Slightly annoying, but at least it didn’t snap completely before I’d had chance to investigate the strange clicking noise. It’s only a few hundred miles old, I must have fitted it wrong or something. Took nearly fifteen minutes to get the repair sorted too. It’s a KMC chain with a KMC link so you’d think it would fit nicely. By the time I’d finished faffing about with it I was cold and I’d had enough so I rolled straight back home and opened some wine instead.
We left Milngavie at 8.27 AM, seventeen of us. The first twenty-five kilometres to the foot of Conic Hill were easy and we rode together for a good hour or two, relaying through the many gates along the way. It made for a perfect warm-up, but the easy riding gave us no indication of what was to come. Even after we’d crested the climb around Conic Hill we assumed that the terrain would be similar the rest of the way: hard in places but mostly rideable. The view of The Cobbler and his neighbours was pretty rather than ominous. The day was warm and sunny, there was little wind, our group had dwindled to six riders already.
On the drop down to Balmaha we met a Japanese coach party coming the other way up the steps. The ensuing bike-carry was an omen of what we would be forced into a little way further up the trail. The West Highland Way meanders through the woods on the side of Loch Lomond, and most of it is enjoyable singletrack or forestry access road until just before Inversnaid. The last couple of miles before the Inversnaid Hotel give a taste of what is required to get to Inverarnan. Punctures happened, but that does at least show that some of the time our tyres were in contact with the floor. But beyond Inversnaid the scrabbly, narrow path along the steep shore of the loch weaves and wobbles drunkenly up and down between the trees, beside impassable cliffs, through cascades of boulders for what feels like an eternity, and you have to carry your bike over all of it. On the few later sections where it is possible to put two wheels straight on the ground it is rarely worth the bother of trying, thanks to the incessant, square-edged, wheel-sized water bars gashed across the trail at infuriatingly frequent intervals. It was hot in the trees. I got through almost three litres of water before refilling at Inversnaid and it didn’t get noticeably cooler until about 5 PM. When we reached the saddle beside the small hill of Cnap Mor, after a good three hours of near non-stop carrying, I had a splitting headache and was dangerously close to suffering a total sense of humour failure. I sat down after walloping over a yet another brutal drainage ditch, hurled my pack to the floor, and necked some painkillers. I swore to myself that if I ever met the person responsible for trail maintenance on this section of the West Highland Way I would hit them with the nearest bit of furniture first and ask questions afterwards. Then I picked my bike up again and rolled on as best I could.
By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I was feeling better, and after a pork pie and a breather waiting for a couple of other riders I was ready to carry on. Loch Lomond is beautiful, but it’s a stupid place to take a bike. Do it once, recalibrate your definition of unrideable, never go back.
The final stretch to Tyndrum headed up Glen Falloch and then cut a corner over the hill above Crianlarich. It was gloriously smooth in comparison to the previous few hours, which is to say that even though the track was little more than a line of pointy rocks for miles on end it was nonetheless possible to roll a wheel over most of it. We made fair progress but the dark closed in about us and when I punctured (for the second time) we decided to clip the lights on. I turned my Exposure Six Pack on, it blazed out for a few seconds, I turned it off again as we weren’t ready to move off, and from then on it refused to respond, sitting dimly stubborn on my bars despite holding a full charge and being only a few months old. I rolled down what appeared to be some really enjoyable trail using nothing more than second hand luminescence from my companions’ lights, and a fair helping of The Force, until I found myself at the bottom of the hill in one piece.
