The Highland Trail 550

HT550-2014 12What’s your greatest fear about growing old? incontinence? senility? wrinkles? the smell of mothballs? Saga holidays? or maybe that you’ll find yourself trying to impress an iPad touting grandchild with a Werther’s Original?  I don’t fear any of these, in fact I’m looking forward to a few of them. It’s going to be extremely liberating to just let go in my armchair when I need a piss and I’ll be able to basically do whatever I want in the name of Alzheimer’s. No, my greatest fear is that I’ll be sat in the old people’s home, smelling of wee, wearing a grey suit and talking about the weather. The worst outcome for my life would be to only have the fact that it’s probably going to rain again as the staple for my conversations. The grandchildren will dodge visits as Grandad has nothing to say and keeps trying to foist shite toffees on them. The staff will efficiently wipe my arse and dispense tea in order to get away from the mundanity of the weather conversations as quickly as possible.

The plain truth is that old people are basically boring as hell, unless they have stories. Stories make time with them worthwhile and younger generations will suffer the strange odours, odd shaped body parts and dribble in order to get to these tales, many of which will give the youngsters hope that ending up that way is (possibly) worthwhile in the end. This thinking has driven my cycling as I career towards my fiftieth birthday. I’ve packed in racing, organised events, charity challenges and Strava segment chasing, seeking out cycling stories instead. I find myself looking for things to do on the bike that are more surrounded by experience than achievement, places that I’ll be taken to rather than loops I can perform well on. 

Last year I rode my bike over the three highest British peaks just to see what it would be like (very stupid was the ultimate answer). The point being that this ride would mix road, off road and mountain climbs into a single experience. It certainly achieved that and I now have at least ten minutes worth of material for my care home in Eastbourne when I tell the nurse how I carried my bike to the top of Ben Nevis and then back down again on one of the hottest days of the year. She’ll say “why?” and I’ll have to be honest and tell her it was simply to prolong her company for a few minutes more. This year I scoured the internet looking for something else UK based that would liberate a whole set of stories and stumbled across something called the “Highland Trail 550” at, it’s description drips with euphemism:-

“The Highland Trail is a long distance self-supported mountain bike time-trail route through the Scottish Highlands”

This sounded just the thing I needed to generate a few more memories, further investigation showed that the trail was 560 miles long and in many places impossibly hard. It took in the most remote of Scottish locations and bypassed the vast majority of civilisation in the name of adventure. In order to complete it a rider needed to be entirely self sufficient for food, shelter and water. The distance was supposed to be ridden in under eight days in order to get the “tick”. An organised start had been planned for 2014 however I’d missed the boat as entries were full. I ferreted around my calendar instead and found a candidate week in June. A very one-sided matrimonial deal was struck with me informing Helen that I wanted to do it and her saying “OK”.  The business case seemed to hinge on the benefit to her of not having me around for a week and thus seven days of rancid bib short free washing basket.

I set about my preparation using a tried and tested methodology of buying lots of shiny new gear that would be entirely necessary for the trip. This included a carbon hard tail with new fangled 650B wheels and all sorts of lightweight bike packing components. I gorged upon bike packing blogs and forums to squeeze out best practice and used a three day bike packing event in May to see if I could handle the distances and logistics. The Welsh Ride thing was a baptism to me as a born again mountain biker. I relished every single second of it and could not stop giggling in the freedom of camping in the bushes and shitting in a self dug hole. 

I’m long in the tooth enough to know that it’s not just about the gear. I rode almost exclusively off road for six months using the cyclocross and mountain bike to cover long distances, every weekend I’d do at least one 70-100 mile off roader in order to get my head around long days in the saddle in the filth. Even a magazine commission to ride the 130 miles Grand Depart Tour de France route was executed on the cross bike with 32” off road tyres. 

June came far too quickly, the official race in May had passed with a huge amount of incident. 38 riders made the start line with only 13 lasting all the way to the finish. I had massive doubts about my ability to complete the loop and flipped daily between shall/shan’t. 560 miles in 8 days is a minimum of 70 miles  a day, in Scotland which tends to have “hard” written over a lot of its mountain bike trails. In the end I was convinced by a video to at least have a go. Ian Barrington had made a decent attempt to complete the loop as part of the race, he’d got as far as Lochinver before his achilles gave way, but the video  he made of the riding and scenery made fascinating viewing. I watched it and thought “Why not?” as long as I don’t die I should at least enjoy some of it and riding it solo would have no real pressure to finish if I didn’t feel up to the job.

This decision led to a myriad of minor frets. 

