After getting off to a good start with my winter bivies I had neglected to set any time aside for a June one. The main reason for this was that I had always expected this to be covered by the HT550, so in doing it quicker than expected, I had sold myself short on some bivy time! Inevitably, I realised my neglect late in the month, leaving me scrabbling about for some bivy kit on the last night of the month, as usual after getting the uncooperative kids to bed. I rolled out the house about half ten, with a vague idea of what I was doing.
My plan was to head North along the coast, using the service roads through the golf courses to make quick progress, before veering off into the dunes for a pleasant midge-free bivy. After a quick dash through town, I cruised along the promenade before crossing the Don and making my way towards Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. It looked like I’d timed it just right as there was a steady flow of cars leaving the course and the club house looked deserted as I nonchalantly spun past.
The road through the course was a real pleasure, undulating along between liberally sprinkled fairways. Eventually it gave way to a section of dirt, before following vehicle tracks through some light rough to link up with the next golf course along. Everything was matching up with my aerial reconnaissance on the OS maps site, so I reached the hole that looked like it had an adjacent path into the dunes and skirted round the edge of the tee to make my exit from the course. The dunes here are pretty eroded, so there was no handy sheltered basin to set up in, just a straight drop down to the beach. I couldn’t be bothered with the thought of dragging the bike back up in the morning, so I threw my bivy down where I stood and made myself a brew whilst looking out to the new wind farm at sea that Trump is so fond of.
I wasn’t planning on sleeping too long, as I wanted to be through the rest of the course before any avid golfers appeared and had an opinion on my presence there, so I was up and packed not too long after 0400. It was a pretty dull morning, but still warm as ever this summer. I followed the footpaths through to the Murcar clubhouse and then stopped on the access road for a snack, just as one of the mowers revved up in an outbuilding. Perfect timing.
Next, I made my way through sleepy Bridge of Don, linking paths round the back of the housing to stay as off road as possible.
Eventually, I dropped down to the Don and made my way along the riverside paths, before climbing up towards Hazelhead and home. I even had time for an extra nap before the kids woke up! 6 out of 6 bivies complete so far.
So, did I enjoy it? Yes, without a doubt. As is the way, the longer ago you did something tough and amazing, the more amazing it seems, whilst the toughness subsides to mild discomfort. Immediately after the finish however, I was more interested in filling my face with fizzy drinks from the hotel vending machine and getting as far away from my festering cycling gear as possible. I’d had a brief chat on my way in with Steve, another rider from Aberdeen who’d finished a good day before me and was slightly the worse for wear from the night in the pub I’d missed. He said there was a plan to meet for breakfast in the morning, so I made sure I’d set an alarm to be up and checked out, so I could go and meet my fellow sufferers.
There followed a great morning of good food and excellent company in the Real Food Cafe. Almost everyone I’d chatted to along the way was there, so there were plenty of tales from the ride to hear and tell. Mick and Rich had finished a good six hours before me and had been hoping to catch me in the pub if I’d got in earlier – never mind! During the chat I asked if anyone knew who Le Shadow was, as they would have seen the trackers come in, but no-one had seen one arrive before me or knew who I was talking about. My imaginary friend hypothesis seemed to be coming true, which was worrying! A few days later, I saw a photo on Alan’s Twitter feed with Le Shadow on it and found his real name was Pascal. After going back through Trackleaders, I saw his SPOT had messed up on the last night, meaning he was invisible when I tried to see where he was on the final day. I cancelled all my psychiatric appointments and was able to get on with my life – especially after getting a Facebook friend request from him shortly afterwards!
As well as eating, drinking tea and socialising, I received a commemorative bottle of Stout from Alan, which I am unable to bring myself to drink, as I feel like it needs a special occasion to enjoy. A part of me doesn’t want it all to be over, which is almost represented by drinking the beer in my head. It’s a big ask to disappear off for a week when you have two young kids, so it may be a while before I can justify doing it again, especially now with school holidays to cover with my limited time off.
