The Highland Trail is an epic adventure for many. For some it is an epic adventure AND a bike race. I’m in the latter group. It’s still a bike race. I still shaved my legs on Friday night and I still ate pasta al bianco for breakfast at 0600 on Saturday morning.
I didn’t roll up in Tyndrum expecting an end result anywhere near as good as I finally achieved, but I certainly headed up there hoping to be competitive and to do myself justice. In the summer I usually have a trip out in the wilds on the MTB and here I take in the sights, get to the next bothy and ride at whatever pace I want – fun. I didn’t really come to Tyndrum expecting to have much fun, especially if the weather were to turn foul, but I still expected to have some enjoyment, in my own particular way.
My last race of 2015, in December, had been a local cyclo-cross, which I managed to win by beating an up-and-coming junior talent. I then took a few days off for quality family time over Xmas and then started training in the last few days of December. If I ride to work 4 days each week, that gives me 208km so I had found it “relatively” easy to get my head down. I logged 7500km for the year by the time the HT started. I tried to do more MTB than I normally would as well as a few overnight rides, mainly to test kit, not so much myself. I just kept plugging away and apart from a little touch of bronchitis in February from a week spent breathing in the cold, snowy environment around Peebles and Innerleithen, I enjoyed very good health. Unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold just the Tuesday before the race. I took Thursday off and spent the day in bed. I think the illness stayed in my throat, sinuses and chest and didn’t spread too much to the rest of my body. In any case, if I had the choice again, I’d probably pick poor health with perfect weather over poor weather and perfect health!
My weight was around 71.5kg for 1.71m – about 2kg heavier than it had been for the Fred Whitton 2 years ago, but I considered my weight perfect for the start of a long, unsupported event. With the Cairngorm Loop being scratched the month before due to poor weather, the only event I had done was the 200km Dirty Reiver gravel event in Kielder. I was off the pace of the fast guys by a good hour, but completed the event faster than I’d planned and felt comfortable on the bike for just over nine hours – even if the bike was a cross bike with 32mm tyres pumped up to 65psi to prevent impact punctures! All in all, this event was a good indication of my fitness and showed that I was heading in the right direction.
The Main Players:
Ms Lee Craighie: noticeably absent from the official start sheet, but within a short amount of time rumours started circulating about an ex-British XC Champion, who had raced the Commonwealth Games and now fancied a crack at her home country’s finest bikepacking event as a way of toughening herself up for a 2017 Tour Divide attempt. Effectively the Chrissie Wellington of cycling, who was fresh from a Fred Whitton ride in which she had “chicked” all but a couple of dozen of male riders. Apparently, not adverse to missing whole chunks of sleep and eating “en vélo”, nor to taking a brand-new bike out for a 500 mile test ride.
Mr Stuart Cowperthwaite: effortlessly combining Daniel Craig good looks with flawless technical ability, especially in descent. Drops downhill faster on a front-rigid hardtail laid up with bike-packing gear than most people do on a full-susser. Exceptional upper body-strength, allows him to carry his bike across his back for extended time periods on the steepest of gradients, yet his perfect power-to-weight ratio makes him a formidable climber too. Unbeaten in the YD300, YD200 and the Jenn Ride, Stuart arrived in Tyndrum keen to test himself on a multi-day epic.
Señor Javier Simon: this pint-sized, single-speeding 2015 veteran returned in 2016 with a refilled bag of cashew nuts and a considerable amount of prior knowledge of the route. Singularly capable of defying any number of elementary laws of physics on any given inclined surface, this perpetually joyful contradiction in terms probably epitomised the whole event more than any other rider. It goes without saying that this angel-faced, wizard-bearded Spanish postman from London was never more in his element than on “the Postman Pat” stretch from Letterewe.
Mr Philip Addyman: prattling on to anyone who would listen that this was absolutely the last time he would ever strap a number on his back (or a SPOT tracker onto his handlebars), this forty-something nonetheless arrived in Tyndrum well-prepared with a big sack of kilometres and a micro-obsessive knowledge of the route that had been bolstered by two major reconnaissance rides over the previous few months. A Pro-Elite category XC racer from the mid nineties, a period working for Bianchi in Italy ensured that his love of cycling is broad enough for both the road and off-road worlds.
Master Liam Glen: it would have been poetic indeed if this young man from Bristol had simply come up to Scotland to amble peacefully through his namesakes, but alas a certain elite pedigree on the road combined with class and natural ability off the road made certain that he arrived in Tyndrum as the favourite for the 2016 event. Bearing a striking resemblance to Andy Schleck and being properly tooled up with a full-susser only enhanced the reputation of this quietly-spoken, yet incredibly determined youngster.
There were, of course other players in this race that started off with around 50 starters from the UK, Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic and other far-flung places, but the writer’s perspective is focused upon the those that he encountered most regularly.
Day 1: Tyndrum to the Hydro Bothy
“Why do you come here, when you know it makes things hard for me?”
Before the race started, there was of course the small matter of getting oneself quite a long way up into the Highlands: Liam had made a big drive from Bristol and myself and Stuart had made drives of 4-5 hours to get to the bunkhouse the night before.
