The internet is definitely the root evil for most of my epic adventures… I see a link or I stumble across a blog, a seed is sown and the text messages/emails go out to see if any victims can be found to partake.
In this instance it was finding a small article on some site about the new East Highland Way in Scotland… a linking piece of trail that joined the West Highland way with the Speyside Way allowing a pretty sizeable coast to coast off road experience… a quick estimate was 240ish miles of off road riding.
After the texts went out the only taker was Mike Mcfarlane, I had met Mike through working at Ride Cycles and he was now working at a local outdoor store but had taken a big chunk of time out so was free for the trip.
Amazingly Mike didn’t seemed phased by my optimistic time scale of 2 and a bit days.. after some shifting of dates we decided to get the train on Sunday morning to start riding about 3pm in afternoon, then a return train at 10am on the Wednesday… with trains and times booked we had a rigid time-scale to work with.
I decided to go very light.. or as light as I could as from past experience I always ended up taking a world of crap I didn’t need. With all the gear on the bike it still felt pretty rideable.
As I left home on Sunday morning and the sun was shining. It looked like it was going to be a pretty warm adventure despite the forecasts predicting showers. As I arrived at the station Mike, his Wife Susan and dog were waiting. We had chosen fully rigid singlespeeds and after the good-byes we were on a train filled with alcohol fuelled Scots.. we lucked out with seats booked in the quiet carriage. :)
After 3 hours on the train we arrived at Milngavie and the start of the West Highland Way. It wasn’t long before the WHW signage had us circling Mudock Castle and looking for the way out. The first section was easy undulating bridle way and Tarmac, navigation was easy and the sun was shining, it wasn’t long till we reached the shores of Loch Lomond.
We made good use of the pub on the shores of the Loch to sink some fluids as the weather was still amazing and showed no signs of letting up. When the singletrack trail started proper it wasn’t long before we were into the hike a bike section that all who have ridden the WHW will remember. Progress became very slow as we rode short sections and carried longer ones.. just as we were both looking forward to a good feed and the light was fading we rolled into a campsite with a bar and a restaurant which although was closing still rustled up some lasagnes!!
The night’s accommodation was the campsite in the bivvi bags with a tarp rigged up from a fence as the weather definitely looked a lot more overcast. We woke and were on our way by 7am with an estimated 40 miles done on the first day we looked to do 100 miles a day for the next 2 days to get the job done. We rode to the top of the first rise and enjoyed a breakfast trail-side with the sun warming the air around us.
The trail now was pretty variable, double track, jeep track, singletrack, grassy, rocky, dirt, every trail was undulating but at least for the first part of the day there were no serious climbs and there were some awesome descents.
After some decent pushing we got to the first real rideable sustained climb of the trip up onto Rannoch Moor with a pretty long wide dirt track. Luckily it was just about right for our singlespeed gearing although I chose to sit and grind it out while Mike chose to get out the saddle. The trail levelled out and then eventually we got our reward with a great rocky descent.
We spun into the car park of a hotel in time for some wild deer who were mooching looking for a feed :) As we finished the descent the trail hugged the road on a grassy trail so we cheated and bashed some tarmac for a few miles till we headed right and onto the Devils Staircase… a full on hike a bike which would take us up and over then down to Kinlocheven.
After a snack at the top we began the more down than up trail to Kinlocheven. One feature of most Scottish trails are the water brakes, nice channels running across the trails formed out of bits of rock. These have to be hopped or rolled and just as I was hefting my rear wheel over one I unclipped a foot and to avoid a headfirst fall I chose to throw my weight back over and ended up coming off to the side with a pedal square to the calf muscle!! ouch.. Luckily no more damage than this, but now with an aching calf muscle I couldn’t stand to pedal. To make make matters worse I punctured a mile or so later on another water brake!!
Now time was getting on.. it was 4ish and I had expected to be in Fort William by now but we were only in Kinlocheven with another sizeable up/over/down to get under our belts to finish the WHW. All the tales of how hard this route was were proving accurate, still we carried on but I had doubts of my time-scale creeping in and had already started formulating plan b, c and d in my head. Getting out of Kinlocheven was another push and carry and where we thought we would top out and be able to see Fort William all we could see was more double track stretching as far as we could see. :(
The double track continued and every crest of a rise just allowed us to see more double track stretching out beyond us. This was starting to wear thin as I really wanted to put the WHW behind us knowing even when this was done we still had 150 miles to go.
Finally we descended to a junction where the WHW met a military road and the signboard indicated that the military road was a 2 mile shorter route, so we took it to try and start clawing back some time. Although tarmac, the road delivered some very cheeky climbs until it finally gave up and spat us out into Fort William at around 5pm. It had been a long time getting here.
When faced with huge distances to cover and limited time to do it in the only thing a rider can do is… buy fish and chips and sit in the sun and ponder the situation.
We had looked at plans b, c and d and all involved multiple trains and expense neither us wanted to get involved with, so we turned back to finishing what we had started. From experience on the WHW we decided that an attempt on the East Highland Way at this point would probably leave us miles from our destination as our train departed on Wednesday morning so we decided to take to the tar, and at the end of a 60 mile off road ride we decided the best course of action would be a 40 mile singlespeed road ride!!
