Saturday, 10 June 2017

Highland Trail 2017

Someone at work asked me why I wanted to ride a 550 mile mountainbike route, as fast as possible over some of the hardest biking terrain in Scotland, at the mercy of the notoriously fickle Scottish weather. My answer was vague as it seems hard to pin down the appeal of such an undertaking to someone who has never remotely experienced such a thing. In 2015 it was all about the people I met and the shared adversity the weather and trails presented. My motivation to do it again was various – to prove that 2015 wasn’t a fluke; to experience good weather and the stunning views; to ride some of the best trails in the world but also to once again meet like minded individuals and by sharing the experience multiply its enjoyment…..

Given all the factors that needed to come together to achieve even some of these goals, I feel privileged to report that in the event, I achieved them all.

Tyndrum 9am May 27th

Quite how this all came about still surprises me. My build up was far from perfect with back and knee problems threatening to spoil the party. Just making it to the start line seemed a major achievement but once there it was like a huge weight off my shoulders, all I had to do was ride my bike, eat and sleep.

I eyed up my fellow riders. There was some serious talent waiting for the off this year with a number of people clearly ready and able to destroy all previous records. The rest of the bunch seemed focussed and ready. I compared this the field of the 2014 start. Many (including myself) seemed to be somewhat shocked to be contemplating the route ahead. Many (including myself) quickly ran into more problems than they could cope with and the attrition rate was high with only 12 out 36 riders finishing. In 2015 people seemed more focused, prepared and willing to tackle the challenges ahead. The weather had other ideas and hours of endless grind through mud, wind and rain took their toll with only 16 of the 43 starters completing.

There was one noted absence – Mike Hall. Maybe that’s why the leaders went off so fast - a fitting tribute to someone to whom fast was a way of life. Even down the field the pace was high. People seemed quiet with less of the early chat that 2015 saw. Maybe people were absorbed in their own ride, checking their pace and their kit and keeping an eye on the weather awaiting the forecasted thunderstorm and deluge. I went up the Ben Alder climb and down the descent fast. Too fast and my reward was massive cramp in both thighs. 3 hydration tablets and a litre of water sorted it.

The storm never came, substituted instead by a more traditional highland drizzle that cooled a few fevered brows on the climb and descent of the Corrieairyack pass. No snow this year. The Fort Augstus Pizza Shop provided the usual meet up of riders – an ever changing group as people came and went. The leaders disappeared into the distance and disappeared from my consciousness. Leaving Fort Augustus I met up with Ian Penton-Voak, we talked tactics, distances achieved and what could be done that evening. In the event I took an easy option not wishing to push my luck this early in the race. Ian pushed on to the next climb. What you ride today, you don’t have to ride tomorrow became an oft used phrase.

Sunday May 28th North to the sun

Sunday started grey but slowly changed to blue. Winds were stiff but behind us. This was the race north – big distances to be covered on an almost direct path to the remotest part of the route. I passed three people who I would meet regularly over the next couple of days. Pete McNeil was taking a break near to Corrimony bothy, Bob Wightman and Pete Gretton were checking out the Hydro bothy by Orrin Dam. I’d also passed Craig Mac who had spent the night in an Invermoriston Bus shelter. When shelter is needed, anything goes….

We met up at Contin stores, the last shop for 120 miles. The sun was making an appearance and we all stocked up on food in bellies and bags for the next section. There was some swapping of places then I fell in with Pete McNeil. He’d caught me up which read as ‘he’s faster than me, let him go’ but his paced slowed to mine, or mine increased to his and we rode together as far as Oykel Bridge. Pete was tapping me for route info having worked out I knew it backwards, then we moved onto jobs, biking, life the universe and everything. I was glad of the chat to distract me from aching knees but they weren't feeling good...

We caught Bob Wightman above Strath vaich. "Good weather over the next few days" he noted. I had to carry on as this would never happen again in a lifetime. Anyway Tom Seipp (aged 12) did this route last week with his dad so I could cope with a few aches and pains. Onward. I think all of us were taken by this vast landscape through which we were travelling. It was only a hint of what was to come but the views tantalised us with Suilven, Canisp and Cul More marking the vastness of Assynt that we would have to traverse the next day.
 I was shocked out of a rare period of contemplation by two world war two aircraft flying low through Glen Mor. What the hell were they doing there? It seemed a surreal moment that Bob captured on photo to prove we weren’t dreaming.

