Thursday, 4 June 2015

Highland Trail 550 2015

My bike kitted out and ready for the journey to the start in Tyndrum


I was having a nightmare. It was day two of the Highland Trail and I was in the middle of the infamous Northern Loop in some of the most remote terrain possible in Scotland. The weather was grim. My rear wheel had chosen this moment to fold and was a mess of bent spokes. The situation was undoubtedly serious.
Then I started to notice there was something wrong with this scenario. The spokes were of the flat blade type - my wheel has round spokes. Some of the spokes seemed to be missing completely. Slowly the realisation dawned that I literally was having a nightmare.
I woke in a cold sweat - it was 5.30 am and 3 and a half hours before the start of the race!

Day 1, 12.45 am

The crescent moon was lighting up the clouds beautifully as I rolled across the wild moorlands. There was only half an hour's riding left to get to the Hydro bothy which was my target for the night. I think of this section as the amphibious track. Every 50 metres there seems to be a giant puddle and some of these are as long as the gaps between them. Some of them are only a few inches deep, but some are right up to the hub of a 29 inch wheel. In spite of all this I was really enjoying being out there riding.
It is not often that you have a sensible explanation for being somewhere like this at this time in the morning, but the Highland Trail seemed to be a great reason for that tonight!

The day's riding had started out in lovely warm conditions. As the pack had thinned out towards the Devil's Staircase some chat was shared with other riders.
I caught up with Andrew Hutcheson on the climb out of Kinlochleven. Andrew had been afflicted with cramp after trying to stick with the scorching pace set by Josh Ibbett. Not easy for any singlespeeder to keep up with a super motivated and strong rider on a geared bike.

Andrew Hutcheson crossing the Abhainn Rath
We soon reached the Abhainn Rath which is the first river crossing and the place where dry feet became a distant memory for the remainder of the race. I could just see Josh and Steve Heading in the distance at this point, probably about half an hour ahead. I opened up a small gap on Andrew as we pushed down the squelchy strath towards Loch Treig.
On the way to Loch Treig - Staoineag bothy in the background
From here it was quite easy going for a while until I reached the Corrieyairack Pass. Here the rain started and that was to be the end of the nice weather for the rest of the race. There was a small snow patch to cross near the top of the pass - a leftover from the heavy snows that Scotland has seen this winter.

Pizza in Fort Augustus set me up for the rest of the day's riding, up and over past Loch ma Stac where I had a closer inspection of the unusual and slightly spooky ruined tower house than the previous year.
The tower house on Loch Ma Stac
Soon I reached the Corrimony bothy where I had stopped at the end of day one in 2014 and spotted the bikes of Rich and Tom Seipp propped up. Tom is only 10 years old but was having a crack at the Highland Trail route with his dad. It was 10.30 pm which meant I was 45 minutes ahead of where I had been a year previously, so I pushed on into the fading light.

Day 2, 6.00 pm

I staggered forward into the wind up the obscenely steep quad bike track. A gust of wind knocked me back again. I couldn't feel my right hand due to the cold and my left hand wasn't much better. My feet felt like lumps of wood, completely numb.

Progress for the last hour and a half since leaving Glen Golly had been tortuous. The terrain is difficult at the best of times, especially one section which consists of a 19th century stalkers path that long ago fell into disrepair. Add to this wind gusting at gale force, showers of rain and penetrating cold and you have the perfect recipe for a challenging bike ride. This is what the Highland Trail is all about. This is the "Northern Loop" and I was just about to turn south and descend the Bealach Horn. From here on things would have to get easier. Conditions like these would surely result in hypothermia if maintained for more than a couple of hours.

I had woken at 3 am when Josh sneaked out of the bothy. I rolled over and went back to sleep until 4.15 when I started to stir and get ready to ride. The going was fairly easy for the first few hours and I made it to Oykel bridge for 11am in time for my first cooked breakfast of the ride.
Gobernuisgach, a remote outpost in a vast wilderness
All too soon this had led to Gobernuisgach and the entrance to Glen Golly where the truly empty wilderness begins. The land here has no traces of being tamed by man except for the track that the route follows and in places the landscape has repossessed even that.

Near the most northern point of the Trail with Loch Dionard in the distance
Once I had survived the descent of the Bealach Horn I had my sights set on hot food for dinner. In 2014 I arrived at Kylesku at 11.30 pm, far too late for any food. After the beating I had received from the weather I knew that hot food would be a huge morale and energy boost. I pressed on over the hill from Achfary with this in mind and arrived at the pub just before 9. I was delighted to get a table for dinner and a pint of Skye Brewery Blaven ale.

After consuming my gourmet 2 course dinner (puy lentils, monkfish and mussels were involved) I set out with the idea of doing another hour before finishing for the night. In the end I rolled on all the way to Achmelvich where I bivouacked next to the beach at about 1am.

