Adam Granduciel – vocals, mouth organ, lead guitar.
Dave Hartley – bass.
Robbie Bennett – keyboards.
Jon Natchez – baritone sax, keyboards.
Charlie Hall – drums, percussion.
Anthony LaMarca – electric guitar, keyboards.
Adam Granduciel – vocals, mouth organ, lead guitar.
Dave Hartley – bass.
Robbie Bennett – keyboards.
Jon Natchez – baritone sax, keyboards.
Charlie Hall – drums, percussion.
Anthony LaMarca – electric guitar, keyboards.
Bikepacking is a bit like hiking, a bit like backpacking, a bit like bicycle touring and a bit like mountain biking. In fact, you could say that it combines them all. Typically, a route suitable for bikepacking will be of such a distance that at least one overnight stop is required – this usually means that the route will be at least 200km, with the Bearbones event in Wales being this distance, the Capital Trail – centred on Edinburgh – being a little more, the Cairngorms Loop running to 300km and – the queen of them all – The Highland Trail 550 running to 860km, with an allowance of up to 8 days for an official completion.
The idea of a bikepacking route is that it should be “self-supported” – that is the rider should carry all that is required for warmth, safety, adverse weather, sleep, shelter, nutrition, illumination etc. about his bike or person. Hence the advent of bikepacking bags in recent years that permit bags to be attached directly to the bike, so bypassing the inevitable rattles and shakes that would result from using any system based on pannier racks over rough terrain.
The terrain for a bikepacking route will tend to be diverse, occasionally challenging and frequently requiring stretches where the bike has to be pushed in order to progress – called Hike A Bike (or HAB). A typical route is likely to be quite different to a recreational MTB trail centre and, in the more extreme cases, like the Fisherfield crossing on the Highland Trail or the Lairig an Laoigh traverse on the Cairgorms Loop, can be comparable to “off-piste” skiing. A degree of self-sufficieny in looking after bike, body and soul is definitely a prerequisite, especially as the more extreme routes are outside of mobile network for prolonged stretches.
What then is the difference the between a long bike ride in the open countryside, and a bikepacking route? Ultimately, it comes down to participation: a bikepacking route is created with the intention of more than just the route’s originator riding over the course; at the same time, the intention is not to create a sudden influx of people riding into previously remote, little-known and/or unspoilt terrain. Currently, even the best known routes have little more than a hundred people a year completing them.
A bikepacking route can exist in its own right as a route that individuals choose to ride at their own pace. For some popular routes, a record is kept of verified fastest attempts at the route; additionally, the routes mentioned previously typically have a massed start once a year, where riders start off together, but then ride individually to record their own time, selecting their pace, sleeping opportunities and visits to food sources to suit their own abilities.
In short, a bikepacking route can exist perfectly well without a massed start event being associated with it, but, by the same token, the more inspiring routes are characterised by a coordinated start at some point in the course of each year.
Having participated in, and got to know and enjoy other riders’ bikepacking routes, and – perhaps most importantly – having gained a good understanding of the ethos of self-supported mountain biking, it was natural that I would eventually look to my local terrain, centred around the vast expanse of Kielder forest, and start formulating some kind of route in my head. In fact the first draft of the route has been in existence for a year, but it was on a weekend of reasonable autumn weather in late October 2017 that it became a little closer to becoming a reality.
My companion from many previous bikepacking trips, Stuart Cowperthwaite, was the natural choice and when it quickly emerged we both had the same weekend free it wasn’t long before we were driving to the route’s start point: the tiny village of Stonehaugh on the south east edge of Kielder forest. We eventually set off riding at 2100 on Saturday night with our lights on. After just 5kms, Stuart had stopped by his bike and was tending to what appeared to be a broken freehub body – what had been an unpleasant noise previously had now become a mechanism that would not disengage during free-wheeling. We pushed on, with him riding a 10 speed fixie and then, just as quickly as the problem arrived, it disappeared, leaving us both with the ability to freewheel again.
There was light rain in the air, so we were wearing waterproof jackets, however the elevated pace and undulating profile meant that we were soon quite warm. We moved swiftly through the 20km forest tracks to Falstone, where I quickly popped into the pub to fill up my bottle with water and Stuart oiled the freehub. The 200km route does not go to the new bothy of Flittingford, but it passes very close and I loaded up a separate gpx file to direct us to the night’s destination. I had never been there before, but I was pleased to navigate to within 30 metres and then to finally find the place by turning around in the dark and seeing it before us.
A new bothy visit is always a special occasion and we were both very impressed with the work that the MBA had done on bringing this building back to life. There was no-one else in residence when we arrived at 2245, so we quickly settled to getting our sleeping kit out; the late start meant that we had both had our evening meal so we just had a small can of ale and a bit of banter before sleeping through until 0700. We were up and riding before 0830, not before admiring the bothy, both inside and out.
The route took us North, through the forestry to the where the forest tracks join the A68 at Cottonshopburnfoot. From here we proceeded just half a kilometre until the right turn onto the Otterburn Ranges via Cottonshope farm. I had already checked with the Otterburn Ranges website that there was no military firing taking place this weekend and it was for this principal reason that we had chosen to do the route. We had not got very far up this remote road when we were stopped by an official from a motorsport event, informing us that we couldn’t proceed any further as the roads in the Ranges were being used by a rally. I pointed out that the red flags were not flying and we had specifically checked that we could access the Ranges and has planned our weekend around it. No matter, we couldn’t go further.
We went back down the road and it soon dawned on us both that we would have to do this Pennine Way loop to Alwinton in reverse. The main reason I had originally planned to go through the Ranges to Alwinton and then over Windy Gyle and the Pennine Way to Spithope was because this is how I had first rode this section earlier in the year and, notwithstanding the considerable climb from Trows to Windy Gyle, I saw no reason to change it.
We had not got very far past the earliest parts of the Pennine Way at Chew Green before my grumbling about the bumptious official began to turn around on itself: his turning us around was suddenly looking like a blessing in disguise as we realised that a strong wind was blowing at our back as we negotiated this exposed, boggy and mainly uphill terrrain. Even with a favourable wind and moving at a decent pace, progress was slow and the 19km from the A68 turn for Spithope and the summit of Windy Gyle took us 2 hours 36 minutes. The remote terrain can offer stunning views into Scotland – weather permitting! After three miles of the eight signposted from Chew Green to Windy Gyle, the spartan shelter at Lamb Hill is reached – a temporary respite or a safe haven in extreme conditions.
A peculiar characteristic of the track is that, while it is predominantly peaty and boggy, there are sections of slabs that greatly improve the possibility of riding, although these can be quite slippery at times, so are not entirely a panacea to forward motion.
The final hike up to Windy Gyle is not too prolonged and, once at the summit, only a few seconds are required to understand how the place obtained its name – if the actual meteorological conditions aren’t sufficient to convince you, a quick glance to the enormous stone summit shelter should.
From Windy Gyle, the route descends over 300m, mainly on a fast, grassy track to the small farm at Trows. Immediately you arrive at the foot of the descent, your cross the slippery ford and start heading back up the red track that is on your left side as you are still descending. This steady climb tops out with a sharp drop to a wooden bridge and then a prolonged, steep grassy ramp up to Clennel Street. From here there is a fairly rapid and sustained drop to Alwinton. By this point we had been riding – and occasionally pushing through boggy sections – at a fairly sustained pace for around four hours since starting off, so we were both ready for some decent nourishment at the pub. I was even going so far as to start salivating about the prospect of obtaining a Sunday lunch. As we passed the small village green there were many cars parked there, suggesting that quite a few Sunday drivers had headed out to Alwinton that Sunday with the same idea. In fact, as we drew up outside the pub we were faced with the dismal notice: No food being served this week!
We entered and sure enough the pub was under minimum staff for the week as the owners were away on holiday in warmer climes. Incredibly, the village pub in Harbottle, just 2kms down the road was open, but not serving food either! This was a bit of a problem, but there was little we could do, other than buy a bag of crisps, a can of coke and a double portion of Mars bars each. Fortunately, Stu had packed a plentiful supply of wraps featuring a whole variety of combinations based around peanut butter, including spinach, cheese and other things that I stopped listening to his description of!
We ate these outside after pondering just exactly what we were going to do to get back on route to Kielder: as the Ranges had been blocked to us at its south western entry, we were also expecting it to be blocked to us at its eastern entrance, just past the village of Harbottle at Holystone Common. However, we were hoping that by arriving around 3pm, the rally might be winding down or even finished.
In another example of his impeccable preparedness, Stu had OS mapping on his large screen smartphone and we were able to work out that we could entry the Ranges as planned at Harbottle, follow the road east only as far as Cocklaw Green and then drop south from there to Bennettsfield on the A68, proceeding for a further 10km or so on the main road through Horsely and Rochester back to junction of the Forest Drive at Cottonshopeburnfoot, where we had emerged some hours earlier. This was a deviation from the planned route, meaning that we would miss the Bushman’s Crag and Cottonshope Head stretch of the Ranges, plus we would be obliged to ride on the busy main road to Scotland. We had to hope that we could reason/argue our way this far along the Ranges road, because the only alternative was a mammoth road stretch from Harbottle to east of Billsmoor, then through Elsdon, Otterburn and finally to Byrness on the A68.
We made our way through the forest tracks of Harbottle Woods and caught a lovely rainbow, just at the point where we emerged on the road and started battling into a strong headwind.
We passed a couple of rally marshals, who were much more relaxed that the one we had met earlier in the morning. Once we told them our planned exit route south at Cocklaw Green and that we anticipated being off the Ranges and at the A68 in less than half an hour, they were fine in letting as proceed as there was no driving planned in this area in the near future.
The A68 was a headwind battle, just as the lumpy track west across the Ranges had been, but slowly we made our way towards the entrance to the Forest Drive track to Kielder Village on our left. This is signposted as being 12 miles and is characterised by a steady drag for about a third of this distance up to a first summit at Blakehope Nick (450m), then a second summit around Ewe Hill before a long descent into Kielder Village. We covered this stretch into an unfavourable wind in just over an hour and arrived at The Anglers Arms in Kielder ready for some warm food and really hoping that we weren’t going to score a hat trick of non-catering pubs. The reality couldn’t have been more pleasant: after having been moving from 0830 until just after 1700, we were finally treated to some quality warm food. Were also able to stock up on Snickers for the following morning too as this was our last supply point before reaching Stonehaugh the next morning. At this point we had around 130kms of the original route completed and had about 70 more to do. After our meal, we still had to ride for an hour or so to Kershopehead bothy, which was close to the 50km to go point.
As we left the pub it still wasn’t dark, but we had prepared our lights ready to switch them on at some point in the near future. Through familiar trails, we skirted the reservoir for a few kilometres and then headed east towards Newcastleton Forest on the Cross Border Trail. Just as the light was fading and we switched on out light, we startled a badger waddling furiously down the track in front of us. This was in addition to the badger, fox and small deer that we had spotted the previous night on the way over to Falstone.
I had originally planned the route to effectively overshoot the bothy, by going about 4km further south-east to the bridge crossing of Kershope Burn, and then to return up the east side of the burn to the refuge; however, I have crossed this burn many times and we cut this 8km out by wading across near to the point marked as Kaim Brae on the map. We were soon at the bothy, arriving at the more civilised time of 1900, as oppose to something like four hours later the previous evening.
Once settled in the bothy, we made a vague attempt to light the stove with some twigs and wood we had found around, but even with a the stimulation of a splash of meths we didn’t manage to create anything very long-lasting. It was around 14°C inside and, although our feet were drenched from the recent water crossing, we weren’t too cold. As we had finally obtained and enjoyed a hearty meal in Kielder, we just had a Mug Shot pasta portion each mixed with some thin Polish cooked sausages. We then chatted for quite a while before falling asleep at 2200 after a long and challenging day. We had come a long way, what with temperamental freehubs, impromptu route deviations and near starvation in the remote countryside (!), but it was good to know that we had less than 3 hours riding to do in the morning to complete our route back to Stonehaugh.
I was awakened in the dark by the sound of rustling and the flickering of a headtorch – it was the commotion caused by my companion pronouncing himself wide awake at 0600 and getting on with packing his sleeping kit away. I protested that this was perhaps a trifle early, but deep down I knew he was right. He was quoting the weather forecast that he had caught at the pub in Kielder, which was predicting rain in the morning. As it wasn’t raining yet, I had to concede that there was indeed some sense in his proposal to get up and start moving as soon as possible. We were actually quite slow getting up and having breakfast, but we were still out the door with our lights on and moving at 0730.
