from our secret hidden road and on to a paved road. Moments later, we were pulling into another favorite moment (I’m not exaggerating, this was like a Greatest Hits Album) - the blink and you’ll miss it, Glenlyon Post Office, or more simply: the home of awesome coffee, cakes, and fresh, HOT bread.

At this point, we were almost TWENTY whole kilometers into the day, and we were ravenous. The Squashies supply was out, and we were desperate. My 1500 calorie breakfast was probably a quarter digested, and I was frankly famished.

If we hadn’t been to Corrour Station the day before, this might have been my all-time favorite ride stop, but, it will now have to settle for tied for first with Corrour, which is kind of astonishing considering that they’re only separated by about 50 kilometers.

I can't look at this picture of the hot bread without enduring the opposite of trauma. That could well have been the best pieces of bread I've ever eaten, but I think I've probably said that about every warm bread I've ever eaten, so your Narrator is officially untrustworthy.

Seriously though, it was just right. We were really coming together as a group at this point, and a lengthy pause in a lovely tea room with nothing to do but hang out only accelerated the process. I loved it. I loved every second of it. I know we spent a lot of time not moving on this trip, but I'm thankful for every bit of it, because I think we found a way to maximize our time together. If we had barreled through each day, we would just gotten to our hotels earlier and disappeared into our rooms for most of the evening - separate and sleepy.
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PART IV: GLEN LYON TO GLEN LOCHAY

It just gets better from here. I can’t believe I’m saying this. We eventually managed to pry ourselves from our seats in the Post Office. Ash finally put down her book on chickens, and I reluctantly didn’t eat an entire loaf of hot bread solo.

We started riding. It was cold coming from the cozy cafe, and the wind was blowing like it hadn't at this point, and it was entirely in our faces. I did not love that new development - and considering the look of the glen in front of us, there wasn't much hope of it changing direction unless something really spectacular happened, which would probably be bad for us.

Originally, I thought we should probably take the more direct route over to Ben Lawers Dam, but I had some friendly prodding and some much needed confirmation that the rest of Glen Lyon was indeed worth the extra 15 or so kilometers.

And so it was. This was the paved version of the Old Kirk Road we had ridden earlier. We climbed from Glen Lyon on Lairig Nan Lunn Road over to Glen Lochay, also known as, Kenknock. It was - truly - one of my all-time favorite roads. It was lonely, it was beautiful, the road was barely two riders wide, there were no cars (ok, two, I think?), and it - once again - just ticked all of my sub-conscious boxes.

I can't explain it. I have no rational justification. The images below are the stuff of MY dreams. I didn't know it until I first experienced scenes like that, but I soon came to understand that there was something deeper in my love for a place like that, and it wasn't something I had apparently any conscious role in. It just is.

And I'm so grateful I got the chance to experience it.
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MARCO

It's the fourth day of our rambling, wonderful, superlative-laden trip through the Scottish Highlands, and Marco has gotten tired. Really tired. Our unofficial mascot declares that he is on the brink of death. He decides that this spot, between Loch Chon and Loch Arklet in the glorious Trossachs, would in fact be a pleasant place to call it a life.

We laugh.

He slumps to the ground.

He eats some candy.

We continue on.

This is a series of images that will act as a memorial to the previous life he left behind on that wet gravel, kind of in the sun, kind of in the rain.
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GRAVELFOYLE

Right, the bonus day that I tricked everyone into doing, so that I could make everyone ride bikes with the Gravelfoyle Godfather, Stu Thomson.

I have a very soft spot in my heart for Aberfoyle and the Trossachs. It’s the area where we found ourselves in our first visit to Scotland back in 2019. It’s where we first had a chance to spend a lot of time on a dialed gravel bike. It’s also an area I feel might be one of the more perfect places to ride a gravel bike. It’s transcendent.

It also doesn’t hurt that we’ve met a small group of fantastic humans in a very short amount of time in this area. So, when we decided to do the Badger, it felt like it would be a complete failure if we didn’t take an extra day to explore the area around Aberfoyle (scratch that, Gravelfoyle).

Much like all of the rest of this trip, we alternated between lochs and glens, moorlands and forest, doubletrack, singletrack, pavement, cafes. It was glorious. I could write an entire piece just on that day, but for now, let's just leave these images to tell my story.
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WATER CROSSINGS!

