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!
Distance: 95 miles
Temperature: Max 34°, Avg 22°