My route from Kershopehead appeared rather contorted, but in actual fact was the most direct way in a southerly direction to High Onset farm, using the fast forest tracks that pass via Blakelyne House. We were immediately making a very brisk pace and I intuitively knew that a) Stu was feeling good and b) he had picked some improbably fast average speed on his Garmin and would now be hellbent on maintaining it all the way to Stonehaugh. The small road link to Crossgreens passed quickly and then we were on the stretched out climb to Bullcleaugh Gate – a stretch of track that we had last ridden together in April, going in the opposite direction on The Dirty Reiver event.
My route avoids the water crossing at Paddaburn, used by the Reiver, and instead favours the more southerly parallel route via Potsloan, that I had ridden for years before the gravel event came into existence. Through Whitehill, Felecia Crags, Green and the last hill to Harelaw, Stu and I traded high speed blows, with the author perhaps feeling the more ragged of the duo as the picture below attests:
Finally, finally we called a truce and headed back on the last couple of miles on the road to Stonehaugh at a more civilised pace. Once we got back, we found that despite missing a few kilometres on the eastern section of the Ranges and also not doing the 8km extra to Kershopehead, we had still managed to come in with a total of 201km since leaving late on Saturday evening.
So back to my original preamble: is the route a bikepacking route? Well, it certainly has the potential for bike, bivvy and bothy, but does it have enough potential to tempt somebody else to upload the gpx route and have a go at it? I hope so, as long as that person knows how to take care of themselves in remote countryside.
The obvious drawback of the route is the reliance on military clearance for the only major road section, which crosses the deserted roads of the Otterburn Ranges. However, as we discovered, it is not simply a question of ascertaining that the ranges aren’t being used for military purposes, but what recreational activities may also be taking place, e.g. a car rally.
The link for the final version of the route is below. This includes the section to Windy Gyle approaching from Spithope because, after having ridden it previously from Alwinton, I now feel the western approach that Stu and I completed is the better option.
Official advice for Otterburn Ranges:
If you are in any doubt about where you can go, please contact the Range Liaison Officer by phoning 0191 239 4201/0191 239 4227. [Very helpful and the Captain I spoke to was a gravel bike rider himself.]
GPX route file:
Students of the Blues often ask themselves: what happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi?
The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling and musicians who’d laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.
The four hour drive up to Tyndrum in 30°C heat in a car with no air conditioning was not pleasant; it was even less pleasant knowing that the temperature would drop over the course of Saturday and, by Sunday, daytime temperatures as low as 12°C were forecast for the Ullapool area. Still, it’s always pleasant to arrive in Tyndrum on Highland Trail weekend, especially so this year as I’d got away from work at midday and arrived there by 17:00. I checked in to the bunkhouse and got my bike out, ready for a little ride around the place to see who was around. I quickly bumped into Ian Fitz and Greg Cummins (USA), as well as Joachim Rosenlund (Nor) and had a bit of a chat with them, then I headed back to the bunkhouse and cooked my evening meal so as to be in time for the ride out to remember Mike Hall at 19:30. We rode a couple of miles up the hill to a lovely part of the river, where about 20 of us sat down and had a chat. It was good to talk to Maurizio Doro from Italy and give him a bit of advice on what to expect and from where it was safe to drink water from.
I was sharing a room with Rich Rothwell, who was making his way up from the North East too, but at that point was a bit further back down the road. As he wasn’t due to arrive until at least 22:00, I headed along to the Real Food Cafe to meet up with the other riders. I missed this last year as I didn’t arrive until after 20:00 and then had stuff to sort out so it was good to meet and mingle with them. Plus, last year’s race included a couple of pleasant “truces” when myself and a small group of other riders sporadically met in various cafes for food together, before recommencing our own races once out of the cafe door; this year my pre-race strategy did not include anything of the sort and I anticipated a much swifter approach to grabbing food at key points, so the chance to socialise before was an opportunity I was eager to take.
At the RFC, it was great to put faces to a lot of names: the Lakes team of Mike Toyn and Chris Hope; the much-anticipated Neil Beltchenko all the way from Creste Butte; Huw Oliver and Fitz. I finally got to meet Scotland’s bikepacker entrepreneur extraordinaire, Markus Stitz and last, but by no means least, Jenny Graham, who I took great pleasure in regaling with a line that she must have already heard a million times: “So, Jenny, tell me about that time at Shenavall ….”
By 22:30 I was back at the bunkhouse and settling down for bed, but I’d since heard from Rich that he was badly delayed and probably not going to be arriving until midnight. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep waiting for someone else to arrive in the small room and it was hot anyway as the day’s heat hadn’t really dissipated much as night drew in. I concentrated on staying horizontal because even if I wasn’t sleeping, just being in this position would be a luxury over the coming days of the race.
Rich finally arrived, a bit flustered just after midnight, but managed to get himself settled in quite quickly and I think we were both finally asleep by 00:30.
Saturday: Tyndrum to Strathgarve Lodge; 251km.
Race morning dawned fine. I was up at 07:00 to have 150g of pasta al bianco, happily sticking to my tradition of last year. In retrospect, I could have probably eaten more and I think I definitely would have if I had known the pace that was soon to unwind in the course of the morning. The bike and bags were sorted and I didn’t have any last minute changes of items either being added or subtracted. As usual I was taking quite a lot of food and was relatively svelte in other areas of kit such as spare clothes, lighting, waterproofs etc. I went back to the cafe but just drank water, not really feeling like coffee, or eating. Rich and Tom Seipp were in the cafe having completed their ITT at 02:00 that morning, when they were greeted by Alan Goldsmith, in what I though was a very selfless gesture on his part considering he was starting off at 09:00 with the rest of us. As I was chatting to Rich Seipp in the cafe about his extremely innovative method for fixing auto-separating rims, the group photo was being taken outside of all the 2017 starters, so I unfortunately missed that.
Time was now ticking away and there was only fifteen minutes to go as we headed up that famous little back lane to the starting area. At the rendezvous, we had one minute’s silence for Mike Hall, then, without much ado we were arranging ourselves and we were being sent on our way by the first 12 year-old boy to complete the Highland Trail 550: Tom Seipp.
A startline photograph shows me, right there next to Alan, foot already clipped in and moving. We moved up the first gradient on the double-track and I was in second place on the tricky singletrack just before the drop under the arch of the railway bridge. By the time that we had reached the foot of the glen than defines the start of the first climb, up to the shores of Loch Lyon, the lead group was starting to form with the usual suspects present and correct: myself, Rich, Neil and Chris. The relative steady pace of the long-range contenders was periodically interrupted by a young French guy and another rider who eclipsed all others in terms of minimalist kit. This brisk but irregular pace continued through the glen, where at Bridge of Balgie our road temporarily intersected with that of a local Sportive event. As we approached the monument and the foot of the second steep climb of the day over towards Kinloch Rannoch, the opportunity to raid the Sportive’s unmanned water station was too good to miss. Through narrowed eyes the road riders looked at the two mountain bikers, throwing themselves into the centre of the stash of water bottles and quickly drinking and re-filling. Looks suggested that words were on the tips of tongues, but they never quite reached the open air before the scavengers were off and away with a smirk and a shrug of the shoulders. In stopping here to refill water I had lost some ground on the climb to Rich and Neil, but I caught Chris, who it later emerged was having trouble with a puncture. By now the temperature was in the mid-twenties and I was feeling quite hot as I was wearing a midweight merino baselayer.
I continued over the summit of the steep climb, riding all the way, compared to pushing the steeper slopes the year before and as I began my descent through the woods, I dropped my chain. I was a bit annoyed at this because I had never dropped the chain off the single ring before: I knew the reason was that I had put on a new chain for this event that hadn’t quite bedded in. Either the chain would bed in and stay put, or this would continue to be a problem for the remainder of the event. Thankfully, the former occurred very quickly. This left me with a minor deficit on the long descent through the woods on fast firetrack, but – uncharacteristically – I closed the gap to Rich and Neil, sensing that they were aware of a route deviation upcoming, but not quite sure where it was. I knew this little cut to the right down to the bridge was one of the trickiest bits of navigation on the whole route and was able to sail past them and lead them down it as they were still deciding where to go.
This put us in a reasonably stable group of three heading west across the open moorland until Rich’s bike started making unpleasant noises and he had to stop to fix it. It turns out it was a loose cassette lockring, which he fixed at Wolftrax with the use of superglue. As he was stopped by the side of the trail, I metaphorically patted myself on the back: putting threadlock solution on the cassette lockring had been the very last thing I did as part of my very extensive pre-race bike fettling.
Heading towards Ben Alder along the shores of Loch Ericht – lying particularly low due to a lack of rain – Neil and I were behind Florian, who had taken a flyer on the previous climb, bizarrely enough, just after admitting to me that he had no idea how his body was going to respond the next day! Pushing up the headland that juts out into the loch, before the drop down to the suspended bridge and the bothy, I heard a pair of cuckoos singing loudly. The thought struck me that there might not be cuckoos in the part of America that Neil came from, especially with him living so high up at altitude in Colorado.
“Do you know what bird that is?”, I asked him.
“Owls, I guess”, came his reply.
“No, they’re called cuckoos after the sound that they make. You might hear more of them on this trip.”
We got to Ben Alder Cottage in four and a half hours – already thirty minutes up on last year and I led the way up the long steady climb, which gave Neil his first taste of highland drainage channels cutting perpendicularly across the track. Half way up, I stopped at a favourite burn and filled my bottles with water. By this point Chris was back on and he stopped with Neil to fill up too.
I crested the Bealach first, but walked the one short, steep section on an early part of the descent that I always do and so allowed Neil to ride past me and open up a gap. I was very pleased to hold him to about fifty metres and by the time we passed the “ex-Culra”, we were both riding side by side. We continued by the shore of Loch Pattack and past the new hydro diversion towards Arverikie and “Monarch of the Glen” country. I explained to Neil that this favourite TV show could best be equated to “a Scottish version of The Waltons”, and in doing so acknowledged that my career as a tourist guide was stillborn. By this point Chris had overcome his bad luck of an early puncture and had re-caught us, only to be ran into by a small deer that became spooked by the fact that it couldn’t jump the fence at the side of the track.
Chris’ misfortune was minimal compared to the young Frenchman, Florian, who had his head hit by an errant traffic barrier as he was leaving the forest track at Kinloch Laggan. He made it to Wolftrax with a cracked helmet and that was the last I saw of him, though I believe he went on to complete the route. At Wolftrax, we quickly grabbed food and drink and I refilled my stemcell with as many small cereal bars as I could fit: already mindful of how many I had consumed in the initial fast pace and what I would need later if I was planning to move quickly through Fort Augustus and to skip Contin altogether. I was out of Wolftrax, after a quick 10 minute stop, by 15:30, compared to just arriving there at 16:00 the year before. Chris and Neil had a slight gap on me, but I was back up to them by the Garva bridge and we commenced the Corrieyairick pass together as a trio.
I’ve ridden this climb quite a few times now, so I was a bit disappointed to lose the front wheel on a drainage channel, about a third of the way up. The pace set by Neil and Chris was quite brisk at that point; to try and close the 20 metre gap that quickly formed would have required going into the red. I resigned myself to keeping them within a manageable distance, but the gap was slowly growing, despite some appearance of foreshortening as we all dismounted for the upper hairpins of the pass. At the summit, the pair were clear, but I still hoped to have an ace up my sleeve: I was planning on heading for the fish and chip shop, therefore hoping to save time on others, who I anticipated would take the more traditional line to the pizza restaurant. In the end, I don’t think they went to the pizza restaurant, but just stocked up at the petrol station. I had fish and chips and two cans of fizzy drink and had the strange idea to take another portion of chips in my backpack to eat cold later! As I left the canal and rode past the petrol station I saw about half a dozen bikepacking mountain bikes, including an orange full-susser, which I thought was Fitz’s. I was surprised to see half a dozen bikes there considering I was about 45 minutes up on pace on last year AND had cut my Fort Augustus stopped time in half too. It turned out speaking to Rich later that it was his orange-coloured bike there and the other bikes were all bikepackers, but they were just riders passing through and not other competitors on the Highland Trail.