Batteries or dynamo? Would I be riding at night? Would I take my Garmin GPS and charge it via a front wheel dynamo? I decided a big  “no” on both fronts. Scotland has plenty of daylight hours in June and  a dynamo system was something that could not be replaced if it went wrong. I decided on a Garmin Dakato and lots of batteries instead.

Tarp and bivi bag or tent? I’ve ridden bikes all over Scotland and I don’t spend much time stopping. Midges are partial to stopped cyclists and tend to say “Hello” en mass with their own particular bitey little greeting. I quickly discounted the tarp option and went looking for a lightweight tent instead. The internet consensus was under 1kg in weight over £200 in cost. Things were not looking good on the budget front until I spotted the Trekkertent Steath [], a one person lightweight shelter made by a Scottish company. Providence had shined upon me, this was perfect, 590g in weight but most importantly it came with a midge proof inner. Surely these Scottish guys would know their midges and the Stealth would keep them out. With 2 weeks to go I placed an order. With 2 days to go I frantically arranged to pick up the tent in person from Marc the company owner. 

Stove or no stove? Four times I packed the Jetboil, frowned at the size of my dry bag and then unpacked it. In the end the Jetboil won as I knew just how much I’d miss a cup of coffee in the morning and was worried that I’d not be able to poo without one. 

Backpack or no backpack? After I’d filled my small frame bag, bar sack and seat pack there was not much room left at all. I’d worked out that the route had a potential food stop every 50 miles, I’d need to be able to carry a decent amount of food. Water was another problem. My frame bag was tight on the down tube bottle. Getting it out whilst riding was nigh on impossible and I didn’t want to stop every time I needed a slurp (see midge point earlier). However, there’s nothing worse than lugging a huge great weight around on your back day in day out, ask Atlas if you don’t believe me. Eventually a compromise was struck. I’d take the backpack but only use it for food, a few tools and a litre of water in the bladder. 

Tubeless or tubes? I’m a fan of Hope hubs, to date they have never let me down and it’s one of my first upgrades on any bike I buy. My Boardman MTB Pro 650B hard tail was the weapon of choice for the ride. I’d found a deal on Stans Arches tubeless ready rims with Hope Open Pro2 hubs and so had the tubeless option, or so I naively thought. I went four rounds with a set of Nobby Nics onto these rims, and eventually had one half of the tyre seated. Sealant was added and the usual trackpump/heart rate max combination achieved. Nothing, the tyre lay flaccid on the rim. So, I slapped on half a bottle of Fairy liquid and hooked up the compressor. This simply forced sealant out of every single spoke hole accompanied by more hissing than one would find at a snake convention. Brilliant. The Stans Arches were tubeless ready but the tape supplied with them wasn’t. Further research showed that these tubeless ready rims are not *really* suitable for use with Schwalbe tubeless tyres, what had I got myself into? I explained my predicament to the LBS who offered a very good deal on a set of Specialized Ground Controls and a promise that they would work. I triple taped the rims with electrical tape and tried again. Perfect, decision made. I’d save a fair few grammes and go tubeless (whilst fretting about whether  or not the electrical tape would hold).

Finally, I fretted about the weather which did its best to tease. England was set for a minor heatwave whilst Scottish weather forecasters drew in sharp breaths in order to expel words such as “unsettled”, “showers” and “drizzle”. I unpacked the suncream.

There’s one other price of preparation I ought to own up to. I’d had a few issues with my barse, if your confused then I suggest you seek the urban dictionary. It had been a little tender after some recent long rides which I’d put down to some excess hair. So in a feat of middle aged contortion that should never be seen by another’s eye, I shaved it. Roadies take the razor to their legs, here’s me the mountain biker with a Wilkinson’s sword halfway up my arse. Definitely let the side down.

Driving up to Scotland was punctuated by a single overriding thought “what have I forgotten?”. I’ve got a terrible history of leaving vital things behind; cycling shoes on a weekend visit to Coed-Y-Brenin, camera remote trigger on a solo photography expedition to Aviemore and pads on an extended trip to Moab (only about 3/4 of me returned as a result). The checklist seemed to be fully complete, however, a final audit in my hotel room at Tyndrum failed to list gloves leading to an expensive purchase in the local outdoors shop.

The evening before a big ride always drags. I paced around the place trying to find things to do whilst staring constantly at the heavens wondering what the weather held in store. We were sat at dinner when Marc from Trekkertent arrived, he and I decamped to a small section of grass where I had a quick tent erection masterclass. Huge irony as Marc demonstrated the midge proof interior whilst my face ensured that a new generation would live on. More pacing followed Marc’s departure as did a fitful night’s sleep worrying about the day ahead.