The big drama on the morning of the start was that Liam had accidentally locked his car keys in his hire van and so was going have a couple of hours delayed start before the AA got there and sorted the situation out for him. I was sure I would be seeing him again! Before long we were assembled at the start and I hadn’t seen John Fettis yet – an old friend from the Newcastle road racing scene in the nineties – and I only had the chance to say a very quick hello to Ian Fitz. With two minutes to go I decided it was warm enough to strip off my gillet and I definitely felt fine in shorts.
The order to “Go” was given by Alan and, as I expected from previous races with Stuart, he was off very strongly, almost immediately building up 100m on the draggy climb out of Tyndrum Village Hall. I hung steady for a while but made my way up to Stuart and one other guy by the time we had started the climb to Loch Lyon. I had fond memories of doing these two munros on an equally beautiful day. Once we hit the road to Bridge of Balgie, Stuart piled on the pace, not for the first time compensating for having a lower top gear than mine with a much better aerodynamic position courtesy of his Jones bars. We came together at the Memorial and began the climb that led on through the beautiful open space of Rannoch Forest to Bridge of Gaur. At this point we couldn’t see anyone behind us. We then started to make the approach towards Loch Ericht and stopped for a brief photo before starting the descent to the loch.
I was happy to be proceeding along towards one of my favourite highland bothies without too much boggy ground to have to contend with. By now the sun was just perfect and we could see behind to a group a 3 riders chasing us, who looked like Ian Barrington and the young guy who had been with Stuart on the very first climb. I was pleased to be on the Ben Alder climb as I knew this well and had previously suffered up it with a totally wrecked freehub, so even in a race it was easier than before. The descent past Culra was not quite as severe as I remembered it and, before long, we were on the road and then pulling in to my first planned food stop at 115km: Wolftrax. We got there at 1600 in 7 hours of riding. The cafe was still open but refused to serve any hot food in the last hour before closing at 1700. Within 10 minutes, I was surprised to see Alan arrive, closely followed by Lee. In days to come, Lee would tease me about the look on my face when I saw her roll up, but in fairness to myself I didn’t have the faintest idea that she was even in the race or who she was at that point.
We pushed on the Fort Augustus on very familiar roads and trails, passing more favourite bothies, over the easier side of the Corrieyairach and down in Fort Augustus, considerably ahead of schedule. I calculated that I needed to be leaving here (150km) before 1930 to be able to push on to the Hydro before 0100 (225km). This was looking good and a smaller pizza was eaten and general regrouping of riders occurred. I had a quick chance to say hello to my brother-in-law Bryan Singleton and had my first sit down and chat with Javi, who was still wearing full waterproofs despite the day’s pleasant temperatures. I was still taking the maximum dose of paracetamol every 4 hours and coughing and spluttering horrendously, but the legs were basically working fine and my body seemed to be managing the fatigue levels well. The warm weather had certainly helped.
Stuart was becoming increasingly quiet as we moved towards Invermoriston and as we started the climb from there, he said that he was suffering from knee pains. I waited while he applied some gel and took some pills, but on the lower slopes of the climb he was still struggling. At this point it looked like he would have to quit so I pressed on telling him that my schedule was tight to hit the Hydro by a reasonable hour. In fact Stuart didn’t turn back, but was just in sight behind me as I pushed along the rocky shores of Loch ma Stac and on past Enrick bothy. There was already a fire going here meaning there was already someone else inside who wasn’t on the HT, so I imagine it may have been quite a crowded spot that Saturday night.
I knew the road descent into Cannick and the back road to Struy well from previous holidays. I was not surprised to find the Inn shut, but another one a little further on the left still had a light on so I rode up and managed to get a refill of water and Coke from the lady, who was just about to close the residents’ bar down for the night. It was getting dark as I started the climb up from the castle along the sodden, bike-swallowing puddles of the Landrover track that would eventually lead to the Hydro. Still I kept my Petzl off, preferring to guide myself by night vision. At 2340 I washed out a bit on a soggy, sandy corner, so finally turned on my light. I was aware all the time that I could see what I thought was at least one set of bike lights moving ahead of me; at times I thought I saw up to four sets of moving lights, but in retrospect I don’t think this could have been the case.
As I approached the Hydro bothy, I saw another rider just ahead, who went straight past it. I went in and set about trying to source some water from the stream that turned out to be a good 100m walk away from the bothy. By the time I’d got back, the other rider had U-turned on the trail and was back at the bothy. I was quite surprised to see that it was Stuart and that his had actually been those lights that I had been seeing ahead for the last half hour. I later realised that he must have passed me when I was getting the Coke from the hotel. It was now midnight and I set about making a dinner based on Extreme Food and a pasta cup of soup – 750Kcal for 600ml of water heated up. And pleasant and digestible to boot. This was my basic evening meal for the event. I had already long since burnt up the pizza that I had in Fort Augustus about 7 hours ago.
There was no point getting up too early as I knew the store in Contin didn’t open before 0730.
Day 2: the Hydro to Drumbeg
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.”
I awoke naturally at around 0500, a bit before I had actually set my alarm. Stuart was stirring too. I had breakfast and took my usual hour to get all my rammel packed up. Stuart went before me, but we said we’d meet up at the store. I seemed to be able to eat and digest considerably quicker than him so I wasn’t bothered about his being 10 mins up the road from me. Besides, we were now entering the zone of my March reccie – everything from Contin all the way around Lochinver and back to Oykel Bridge I knew – something like 270km.