Strangely although my calf was still aching the road riding was quite pleasurable. We had spent so many hours riding and hiking to only make the smallest amount of progress and now the miles were flying by. The first 12 miles to Spean Bridge went quickly then we set our sites on Laggan as a spot to stop for the night. We pedalled on and as I had the better road gearing Mike sat in and basked in the wind free environment. We soon were at Laggan Wolftrax although we both thought better of a quick lap and after this Laggan.
I had hoped for a scenario similar to the previous night where we would roll up to a bar or restaurant, but unfortunately Laggan could only offer a disabled toilet, playground and a picnic area… none of which were very appealing at all. We pressed on a further few miles down the road and headed off the tarmac up a trail to where we found a good spot for a bivvi and while I set out my gear Mike took up the role of chef and we dined on dehydrated meals and cups of tea. We woke on Tuesday morning with a more optimistic outlook on the whole adventure…
I don’t think Mikes belief in what we were doing had wavered but I am known for large bouts of negativity in the face of adversity. :) The plan now sat at more road work to Aviemore… good breakfast.. visit Bothy Bikes find the Speyside Way and ride to Keiths where we would find a good spot to sleep and then train Wednesday morning.
The morning was really cold and it took a fair few miles for the feeling to come into my hands. When it did the miles passed easily, I had a figure of about 30-40 miles to Aviemore in my head so when we saw the 12 miles to Aviemore sign spirits were at an all time high and I pressed the pedals even harder with the thought of a good breakfast within my grasp.
Getting to Aviemore we went first to visit Bothy Bikes. What a great shop, I had heard of them as they are a Genesis dealer but that’s not all they sell. They had such a good selection of bikes and parts and the guys were very friendly and you got a sense that they just rode, rode and rode bikes. I look forward to getting back and doing some local rides. A quick ride via a cash point saw us sat in a cafe enjoying a huge cooked breakfast. We didn’t even give prices a second glance as we filled our boots with great cooked food, orange juice and lattes!! We even stocked up on a cake each for later.
The Speyside Way started behind Aviemore station and after riding through the back streets of Aviemore and quieter roads started out on a very wide well groomed trail, fast and flowing it then dived into some woodland for some singletrack before out onto a quiet country lane then onto a nice grassy disused railway.
We knew that this was going to be the easy section of the trip with not a great deal of elevation to it and mainly well groomed trails, all rideable. It was not without its surprises as we found ourselves first in a field with 2 bulls shortly followed by a wood with no trail in sight as the person that had signed the route had overlooked a 4 way junction with the SW being the less obvious of the trails to follow. They did however manage to place a number of signs mid track when there was no option but the direction you were going in… not so helpful.
The route was punctuated by map boards indicating which section of the trail you were on and every time we stopped at one we had made much more progress than we had thought. Although I was not keen on giving up the idea of just going straight to the railway station to avoid any unnecessary missed trains… the alternative was ride to the beach then ride to the station but it is a little known fact I hate sand and therefore have no desire to be anywhere near it.
As we came off the official SW route we headed towards Keiths on the road again. This time a lot more hilly as we left our valley bottom behind and climbed out and over. Again progress was pretty quick and the ten miles on the road passed quickly with us arriving at Keiths around 6pm. We pedalled to where the campsite signs directed us but all we found was a park home site surrounded by some rather uninviting wastelands. We rode to the station and again nothing of worth there, we had never really planned any spots to sleep. I was getting a little fed up as I was ready for a pint and a good meal, Mike however was unfazed by my ever increasing bad mood and in a moment of extreme bravery suggested that we just ride to the beach and sleep there!!
Amazingly I agreed but under protest and said I would be getting myself there as quickly as possible which Mike let me do, and as I tortured my legs in an insane ten mile singlespeed-fully-loaded-with-luggage time trial it started to rain. Luckily is stopped as quickly as it started and I arrived at Buckie, the end of the SW. Unfortunately Mike headed for Spey Bay… after a few phone calls we managed to find each other and settled into a spot on Spey Bay (only as it’s a shingle beach with no sand!!). Dinner was a less than appetising pot shot noodle thing, each with some beef jerky. We rigged the tarp and bivvied for the night. As the wind picked up the tarp took on the form of a sail and threatened to carry our bikes down the beach so Mike took it down.
Wednesday morning only required a 14 mile ride back to Keiths and luckily they let us catch our first train early… the dirty riding clothes were packed and I rewarded myself with a fresh long sleeve. Aberdeen station was less so accommodating with earlier trains so we settled into a Costa coffee marathon punctuated by charging of iPhones in the Apple store. :)
All in all a great trip… my calf is still sore… my bike a little unridden since getting back. I had a lot of doubts as to whether living on a diet of only singlespeeding is healthy so I have come back with a fresh desire to get some gears and see what has changed.
Big thank you to Mike as he endured all my various moods and still came out smiling and pedalling at the other end. :)
Credit for all images to Mike Mcfarlane.