Then I hit the wall. I haven’t ‘bonked’ for years, I’m usually pretty good at forcing fuel down myself well enough to stave off hunger knock, but eleven hours of riding and carrying capped with a psychologically challenging descent in near-total darkness left me not so much running on fumes as out of the car, pushing the damn thing along by hand. My companions, down to just three by this stage, Ben, Spad and Rich, were understanding enough to gather round and near-enough drag me along. We met up briefly with Rob, the organiser of the whole event, who had set out to find out where the hell all his mates had got to. He told us that the last few miles to the end of the trail were fun and that we would enjoy it; we pressed on into the night hoping that he meant that the last few miles were pan-flat, arrow-straight tarmac (inevitably, they weren’t). I felt nauseous, I can’t have been good company, but I kept my pedals turning and I was able to stop the bike before pitching off flights of steps and suchlike. My reptilian-hindbrain survival mode still functions well enough, I was pleased to find. When we rolled up to the bunkhouse I had started to feel better and I had the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th, “Ode To Joy”, playing at full blast on my internal jukebox.
It took us about twelve-and-a-half hours to do the fifty-two miles from Milngavie to Tyndrum. It was the hardest day I’ve ever had on a bike, largely due to the amount of time I spent off the thing. We were the first group to arrive, the last of the other riders in our party didn’t get in until 1.15 AM. Here’s the day’s GPS trace.
We awoke to cold, heavy rain and winds under dense cloud cover. 8.47 AM saw five of us set off after donning all the waterproof clothing we had, genuinely unsure whether we’d be able to finish, given the conditions. Within three-hundred yards we’d had to cross a swollen ford and that was that: we were soaked. Fortunately the trails were relatively easy going, the wind was at our back most of the way to Bridge of Orchy, and once we’d warmed up we made good progress. At the Inveroran Hotel Spad caught us up and we pressed on over Black Mount. Mile upon mile of old military road allowed relatively quick riding with only the occasional clump of hikers to slow us down. Most of the walkers were cheerful enough considering the conditions, but I had a brief run in with one miserable old sod of a rambler who should really leave the hills to those capable of sharing. After listening to his incoherent tirade I wished him a pleasant day as civilly as I could, and rode on.
We reached Glencoe ski centre just before noon, where an advance support party met us, and we took advantage of the facilities to shelter from the elements and take on board some hot food and extra layers. Going back out into the driving wind and rain was a wrench, and sections of what should have been easy access track became something of a slog as we were blasted with hailstones. The Devil’s Staircase was going to be a grind under any conditions, but we were up it relatively quickly, in just over half an hour, and the descent towards Kinlochleven was almost enjoyable in spite of the waves of rain and hail. A contender for the fastest inner tube change ever was the only thing that slowed us down, and we rolled into The Ice Factory café before 3 PM, twenty minutes in advance of our support crew. Unfortunately The Ice Factory (an indoor ice climbing venue) lives up to its name, and as soon as we stopped we started shivering, our bodies refusing to generate the energy needed to keep us warm unless we were pushing or pedalling our bikes. We took on more food and hot drinks and put on every last piece of spare clothing before pressing on into the final stretch of hills around the southern edge of the Mamores.
One obstacle we hadn’t anticipated was the hundreds of runners taking part in a race, redirected into our path by a last minute diversion due to the weather. We stopped to let them past wherever necessary, and this slowed our progress out of Kinloch and through Lairigmor considerably. Fortunately the trail widened out after a couple of miles of steep, narrow singletrack, the runners thinned out, and we picked up speed again. On the final climb up into Nevis Forest we suffered punctures and mechanicals, and progress slowed again, but our mood was cheerful – the end was almost in sight. I descended the last hill with some trepidation, not wanting to assume that the easy, fast fire road would continue, and fully expecting a final kick in the teeth in the form of miles of unrideable trudge before the end. I was happily mistaken. The last stretch to the road comprised smooth gravel downhill, then a few hundred yards of fun, swoopy singletrack, a final joyful reward before the easy roll along flat tarmac to Nevis Bridge.
There was nobody around to take a photograph so Rich used his video camera to record a few seconds of us milling around the sign as proof that we had done it. We reached Fort William in daylight at around 7 PM, having spent ten hours on the bike. Here’s the GPS Trace.