There were four or five of us hanging around having food and drinks on the bench outside the store. I saw Lee pass through and Javi was leaving just as I arrived around 0730, so I knew there were at least a couple of riders already out on the trail ahead. I had a microwaved chicken burger, while everyone else ate cold food. I thought this had been done to death on the Bearbones forum that you had to ask for them to microwave stuff at the store; they wouldn’t just offer! If you ever finish the Cairngorm Loop and go to the store at Blair Atholl, it’s the same protocol there.
This link section from Contin to Oykel is 72km and is fairly rideable, mainly off-road, scenic and is not too extreme, boasting some quite nice long flat glens to ride through. I did this with fresh legs straight out of the car on my reccie in about 4.5 hrs; here we did it in 4 hrs. The HT is a race and fast one at that.
We got to the hotel and indulged in the “HT550 menu”, where everything was £15. The tight Yorkshireman in me subsequently regretted not having the common sense to simply ask for the normal menu, where I’m sure a cooked breakfast wouldn’t have been this price! Lee and Javi soon arrived so this was the first time we got together and had a bit of a chat.
Young Scottish talent Scott Lindsay, (at 22 the second youngest in the race), soon arrived and was surprised to find himself so far up in the race at the this point. Before leaving I washed my face with warm water, rinsed and re-filled my bottles, took more paracetamol and went through the regular routine of oiling the chain.
Lee, Javi, Stuart and I all left at 1300, but quickly got split up along the road as we stopped to put on different types of waterproof clothing. Stuart was gone without a trace and he must have been moving fairly swiftly as I couldn’t see him along any of the long straights up the glen road. While I recognised it is always good to go when the going is good, my knowledge of the challenges ahead, such as Glen Golly, the Bealach Horn and the Achfary climb ensured that I maintained an even pace and didn’t attempt to chase Stuart at all. The rain was really pissing down hard, especially on the Power Station climb and I was starting to lose body heat. I stopped at the gate at Loch a’ Ghriama and put on everything I had because I knew I was soon to be going even higher up. I wore a lightweight balaclava, buff, Montane windshirt and my already wet Waterproof shell on top of that. I was wearing waterproof overshorts and full leg warmers and I put my claw gloves on as my hands were starting to go numb. I tried to maintain tempo and speed along the road to the right turn leading to Gobernuisgach Lodge and then up Glen Golly. I found this part of the route a bit grim on the reccie and it was no more enlightening now in the rain and cold.
I descended to the Lodge and took the left turn up the glen that leads to the Northern-most part of the route, here the side streams running into the main river were fully swollen and stepping through them was quite difficult as there is quite some force pushing against the calf muscles of tired legs. Before the enormity of the first part of the climb rears up before you, there is a rideable but extremely steep descent with a nasty drop off the right side. I noticed Stuart’s skids and tyre marks were firmly over on the left too!
As I approached the Bealach na Féithe, I noticed strange white frogspawn in some puddles, but then I saw it on the grass too and realised that it was actually hailstones that had recently fallen. No wonder I was so cold previously if it had been cold enough to hailstone just a few kilometres away from me as the crow flies. I pushed on up the twisty hair-pinned climb and rode the little bit along the top before the left turn over the bogs. The terrain here wasn’t too terrible and the further on I progressed it dawned on me that I had probably been riding for about 50% of the time. I followed the gpx line off the flanks of the hillside and down to the little stream crossing more closely than I had on my reccie and then began my long push up the dusty gravel track to the Bealach Horn summit, all the while looking ahead for any trace of Stuart and behind for any sign of pursuers. Despite approaching 500m in height, by now the freezing temperatures had passed and I was stripping off all kit and was back to racing jersey and shorts. Just after filling my bottles at a high level stream I saw James, the photographer and his mate. I said hello and carried on pushing my bike and then I think he got a couple of shots of my stumbling off my bike as I tried to get onto it on an easier part of the final gradient. I took the long descent to Lone carefully and I think the time was around 1930. I reflected that this had been my goal destination for the end of day 2, with my ambition being to cross over Bealach Horn no matter what. Instead I was now speeding along with quite some way to go, vaguely mindful that in 2015 Tom Rowntree has got as far as Achmelvich on day 2.
Achfary looked as splendid as it had on my reccie, with added bonus of the air temperature being a lot warmer this time around. It was really helpful that my reccie had taken part just 2 months or so previously in March as a lot of route details were still really fresh in my mind. The Achfary climb was a rather excruciating push, albeit one with gorgeous views over the right-hand side. I kept pressing on, still wanting to stick to the target that I had stated to Stuart back in Contin at 0800 of getting to Kylesku by 2100. I finally crested the summit and was feeling really hungry so I had some flapjack as well as a food supplement powder sachet in one of my bottles. This seemed to pick me up and I set off down the long descent, which was really cold as it was on the shaded side of the mountain. I did indeed pass through Kylesku very close to 2100 and headed straight for Drumbeg, although I was vaguely toying with the idea of even bivvying before there. I knew it was 15km from the junction, but my gps unit started playing up due to low battery life and it wouldn’t count past 203km all the way to Drumbeg, when in fact it should have registered 215km by then. By the time I bedded down in Drumbeg I had been going from 0700 until 2200 a seventeen hour day including some fairly tough hike-a-bike sections. Plus I was feeling rough this day and pretty much suffered all the way from Oykel Bridge. On the plus side I didn’t get really, really cold and I didn’t panic or try to force it when I knew Stuart was probably pulling quite a long way ahead of me.
