Here at Adventure Pedlars, we’ve always been keen advocates of going slowly on two wheels. Ever since our own two-year cycle tour from the UK to New Zealand, we’ve been firm believers that the world is just too good to miss out on with your head down and buried in a pit of sweat-stained misery. As such, our aim ever since has been to try to spread the word that cycle touring and bikepacking doesn’t have to be too difficult, that anyone can do it regardless of their experience or fitness levels, and that it should be more about spending quality time in The Places In Between than reaching your destination quickly. If you like, we’re the ‘anti-Mark Beaumonts’ of this world and we’re damn proud of it too!
So imagine, if you will, the sight of me munching down heartily on a diet of my own words as I lined up on the Highland Trail (HT550) start line in Tyndrum with a bunch of lunatics from all over the world who are most definitely all about going fast; pushing themselves to the limits of human endurance for no other reason than to put an arbitrary time down on a seldom looked at leaderboard … and I was one of them. Despite all my previous preaching, it turned out that this was an itch that I just had to scratch. I’ll admit I was intrigued to find out what it was all about and to see how far I could push myself, but I was prepared for the whole thing to be utterly miserable. To make things even worse, I’d imposed my own challenge of finishing the 550 mile (885km) off-road, self-supported bikepacking race across some of Scotland’s toughest terrain in under six days (the challenge being eight). All so that I’d be able get back down to the Lake District for the following Saturday to deliver a presentation about the race at the Adventure Cycle Festival as the warm-up act for…er, yep, you’ve guessed it; Mr Mark Beaumont…
Don't let the smile fool you! Preparing for six days of misery
A shift in mindset was definitely called for. Starting off with my kit; out went my selection of spices, coffee maker and folding sink and in went… well, as little as possible really. Alpkit came to the rescue by providing me with a (tiny) heap of lightweight, packable, and titanium loveliness to load up onto my Sonder Transmitter which, even with it’s reduced load appeared significantly burlier than some of the super-lightweight rigs it was lining up next to. My nerves mounted higher as I wondered what on earth I had got myself into. This was definitely new territory for me and I had no idea of how I’d hold up. A couple of encouraging words from Alpkiteers Rich and Tom at the start line, having just completed the route, did little to calm the tension. You’d think the knowledge that a twelve-year-old had completed the challenge would fill me some sort of confidence, but knowing Tom, everything was still most definitely up in the air and if anything I now had to prepare to be a little embarrassed.
Not my usual habitat: the start line
After a brief tribute to Mike Hall and little-to-no further ceremony, we were off and careering up the West Highland Way at a pace that was neither sensible nor sustainable, especially in the muggy spring heat of that first day. All I could do was try to match the speed of other riders around me that I’d pitched at a similar level to myself. With no experience of racing these kind of distances I had to try and rely on the experience of others to set a suitable pace. An unwelcome puncture within the first 20km was almost my undoing as I raced to catch up with the group. Dizzily bordering on heat exhaustion I stumbled into the Wolftrax cafe at Laggan with just two minutes to go before closing time, claiming the pot of tea that I’d convinced myself was the only thing that could possibly save me. Herein lay my first lesson; that no matter how exhausted you feel, nor how unlikely it may seem that you can physically continue, putting the right fuel into the machine can have unexpectedly effective results. We all tend to eat our three meals a day without any regard for the effects they have on us, but in this kind of calorie-tightrope-walking activity, the lift you get from forcing down a Mars bar and a packet of salty crisps is immeasurable. I soon found my previously crushed spirits soaring high as I plummeted off the back of the Corrieyairack Pass towards the next refuel point at Fort Augustus.
A welcome sight!
Cheese, bananas, snackbars, and oatcakes: not to be underestimated!
On any ‘normal’ bikepacking trip, having regular 150 km stretches without any food resupply points would definitely call for carrying at least two days worth of sustenance on the bike. However, pulling into the infamous pizza spot in Fort Augustus by 8pm on the first day, with a full framebag’s worth of untouched food that I’d dragged with me all the way from the start, made me reassess the situation. Going quickly definitely had the advantage of getting you to places faster… Another lesson learned
Riding alongside other racers on the HT550 was one of the most fundamental pleasures of the experience and the unspoken bond that exists between between the majority of competitors is a significant feature of the event. For me, the first couple of days were an education. Sling-shotting my way between different groups of experienced riders, chatting as we rode along, helped me immeasurably in tactically planning for the unknown route ahead and exploring the extent of my own limits. However, after a miserable first night’s bivving in a cramped, midge-infested puddle after following fellow rider – Bob - in crawling under a giant dumper truck to shelter from a rainstorm, I vowed to make my own decisions on where to pitch camp from that point on.
One of my camps from later in the journey
This became my next lesson; everybody has their own style and rhythm. I had initially clinged to the riders around me like a safety blanket, following their cues on pace, food, and where to stop. But 500 km into the route, the third night brought with it a defining moment. At around eight o’clock, on our second visit to the Oykel Bridge Hotel, the group I was riding with all decided that they’d be stopping there for the night. The weather had come in hard and there was no point in continuing further if you wanted to pass through Ullapool during the all-important shop opening hours to restock on provisions before crossing into Fisherfield, arguably the most rugged and remote section of the route. Stopping did seem to make a lot of sense, but by that point I’d discovered that I tended to have the highest energy levels towards the end of the day. Stopping at that point, with three valuable daylight hours remaining, just seemed a bit of a waste.
My mind-scales were tipped by Bob’s suggestion that, if I could make Dornie by the following night, I’d be looking at a sub-five-day race (a goal I’d previously assumed to be well out of my reach). A tiny spark ignited in my mind as I realised that I was about to reap the reward of carrying a little extra kit: the tiny Kraku stove kit and ‘emergency’ Firepot meal stuffed into the bottom of my seat pack (seen by many racers as an extravagance) would probably just about see me through to the shop in Kinlochewe, over 100 tough kilometres away. My nerves tingled as I set off alone into the rainy evening, hoping that I’d made the right choice. From that point onwards I would be riding my own race to my own rhythm. Carry on reading into Part 2
Time to ride to my own rhythm