October saw me in my favourite part of the world with the family in a cottage in Nethy Bridge. I had a week to try and sneak in a bivy, which meant I could wait for a decent weather window in the fickle half-term weather. I was also looking forward to trying out my new 29+ WTB Ranger tyres on the Commando, which I’d hurriedly tubelessed up before leaving.
Tuesday night looked windy and slightly wet, but was still a better bet than the rest of the week. After the usual rigmarole of getting the kids to bed, I threw my gear together and rolled straight into Abernethy Forest, practically from the back door. Rather than head straight to my planned spot, I did a bit of exploring the trails nearby on my way.
I took a side track I hadn’t used before to reach Forest Lodge and headed on up towards Ryvoan. I was aiming for the edge of the forest, where I could set up the hammock with some kind of view of the Cairngorms for the morning. After an easy gradual ascent I emerged into the howling wind, thinking maybe I should have stopped lower down! Never mind, I bashed through a bit of heather to find a suitable spot with slightly less wind and got set up.
Due to the inclement nature of the forecast, I decided to set up the tarp for the first time this year, which either says a lot about this year’s weather or more my tendency to wuss out of the rain! I drank a cuppa from my flask, had a snack and got my head down.
As usual, I slept in a bit later than intended as I didn’t fancy packing up in the dark after putting up with this windy spot in the hope of a decent view. I’d originally planned to make a big loop on my way back by going over An Slugain, but I thought I’d better get home handy to start the day’s entertainments with the wee ones.
I still couldn’t bear to completely retrace my steps, so shortly after heading back, I swung a left and climbed up to the buildings at Rynettin, for a better view South.
From Rynettin it was a fast roll to Forest Lodge, where I took a different way back towards the Loch Garten road, which I promptly left to use the local path network all the way back home.
After doing all my bivies for the year alone apart from a couple with young Kerr, September would see a change in that I would have adult company with me for once! Iarla was over on a visit from Norway and dead keen on joining me. After a nice day in Stonehaven entertaining the kids, I took Iarla back to ours to kit him out with some cycling gear for a late night dash out to Dinnet after the kids went to bed. Somehow I managed to root out some legwear that would fit over his ridiculous rower’s thighs and let him steal my favourite windproof.
Arriving at Dinnet, the heavens had opened, so I trusted the forecast that it was going to blow over and we hung out in the car for an extra 20 minutes. After our tactical pause we were greeted with slightly lighter rain, so that would have to do!
We whizzed along the road and turned off to follow the North shore of Loch Kinord. It’s a pleasant ride on a nice day, but we were just happy to see the rain ease off further. We popped out onto another road before turning off again to head South West on the land rover track to take us up the hills behind Burn o’ Vat. It was just a pretty straightforward uphill slog to where the path from the Vat emerges and then rolling down to where I thought I remembered the path up to Cnoc Dubh would get us to my planned bivy spot. Luckily my spidey sense was functioning and we mashed our way up a couple of steep bits to reach the rocky summit area without any major delay.
After a bit of wandering around, we found an ideal spot with a couple of trees for my hammock and a level enough area for Iarla to kip in my slippy bivy bag. The rain had stopped, so we got the bedding sorted and a brew on as the stars began to show.
A long night of chat ensued, which made a pleasant change from my usual loner low light photography followed by passing out. I kept faith with the weather forecast and didn’t bother putting up my tarp, whilst Iarla disappeared into the depths of the bivy. The weather held and I woke to a stunning sunrise, which had been the reason for picking this hill for the site.
After’s Iarla’s breakfast in bed, we started to pack up, slightly delayed by his refusal to leave my hammock once he found out how comfy it was!
Once the bikes were loaded, we backtracked from the summit and found the nice singletrack descent which would wind back round to the road.
Once off the hill , we crossed the road and took the track that would lead us along the South shore of Loch Kinord to complete a loop of sorts.
After watching Iarla mash his way along a couple of rocky stretches, the torture was finally over for my poor old Kona as we paused at the end of a lochan before returning to Dinnet. I hadn’t realised this was Iarla’s first ever bikepacking ride and he was a total convert. Despite being my shortest bivy ride of the year, the excellent company had made it one of the highlights for me too.
For my August bivy, I wanted to take Kerr out again before the weather started to turn against us, so when a good weather window coincided with a weekend it was all systems go to get the car packed and head out to Braemar again for a second bite at Glen Quoich. I’d sourced a replacement skewer for my old cargo trailer, so hopefully I’d be able to get it to take the load this time instead of my back!
Late as always, we stocked up in the village before continuing to the Linn of Quoich and getting on the move as quickly as Kerr’s penchant for distraction would allow us.
After passing our previous trip’s camping spot, we headed on up the glen – Kerr trying to fill the river with any rocks he happened upon en route. I had a particular spot in mind below Beinn a Bhuird which I had noted years back on a ride through to Gleann an t-Slugain. After passing the fords where inevitably Kerr got his feet soaked and then decided he needed a pee just as some walkers were approaching from the opposite direction, we pressed on along the Quoich Water, reaching my intended spot just as the temperature dropped a bit and the wind got up. Unfortunately, someone had beaten us to the site, erecting a large tarp vertically as a wind shield and sitting round a large camp fire, surviving to the max. Probably not the best summer to be starting fires, but at least there had been some rain recently, so much less chance of disaster than a few weeks previously.
Kerr had been quite excited at reaching my secret camp spot, so began to have a meltdown when he realised it been taken already. I quickly introduced the concept of the super secret camping spot which was just up the path. Unfortunately the path starts to seriously narrow from here, making lugging a trailer and abandoned bike a serious effort. After getting a bit of distance from the rufty-tufty survivalists I started scanning for a new spot, eventually wading through some heather to reach an ideal sheltered hollow beneath a tree.
After a feast of cheesy pasta and empire biscuits, we settled in for the night, Kerr passing out practically in mid-sentence. The late night had no effect on his ability to wake early the next morning, keen to go down to the river and fetch water.
The wind had died completely over night, so as I got the bacon cooking the midges descended. The smoke off my wee stove was a marginal help, but Kerr made the sensible choice and went back into the tent to await his breakfast in bed.
After packing up, we headed back the way we came, checking out my original choice of location. It appeared that the leave no trace ethic was not one embraced by our expert survival neighbours.
With no real time pressure on getting back, I let Kerr mess about as much as he liked along the way. This involved performing rock throwing and dam building at every river crossing we made.
After a loooong time, we finally flew along the last downhill stretch to the road and back along to the car, where we ditched the trailer and went to hang out on the bridge to nowhere, which always fascinates him. Then it was a peaceful drive home with a brief stop for cake and juice at Cambus o’ May.
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 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!
A couple of fitful hour’s sleep on a deflated mat and I awoke to my phone buzzing away. It was lighter now, but still dull and moist feeling without actual precipitation. I hadn’t managed to undress at all, so I sat up in my clammy bib shorts and managed to manoeuvre my ruined legs into my shoes. The midges were still hanging around so I started the usual dance of grabbing things to eat and walking around to prevent them convening in any one spot I inhabited. I tanked my bottle of Irn Bru from Dornie as well as some Ibuprofen to get myself kick-started and packed up my kit. I had the brief pleasure of rolling back down the now massively shortened 700m to the turn off and then had to knuckle down and start uphill again. My body wasn’t happy about this, with pains in all the same areas as last night making themselves known.
I kept going, but I wasn’t able to put any power through the pedals and my backside was screaming – this wasn’t looking good. After climbing in and out of the saddle through the trees, I stopped again to try and sort myself out, as this wasn’t going to work. First job was to go to town on the chamois cream and get friction down to a minimum. Next, I needed to do something about my knee and achilles. I had an idea to add a bit of support and compression by putting on my Nanoflex knee warmers. As I was just fishing them out I heard the rumble of some mountain bike tyres approach over my shoulder. Who could have possibly caught me up this early in the day? Le Shadow, bien sur! In my current state of mind, it should have been the last straw, but seeing his smiley face and proffered high five, I couldn’t help but laugh as he passed.
Now I had something to go after, I got my knees covered and climbed back on board. There was a slight improvement in my condition and I was able to progress to the edge of the forest, gaining slightly on my nemesis. The land opened out as I climbed along the misty power line service track. I had last been this way in 2006 and the conditions were exactly the same then, right down to the droplets of condensation adhering to the hairs on my arms. I reeled in Le Shadow a little more, but had to jump off and push for a slightly steeper bit, as my painkillers hadn’t quite kicked in yet. Normally I would have gradually caught him on a climb like this, but I think he now had the advantage over my broken body, so I let him slip away into the murk.
Next up was a speedy downhill, with a couple of bends that could go quite wrong if you weren’t ready to slow down. This was followed by another climb which I remembered as being the last bit for this section. The cloud cleared but I couldn’t see Le Shadow up ahead, so he must have been going quite well, although I did begin to worry he had shot off the edge on one of those corners.