Despite thinking that I was only just ahead of a small group of about 6 riders, I still consoled myself that I was moving out of town while they were still in the shop. I sensed that Neil and Chris were already out ahead of me and this was quickly confirmed seeing their tyre tracks on the wooded stretch to Invermoriston. As I left Fort Augustus around 18:30 it was feeling cooler and that merino base layer didn’t feel so hot now. The weather appeared to be following the last forecast that I’d seen, with a sharp drop in temperatures coming through as well as the threat of rain in the sky.
At this point, on the trail out of Fort Augustus, I felt like the race had properly started. Moreover, although a bit annoyed at being off the pace of the two leaders, I was generally pleased to be riding by myself and precisely controlling not just my own pace, but my destiny too. Once I knew my riding buddy from last year, Stuart Cowperthwaite, wouldn’t be starting, I had accepted in my mind that I would be riding vast stretches of the route alone and I was up for this. At this early point of the race I could see the sheer class of Neil and Chris and while I still vainly and desperately wanted to win the race, I was intent on keeping calm and sticking to my tactics. My target for the first day was 25km further than the Hydro bothy reached last year: a covered barn near Strathgarve Lodge, which was at exactly 250km from Tyndrum. It also required me to miss the Contin shop and I was fully prepared for this.
As I started the gravel climb up to the Bhlaraidh Reservoir, I looked to my right and who should be beside me but Rich. He explained it was his bike at Fort Augustus and he explained the drastic measures he had employed at Wolftrax to remedy his mechanical woes. As we made our way up the climb, Rich began complaining that he was thirsty and desperately needed to find a stream for water, making me wonder what he’d actually been buying in the shop, just a few miles back. He also lamented not bring any electrolyte tabs with him. At the second dam, he stopped to fill up and I pressed on towards Loch Ma Stac, now on familiar trails that I had only reccied a handful of weeks ago. To my surprise, as I pushed my bike around the rocky shore, I spotted Chris and Neil just coming off the shore by the ruin, little did I know that this was the last time I would see either of them until the finish, but at the time I was encouraged; especially as I seemed to be closer to them than Rich was to me.
I came off the loch and before passing by Corrimony bothy, encountered a lonely tent pitched by a quiet stretch of the burn. Not for the first time in this event, I would pass by solitary tents in isolated locations; on this particular occasion, I didn’t disturb the tranquillity of the occupants with the noise of squealing brake pads or with a feint headlight suddenly illuminating the fabric of their shelter. Emerging on to the track by the windfarm, I was surprised to see that it had all been chewed up by diggers, even though it was untouched when I rode along it just a few weeks before. Through Corrimony, past the burial mound, on to the road, skirting Cannich and along the back lane to Struy, where I decided to stop at around 21:00 to put on extra clothes and sample the delicacy of cold chips. In fact, as may be anticipated, the chips were not particularly pleasant and I ended up throwing most of them into a bin, but at least I wasn’t feeling hungry as I was about to embark on one of my least favourite sections of the whole route: The Track of a Thousand Puddles. This track leaves the road at Erchless Castle and re-emerges at the road section just five miles before Contin and passes via the Hydro bothy at 225km – the point where Stuart and I stopped after Day 1 last year.
Commencing this track in fading daylight was already a bonus, compared to total dark last year, and I managed to reach the main summit point, before the track heads slowly west towards the Hydro bothy, within reasonable daylight. In fact, the puddles weren’t as bad as last year, but there were still a few that were bottom bracket depth. As the pipes and infrastructure along the side of the track started indicating to me that I was getting to within 15 minutes of the bothy, the rain started. I didn’t deliberate, but got my waterproof jacket and shorts on straight away. I also fitted my helmet torch and switched on my rear red LED, so that I didn’t forget to turn it on when I got to the Contin road stretch. I’m not one of these people who goes into stealth mode and switches lights off for fear of being seen by another racer ahead or behind; I’d rather give a rival a vague psychological boost than risk being hit by a vehicle on the A835 road that passes through Contin. In any case, I got the sense that I was quite alone: separated as much from the trailbreakers ahead as from pursuers lingering behind.
I passed the bothy, knowing full well that Neil and Chris would have never stopped there, and carried on past the dam, where the track became smooth tarmac. I later learnt from Fitz and Huw that there were seven in the Hydro that night. This fact reveals a great deal about the evolution in the pace of the Highland Trail: just a couple of years ago, Ian Barrington wrote about Corrimony bothy as the place where the leaders aimed for and then left at various intervals in the early hours of the first night. I ended up stopping at 250km, whereas I subsequently learned that Neil and Chris had bivvied down for a couple of hours near the Inchbae Lodge Inn – 10km further up the trail than me at kilometre 260. The cracks were already beginning to show, although not all these cracks were insurmountable gaps.
Coming through Contin, I stuck to my strategy: deviation to the left to the campsite toilet, where I went through a pre-planned routine: clean bottles and fill both with clean water and electrolyte tabs for next day and then fill my 1 litre collapsible bladder with water for the night stop because I already knew there was no water immediately available there. It was raining just as heavily as I left Contin but I knew I didn’t have far to ride and there was just one small climb up above Loch Garve before I arrived at my chosen barn at half-past midnight. This summed up the 2017 Highland Trail for me: good, but not good enough: I’d arrived at the Hydro at 01:00 last year so I had ridden 25km further, 30 minutes quicker this year, yet there were two guys 10km further up the road! I was on the back foot already.
I arrived at the barn. Wind had blown leaves in so, although the floor was a bit rocky the bed of leaves considerably softened it. I settled down and didn’t cook a dehydrated meal, but got the stove out ready to cook an Extreme Foods porridge and a coffee in the morning, knowing that I was still at least 3.5 hours from Oykel Bridge. By 01:00 I was in my bivvy bag just about ready to go to sleep, with my alarm set for 04:30, with the aim of being breakfasted and moving by 05:00. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard a bike pass by with its lights blaring. As I was well hidden from view of the trail, I suppose I should have just kept quiet, but I called out, “Who’s that then?”. It was Rich. He didn’t take any persuading to grind to a halt and get his bivvy bag out too. He was mumbling something about getting up at 3am and talking about the fact that he didn’t have any food.
I suppose normal tactics would have been not to comment and to let him head off for a long day without food into one of the longest and most remote stretches of the whole route. But, I wouldn’t have felt great just letting him plunge into what was clearly the unknown to him, with zero food supplies. At the time he was talking about setting off, he would have missed the Oykel Bridge Hotel and, in any case, they only provided hot food and little in the way of supplies to take away.
I said that I thought it would be better to go 10km back down to Contin and stock up at the shop that opened at 07:00. I even told him about the possibility of getting the house speciality: the microwaved burger – surprisingly appetising if eaten in double quantities with some decent miles in your legs. He acknowledged that he didn’t know what was ahead of him and I explained my tactic of skipping Contin had been carefully planned for weeks before. I felt better telling him this and I hope I wasn’t being too dramatic in my concluding sentence on the subject when I said, “If you head out to Bealach Horn without any food at all and the weather breaks, you’re going to end up calling Mountain Rescue.”
We both fell asleep. Day 1 over.
Sunday: Strathgarve Lodge to The Altnacealgach Inn; 230km.
The alarm was set for 04:30, but heavy rain fell 15 minutes before and woke me up. I didn’t argue with the weather, but instead took the early awakening as a positive sign to get myself on the move more quickly. I fired up the stove and boiled water for the porridge and coffee, while brushing my teeth with my patented cut-down toothbrush. The stove was balanced on the chassis of an abandoned piece of farm machinery that was stored in the barn and while it was boiling, I got the rest of my kit packed up and got dressed. I was wearing most of my cycling kit, but took my cycling shorts off to sleep and was wearing lightweight running shorts, so I needed to get changed back into lycra.
By just after 05:00, I was moving, giving Rich some last instructions on how going down the road to Garve may have been a quicker route to Contin and, adding that, as long as he re-joined the gpx track at the same point, then his route would be valid. I got moving and my legs felt reasonable. Day 1 is predominantly rideable with over 4,000m of climbing, whereas the remaining days introduce significant sections of hike-a-bike (HAB). While the HAB certainly slows progress, it can be viewed positively in that it allows muscles that are tired from cycling to be rested, while those focused on walking take over.
I estimated around 3.5 hours for the section to Oykel Bridge from Garve. “The Long Glens”, I call it because the route drags around Loch Vaich and then drags down a long straight glen from Deanich Lodge and finally drags through another after passing through the gate at the second checkpoint at Croick. The minor tedium of these now-familiar glens was eclipsed this year by a reasonably strong headwind that was present for most of the route to Oykel Bridge, although the section from Deanich Lodge seemed to provide some relief. As the track exits onto a small road, a few miles before the Croick junction, there is a Wilderness Centre hidden away up a side track – this would explain a group of about a dozen people doing stretching exercises on the grass with an instructor at about 8 o’ clock in the morning. Stretchers and cyclist both seemed equally oblivious to each other.
Before 09:30 I arrived at Oykel Bridge Hotel. I went in by the side door and was met by the new owner: an Irish lady of spinsterly aspect, little disposed to hospitality at the best of times it seemed, and less so when she had already been affronted by my bikepacking predecessors, who had apparently entered the premises through an open door and sought sustenance at 06:25 that morning. Undeterred, and using my characteristic charm, I attempted to persuade her to provide me with a cooked breakfast, a cup of tea and two Snickers. I also enquired if I could close the outside door to the room as it was a) quite fresh inside and b) there was no other customer there who might object. I added to this effrontery by inquiring if I could use the Wi-Fi; I could have sworn that her negative reply caused her to radiate perceptibly.
I went to the loo and washed my face in warm water, cleaned and filled my bottles and was amazed to find that my cooked breakfast was already there at my table: not much of a surprise in fact, as it was just the warmed-up leftovers from the guests’ breakfast. Without Wi-Fi, I didn’t succeed in getting any TrackLeaders updates, but my host effectively told me all I needed to know: Chris and Neil were 3 hours ahead of me but had not stocked up on food since Fort Augustus and wouldn’t get the chance until Kylesku, which was eight wilderness hours from here.
As I left she appeared to mellow somewhat, telling me that if I passed by again later that night – even after 9pm – if I could see a light on in the guest bar, there would be someone about who would serve me something warm. I appreciated this change of heart and thanked her, but I knew that it was 14 hours going well to get back, so that would put my passing by near to midnight. I got moving from the hotel by 10:00 – three hours up on last year already.
Glen Cassley through to Duchally Lodge offered more of the same headwind that I’d already sampled on the way to Oykel Bridge. This was becoming a trifle dispiriting, especially up such a long lonely glen. My solitude was broken about half way up by a herd of highland cows across the road being directed by a farmer and his young family into a neighbouring field. I chatted with them a little and admired the young boy in his fancy dress costume helping to shoo the cows. It seemed an idyllic life in a lovely place, but the fact that they were all working together as a family on a Sunday morning perhaps hinted at some of the hardship behind the superficial impression.
I had calculated that on the worse switchbacks of the Power Station climb that the wind would assist me, but this was little consolation on the long trek to the foot of the climb. Once over the summit I descended, passed the head of the loch and manoeuvred my bike through the awkward gate at the small collection of houses where the route joins the A838. Last year the rain was falling hard and I was putting on every bit of clothing to keep myself warm; this year I was so bold as to remove arm warmers and leg warmers as the day was now finally starting to warm up a little, although this was always tempered by moving against a fresh headwind. This headwind had no intention of relenting on the road stretch to Merkland Lodge and I was pleased to take the right turn and climb off-road up towards Gobernuisgach Lodge. I passed the summit of the pass and glanced over to the loch on my right to see a family who, having finished fishing, appeared to be waiting for transportation to come and collect them. Sure enough, as I descended towards the lodge, a 4×4 was coming up the track towards me and I was squeezed up onto the verge.
On starting the track up Glen Golly, I was surprised to see a couple of walkers; I’d never encountered anybody up here before. The change from cycling legs to walking legs took place and I pushed up to the first summit, then I negotiated the boggy moorland track with a little more aplomb than usual and, before long, I was dropping down to the perfect point for the stream crossing. The long push up to Bealach Horn seemed slightly more palatable for being familiar with it and I spared a thought for anyone who had come this far with minimum or no rations left. At the burn, just half a kilometre from the summit I refilled my bottles, knowing that water this high up has to be pure. On the long descent to Lone, just past the worst washboard section, a stone flew up, ricocheted off the crank and hit me full on the shin bone of my left leg. It hurt quite a lot, but I thought it was a blunt impact; in fact there was quite a lot of blood pouring down my shin, on to my sock. I stopped and looked at it, but realised that the worse of the pain had passed, so I continued my descent.