Berten, my sleepy Belgian friend, had napped his way through to the finish a few hours after me, but looked pretty fresh for it. Pascal, aka Le Shadow had finished a couple in front with his well timed final day push. Personally, I was just happy to be able to tell people I’d finished in 5 days rather than the 7 I’d been half-expecting! I also heard tales of the various ways people had scratched, ranging from the mundane to the ridiculous. I’d checked up on Bob’s location on the first night in Fort Augustus and had seen he was at Corrour Station after what would have been a fair hike-a-bike. I hadn’t realised he’d tried to go on after a break, but had been scuppered by several tire/tube failures before bailing to Corrour and landing himself some free food and accommodation for the night! Other scratches were Huw Oliver, who had been up at the pointy end of the race before coming down with a serious case of heatstroke/food poisoning and ended up in Inverness hospital after being helped out by a selfless fellow rider. I’d been sad to hear this, as despite not knowing Huw, I’ve enjoyed reading his blog over the last few years and had been rooting for him.
Another rider, Karl, had been attacked by a cow on the first day in what might seem an amusing way to scratch, but would have been pretty terrifying to witness first hand! The last one I heard about in the cafe was Mike, who I’d ridden with briefly on Day 1 and had ended up scratching after slicing his foot open on a rock whilst skinny-dipping!
Up front, Alex Pilkington made a well judged charge through the field in the second half of the race to come in first ahead of Lee Craigie and Javier Simon, who finished with a rear wheel held together with zip ties and plasters or something. They all finished almost 2 days faster than I did, which is hard to comprehend. I would like to try and get down to 4 days some time, but it would take a lot more tough training than I am able to fit into my free time currently. There were quite a few instances where I could have saved time. The first night, I should have just eaten my food and headed back out to give myself a good start the following day. The two nights where I was stumbling about in an indecisive daze, I could have got my head down and polished off those sections much quicker in daylight with a night’s sleep behind me. None of this adds up to the 15 hours I’d need to knock off, but it would be a start!
It looked like some of my fellow racers were planning on spending the day in the cafe, but I was wanting to make my way home to see the wife and kids, as this was the longest I’d been away since Kerr was born. I said my goodbyes and started off on what should have been a 3 hour or so journey back to Aberdeen. I got about 45 minutes down the road and could already feel my eyelids beginning to feel heavy – perhaps 6 hours’ sleep isn’t enough to feel fully refreshed after a Highland Trail? Several hours, sleep stops and a trip to Forfar McDonalds later, I returned home to comfortable chaos.
Ritchey Commando Frame – I love this bike, the frame is light for a steel one, has a lovely smooth ride quality and comfortable position for several long days in the saddle. With the hard, dry trails and my not quite plus tyres, I took a bit of a battering on my hands and had to ease back on some downhill stretches I would have charged through with a suspension fork, but the absolute reliability of such a simple setup was hard to fault.
Novatech/Stan’s Flow Wheels – These were hand built in an artisan wheel workshop in the North of Scotland (i.e. my living room), using the lightest components I could get hold of for a reasonable price. I was a bit nervous of trusting my handiwork, but didn’t really have a choice after knackering the fancy Mavic wheels of my full suspension 26er just before the ride. Despite taking a few knocks when my tyre pressures were too low, they were just as true at the finish as the start so full credit to Roger Musson’s wheelbuilding manual, which has always been my builder’s bible. There was a worrying occasional creak under power from what I think is the Novatech freehub after Day 1, but it never got worse and I think it will be sorted by a quick strip and additional grease.
Shimano SLX/Sunrace 1×11 Gearing – This is another thing that was pretty trouble free, as I’d expect from SLX level stuff – just needed to adjust a little for cable stretch on the second day as I hadn’t done enough miles beforehand. Only issue was a slight hesitance in shifting which I am not used to – I would need a full revolution of the cranks before it would shift up or down sometimes. I’ve no idea if it is the SLX components, or the shifting with a Sunrace cassette, though I have a Sunrace 11-42 on my road/cross bike which shifts just as well as a Shimano XTR on some other wheels. Wasn’t really a dealbreaker over the distances I was covering, but definitely noticeable.