With demanding and varied terrain, significant distances and climbs, and limited facilities along the route the West Higland Way is a serious proposition for any rider. If anything goes wrong it could take a long time to extricate yourself. Bad weather notwithstanding we were lucky in that as far as I know the worst that happened to any of us was the odd puncture or minor mechanical, and the most severe injuries were saddle sores and bruised shoulders from carrying bikes. But fewer than half of the seventeen riders who set out from Milngavie on Saturday morning covered the full distance, which is a high rate of attrition; even with a huge group of helpers driving up the route to prepare food, ferry luggage, check on us at various points and generally keep us going the ride was very tough.
I am inordinately pleased with myself for completing the West Highland Way, and doing so in the front group on both days. I pushed myself harder than I ever have before and found I was capable of carrying on. I would not describe the experience as fun (mostly due to the bike-carry section up Loch Lomond) but overall it was satisfying, parts of it made for excellent riding, and I am very glad that I did it. It was hard, but it was worth it.
I managed to finish the race this time, and what’s more I managed to place ninth out of twenty in my category without any training and with hardly any riding for the last six weeks. I wasn’t even pushing that hard, I slowed up slightly after a couple of laps because I could feel myself developing a headache for some reason. I inadvertently managed to time my last lap perfectly so I didn’t have to do a sixth circuit, but was the fastest of the five-lap riders, so I got to see all the other racers crossing the line. The course was great fun, a bit quicker and less technical than previously but certainly not to the point of being boring, and I found myself riding more smoothly as the race went on. I’d like to go back to Lee Quarry soon and just zoom around as hard as I can for a day, it’s really good fun riding there.
Rick came racing too but he was a bit unlucky. He was stung by a bee that got itself sucked into a helmet vent on lap one, and had a couple of pedal-related crashes due to his SPDs being a bit sticky, but he made it round to a very respectable five-lap 14th place, only a few minutes behind me.
The picture up there was taken whilst marshalling by my mate Chris who is a brilliant photographer, if you need some photos taking you should hire him.
Like I said, I had big plans for Friday night. Rick, Andy and I met in Glenridding at just after seven with the aim of riding to the top of Helvellyn, setting up there for the night, and riding back down with the mountain to ourselves first thing in the morning. The weather didn’t look ideal, with rain and quite a bit of wind even down in the valley, but we decided to set out anyway. The forecast said that the rain was due to blow over by about 10 PM and we optimistically chose to believe the Met Office rather than just retreat to the pub.
It was an interesting haul up above Keppel Cove, over White Side and Lower Man. The video doesn’t really do the weather justice, getting onto the top in fifty mile-per-hour wind and rain was hard work, but once we reached the summit shelter and got our bags set up the clouds broke, and I fell asleep with a very good view of the stars.
The next morning we were woken by a couple of runners doing the Bob Graham round at just before 6 AM. They must have started out at around about midnight. Whilst we got our kit together a group of other mountain bikers summitted, they had already done Snowdon the evening before and were heading on to Ben Nevis for the afternoon. We were clearly not the only lunatics around, but apart from these two groups we didn’t see another soul on the hills during the entire ride.
The descent from the top was relatively smooth as far as Dollywaggon Pike, where the trail gets steep and has been ‘fixed’ with huge rocks and wheel-eating waterbars most of the way down to Grisedale Tarn. Below the tarn things are more natural, but still extremely rough as far as Ruthwaite Lodge. I confess I carried my bike down most of the descent, preferring to get down in once piece to trying to grunt and lunge the wheels over all the massive boulders with a heavy rucksack on my back. Rick and Andy managed to ride more than me but even for them I think the run down was very broken and sketchy.
We got back to the cars for just after half-eight, packed up and went to a nearby cafe for a well-earned full-English. This was the only big mountain ride I’ve managed all summer, but I feel like I got my money’s worth out of it. I’d love to go back and repeat the route in good conditions during the day, but I think that will now have to wait until next summer at the earliest.