I passed the farm shed at Lone, thinking as I always do, what a fine sheltered bivvy this would make, (but not on any schedule I’ve ever seemed to pass by it!) Through Achfary and on to the pre-Kylesku HAB. Up here I met a couple of ladies out with kids and, as I was starved of any conversation, I stopped to talk with them a bit, turns out they were from Inverness and knew of the race. I remembered arriving ravaged with hunger at the summit of this climb last year and then freezing on the descent, that was in shade of the fading sun; this year I didn’t suffer the same troubles and I was soon passing by the turn for the Kylesku hotel. It was around 17:45 and I remembered that Drumbeg stores stayed open until 19:00 for the Highland Trail so I thought I would push on to there, notwithstanding 9 miles of razor sharp climbs and descents to get there along the otherwise jolly coastal road.
I made good time and was at the shop by 18:50 – still a good 3 hours up on last year and more considering that this is where I stopped at the end of Day 2. The shop wasn’t open, but I’d met the owner and had a good talk with him on my reccie in March 2016. I knew he was a good sort and that he understood and supported the race. Sure enough, a knock on the door and a quick word with his wife and he was opening the shop and providing me with all that I needed. I was there for a good 20 minutes chatting with him and in this time, I learnt that Neil and Chris had only just passed an hour ahead of me. So, this three-hour gap at Oykel Bridge had shrunk to just one hour? I thought I was suffering a bit over Bealach Horn and with the headwinds, but they must have really felt it and their slow pace could only be testament to how depleted their supplies were. While I was encouraged to draw that close without having to expend any excess energy myself, I nonetheless felt that they would likely pick up the pace once they had replenished their supplies. Plus, if it was visible to me on the shopkeeper’s laptop that I had closed to one hour behind them, it’s fair to assume that it was visible to them too. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to note that a challenging, lonely day for me had brought me closer to two athletes of their calibre. Perhaps, my threat was a little too significant as it seems that soon after Drumbeg the leading pair split, with Neil surging on and Chris pushing as far as the Schoolhouse bothy before seeking a few hours of rest with a roof over his head.
I left the shop feeling content: I’d had something to eat, had a chat with someone interesting and I was feeling positive that I was heading down the road from Drumbeg at 19:15 on Day 2, whereas last year I was moving down here at 08:00 on Day 3.
But this is the weird timewarp zone, where hours bend, warp, expand and contract like a psychedelic illusion. Once you start gaining time, the hours stretch out over the abyss formed between the day you have yet to complete this year and the day you already completed last year. It takes a cynical head to rationalise this time shift and to avoid falling into calculations that involve subtracting 12 hours from last year’s finishing time. In fact, time ‘rights itself’ once you begin moving through terrain than you also moved through on the same day last year. It’s only the in the morning that your time advantage is true; once you pass a certain point in the late afternoon or early evening and effectively surpass yourself of the previous year, the chronometric distortions come into play again. Try thinking about this when your blood sugar is low and you have been riding for 15 hours already …
After Drumbeg the rises in the road become gentler and it is a pleasant road to cycle along. At the hour I passed the Achmelvich Youth Hostel, time and temperature were both still civilised, so I made my way on to the final section of track before Lochinver aiming to be starting on the track to Glencanisp at 21:00 in good light. I already knew that I would be lucky to find anything open in the village at this hour and I was prepared to not stop and to finally re-stock in Ullapool, sometime the next morning. The stream water I had been drinking in moderate quantities over the last couple of days didn’t upset my stomach, but it certainly stimulated my digestive system and I found that once this effect surpassed a certain point, I would have a few minutes warning and then be constrained to cede to physiological requirements. This was to happen a few times over the coming days and the moorland approach to Lochinver was to be the first of these impromtu pauses in my progress.
I hadn’t quite remembered the track through Glencanisp so well, because I seemed to recall the first half to a point past Suileag bothy as being fast riding, in fact it was a bit interrupted, even including some smaller HAB sections. I was keen to get as far along as I could before the light started fading around 23:00 and I reached the track above the flanks of Lochan Fada. From the east end of this lochan, there are only something like 6 kilometres to the exit onto the road, just below Ledmore Junction, but it’s difficult to ride for any prolonged stretch and is even more difficult to navigate: it’s the only remaining section of the whole route that I still have to navigate with the gps screen switched on most of the time. I sensed that my excessive walking through the back end of Glencanisp was causing me to lose time, both to those ahead and behind me, or perhaps everyone just finds it slow, difficult going through here?
Once you finally reach the track on the north-east side of Cam Loch, progress becomes slightly better, but by this point it was after midnight and dark. Stumbling around trying to ride tracks that didn’t want to be ridden, I slipped off the seat and gave myself a bash in the groin, which was an unpleasant wake-up call, but at the same time, not as painful as it could have been in the worst case. By the head of the loch, I could ride, but my brake pads were squealing wildly so I can only imagine the effect this must have had upon the occupants of the small tent that I passed close by to. As has been the case before, I slightly mistook the final 300m exit track from the loch to the A835 and found myself wading, with the bike aloft, through deep, difficult bracken-covered hillside. It seemed like an eternity at this point of battered reserves, but after a few minutes I found the correct path that I had only really been a matter of metres away from anyway.
Once through the gate, I ate some food, had a drink, oiled the chain, turned my front and rear lights on and got pedalling towards Ledmore Junction. I had planned where I wanted to arrive at for the first two days and from then on, my strategy was to let the race decide where I would end up and when I would sleep at the end of the remaining days. For Day 1, I had achieved my objective of the barn bivvy at 250km and for Day 2 my best-case scenario was reaching the Schoolhouse bothy, past the Oykel Bridge Hotel and nicely into the leg to Ullapool. Looking back retrospectively at my 2016 ride, I was annoyed that I had stopped at locations which were in fact followed almost immediately afterwards by some relatively easy riding that could have taken my further down the trail: after the Hydro, (where I stopped at the end of Day 1, 2016), there was a decent stretch of downhill on good track past the dam and after Drumbeg, (Day 2, 2016) the severity of the road eased considerably and, again, good progress for moderate effort was to be had.
I was determined that this wouldn’t happen this year and I had already achieved this by sailing straight past the Hydro bothy the day before. I knew that however rough I felt coming through Glencanisp, I would be able to respond and pedal the 26km to the Schoolhouse bothy. Around 18km of this was on road with no excessive climbs and quite a long descent near the end. Once passed the Oykel Bridge Hotel, the forest track did rise for a couple of kilometres, but the gradient was not excessive. In any case, in my mind, this extra distance – which would equate to another 90 minutes riding – was worth it to get to the sanctuary of the Schoolhouse. From here I could rest up, be on the road at 06:00 and hit Ullapool at 08:00 in time for the butchers and Tesco, which I had already checked were opening at that hour. Plenty of carrot at the end of the stick!
What really happened though, once I started riding at around half-past midnight was that the temperature really dropped very quickly, possibly due to the road being very close to the chill air coming off Loch Borralan. My feet were already wet, cold and muddy from a couple of hours of tramping through lower Glencanisp and my upper body, head and hands were rapidly losing heat in the unexpectedly cold air. I reasoned quickly: I could stop and put on jacket, fleece hat and claw gloves to keep the upper part of my body warm, but I had nothing to invigorate feet that were already cold. I had a plan B anyway and it was fast approaching. During my 2016 reccie, when I rode by the Altnacealgach Inn – more of a motel than an inn – late in the afternoon, I noticed that the first building on the left as you approach was a woodstore and the tall sliding door was open. I was calculating that if they didn’t have any fear of wood going missing a year and a half ago, they hopefully wouldn’t have any fears now. Getting inside this woodstore would be a quickfire solution to getting warmed up and, I also reasoned that the time to get my warm clothing out and get dressed would be about the same as getting my mattress and sleeping bag out.
For 99% percent of this race, my superior knowledge of the route: distances, bivvy spots, bothies, food supplies, opening times, drinkable water etc. etc. was a distinct tactical advantage; here at the Altnacealgach Inn, too much knowledge may have been a dangerous thing. If I couldn’t have stopped in the woodstore, I would have been forced to put more layers on and push on to the Schoolhouse as there is no way I would have bivvied anywhere along the side of the road when I was already cold and weary. In any case, looking back I remember getting cold very quickly after Ledmore Junction and at this point I was in my twentieth hour and so my resistance was not as high as it could have been. I opted for the woodstore and, on pulling over in front of it, found that, although the door was shut, it was not locked. It required a little effort to slide it open about half a metre so that I could get myself and my bike in, but it wasn’t too stiff to slide and it didn’t make any noise when I moved it. I shut the door, fumbled and messed around with my mattress, sleeping bag and bivvy and tried to arrange the rest of my kit ready for getting up at 05:30 in the morning. I finally got to sleep in amongst the lawnmowers, paint tins and general rammel just after 01:00 after a 20-hour day consisting exclusively of solitary riding and pushing.
Monday: The Altnacealgach Inn to Easan Dorcha (The Teahouse); 137km.
I was up on the sound of the alarm and ate a few bits of flapjack and cashew nuts and got myself packed up and out of the sliding door by just after 06:00. I knew that by the time I’d be passing the Oykel Bridge Hotel, they would be open and I could probably get a decent warm breakfast; I also knew that the butcher in Ullapool would be open at 08:00 and the scotch pies would be warm from any time after 08:30 …. so I rode straight past, spotting a fatbike perched up outside the hotel. As I headed out on the track through the forest, I saw Johnny Baker coming the other way. We stopped and had a quick chat and then I headed off the Schoolhouse.
I stopped there and stripped off some of my cold weather kit and sorted out a bit more food and drink to last me for the couple of hours to Ullapool. A German guy came through from the other room with his dog and talked about how he was planning to make me a cup of coffee. I was a bit confused because he seemed to be talking as if he knew me. Only later I realised that he was confusing this shorter, frenzied biker with a bald head with the slightly taller and faster version – Chris Hope – who had stayed here a few hours previously. After bidding my would-be host goodbye, I set off, through Strathmulzie until the fork on the right and the climb that brings the solitary Highland Trailer ever closer to bright lights, big city of Ullapool.
The forced decision not to push on to the Schoolhouse is the only tactical regret that I harbour from the 2017 race: I’m not saying that arriving there at the end of Day 2 would have changed the result in any way, but I would have been pleased to have succeeded in following my pre-race plan for the first two days to the letter. If I had arrived at the Schoolhouse, I would – in theory – have closed the gap to Chris, however this would have been a very temporary closing because he would have probably been on his way again just an hour or two after what would have been my 02:30 arrival.
There was also the other question of how much I would have paid for such a long day (around 22 hours) before the third day that was to take me through Fisherfield and all its delights. On the other hand, I am convinced that, had it been just a little more temperate as I started on the road from Ledmore Junction, I would indeed have arrived at the Schoolhouse, because I always prefer to push on for another couple of hours to a decent shelter, than to just stop and make a rough, makeshift bivvy with little or no additional cover. All this was not to be though and, I repeat, the premature stop at the remote motel is my only significant regret from the whole race.
I dropped down into Ullapool at around 09:45, went straight to the butchers and ordered two warm scotch pies to eat immediately and two cold ones to take with me. The butcher seemed genuinely surprised when I explained the importance of a balanced scotch pie diet to extreme endurance athletes. I moved on up to the waterfront and ate the pies while drinking Irn Bru and simultaneously checking TrackLeaders for the first time. I saw that Fitz was now on the scene and had seemingly passed straight through Ullapool and was currently 5 miles ahead of me up the road. I felt reasonably sure about being able to close him down in Fisherfield as I was looking for a ten-hour Ullapool to Kinlochewe stretch, once I finally got going. I called Laura up and had a quick chat with her, between mouthfuls of hot scotch pie, then I turned my bike around and headed to the Tesco to stock up on some flapjack for the road ahead and some shortbread biscuits and yogurt drink for the present. I think I was in Ullapool for half an hour, but I had a full belly and had replenished my supplies with foods that really worked for me: scotch pies and flapjack, plus both bottles filled with sugary Lucozade isotonic drink.