SRAM NX Fat Cranks – I’ve always been 100% Shimano for chainsets on all my bikes, but they haven’t pulled their finger out and made any 100mm axle ones, so I had to leave my comfort zone. These were an absolute steal at £40 from Planet X, so I gave them a chance. I didn’t want to trust their bottom brackets however, so blinged it up with a Hope BB plus SRAM adaptor. Despite having 28 teeth and a 170mm length, they turned out to be just what I needed to keep turning the pedals when I was goosed.
RaceFace Chester Pedals – I’ve been swapping these from bike to bike for every big bikepacking ride since I got them. Light, grippy and just as tough as alloy pedals so far. Can’t really fault them in any way.
Avid BB7 Brakes – I put these on every bike I build, not much more to say than that!
Bontrager XR2 29×2.35” Tyres – These were easy to set up tubeless and did a great job of taking a lot of abrasion without puncturing. They were a bit noisier than I expected on tarmac, possibly due to the wide rims spreading the tread out a bit. If they had been available in 2.6″ size before the race started, I’d have snapped them up. If I’d not been so weight obsessed beforehand, I might have gone for something like WTB Rangers in a 3″, which would have sped up the downhills and saved my hands some grief – a future experiment once these wear out!
Brooks Cambium Saddle/ Ti Seatpost – These were transferred over from my road bike on a whim just before I headed to Tyndrum, as the saddle had been used on rides over 200 miles without any major internal injuries, plus I hoped the unbranded Ti seatpost would give me extra boing. I think most of my backside issues were caused by heat and sweat build up, rather than seating configuration.
On-One OG Bars – I’m definitely sold on swept bars for mountain biking and wrist comfort. These have less sweep than something like Jones bars (25 degrees), but still gave me the benefit I was after in terms of wrist angle, without losing any feeling of control. I paired these with cheap Ergo-style grips and some ancient bar ends on the inside of the bars, which I wrapped with cork tape to give an alternative cushioned hand position.
RockGeist Foxglove Saddlebag – This was purchased in order to bring down weight and prevent me having too much space in my old bikepack.eu saddlebag which I might be tempted to fill! It performed admirably, carrying tools and various clothing layers, with plenty of space left over to jam food in after shop visits. The compact size also minimised any sensation of tail wag on the few occasions I had the energy to stand up and pedal!
Rockgeist Barjam Harness – Another upgrade from my old handlebar roll, this is very light and comes with a carbon fibre bolt-on bar to lift it away from the cables and Voile straps to fasten whatever size/shape of dry bag you want to use. In this case, I had my sleep mat, bivy bag and sleeping bag all stuffed in the smallest drybag i could manage. The extension bar also gave me another mounting point, to which I fastened the quick release mount for my light. This setup proved to be rock solid and quick to use.
Rockgeist Apogee Harness Feedbag – This was probably my favourite bit of new bikepacking baggage. It is designed to mate with the Harness extension bar and add quickly accessible storage using a hook and elastic loop closure. I was constantly over stuffing this with sandwiches and whatever else I needed to dip in and out of as I rode along. The closure bungee also doubled as a storage point for any layers I was taking on and off during the day.
Alpkit Stem Cells – I’ve had these for a while now and they’re spot on for size, as well as being pretty weatherproof when needed. I had snacks on one side and electrical stuff like a cache battery and cables the other. The daisy chains allow plenty of attachment options and the only real issue with them is the lack of one-handed closure. There is a way to modify them to achieve this and I will one day be organised enough to do it!
Borah Designs Snowyside Bivy – This was bought as a lighter alternative to my old Outdoor Designs Assault bivy, which has been bombproof, but is too bulky and heavy compared to modern equivalent bags. The Snowyside has an eVent upper, making it heavier (390g) than some full silnylon bags, but the fully waterproof material meant I could ditch the tarp to save more weight. It also has an insect mesh insert like my old bag, but I did find the velcro attachment to be a total pain late at night when I was tired, as the hooks wanted to stick to the mesh net more than the loops stitched around the opening!