Day 1 – a HT550 virgin departs

HT550-2014 13Awakened by the alarm clock I threw open the curtain to be greeted by a blissful scene of Scottish drizzle. I punched the wall in lieu of a weather forecaster as this had not been predicted. I then whined to my wife in the vain hope that she could do something about it. Her eyes rolled and we ate a solemn breakfast together, most of the food missed my mouth as I was too busy glaring at the skies. Fortunately things improved as I prepared the bike for departure. This seemed to take an age as I was strangely pumped full of adrenaline and subsequently forgot how to attach my luggage and whether I’d actually packed anything. Helen was filming me desperately fumbling with straps whilst furiously patting every available pocket. This film sequence ended with a long soliloquy of copious swearing which shall remain forever on the editing floor.

Finally, all excuses were done. There was nothing to do save proffer a farewell kiss and hope I was heading in the right direction for the start. Helen was probably as relieved as I was as I made the first set of pedal strokes into the unknown. 

The route starts gently, inclining away from Tyndrum as the West Highland Way leaves the road. Things felt good initially, until a steep downhill section saw me on the brakes. Robert the Bruce probably stirred in his grave as a series of earth shattering screeches echoed across the Highlands. The extra weight on the bike underlined the fact that I should have probably checked the pads for wear. I knew my current state of anxiousness was not conducive to a trailside replacement so resolved to do it later that evening. Fortunately the West Highland Way chilled out for a few miles, as did I. The track delivered me safely to Bridge of Orchy and soon I was rhythmically climbing my way up to the Glencoe Ski Centre. Two bikers appeared up ahead and machismo drove me to catch them on my fully laden bike. I said “Hello” to the two men as I passed, noted their ages (early seventies) and chastised myself for the unnecessary effort.

After Glencoe I began to encounter walkers and soaked up the occasional compliment for managing to ride the path. Adrenaline had faded  and I was able to focus upon the job in hand. I’d set myself Fort Augustus as a day one target. This was ambitious as it was 96 miles from the start but it meant I’d find a meal and a shop if I could get there in good time. Alone again I reached for a tried and tested coping strategy. Talking to myself. I’ve never been one for listening to music whilst riding as nature often serves up a much more harmonious tune than Alien Sex Fiend. I tend to self motivate by a bit of third person egging on mixed with some bovine conversation.

“Dave, you can ride that, just don’t focus on the big rock”

“Mate, your flying, but calm down a little and drink some more”

“Remember, no crashes, if in doubt walk”

“Hello cow, nice pair of udders”

The talking continued as I sweated my way up the Devil’s Staircase. This was the first walk of the ride and the switchbacks had potential to hurt the hurried rider’s legs a lot. I took it nice and easy, pacing myself with a walker in front of me. His gaiters stomped a metronomic rhythm that I used to guide my stride to the top. At the summit he took a wonderful panorama of cloud hidden mountains ignoring the fine specimen of mountain biker furiously hydrating behind him. The descent beckoned like a rocky heroin dealer urging me to take “just one hit”. Sensibly I spurned the temptation and carefully picked my way down the rocky tracks even managing to pin a few “Hellos” upon the ears of curious walkers. 

The sensibility lasted until the final descent into Kinlochleven. An American lady had commended my ability to pick my way across the rocks with a laden bike. She should have known better as the male ego translates this into the potential for enhanced ability. My speed had picked up as had confidence. I entered a rock turn, fixated upon a large boulder, rode straight into it, said a brief “adios” to my bike and flew over the handlebars.

There are no soft landings upon rocky tracks. My left leg hit the rocks first followed by my shoulder which was keen to join in the fun. There was no time to acknowledge the pain, my coping strategy immediately took over. 

“You fucking idiot, what did I tell you? I told you not to crash. What a fucking pillock you are. Day one and you’ve gone and stacked it. That’s going to cost you of the rest of the ride you twat”.

The two seated walkers looked up in amusement. There they were enjoying a midday sandwich when their peace was ruined by a ranting idiot jumping up and down on the path beside them. Slightly out of my view before crashing I had not realised that I possessed an audience. I offered profuse apologies and wheeled my bike away from the nasty rocks. Coasting down the remainder of the track my leg throbbed, a dull beacon of pain pointing in the direction of stupidity. I firmly resolved to walk anything remotely hard from that point on. First objective finish, secondary objective have some fun.

Twelve thirty saw me sat on a bench in Kinlochleven stuffing my face. The weather had stopped sulking and I was swathed in sunshine and a vague semblance of heat. This vague semblance morphed into a mini-inferno as I climbed out of town  via a long ascent made all the worse by being rideable with little excuse for a stop. The track left civilisation behind skirting me round Loch Eilde Mor and delivering me right into the adventure I had so yearned. I was now completely alone having left the West Highland Way and its rambling traffic, only my SPOT tracker knew where I was, spirits and cadence were high until a river crossing at Luibeilt interjected.

