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.
Distance: 98 miles
Temperature: Max 37°, Avg 19°