Western Mountaineering Summerlite – I’ve had this sleeping bag a few years now and it has more than earned its keep. It weighs 540g and is rated down to 0 degrees C. Being down, it packs nice and small and I have foolishly slept out as low as minus 9 degrees with an added silk liner and not managed to kill myself. For the HT550 it was easily warm enough without wasting too much packing space.
Thermarest NeoAir – This is a full length original version that I got for Yvonne in 2010 for our tour of the Hebrides. It blew me away back then as it meant I could sleep a whole night in comfort once I’d wrestled it back from her. Unfortunately, my recently acquired habit of using it outside the bivy bag to prevent condensation looks to have done for it, especially on the rough, stony bivy near the Schoolhouse bothy. I’ll see if there is a particular hole to blame before replacing, as it was excellent until that point!
Castelli Endurance X2 Bib Shorts – I got these for the Progetto seatpad, which has been my favourite for very long road rides. With the high temperatures, I could have done with something that allowed more airflow, if such a pad exists. I had also been thinking of getting the non bib version of these shorts for the HT550 and probably should have ran with that idea, as I unhooked the suspenders after Day 3 anyway. An extra pair I could have swapped to would have made sense too, but I think I overlooked that in my preparations somehow.
Howies Cadence Jersey – I’ve had this for a while and ended up taking it as it’s the type of jersey you can keep on when the temperature drops due to the thickness of the merino/sorona material. It’s got good pockets, as well as an easy opening zip one for me to keep the phone handy for photos. It was probably a bit clammy at times in the heat, but I think this may have helped me gradually cool down as I progressed. I also had a pair of cheap armwarmers from Planet-X to save me packing an extra long sleeve layer.
Adidas Terrex Trail Cross SL Shoes – Absolutely brilliant footwear for flat pedal users. The Stealth rubber sticks to pedals, rocks, whatever you need and they have just enough stiffness for long days of pedalling or scrambling about on mountainsides. The outer wards off most splashes without baking your feet, though for the conditions, something more meshy may have been better. I really need to get another backup pair of these for when they eventually get trashed.
Adidas Tracerocker Fleece Jacket – This is a lightweight gridded fleece layer that packs down small but gives plenty of heat. It also has a hood, meaning I could skip taking a woolly hat. I rode in this a fair bit in the evenings as it allows plenty of airflow whilst taking the edge off the cold.
Rapha Brevet Insulated Gilet – This is a great bit of kit that give loads of extra heat for its size. Wasn’t really needed in these conditions but was taken as an extra bit of insulation in case of a cold night or bit of extended riding in the wet.
Castelli Idro Jacket – I’ve had this a couple of years now and it has redefined what I can expect from a waterproof. It’s the same material as all the Gore ShakeDry jackets, but had more colour and reflective accents for road cycling through winter than the others available at the time and was also on sale! It beads amazingly well, breathes better than any other waterproofs I’ve tried and packs down to nothing. The only payoff is durability as it is not recommended for mountain biking. That hasn’t stopped me, although I did manage to put a couple of holes in it by stuffing it in a saddlebag adjacent to hard pointy stuff. I repaired these the night before heading to Tyndrum. I think I wore the jacket for about an hour total during the ride, thanks to the pleasant conditions.
Castelli Nanoflex Knee Warmers – I took these to pair with waterproof shorts if the weather got properly wet, as they bead really well and prevent my knees getting cold even when soaked. I didn’t bother taking the shorts, thanks to the forecast looking good, but took these in case I needed the warmth during the night. They weren’t used for that, but did seem to help as additional support when my knees and achilles started to pack in on the last day.
Endura MT500 Gloves – I got these just before I did the Cairngorms Loop as I’d come to the conclusion that padded palms on gloves cause more problems than they solve. I’d done the Capital Trail bare handed and had no issues with hands, but needed more warmth in the Cairngorms in September. The temperature never really got low enough to need them on the HT550, but I did have them on for some of the last day as I had the beginnings of a blister on one hand and thought I’d nip it in the bud. They are really nice minimal gloves when needed however.