It was reassuring to think that, all being well, I would easily clear Fisherfield in daylight; a more tranquilising prospect than last year when Stuart and I only got as far as Letterewe before bivvying down for the night. I completed the road section safely and took the minor turning to the start of the Coffin Road, which starts with its infamous and insanely steep incline up the side of a muddy field. Over the top I went, passing not just one pair of walkers, but two, asking each time how far ahead the bloke in the orange top was. As one pair said five minutes and the other pair said ten minutes, I extrapolated, re-calculated, squared my answer, divided it, and then rounded it to one decimal place to arrive at a probable deficit on Fitz of approximately 7.5 minutes (+/- 10% accuracy.)
The descent down to the short stretch of road before the Corrie Hallie entrance to Fisherfield was still fresh in my mind from my reccie and I think I made a relatively decent job of it. Briefly onto the road and then on and upwards into Fisherfield, trying to ride as much of the initial slopes of the climb as I could, yet not wanting to blow my legs up, so hopping off and pushing when the gradient rose a little too severely. Of course, after the stream crossing half way up, it all gets a little too severe, but it’s not the worse climb to push up and the descent down the other side, to the head of the glen that will eventually lead to the much-heralded Strath na Sealga river crossing, is a fast one and is certainly less menacing that others to be broached in the non-too distant future.
A couple had managed to a get a 4×4 all the way down to the locked building at Achneigie and were busy unloading their supplies for a secluded stay as I rode by. I rode on past Shenavall and then continued to the river crossing along the final rough kilometre of track. On the other two occasions that I had been into Fisherfield, I had been consumed by angst about the depth of the river crossing and how difficult it may end up being; this time I was not only consoled by the very low water levels I had seen so far along the route, particularly Loch Ericht, but I was also distracted by the relentless pace of the event into taking the crossing for granted. Indeed, the level was the same as my April reccie, but a little warmer: over the knees at the initial point of entry, then quickly dropping to lower shin level for the remainder. Looking across the wide-open mouth of the glen, I could see Fitz just disappearing behind a hillock that led to Larachantivore.
Before long, I had perched my bike on the fence by the little copse outside the locked building and was eating my third scotch pie of the day, fortifying myself for the truly remote stretches that this magnificent and intimidating wilderness had yet to throw at me. Just a hundred metres or so ahead, I could see Fitz. He seemed to alternate between being stopped and walking, but I didn’t see him riding much. Soon after leaving Larachantivore, I caught Ian. He looked a little flustered and seemed red in the face; he was wearing a lot more than me: waterproof trousers and a jacket, which struck me as a bit odd as the temperature was mild and there was no moisture in the air. He said that he had bivvied down for just 45 minutes in a ditch by the side of the road, very close to the motel where I too had stopped the night before. We didn’t say too much to each other; I think we were both in solitary mode and had become conditioned to being alone by the previous two days. I drew ahead as he took some kit off and over the long HAB haul up Gleann na Muice Beag, I put definite distance into him. On the false flat over the summit I seemed to have a clear gap behind me, but then I saw him drawing close again as approached the lochan that marks the start of the arduous descent to Carnmore and its distant causeway.
I went quite fast down the first half of the descent, but didn’t hesitate to take things more cautiously on the steeper lower slopes and automatically dismounted in a couple of places. When I reached the foot of the descent, within view of the lonely building, the rain started – exactly as it did when I arrived at this point in April! As I put arm and knee warmers and waterproof shorts and jacket on, Fitz came past me and opened up quite a sizeable gap himself on the trail to Letterewe. I passed through Letterewe at exactly 6pm, mindful that Stuart and I had left from here at exactly 6am the year before. Fitz and I came together soon after and rode together for the majority of the Postman’s Path, until he scurried off within sight of Kinlochewe.
I didn’t ride all the way through Fisherfield and Letterewe with Ian Fitz, but I went through a sizeable chunk of it with him. Last year, Stuart and I regrouped in Ullapool and rode through most of it together. There’s something about this sport that I think creates real closeness between participants due to the random way that out racing trajectories sometimes collide. I personally think that it’s a really significant thing to ride a bike through Fisherfield in the company of someone else and I’m lucky to have done it with Stuart and, now, Fitz. Bonds are created. You will always respect that person. Imagine meeting them again later, perhaps in a more benign mountain bike environment, and just momentarily reflecting back on that great, vast, epic landscape that you have both passed through together one day, back in May.
I feel a very similar thing about bivvies, when there’s just one other person with you in whichever desolate or imaginative spot you finally choose to sleep for a few hours. The first time I bivvied was on the wet platform of Horton-in-Ribblesdale railway station, in the drizzly rain, during the 2015 Yorkshire Dales 300, when Stuart and I were both rookies, looking a long way into the distance at this mythical beast that we had heard of in the Highlands. Apparently, there’s a kind of bivvy etiquette in long-distance bikepacking races, where it’s acceptable to get up quietly while the other person sleeps and scurry off to your own advantage, but I’ve never really gone for that. Back in the Yorkshire Dales, Stuart was fast asleep when my alarm went off, but I still got him up and we set off together. He had a strong second day and beat me soundly, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have fared any better by sneaking off at three o’clock in the morning. I’ve bivvied more times with Stuart than anyone else, sometimes in races or other times just exploring the Cairngorms in summer or the Lake District in the snow.
When Rich stopped at “my” barn near Contin, I felt that we too became wordlessly bonded by the strange ritual of both lying on the same leaf-strewn floor, in bivvy bags, with midge nets on our heads. Apart from the fact that the principal characters are always in a significant state of tiredness, it is compelling to notice how there is a minimum of fuss in just trying to settle down and make yourself as comfortable as you can, even though you may be wet and cold and the surrounding air is thick with midgies.
It’s only looking back and reflecting that I realise how strange, yet how strong these bonds are that form in extreme events like the Highland Trail. Sure, the other riders are rivals, but above that they are people that I like and respect and – insomuch as you can within the rules of self-supported racing – I care for them as well.
I’m not really one for groups or being part of teams, but I feel close to these people, even if – by normal conventions – I don’t actually know most of them very well beyond saying, “Hi, how are you doing?” and chatting a bit about kit. That’s why I was really pleased to be able to get along to both the Mike Ride on the Friday evening AND then the RFC meet up: I really didn’t feel like my normal square peg in a round hole much that night.
When I caught up to Fitz again, we were both able to share our strange experience of meeting a lone, ill-prepared cyclist on the plateau, just before the descent into Letterewe. On the open, grassy plateau (Strathan Buidhe), the rain was falling quite heavily and I could see Fitz about three hundred metres ahead appear to temporarily stop and talk to another person, who was heading in my direction. As I in turn approached this character, I saw that he was a young male in his twenties, pushing what looked like a new, blue mountain bike that was too big for him. He had no helmet, but carried a small rucksack and wore a waterproof jacket, yet the hood wasn’t up so the rain ran down his head and plastered his hair to his skull. The bike he was pushing had the tyre off the rim on the drive side to expose a deflated inner tube flapping around inside the carcass.
He asked me if I had a spare tyre lever, I answered in the negative and told him that I was in a race. “I’ve snapped mine”, he replied. I was more struck by the singular form of tyre lever, rather than his overall predicament: he seemed to suggest he only had one, whereas they are usually sold in threes. I found the situation quite unsettling; I didn’t understand why he was moving further away from any trace of civilisation in difficult weather conditions with an unrideable bike. The best thing for him to do, given his unfortunate circumstances, would have been to turn around in the direction he had come from and retrace the three, mainly downhill, kilometres to Letterewe, where he had some hope of making an emergency telephone call from.
As I rode through the grounds of Letterewe, I noticed that they was a group of tents in the last cultivated field before the wilds of the Postman’s Path begin. I wondered if the forlorn cyclist was a member of this group as, apart from Fitz and myself, they were the only other people in the very remote corner of the Highlands. Soon after starting the Postman’s Path, I caught back up to Fitz and we exchanged notes on the bizarre plight that we had both recently encountered.
We continued, under quite heavy rain along this difficult stretch of terrain that can take up to two and a half hours before the road stretch leading into Kinlochewe finally emerges. Through Fisherfield, we’d parried and jumped ahead of each other in turn, but here in Letterewe, under the rain, with the muddy, damp ground below our feet we seemed to find some mutual solace in company. We didn’t talk that much, but it was good to be able to tick off the individual component stretches that make up this difficult section by the shores of Loch Maree. The whole stretch is 15 kilometres long, but it does ease slightly in the final 4 kilometres as the Postman’s Path joins the approach path to Slioch at the wide wooden footbridge. Fitz had faith in information that suggested to him that Neil, and Chris in particular, were still within reachable distance ahead; I had seen nothing myself on TrackLeaders back in Ullapool that reassured me of this fact. In any case, I was not about to put in any kind of surge late on Day 3. If there was one thing that I was determined to do after last year’s race, it was to arrive on the decisive last day with reasonable – I hesitate to write “good” – legs and in healthy shape. Just before Fitz departed within sight of the small village, I started thinking out aloud that I had a “dream scenario” that involved stopping at the Teahouse bothy and not even pushing on, over the Torridon plateau, to Achnashellach, where I knew a couple of decent bivvy sites. Fitz seemed to be taking this on, without saying much, but I think this was just what he wanted to hear as I got the distinct feeling he was planning another minimal sleep night raid. Shortly after this rather one-sided discussion, Fitz started pulling away from me. I didn’t raise my pace at all because I already knew I was going to stop at the public toilets in Kinlochewe to sort myself out: avail of an actual toilet seat, clean and refill bottles and eat that last scotch pie once I got moving. Therefore, I wasn’t pushing too hard, so imagine my annoyance to catch the left side of my handlebars on the same clump of overhanging soil that I’d caught them on back in April as I exited a curve on the track. The impact on the far end of the bar stopped the bike dead and chucked the bars around viciously, forcing me to an immediate stop. Fortunately, I got me feet down quickly and didn’t stumble off the path, but it was exasperating to come to grief pulling the same manoeuvre in exactly the same place.
I rolled in to Kinlochewe a couple of minutes over my 10-hour schedule from Ullapool, so was pleased with that. (Subsequently, I checked Neil’s time for this same segment and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had covered it three hours quicker than his thirteen.) At the time, I knew in my own mind this was a decent split, especially on Day 3 with a not-inconsiderable chunk of cumulative fatigue starting to do its business within my ageing body.
The loos were a midge haven, but I had things to do and sort out, so I was there for about 15 minutes getting my act together. I later heard that Javi and one of the Czech guys sleep in there that night. I didn’t plan to get food in Kinlochewe. By now it was getting on towards 21:00 – the cafe had long since closed and I’d never heard particularly good things about the pub, besides, I was still carting around a full gas bottle, 2 x Extreme main meals, 1 x breakfast and a decent assortment of salami sticks.
What started off as a reverie when I was talking to Fitz on the last part of the Postman’s Path, now suddenly started taking on the flesh of reality: why NOT stop and sleep in the Teahouse? 1) there’s unlikely to be anyone else there, 2) it’s a lovely place that I have fond memories of staying at in the past, 3) I’ve got a nice dinner and a nice breakfast that I can cook there, 4) I’ll get a better sleep there than in a bivvy at Achnashellach, 5) by the time I come to tackle the tricky bit of the Torridon descent tonight the light will have almost gone and 6), if I make a deal with myself to stop there, I’ll get up invigorated and push on at 04:00 the following morning. Carrot and stick. I moved on through Kinlochewe, past the side of Loch Clair and then on the climb up the east flank of Loch Coulin, pondering to myself if anyone else in this event knew that the track on the WEST side of the same loch is pan-flat. You have to admire Alan’s sense of humour at times.
Past the lonely house at Coulin, the track proceeds towards the Coulin pass, but the track then turns right by the bridge and climbs up towards the river that the bothy gets its other name from: Easan Dorcha. As with the lovely glen past Loch Pattack on the first day, here is another of my treasured Highland locations that has become wrecked by hydro work. There is a large-scale project ongoing here, with a building site back down at the bridge and, just a few hundred metres before the bothy, a large building being build and new deviation to the existing little track that veers off northwards up the flanks of the glen. I know this place well and I almost took the steep new track myself, but quickly corrected and in a few minutes I was wading in the burn outside the Teahouse, filling up with water to last my meal and breakfast cooking requirements. I felt quite crazy to be stopping at 21:45, when there was still about an hour of decent natural light left. In fact, I felt like I was committing a grave bikepacking sin by daring to stop riding when the natural light was still adequate. I was “counter-influenced” by Fitz: I sensed he was chasing after the leading two, but I thought that now, more than ever, it was important to remain lucid and stick to what I thought was the right thing to do. Last year I got beaten by a guy who had the balls, (or the overwhelming sense of tiredness!), to stop for five hours sleep on the last night. I would stop here at 22:00, cook a decent meal, get to sleep by 22:30, be up at 03:30, have warm porridge and coffee and be riding by 04:00.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: five hours sleep.
