As a rider with a growing family, being given a morning’s fun pass is like finding a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. A window of opportunity for adventure that should never be wasted, no matter how small; a chance to detach yourself from your everyday obligations and to reconnect with your inner hunter. But when hunting mountain summits on an eMTB, there is a fine line between a challenge and an ordeal…
Maybe it was sheer will-power that produced an unseasonably warm and dry end to February, maybe it was just luck, but with a window in the winter weather, I was yearning for the natural challenge of the wild to blow away the cobwebs of everyday life. After a while, riding even the best purpose-built mountain bike trails, leaves you wanting to up the ante and move outside your comfort zone. So I racked my brain for somewhere different to ride my bike and achieve something that had, quite possibly, never been done before on an eMTB. Under strict instructions to return for lunch, I needed a plan to minimise wasted time driving and maximise time doing: a mountain environment within a relatively short drive was the rough plan, the only problem was that, with the fantastic weather, the vast majority of Scotland would have the same idea…
Accessible in about an hour’s drive from Glasgow and Edinburgh and at the Heart of the Trossachs National Park, is the majestic mountain of Ben (Scots for mountain) Lomond, the most southern of the 277 mountains in Scotland that are at least 3,000 feet high (approximately 914 metres) better known as the mighty Munros. Ben Lomond is one of the most visited Munros in Scotland. The challenge of the rugged Ben combined with the outstanding beauty of the surrounding Lochs and mountains of the Trossachs means that at any time of year, the car parks can be overflowing with a continuous line of hikers laboriously moving up the mountain like a line of red-faced army ants.
But don’t let its popularity fool you that this is anything other than a serious mountain environment; the weather can be unpredictable at best and downright deadly at worst, the terrain is unforgiving and exposed and summer midges are the size of a hand-reared haggis. For anyone wanting the mountains to themselves, an early start is essential but for a time-poor eMTBer wanting a clear downhill run, what was needed was a dawnie. A true dawnie – for any non-surfers reading this – involves being in the sea for the first glimpse of dawn, so my aim was to leave the car park in twilight and be en route by the time the cockerel crowed.
There are three routes up Ben Lomond and you are legally entitled to ride up and down any of them but, due to the sensitive nature of the often boggy, mountain moorland, I opted to head up the main track. The track may have been made by man, but this ain’t no trail centre.
Steep granite and mica schist rock gardens are intersected by square edged water bars, ready to pray on the unwary and unwieldy. Steep chutes, super tight switchbacks and loose gravel are just some of the challenges and that’s just on the way up! As the climb progresses, I develop a love-hate relationship with my bike; cleaning some of the technical sections requires timing and commitment, the eMTB enabling me to ride previously impossible terrain, rewarding me with a sense of achievement and stoke after each section. However, this ascent is as far from ‘Uphill Flow’ as you can go and still ride; you would need the skills of Danny MacAskill and the legs of Peter Sagan to ride much of the climb and it’s then that I start to hate my bike. Don’t get me wrong it takes a while, I’m enjoying the type two fun of hauling a 23 kg eMTB up a mountain but after a prolonged, steep, carry section my arms and shoulders burn with the effort and I ask whose idea this was and then curse myself for there is no one else to blame.
There’s one advantage to needing a rest stop; as the sun rises over the Trussochs, the beauty of the mist-shrouded lochs and Munros is literally breathtaking and the burning in my arms disperses like the early morning fog. As I ride the final stretch and finally summit Ben Lomond, I realise that I may just be the first person ever to do so with an eMTB and the challenge of the ascent has been more than worth the effort.
The trail plummets straight into multi-line rock slabs; despite rough route planning on the climb, the descent requires quick reactions and commitment as features appear suddenly before you.
The open plateau marks the midpoint and the fastest part of the ride, with no trees I can see the trail is clear before me and rocks clatter from under my tires as I aero-tuck along the gravel before slamming through one of the many rock gardens.
The early start pays off again as I problem solve sections without having to stop or avoid walkers on their way up. With my arms and legs pumped to bursting with lactic acid, I hit the tree line and meet my first surprised looking hikers. The track gets busier, I shift my thinking into ambassador mode and pull over to exchange pleasantries with each small group I meet and just cruise the last part of the track back to the van. Emerging out of the mountain is like entering another world, I’m confronted with a bustling carpark full of hikers preparing for their ‘early’ start and I know that I was the early bird that caught the worm.
How to achieve a successful mountain dawnie
If you would like to have the mountains to yourself, here are our do’s and don’ts to make the most of your eMTB adventure.
- Check a mountain weather report – pack for the conditions at the summit, not at the car park
- Take plenty of food and liquids, it’s further than you think!
- Start early to avoid walkers on the descent
- Be respectful of the environment and other mountain users, be an ambassador for our sport
- Wear shoes that are good for walking on rock. We’d recommend flat pedals for the stop-start and hike-a-bike nature of the ride
- Leave it too late in the day to start your ride, plan extra time for photos and rest stops
- Drop litter – leave nothing but tire tracks and take nothing but photos
- Underestimate the physical demands of riding eMTBs in the mountains
- Try and ride fast with other mountain users on the trail
Words: Thomas Corfield Photos: Finlay Anderson