More fast downhill took me to the main road at Torgyle Bridge for the briefest dalliance with tarmac before leaving to climb the Old Military Road to Fort Augustus. Luckily, the gradients were gradual so I could ride myself into some kind of health, although the only signs of life I came across were a very large, vocal German Shepherd and its owner.
Just as it felt like I was nearing the top, the track doubled back on itself to climb along the back of the trees on a rougher, narrower surface which eventually emerged onto open moorland. It was pretty pleasant riding and the sun was starting to show through the clouds to warm things up a bit.
The path eventually dropped to a ford for a rare muddy section, before emerging onto a hard fast dirt road that would take me all the way down to Fort Augustus. Unfortunately, the minute the track got level and easy, I started passing out. After several last minute veers away from roadside ditches, I decided I needed to give myself 5 minutes of power nap time. I stood in the middle of the track, slumped over the handlebars with my eyes shut – I just needed to get going quicker to wake up and reach Fort Augustus for a recharge. Once moving again, the downhill fresh air kept my eyes open, especially on a set of fast grassy switchbacks just before reaching some houses on the edge of the town.
I fancied getting a fry up, but no cafe seemed to be open until 10am, which was disappointing. However the petrol station/supermarket made up for it with a hot food counter, which I raided for bacon rolls whilst stocking up on every food and drink item imaginable. As I stood outside, filling my face, I got chatting to some other friendly bikepackers who were doing various rides in the area whilst staying in a cottage nearby. I couldn’t decide if I was envious or not – I was in quite a state, but when would I ever get a chance to again to do a solo ride through some of the best bits of Scotland in its best weather?
As well as food, I did a bit of admin work. Firstly I went in to the pharmacy to get some cheap elastic bandaging. The knee warmer approach seemed to have helped, but if the achilles started to get bad again, I was going to get some support around them and hope it did the trick. I also made the most of the 4G reception to see what riders were still around me and finally identify Le Shadow, as well as check he hadn’t plunged off a cliff. To my consternation I couldn’t find any Frenchman in front or behind me. This set me onto a worrying train of thought – was he real? The only time I’d seen him talk to another rider, he’d been ignored by our silent bothy companion, yet every time I stopped for too long, there he was with a cheeky grin and a high five. Maybe he was my subconscious pushing me forward? Or maybe his tracker had broken? Maybe I’d never know. Of more concern, I noticed my narcoleptic Belgian friend from a few days back was awake and bearing down on Fort Augustus. Determined not to lose any more places, I got myself organised and set off down the canal path with renewed vigour. I knew I could hammer this whole section to Fort Augustus without straining anything, so I got moving and into an aero tuck with my inward mounted bar ends.
It was a great feeling to be actually making some distance at a decent speed for once, so I put on some tunes to keep me in the zone. The miles flew by and even the odd climb on the forest tracks didn’t seem to cause too much pain.
All good things must come to an end however and so it was as I reached the outskirts of Fort William. I popped into the Co-op for extra food and drink that should get me to the end and resumed running the gauntlet of impatient drivers. It looked like there was some kind of organised ride going on, as I met multiple riders with number boards, looking at me like I’d gone the wrong way. Soon enough, I reached the roundabout and took the turning up Glen Nevis where I could make my escape from civilisation again. Once on the West Highland Way, the climbing began! The heat was back at the the levels it had been all week, but I was pretty adapted to it by now.
After much hot and sweaty climbing, I came over the first crest and saw the Way stretching out ahead of me through the trees. It looked quite inviting, although I expected to be doing a lot of walking. I kept my momentum, hopping off for the bits that were too steep or had steps to navigate.
After Blar a Chaorainn, the track got wider again and quicker going, despite the section being uphill. As i approached the ruin at Lairigmor, my steering started to wander again and I struggled to keep my eyes open. The sun was out and the midges weren’t, so I took a leaf out of Berten’s book, picked a nice comfy spot next to a trackside cairn and passed out.
I must have dozed for at least 20 minutes before I heard the rumble of mountain bike tyres approach. Surely not? For once, no – it was a young Geordie lass coming the opposite way. I blinked my eyes open to say hello as she looked down on me in a concerned manner. It turned out she was on her first bikepacking trip – she had bought an okay mountain bike from Halfords to ride the West Highland Way on her own and was loving it! I think she was on her fourth day and had just got on with it regardless of the difficulty. She chatted enthusiastically for a while longer before I wished her all the best and got going myself, feeling more energised by the pleasant encounter than the short rest.
I trundled on through the pass towards Kinlochleven. This was another one of those spots that I had seen a photo of in Ralph Storer’s book and always wanted to ride through. I’d come this way several times since, so it’s more like an old friend nowadays. Normally though, I stick to the land rover track to drop me into the village, whereas the HT550 wanted me to take a more vertical route. I reached the WHW turnoff and began my plummet through the trees, initially riding the steep stuff before coming to my senses and jumping off for anything too dicey after dinging a rim a few times. After receiving a good battering, I popped out onto the road and headed along to the Ice Factor. I headed straight through to the cafe area and performed a final weight shedding and general cleanup exercise in the bathroom. before stocking up on drinks and a Toffee Crisp, which would probably melt in about 5 minutes. During my brief pitstop, I also took the chance to book a room online at the same hotel I’d stayed in before the ride. Surely I’d be finished by about 10 pm? With visions of a pub meal and a pint in my head, I headed up past the bunkhouse to tackle the Devil’s Staircase.
It’s a steep old ride to start with, so I eventually succumbed to the gradient and pushed the steeper bits as usual. As the trail narrowed higher up, it also became easier to ride with just technical things to clear such as the new drainage ditches that have been spaced perfectly to stop a bike wheel dead if you mistime a hop. At least it kept me awake and focused.
I wasn’t too worried about this section in advance and it went pretty much as I remembered – even the final slog up to the summit wasn’t too dramatic. I was feeling pretty happy, especially compared to this morning and stopped up top to soak in a great view and send silly pictures to friends.
I rolled off, feeling like it was all downhill from here and in many ways I was right, just not in the good way.
When I came down this way over ten years ago with the lads on one of our coast to coast rides, I’d managed to ride to the bottom with a set of rear panniers on my Inbred. Today I had no chance – the path felt like it had eroded down by a couple of metres in places and just got a bit too tasty for me to risk in various spots. Still, it didn’t take too long to get down, depositing me at the base of Buachaille Etive Mor. Next up was a ride along to the Kings’ House Hotel on the improved track, rather than cheating and using the road like I probably would have done on any other day.
I bumped my way along, cursing my lack of energy to attack this bit and get some momentum, as it slowly began to dawn on me that last orders in Tyndrum might be out of reach. I wondered how late the Ski Centre stayed open, but didn’t fancy my chances.
I would have been hitting the hotel at the perfect time for some dinner if it hadn’t been in mid refurbishment, though I was more in need of water than food. I had topped up on my way down the Devil’s staircase, but I don’t think I fancied any water sources this low down. Still, the air was cooling and surely I wasn’t that far away now? Once past the hotel, there was a short climb up to the main road before crossing to the ski centre road and then turning off to continue the West Highland Way. I had a slight bit of reception, so I took the chance to call Yvonne for a quick chat and to let the hotel know I was going to be a late check-in. It was also a good excuse to walk as I talked, rather than raise the effort to ride the climb. Finally, reception ran out and I was forced to cycle again, slowly making my way to the top of this rise.
The surface widened and improved towards the top, letting me get some kind of rhythm going before what looked like a long descent towards the Black Mount opened up before me. I hadn’t really looked at this section in any detail beforehand, so this was a pleasant surprise. I shot down the first stretch, trying to avoid any major protrusions that could wreck a rim, as my tyres were feeling a bit soft. I would have pumped them up, but my hands were so battered from five days without suspension that I needed the cushioning. The further on I went, the more regular the stony surface became and the higher my speed. The tyres were providing just enough suspension to save my hands, but I found myself hugging the verge to maximise smoothness, all the while trying to pick out any potential wheel wreckers in the gathering gloom. In all it was rather exhilarating – no chance of nodding off at this speed! After what seemed an endless descent, I dropped down the last bumpy steep bit before Forest Lodge and rolled along to join the road heading for the Inveroran Hotel.
In previous years, reaching Bridge of Orchy from here would have been a question of whizzing round the corner on tarmac, but Alan had kindly thrown in a bonus hill this year, which was nice. I thought about trying my luck in hotel for a drink, but a desire to get this over and done with made me turn straight off the road and start climbing. Feeling fresh and in the daylight, this would have been a good challenge. Feeling shit in the middle of the night, this was a total pain in the ass.
I expended as much energy as I could before hopping off to push on a loose section and most of the rest of it. As I neared the apex, the gpx forced me to leave the track to climb up to the cairn before immediately dropping back to the track I had left. What the tent dwellers on the summit thought was going on as they heard a clicking freewheel, followed by a barrage of swearing before clicking away, I will never know. I do know that they were in for several repeats before the night was done.