As I fell to sleep, I asked myself if I could still win this race? My overwhelming priority – to avoid the final day collapse that I suffered last year – was to get myself to Day 4 in the best possible shape and, with this tranquil bothy interlude, I felt I was achieving just that. I acknowledge though, that it is one thing to get myself to the final day (relatively!) fighting fit, but it is another to assume that I will have anyone to fight with! I mean this in the sense that, with the time and distance gaps the way that they currently were to the front runners, they would have to have a catastrophic collapse to bring them back in reach so that I can fight with them. For sure, I’m not continuing this race wishing this upon them, rather I am recognising that competitors of the calibre of the three that are ahead of me don’t simply fold in races: they manage the situation, master it and move on.
That is not to say that I will not be involved in any fights at all over the next day: I anticipate that I will need all my strength and guile just to resist from an anticipated push that will surely come from behind me. These are exciting thoughts and challenging times.
Tuesday/Wednesday: Easan Dorcha to Tyndrum; 245km.
The door opened.
“Who’s that?”, I slurred.
“Huw? Huw who?”
“Oh. OK. Hi Huw”.
Huw Oliver came in. It was about 01:00. He left his bike outside and seemed to settle down quite quickly on the limited floorspace next to me. I seem to remember him saying something about not having a sleeping mat and the wooden floor being a little hard. I murmured that I was getting up at 03:30 and went back to sleep with remarkable ease.
The alarm went off at the designated time and I was quickly up getting the stove lit and the sleeping kit packed away. Huw was stirring a little so I gave him the foam mattress that was already there in the bothy. I had quick visit outside with the bothy spade, hoping to avoid similar eventualities during the long day ahead, then returned to the bothy to eat my porridge and drink my milky coffee. I was never, ever going to moving by 04:00, which I knew very well anyway, but 45 minutes from bed to breakfast to bike is exceptionally fast for me and I was not displeased to be heading out towards the little footbridge, past the bothy, that led to the Torridian slabs at a quarter past four in the morning. I seemed to take a little bit of time to get moving, but I was generally feeling good. I had no regrets about tackling this section in what was rapidly becoming the full light of morning, rather than what would have been the fading light of the evening before. Full light or fading light, I still took the utmost caution down the Achnashellach descent, dismounting without hesitation, yet still riding a decent portion of it. There’s no point risking here as this is the third-ultimate technical descent, with only the drop into Kinlochleven and the descent of the Devil’s Staircase left to catch out the sleep-deprived bikepacker.
Little did I know that Rich Rothwell had stopped in the new hydro construction, just a couple of hundred metres back down the trail from our temporary refuge, and was following me across Torridon. I’m not quite sure why he didn’t catch and pass me because with his greater technical ability he would have roasted me on the descent to Achnashellach, even though I knew it well from having been over it half a dozen times previously. For whatever reason, he stayed behind me and then made the same mistake that I did the very first time I rode it this way: on completing the main descent and entering the woods, I missed the left turn through the gate that leads to the forest track and the railway station and instead went straight on following a dead-end path into wet rhododendron bushes. I suspect that this lost him more swear words than actual minutes!
Once I hit the road, I realised that – finally- the wind seemed to be favourable and I could power along quite nicely, noticing that I still had enough flexibility left in my upper body to get down on the aero bars. Through Strathcarron, up the Attadale road ramp and then, off-road, up the track that leads into the heart of Attadale Forest. I remembered pushing up the latter half of this climb last year, so was pleased to ride all the way up without excessive effort this time. I kept checking and double-checking and as far as I could make out there were three sets of tyres ahead of me, that I interpreted as being Neil, Chris and Fitz. At this point I had no confirmation, but I was sure I was ahead of Rich, though I had no idea of how far ahead.
The turn off the Attadale climb leads to the perpetually muddy descent to Glen Ling and from there, once the footbridge is crossed, along perhaps the most excruciating couple of kilometres of the whole route. The mixed stretch of slippery rock, short sections of pushing and tricky, semi-rideable sections perhaps isn’t that terrible, but it’s always touched a raw nerve with me since the very first time I reccied it; I just don’t like it. Once past Nonach Lodge though the going is good on a decent road taking the north side of Loch Long. Coming towards the end of the road by the loch, you can look across the water and see scattered little settlements and holiday homes and, perhaps for the first time, you have a small sensation that the true isolation and wilderness is now at your shoulder and you have turned a corner into slightly more accommodating terrain, where the chance of a bite to eat and something to drink doesn’t seem to be quite so far away as the very ends of the earth.
It was about 07:30 as I spotted Eilan Donan castle and I smirked to myself that from here onwards, in 2016, I started making a series of mistakes that compromised any slim chances of victory that I may have had. The first mistake was calling in on the place on the right, ironically called “All the Goodness” – in fact it’s just coffee and expensive sweet tat for camera-wielding tourists; the more considered option is to ride a kilometre further and come slightly off route and go into the village of Dornie. Here, as well as two pubs serving hot food, there is a decent village shop, which I was just about to discover for the first time once I had asked its location from a young lad setting out to school.
I’d missed my traditional micro-waved burger at the Contin stores, so I was elated to see that there was just one left in the fridge. The lady kindly heated it up for me and let me eat it, and the yogurt and biscuits that I had bought, inside the shop as it was still raining outside. I checked TrackLeaders and could see that Rich had indeed slept in the hydro building, so close to the Teahouse, however, his track was now looking indistinct and it was difficult to tell if he was even moving, although I assumed he was. Huw was on the move and Fitz, looked like he was a good 15miles ahead, which I accepted as a fair price for the relatively comfortable night I had just had. Dornie marks exactly 200km to go and it’s quite a tough slow 200 km with Glen Affric, the Pylon Climb and then a decent chunk of the West Highland Way back to Tyndrum. Additionally, there were to be further obstacles that would manifest themselves this year, other than those than readily show themselves on a map!
I set off again, happy to have had two decent breakfasts already before 08:00. I generally feel that Glen Affric plays to my strengths and deep down I hoped that the prolonged HAB climb up from the Glenlicht Hut would be a psychological obstacle for some of my nearest rivals, many of whom would be discovering it for the first time, whereas for me it took me back to a carefree, innocent time of simple exploration long before I heard of the Highland Trail. I had been pushing bikes up here and riding gingerly down it for some years and I felt my familiarity with the climb made it slightly less challenging; certainly, it was a place where I felt I could capitalise on. In fact, as I was about 10 minutes into the climb, just about to disappear around a corner out of view of the lower glen forever, I spotted a rider at the hut. I convinced myself that this was Rich, but it seems he may have passed me at Dornie while I was in the shop, so in retrospect I discovered it was Huw. He must have got up quickly and got moving when I left the bothy, because the last he said to me was that he was going to sleep a bit longer. Having someone behind me on this HAB climb was a good motivation to push on, plus there were a pair of walkers quite a long way ahead who I seemed to be closing in on: it’s always encouraging to be able to move faster up a long steep hill, pushing a laden bike, than people who are just walking up with a daysack on their backs!
On the final stretch of the HAB, I suffered what is an almost unavoidable event when pushing a bike for great distances each day over rocky, difficult terrain: the pedal dug deep into my left calf muscle, causing me to gasp aloud. The pain was instantaneous, localised and very acute. I’m sure that it was accentuated by the fact that my muscles were very tender and by now, on the fourth day, carrying very little protective fat around them. I’ve always believed that with this kind of muscular pain it is best to try to keep moving as the blood flowing will take the pain away more quickly than just keeping still. I tried to walk a few steps but was limping quite heavily, but I had nearly crested a brow, so I got on the bike and freewheeled down the other side. When it came to peddling again, the calf felt slightly less painful, but when I got off to push, I was still limping. I had to overcome this: it was bad, but not that bad. At the Teahouse, I was really pleased to reflect that after three long days, I hadn’t had to take any Ibuprofen so far, but here in the confines of Glen Affric, I knocked back a 400mg pill. I had specifically taken advice from a doctor friend before the event, because I had managed to find 400mg pills, rather than the more common 200mg variety. She advised that I could take three in a 24hr period, with four hour gaps in-between, never on an empty stomach and never in a dehydrated state. My belly was still quite full and I knocked back my second water bottle, being sure that I could refill in just a few kilometres at the upcoming Youth Hostel.
I closed in on the walkers, passed them and then reached the first of the rideable dips in the landscape that punctuate the three kilometres from the top of the climb to Camban bothy. I kept looking back but there was no sign of my cycling pursuer and soon the walkers were out of sight too. I stopped at Camban and went inside, for no particular reason, just old times sake, although I did oil my chain before moving off.
From the moment you pass the bothy, the track becomes rideable and it is predominantly downhill to Alltbeithe Youth Hostel. I shouted to a group of walkers who were making their way up the track, seemingly not so aware of the speed that I was approaching them and then thanked them as I passed for keeping to one side of the double track.
The Youth Hostel is a lovely place, unlike any other hostel in that it is generally open through the day and passers-by can buy drinks and some snacks. I remembered this fact well from passing by with Stuart last year, when it was exactly 18:00 when we arrived; now it something like seven hours earlier. I went into the porch and shouted, “Hello” and, sure enough, the same lady who was there last year came through. I think she has got used to my garbled instructions for multiple bottles of soft drinks, because she was gone and back again bearing a fine assortment of fizzy pop in no time at all. It was nice to talk to her while I was filling my bottles and it was touching that she remembered me from last year, even though, like this time, I was only stopped for a couple of minutes. She was very sweet and handed me a cereal bar, saying, “In case you have a sugar dip later on.” I smiled with sincere gratitude and didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d been experiencing a “sugar dip” ever since the middle of Saturday morning! Just like the Drumbeg store, this is a place that I yearn to come back to in less frantic times.
I made good progress through the glen to the private climber’s hut at the head of Loch Affric that is known as “The Strawberry Cottage”, (for no obvious reason that I know of). A little after I crossed the bridge, my stream-water fuelled digestive system gave me another of its two minute warnings and I had little choice but to oblige it. By this time I thought that, notwithstanding my brisk pace up the HAB climb, my pursuer from the Glenlicht hut would be closing in on me, but as I rearranged my garments and began peddling again, I could still see no sign of any approaching cyclist. I continued briskly down the good track on the south side of Loch Affric and then by the south side of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin, beginning the short climb that marked the rather unhappy point where mine and Stuart’s paths separated last year.
I turned around 180º on myself at the far end of Tomich village and immediately realised that I had made a minor error: I’d assumed that there was no wind in Glen Affric and I was just making good progress, but in fact it was now obvious that I had been aided by a reasonable tailwind as I was now riding directly into a headwind with the best part of 500 metres of climbing up the Pylon Climb straight in front of me. The initial slopes seemed like a slow grind, but once I clearer the lower wooded slopes and was up out on to the main climb proper, with all its exposed expanses, I seemed to be moving a little better. In fact, the wind was more front-right side, rather than full-on frontal and I moved steadily upwards. At this point it dawned on me, rather forcibly, that my lowest gear of 32 x 40 wasn’t low enough as I was close to my limit on this relentless climb, with an unfavourable wind and four cumulative days in my legs.
Once again, familiarity with the surroundings helped me out and I refused to be duped by the succession of false summits that punctuate this climb, allowing myself to relax only when I’d cleared the true, final one. The descent down to Torgyle Bridge is incredibly fast on a long, winding gravel track and before long I had crossed the road and was heading up the last climb before Fort Augustus on the Old Military Road. On this climb, the toil from the previous ascent made itself felt and I was forced to stop on more than one occasion to wolf down a couple of salami sticks. It’s not the worst place in the world to suffer though because the gradient is not too steep and all the delights offered by the cafes and shops of the canal town are not so far away. I summited and shot down the descent through Jenkins Park, rather annoyed that it was wet and muddy from recent rain and then, there I was in Fort Augustus. Having skipped it on the first passing, this time I opted for the pizza restaurant and was immediately gratified to see that the charming proprietor was living up to his reputation by arguing with a family and then kicking them out of the place!
It was 15:40 when I arrived and I set about ordering soup, sandwiches, tea, millionaires slice and Irn Bru for my bottles. The service was much quicker than the last time I was there on the Saturday evening of 2016’s race, and I was soon leaving the multitudes crowding the lock gates and setting off to plough my lonely furrow once again, this time direction Fort William, via The Great Glen, time around 16:00.