Day 3: Drumbeg to Letterewe
“Nelle corse non sempre vince la forza. Conta molto l’astuzia”
That night I ate my normal 750Kcal meal, took double paracetamol and double ibuprofen and bedded down for a solid 6 hours of sleep. One hour of slow breakfast and packing away in the morning meant 8 hrs not moving, but the moment I started riding on the ride my legs felt fantastic and I made a big effort to rein myself in a bit. I passed a few riders on the road and saw what I though was Alan’s full susser outside a hut at Achmelvich, but now realise must have been Liam’s, as he showed up about 5 minutes after me in Lochinver. I got some more paracetamol and filled up my bottles with IronBru and water at the newsagents. I saw the pie shop door was open and asked if I could buy some pies to take away. He was having fridge trouble and doing the day’s baking but sold me two mince pies for the sum of £10.60. Once again I was miffed at Highland prices, knowing damn well that the Scotch pies at the butcher 100m away were superb and only £1.15 each. Unfortunately, they didn’t open for at least another hour. I set off with the two pies wrapped in plastic and stored in my Koala seatpack, heeding Alan’s advice to take extra food into Fisherfield. In the end I never used them and they ended up in a bin in Kinlochewe, so having missed the pie shop during my March reccie and disdained its produce this time, I am still no wiser as to its much-lauded pleasures.
Passing on through Lochinver and on to the Clencanisp stretch, that was significantly more rideable than it had been in March, I then made reasonable progress on the road from Ledmore junction. I had already decided to have one big stop for a meal and resupply at Ullapool Tesco so rode straight by the Oykel Bridge Hotel, waving to Javi and Lee as I did so. I had noticed that my rear sintered brake pads were wearing a little bit and, as I anticipated being well inside Fisherfield later than day, I knew I had to change them. Instead of doing it in the open air, I stopped at the Schoolhouse and took my time to do the job well. The bike was all up and running and I had about 25km to get to Ullapool. I’d vaguely dreamed of getting there by midday, but time seemed to be drifting on past 1300 already. I thought the last little deviation into Ullapool would involve a hike, but in fact we only skirted the flanks of the mound and so it was rideable. After stocking up with drinks and some food items, I went to the front for fish and chips and, upon turning my phone on, was surprised to get a call from Stuart who had just watched me arrive on TrackLeaders. I gave Laura a quick call to let her know I was generally ok and to keep an eye on the tracker for some indication as to when I would finally arrive in Tyndrum.
Stuart and I set off and I was finally able to peel off leg and arm warmers as the temperature was rising steadily. Soon we were plodding up the steep flanks of the Fisherfield prologue, then proceeding across it wide barren plateau and finally, negotiating its descent which I recall as being memorable for its lack of rideability, especially nearing the final part. This got us to Corrie Hallie – the true entrance to Fisherfield – around 1700. How far would we get with around five hours of full daylight? By this point we had seen enough dried up or very low rivers to anticipate that the generally dreaded Strath na Sealga river crossing would not be a major problem. Javi had said it was up to his belly button last year and I can well believe it with all the rain in that period.
As we ascended up from Corrie Hallie we were met with the cautious screeching of brakes as a dozen mountain bikers descended. We did wonder how far they had been as they had little equipment with them – the one who punctured was pushing his bike, rather than repairing it – and they all were wearing running shoes and using basic flat pedals. We soon got to the deviation where the walkers (and the first incarnation of the HT route) go right to Shenavall and the current route continues towards the left on the Landrover track, which turned out to be yet another epic, wild descent to the glen floor. Once in the glen the temperature dropped as we were soon hidden from the sun, additionally the wind was blowing off Loch na Sealga and making for chilly progress as we pushed along the indistinct path past Shenavall. I suppose, in the Highland Trail, one must cross the Rubicon not once but three times: cresting Bealach Horn, crossing the Strath na Sealga and finally, exiting Fisherfield by reaching Kinlochewe. That is not to say there are no other obstacles, but these three, I believe, represent the greatest psychological barriers to most riders. It was comforting then to know that the second of these had no been crossed with water levels barely higher than mid-shin level. However the immense width of the Strath – something like 30m – and just a little more rainwater in circulation makes its menacing alter-ego easily visualised.
The track past Larachantivore rises up the glen, turns right and remain pedalable for a surprising way up towards the bealach. As Stuart and I reached the bealach, just before we saw the tortuous hair-pinned path rise further above us to Clach na Frithealaidh, we could make out the unmistakable figure of Liam Glen, pounding up the trail below us, seemingly less than 10 minutes from where we had just been in Gleann na Muice Beag. Stuart simply put his bike across his shoulders and disappeared as he stormed up one of the toughest Hike-a-Bike (HAB) sections of the whole race. I did my best to push my bike around the obstacles, keep Stuart in sight, as well as try to maintain the gap on Liam. The climb finally plateaued out and became rideable and I remember passing briefly by a little stretch of sandy shore on the side of Lochan Fèith Mhic’-illean. John Fettis later told me he camped here, neither dissuaded by the height of 500m, nor encouraged to make the descent to the covered accommodation at Carnmore.