Back on the track, I finally relented and fired up my light for the descent. This was at times technical or awkward, so I was down a lot slower than I’d like. As I clambered over some boulders at the back of the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, I thought it was time to get some liquid on board. Unfortunately, it had obviously been a quiet night as the bar was shut up and the chairs all upturned, so I took the hint and moved on. Up the steep road to the train station and under the underpass, surely just a coast from here? No chance – despite having ridden it all before, nothing looked or felt familiar in the dark. Additionally, every single bit of anticipated downhill appeared to have been removed from the track. I lurched onward, feeling totally defeated by even the slightest bit of gradient against me. This was getting ridiculous – “It’s not even a hill!” I shouted at myself as I struggled along after crossing the Allt Kinglass. Looking at the map, it was, so no idea why I refused to acknowledge it at that point. I felt the movement become easier as I rode over loose stones in what appeared to be a railway yard, but then was kicked in the balls by the realisation I’d breezed past the turnoff for the railway underpass. I sullenly did a u-turn and went downhill to find the locked gate in the blackness to the side of the path, before hefting the bike over the stile and scrambling through the narrow gap and on up to the track proper. This final physical effort complete, I was able to continue on an increasingly downhill trajectory through the sheep farm at speed, before navigating the final gate and rolling triumphantly to the finish at the village hall, cheered on by hundreds of adulating fans. Okay, maybe not – I stopped at the hall to take a selfie under the automatic security light whilst moths fluttered round my head. 0032 was the time, so 5:15:32 was my ride duration.
As on previous rides of this type, I felt more happy and relieved to have completed under the time limit without embarrassing myself than anything else. I made my way through the dark, quiet village to get my hotel key before depositing my bike and kit in the car and heading for my room and the most keenly required shower I’ve ever had.
I woke to my alarm and lay back, trying to psyche myself up for movement. My barnmates started shifting about, which forced me into action – no point leaving after them, when I’d already given them back an hour overnight! I packed up quickly and had a quick snack before following them to the gate and back onto the route.
I made my way round the headland and onto the causeway, checking to see how far ahead the others were. It was still quite cool compared to previous days, which was pleasant enough, especially with a climb to come.
As I turned into Srathan Buidhe, I was again surprised by how rideable the track was. I could see Le Shadow up ahead getting on and off the bike, but I felt comfortable just keeping the pedals turning. I overhauled him before the top, where I emerged into the morning sunlight, before plunging down towards Letterewe.
As I rode through the well kept Letterewe estate, I did my best to keep to the gpx track, but still manged to miss the entrance to a field before making my way back to the route. I stopped under the trees to put on some DEET before tackling the Postman’s Path, as the midges were out and I imagined ticks may be an issue here. Le Shadow finally caught me up and I gave him a shout as he headed off in the wrong direction. Once sorted, I followed on to see how bad this was going to be!
After a bit of bike hefting to get up onto the faint path, I got rolling again through the waist-high ferns. The path was narrow and very off camber, but nothing too tricky as long you maintained forward momentum. I quickly overhauled Le Shadow and decided to see if I could catch up with the early bird from our barn trio. Dare I say, I was actually enjoying this. I scrambled in and out of the gully that had been formerly blocked with a tree and was rewarded with even better riding along a thin trail through an endless sea of fresh grown Ferns, high above the loch.
Eventually the camber evened out as I climbed into a basin, with a view of a waterfall tumbling from the hillside above. The path went straight for the cascade and skirted around it through a shallow riverbed, before swinging back to the opposite side of the basin, where it climbed out through a small rocky gulch. Spots like this make all the physical suffering worthwhile, I was almost going to be sad to reach the end.
By now I was coming closer to the end of the loch and feeling that breakfast at the Whistlestop in Kinlochewe was nearly in reach. As is usually the case, breakfast was not as near as I thought.
I crossed the Abhainn an Fasaigh on the rather gappy bridge and started to make my way along the lochside and then river bank. For some reason, this last stretch seemed to take longer than I wanted and I felt like I couldn’t get going. The path meandered its way around and felt like it was never going to deposit me somewhere easier going. Eventually, it did and my sanity was restored as I rolled down the road towards the Whistlestop. I gave my prey a wave as he went into the shop – I’d been spotting him in the distance the whole way along the Postman’s Path, but he’d been motoring and I’d never made up any ground on him. I was planning on getting my first cooked meal since Kylesku, so he’d be well ahead soon enough.
I breezed into the Whistlestop and ordered up a breakfast, some lemonade, a Coke and a pot of tea. It was a good chance to charge up my cache battery too, so I didn’t try to rush things along and just enjoyed sitting in one of my favourite cafes. I was listening in to a conversation between the owner and some customers, when the Highland Trail riders were mentioned. I joined in and only then did it dawn on her that I was in it too. She seemed surprised: “But you look clean? One of the last two was giving himself a stripwash in the ladies toilet!” It seemed I wasn’t too far behind a group of others who had travelled the path overnight and had a rough time of it, so I felt vindicated in deciding to knock off early last night. I managed not to linger too long chatting and got my bottles filled for the next leg through the mountains of Torridon.
The stretch of road along the glen went by quickly and I turned off at Loch Clair. I’d cycled and ran along the Coulin Pass many times before, but today there was an added climb into the trees above Loch Coulin, rather than just going through the estate as usual.
I took a right before the bridge over the Easan Dorcha and made my way uphill towards the Teahouse Bothy. The last time I cycled this way was on my honeymoon in December 2007, so I reminisced as I wound my way past some fancy new hydro infrastructure and new estate cottages. I put my head in the bothy for old time’s sake and then went over to the river to try out a new cooling tactic for the climb up Drochaid Coire Lair. I took off my jersey and submerged it in the cool water before giving it a quick shake and putting it back on. I was hoping it would take most of the ascent to dry out, cooling me as it did. It might also minimise the odour it must be putting out by now.
I crossed the bridge and started making my way up, immediately spotting a couple of mountain bikers up ahead that gave me something to chase after. I was hoping not to catch them, to be honest, because once I passed them I’d have to keep going! It was another decent track, but steep enough to hop off occasionally to save my legs for later in the day. I eventually caught the pair just as we reached the top of the pass and stopped for a chat, whilst admiring the mountainous amphitheatre that opened up before us under the baking midday sun.
I left my new buddies to recover and pressed on, as I had a descent and some road riding between me and lunch. I took a left and then plunged down the hillside towards Achnashellach. There were a few slabs to ride over, before it sarted to get steeper and looser, with plenty of boulders and drop-offs to negotiate. After a couple of near misses, I decided to walk the dodgiest bits, as breaking me or the bike at this late stage would have been heart-breaking.
Eventually the steepness subsided after going through a gate at the edge of the forest and I picked my way through the trees above the River Lair before emerging onto a Forestry track which whizzed me the rest of the way to Achnashellach Station.
I crossed the railway and then dropped onto the main road, where I made haste to minimise my exposure to trucks flying along the single track sections. I had a wealth of options for late lunch in and around Lochcarron, but was heading for the Strathcarron Hotel as it was on route. When I got there, it looked deserted and was hard to work out which door was the way in. I tried one, but it was locked with a sign saying they’d be back half an hour ago, so I moved on. Luckily, I had the Carron restaurant further down the road as a backup, so I popped in for a panini and lots of drinks before continuing on to Attadale.
I grimaced my way up the punishing steep road climb and immediate descent just before the turn off for the gardens. As I made my way through the Attadale Estate I got the feeling it was one of those places where cyclists would be unwelcome – signs everywhere telling where you could or couldn’t go. It looked like there were a lot of earthworks going on ahead, so I kept to the route and hoped I wouldn’t be held up by any of it. After passing the gardens entrance the dirt road was flat for a while then started to really pitch up. I kept to my gpx track, which joined and weaved either side of the big wide road that the heavy machinery was using. It was hard work, but I wanted to get the whole climb over and done with in one go. Unfortunately a pickup truck coming down the other way had different ideas and stopped in front of me for a chat.
“Where are you going to?” said the driver.
“There’s loads of work going on up there, you won’t get through – did you not read the sign?”
“I haven’t seen any, but I need to go this way.”
“Well you’ve got no chance.”
“Ah well, I’ll just have to see how far I can get?”
“Ah you feckin…” was his parting shot as he wheelspun away.
After the unpleasantness I resumed climbing, all thoughts of a blistering Strava KOM dashed. There had been mention of the Attadale works prior to the race beginning and someone had been kind enough to ride through and check it was all passable, so I knew he must have been talking through his backside. However, I still felt on edge as I passed more bits of machinery just over the summit and took a look at the sign that had been mentioned.
I carried on climbing through the trees, with the help of some metal grates that had been dropped on the muddy sections of track to support the forestry machinery. Eventually, I emerged onto the open hillside high above Glen Ling, where I joined a wide bulldozed track that contoured round and down towards the glen floor.
