The West Highland Way

Last weekend I rode the West Highland Way over two days with a group of like-minded lunatics to raise money for Cancer Research UK. It was quite an experience.

Day One: Milngavie to TyndrumIMG_20130914_102653

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.

Day Two: Tyndrum to Fort WilliamIMG_20130915_114123

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.

Pic by Richard ThewlisPic by Richard Thewlis

Final Thoughts

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.