Stuart had already disappeared on the HAB and the long wild, technical descent to Carnmore was no less suited to his peerless descending skills, so it was little surprise to see no sight of him at all when I reached this fabled highland location for the first ime in my life. Although I dithered a little at the track leading towards the bothy, in reality I knew I could not stop there, not with Stuart steaming on ahead, out of sight and Liam closing fast. I could have gone to the bothy and put myself totally out of contention for the race here and I’m glad I didn’t. Plus, it’s really hard to stop when there is still some daylight lingering. When Stuart went away in the rain from Oykel Bridge the day before I didn’t have any problem in focusing myself on conducting my own race, but here, in this remote, vast, godless bowl I felt – for a fleeting moment – quite intimidated by the thought of continuing further. A large part of this was probably due to the uncertainty of where I was going to spend the night: almost certainly a bivvy would be required, which I had skilfully managed to avoid so far. It was about 2130 as I set off from Carnmore.
I dropped down to the causeway and felt slightly envious as I passed by a group of four tents belonging to a happy group of walkers, chatting and organising cooking as I rode by, Stuart’s figure now reappearing in the far reaches of the distance. I couldn’t see Liam at all behind me, which was a little surprising as I thought he would hammer the Carnmore descent on his full-susser. The track from Carnmore across the plateau and towards the point of dropping down to Letterewe was surprisingly rideable and I seemed to make reasonable progress. After half an hour or so, I saw Stuart stopped above the glen I was riding up the side of; soon after I caught up with him on a wide, level grassy area – Strathan Buidhe. We chatted a bit, I said I need to stop soon. It was heading towards 2300 and I had been riding since 0600, when I left Drumbeg – getting on for 17 hours. On top of that I had pretty much broken the back of Fisherfield and responded well to a strong attack from Stuart when I already had 16hrs underneath me.
My folly at Folais: finally the shadow of Loch Maree came into view and we started the descent, as usual preferring to go on night vision, I hadn’t turned my headtorch on and this nearly was my undoing as I suffered my only real crash of the whole race. Just before the new bridge above Letterewe that crosses the Allt Folais, I fell to the right and rolled down a grassy bank. I twisted my foot out and rolled safely, totally unharmed, but the violent release of my right foot could have been the start of the problems that developed with my right Achilles through the following day. Additionally, I could have hit anything hard on the ground and really damaged myself. I was pleased and relieved to pick myself up and carry on down to the gate at the outskirts of the large estate. After a short while, we finally found a suitable location to stop for the night that ticked my boxes of not getting attacked my midgies and keeping reasonably sheltered. I had my normal 750kcal meal, sorted out my bed and got down to sleep by about 0100.
Day 4, part one: Letterewe to Fort Augustus
“I said to Hank Williams, ‘How lonely does it get?’ Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet.”
I awoke naturally a little before 0500 after not sleeping as long or as well as I had the night before. So this was less than four hours sleep before what was likely to be the big final push over the forthcoming day(s). By the time we had eaten breakfast and got ourselves decamped, it was just after 0600 and who should come riding by, but Lee. I greeted her with, “Oh come on, just give it a break!”, which I think she took as a compliment meaning that her relentless pursuit was starting to wear me down. It turns out she had bivvied at the causeway for a couple of hours. Based on my calculations pace, she may have been riding since as early as 0445 already.
I think we asked if she had seen Liam or Javi, but I couldn’t remember her reply. We set off together but soon split up with Stuart and I slightly ahead of Lee, until we came to the steep, technical drop down to the fallen tree, where she soon appeared again. The Postman’s Path was proving to be reasonably rideable and I had high hopes for the last 5km towards Kinlochewe, which blends into the approach walk to Slioch, which I knew to be rideable from distant memory. Javi stayed ahead of us in the distance all the way to the small Torridian outpost.
It was about 0830 when we arrived at Kinlochewe, so I had done something like 75 minutes from Carnmore to Letterewe and then 2hrs 30mins for the remainder, coming to inside 4 hrs (excluding night stop) for the Carnmore to Kinlochewe stretch. I was mindful of Huw Oliver’s time of 5hrs during his ITT just a couple of weeks before.
The store was shut, but we headed straight to the cafe and were happy to see Javi there and Lee soon to arrive. We didn’t know, but this was to be our last sit-down meal together after hours of battling with each other. Inside that cafe though you wouldn’t have known that we were four competitors in a race, more like friends out riding their bikes together. I briefly got in touch with my dad on the phone and he was brimming with pride for me. This really overcame me for a few moments and I tried to be discreet and not sob into my cooked breakfast. I had a quick call to Laura too and told her that I had no real idea what time of day or night I would finally be showing up in Tyndrum. She understood and was loving and supportive. It was great to hear from her and I could tell she had really got behind me and was following my dot. I had a lovely cooked breakfast, a fruit smoothie and a pot of tea and I really felt pretty good after this.
I went back to the shop to get more batteries, flapjack and drink for my bottle, then set off after the others. I passed Lee on the Torridon road as the sun was really starting to break through and regrouped with Javi and Stuart on the track following the west side of Loch Coulin. I saw Javi’s relentless pedalling action from close up and had a bit of a chat with him about his age (he’s 42 so four years younger than me), comes from Pamplona (Indurain territory) and, despite me having him down for a university research student in astrophysics, turned out to be a London postman! As we passed the Tea House and I reminisced about riding here last summer from Achnashellach with my beloved dog Ruby, Javi started to pull away.
