Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Highland Trail 550 2014

This is the big one! Arguably Europe's toughest mountain bike race.
I entered this race back in November having followed the 2013 edition online. The idea of the race appealed to me enormously and it looked like a real challenge to say the least. I had been obsessing over details of kit and preparation for 6 months leading up to the race.

Proper preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance

Early on I decided to use my Shand 29" wheeled singlespeed bike for the race (a custom steel frame made in Scotland by Shand Cycles). My full suspension bike is simply far too heavy. I considered adding a suspension fork to the Shand for a while but ruled this out in the end due to cost and extra weight. The changes I did make were to change the wheels as I wanted to have tubeless tyres and the old wheels were unsuitable. I also bought a dynamo hub and headlight system (Exposure Revo) and a dynamo - USB converter (Tout Terrain Plug III) so that I would not be dependent on finding places to charge up my electronics (mainly Garmin Edge 800 GPS) along the way.

Preparation wise I initially decided I should do a 100 mile mountain bike ride every month from January to May to get some good long distance training in on top of my usual riding. This is not too easy to do if you live in the alps as even in May many of the trails are still buried in snow and therefore the plan fell by the wayside somewhat.

Training therefore consisted of one trip away to Finale Ligure in February when I got in a really good long ride and also touring to and from the European Singlespeed Championships in Castlewellan, Northern Ireland from Larne as well as riding to Geneva airport and back. This got in a big heap of miles on the fully laden singlespeed which was good preparation. From the start of March I only rode the Shand and none of my other bikes to make sure my body was used to singlespeeding and the bike's geometry.

I flew in to Edinburgh for the race and spent the night at my friend Andy Laing's flat - he'd kindly offered to drive me up to Tyndrum for the start. Unfortunately the drive didn't go too smoothly - the car started overheating on the M9 and when we tried to pull off at the services at Stirling to investigate the car stalled at the roundabout and the car behind went into the back of us. Fortunately no damage was done in the small impact, but the car wouldn't restart. After an hour of messing about getting hot water from the services we managed to get the car to run again and limped on to Tyndrum. I subsequently found out this was the car's last journey as the garage confirmed a cracked cylinder head.

Friday evening in Tyndrum was a social affair, meeting Alan Goldsmith, the event's organiser whose 50th birthday it was. I also met some more bikers and caught up with some old friends over a few beers and just one wee dram.

Ready for the off!

Fresh and clean - this look wasn't to last long (photo Andy Laing)

Saturday morning saw the midges out in force as I packed all my gear onto my bike while Andy brewed me a coffee. It seemed that I had bought too much food and couldn't fit it all into my luggage. Loathe to leave any behind I decided to attach an extra bag on top of my seat pack.

I got a bacon and egg roll at the Real Food Café (how long does it take to get served in there?!) and then got stuck into a lump of the birthday cake that had been baked for Alan's birthday. There was a bagpiper too who played a few tunes as we milled around in the café car park and got ready to hit the trail. Then we headed up to the actual start line on the edge of the village and Alan told us to go!

On the trail - Day 1 Tyndrum to Corrimony ~190km 14.5 hours

As we rolled up the initial climb out of Tyndrum I was happy to note that nobody was going too hard - it would be silly to tire yourself out at the start of such a long event. Unfortunately the extra luggage I had tied onto my seat pack quickly worked itself loose and started to swing about. This required a couple of stops to rearrange before it was properly stabilised and this meant I ended up riding towards the back of the pack.

Fortunately it was easy enough to work my way back up the steadily rolling bunch and this gave me a chance to chat to a few other riders as I moved through. By the time we reached the Kingshouse Hotel and the bottom of the devil's staircase I was back near the front. Phil Simcock, Steve Heading and Phil Clarke were making the running out at the front, Gary Tompsett and Steve Large were just ahead of me and Andrew Hutcheson who pushed up together. The climb up the staircase was a push pretty much all the way with dozens of walkers to overtake, but it was over fairly quickly and led into a fun descent to the top of the hydro road down to Kinlochleven.

I got stuck straight into the next hill leading up towards Meanach bothy. At this point there is a river crossing and this meant thoroughly soaked feet. There isn't much point in trying to keep your feet dry as they will get wet on the next section anyway. My feet were never properly dry for the rest of the event apart from when I was in my sleeping bag.

