HT550 2018 Day 1

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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.

Pre-race chat and inspirational words from Jenny

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.

Following one of the many ‘boners.

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.

West Highland Way
Nearing 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.

Photo stop at top
Easy riding along Loch Lyon

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.

Hot Glen Lyon

Next was the climb over to Loch Rannoch, which I remembered as short and steepish.

Up and over to Loch Rannoch

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.

‘boner Mike chatting away at a water stop.

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.

Brief lunch stop at a handy stone table
Plain sailing to Loch Ericht

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.

Lovely day at Loch Ericht
The end of the road

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.

Ben Alder Cottage
Awkward bridge by the bothy

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!

Pristine singletrack when there’s no ditches to hop

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.

Down from the pass and heading for Culra

Once down, the going got a lot quicker past Culra, over the new bridge and up to Loch Pattack.

Grandly pointless gateposts

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!

Romantic selfie on our engagement rock

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!

Corrieyairack approach

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.

Corrieyairack summit

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!

Big skies

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.

Cold ahoy!

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.

Brief re-emergence of the sun at the bottom of the pass

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!

Distance: 95 miles

Elevation: 2903m

Temperature: Max 34°, Avg 22°

The Great Glen Way and Corrieyairack Pass

Retro ride: 16th May 2004

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Having been obsessing over offroad touring after my Cairngorms adventure, I was itching for another ride. After much internet research with what little information was available, I decided I wanted to tackle the legendary Corrieyairack Pass. It is an ancient road, built by the industrious General Wade in 1731 to allow for efficient movement of troops around the country for the purpose of crushing rebellion. Ironically, the best recent information I could dig up was 4×4 enthusiast forum conversations and a write up from a mountain biker warning he had been turned back by snow drifts and blizzards in June! However, with my trusty Scottish Hill Tracks book, I had all the information I needed. To make it into an overnight ride, I would jump an early train to Inverness, ride the Great Glen Way down to Fort Augustus for my overnight camp and then ride the Corrieyairack the next day before catching a train home from Newtonmore.

After an uneventful train ride, followed by a bit of kit shopping in Millets, I made my way over the bridge and along the river. I was using a black and white print out of the OS maps for the ride at half normal size to minimise paper. I had a decent idea of where I was going, but anything intricate was going to be tricky! This immediately made itself felt as I tried to catch the end of the Great Glen Way in the housing estate below the psychiatric hospital! I manage to find what looked to be just the ticket and followed it up to the hospital before missing a turn somewhere and ending up going downhill. I also managed to let my bundled up gilet fall into my back tyre and wear a hole in its containing pocket. Rather than face the heartache of going back uphill, I decided to push onwards at a lower level across a forest firebreak and rejoin the path further up. At a squint it looked like it would work!

Bluebell forest in the general vicinity of the Great Glen Way
Amazingly, my improvised route actually worked

I got back on track and followed the route along a mixture of forestry tracks and stretches of tarmac road. There was one bit that showed a planned route on the OS map, with no actual path indicated on the ground, so I took a road detour above Abriachan, rather than waste time struggling to find out if there was one. This gave me a phenomenally steep tarmac descent in to Drumnadrochit, during which I still swear my speedo hit 55mph – a speed I have not come close to matching, even on the road bike. Probably a calibration issue with the old Sigma computer, but I wasn’t backing off to be fair!

A rare stretch of level cycling

I was pretty tired and dehydrated by this point, so I hit one of the many tea rooms for tea, Coke and food. I had been so consumed by the idea of climbing the Corrieyairack Pass, that I hadn’t really considered what I was riding beforehand as part of the challenge. After taking on as much liquid as I could consume, I left town and started regaining all the height I’d lost.

Great views when there’s a gap in the trees

I followed the many undulations along, high above the loch, occasionally glimpsing a view when the trees opened out. I was managing to stay on track despite my inadequate map detail, but was goosed and Invermoriston couldn’t come soon enough.

This could go very wrong in the dark
Invermoriston falls

At Invermoriston, I availed myself of the lavish public toilets on offer, shedding some weight and cleaning off the sweat of the day’s exertions. I also made a decision – I was going to skip the last off road section and take the main road into Fort Augustus. Time was getting on and I hadn’t the legs for another climb above loch level. Even so, the steady tarmac incline away from the village felt like hard work at this point. I managed to survive the road stretch without any mishaps and rolled in to town some time after 8pm. After a bit of strolling around the canal to pick a dinner spot, I went in to the Lock Inn, barely making the cutoff for a hot meal. The large pizza went down a treat whilst I watched the football, before reluctantly climbing back on my bike for the mercifully short ride to the campsite.

I was travelling light again with the same army bivy bag, cheap sleeping bag and borrowed Thermarest as last time. I had upgraded my luggage to a Camelbak Transalp pack, imported direct from the USA via eBay at a considerable saving, which was much more suited to cycling and allowed me to carry a bit more kit in it’s many pockets and pouches. I locked my bike to an adjacent picnic bench and settled in for a thankfully mild night in my non-insulating sleep setup. In the morning, I had some fun with hexi-stove cooking of army rations and headed off for what was supposed to be the tough part of this ride with some trepidation after my poor performance yesterday.

Last night’s home

I had a bit of micro navigation to do to get me to the bottom of the pass, but managed okay with just one dodgy crossing of field full of cows.

Fence presumably to keep out the 4x4s
Plenty of warnings of impending doom

Once through the gate, the climbing began in earnest and there was to be little respite until I reached the top. I slowly winched myself up the first steep section, before dropping down to a dip where I crossed the Connachie Burn, before resuming the climbing.

Looking back to the loch
Fixed up the old sign at the burn

Next was climbing, climbing, climbing.

One of the steeper bits
A wee splashy bit
An endless uphill straight

I noted the position of Blackburn bothy for a potential future visit, but couldn’t hang about as I had a train to catch and much more climbing to do. On the long steep drag, I admitted defeat and jumped off to start pushing. No big issue, as my knees and backside were needing the break anyway.

Checking what I’d conquered
This would be a seriously rapid descent
Looking back from the false summit
Great views up here
Can finally see the summit hut with its scenery enhancing pylons

As I finally reached the hut at the top of the pass, a couple of proper mountain bikers out for the day caught me up and stopped for a chat, whilst they waited for the rest of their group. They also obliged me with a rare portrait shot for the memories.

Pure style all the way

Once my lunch was eaten on the doorstep of the hut, I started to head downhill towards the famous zig-zags. Even with the super-advanced elastomer suspension afforded by my Judy TT forks, it was rough going. There were large chunks eroded from the track to drop off, but I was managing okay. Once they were dispatched, the track improved and settled down to a constant rattling. As I ploughed through a ford a little too vigorously, I managed to pickup a hefty snakebite puncture. I began feeling a little anxious about getting to Newtonmore in time for my train.

The Ford of a Thousand Snakebites

Tube patched, I resumed my descent, with my arms getting particularly pumped on the rough cobbles taking me down to Melgarve bothy.

Rattling down towards Melgarve

I passed by without poking my head in, fully focused on making that train. I was back on the tarmac in no time and just needed to get my head down and see how long it would take me to hit Newtonmore.

Still paused for the odd bit of sightseeing

I wasn’t really a road cyclist, so wasn’t sure how much quicker I’d be along the main road when I reached it. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, arriving at the train station with a good 45 minutes to spare before my train back home. A highly pleasant way to spend a weekend and expand my horizons of how far I could travel by bike offroad.

Chilling at the station