By now the temperature was really getting high and the white stone of Torridan reflected it back towards our bodies, doubling its effect. I had reccied the descent to Achnashellach station three times on a unloaded bike, with the seat dropped and found it to be too tricky for my abilities in quite a few places. After getting safely out of Fisherfield, the last thing I wanted to do was end it all here, so I descended riding when I could and getting off when I couldn’t.
We hit the road, overtook Javi, stopped at the Strathcarron Hotel – where the young bar man and his old companion on the other side of the bar still adopted the same sombre mannerisms of the previous summer – filled bottles again and set off up that atrociously steep ramp in the road, just before Attadale. Here we passed Lee and I didn’t realise then that I wouldn’t see her until the finish line in Tyndrum. The descent from the climb up from Attadale was hot and half-walked, but the ground for the descent towards Glen Ling was relatively hard and rideable. The stretch along Glen Ling until Nonach Lodge is one of the few truly frustrating sections of the whole route: it cannot be ridden and a decent estate track can be seen – tantalisingly – running parallel across the other side of the river.
It would have been better to continue to find the little shop in Dornie than to stop at the tourist haven in Ardelve, which only served drinks and sweet food. Still, two milk shakes and some decent flapjack did seem to agree with me. By the time we left, it was getting on for 1500, we did the climb from Dornie on the back road, descended, waved to Javi on the other side of the road, who had stopped for supplies at the petrol station in Inverinate and made our way up Glen Licht to the private hut.
Ralph Storer, a writer not usually given to hyperbole, describes the section around the Allt Grannda falls as, “a very rough section with a real sense of exposure; mountain bikers especially need to take extreme care … a slip would be fatal; only experienced mountain bikers should venture here.” I have passed by here twice, once in each direction, always with a bike and in far from ideal conditions and I never considered the area to be dangerous. This ascent from the hut towards Camban would be my third time by this path and I must admit, as I entered into my familiar Glen Affric heartlands I did start to feel my soul soaring a little. A beautiful sunny day only helped that feeling. Sure, the push up from the hut and the seemingly interminable distance before Camban finally comes into view both seemed longer than I remembered but, on the whole I was still feeling OK. I still wasn’t eating so much and a quick stop at the Youth Hostel to refill bottles didn’t result in much eating on my part. It was after 1800 when we got moving again and I was already making calculations of how tight it would be to hit Fort Augustus by 2200 and hopefully still be able to order pizza, or some warm food.
We kept moving past the magnificent Loch Affric and as we turned into the trees to run by the south shore of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin, my sensations became even more positive: it was after all along this same stretch, but riding in the opposite direction that I sealed the win in 2009 Glen Affric duathlon. I sensed Stuart was struggling a little bit; I wasn’t trying to put the pressure on him, I was just acutely aware of how tight time was to hit Fort Augustus. Without any decent food in Fort Augustus, the possibilities of riding through the night, or some of it, were compromised because the next chance for food was 50km further down the road at the all night petrol station in Fort William, which was off-route. I had a plan B of being able to heat up my last Extreme meal as I still had plenty of fuel, but psychologically I needed to sit down and eat something warm so I was ready to go all-out to achieve plan A.
Few words were said along the shore of the loch, but as we reached the right turn towards Tomich, Stuart said he was struggling with pain. I said, “We’ve got to go or we’re gonna starve” and continued up the hill. We’d been together a long time: most of the 300km of the YD300, all of the 200km of the YD200 and a large slice of 600km so far in the Highland Trail. It wasn’t a ruthless move on my part, just a misalignment in the nuances of our respective strengths and weaknesses. But I really knew I had to go and I knew that the Pylon climb suited me: it was totally rideable even with bike packing gear, (I did actually push the occasional steep ramp), and – most importantly – the light headwind that hassled us along Glen Affric would translate into a helpful tailwind for most of the double-headed climb.
I dropped like a bomb to Torgyle Bridge and felt slightly annoyed as I started the less direct Old Military Road route to the top of Inchnacardoch Forest. Still I climbed strongly on here, even finding myself on the big ring for a sustained section. My gps had gone down, but I knew the way off the hill and down through Jenkins Park by memory so I shot down into Fort Augustus to arrive at 2201. Too late! If the pizza place had even been open that late, it didn’t look like it as the lights were all off. I tried one pub for food, then at The Lock Inn I struck gold as the lovely waitress behind the bar agreed to serve me food. I wasn’t bothered what I ate, but quickly settled on fish and chips, plus two large cokes. While I waited I put fresh batteries in the gps, but I’d only been able to buy normal ones at Kinlochewe so I knew they would not last long and I only intended to use them for the tricky navigation through Fort William; everything else on the route I knew. I also changed the batteries in my headtorch and generally made myself and the bike ready for what could yet be a long ride into the night. The pub had wi-fi so I discovered from TrackLeaders that Liam was about 10 miles ahead of me down the Glen. I later discovered that he had passed through Kinlochewe that morning too early for the cafe so I worked out that he had had perhaps a longer day than me already. The food was lovely and I didn’t eat it very quickly as I was stopped there for a full hour. I tipped the waitress a fiver for well and truly saving my skin and set off into the darkness of the Great Glen at around 2300.
