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.
Distance: 91 miles
Temperature: Max 28°, Avg 17°