As is always the case, the going got tough at the bottom of the glen and I took a while to progress along the muddy, undulating path above the River Ling, all the while casting envious looks at the calm river below and the wide estate track on the opposite bank. Finally I escaped into a field which was crossed to meet some houses near Nonach Lodge, where I could quickly get to the tarmac and make my escape from the glen.
I made my way along as quickly as my legs would allow. In my head, I felt like this should be all downhill, but I was at sea level and the water was now salt water, so it was really a coast road, with the odd rise and fall to stop me going too fast. Perseverance brought me to the mouth of Loch Long and I joined the A87 for a thankfully short stint to Dornie where I headed straight to the shop for a restock.
Loaded up with juice, biscuits and sandwiches , I made my way out of Dornie to see what this road climb was going to be like. Rather than stay on the main road, the route takes a detour on a minor road which climbs high above before dropping back down a few kilometres further on. I imagined this was going to be hard, but I was way off the mark – it was brutal! I did the first tough section and then noticed I actually had data reception for the first time in days, so I replied to a few nice messages from people and uploaded some pictures as I took it easy along a flattish gradient, before full pain was resumed. There was no way I was stopping on a road climb with mountain bike gearing, so I creeped up and around, occasionally weaving from side to side for some respite and eventually reaching the summit viewpoint. I lingered for a minute, taking in the view and eating snacks before pointing the bike downwards for hair-raising high speed descent to the main road I’d been avoiding.
Back on the busy road, I was more than ready to return to the wilderness. Most of the remainder of the route was familiar to me now, so it really felt like the home stretch. First up was replicating the running section of the Highland Cross with a bike. I have run from Morvich to beyond the Glen Affric Car park in 3 hours, so i was intrigued to see how long it was going to take tonight on my bike. My guess was more, but by how much? I took note of the time when I passed the running start point.
I crossed the river after Glen Licht House and got myself psyched up for a long push. I’d also done this route once before by bike, so knew what I was in for – this time I wouldn’t be able to use waiting for my mates as an excuse to stop! I grunted and griped my way up with plenty of oxygen breaks, the long day beginning to take its toll.
The summit was reached eventually and I got going on the narrow undulating trail to Glen Affric. There were a few ditches to interrupt the flow, but progress occurred, which was nice.
I slogged up the last rise to Camban Bothy, looking forward to the chance to increase my pace on some easier tracks. I met several members of a family who were mountain biking to the bothy for the night as I moved on, all in various states of enjoyment/distress and had the usual jokey conversation about the other riders who were MILES ahead. All good fun, I was only worried about myself at this point.
My next landmark was Glen Affric Youth Hostel – I decided to pop in and raid the tuck shop, without being tempted to stay the night. As I chatted to the lovely warden chap, I was offered a cup of tea but declined. Partly due to wanting to use the last bit of light to get to the end of the loch, but mainly due to becoming increasingly aware of the odour emanating from my feet and person against the clean, civilised hostel. I ate some food and took my leave.
Revitalised by the short break, I started riding a bit more aggressively, hoping to hit the end of Loch Affric without resorting to lights. It was good fun, but I overdid it a bit, feeling a tweak in my knee as I tried to power up a loose climb. Still, I made it to the bridge at Athnamulloch without much delay – from here on there was nothing technical to ride, so darkness wouldn’t slow me too much.
Coming up was a series of climbs and drops on a good estate track along the loch, the first one being the biggest. I winched my way up and started to think think about when I should be stopping. There was a toilet block in the Glen Affric car park that may be unlocked, or would I be capable of going through the night and getting a couple of hours kip in Fort Augustus? My answer started to come to me the as I plodded along the main track and began to struggle to keep my eyes open. The sleep monster was coming! Again, I was struggling to keep the bike in a straight line, but I just wanted to get to the end of the loch and tick off this section. The downhills were just about refreshing enough to stay awake, but I was really pushing my luck. I passed some building works, where it looked like they were building a house into the hillside. I thought about seeing if there was an open door, but I just rolled on by without deciding to investigate or not.
The end of the loch was reached, but the thought of going slightly off course uphill to check out the toilets at the roadside was too much to contemplate, I stayed on route, aimlessly pedalling forwards, becoming more aware of the pain in my knee, which had been joined by aches from my achilles, occasionally upgrading themselves to stabbing pains. By now I knew I needed to get my head down, but again I seemed to be hemmed in by trees and undergrowth, with no decent spots off the estate track to lie down and pass out.
I was in the exact same state as I had been two nights ago, yet I still couldn’t see a way out of this trap. I rode the length of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, every contour line a torture. Occasionally I’d stop and allow myself to slump onto the handlebars for minute of shut eye, before resuming my velocipedal somnambulance.
By now I was committed in my head to reaching Tomich and seeing if there was somewhere in the hotel grounds I could get my head down. Many hours earlier, I’d been speculating whether I could book a room and get a blissful shower. If I’d had the energy now I would have laughed at my naivety. The gradual climb over was interminable and the drop to the Glen felt bumpy and unmanageable, but I somehow got there. At this point it decided to start raining.
Cursing my luck, I rolled quickly along until I found some low hanging trees to dive under and get my waterproofs out. As I did so I pondered just getting my gear out here and sleeping, but it had the feeling of a spot where midges would love to hang out, so I got back in the saddle and continued my fruitless hunt for the ideal bivy spot. On the tarmac, going off route to sniff about the hotel seemed like a wild goose chase, so on I went, never feeling like any spot was going to work for me, especially with all the houses around here.
As I climbed out of the village, I started to fixate on the thought of sleeping at the Plodda Falls car park. I didn’t remember there being any toilets there, but there was short grass and picnic benches, which worked for me. It was only about 500m off course and at least it gave me something to aim for. I pushed on, veering between both sides of the track and between hope and despair. Finally, I reached the turn off that would take me over the hills on the pylon track. No chance tonight – I followed the Plodda Falls 700m sign. There then followed the longest 700 metres anyone has ever travelled. I cursed everything and anything as the car park refused to appear and the track refused to give me the respite of an even gradient. Just as the pain in my achilles reached a crescendo, the car park blinked into existence. Too shattered to be relieved, I got myself fed and set up for sleep, fruitlessly inflating my sleep mat to feel comfortable long enough to pass out. The rain had been swapped for midges and the velcro attachment for the net on my bivy bag was not co-operating, wanting to adhere to itself rather than the bag. After thrashing about for a few minutes I gave up and pulled the bag over my head and just left an air hole for me and my new midge friends to get some fresh air. It was beginning to get light as 3am approached, so an alarm was set for 0500 – I needed to feel like I’d had some sleep.
My sleep that night was not ideal, I woke at some point to register the fact that my sleep mat had deflated and there was a rock sticking into the base of my spine. I shuffled away from it slightly and passed out again. Eventually, I raised the energy to check the time, just in case, 0650 – shit! I got up and quickly stuffed my gear away – the other riders were long gone, but no-one was stirring in the busy bothy. I headed off up the track to Corriemulzie Lodge, but stopped once I was away from the bothy to sort myself out properly and have a snack away from the midges. I had saved a pear, almond and chocolate pie from Lochinver and it did a great job of lifting my spirits, which were pretty broken at this point.
Suitably refreshed and lubed up, I gingerly got back aboard and made the most of the easy going along Strath Mulzie. I was interested to see how this route differed from the option to the North, which passes Knockdamph bothy, as I’d always taken that option in the past.
The track began to climb more noticeably and as I whizzed down a sudden drop I got the feeling something was amiss. Sure enough, I’d missed my turn off to the right. I cursed my way back up the hill to take the rough track that had kindly been signposted but ignored by me.
Although the going was a bit harder, I was beginning to snap out of my funk and actually enjoy the riding. First over some undulating moorland, then contouring round the hillside high above a grassy gorge. There were even some wet and muddy bits of track, which was now a novelty!
Soon, the path left the hillside and dropped down to Loch an Daimh, crossing at the head of the Loch, before climbing up to the main track through Glen Achall. The track then dropped steeply to farmland by East Rhidorroch Lodge, where I weaved my way through the sheep poo, speeding towards Loch Achall.
As always on the bits of the route I already knew, I was going along on autopilot, flying towards Ullapool for a morning resupply when I realised I was off route again. I should have know that flying down an estate track to town was not on the cards when I could be climbing up a rough track above the glen and over a hill to get some nice views of Loch Broom below. I doubled back again and started up the correct route after navigating a broken gate/fence combination at the start.
I had hoped to be in Ullapool for breakfast before the previous night’s somnambulant fumblings and this was pushing me back even further. As I dropped into the outskirts of town I reached a tall kissing gate that was in no way going to let me wheelie the bike through. With much grunting and straining, I hefted the bike over the 6 foot fence and just about lowered it on the far side without dropping the whole lot. On following it through the gate, I glanced at the fence as I remounted and spotted hinges and an unlocked bolt which had been hidden from the other side! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I went to Tesco instead.