From Meanach to Loch Treig is a horrible bog slog with a few short rideable sections punctuated by hauling your bike through peat hags, tussocks and sphagnum bogs. Once you've survived this purgatory there are good quality land rover tracks all the way to Fort Augustus taking you in a relatively scenic route via Loch Ossian, Laggan and Corrieyarick. I rode with Andrew Hutcheson for some of these sections. Once we hit Fort Augustus Andrew went into the fuel station shop to get some dinner while I headed to the Moorings restaurant in search of hot food. While I was consuming the 12" meat treat pizza Steve Large and Neil Evans joined me. Neil was warmly congratulated for ambitiously ordering a 12" pizza and a plate of chips by an elderly gentleman in bright red trousers.

Full of pizza I set off again and after a few undulating miles hit the climb up to Loch na Stac. This was on good tracks again and I reached the high point just as the light was starting to fade. The route around the loch I took was below the high water mark and across uneven blocks that made riding dangerous or impossible, especially in the half dark. After passing a rather eerie ruin with barred windows on a high water island at the north end of the lake I was happy to be back on some sort of a track even if it was boggy and indistinct in places. Cresting the hill a row of red flashing lights loomed out of the darkness - a newly constructed row of wind turbines couldn't have seemed more out of place. Suddenly the boggy track merged with the wind farm road and a few minutes riding brought me to Corrimony bothy and my stopping point for the night at 11.15 pm.

As I readied myself for bed and brushed my teeth a few other racers arrived and either bedded down or looked in and carried on riding. I was finally in my sleeping bag at around midnight. During the night other racers arrived with Ian Barrington coming in just before 2am.

Day 2 Corrimony to Kylesku ~230km 18.5 hours

Steve Large who was sleeping next to me on the bothy floor said that his 4.30 alarm didn't go off. Mine did. I lay there for a couple of minutes pondering my motivation and deciding whether I really wanted to get up and ride hard again. Something told me that I really did actually want to get up and ride so I started getting dressed. The noise woke some of the others who also started getting ready.

A group of 4 of us including a not very well rested Ian Barrington set off at 5. I let the others go for the flat road section at first but reeled them back in on the climb out of Glen Strathfarrar. By this time it had started raining quite hard and the crossing of the moor on a poor land rover track included many hub deep puddles ensuring that we were totally soaked and freezing by the time we reached the shop in Contin. Andrew Hutcheson was already there shivering when I arrived and had a hot drink in his hand. A few minutes later Steve Large and Gary Tompsett rolled in meaning there were 4 of us shivering outside the shop. Gary had managed to leave all his riding clothing at home, so was modelling a yellow plastic Scotland tourist's rain cape and some one-size-fits-all woollen gloves together with the clothing he'd managed to borrow from other riders back in Tyndrum.

The others sampled the microwaved cornish pasties and burgers while I munched a whole lemon curd tart which seemed more appealing at the time.

The tracks on the next section up to Oykel Bridge via Croick were good and we made fast progress. At some point on this section we passed a farm building with a very wet looking group of people standing in a circle in front of it. The stickers on the land rovers parked outside declared that this was the "Bear Grylls Mantis Extreme Survival Academy". I considered how well Bear Grylls would fare on the Highland Trail and considered possibly not that well, although the rules do not preclude checking into the comfortable hotels which he is apparently a fan of.

Andrew and I arrived together at the Oykel Bridge hotel and I convinced him we should try to get some hot food. The staff at the public bar had been following us on the live tracker and were expecting us! Phil had dropped in earlier after only 1.5 hours sleep the night before and told them about the race. Bacon rolls and chips were rapidly produced and we set off again into a drier afternoon feeling refreshed.

Again we made good progress reaching the dam at the top of the river Cassley after a long easy road section. We pushed and rode over the very steep tarmac road and then whizzed down the other side to the top of Loch Shin.

Based on distances I had originally thought this may be as far as I would get on day 2, but it was only 5.30 so we pressed on. The track over to Gobernuisgeach was good and we reached there in no time. Andrew was slightly ahead of me as we started on the rougher climb up the next section. Some of this was very steep and would be unrideable even on a geared bike. I certainly pushed up most of it. As we followed the track along the ridge I was probably 10 minutes behind Andrew. I came to the junction where our less distinct stalkers' path left the track and saw that there were 3 sets of tyre prints going right (the wrong way) and only two going left. I quickly realised that two of the riders in front of me must have gone the wrong way and only one of them had realised their mistake and turned round accounting for the 3 sets of tracks. 20 minutes later Andrew caught me up having finally noticed that the route had altogether disappeared from his GPS screen and backtracked to the turning.