Oykel Bridge was a welcome sight and a place of meeting for many people. No sign of Alan Goldsmith but I was content that I wouldn’t be playing the cat and mouse game we’d done in 2015 as Alan seemed to be motoring. The evening was breezy and pleasant promising a fine night for camping. The Pete’s had pushed on and I was riding with Bob W eyeing up places to stop in Glen Cassley. I spied a good spot but didn’t wan’t to stop without telling Bob who was now onto the next climb. So it was on and up, ignoring the protest from my knees and back. What I do tonight doesn’t have to be done tomorrow…..

The campsite was perfect, Bob went on to find shelter and left me to pitch my tent at the head of Loch Shin. The midge defying breeze allowed an easy pitch but it dropped before I’d got inside meaning that a bunch of midges joined me in my refuge. Ten minutes were spent swatting them and spraying myself and the tent inner with Smidge followed by 5 hours of solid sleep.

Monday May 29th Sutherland and Assynt

Day three dawned grey. I departed quickly to leave the midges behind and passed the Dutch guys soon after. They didn’t seem that happy bivvied by the road side at the mercy of the biting menaces but I wasn’t going to stop to console them. I was happy -  a stiff breeze followed me up the road and up the track out of Loch Merkland. The cloud was lifting and the views were opening up. The thought occurred to me – would I see Foinaven and Arkle? This would make my ride, anything after would be a bonus. Glen Golly was a cinch – hard track and a tailwind, the exact opposite to 2015. On the start of the climb out of Glen Golly, Pete Gretton summed up the previous night – ‘It was the midge apocalypse!’ how we laughed…..

The stalkers path was dry, the riding ace and I was moving fast. On the big climb out of Coir an dubh loch two walkers asked me “are you doing this race?”

“More of a plod for me!” to which they laughed. But this set me thinking – is this what it is? Not for me. Racing was elbow bashing, line taking, sprinting, drafting, blocking. This was a calmer form of competitiveness – human against the terrain, the weather and the midges. Going fast meant going slow, conserving energy, being smooth, timing re-supply points, eating enough, carrying enough (but not too much!), sussing out overnight stops, minimising sleep and stops.

At the summit of Bealach Horn I revelled in the views of Arkle. I’d climbed these peaks with my Dad 30 years ago almost to the day. I was happy to achieve my main goal for the ride, smiling all the way down to Lone.

Bob and Ian PV were in the distance but I never caught them. Our pace had been high. In 2015 this section took me 4 ½ hours. Today it was 3 ¼. I paid on the Achfary climb. The day before Bob W had been complaining about the prices charged by the Kylesku Hotel to which we all assented. No way would we stop when Drumbeg stores offered better value and a friendly reception. In the event I needed the stop. The price was high but it was a sellers market and the bacon and sausage roll washed down with coffee and Irn bru gave me a new lease of life for the famously lumpy Drumbeg road.

Its hills were as nothing compared to what had gone before but the traffic was an unpleasant change. I’d gotten used to brakes off, flat out descents of the gravel roads (I Blame Pete McNeil!) to maximise momentum and minimise pedalling on the inevitable uphill. On the road I had a rude awakening – oncoming traffic. It was the North Coast 500 in full flow. It may benefit tourism but confronting a german campervan the size of a bus and showing no sign of giving way was no joy for me. ‘Ride according to the conditions!’ easy to say when your not nursing aching legs and trying to avoid loosing as much speed as possible. Drumbeg stores provided relief, tea and good cheer. Ian PV was stressing about his forks, they went up and down so I figured he’d be fine. Departing the Drumbeg road onto the trail to Lochinver was a huge relief. Goodby NC500, I won’t miss you.