I needed to recharge my batteries and replenish my food supplies, so I went for the buying one of everything approach. The highlight was a huge bag of fresh sliced pineapple from a fridge, which I sat munching outside in the shade. I’d definitely bought too much, so I kept eating and drinking until I could realistically fit the remainder in my bags. There was plenty of sliced edam and chorizo with tiger rolls that should leave me well stocked for the next day or so without getting as dubious as the prepared sandwiches seemed to be in the hot weather. When the food mountain had shrunk to a packable level, I emergd back into the burning sun and started up along the main road. This unavoidable stretch of busy tarmac was one of the more unpleasant bits of the ride, but having lots of uphill made it hard to dispatch quickly. Finally I reached the turn off for the apparent sanctuary of the Coffin Road. I’d been hoping to do this climb before the day’s heat got going. It was 1200.
I crossed the field and went through the gate to the start of the climb proper. I knew I’d be kidding myself by attempting to ride much of this one, so I jumped off and started walking as soon as I felt the strain. The pitch was pretty relentless without getting ridiculous, so it was a matter of plodding on as best I could and pausing to take on liquid when appropriate. Not long into the climb, the flies started to become an issue – horrible yellow looking things that would leave you alone until they’d got into an orifice or found a nice sweaty patch of skin to bathe in. I did my usual flailing and whimpering whilst trying fruitlessly to speed up the hill and escape them. The air was stifling and the sun was beating down harder than ever, so any slight breath of wind felt like a cooling shower as I finally climbed out of reach of the yellow demons.
My mouth felt dry as a bone, but the cold apple and raspberry juice that I had watered down in the Tesco carpark was now warm and sticky and too sweet. It seemed to be making the thirst worse, but I was stuck with it until I found a water source I trusted higher up. The worst of the climbing done, I skirted past Loch Tiompain and started descending towards Dundonnell, with An Teallach rearing up ahead.
On the way down I was debating my options in my head. I had a real hankering for a pint of orange juice and lemonade as well as a chance to visit a civilised toilet before heading into the Fisherfield wilderness, which could be had at the Dundonnell Hotel. As I reached the road and started rolling down the hill that way, I had a change of heart and decided that adding an extra 5km onto the route for a posh poo was not worth the effort – I did a u-turn and got on with the job at hand, going up a bumpy hill.
With some riding effort and the odd push, I was up at the high point and able to get a sense of my surroundings. My route stretched ahead of me and would eventually drop me into Strath na Sealga.
Once at the bottom, I doubled back on myself to make my way towards Shenavall, a spot I’d been wanting to visit ever since climbing An Teallach on a hot day like this and looking down into the glen below.
As I made my way up to the bothy, my Garmin took the opportunity to die – looked like the cache battery had run out of juice at some point. As I stood rooting through my gear to get my backup, I could feel eyes boring into me from a couple of blokes relaxing outside. I got a definite feeling they were giving me the “We don’t need any extra people in the bothy tonight” look that you sometimes get from people. I had absolutely no plans to stop here, but I said good evening and went in for a quick look around, mainly to annoy them. The path deteriorated after the bothy and I followed its faint traces through increasingly sodden ground towards the loch, which took a while longer to reach then expected. Once on its shore, progress was straightforward and I finally reached the fabled crossing point of the Abhainn Srath na Sealga. This point had been weighing on my mind since the first night, when Sarah had mentioned a storm was coming in midweek. The last thing I wanted was for my attempt to be curtailed by a river crossing, especially after the mental crossing of the Fords of Avon last year on the Cairngorms Loop.
Today was not going to be an issue and the rumoured storm never appeared. I took off my shoes and paddled across the freakishly warm water, realising that I could have just cycled straight over and still had dry shoes at the end.
As I air dried my feet and ate a sandwich on the far side, I wondered if anyone was close behind. I hadn’t seen a soul all day, not even Le Shadow, but I figured it was just a matter of time. Speak of the devil, as I got going again I saw not one but two cyclists making their way along the boggy ground to the loch. The chase was on!
I made my way over the rough ground in the direction of Larachantivore and had a look at the buildings there – a traditional stone cottage type and a wooden cabin with veranda. Both were locked, but I imagine the veranda would make a decent bivy spot on another night.
The route followed the banks of the Abhainn Glean na Muice and was quite an enjoyable ride in a lovely area that would be nice to camp out in some time. As I made my way up the pleasantly shady glen, I ran into three French teenagers on their way down, who asked me where the bothy was, I think! I directed them to cross the river and head for Shenavall, which hopefully got through. They had small day packs and were casually dressed, but looked pretty fresh considering they must have come a long way to reach this point. I’d love to know who had thought it was appropriate to point them off in this direction!
Soon enough, the route took a turn to the right and began to climb more seriously up the Gleann na Muice Beag. As jumped off the push up the final steep section, I started getting paranoid that my pursuers must be gaining on me and kept looking back for sign of them. No-one appeared in the distance as I emerged into the sun at the top of the bealach.
Once up, I followed a decent narrow track across the moor, headed for the pass that would drop me down to Carnmore. This was another spot I’d been looking forward to, after seeing so many other people’s pictures of the causeway at the end of the Dubh Loch. The sun was below my horizon, but the hills all around were bathed in a warm glow and hard to take my eyes off.
As I breached the edge of the plateau, I finally got the view I craved – the track dropped away sharply and to my right The two lochs lay, split by the narrow causeway. I had this spot in mind as a bivy location purely for the view, but it was feeling a bit brisk in the shade with a strong wind now blowing, so I figured continuing to Carnmore made sense, to try and get a better night’s sleep in the bothy.
The descent was mostly ridden, apart from a couple of far too steep and/or loose sections – I was beyond the point of bothering to lower my saddle and also paranoid I’d never get it back to the right height. As I got nearer the peninsula, I was still debating the merits of stopping early over making up for lost time. With all the dire warnings about how rough the Postman’s Path was going to be, I figured attempting it in the dark wasn’t wise. Not wanting to end up in a mess like last night through indecision, I decided the bothy was the way forward.
As I made my way across, I had to pass a remote estate house, which surprisingly was occupied. The residents were out on the lawn enjoying the sunset with a glass of wine so I stopped for a natter. It turned out they had used the bothy themselves several times over the years and were going for the luxury option this time for a ladies’ getaway. After exchanging a bit of banter, I was told if I needed anything to just let them know, anything! Rather than get into some kind of innuendo battle, I bid them good evening and slinked off to my grubby cowshed, wondering if anything would have covered a shower and a glass of wine!
I was expecting a busy building when I saw the tents outside, but there was only one resident on arrival. I said hi to the young dutch girl who was just getting set up in one of the camp beds and went over to the ropey looking bed divan in the opposite end of the room, rather than freak her out by using the other comfy-looking adjacent camp bed. Out of the blue she called over: “You don’t snore, do you?” – “I don’t think so”, I lied. “Okay, goodnight”. I sat in the gloom, trying to silently make and eat a sandwich before getting my head down. Suddenly, the door burst open, Le Shadow had arrived! In he strode, for a quick high five and to hand me my sunglasses, which I had misplaced at some point during my fevered climb of the Coffin Road. As he stumbled about getting himself sorted for a sleep in the empty camp bed, the original inhabitant asked if we were going to be cooking and stuff before bed or there would be others. “There might be?” was all I could say really. With that, she leapt out of bed, gathered her kit and stomped out in a huff. Obviously, this bothying lark was new to her if she expected lights out at 10pm! Her departure left a space for another late arrival, a chap of few words that I hadn’t met before, who looked highly unimpressed when Le Shadow tried to spark up conversation whilst blinding him with his headtorch.
Eventually, everyone got settled, especially the two comfy camp bed dwellers and I set my alarm for 0400 – about time I got an early start!
Waking came easy, thanks to a stunning sunrise getting me up before my alarm. As I lay there like a reptile absorbing solar energy, I heard the buzz of a freewheel coming down the pass behind me. The first of the riders I had leapfrogged last night came whizzing by shouting “Nice sunny spot!” Little did I know, this was to be my first sighting of the mysterious figure I eventually nicknamed “Le Shadow”.
The sight of another rider spurred me into action and I was up, fed, dressed and rolling down the hill without too much delay. I’d opted to got for a normal pair of unpadded mountain bike shorts today, since I figured ‘d be doing a lot of walking and it might ease my pains down below to get away from the clammy chamois for a few hours at least. After the quick drop to Loch Shin, I winced my way along the road, bemoaning the lack of padding for my backside.
Back offroad and I made my way up the glen towards Gobernuisgach Lodge on a straightforward gradient as the sun moved higher in the sky and the temperature began to rise.
As I sped towards the lodge, I saw another rider off to the side of the path and shouted hello before taking the turn off towards Glen Golly. I stopped briefly on the bridge to let him catch up for a chat, but the midges had woken up and they find me tasty, so I moved on.