The joy of being seven hours up on my 23:00 departure from the same point last year was tempered, not a little, by the immediate realisation that I was riding straight into a block headwind. Worse, seeing that the Caledonian Canal that I was following was virtually a straight-line heading south-west to Fort William, this pernicious wind would be a constant factor for the next 50 kilometres. I really wasn’t too happy with this situation, but I tried to buoy myself up thinking of sections I knew along the way where, at least if the direction was always the same, the amount of vegetation and possible shelter offered by trees might intervene.
Just after the road crossing at North Laggan, the route passes parallel to the old Laggan Youth Hostel, and even if the hostel can’t be seen from the route, I know very well that its proximity announces the 100 kilometre to go point. As the time was around 17:00, this signified a slow nine hour 100km stretch since leaving Dornie at 08:00, although in all fairness to myself, it was difficult to see where I really could have picked up much more time. Adding the nine hours to the four from the far side of Torridon and I was already on about 13 hours moving time, which with another hour and a half to Fort Bill, plus a generous eight hours from there in to Tyndrum was amounting to … erm, too much to even think about! By now though, as if I didn’t already know at four o’clock this morning, the reality that I would be riding all the way through started to rest upon me, rather like a numb, unforgiving headache.
The switch to the west side of the glen at Laggan Locks, marks the start of a slightly more undulating trail towards the short road section at Clunes. The section sticks more closely to the hillside and does, in parts, benefit from some shelter in the trees. I was looking for a small psychological respite from the headwind; I’m not sure if I found it along this pleasant expanse of lochside cycling, or whether I just simply became more resigned to the grind. The overwhelming positive was that, despite the headwind, I was feeling infinitely better than this time last year, when I was riding along here after midnight, in the dark and all manner of demonic pains were springing up from different parts of my body to try to sabotage my progress.
After the little loopy bit through the woods just before Gairlochy, I then crossed back over to the other side of the canal and, according to conflicting signposts, I either had 6 or 8 miles to go to Neptune’s Staircase in Corpach, on the outskirts of Fort William. Along the pleasant, but repetitive landscape of the canal, the path and the greenery, I advanced slowly, as the headwind seemed to pick up renewed force here; or perhaps I was simply losing my force! Despite the moderate pace, I turned around a bend and saw the start of Neptune’s Staircase in front of me, leading me to think that the 6 mile signpost had been the more accurate one. The route into and around Fort William was not only made simpler by the diversion caused by the closure of the Soldier’s Bridge, but it was also more beneficial too, taking me past three different petrol stations.
At the third one, I pulled in. It was around 19:30. I now knew that what I bought here would have to last me until the end: the pub and the chip shop would still be open in Kinlochleven when I passed through in about three hours time hence, but there would be no more take-away supplies that I would be able to buy. I must have had enough savoury food with me as that is what I generally prefer to eat, because at the petrol station I bought two slices of rocky road cake and some strawberry milkshake to drink. Two flapjacks for the road and Irn Bru (again!) for the bottles to ensure I had everything to see me through. The temperature was already falling a little, so I knew that I would have enough liquid to get me through the next eight or so hours.
After the exquisite dining experience of munching food and slurping drink while stood next to my bike on the garage forecourt, I clipped in and set off. The route skirts through the approach road to the town centre, before veering left at the roundabout that indicates the end of the West Highland Way walk. This point signifies the start of the last 70 kilometres.
After a short distance on the road down the glen to the Youth Hostel, the route turns right, crosses a carpark and then begins to climb gradually for a quite a distance, through the Nevis Forest, before some further ups and down and then spits you out on the side of a long, wide glen onto the Old Military Road. At the far end of the carpark, under shadow of the trees, I spied a frantic, hobo-type figure, flinging around items of clothing and other material from assorted bags that were scattered around the floor and the bike. I had to get very close to actually realise that this was in fact Rich Rothwell, last seen at five o’ clock in the morning at the far side of Contin. I was a bit perplexed to see him because when I briefly checked TrackLeaders at Fort Augustus, it seemed to indicate he was behind me. He explained he was repacking as much kit as he could from his bike bags into his rucksack so that he could get as much weight of his bike as possible so that it would handle better. Rich knew this part of Scotland because he had previously ridden a double WHW. While he was stopped, I swopped out the batteries in my faithful 80 lumen Petzl headtorch and zip tied it tight to my helmet to stop the movement that had annoyed me so much the last time that I had used it in the dark. I couldn’t cut the ends of the zip ties, so they protruded above the front of my helmet like a pair of little antennae.
He said he had been having trouble with his tracker and he asked me to check it again to see that it was still on. He said he was just behind me coming over Torridon and then got lost in the rhododendron bushes, so this would mean that the only place he could have passed me was when I was in the shop at Dornie or in the pizza place at Fort Augustus. Anyway, pass me he had and here we were together, with 70 kilometres to go, the honour and the kudos of the North East of England up for grabs, right in front of our wheels. I should hasten to add that I didn’t really see it quite like that at all. I’d spent so long alone on this race, it really was quite a novelty to see him and I suppose that distracted me from the business of focusing on the fight for the still prestigious placings behind Neil, Chris and Fitz.
Once Rich was packed, he was up and off at a great speed up the climb. I wasn’t surprised at this because I know he’s a thoroughbred; just because I wasn’t feeling sharp tactically at that moment, in no way precluded him from feeling so. He pulled ahead and I went steady up the long climb, just pleased to not be pushing up its gentle gradients, like I was last year at two o’ clock in the morning. Despite Rich’s pace, I was surprised to close in on him again a couple of times further up in the Nevis Forest, but then the elastic snapped as the route started heading south and he was gone.
I moved well through the wide expanse of the glen, took my normal cautious approach to the descent into Kinlochleven and was in the town by 22:00, still with some semblance of natural light hanging in the skies. One last check of the TrackLeaders seemed to show Fitz just a mile ahead, but this was a long, slow mile, all uphill on the landrover track to the upper hydro station.
Once the town had been passed through, I was soon on the climb and strange emotions began to play on me, regurgitated from last year: from this point onwards I had become aware of Liam Glen’s incessant closing down, his vaporisation of my slender lead and then, shortly after, this same lead being cremated and resurrecting itself as the mournful deficit that chimed my arrival at Tyndrum. But that was last year. Was this year better or worse? How could I be so, so far ahead on last year’s schedule and yet just be scratting around trying to salvage something in the top five? In a way, I felt a little demoralised, but I was also consoled by the quality of the riders that were ahead of me. There’s a thin line between: on the one hand, eulogising these characters too much, such that my defeat at their hands is somewhat mitigated and, on the other hand, recognising in a simple hierarchical – almost animalistic – way that, yes, they’re really rather fast!
By top of the track and up and onto the open moor I went, now in darkness, yet with no trace of any lights to be seen ahead, not even when I dropped into the wide bowl that precedes the summit cairn of the Devil’s Staircase. Once again, I was proud of myself for going steady and avoiding a disaster, way up here that would not only put me out of the race at this late stage, but would also make my eventual rescue rather difficult! I walked a few sections at the top of the descent, but for the bottom two thirds, I seemed to get myself sorted and rode most of it. Down below I could see the road in the bottom of the glen and, fleetingly, I thought that I saw two sets of lights that were too weak to belong to motor vehicles: Fitz and Rich? One appeared to be just completing the descent and was nearing the road, while the other seemed further head, on the track past Altnafeadh. However, these flashes of light were so ephemeral and my interpretation of them so haphazard that the absurdity of the potential closeness of three racers – after all this distance done – didn’t really register with me.
Once safely off the last major technical obstacle of the whole route, I re-joined the Way as it ran roughly parallel to the A82 on the way to Kingshouse. Though only three kilometres long, this section dragged on, more so because I kept anticipating the brief, fast descent to the back road leading to the hotel that I didn’t want to get caught out on with my minimal power headtorch. While the main consumables on my bike had performed well – the chain had bedded in and was behaving better now than on the first day and my sintered brake pads had survived all this distance without complaint – my left shoe plate was sticking badly on release. I knew it was the cleat and not the pedal, but all I could do to try and help the situation was to loosen off the pedal release tension a couple of clicks: just the job you want to be doing in the middle of the night by faint torchlight.
Past the tents pitched around this fabled highland refuge point and then past the sizeable clump of buildings, finally over the A82, all the while, with not a living soul to be seen anywhere. The next section, in a boiling morning sun was purgatory for me the year before and I remember simply getting off the bike, removing my rucksack and lying on my back, looking up at the sky; this year, it was the dead of the night, the temperature was falling, the solitude was immense, but my legs were still working. I hadn’t eaten for a while, so I finally forced myself to eat one of the Snickers bars that I had been carting around in my stemcell all the way from the Oykel Bridge Hotel. The sense of fulfilment in riding up the gentle drag, all the way to the ruin of the cottage at Ba, was reassuring because I knew then that the track over Rannoch Moor was then predominantly in descent, however, this would bring its own challenges with my minimally powered headtorch. In fact, the next challenge was not as I expected it to be: once again, just as at Ledmore Junction, the temperature appeared to drop very quickly. Of course, it didn’t help that I had stopped pedalling slowly uphill and was now dropping, quickly downhill and so generating little energy, but the severity of the effect of the cold on a fragile physique that had now been moving for about 22 hours was rapid.
Unlike at Ledmore Junction, my feet hadn’t been walking through wet, muddy terrain as I had mainly been riding for the last couple of hours and, even when walking, the ground was generally dry and rocky, rather than peaty and boggy. But my feet were still desperately cold. I didn’t panic, but I was right in the middle of Rannoch Moor, in the pitch black, totally alone with my body temperature dropping minute by minute. For someone who can be an annoying, hissy-fit, drama queen, I constantly amaze myself with the overwhelming aura of sang froid that mysteriously takes command of my mind and body in situations like these: in my April reccie, I snapped my gear cable riding through the heart of Fisherfield, but I just got on with it and fitted the spare, notwithstanding all the potential traumas of threading the cable through the interior-routed frame. Once again, I took faith in the equipment I was carrying with me: I had my heavyweight claw gloves, that had already served me well more than once this race, and, the final ace up my sleeve was a Surviva hooded foil vest, which weighed just 60g but was there in my backpack, ready to be used as an additional insulation layer below my waterproof jacket. I stopped and put all this kit on, but once again I had nothing to put on that could help my feet to warm up, or even retain the last remnants of heat that they may have possessed.
The cold, especially in my feet, had got to me again and, like at Ledmore Junction, it would halt my progress to my desired destination. Before the race I had bought a second pair of shoes which were slightly larger and so able to accommodate a thicker grade of merino sock. Wearing these would have kept my feet warmer, maybe just that extra degree or two that could have ensured that I could have carried on riding. However, I had only used these new shoes for a few hours and, while I felt confident in the setting of the shoes plates, I couldn’t be 100% sure as to how they would perform over extremely long days. I didn’t want to risk the severe achilles pain that flared up last year and added considerably to my woes on the final day. On the other hand, the older shoes that I ended up taking, couldn’t accommodate a thicker merino sock, but I was confident that the cleats were set perfectly and I’d already used them for about 30 hours riding in two and half days when I did my reccie in April with no problems at all. So, peace of mind and injury insurance won over thermal comfort.
Despite all this kit, I was still battling against the fact that the air on this vast open moor was bitterly cold and I hadn’t peddled much for the best part of four kilometres. By the time I reached the small road at Forest Lodge, my temperature had dropped further and I was starting to move into survival mode and think about how I could get my temperature back up. The fact that I was now within 15 kilometres of Tyndrum was utterly irrelevant, as was the fact that I was in a race at this point: I had to get myself warmed up!
In the faint light, I saw a group of a dozen tents in that perennially popular spot, down by the bridge, just before the Inveroran Hotel. I thought about just getting off my bike, opening one of the tents and climbing in next to absolutely whoever it was inside, just to get some warmth. It vaguely registered with me what a horrifying occurrence this would be for the unlucky camper and I passed by before the thought gained further purchase. At the hotel, Alan grants us the uncharacteristic mercy of following the small road around to the Bridge of Orchy, rather than taking the Way up and over the hill to the right. On the road, I tried thrashing vigorously on the bike, out of the saddle in an effort to generate some heat. The road actually seemed to be helping me, as the gradient rose a little around its northern-most point, but no sooner had it done this, then it dropped for two long, cold kilometres down to the small hamlet, illuminated by its characteristic hotel. By now I was shivering on the bike and I knew that the final 10 kilometre stretch from Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum along the track parallel to the railway was also mainly downhill; once I started on that track there would be no shelter at all and I was genuinely worried about making it safely to Tyndrum. Thoughts of Richard Rothwell and Ian Fitz had long since evaporated and I was principally and uniquely concerned with getting my temperature higher.