There are a few things that need to be cleared up for anyone dreaming about a big day out in the Highlands: your feet are going to get wet. There’s just no way getting around it. Literally countless streams cross the trail/path/doubletrack/road. I mean, I guess they are countable, but it would take an exceedingly concerted effort and never talking to anyone and never thinking about anything else other than your ever growing number. Corrieyairack alone probably has fifty. Some are fun little zips across with barely a splash on your feet, others will be hub deep, and others will see you tip toeing your way across a few mossy stones, hoping to the heavens that you don’t slip and end up in that beautiful clear water looking up at the sky.
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GATES!

There’s another uncountable obstacle along the way, and I think it might emerge victorious in a count-off against the creek crossing: GATES. They’re everywhere. In certain sections, you can probably hold your breath between gates. They come in all manners of shapes and sizes, with a comical array of latches and handles and springs and even stairs. They act as a nice limiter in a group's speed. If one of your group starts to fall behind a bit, by the time three or four riders are through, that rider will have caught up, soared through the gate, and will now be ten steps ahead. Once you’re over the fact that they come thick and fast and forever, they become fun…in their own weird little way.
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NO RUSH

This was the anti-FKT. Daniel joked that we were working on an SKT, and I wish we had achieved it, because we crammed a whole lot more into those five days than we would have if we had smashed our way through and then sat twiddling our thumbs in our hotel rooms each night.

I love how Sally talks about it in Jay's wonderful film.

"There’s this feeling that bikepacking is uncomfortable; it’s dirty; it’s smelly. It doesn’t have to be like that! It can be this great thing, where you take it slow and enjoy it.

Relax - it doesn’t matter how you do it.

You lose this sense of time. It felt like whole days would go by, and we’d be having lunch at four o’clock.

There’s no stress, no time constraints. It doesn’t matter what time it is, just that you’re on the route and moving forward…most of the time.

We switched off and enjoyed the journey."
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FINAL DAY

It was supposed to be the throw-away day. On paper, the route from Aberfoyle to Glasgow looks like it should be pretty disappointing compared to the days that came before. In fact, the Badger route IS kind of a little disappointing, but we had our trail guru, Stu Thomson, make us a better route to Glasgow, which involved a wonderful detour along the unmissable John Muir Way. So, we got lots more single(ish)track to love and cherish plus, back on the proper track, we ended up on the exceedingly popular hiking route: the West Highland Way. It’s also a pretty fantastic way into nearly Glasgow, getting you as close as Milngavie. Now, that's not milln-gavvie. It's pronounced: MILL-GUY...if my ears are correct, and they probably aren't, but I've listened to twenty pronunciations online just now. I can't have that time back.

Just as I was beginning to think that it was done, and the ride was about to turn into an uncomfortable wiggle through busy Glasgow traffic, we ended up on the final surprise of our trip: the incredible path that goes through Glasgow. I've never seen anything like it. You're in the middle of a big city, but it doesn't feel like it. You're surrounded by gorgeous trees, walls, buildings, and the meandering River Kelvin. It was probably the most surprising part of the entire trip for me. I love that path.

We finished in front of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum as tradition dictates, then crossed the street and went straight into the Brew Dog Pub for some happy beers.
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HIP HIP HOORAY FOR THE RIGHT TO ROAM

As an American who spends a lot of time (when we're home) doing my best to avoid Private Property and No Trespassing signs, Scotland’s Right to Roam is truly a breath of fresh air. The Land Reform Act of 2003 codified into law the ancient tradition of the right to universal access to the land in Scotland: aka amongst other things, you can pretty much walk or ride your bike anywhere - as long as you do it responsibly. This route would not be possible without that, not even close. For that, I'm thankful. Also, I'm thankful for awesome Scottish people.

THANK YOU!

I started out thinking this would be my introduction, but I realized that it might make a worthy ending, because it's a thank you and a hug and smile to the people that made this trip something far more significant than just a nice route in a beautiful place.

It's hard to think of this group as a series of blurry, unknown faces, but that's kind of how it was until the day when we all came together at a small hotel in Inverness: strangers. Marco even called Fraser - SO CALLED FRASER. I mean, these were truly just names in an email or a text. The group came together in a series of fortuitous twists and turns - one recommendation led to the next one which led to an epiphany which led to a friend which led to a whole group and a whole bunch of questions - who were all of these people and was this going to work?

Yes, yes it did. It worked really well. In fact, it worked out so well, I'd jump to do just about anything with this group of humans again. So, before we go any farther - thank you to everyone: Ashley, Marco, Bernhard, Daniel, Jay, Fraser, Cal, and Sally.
FOOTNOTES
Words and photos by Jered Gruber
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