By Seb Kemp
Andy McKenna is one of the most passionate and devoted trailsmen you'll ever met. There's always a grin pasted on his face that extends from ear to ear, as if McKenna knows a secret you don't know yet. McKenna, it turns out, does have secrets. Stored in his head are endless lines of possibility on maps that most people don't even know exist.
Andy runs the Go-Where Scotland guiding business, and though you might assume that, for a man in such a profession, it would come with the territory to actually know the territory, very few mountain bikers know Scotland the way Andy does. If McKenna isn't organizing, planning or guiding a trip, he can be found zipping to new locations in his VW Transporter van or zipping up his bivvy sack under some remote munro. Like a surfer looking for the perfect wave, Andy McKenna is always out looking for new routes or cunning ways to link trails, whether it's by land, loch or sea.
When we were planning for Bike Magazine's excursion to Scotland (check out the full feature in the upcoming December issue) we went straight to Andy for guidance. Naturally, we had our eyes set on exploring Scotland's varied singletrack. We were just as committed, however, to investigating lesser-known areas that were definitely ‘off the map,’ in terms of mountain biking.
Thanks to Andy's comprehensive knowledge and deep love of his homeland, we were steered in the right direction before we even had the opportunity to make a wrong turn. During our 10 days in Scotland we barely scratched the surface of what's possible to ride, but we spent long days in the saddle and long nights behind the wheel in an attempt to scratch just a little deeper. Meeting Andy halfway through our journey was a blessed moment. McKenna welcomed us in with blazing eyes and a greeting that suggested he'd known us for years, rather than seconds. Naturally, a dram of Royal Lochnagar was knocked back.
Now that we're back in North America and have sent our Scotland feature to the printer, we thought we'd circle back for a moment and see what Andy was up to now. We caught up with McKenna last week and learned more about his plans for future trips, that time he poisoned himself as a teenager and his love of boats.
Bike: Are you still riding up your way or is it ski boots season up there now?
Andy McKenna: Tons of biking still being had. I'm just back from a month riding in France, so I'm still adjusting to the temperature drop, but the trails are riding very well.
[Ed. Here's an insight: How does a mountain bike guide keep himself busy during the off-season? That is, apart from eating Jaffa Cakes, fiddling with his accounts or planning next year's trips? He embarks on recon missions to far- flung corners of Scotland in search of enticing new adventures on knobby tires.]
B: So where’s the next fact-finding mission?
A: Well, it may turn into more than a single holiday – there’s a trip to the Hebrides on the horizon (a rail, sail, trail combination) as people want to experience more and more remote adventures.
B: You have a trip called Scotch on the Rocks. What's that all about?
A: The Scotch on the Rocks is pretty straightforward – take Scotland’s best, big- mountain riding, infuse it with some of the finest Whisky savored in some of the most out-of-the-way places (coastal inns, distilleries etc) and there you have it—Scotch On The Rocks.
Whisky is always a big part of the story in our trips, but this particular trip just makes the connection a bit more explicit.
B: What riding areas have you got lined up for that trip?
A: Deeside, Lochaber, Wester Ross, Skye, and, assuming I can knit together all the logistics, then the Hebrides will feature in there too.
B: Scotch is everywhere in Scotland. I'm not just referring to the drink and red noses; it also has a very conspicuous cultural, social and economic legacy.
A: Absolutely, and as someone who poisoned themselves on it as part of a bet as a youth, I never thought Scotch would become so important to me or something I would become quite so proud of. It’s also such an important economic driver for Scotland. The way the industry has tuned into the story of Scotch, and how well they tell the story is a relatively new phenomenon.
B: What would you say to someone that doesn’t even like Scotch, would they still get something out of a trip like that?
A: If you don’t like Scotch, then you are the ideal candidate for the trip. If you don’t like Scotch, you simply haven’t found the one for you yet. There are so many, and each with such different characteristics, there will always be at least one for every palette. Put it this way, when I was a teenager I necked a pint straight and almost died, and for years the thought of drinking whisky gave me the dry heaves…until I went to a tasting and ‘learned’ how to discern and enjoy.
B: Just sips, right? We drank our fair share on our trip (strictly for research purposes), but we never got drunk. A lot of people assume Scotch is a drunk’s liquor, but it’s not at all. It’s about experiencing the flavor of the land from where the whisky was made, or tasting the story of how each of the processes that are used to produce good whisky can be finely fettled or adjusted to radically change the final taste.
A: Exactly. What better way to learn, and soak up this ancient nectar, than turning your wheels in the mountains, on the rocks and soil, burns and river crossings that contribute so much to the flavor, than enjoying a dram by the fire with new friends, or indulge in a tasting at your lodge at the end of a great day’s riding.
B: Agreed. After spending time there this summer I'd agree that it's probably the best riding trip I’ve ever been on.
So we went to Scotland with a hunch that perhaps the general flavor profile of single malts from each of the five regions (Highlands, Islay, Campeltown, Speyside and Lowlands) would closely resemble the style of riding there too. Despite being a tiny land, Scotland is actually stacked full of trails and they vary significantly. Just as all Scotch doesn’t taste the same, neither is all the singletrack the same.
A: Scotland’s big asset is that there is such a huge variety of terrain, landscape and trails. With it being such a small island you can get a taste of so much in a short space of time, just like the Scotches.
B: People are surprised to learn (as we were) that there is so much quality riding in Scotland and it varies wherever you go.
Islay was the one place that contradicted our hypothesis about the riding and Scotch in a region mirroring one another. Personally I love the Scotch from there more than almost any and our time on the island was incredible, but there was no riding. It was the only place we weren’t overwhelmed with riding opportunities.
A: But I guess that’s the nub of it – Scotland, like its uisge beatha (Ed note: the original Gaelic word for whisky) can be a little unpredictable and full of surprises that are often only uncovered in journeys to far-flung locations. Islay is for savoring, both the island and its Scotch are best enjoyed slowly. It’s the perfect antidote to the high adrenaline fix that Skye, Torridon and other spots offer.
B: So tell me about your business. It sounds like the best job in the world – driving and riding around your homeland, experiencing some of the most fantastic singletrack experiences.
A: It surely is the most satisfying job in the world. It makes me damn proud and even more passionate about what we have when I see clients buzzing, or if we receive incredible feedback or repeat bookings.
It’s only taken around 26 years of exploring to piece together a solid portfolio of rides, but I reckon the best is still out there. I’m hoping to uncover it in the off season.
B: So how do you find these trails and places? Do you stare at maps for weeks and then hit the road or do you let the underground gossip of trail tales hit your ears?
A: I'm pretty old school. While I do occasionally use Google Earth, etc., I'm an avid map and guide book collector. However, nothing makes up for just getting out there and finding the goodies, or the shit – it's all trial and error when searching. Then I'll keep going out again and again to figure out how to link things up or who to speak to, in order to run a charter boat.
B: So you’ve mentioned boats a bit. With a coastline and waterways as vast as Scotland I suppose water crossings must fair heavily in your trip. It sounds like a fantastic way of seeing the land.
A: I LOVE boats! It turns things into a real adventure. Sure, we use them to get from the mainland, but we use them even more to pick us up from inaccessible trail ends. We can use them to take us over to Knoydart, which is always a real treat…
If you are considering visiting Scotland for a riding trip, we thoroughly recommend Andy McKenna and Go-Where Scotland.