Day 4, part two: Fort Augustus to Tyndrum
“For just one moment in time, I want to walk where it is. Sustain a stature in life.”
I moved reasonably well down the Great Glen Way, not using my headtorch at first because I thought it would hypnotise me and put me to sleep on the bike, but then switching it on and finding I was getting along well with it. I made fairly good progress to Bridge of Oich and still was moving relatively smoothly towards the road crossing at North Laggan bridge. Once I crossed over at Laggan Locks and started on the first minor rise on the trail at Kilfinnan I started to feel worse. Coincidentally, the OS map shows a grave yard here. By the time I was getting near to Clunes I was feeling terrible: my right Achilles was really starting to hurt and I also sensed the start of a lesser pain in my left knee, possibly a compensation-induced niggle. My posterior was sore and for the first time I was finding it hard to sit down. I rationalised that it wasn’t so much the position of my left foot that was causing me problems, but the repeated strain on my ankle of twisting out multiple times over the previous days. I stopped and loosened off 4 complete clicks on both sides of both SPD pedals and I also utilised a Anusol suppository. Both these two actions had a reasonable immediate, relatively beneficial effect and I was able to keep pedalling through Clunes and Bunarkaig, casting a nostalgic glance at the now occupied garage where I had dossed down during my August 2015 reccie.
It emerged that very soon after here, I passed Liam, who was bivvying just off the path and apparently went on to enjoy a good 5 hours of sleep that night. I did not see him or know this until afterwards and I’m not sure that it could have put any more fire in my belly at that point if I had seen him; I was getting pretty close to running on empty. Once I crossed the Canal at Gairlochy, I was well and truly reduced to survival motion for the 13 or so kilometres to Neptune’s Staircase at Corpach. The stretch is pan flat and the surface is perfect, but my progress was most difficult: I resolved to pedalling out of the saddle for short bursts, then letting the bike freewheel and carry me forward; sometimes I felt that I could sit in the saddle and pedal normally, other times I simply couldn’t stay on the bike and two, probably three times I simply had to get off and push the bike along on this billiard-table flat surface. Yet still I moved forward towards the lights of Neptune’s Staircase.
I twisted my way through the maze of streets and tracks of Fort William and, at around 0200 met a drunk chap stumbling home. I explained I was in a race and vaguely asked him where the 24hr petrol station was, although deep down I had no intention of deviating off route to find it anyway. We parted ways and I went through and out of the town towards the climb up to Nevis Forest on the route of the West Highland Way. The climb was on a wide, fairly gentle firetrack, but yet again I was reduced to pushing up prolonged sections. I began to look to the side for a soft piece of verge, but forestry vehicles had spread stones from the track into the verge and no patch seemed to be debris-free and bed-worthy. I became vaguely aware, as I climbed higher and higher above Fort William, that there was the faintest trace of first light starting to pierce through the darkness. It was now 0230 and I had been moving for 3.5 hours since Fort Augustus and had, in one way or another, covered something like 55 kilometres. I finally found a spot where the ground felt soft enough for me to put my mattress and bivvy down. The night was mild and dry and I had no fear of getting wet whilst I rested. I had no idea how long I would stop for, but I managed to settled down reasonably and awoke looking up at light in the sky. It was just before 0500 I recall and by the time I got bivvy, sleeping bag and groundmat packed away, I think it was around 0525 when I started moving again. I had no idea where I was in the race: I assumed that, as Liam was ahead of me at Fort Augustus, he was still ahead of me now and then I began to think of Javi and Lee too – maybe that massive push out of Glen Affric hadn’t been enough to distance them after all and they had passed by as I snoozed. This kind of paranoia is the omnipresent vulture circling the corpse of the long-distance racer!
I crested the climb and pushed through the remnants of the Nevis Forest, onto the open track that was the Old Military Road. Here progress was slow, with pushing up inclines and tentative riding on the flat and on the rocky descents. I felt that I was moving so slowly I could have been drunk. As I turned into a more easterly direction, the sun became stronger and before long I saw a young Swiss couple, liberally daubed in sunblock and heading to Fort William. They told me that had been walking since 0500 so I asked if they had seen another cyclist coming in my direction. They replied in the negative, giving my the first faintest indication that I may have been in the lead. A little further as I pushed up a rise, a friendly voice from my left side called out, “Good morning”. A young Japanese lad was camped there and he looked like he was starting to get up, ready for the day’s walking. I asked him too if he had seen another cyclist come by and, yet again, the answer was negative.
As I approached the descent into Kinlockleven, I got my phone out and switched it on, ready to pick up network or wi-fi in the town and finally get the chance to see just where I may actually be on TrackLeaders. I took the descent well, only having to dismount for a couple of sections near the top and screeched into Kinlochleven, disc pads hot. I headed straight to the store, ate some cold chicken, drank a milkshake and filled both my bottles. I also bought some Rice Crispy bars to put in my fuel pod and stripped my gillet, arm warmers and leg warmers off surmising that I would now have to start giving it everything I had left. Track Leaders showed Liam not far behind and closing in fast. I set out of the town crying to myself, so pleased that I had done so well; so relieved that all the pushing and pain in the night really had been worth it. But I also felt scared of losing it all.