The track rose immediately, snaking along above the gorge below before steeply descending to the floor of the glen on a loose section of track that swallowed tyres into channels made by previous riders. I proceeded up the glen on a decent landrover track, pleased that I wasn’t having to walk already. However, up ahead I could make out a track steeply ascending the hill dead ahead and figured I’d be on foot soon enough.
As I hit the steep, I rode for as long as seemed sensible, jumping off as soon as my wheel slipped and gave me an excuse. A sweaty push followed and I could make out a rider approaching the climb not too far behind. Once up on the ridge, it was nice riding but I paused to let Mick catch up, so I could have a natter and see what we’d been up to since the previous morning. Unfortunately the distraction caused us to ride straight past the turn off at Lochan Sgeireach, luckily realising before we went too far. I took the chance to enjoy the view from the ridge and have some brunch before heading back to the turn, leaving Mick to continue on without me slowing him down.
After the turnoff, the going got rougher on grassy tufty singletrack which took a bit more effort to ride, but enhanced the remoteness.
Eventually the track started to descend towards An Dubh Loch, whilst ahead all I could see was a steep track ascending the ridge which I assumed would take me to the Bealach Horn. The path petered out and I resorted to jumping off peat hags to get me to the bottom of the hill, where the gpx line encouraged me to pass through a muddy channel between two huge rocks – the first time my feet had got remotely wet so far! I then doubled back to cross the burn that ran from the loch and meet the grassy start of the next track.
I jumped on and rode as far as was sensible and then hopped off to begin the killer push up to the stony track I had observed from the other side of the glen. Looking back, I could also see my pursuer from earlier had caught me up and was crossing the burn behind me.
Though it was still morning, the heat had already started to build, so I paused regularly for a sip of drink and to listen to my heart beating in my head. It was tough and relentless, but on the other hand I was elated to be here at the most Northerly part of the route, a day quicker than I had expected could be the case. I managed to ride as the gradient eased, before stopping to fill up my bottles at the Allt Horn crossing.
The rest of the climb to the bealach was at a much more manageable gradient and I was more excited to reach this spot than any other. I’d always had a picture of this place in my head from Ralph Storer’s book, Exploring Scottish Hill Tracks, with a now vintage mountain bike and rider standing at the bealach, framed by the flanks of Arkle glistening in the sun. I’d basically used this book as my bible from 2003 onwards and tried to ride every route and join different sections up for our coast to coast rides, back when we had more free time on our hands. This section had been in our route for a double C2C back in 2008, but the weather had been atrocious when we reached the lodge, so I’d let the gang off with going down to Loch Merkland on the estate track instead. As I crested the last rise, the wait had been more than worth it, so I pulled off the track onto the rocks and set myself up for some second breakfast and foot airing so I could soak it in for longer.
As I was getting comfortable, my shadow for the day arrived and came over to take some pictures himself. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the view, the hill and the weather before my accent overcame him and he had to utter what became his catchphrase over the next few days: “Sorry, I am French”. No need to apologise, your English is much better than my French! Le Shadow moved on shortly leaving me to enjoy some solitude for a short while, before dragging myself back onto the bike for the descent.
It was good to be moving quickly again, although I was really missing suspension forks on all the descents, causing me to lower my speed to protect tyres, rims and hands. I passed Le Shadow lower down after he pulled over for a break and then hit a loose section, wondering how on earth they were driving vehicles up this track. A minute later, I had my answer as a small fleet of Argocats made their way up the hill towards me, carrying what appeared to be three generations of a large family, the adults dressed in tweed and the kids hanging out waving as I stood to the side. They must have been heading to the bealach for a picnic – I wasn’t jealous at all!
It was approaching midday and very toasty as I rode across the bottom of the glen to head for the next climb over to Kylesku. Once I reached the road, I went on autopilot to the start of the Achfary climb, but glancing at the GPS saw the offroute warning. I turned around, thinking maybe it now started from a different place than I remembered, especially since the gate had a lock on last time, causing us to have to lift our pannier-laden bikes over it. Then I twigged what was going on – I hadn’t loaded the “back” route onto the GPS yet and was past the end of the “out” track! Relieved, I triumphantly opened the second half of the route before continuing to the turn off and passing through the (unlocked) gate into the trees.
I didn’t kid myself I’d be riding this whole climb today, so pushed the initial steep bit before riding the remainder under the midday heat of the sun.
I continued along to the turn off that would drop me down to the lower path and bounced my way down towards the loch below. I’d been hoping to reach Kylesku around lunch and as usual was going to be an hour or so later than I wanted, but still, I’d passed the top of the route in less than two and a half days, so all good.
I reached Kylesku before two and headed straight for the hotel with a plan to consume as much liquid and food as possible. I placed my order and sat savouring an ice cold Coke when Le Shadow arrived. He joined me at the table and eventually managed to get an order after the customary “Sorry, I am French” dance. The hotel kindly delayed my meal so we could eat together and we sat like an old married couple, not saying much, but enjoying the company of a fellow sufferer.
I needed to do a bit of maintenance on my body, so let my new friend leave first as I changed back to padded shorts, freshened up and lathered my rear end in chamois cream before heading back out onto the baking hot roads. Next was the infamous hilly coast road section to Drumbeg. I’d thought the good hot meal would have invigorated me, but I was feeling distinctly below par and the steep climbs beat me up good and proper. Drumbeg Stores arrived eventually, probably too soon, but I felt like I had to stop since they make such an effort to look after the riders during the HT550. I said hi to Le Shadow, got myself a nice freshly made sandwich and some veggie samosas, topped up my drinks and moved on, passing him again on the way to Clachtoll.
I kept an eye out for the turn off for the track to Achmelvich, which has caught people out in the past and then bumped along to my favourite beach in Scotland. I’d been thinking I might bivy here when I was planning this trip, but it was far too early to stop, even if the chippy was just opening. I settled for a quick trip to the loo and vowed to come back with the kids as soon as I have a chance.
The next section to Lochinver was new to me, as I’d always ridden round on the road from Achmelvich. It started innocuously enough, but eventually turned into a frustrating push along the track that was too narrow to ride without multiple pedal strikes. I was keen to start making progress and found this particularly frustrating, as I knew I had a tough evening ahead of me and hadn’t figured on taking an hour to reach the town. Despite feeling like I had made too many stops, I couldn’t resist dropping into the pie shop and getting a couple to go, as well as yet more drinks. I stuffed it all in my bags and left town on the road to Glencanisp Lodge.
I passed the lodge, not requiring use of the honesty shop this time round and continued on to the gate that marked the entrance to the latest long stretch of wilderness to be navigated. There was a nice family passing the other way who had been making the most of the weekend, by camping out at the bothy and going walking and swimming over the bank holiday weekend, so I stopped for a natter, whilst the midges gathered around us.
Initial progress was good, as I got closer to the gap between Suilven and Canisp, which was a pleasant surprise, as I’d expected to be walking from the bothy onwards in my head.
Walking finally became the norm, as I crossed the burn emerging from Lochan Fada and scrambled my way up loose stones to rise above the lochan and make my way across the open moorland. The route now just followed small cairns across the various hills and rises and I was beyond the point of hopping on and off where it was rideable.
The sun was starting to set, but I had no intention of stopping any time soon. I saw an antenna through a gap in the hills way off in the distance and wondered if there was any phone reception out here. I took the phone out of airplane mode and was rewarded with two bars. I hadn’t been able to call Yvonne yet as I’d always been finishing too late in the night, so I thought I’d take a chance that the kids were actually asleep in time and she was near her phone. Miraculously, I got through and plugged in my earphones, letting me push along while checking up on home. Yvonne was loving Trackleaders, although she was much more excited about Lee Craigie than me. She was also struggling to get her iPad off her Mum, who was well into it and delving into stats and everything! Eventually, I went into a larger dip, cutting me off from the distant reception source, but the chat had given me another morale boost and I was actually enjoying tramping across the hills.
I was on the bike more frequently as I dropped down to Cam Loch and the sight of civilisation on the other side got me optimistically thinking of pushing on to near Ullapool overnight. However, the rollercoaster of emotions that is the HT550 hadn’t finished with me quite yet tonight. I crossed a stony estuary at the mouth of a burn, where tiny fish shimmered away in the moonlight, then made my way along the northern edge of the loch. I started to suffer along this stretch, with a narrow undulating path and lots of undergrowth to catch on the bike and cause shin/pedal/calf interfaces, as well as being a struggle to walk and keep the bike on the path where it dropped away to the right.
It was less than an extra hour along, but I’d been suckered into thinking the end was nigh when I saw the cottages on the far side, so it felt like eternity. I’d been using the moonlight as usual, but had a real struggle finding the right track through the heather at the end of the loch even with my light on full blast. Eventually I lost it and start stomping around to find the right gap, swearing at myself loudly, which eventually worked and ejected me through a gate onto the roadside.