Now, I’ve ridden mountain bikes for over twenty years but can count the number of bridgeless river crossings on the fingers of one foot. Living in Wiltshire my main exposure to fast flowing deep water comes from the wake of a friend’s bike as we navigate a water filled rut. My first proper river was fifty feet wide and thankfully reasonably shallow. I spotted a line of boulders that could potentially deliver me to the other side dry as a lizard’s pocket. Halfway across this line I ran on the spot on top of a moist stepping stone (replicating the cartoons of my youth) before solidly plunging both feet into a foot of water. All that previous foot placement care wasted in a single slip. I dragged the bike to the other side of Abhainn Rath and looked for the wide track to follow. A tussocky thin muddy line of incoherent singletrack stared back at me. I rode this for ten metres before plunging into a ditch. Another ten metres, another ditch. 150 metres of walking then a deep stream crossing which I cocked up submerging my bike and a lot of my legs. More pushing, more tussocks, more ditches. This theme continued for an hour or so as I dragged the bike down the valley imploring some properly rideable terrain to appear. Each corner held its own false summit as more bollocks riding would emerge. Eventually I gave in to it, finding that the best strategy was to say “fuck” a lot but just keep moving forward imagining it would never end. Eventually it did at a solid wooden bridge which I actually hugged as it heralded the start of a track capable of taking wheeled vehicles.

Time had marched on, the watch said 3 o’clock and I’d set my sights on a Fort Augutus finish which required another sixty miles of riding. I parked this particular target and focused on a total of seventy miles instead. The individual time trail requires seventy miles a day to claim a “tick”. I needed to get seventy miles for the day to not end in deficit. Fortunately the Highland Trail agreed and became properly rideable again. I settled into an easy rhythm of spinning easy gears, eating on the hour and making sure the ratio of solid Dave to water remained in the high 90s. The route stuck to tracks and ushered me past huge lochs skirting Rannoch Moor, at one point I shouted “I bloody love this place” to nobody in particular. Bruising, leg pain, a heavy bike, clouds and a slightly sore arse tried to distract me from the rapture of loneliness in the wild. All failed. 

It took an empty hydration bladder to bring me back to reality. This coincided with a set of holiday cottages which had cars outside so I decided to chance my luck with the temporary residents. The warning signs were there as I climbed the wooden steps and spotted the piles of beer cans and cigarette packets, however thirst goaded me to knock on the door. I could see movement inside but no answer, so tentatively knocked again after which the footsteps became louder. The door opened and a cloud of smoke rushed out followed by a staggering Scottish youth clutching a can of Stella. I held up my bladder and nervously enquired “Any chance of some water mate?”. “Aye, aye, nae bother” and he stumbled back into the smoke. I heard some voices, then a giggle. He returned and handed me back the bladder then wordlessly shut the door.

A few minutes down the road and a few hundred millilitres of drinking later I began to ponder the giggle. What would I have done in my youth slightly pissed if a weird old mountain biker had turned up on my door begging for water? Would I have “added” to his load in some way, maybe adding some salts in the process? It was hard to tell as I’d bunged in some electrolytes without a thorough inspection. Nae bother, hopefully he’d snorted some speed as well giving me an extra boost.

The route was mostly kind to Strath Mashie and I’d made up a lot of lost time. The climb up towards the Corrieyairack Pass started gently and my hopes of reaching Fort Augustus before dark were regenerated. I reached the bothy at Melgarve around about 8 o’clock and made a quick inspection. It was warm, had a sofa and a bothy toilet. An ideal first stop for the night, common sense surely dictated that I take the opportunity being 10 miles ahead of the required daily milage.  But common sense has always been a fad in the Barter mindset. The climb seemed easy enough and convinced me to press on, cruelly hiding its steep switchbacks until the very last minute. More coping strategy, copious swearing and a long extended bout of pushing saw me crest the pass and gingerly make my way off the hills in the dwindling light. The descent should have been a “whoop” as Fort Augusts was now within my grasp, all I remember is the incessant squealing of disk brakes and bulging eyes trying to force more light onto my optic nerve.