Fuelled on Pies and more orange peril the next section was attacked. Bob stopped for ice cream, Pete and Ian were way ahead so I was on my own again. Compared to the gruesome grind of 2015 it was pure joy, at least as far as Loch na Gainimh. The rain finally made a re-appearance near to the end but it was too late to dampen our spirits. Ian had exited his bike via the bars so we joined forces for the road ride down to Oykel Bridge. Pete McNeil had met up with Craig Mac. A lorry nearly took them out and the driver shouted at Pete for being there. Highland hospitality or just another dick in a Truck? Me and Ian were hatching plans for a night in the hotel. So was Craig and so was Bob but Pete was planning his move to the second group. In the hotel there were many folk – ITTers making their way north. Steve from Aberdeen had started late and broke is rear mech but still made it up here on day 2 with daylight to spare. We talked about what had gone before. Pete, Ian and me all agreed – we ride everything we can as that’s what we are here for. The path below Suilven provided some of the hardest techy riding I have ever done. Short sections only between the walking but worth it for the sheer joy of such a physical, mental and technical challenge. This was mountainbiking.

Pete left and we settled in for a night of luxury. Steve ate two meals and headed north. The staff updated us to the leaders but it seemed un-related to what we were doing, unreal. Its an easy question to ask – how can people ride so far without stopping. Only they know the answer. We were all happy – we’d pushed through the northern loop in 24 hours. The Queen stage awaited.

Tuesday May 30th Rock and water

The ride down to Ullapool was damp but no sign of the forecasted rain. Gathering clouds didn’t worry me but my knees were. This looked like the end as I couldn’t contemplate Fisherfield unless I was fully functional. Food at Ullapool, stretches and painkillers did the trick. Phil FT appeared, back from the second group and fresh from 11 hours sleep waiting on shops to open to source inner tubes. “There’s a storm coming, due to hit at 2”. I gobbled food, ignored open cafes and left.

The next section remains etched in my memory. Hard climbs, steep descents, mud, rock, rivers and rain. This was why we were here. In 2015 the approach to the Strath na Sealga had been stomach churning as we knew it would be deep. Today Rocks poked above the water all the way across – I rode it without hesitation, dry and fast. 
Craig M aces the Strath na Sealga

 Showers came and went with tantalising glimpses of sun and blue sky. The weather chose its moment well striking just below the main climb with brutal force. I cowered behind a bolder adding a layer and cinching down jacket and hood. The trail across the top was narrow and technical into a hard rain filled wind. The descent a joy with a backdrop of a stunning vista made more dramatic by the rising cloud. This was mountainbiking….

The valley floor was dry and the weather improved as I climbed out over to Letterewe. Bob was finally caught. He’d pushed on hard over the summit to preserve heat in bare legs – hard man. We talked – what do you do if you come across a fellow rider whose succumbed to such hardship and cold. The answer was easy – help them but you’d be getting rescued to as it wouldn’t take much inactivitiy for hypothermia to set in in those conditions.

The sun came out on yet another fine descent to Letterewe. The Postie path was the only bit I hadn’t ridden before. Speaking to people from last year suggested a range of experiences were possible. I went in with an open mind and a tailwind.

Heaven – this was by far my favourite section of the route. A narrow goat path of a trail, smooth and firm contouring around the hillside. A couple of checks round a crag and through a gorge did nothing to spoil the flow and it kept on going and going. Eventually it stopped me but not for long and way past the point I’d expected. Phil FT was seen wandering off line. I whistled and pointed and he got back on it. One final rocky climb and the only dissapointment – a descent too steep to ride on this day. 
The final 4k to Kinlochewe dragged but it was all good riding so I didn’t complain. I checked my watch at Kinlochewe – 2 hours from Letterewe.The whistlestop café was closed and the pub wasn’t serving food until 8.30. Jenny G had made the cut and was tucking into an appetising meal but I couldn’t wait. Bob, Phil and Fabien all had to as they had no alternative. I pushed on with a view to get over Torridon before it got dark. Another amazing trail but the descent beat me. Pete M rode it all but I stumbled down slowly but surely, old age and the late hour catching up. Near to Strathcarron I pitched camp in a blessedly breezy spot and prepared and ate a dried meal. Somehow I was now 24hrs ahead of where I'd been in 2015. The end beckonned.