Day 3, 9.00 pm

I stood on the pebble shore of Loch Strath na Sealga and savoured a rare moment of peace and dry weather. The evening sun was shining up the strath through the clouds and I felt relaxed and comfortable. For the first time since the afternoon of day one my clothes were all dry from the ankles up.

Loch Strath na Sealga in the evening sun
The day had begun with a 5 am start and I was soon on the roll into Lochinver. I wasn't feeling good as I set off into Glencanisp and I decided to have a lie down for half an hour at Suilags bothy. I reached the bothy at 6.50 am. I had assumed any occupants would still be in bed, however as I propped up my bike I heard voices and the sounds of breakfast being made. Unable to summon the energy to go in and talk to the bothy dwellers I got back on the bike and kept on riding.
On the way into Glencanisp forest with Suilven in the distance
The trudge through to the Cam Loch did not seem as bad as the previous year. This is a section which you are bound to underestimate unless you are unfortunate enough to have done it before. Soon I was on the road and rolling into the Oykel Bridge Hotel for another big breakfast.

The route through to Ullapool is easy going by Highland Trail standards so it wasn't too long before I found myself filling a basket with food in Tesco while the rain came down outside. As I was stuffing my face with sandwiches and pastries in the warm entrance of Tesco Andrew Hutcheson walked in. He had scratched at Fort Augustus after having back problems to add to his cramp on day one and had driven up from his home in Strathpeffer to see some riders come through. We had a good chat about the Trail before I got back on the road.

After pushing over the steep lump to get to Corrie Hallie I was into Fisherfield and reached Strath na Sealga. I passed the Shenavall bothy without stopping and reached the shores of the loch. The river crossing here was much wider than in 2014 and deeper too. I removed my baggy shorts and waded in - no point in trying to keep my bib tights dry and my shoes and socks were wet to begin with.
The Abhainn Strath na Sealga which I was about to cross and Beinn Dearg Mor
After the thigh deep crossing I stopped at the cottage of Larachantivore and ate my Tesco pasta dinner before pushing on into the fading light to cross the Clach na Frithealaidh and descend to Carnmore bothy arriving just after midnight.

Day 4, 4.00 pm

As I had passed through pubs and cafes on the Trail I had received messages from Josh who was out in the lead. "Josh says see you at the finish" and "Josh was here at 6 am" were a couple of examples. As I crossed the south Torridon hills the rumours became more frequent as a couple of fellow bikers reported sightings of Josh - I knew I wasn't far behind. Having nearly reached the valley at Achnashellach I came to a gate in a fence and spotted Josh just riding away from it.

At first I think his racer instincts made him consider riding off as fast as he could. Then he stopped and said "I think you just made my decision for me". Josh explained that the pivots in his full suspension frame had failed due to the dreadful conditions. He had been trying to nurse the bike round the rest of the route but having been caught by me he realised there was not much point in continuing and potentially doing more damage to the bike.

We chatted for a few minutes as we continued to the train station then shook hands and I carried on. I was disappointed for Josh that he had worked so hard to build a commanding lead and then lost it due to a mechanical.

I had made an error in my stay at Carnmore bothy the previous night. This is a strange bothy as it has actual beds, some of them with mattresses. I picked one of these to roll my sleeping kit out onto and started to blow into my thermarest. After a few breaths I realised this seemed pointless, stopped blowing and got into bed. An hour later I awoke shivering convulsively - the cold, damp mattress was sucking the warmth out of my body with no air in my thermarest to make it insulate. I therefore was not as well rested as I should have been when I stepped out into the rain at 6am that morning having slept through my alarm clock.

The morning had improved after that as I crossed the Tollie path without problems and made it to the Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe for a good breakfast. I managed to have a chat with my fiancée Sarah on the phone here although I was struggling to talk after I burnt my tongue on a hot piece of fried egg.
Yet another big breakfast - this one at the Whistle Stop café in Kinlochewe
After crossing through Torridon and passing Josh the Trail took me on past Attadale and into Glen Ling where I passed a large number of smelly dead deer - possibly killed by the snowy winter the highlands had recently experienced.
Eilean Donan castle and Loch Duich
Arriving in Dornie I tried to get a table in the Clachan pub but they were full up, so I had to go to the Dornie Hotel instead. The food here was not as good as the Clachan and the beer selection was dire - Guinness or lager - I opted for a pint of coke. While eating dinner I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the race. I was shocked to see that Steve Heading had scratched. Steve is a rock solid bike racer who had pursued me doggedly round the route in 2014. We had both ended up at the Clachan for dinner then and Steve had told me he had worked hard all day just to ensure that he made it to the pub before closing time. I speculated that the thought of having to achieve the same day's riding again this year in harder conditions might have wrecked his motivation to continue.