Looking down on Loch Dionard from the most northerly point of the route

The track at this point was a very little used stalkers' path which vanished into some boggy sections and finally threw us down a steep hillside to join a 4x4 track that took us to Achfary. We spotted Steve Heading up ahead as we were just getting back onto the 4x4 track and I put in a bit of an effort to catch him up and had a brief chat as we reached the top of the Bealach Horn before the descent to Achfary. Unfortunately I punctured on a sharp rock on this nice fast descent and Steve and Andrew carried on as I fixed the puncture. By this point I was starting to think about sleep and I was hoping that one of the buildings at the bottom of the descent would be an open shelter. This didn't prove to be the case, so in the absence of finding a decent spot to sleep I kept going up the next hill and over to Loch Glendhu. I finally came out onto the road at Kylesku and bedded down by the public loo near the jetty at around 11.30.

Day 3 Kylesku to Shenavall ~150km 17 hours

After a not very comfortable breezy night with some showers I awoke at 3.50 to a strange munching noise. Unzipping the bivvy bag I found this was coming from the large red deer stag that was grazing about 3 metres away from me. It wasn't bothered by my presence until I started to stand up and get out of my sleeping bag. After a change of clothes and munching some Tesco pancakes I was on the road by 4.30. It was a beautiful dawn as I rolled around the peninsula to Lochinver and after 2 hours on the road I had only seen one van and two other touring cyclists.

A brief rain shower struck as I arrived in Lochinver but quickly dried up again as I set off inland, first on land rover track and then on almost no track at all. This section ranks as the worst of the whole route for me. Even the descent to the Cam Loch is mainly unrideable. By the time I had fought my way round the loch and out to the road I was shouting in frustration at nothing in particular "Let me go!". A person can lose their reason pretty quickly in this kind of landscape!

After wringing the water out of my socks a few easy kilometers on the road followed to bring me back to the Oykel Bridge hotel and more hot food. The bar staff informed me I was the first of the people who had completed the northern loop to stop in for food. It was good to speak to my girlfriend on the phone here and exchange texts with a friend in New Zealand who said he was glued to the tracker and offered some tactical advice.

More easy estate roads brought me to Corriemulzie lodge where a group of fishermen were enjoying a lunchtime beer and invited me to join them. I resisted the temptation and continued up and over the hill and down towards the Rhidorroch river. The track became fairly technical singletrack for a while before hitting a good 4x4 track again at Loch an Daimh. A small hill led to a singletrack descent into Ullapool with plenty of gorse bushes, one of which left a large painful thorn in the knuckle of my left hand.

As I arrived in Ullapool it began to rain - a proper thunder shower this time. I did my shopping in Tesco and then consumed some of it under the shelter while hoping the rain would ease off. The rain didn't ease off so I set off into it along the main road down Loch Broom. By the time I got off the road the rain had stopped and I began the climb over the hill to Dundonnell in the dry. I had underestimated this hill having not checked the map and my route card properly and thought I would be over it in an hour. The hill went on and on and up and up - very steeply at first and then less so and ended up taking over 2 hours. The descent, when it finally came, was horrible - the land was so wet from the earlier shower that my disc brakes never dried but howled the whole way down making the experience more unpleasant.

From Dundonnell the hill track to Shenavall was one I had walked many times and it felt reassuring to be on familiar ground. This led to the bothy after a couple of miles of less rideable trail. It was only around 9.30 but I didn't feel like going on any further even though it was still light.

The bothy had 3 groups of walkers in - from the USA, Germany and Scotland who had a good fire going even though it was a warm evening. It was good to have someone to chat to as I scoffed my dinner. The walkers were getting an early start, so they were all in bed early which suited me well. Steve Heading arrived at the bothy at about 11.30 and also settled down for the night.

Day 4 Shenavall to Camban ~150km 19.5 hours

Steve and I both rose just after 4 and were on the trail shortly after 4.30. No sign of the walkers and their "early start". The first challenge of the day is the crossing of a decent sized river which has been described as the crux of the route. This didn't prove to be a major problem as the water was just above knee depth and slow moving although it was around 50 metres wide.

5am sunrise with an Teallach from the south

After this a good stalkers' path (although fallen into disrepair in places) leads up to the Clach na Frithealaidh which takes you over to Carnmore lodge and bothy. The sun rose on me as I was climbing away from the river and it was truly a splendid morning to be out!

Trail through Fisherfield

On the way up here I managed to mess up a dismount of the bike and ended up falling on top of it, cutting and bruising my leg in the process. I cursed my clumsiness as I could easily have put my knee through the spokes of the back wheel. A serious mechanical in such a remote spot could have been disastrous.