I rode as much of the Kinlochleven climb as I could, pushing briskly where I couldn’t ride. I passed one walker coming down, near the top, close to where you reach the last building on the left before the moorland opens up in front of you and the climb continues higher. I glanced down to check what progress I may have made by trying to judge how quickly the walker may have disappeared in the distance. I saw a cyclist in black clothes, the same figure that I had seen from further away a few hours ago in Fisherfield. It was Liam and he was moving well. I tried to up my pace yet again, to delay the closing of this diminishing 100 metre gap between him and me, defeat and victory.
Soon Liam was upon my shoulder. I didn’t turn around or say anything. Poor guy must have been a bit surprised that the irreverent and almost garrulous clown from the Tyndrum bunkhouse just four short nights ago had now turned into a sullen, focused racing machine. After a while Liam said, “It’s hard terrain,” and I just said, “Yes”. I tried to put in a couple of digs every time the gradient eased a fraction, getting quickly on the bike and then doing sharp cyclo-cross dismounts to carry my momentum up the pushing sections. I already knew that Liam had closed quickly and efficiently down on me, so I knew deep down he wasn’t running as deep into his reserves as I was. He responded to my meagre parries and then I felt resignation drain through me, even though I still tried to dictate the pace from the front. I wanted to be like Hinault on the road to Liege, Roche at La Plagne, LeMond at Chambery, Pantani at Plan di Montecampione. The hero of my own self. For just one moment in time. But I ended up swept aside by a faster, mightier force as I tried to reach my last grasp of heaven. I was beyond bluffing and beyond breaking point and, momentarily I became aware that it really was over: I couldn’t win the race and I just wanted him to go by me and put me out of my misery. When Liam made his move, riding strongly and technically efficiently up a rocky drag, I felt relief; as I watched him gain distance very quickly. I realised, at last, that the intense anguish that had plagued me since leaving Fort Augustus the night before in pursuit of a crazy dream was now over. I never had a problem accepting the result: I’d given more of myself to the Highland Trail than I had to anything else in my entire life.
Liam disappeared across the bowl that leads to the head of the Devil’s Staircase descent and by the time I got to the head of this final, major descent he could no longer be seen. I took the descent carefully and was grumpy that James was photographing me just when I had dismounted. I said some words to that effect and expressed surprise at how much he had moved around, considering I had last seen him on the summit of Bealach Horn. I hit the part of the Trail leading to Kings House and noticed the sun was really starting to heat up and that my arms were burning. I asked a group of French hikers for some sun block, but soon after, the sun was so hot that I had to put my merino arm warmers back on, but turned inside out.
The last push up from Kings House to the ruin of Bà Cottage was predominantly that: at one point I simply had to take my backpack off and just lie down on the grass on my back. I was totally spent. I got back on the bike and was pleased to recall that once you’ve completed the Bà climb, the greater majority of the track to Forest Lodge is very fast descent. There were many walkers out, but we seemed to arrange ourselves well as to which path each party preferred. The last loop on the road towards Bridge of Orchy passed by and before long I had crossed the main road and was pushing up the road to the railway station. I was pleased to hear some cheers from Beth Wildcat and her kids and also saw an athletic figure, still in his cycling kit: Stuart. I was glad he had got out of Tomich and found himself this close to his car. I stopped and we both embraced each other, then I jumped back on and completed the final stretch on the West Highland Way.
The feeling coming down the final hill to the village hall was everything and nothing; I felt so spent yet so elated and so thoroughly proud of myself. Before long I could see Laura and Ruby waiting for me and then next thing I knew I had stopped and one foot was on the ground. Contrary to popular legend I did of course kiss and cuddle Laura first, but it is the photo of Ruby licking my head that seems to have become more prominent. Hilariously, Beth asked if I would be offended if she tweeted the picture of Ruby embracing me; I replied that I would be greatly offended if she didn’t!
I talked with Stuart a bit and congratulated Liam and had a bit of chat with him. I had done 4 days 3 hours and had finished second by about 35 minutes. I went to get myself sorted out and came back to see Lee and Javi finish, along with Ian Fitz – a familiar face from my first foray into bikepacking, less than a year ago.
The equipment I took proved correct and reliable. A 2 x 10 speed carbon hardtail with 100mm travel fork was perfect. I recently got an SDG Belair 2.0 saddle with solid titanium rails, which proved itself to be exceptional. I was running Maxxis Crossmark 29 x 2.1 tyres at 33psi front and rear and, again, I consider their performance was excellent.
I used low-rise (XC) 760mm Easton bars. I don’t really like the look of Jones bars but I do concede that they offer a much better aerodynamic position for road and fast firetrack stretches.
All my bags were Alpkit, but I used a Wildcat front harness. I used a Alpkit Kraku stove, but took a Bearbones meths stove with around 200ml meths that I never actually used.
When I spoke to John Fettis afterwards he said his sleep system was pretty much half the weight of mine, which was as follows: old Alpkit down bag – 900g; OEX 3/4 groundmat 450g and Alpkit Hunka bivvy, again 450g. It seems there is quite a bit of weight to be lost here!
I used Extreme food dehydrated meals and rate these very highly. I relied on a normal Petzl headtorch which was about 80 lumens from three AAA batteries. I was totally happy with this and it was good not to have to think about light recharging systems.
My Shimano M162 shoes performed faultlessly and it was a shame to discover when I had finished that the sole had split along the length of one of them so they will have to be binned.