Wednesday May 31st / Thursday June 1st. No sleep 'till Tyndrum

4am and I was up. 5 am and I was off. The leaders were finished, I had 150 miles to go. I headed west alone, no one in sight ahead or behind. In reality I was one of a train of dots steadily progressing along the route. The weather was warm and a stiff breeze pushed me along Glen Affric. It was all easy riding and I started to grin at the the thought I might finish this after all.

At Fort Augustus I spoke to a couple of bike packers at the pizza shop who hadn’t met another rider. They were impressed at what we were doing. I was envious of their easy ride from Tyndrum and plans to tour Skye. The easy run down to Fort William led to much introspection – this was coming to an end, would I do it again? Why? I’d done it in bad weather and good, top ten in 2015, maybe sub 5 days this year. All my prep had paid off and I’d beaten injury to get this far. Trying again was pushing my luck maybe….

A few days ago me and Bob had been of one mind – no way were we pushing through the night. It wasn’t worth it and much better to stop even for an hour. Now here I was contemplating exactly that. The thought of riding through the night seemed to be the ultimate adventure. Lets do it. Food was eaten and stashed and I was off.

To Kinlochleven went well. The pub was still open but what the handful of clientele must have thought when this staring cyclist marched in ordering tea, crisps and irn bru I don’t know. I hung around thinking I might wait long enough for dawn down the Devils Staircase. Eventually I left, not caring if I had to walk it in its entirety. The climb was hard and for the first time I suffered. It’s the longest on the route and brutal after over 500 miles. Tents were pitched either side of the path. What they must have thought hearing me stomp up past them cursing this rocky path and endless climb I’ll never know. Near the top the pain came – right down the back of my left knee. I’m no stranger to pain having dealt with it for 15 months thanks to my back and I know when its good and when its bad. This was bad pain. I couldn’t lift my left leg without it striking. I paused to stretch, take tablets and apply gell. Not far now and I was not for stopping. Cresting the summit at 2 am was a major relief. Descending was not. The surface was like marbles needing speed and no brakes to ride. With a small light, near exhaustion and doubling vision I walked.

The finish

Some good news – the path to the Kingshouse had been surfaced making it just the easy pedal I needed. Knee pain receeded and the end was near but on the climb past Glencoe ski centre the tiredness descended like a lead balloon. No problem, I would lie on the path and sleep. I looked back to the Devils Staircase and saw lights. Rocks at the side of the path had looked like people. Wet grass had cast strange after-images in my light. This was halucination just like people said would happen. I blinked and the lights were still there. This wasn’t hallucination, this was other people. Suddenly I was wide a wake and for the first time, racing. It was now near full daylight and the normally busy West Highland way was deserted. Elation filled me – I’d done it again. The final hike a bike caused my bad knee much pain but I’d have crawled up it if need be. Then the last few k and a lonely finish before much sleep. It wasn’t to be. I stopped at the line to activate my tracker and became aware of a couple getting out of a van parked nearby. “Are You Phil?” they said.

“That’s me”.

“We’re Jenny Graham's Parents, well done you’ve finished!”

I was gobsmacked – it was 5.45 am and complete strangers were welcoming me back. I'd just ridden for 25 hours and 150 miles. In total the route took me 4 days, 20 hours and 46 minutes. Soon after Phil FT appeared. Handshakes were exchanged, coffee was drunk. Doro Maurizio appeared, then Craig Mac. It was over and sleep beckonned.

The day was spent sleeping and eating. People gathered in the café as they got back. Some of the front runners were there. Stories were exchanged and hands shaken. Pete MacNeil had got the jump on Alan the previous morning. Florian Ponzio hadn’t stopped since Ullapool and beaten them both. Bob and Jenny were back and had also rode through the night. I'd been close to Alan at one point the previous day but my painfully slow progress in the dark meant he beat me back by several hours. Ian and Pete finished that day too. Others appeared the next morning at breakfast. I was happy, everyone I’d met had made it and all said the same – amazing trails, (some) amazing weather and good company. Another memorable experience and all thanks to Alan Goldsmith putting in the time and effort to create a fabulous route and gathering a group of like minded people together to ride it. Bravo!

Phil Clarke
June 2017