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.
Distance: 128 miles
Temperature: Max 30°, Avg 15°