The descent to Carnmore was great fun and made the push up the hill feel worthwhile. The Letterewe scenery is also fantastic and it was a beautiful morning to be there.

Looking back towards Carnmore and the Fisherfield hills
The battery on my GPS charges from my dynamo hub when I am rolling at more than 15km/h but there had been so much off road in the last day's riding with so little chance to recharge that it had now given up. This meant that I had to dig out the paper maps. I was very glad I had printed a set to bring with me.

After a failed attempt to get some breakfast in Poolewe I rolled on up the Tollie pass. The climb wasn't too bad, but the descent and the ride back to the road are super rocky and quite a bit is unrideable. Once back on the road though progress to Kinlochewe is easy. I got a coffee and munched through two packets of crisps and an assortment pack of iced cakes before setting off down the road to Torridon. As the day had turned into a relatively hot one for the north of Scotland I stripped off my long leggings here before getting stuck into the next climb. This was a great climb which is definitely worth coming back to ride again - apart from the last bit at the top which involves hauling the bike up huge stone blocks sloped at about 45 degrees. The technique here involved pushing the bike up ahead and then holding the brake on while stepping up behind it.

Liathach from the south Torridon hills

The top of the col felt like a proper mountain pass - it was hard to believe it was only 650m above sea level. The next descent into Coire Lair was fantastic - there is some loose rock near the top but further down there are smooth rock slabs which are great fun. I was enjoying the descent so much here I started riding sections that probably weren't really advisable given the bike set up I was on. Confidence was high though, so I cleaned all the sections I attempted and didn't have any crashes.

Before the Coire Lair descent - Beinn Aliginn in the distance
A speedy road section led to the next climb over from Attadale to Loch Long. The pass itself was fine here but getting back to the road involved a frustrating hike-a-bike section with a 6 foot deer fence with no gate thrown in. I had to take the bags off my bike to get it over the stile here as it was barely possible to lift it above my head when fully laden.

I was watching the time carefully at this point as I knew there were pubs in Dornie that would be serving dinner and I wanted to make it before 8 to ensure I would get served. Loch Long lived up to its name however and I was sure that with every turn my chances of hot food were ebbing. My relief to see the sign for the Clachan saying "food served until 9pm" was huge. I ordered up a pint of coke, a pint of Red McGregor, venison lasagne with garlic bread and a plate of chips on the side. Just as I was finishing my meal Steve Heading strode in and joined me exclaiming "Ah! There you are!".

I told Steve of my plans to get to Camban bothy for the night but he didn't fancy going on so far. I set off on my own again and quickly made it to Glen Lichd house, a university mountaineering club hut which I've stayed at a couple of times. From here the footpath climbs steeply and I crossed through a Tolkienian landscape where the path traverses a steep corrie with a waterfall running across it and a huge cauldron with an even bigger waterfall a hundred dizzying metres below as the light faded.

The bothy finally appeared out of the darkness at around quarter past midnight and I was happy to find it empty so I could spread out my things and get into my sleeping bag without disturbing anyone else.

Day 5 Camban to Tyndrum ~180km 16.5 hours
I was keen to get on the trail as I knew this should be my final day on the trail. On the bike just before 4.30 and away down into Glen Affric. A couple of hills following the Beauly - Denny power cable construction works brought me to Fort Augustus in time for some breakfast which I had been fantasising about for several hours. As I rolled into Fort Augustus I spotted Alan Parkinson waiting at the bus stop with his arm in a sling. He explained that he had crashed and knackered his shoulder on day 1 and was now on his way back to Tyndrum. He snapped a quick photo of me at the bus stop before his bus rolled in and I went on to breakfast.

Tired and hungry in Fort Augustus (photo Alan Parkinson)

A bacon and egg roll with beans and toast on the side went down very nicely washed down with the coffee and 4 sugars which seemed to be becoming my regular drink.

After this I pressed on down the Great Glen Way, overtaking yachts in the canal as I went. I really had no idea at this point what the gaps were like to Andrew in front of me or Steve behind. Hoping to be able to catch Andrew and stay ahead of Steve kept me spinning my 32:18 gear ratio fast all the way down this fairly flat section.

Neptune's Staircase arrived quickly and with it Fort William. A quick stop at the garage to take on as much sugary drink and food as possible and I sped out of town on the West Highland Way. This route was all on trails I had ridden before and it was nice to know that I had ridden all the new trails I would be covering in the route. I passed masses of walkers on the first hill out of Glen Nevis and they were almost all super friendly with some even shouting encouragement. The technical descent into Kinlochleven was great fun but by this stage my feet, ankles and wrists were so sore I was starting to take the descents a bit more gingerly and lifted the bike over some of the large water bars instead of hopping them.