Somewhere near 10 O’clock I grovelled into the Cumberlands campsite and enquired about food. Everywhere in town was shut, the campsite bar was open but only serving crisps. I knew I’d had enough for the day so paid for a pitch and broke my Trekker tent erection virginity. The tent went up like a dream as did my face due to the fact that I’d bought a mosquito head net by mistake. Midges resemble mosquitoes in many aspects apart from size, they are the Kate Moss of the carnivorous insect world and to them a mosquito net is simply a set of many open doors to a free meal. I’ve never put up a tent so quickly in my life and quickly retreated to the bar where I ordered a pint of lager and five packets of crisps. This was supplemented thirty minutes later with an Adventure Foods backpackers breakfast. The manufacturers description states “Nourishing warm breakfast based on cereals, milk, raisins, apple and roasted hazelnuts.” I’d rephrase it slightly as like eating the scrapings from the floor of an active batcave. I sought solace in a shower, this luxury would not be present further into the ride.

My packing strategy came a bit unstuck in the washroom. I had cut a travel towel in half which gave me just enough cloth to dry my “bits”. Soap had not made it in at all, but the washroom had gel dispensers above each sink. I placed a stool in the shower and ferried gel by hand from the sinks across the wash room to the cubicle where it was carefully placed on top of the stool. This operation was repeated four times to ensure that I had enough gel to cover the areas of rank (of which there were many). Thankfully I didn’t get caught doing this as I had no means of explanation as to why I was lubing up a stool in the shower whilst wearing only bibshorts. 

The hot water dissolved the day’s tribulations along with the filth. I was ecstatic at making it this far and only mildly worried about the throbbing bruised leg. The GPS told me I’d trundled over 96 miles, my longest bike packing day ever. Sadly sleep was fitful and I was robbed of an early start by Sunday shop opening hours (9am) and the temptation of a full Scottish breakfast in the campsite bar. 

Day 2 – a race to the shops

HT550-2014 118.55 am on the second day, I’m outside a shop in  Fort Augustus hopping like a coke filled child in a toilet queue. There’s no sign of life inside and the opening hours definitely state “9 am”. This is an important resupply for me as I’ve not got another for fifty odd miles. Eventually the hungover assistants allow me entry and I empty the shelves of flapjacks, mini-pork pies and bananas. I tentatively enquire about a midge net to find that these are only available in the gift shop whose manager clearly had an even heavier night as this doesn’t open until ten. Sod it, I get on my way proceeding to become mildly lost on forest trails eeking their way out of town. At one point I stupidly follow my own breadcrumb trail on the GPS magnificently retracing my steps for a mile before working this out. Some more swearing and coping strategy puts me back on the right track and everything seems OK for a while.

The bike was moving forward at a similar rate to day 1 and the dead’ed leg had become resurrected  so I was in good spirits. After a brief flirtation with the A887 a wide track took me upwards, then upwards some more, then upwards for a bloody long time remaining in the upwards direction whilst resolutely refusing to point down at all. A dash of humidity and mild sunshine did their bit to emphasise the upness  thus I arrived at Loch Liath a sweaty mess in need of a very cool drink. A fast flowing stream quickly became my best mate as I recomposed, ate and ranted a bit into my video camera. After this point the track became a sketchy mess, eventually morphing into a rocky hike-a-drag around the shore of Loch ma Stac (I read Phil Simcox’s blog and he rode round this, cocky bastard) which lead to some more sketchy singletrack that I thrutched my way down. 

Dark thoughts were beginning to play in my mind. What if the vast majority of the route was like this? I hated getting out of a riding flow, it wasn’t the pushing that annoyed me, it was the getting on and off inevitably hitting my knackers on the bar stem in the process. These thoughts were displaced by the advent of a wide gravel track descent with some centre latched gates designed by a fascist to frustrate weak armed riders like me. I’d struggle like mad to open the top latch whilst holding the bike, it would free itself and the left gate would swing wildly open causing me to chase it whilst dragging the bike. I’d then do a twisted dance with bike/gate/me to get myself through, realign the gate, close the latch and not drop the bike. More swearing and a long conversation with the gate asking it just who was responsible for its design and could I have their address?

From Corrimony the route was easy, a lot of road riding, thus I made good time but drank a lot in the increasing heat.At Leishmore I spotted a hotel with mountain bikes laid outside, great, an opportunity for a pint of coke and a brag about my epic ride. I achieved both of these as I jawed with the four lads taking a break from their ride. However, they took the points as my bragging was brushed aside by the huge melted cheese covered meals they were devouring and the pints of beer washing them down. Being locals they knew a lot of the route and the good news appeared to be that it was “all OK” until the very north section which “none of them had ridden”. Remember that it will explain a lot later on.