As I rode past the back of the large hotel, I remembered from my West Highland Way trek back in 2003, that there were external dorms here, but it was too risky to simply try the door of one and sneak inside because they were very likely to be occupied just one day after the bank holiday. I didn’t dare try one of the rear-facing doors into the main building either, but in any case, they seemed to be fire doors that probably only opened from inside.
Think! Think! Think!
Then I remembered another highland expedition up here in my distant past to “bag” the Munros to the east of the village. I had stayed at the bunkhouse on the railway station. Now this bunkhouse, being a converted railway building, didn’t have any internal corridors between any of the rooms: to go to the loo in the night, you walked out of the dorm, along the platform, into the loo and then back along the platform to the dorm; similarly, in the morning, you left the dorm and walked along the platform to the breakfast room. My only hope was that one of these doors was open.
I parked my bike in the passenger walkway under the railway lines and walked up the steep steps to the platform, where the bunkhouse stood, just 50 metres away. I started walking towards it and quickly realised that the platform concrete had been replaced by gravel, which seemed to let out an enormous roar each time I stepped upon it in the dead of the night. I quickly jumped on the edge of the platform that still retained the concrete slabs. Here my progress was silent, as befits the prowler in the night. I turned my headtorch off, as there was enough light emanating from the building. I made my way along the platform and looked at each of the doors, there must have been half a dozen of them. I remembered that the furthest one was the male dorm, so I wasn’t about to try that, although I was thinking up excuses along the lines of, “I’ve been lost all day on the hill”, that could have vaguely excused my intrusion in there. But, there was one door with a light on, about halfway along the building, although to get to it I had to cross three metres of crunchy gravel. With my calf muscles lacking in flexibility after four days of being brutalised, raising myself onto tiptoes wasn’t an option so I just tried to walk across, as quietly as I could.
I tried the door … and it opened!
Inside was the breakfast room: about a dozen chairs arranged around a large table with barely any room to move around the outside of them. Near the entrance, there was a small breakfast bar with boxes of cereal and stuff. As I was surveying this scene, I heard movement from inside and I froze holding the door open. Someone was moving, towards a toilet it seemed. I paused, then heard a loo flush and then faint footsteps. Maybe the ladies’ dorm had an internal loo that didn’t involve walking along the platform? Or maybe this was the custodian’s private loo? In any case, while they had given me a fright, I was sure that I hadn’t disturbed them. I could already feel myself warming up a little just from the rush of adrenaline and the thought of getting in here for a few minutes was really starting to bring me around. First, though, I had to repeat the whole process because I had to go back to get my bike, walk it up the steep steps, bring it along the platform and place it outside the breakfast room.
Finally, I was inside. I wasn’t hungry, but I wouldn’t have touched the food anyway as I really didn’t want to abuse this much-needed sanctuary. I simply took my backpack off, sat down on a chair and gently lifted another chair so that I could rest my legs across it. With the door closed and protected from any drafts of wind, I felt warmer. But I was also dopey with tiredness – it was something like 02:30 and I’d been going for so long. I didn’t fight myself, or set any alarms, I simply sat down on the chair and let my eyes close. I was something like eleven hours up on last year, I could doze for six hours and still finish well inside the previously mythical four-day deadline. I was losing focus on racing; sleep was advancing.
I really wanted to win this race. It’s natural if you are second in a race one year, the year after, you will come back wanting to win. I let myself get carried away with this idea: on many occasions in the weeks before the event I would find myself riding along or walking along and welling up with the emotion of how much I wanted to win. Thankfully, things reached a climax before the event and a lot of this self-inflicted tension and longing was dissipated before the event actually started. A group of us went for a pizza on the Wednesday night before and a good friend who knows a lot about cycling – and more importantly, had followed me day and night through the 2016 race – reminded me that I was 47 years old and that I had to be realistic and ultimately ride my own race. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I reflected, just a day later, it felt like a weight off my mind. He knew, knowing me, that I wanted to win, but he was able to offer me a realistic perspective that I trusted; his kind wisdom didn’t feel like a lack of faith on his part, or an excuse on my part.
In the end, he was right: I had been too guided by Strava data logged by the riders that I considered the contenders: if I had done more than them, then surely I could beat them, was my flawed rationale. Furthermore, I was buoyed up by the fact that, as well as matching the quantity of training of the year before, I had increased the quality, both by boosting my strength by doing two-thirds of my training on single-speed and by fitting in more rides over 200km. Whatever my Strava data fixation, I should have known that the training persona and the racing persona are two different beasts. I was also deluding myself by placing too great a parallel with my situation and that of previous winner Tom Rowntree. Tom had a hard-fought podium place in 2014 and came back to win in 2015, saying, “returning as a veteran is a massive advantage for any challenger.” Similarly, I thought a difficult apprenticeship served in second place in 2016 was a foundation for a win in 2017.
I basically thought that by reliving the two-race path of experience that Tom Rowntree took to his win and then training myself to be able to race a couple of hours faster than Phil Simcock and Liam Glen’s previous winning times would be a formula for victory. The cruel irony is, that in any other year, I may well have been correct!
I was sure that I had a very detailed knowledge of the route and a good grasp of the tactics to use in certain places and situations. Amongst the contenders, I thought only Fitz had as good a knowledge of the route as me and I also knew he had the potential to come up with a strong strategy, as he had already demonstrated this is 2016 by pushing all the way from Shenavall. However, I was also aware that previous winners such as Liam Glen and Phil Simcock had arrived at the race with none or little route familiarity and still ended up victorious. In fact, I could go as far as to say that they had charged at the route like a bull in a china shop … and little harm it had done their final aspirations!
Once I was in the race and the dust had settled and the initial hierarchical order had been established with Neil and Chris moving away late on Day 1, I got my head together and just concentrated on doing the best I possibly could. It was a thin line between thinking: “You’ll never be here again doing this at this level, you must make the most of it. Push! Push! Push!”, and, “Stay calm, keep cool, stick to your plan. Your pace is good, just keep doing this. And look after yourself too!”
Paradoxically, in wanting to win – and by definition wanting to beat your rivals – it doesn’t mean that you respect them less or take them for granted; in fact, the reverse is true. There were aspects of the competition that I rationalised and mitigated through my own sense of desire and folly combined: Rich I had raced against over the years in Northumberland so I had actual, undeniable proof that he was fast and dangerous. Furthermore, according to my Strava metrics, he was the only other competitor with a similar volume of training as myself completed coming into the event. Chris had done a ridiculously fast 19 hours around the Cairngorm Loop – a 300km route that I know very well and can appreciate the enormity of such an effort; yet, I persuaded myself that his being fast over one day wouldn’t necessarily translate to being fast over 4 days. Similarly, with Neil, I had heard that he held the record for the Arizona Trail Race and the Colorado Trail Race, but blindly convinced myself that, “that’s America, this is Scotland!” It wasn’t until after the Highland Trail, talking to Neil in the RFC, that he happened to mention that he won one of these races by sleeping just 20 hours in seven days. Gulp!
Technically, Neil’s level of preparation was outstanding. One only had to look at his bike for a few minutes to remember that, yes, mountain bikes were born in America and they probably still know a thing or two about these bikes, irrespective of the global diffusion of this genre of pedal cycle. Whilst verging on the prohibitively expensive for the majority of British bikepackers in the race, Neil’s kit nonetheless represented the cutting edge of stuff that would really work in a race like the Highland Trail – or indeed any off-road race in the world that he happened to drop himself into: full suspension carbon frame, twelve speed 10-50 block with 32 single ring offering a lower low and a higher high than my 32 x 11-40 set up and, finally, a dropper post that would still provide ample wheel clearance when combined with an under-saddle bag. Similarly, it emerged that Chris Hope had ridden all 13 of the rough, boulder-strewn hairpins at the top of Corrieyairich Pass – virtually impossible on a normal mountain bike, but incomprehensible with a laden bikepacking rig. This was the awe-inspiring physical and technical ability of the competition in a nutshell.
In relating the folly of my thoughts – how I raised my game, yet underestimated my rivals – my aim is only to provide a more honest and human account of the race; to complete the portrait of the competitor who thinks, as well as pedals, no matter how illogical his thoughts may be.
My eyes opened once, but I closed them again. I suppose, sub-consciously, the racer in me had set the chairs so that they weren’t actually that comfortable so, when my eyes opened the second time and I could feel warmth all over my body I knew it was time to go. My watch was buried under the claw gloves and the jacket, so I had no idea when I arrived there or how long I’d been there. I stepped outside, grabbed the bike and headed off the re-join the Highland Trail Race!
I knew I had enough body heat loaded up in me to get me through the last 10 kilometres, no matter what, but as I started moving along the West Highland Way I could feel that the air was, relatively, a lot warmer and I also sensed the first light faintly breaking through so I estimated it was sometime after 03:00. Maybe I hadn’t been inside the station bunkhouse for that long after all? As if to clarify what time it was, the alarm on my watch, that was set for the previous morning at 03:30, went off after I’d been riding for a few minutes. So here I was, in the middle of the night with light gently sprinkling itself down from the sky and across the landscape and just five or so miles to go.
I kept going and sure enough, my body heat didn’t desert me and the light kept creeping up until, by the time I crossed under the railway line for the very, very last HAB up the trail on the other side, I had switched my headlight off. It really was all downhill now with just a couple of kilometres remaining. As I crossed over the final railway bridge with just a solitary kilometre left to go, I stopped, checked my watch – 04:08 – and recorded a garbled little message into my phone. At this point I believed I was fifth; I talked about how much faster I’d gone, but I seemed a little despondent that I hadn’t finished the race in a higher position. The slurred tiredness in my voice is very evident.
From here, I rolled down the hill to the last building on the outskirts of Tyndrum, the place that marks the finish line of the Highland Trail. It was 04:14. I was done. I sent the Check-In message on the tracker, switched it off and took a selfie on my phone. I was still wearing the foil vest under my helmet so my appearance was mildly extra-terrestrial, to say the least.
I finished in solitude, no-one there. I got a text from Laura saying, “Well Done”, and adding that she was now going to sleep, which I didn’t begrudge her. It was daylight now. I didn’t hang around, but rolled gently down the hill, not only looking like, but feeling a little like The Man Who Fell to Earth.
I knew that the Real Food Cafe would be open in about three hours, at 07:30 and that seemed to dictate my actions. Back at the campsite, as I rode up to my car, I passed a van with the side door open and a pair of muddy cycling shoes outside it that I recognised: Fitz was inside, wrapped in a down jacket and getting a brew on the stove. The first thing I did was congratulate him, but, before I could get the words out, he corrected me by explaining he was a DNF, having withdrawn from the race at Fort William due to an injury he had apparently been carrying for some time. I was a little confused that I had still been following his tracker at Kinlochleven and was sure to have seen his lights on the Devil’s Staircase; he explained that he followed the route as far as the foot of that descent and then came back over the road, not over Rannoch Moor. He too suffered badly in the cold and it seems his improvisation was even more spectacular than my foil garment: he wrapped his down bag over his head and pedalled as if wearing a kind of insulated cape!
I had a cup of tea with him and he offered me some of his savoury rice that he was cooking up. We didn’t say so much, but I kind of sensed that it was difficult for anyone to offer him consolation in that moment; perhaps the person closest to being able to offer him it was another person who had just gone through a very similar experience. I liked to think so. After a while, Ian began needing sleep and I simply wanted a shower.
I packed my bike in the car, had a long shower, got changed and then went inside the bunkhouse for a brief nap on the sofa. As it approached opening time at the cafe, I drove the car down there and stayed in there until I finally left Tyndrum in the late afternoon.
I saw a variety of riders: the ones who finished and came straight to the cafe: Steve Large, Pavel Machacek and Justin Atkinson, and the ones who were coming in after varying intervals of sleep: Neil Beltchenko, Chris Hope and family, later Rich and finally Fitz. It was good to catch up and congratulate, though it was a pity to miss seeing Javi at the end of the event.
The final results from the race, featuring the competitors that I came most into contact with, were as follows:
It had been an epic.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.