Once I was on the final climb up the devil's staircase I had completed the loop and just had the out and back section to do. I munched on chocolate and slurped energy gels on the push up here to ensure my energy levels were sufficient to get to the top. It didn't seem to take too long really and once down the other side I knew there was just a relatively flat ride in to the finish.

There are a couple of climbs near the King's House and I rode both of these in decent style even cleaning the one from the ski centre without putting a foot down. Maybe it was because my feet were so swollen and sore that keeping them on the pedals was the best way of avoiding pain or maybe my riding skills had developed to a higher level after 5 solid days on the bike.

I zoomed down the cobbled road to Loch Tulla and then up the final climb from Bridge of Orchy. As I reached the top of the hill someone in a blue van shouted across from the road "Go Tom!" I had no idea who this was but was pleased someone realised I was coming into the finish and shouted back some sort of garbled cheer.

As I came down the final straight my friends Lucy and Reuben were standing at a gate to welcome me in - they'd been following the race from their desks in Oban and had decided to come up to watch me finish. Steve Large who had been driving the blue van was also there to take a photo as I crossed the finish line in 3rd place.

Tired but happy at the finish line (photo Steve Large)

I was delighted that the bike had done so well - just one puncture in 560 miles and the chain came off once due to me not adjusting it when it had become loose. Singlespeed bikes are certainly the way to go if you want to make sure your bike won't break down and force you to retire.
Happy and hungry! (photo Steve Large)
My overwhelming emotion after I crossed the line was relief. I had been really worried that something would happen to stop me finishing the race whether it was a crash or my body simply becoming too sore to finish. When I had removed my socks the night before in Camban bothy and seen the size of my swollen ankles and feet I had some doubt as to whether it was realistic or sensible to try to finish. Pushing up hills on the final day had certainly been sore as I could feel the tendons in my ankles creaking.
Swollen ankle 24 hours after finishing
After a few minutes of standing around in shock we headed down to the Real Food Cafe for dinner as it was nearly 9 and they were about to close. A bottle of Bitter & Twisted beer and a large fish and chips made me feel much better.
The next morning over breakfast I caught up with Matt Slater, an American who had come over for the race. He had been one of my drinking buddies on the eve of the race but had been cursed with terrible luck. At mile 10 his rear derailleur had broken and he had been forced to abandon the race after and unsuccessful attempt at riding singlespeed (trying to bodge a geared system to run singlespeed doesn't tend to work very well). This made me reflect on the good luck that I had enjoyed throughout the race. Nothing serious went wrong (only my GPS crashing which was ok as I had paper maps).

It's now a week since I finished and all the other riders have finished too (Iona Evans the only female rider and surely the toughest of the lot finished on Monday evening after 10 days on the trail). My body is nearly back to normal and I should be back on the mountain bike this weekend.

The big question now is what next? I've spent so long thinking about this race and now it's all over I don't really know what to do with myself. Start planning the next adventure is usually a good idea!

Maybe a Tour Divide (Canada to Mexico via the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route) at some point? Maybe start planning some sort of bikepacking route in the Alps where I live?



  1. Fantastic effort - 5 days!!!

    Your comments on the rideability of some of the sections gives me some comfort. I pulled out of the HTR thinking I'd never make the 8-day cut-off due to the pace I'd experienced riding some of them. Knowing that other folk also struggled make me feel a (tiny) little bit better :-)

  2. Great job Tom! My days of being anywhere near as fast were a long time ago. As it is, I'm trying to figure out when I can get back and finish the thing.

    A couple of other ideas... The Grenzstein Trophy... it has it's own kind of hell, the 1000 Miles race in Czech Republic and Slovenia, Tuscany Trail. Others are popping up on a regular basis.

  3. Great ride Tom, enjoyed reading this. Stunning pics.

  4. Enjoyed that Tom, great ride. :)

  5. Tom, good read well done, and WELL DONE. Good ride. Was good to see the riding 'attack' style of SSers. Then you and Andrew got away from me :-). btw I think the Attadale deer gate climb that you speak of was also the one that had me stumped for a moment. I too was about to come up with a way to get my bike over, when I thought to study the gate and fence a little more. And lo! There was a side gate hidden beside the main gate. The only time I carried my bike was onto my shoulders to ascend the rock barriers of Fisherfield, Torridon and one other spot. It was a great MYB adventure that's for sure!