I was finding the knowledge of my 2014 times both a motivator and a source of disappointment. I had arrived for dinner in Dornie an hour ahead of my 2014 time, but my overnight stops were far shorter than the previous year. I should have been a few hours up but I was frustratingly only one hour up.
Ascending the Allt Grannda, 10:30 pm
With this in mind I rejected the idea of stopping for the night at the Camban bothy which comes at the top of the climb past the Allt Grannda waterfalls and pressed on down Glen Affric and into the endless forests around Tomich. Finally at 3 am I decided to have a sleep on the side of the track before tackling the hills that lead to Fort Augustus.

Day 5, 8.00 am

I had reached Fort Augustus too early to get a proper cafe breakfast, but the butchers shop was able to provide a bacon and Lorn sausage roll and a cup of sugary coffee. This was essential sustenance to get me down the Great Glen to Fort William and I enjoyed munching this while standing in the butchers shop.

The wind had been strong for the whole of the race so far and it showed no signs of letting up as I rode into it down the Caledonian Canal. What should have been an easy spin was an energy sapping grind.

I felt the need for more hot food in Fort William, so I stopped for lunch knowing my nearest competitor was in the same location where I had been at 7 pm the night before. This food and rest stoked me up for the final 6 hours of the ride down the West Highland Way. It hardly stopped raining for the whole of this time so I was soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone by the time I finally hit Tyndrum.
One of us was soaked and freezing, not sure which one. (Photo Sarah Autie)
My fiancée Sarah was waiting at the finish for a big hug under an umbrella and Alan Goldmith's friend Sarah was there to take finishers photos too. After that I had to go straight to the campsite showers to warm up before getting some dry clothes on.

After some dinner we bumped into Josh and went for a couple of pints at the pub to exchange stories from the Trail. Josh was already starting to plan for the 2016 Highland Trail having learned a lot from his attempt this year. He mentioned that not wrecking his body on the Highland Trail was important as he will be starting the Transcontinental Race in July. Returning as a veteran is a massive advantage for any challenger.

I was not expecting when I set off to ride the Highland Trail to be the first one back to Tyndrum. There were four of us from those who set off who looked to have the right kind of pace and sleep/lack of sleep strategy to win. It was unfortunate that the other three were taken out by the main trio of factors the Highland trail will tend to throw at you. The physical had taken out Andrew on day one, while on day 4 the mechanical had done for Josh and the mental for Steve. As the sole survivor of this bunch the race was mine to lose from then on.

I must emphasise how much harder it was in 2015 than 2014. I finished 26 minutes faster this year. In 2014 I spent around 22.5 hours stopped overnight in total compared to 15.5 hours this year. So I spent 6.5 hours more on the move in 2015. This was due to a combination of the cold, wet, windy weather and damp ground conditions both making the riding slower and also meaning that spending time in warm pubs and cafes recovering was more of a necessity than a luxury.

I think I'll take a break from the Highland Trail in 2016 and look for new adventures elsewhere.


Times are from starting riding to stopping for the night, so include café and pub stops

Day 1: 237km 16 hours 15 minutes
Day 2: 216km 20 hours 15 minutes
Day 3: 139km 19 hours
Day 4: 164km 21 hours
Day 5: 147km 14 hours 20 minutes

Total distance 906km
Total time 90 hours 50 minutes

Kit list

Shand Cycles custom steel frame
Salsa CroMoto rigid steel fork
29" wheels, 2.2" tyres
Singlespeed drivetrain (chainring and sprocket have done the HT550 twice!)
Garmin Edge 800 GPS (ran out of power and repeatedly crashed)
SP PD8 dynamo hub
Tout Terrain Plug III dynamo to USB power converter (allows charging above 14km/h)
Belkin USB power pack and USB cable to charge GPS
Exposure Revo front light
Cateye rear light
Alpkit Yak harness and drybag on handlebars
Alpkit Possum frame bag
Revelate Designs Viscacha seat pack
Rab Neutrino 250 sleeping bag
Thermarest NeoAir ground mat
Terra Nova bivvy bag
Embers Merino long sleeve jersey for riding and long sleeve base layer for sleeping
Thermal long-johns for sleeping
Assos bib shorts and bib longs
Norrona baggy shorts
Giordana warm long sleeve layer
Specialized Rime shoes
Gore Bike Wear waterproof jacket
Endura thermo merino socks
Dakine Traverse gloves
Specialized Vice helmet
Tools: Park Tools multi tool, Gerber multi tool, tubeless repair kit, pump, spoke key and chain tool
First aid kit
Canon G16 camera
Compass, whistle, paper maps printed at 50% on A5 paper in Ortlieb waterproof map case
Mobile phone, cash and credit cards
Petzl tikka xp headtorch
Toothbrush and toothpaste
2 x 500ml drink bottles.


  1. Awesome work and great write up! Well done! Sounds brutal...

  2. Phenomenal effort. Rigid and SS! :)

  3. It's good to see you just didn't race around and had time to take these great photos.