Grudgingly I left the comfort of the bar, a ticking clock awake within my head. I needed to make the shop in Contin before 4.30pm, this was an important resupply and I’d read of others who had missed it forcing a diversion into Strathpeffer instead. It began to rain and a long section of wide track across Gleann Goibhre really began to piss me off. The track consistently dipped every fifty metres consequently creating a water feature several inches deep. Fine if you are a competing showjumper, but mildly fucking annoying if you’re a long distance mountain biker attempting to keep his feet and arse dry at every opportunity. At first I slowed down and eased my way through each puddle, this strategy failed after puddle number seven when I nudged a rock, dabbed and immersed my left foot. Eventually I gave up and hooned every puddle completely soaking my arse as a result. This went on forever as did the rain, finally relenting as I descended down to the road and time trialled towards Contin with the clock stating 4:23pm.

A sweaty mess of Dave fell into Contin Stores amazed that the owner had decided to stay open late. The shopkeeper did not seem in any hurry as I furiously gathered flapjacks, cooked meat and fizzy drinks. He even took a leisurely stroll to the rear in order to fetch me a proper midge net and laughed loudly at my supposition that he was open late. 6.30pm was the closing hour, he had no idea where I’d got 4.30pm from, thinking about it, neither did I.

At last I could relax. 53 miles into the day, fed, supplied and  with at least 5 hours of light left it was looking good for topping out near to ninety miles, I’d be forty ahead of schedule and could afford to lose ten miles a day for the rest of the ride. I entered the wilderness again at Inchbae Lodge and chatted with sheep as easier tracks lifted me up into the mountains. A glorious soliloquy of mountain biking saw me pass Loch Vaich and enter the valley skirting Meall a’Chaorainn . This was why I’d come, this was the experience that I always crave when planning a bike adventure. Alone in places untroubled by other humans surrounded by features that have been patiently worn away by nature rather than hewn by machines. 

My final miles down to Deanich Lodge were savoured as a headwind encouraged me  to extend my time in the wilderness. I crossed the Abhainn a’ Ghlinne Mhoir at a large wooden bridge and pedalled through the Glencalvie Forest. Once past the Glencalvie Lodge I sought a bivy spot for the night. 9 o’clock ,190 miles, no crashes, things were mostly going to plan. However, there were rumblings of discontent in the shorts region as an area of tenderness began to make itself known. 

I set up camp in a small glade beside the river. Dinner was rehydrated couscous and chorizo with a side order of Toblerone. I was tucked up in my bag by 10.30pm and tussled about for another restless night as forest creatures rustled through the undergrowth near the tent. Somewhere near 4am rain began to fall heavily, it persisted for hours and I lay there resigned to a soggy start to day three. 

Fortunately the tap turned off a few hours later, much to the delight of the resident midge population who were out to greet me in force. I thought I had them foiled with my new net, sadly it does not cover my arse and they took their opportunity during my morning ablutions. This caused panic at a critical moment leading to an incident with a tree branch and a stray poo that shall never be committed into writing. I’m saving that for the nursing home.

Day 3 – arse

HT550-2014I was away by 8am and in relatively good spirits as I left the Amat Forest and plodded north through the valley of Cuileannach looking forward to a meeting with Oykel Bridge. This is where I’d begin the northern loop and encounter some of the hardest sections of the route. 

At Einig Wood the GPX informed me I was to turn right. A huge bush begged to differ. I pedalled on a few more yards in search of the real turning but this simply revealed even denser sections of gorse. I pulled out my phone which had a detailed OS map installed, this confirmed that the turning was indeed back where I had thought. I retreated and stared at the bush, it had two tyre tracks faintly inscribed either side. You’re kidding? I dragged the bike through the bush and sure enough here was the track, and more bush. I was able to ride for about ten yards before another bush grabbed my bars and pulled me to the floor. “Who the fuck is responsible for this route, Alan Titchmarsh?” I shouted to the heavens “If I’d wanted foliage I’d have ridden round Kew”. This section of track was a total disaster, completely overgrown and never visited. I swore my way through it before eventually emerging into a vista untroubled by trees. Finally, I mounted the bike, flicked two fingers at the vegetation and rolled down the hill to Oykel Bridge.

Paused by the road I composed myself, maybe  a little too hard as a van full of Japanese tourists screeched to a halt, photographed the bridge, the water, the sky, each other, the van and then me before buggering off without even offering a tip. I locked out the suspension forks and nailed a few road miles to Rosehall and a village shop, another crucial point of resupply. There were bikes outside, inside there were two German cycle tourists desperately boring a shopkeeper who clearly wanted to get back to Emmerdale on the TV. The shelves were relatively bare thus pickings were slim, but a basket of pies made up for the lack of stock. I bought three, said a quick “Guten Tag” and left the cyclists to their venture, a ride to Oooooooolapool wherever that is?