At this point I had no idea what I was going to do next, so stopped and ate a delicious pie while I pondered my options. The road looked like it was going to be pretty flat so I might as well just ride it to Oykel Bridge and see if there was anywhere I could bivy round there. I climbed back aboard and got going again whilst my backside complained vigorously. As I reach the junction and turned right down the A837, I started to resort to standing up and pedalling vigorously before letting the bike coast for a while whilst I slumped over the bars, avoiding putting weight on my rear. This went on interminably and I started to get sleepy, feeling the bike veering in to the verge before correcting and waking up again. I realised I needed to stop either for a power nap or for the night, but my head was gone and I didn’t seem to be able to pick a spot, pulling in at random laybys or overgrown tracks to case them out before moving on. The clear skies had also brought on a temperature inversion and I could see mist gathering off to my right. Occasionally it would reach all the way across the road and I would hit a pocket of ice cold air with a gasp, but still not enough to wake me up properly. On one of my random stops I found an unlocked shed at the bottom of a drive, which I really should have just used for 30 minutes to get my head straight away from the cold and midges, but my fear of trespassing kicked in and I refused my chance. Finally, the road had a long fast downhill approaching Oykel Bridge, so I let it take me down, freezing me to the bone, but just about awake enough to steer round the corners.
I rolled my weary way past the Oykel Bridge Hotel, my addled brain still unable to pick a spot, so i figured I might as well plod on to the Schoolhouse Bothy at Duag Bridge. I’d have been happy to find a flat spot next to the track, but my brain wasn’t seeing any. On I went, sometimes riding, sometimes walking, sometimes along the track, sometimes towards the trees flanking the sides. The last couple of kilometres to the bothy altered my perception of time and space, no matter how long I waited before looking at the GPS, I’d only ever advanced about 100 metres. As the bothy reared up out of the darkness, I was aware of there being a lot more bikes about than I expected – every bit of wall space had a luminous yellow mountain bike propped up against it. Hopes dashed, I put my head in to the bothy’s rooms to find them all full of comatose teenagers on some sort of school jaunt. I could see what I guessed were my fellow riders in various tents/bivies arrayed about on the grass outside. I could also see all that juicy CO2 had brought in the midges, so I hurriedly got my sleeping gear out and got my head down on the slightly less midgey turning area off the main track. After a 21 hour day, I figured setting an alarm for 4 or 5 was fruitless and passed out before I had decided on a time.
As usual, I woke a few times before my alarm went off and even when it did, lay there dozing for a few minutes whilst I psyched myself up. I eventually dragged myself up and had a swig of morning Irn Bru to get me going whilst I stuffed my sleeping gear back into the drybag and onto the bike. I was just thinking of going and waking the toilet dwellers, when I saw them wheel their bikes out already locked and loaded. Mick seemed refreshed and raring to go, but Sarah was having serious doubts about her desire to continue. Mick headed off and I chatted to Sarah, who was slowly convincing herself her attempt was over. I suggested she tried to ride today and see how she got on before scratching, but I think the decision was already made, so I gave her directions to the start of the route back down along the Great Glen Way to Fort William. If someone who has done the Tour Divide twice was dropping out, it goes to show the Highland Trail is no easy susbtitute!
As I rolled out of town I checked the time, 0600, not quite the racing 4am start the serious riders go for. Still, my main concern was with finishing more than anything else, so no harm in getting more rest. I headed up into the trees on a steep track, jumping off and pushing for a short section to give my knees time to wake up. It was straightforward riding along the Great Glen Way above Loch Ness and I could see several decent bivy spots at view points that would have done the trick last night. I passed through Invermoriston before anywhere was open and took the main road West for a few km before turning off at Bhlaraidh to start climbing up to the hydro schemes and wind farm.
The track started out wide and steep where it shared space with the wind farm dirt road, before turning away toward the first of the three lochs and dams.
Finally, I reached Loch na Stac, where the track petered out near the end of the loch and I had to footer about in the boggy ground to find my way onto the beach where the gpx track was guiding me.
The lochside had nice patches of riding, guiding the bike carefully between rocks to keep the momentum, along with the odd bit of hoicking over the larger stuff.
After passing the old haunted house at the far end of the loch, I got going on a narrow grassy trail, but could see something was amiss up ahead. There looked to be a bike tipped over on the right hand side of the track and what looked like a rucksack on the left hand side. As I got closer, I realised it was actually a person lying in what looked to be the recovery position. Heart racing, I ditched the bike and ran forward to investigate. “Are you okay mate?” I said to the stricken figure. Berten, the narcoleptic Belgian below, opened his eyes in brief surprise, then said “Hey, thanks for waking me man, just needed 15 minutes”. And with that, he got up, jumped on his bike and buggered off!
A bit more grassy/muddy riding eventually deposited us onto a good, super fast track heading towards Corrimony where we rejoined the tarmac. Berten fell back a bit, but I figured he’d be heading for the Cannich campsite cafe, same as me. I’d initially been worried I might arrive too early for its 0900 opening time, but my slovenly sleeping habits meant I was there closer to 10. When I got to the counter, the lady did not look pleased to see me, which was worrying. I hung on politely while she tried not to catch my eye and told her I was just after a breakfast when she eventually enquired. She muttered something about there being nothing left and left me hanging. I should have abandoned ship and gone to the Spar at that point, but I had a can of apple juice in my hand and was thirsty, so I hung on in limbo and eventually managed to persuade her to give me a pot of tea and a cake from the fridge. I drank up as quick as I could, with the sound of the smoke alarm in the kitchen going off as a background accompaniment and paid up whilst Mick was enjoying his breakfast and coffee as a reward for getting there a fair bit earlier than me! On my way out I ran into another rider, who had talked his way into using the shower block, which was a genius idea!
At the Spar they had a hot cabinet, so I grabbed a sausage roll and also a fresh baked baguette with some chorizo to make sandwiches for later. They also did tea and coffee, so I could have saved a fair bit of time by following my first instinct and ditching the cafe. Berten also showed up, having received similar service at the cafe and sat in the sun eating a cold tin of beans.
Leaving Cannich, it was a long stretch of tarmac to follow up Strathglass to Struy, where the climbing began again, eventually ending up high above a deforested glen.
I gathered I was on what would normally have been the well known “Path of a thousand puddles”, however the numbers and depth had been significantly reduced by weeks of dry weather, so it was all relatively pleasant.
I rounded the bend and started to head West, getting up speed on the more level terrain as I approached the hydro bothy in the distance. A quick drop and climb brought me to the spot that would have been busy with the quicker riders last night, so I had a look inside and a sit outside, eating some lunch. Ron, from the campsite earlier arrived shortly after as he’d been having a nap in the sun further back, so we had a wee chat before I pushed on.
Over the next hill and I dropped down to the first of the big dams and some tarmac. I’d been getting a little worried I might be pushing my luck for Contin Stores on a Sunday if I didn’t speed up, but the smooth surface allowed for an extremely quick return to the public roads, with a pleasant roll along the River Conon, followed by an unpleasant sprint along the A835 into Contin.
The shop was open, so i took the opportunity to go crazy with fizzy drinks and food and worry about how to pack it when I got outside. I figured I’d be needing enough for tonight if I missed out on the pub food and also the following morning and lunch, so I didn’t skimp. Berten came and went as I dithered and Ron turned up as I sneaked into the campsite toilets. He was chilling in the sun as I left – he was going well for someone so relaxed!
The next stretch all the way to Alladale was another that was quite familiar to me, although I’d always done it in full winter conditions, so the lack of ice would make a nice change.
For all the controversy that surround the plans for Alladale, it is a lovely place to ride through and I had bivied there a few times over the years. This was out of the question today, with hours of light left, so I reluctantly continued after topping up my bottles.
My aching hands got a bit of relief on the smooth tracks near Alladale Lodge and on the short tarmac stretch round to Croick, where I joined the route towards Ullapool.
I’d done this stretch in reverse 10 years ago, but hardly any of it seemed familiar. The first bit was really fast and easy, getting my hopes up of making the Oykel Bridge Hotel in time for hot food. Unfortunately, the going got a bit rougher further on, so it was looking touch and go. As I slowly made my way up and around to Glen Einig I caught a couple of riders, Fabio and Daniele from Italy, that I recognised from my hotel on Friday night. I paused to say hello and Daniele said something to the effect of “Phew, this is tough!” – can’t argue with that! They followed close behind for a short while on an awkward section and then dropped back just before the top and a some quick descending to the forest and Oykel Bridge.
It was half nine when I reached the Oykel Bridge Hotel, so there didn’t seem to be much point going in to enquire about food, especially from reports the previous year. Instead, I kept straight on to the Achness Hotel, which was only a few miles down the road and I’d always fancied popping in to on previous rides but had never had the time. I got there quickly, fantasising about a pot of tea and some crisps, since I figured that was all I’d be able to get. On arrival, it seemed I’d just missed a batch of other riders who’d managed to get a meal, but it was great to get some tea, crisps and biscuits on board anyway.