Garmin Edge 1000 – Garmin get a lot of flak for flaky bits of kit and dodgy software updates, but I’ve got nothing but praise for this. It’s never let me down over the last few years and the screen size means I can just use my iPhone for photos. I invested in getting the OS maps of Scotland for it too, as that is the only way my brain comprehends the terrain around me.
Exposure Joystick Mk10– All the light I’ll ever need while bikepacking, with lots of customisable power settings to maximise battery life. I didn’t even bother taking a charging cable, as I didn’t think I’d do enough riding in the dark to need a charge, which turned out to be the case.
iPhone 7 – I’d never be able to bring myself to spend the money on an Apple phone, but luckily I get one through work! This is a nice size, has a good camera and is waterproof, so ideal for this purpose. I mainly used it as a handy camera in the zip pocket at the back of my jersey, or for scanning the route ahead when stopped, as it’s much better for this than the Garmin. I’d uploaded the route to my OS Maps account and had cached the map areas I needed in advance using the ever-improving OS Maps app, just in case I had a fatal Garmin breakdown.
Anker Powercore 10000 – Compact and not too heavy, plus it charged up pretty quickly, whenever I had a chance to plug it in to my folding Mu charger at a cafe. To back it up, I had an older Xiaomi power bank that was supposed to be of similar capacity but didn’t last nearly as long in practice. This proved to be enough juice to get me through without risk of losing the GPS or phone.
SPOT Gen 3 Tracker – This was a mandatory piece of equipment, but is something I’d always wanted to use anyway. Due to the crazy inflexible subscription costs, I opted to rent rather than buy and found the process very straightforward and reasonably priced from www.spottrackerrental.co.uk . I took one spare set of batteries, but didn’t need them. I didn’t bother turning it off when I stopped for the night, just relied on its motion sensor putting it to sleep and resuming once I got going again.
Petzl e-Lite Headtorch – This was taken for general fiddling with gear in the dark and as a backup if I found myself trying to ride at night without my main light. It’s tiny, weightless and gives out a surprisingly useful amount of illumination.
Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite Tool – Completely unused during the ride, but had all the bits I needed for basic adjustment and the pouch was handy to stuff in a tubeless repair kit. To supplement it, I added a tiny chain tool from an old On-One multitool, a Leatherman PS2, a Birzman pump and a valve tool.
Spares – I didn’t go overboard on spares and went for my usual part selection of a brake cable, a gear cable, one tube, tyre boot, tyre plugs, two sets of pads, zip ties and a length of Gorilla Tape. None of them were required, which was nice.
Midge head net – used a couple of times for sanity when setting up or breaking camp.
Ibuprofen – didn’t get through nearly as much of this as I expected, luckily.
Buttonhole chamois cream – used first thing each morning and halfway through the day, probably should have used more!
Sudocrem – tried to use in the evenings to help keep down any inflamation from a long day in the saddle.
Sun lotion travel sachet – used factor 30 to minimise any extra fatigue from getting sunburn.
Wet wipes travel pack – used for squaddie shower each night and halfway through the day.
Hydration tablets – mixture of SiS recovery and vitamin-C tabs to make water more interesting.
I don’t think there’s anything I took that I didn’t use and nothing I really needed that I didn’t have. The only change I’d make would be to have brought a second pair of padded shorts so I could have given one a wash, especially with the hot dry days to dry them out. I purposefully left out any of my stoves, as I feel I end up wasting too much time waiting on water boiling and then drinking a hot drink. Hot food is nice, but there’s no gain in terms of calories and no handy sources of lightweight freeze dried meals during the ride. For this reason I relied on packaged sandwiches, or made my own on the go from packaged meats and cheese. Irn Bru was the drink of choice to replace my morning cuppa. I think I got my food intake and hydration pretty much spot on, as there was no point I got too close to bonking, I had no issues with muscle cramps and apart from a sticky-mouthed climb of the Coffin Road, I didn’t suffer too badly in the heat. The only thing holding me back was my damn frail, fallible body!