Pie number one did not touch the sides and five miles up the road I succumbed to pie number two. This is another reason for riding a bike over lots of miles. A three pie day is a rarity in my normal working week, if I’d found another shop or had more room in my rucksack I reckon I could have notched it up to five. The road riding continued along a thin lane leading up to Duchally Lodge where road morphed into track. Climbing up to the power station nestled under Maovally I was in a decent amount of discomfort down below. This was not pie related but down to the shorts/arse interface. I had a cream stop witnessed by a cow that will probably never fully erase the memory of the two legged idiot, legs in the air cooing then shrieking at the touch of mint on raw flesh.

At the power power station an impossibly steep road clung to the hillside desperately trying to hold on. The GPS confirmed that I was required to ascend it and endless switchbacks and false summits saw me at the top. I was knackered but had a chuckle to myself. This was a classic road climb, for mountain bikers only, as skinny road tyres would destroy themselves on the preceding track. All height and dignity was lost down the other side as I stuck both legs out and childishly descended Mary Poppins style. Pie number three lasted until Loch Merkland after which it joined its brethren. A rare moment of mobile phone signal allowed me to text home:-

“Good long day yesterday, camped in a woods. Not a lot of sleep so left at 8am. Wind making it tough today but 40 miles by 1pm is pretty good going. Feeling OK but filthy”.

Maybe that last sentence was not the most appropriate thing to send to my wife after a few days away.

Another road section into headwind had me yearning for some rough stuff. Strangely I can cope with the wind when there’s dirt under my wheels but on tarmac I’d rather it divert its attention to sailors instead. My yearnings were answered with a steep track leading up into Bealach nam Meirleach it levelled a bit and caressed Loch an t -Seilg before plonking me below Suil a’Bhandain Duinn where my eyes played ping pong across the magnificently rocky vista. I stopped and had a moment. I could write some bollocks about how this was a pseudo religious experience, which it was, but I won’t, you get the picture. All the leg, arm, arse hurtage was put aside as I slowly rotated in this wonderful place gulping in the scenery as if it were cold lager on a hot summers day. The GPS nagged me back onto the bike and into Glen Golly where it all started to go wrong.

The Glen Golly track undulated a lot causing me to shift position as I negotiated a series of climbs, descents and the occasional push. This in turn accentuated the arse problem which was now becoming acute. I’d pushed it to the back of the queue of physical sensations but now it was determined to have its turn and seated riding became properly traumatic. I began to find excuses to stop, “oh look a waterfall”, “maybe I should adjust the indexing”, “I haven’t texted Clare Grogan in ages…”. I began to push the bike longer than was really necessary, anything to avoid riding it.

The track leaves the Glen by a stupidly steep climb that’s visible for miles. At first I thought it was a walker’s track that definitely wouldn’t be on the route. Then I remembered the first day’s long section of drag and began to dread that the climb was my destiny. As I got closer it appeared that there was a track to the right avoiding it. The GPS said “No”, the only saving grace being that I had another excuse to push.

It was a bloody long push up to Lochan Sgeireach and as I summited the rain began to fall. No problem, I descend on this big track and it wouldn’t be long until I hit a section of road. Scotland had other ideas. The track petered out into nothing, a tiny rut snaked round two small lochans and then down the hill. The terrain was awful, long grass, wet and boggy due to recent heavy rain, steep and punctuated with gullys, bogs and areas of general-riding-shiteness. Having spent nearly an hour dragging my bike to the top I completely lost it stumbling my way down. My glasses steamed up and vision tended to zero. I kept falling over the bike and at one point found myself buried almost up to the knees in a peaty bog losing an overshoe. The torment was briefly interrupted by the next river crossing. This was really stressful as the recent rain had added significant force to the water, I paced up and down for ages before finding a spot that looked marginally less terrifying than everywhere else. My first exhausted step into the water did not go well as it was nearly two feet deep. Three steps later I realised I’d been so caught up in stress of it all that I’d forgotten to take the bike. Somehow I shepherded the two of us across before lying foetal in the long grass wishing for something to spirit me out of this situation.

I’d pushed it too hard. Fatigue, pain, stress and anxiety had resonated with each other and pushed my internal harmonic frequency of mental tolerance off the scale. I should have dealt with each of them in turn, but instead had pushed on hoping that they’d individually subside leaving them to properly gang up on me. Pushing up the steep track beyond the river I convinced myself I’d had enough. At the top I sat down, got out my camera and ranted into it for five minutes. I told the camera I was going to quit, I told it that my arse was in no state to continue and neither was my mind, I ranted on about the 253 miles I’d covered in 3 days and how proud I was that I’d made it this far. The camera told me that I looked a mess and needed a cuddle. 