A quick freshen up in the toilets and I felt raring to go again, four cups of tea had done their work! I never normally listen to music whilst riding or running, but I stuck in some earphones and charged my way up Glen Cassley, singing along to Gregory Alan Isakov whilst lit up by an incredibly bright full moon. I didn’t bother with lights apart from my tail light, as I wasn’t expecting any traffic this late and would be off road soon enough. The glen seemed to fly by – it’s weirdly easier to ride up than down for some reason. I thought I would run out of steam by the time I got to the hydro road climb, but the music had really uplifted me, so I carried straight on over the pass, only pausing to say hi to Mark , whose light I’d seen from the bottom and was bedding down before the top. I was aiming for the radio mast on the far side, to give me some phone reception and a good view. It didn’t disappoint, with 4G and a view North to the hills I’d be passing through tomorrow, bathed in the glow of a permanent sunset, thanks to our latitude. I savoured the view for a while and did some internetting, before realising it was 0200 and I really should sleep! Alarm set for 0500 and I arranged my slippy bivy bag as best I could to avoid finding myself at the bottom of the pass when I woke, before passing out surprisingly quickly.
Day 1 dawned bright and warm as predicted, so I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the RFC to see who was about. I wasn’t feeling like a full breakfast, so went for a bacon roll, plus one to go with me. I sat outside, chatting to Bob, Jenny and Alan when Bob revealed the luxury item he was taking along – a shoe horn! No-one was going to top that.
I couldn’t dally for too long, so I headed back to the hotel to get changed and check out. As usual I ended up cutting it fine, popping into the shop at the bottom of the hill for supplies before joining the throng of cyclists gathered round the village hall.
I can’t for the life of me remember what was said other than something like “Don’t come home until you’re absolutely smashed!”, which seemed fair enough. Then, off we went on our adventure.
I did my best to keep the pace down at the start and bumped down the rough singletrack dropping to the railway underpass where it all inevitably backed up before everyone could settle along the short stretch of West Highland Way before the turn up towards Loch Lyon.
The loch was reached in no time and I carried on along one of my most familiar bits of the route, chatting to various people as they caught me or were caught.
After the speedy downhill to the dam, it was a longish tarmac stretch to Bridge of Balgie, where I made a brief stop at the tea room to top up on cold fizzy drinks and take the edge off the heat.
Next was the climb over to Loch Rannoch, which I remembered as short and steepish.
Having done the hard part, the ride through Rannoch Forest to Bridge of Gaur seemed to take ages – probably because I’d normally follow the singletrack down through the trees and then ride along the lochside on previous rides.
After crossing the end of the loch on tarmac, we were straight up into the forest climb over to Loch Ericht. The passage was a far cry from the last time I’d come through on a coast to coast ride when we’d been forced to lift pannier laden bikes over the full height of the locked gates thanks to the walker’s gates being specifically designed to stop bicycles getting through.
After hitting the end of the loch, I knew that a bog fest was coming, but I was hoping the dry weather we’d been having would have mitigated the issue somewhat. I still have visions of Paul disappearing up to his waist at one point around midnight on our way to the bothy.
As it turned out, the weather had done its job and it was a pretty straightforward ride/walk through with dry feet, which was a bonus. I could see I was catching up with someone and was doubly surprised to see it was Bob, firstly as I hadn’t seen him overtake and secondly as I wouldn’t expect to catch him up on this terrain. I checked in with him and he was feeling pretty rough – he’d been sick already and had another bout as I dawdled just ahead of him. It looked like the heat was a major contributing factor so I thought I’d hang on and make sure he got to Ben Alder Cottage okay, so he could get out of the sun for a while. He took a bit of convincing, but there was no question he needed to cool down for a bit and see how he felt.
Now it was time for the first properly big climb of the day round Ben Alder. The track is always in good condition, the only issue being some of the water channels and the odd burn crossing to break up the rhythm. The burns were a welcome water bottle top up source and the chance to soak your head and take the edge off the afternoon heat. Mark and Rich, who had joined us for the last stretch to the bothy were doing the same and the fresh water seemed to invigorate Rich, who was off up the hill like a rocket. As I got nearer to the head of the pass, I caught another rider, Berten from Belgium, who said he wasn’t feeling the power and settled down for an afternoon nap!
I stopped at the high point to chat to two chaps and a youngster who were out on a bikepacking trip too and said they’d seen LOADS of people pass already – I joked that they’d hurt my feelings, but was happy enough with my progress! I headed along the rough downhill conservatively, knowing that wrecking a wheel or tyre on one of the ditches would be a frustrating way to miss out on a finish. Another thing on my mind was the last time I’d come down here, I’d ended up bandaging my friend Paul’s head after a ditch mishap, before rushing him to Kingussie to get stitches at the doctor’s surgery.
Once down, the going got a lot quicker past Culra, over the new bridge and up to Loch Pattack.
On the way down the River Pattack I eventually caught Sarah from Canada, who also wasn’t feeling too energetic, so I pushed on a bit to give her some space. At the edge of the estate, there was a 4×4 that had just passed through and one of the occupants was closing the gate as I approached. Rather than acknowledge my presence he fumbled with the lock as quickly as he could, before hurriedly re-entering the vehicle as I stopped and was forced to wheelie my bike through the awkward walkers gate to the side. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I then had to wait behind them as they picked their way through the bumpier bits of the track down towards the lodge!
Out onto the A86 and I got my head down to get it out the way quickly. The sign outside Wolftrax said the cafe was open, but I figured I was touch and go for reaching Fort Augustus in time for hot food, so I made that my priority and pushed on over to the Spey dam to head for the infamous Corrieyairack. Despite the fact I was short on time, I couldn’t resist stopping at Garva Bridge to take some photos of our wedding proposal spot to send back to Yvonne and keep me in the good books!
The last of the tarmac ended near Melgarve Bothy and it was a case of trundling on up towards the zig-zags, which always takes longer than you think. Sarah passed me as I was taking on yet more water and Mick caught me up at the bottom of the zig zags, for a discussion on whether we were going to make Fort Augustus in time for pizza. Someone had told him it was 30 minutes down from the top, but I was sceptical of that!
As we made our weary way up, I shouted down to Mick on the switchback below: “Pizzaaaa, come on!!!”. He probably thought I had heatstroke. It was pleasant walking for a bit after a long day’s ride, but I reluctantly climbed back aboard to ride the last stretch towards the ugly tower at the top of the pass.
As we crested the high point there was quite a sight to behold, as the whole of the glen below us was bathed in cloud, with only the neighbouring peaks emerging above the blanket. I told Mick to go ahead, as it looked like his chunkier tyres would allow him a bit more speed than me on the way down. I took a couple more pictures and he was already a small cloud of dust in the distance!
I knew it would be colder in the clouds, but I headed on down without adding any layers, as the temperature was still warm for now. The speed got very high very quickly and as I rounded one of the hills on the way down I collided with a wall of ice-cold air. The temperature change was both pleasant and shocking, so I just went with it and dropped all the way down to the bottom of this stretch without stopping.
There were still some re-climbs to warm me up, but I eventually conceded to the cold after Blackburn bothy by putting on my gloves, since they were easily accessed. As usual, getting where I wanted to be took longer than I wanted, but I rolled into Fort Augustus just after 2120 and made a beeline for the Moorings, which had the expected gathering of bikepacker rigs stood up around the premises.
I sat with Mick and Sarah and got an order in for fizzy drinks and a meat feast pizza. I’d expected to be much hungrier, but wasn’t feeling it at all, possibly due to the heat and large amount of liquids consumed. The chill off the descent had finally soaked through to my bones and every time I popped out to get something from the bike I felt it more. Because I hadn’t known if I’d even make it this far today, I didn’t really have a game plan for what to do next, so I stayed put, absorbing the heat and chatting to Mick and Sarah, who were similarly spent and theorising on finding hotel rooms. Rich and Mark had come in after me and were planning on pushing on into the forest past Fort Augustus. I should have gone along with them but I really wanted to try and get a shower after the hot day to keep myself in good nick, so thought I’d try my luck at the campsite.
The campsite I knew has long gone but Mick knew where the new one was, so I headed out into the night a good couple of hours after arriving, with him and Sarah, wearing all my extra layers to stop me shivering. They were still determined to find indoor accomodation, so I left them to it, as there was no way there would be a free room on a May bank holiday weekend. Once they gave up, we headed to the campsite, only to find it didn’t open until the 1st of June! We rode on in anyway, as all we really needed was somewhere out the way to lay our bivies. There was a covered bay for the groundskeeping vehicles out of the wind which was spot on for me. I went to check out the toilet block and was surprised to find it open. Mick and Sarah went for the indoor option, but I felt too guilty to push my trespassing any further, so stuck with the original spot. I told Mick I’d come and get him in the morning if he slept in and set my alarm for 5am, as it was already pretty late. Still, 95 miles in the bag!