After recording this video I lay there for a few minutes more then ate an Eccles cake. Eccles cakes have been known to facilitate minor miracles, 3 of them helped me finish the 3 peak cyclocross a few years back. This one was was obviously from a duff batch as the will to go on was still seriously lacking. I rode the bike a few more yards then pushed a bit after my shorts appeared to have a fireworks display going on inside them. Finally, staring upon the pedals I descended out of the rain to be welcomed by Loch Stack, probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The low evening light and sun punching through the disappearing cloud lit my surroundings into an explosion of green and blue. I remember stopping and filming a short video, over the terribly amateur panorama you can hear a slightly stressed voice state “How can this ride be a failure if it brought me to a place like this”.

Scotland was trying its hardest to keep me going. But the damage had been done. At Lochmore Lodge I left the GPS trail, my constant companion for three days and began the painful road journey towards Lairg. Scotland and another final go with bright evening sunshine and a headwind desperately attempting to coerce me back onto the route. I phoned my wife, she heard a few sentences and interrupted me “I’m coming to get you”, she said at the other end of a connection  nearly five hundred miles way. No turning back, I was going home.

I forced myself on for a few more miles before a flat stretch of beach next to Loch Shin waggled its finger temptingly at me. I really really needed a beer, but settled for a packet of rehydrated Ainsley Harriot couscous and four Pepparamis. Eating tea I stared forlornly at my bike, something was not right about it. Further inspection showed that the front axle was missing its quick release lever, this must have come dislodged during the thrutching downwards. Small mercies, how on earth would I have dealt with a front wheel puncture without this release. I breathed a sigh of relief and then removed my top to sit chest out in the fading evening sun. Again, something was not right. My greying chest hair had company. Fucking TICKS!! Loads of them. I danced around the place for a few minutes beating at my breasts like a camp gorilla, before finally calming down and reaching for the tweezers. I carefully extracted six of the blighters and one zit that had unfortunately wandered into the zone. The next evening Helen removed ten more after a closer inspection, massive props to the fellow who had ventured within inches of my arse and still clung on. They had clearly taken their opportunity from the trail consisting of bush prior to Oykel Bridge. But their advent was a very unhappy reunion for me as I’d previously shown the first stages of Lymes disease after a tick had sucked on my armpit.

Night fell and I lay in the tent pondering the ride. Three days in and  halfway round I was on track to make it. The daily distance and ascent had not been out of my reach and I’d managed to sort most of the logistics. I’d coped with a variety of weather conditions and had made pretty good decisions concerning apparel. The massive major fuck up had been with my mind. I’m no stranger to adversity and have spent many years taking on events that push my physical boundaries that little bit further than before. I’ve ridden four country end to ends, carried my bike over the three highest UK peaks and raced at national vet level. The one area I’d never really tested was proper commitment. All of these previous challenges had seen me with a shower and comfy bed at the end of each day. This allows one to reset ones mental state somewhere in the direction of sanity and also to deal with any minor maladies that may have occurred during the day.

Going into the Highland Trail 550 I’d thought through everything apart from “me”. I’d not properly considered how “out there” I could end up and what I’d do in order to bring myself back from the edge. In hindsight I realised that I’d not be lying here on my way home had I done the following:-

  1. ridden for 3 days on the trot in these bib shorts, realised they were shit and binned them
  2. stopped after each moment of stress, eaten something, had a wank, recited a poem, anything that let the stress subside and allowed the mind to think “actually .. I made it”
  3. gone a bit easier on myself, become less fixated on the speed and concentrated more on moving forward. It’s too easy to visualise yourself as a riding god on each section of the trail, thus the thrutchy bits become so disappointing. I’d spent days turning over mileages, average speeds, target times and daylight hours in my head. My best ever race performance occurred when I just followed the blokes in front loving being a part of it.

HT550-2014 (1)It was tempting to add inexperience to the list and beat myself up about not working up to the Highland Trail 550 from some smaller trials. Then I remembered the old peoples home. Fuck inexperience, that’s where some of my greatest adventures have come from. Lying in the tent I realised that when my arse was being wiped in my eighties I’d be talking about ticks, shitting in the bushes, non-existent singletrack, piss poor hydrated meals, self dialogue coping strategies, Rannoch Moor, the race to Contin village shop and the need to properly cream at the end of each ride. In the next cubicle the conversation would be about the weather. I know for a fact which arse the nurse would want to wipe (mine would be smaller) and for that reason, despite telling my wife never ever again,  I’m going back again next year. I’ll probably fold again. No matter, what’s life without a few hurdles? Every single one of us has an insurmountable one, it’s called “death”.

So given that I might as well add a few surmountable ones to my list.


Posted in Cycling blog posts