Pre-Start at the Real Food Café – Tyndrum
This is a self supported bikepacking race over 550 miles in the Scottish Highlands. Starting in the small one horse town of Tyndrum, the route follows a mixture of fire road, pavement and singletrack all the way to Fionhaven and back.
You can eat and sleep when you like but the clock keeps ticking. It’s a proper adventure with no prize or podium glory.
Since it was devised and then first ridden in 2013 by its creator Alan Goldsmith, it has captivated my attention as an epic endurance race, however it was only this year that the opportunity came for me to be able to ride it, previous years I have been part of a team competing in the UK Three Peaks Yacht Race – a different sort of endurance race. Year on year the HT 550 race times kept improving; with last year’s race being set at a blistering pace by Canadian rider Neil Beltchenko and UK rider Chris Hope, Neil holds the course record in 3:10:22. The HT 550 is now stamped as one of the ‘iconic and must-do’ bike-packing races …and here goes explaining why…
This year Scotland was witnessing some unusually hot and dry weather, during the race week temperatures soared to the high twenties (80F). The race ‘Prologue’ consisted of a very pleasant social down by the river; here we had a HT 550 beer courtesy of Stuart Taylor and his brewery at Kirkby Lonsdale in North Yorkshire – it was going to be our last beer for a little while.
Pre-race Social – enjoying a HT 550 beer down by the river
Jenny Graham set us all off in a low key, no frills start. The sense of apprehension of the journey ahead was high amongst the riders. Jenny gave a nice little talk and then we were away rolling – and it was good to get riding. It’s worth mentioning that Jenny is shortly setting out on an attempt at the Round-the-World record attempt – Good Luck to her! As expected the riders set-off at a pretty quick pace, the trails were ‘bone’ dry and were indeed a pleasure to ride. Day 1 was a day of cat ‘n’ mouse, with a pack of 4-5 riders breaking out. I was finding it hard to keep a good pace, particularly on the hot and wind free climbs – staying out of the ‘red zone’ at this early stage of the race was key. I got a bit of bother from ‘cramps’ at around route mile 50 on the first stretch of Hike-a-Bike (HaB) – across the ‘Bog of Doom’ (which was in fact quite dry and almost rideable). It soon went and thankfully never returned!
Day 2 – Dusty trails en-route to Bealach Horn (most northerly point on route)
During Day 1 the heat and other issues saw a few riders ‘scratch’. Day 2 and the story was a similar one, some with heat exhaustion, others with stomach upsets from drinking untreated water from a contaminated source. I have a strong view that a long race is won on efficiency in the second half rather than speed in the first half. I was keen to set off at my own pace and ‘cruise’ – racing would come later on day 3 and day 4 perhaps.
Although the first night was quite cool, all the other nights were very warm, this meant that a trail side bivvy was no problem and one of the highlights of the whole journey for me was sleeping on a glacial slab, under the majestic Suilven mountain – and iconic monolith in Assynt. Additionally for this year’s race the moon would be full. I am a self-confessed Full Moon Addict! – I never like to miss a full moon and I love the thrill of the night adventure, this is perhaps a throw-back to my previous Adventure Racing days.
Early Morning Day 3 – End of the Assynt HaB with Suilven behind
Day 3 dawned another clear, warm sunny day – is this really Scotland I thought…?
I felt like my body had gone through the ‘Change Curve’ – Shock – Rejection – Acceptance – Normalisation.
Things felt really good today and I was looking forward to my first ‘proper’ meal of the race – a full Scottish breakfast at the Oykel Bridge Hotel. Sure enough it was best thing I’d tasted for quite a while. Lee Craigie was in there and just finishing her breakfast. A word about Lee; she was a pedigree rider with a list of accomplishments as long as your arm and was here to ride hard! She had done the race in 2016, but due to GPS failure had missed out a short section of route and the ride time was DQ’ed – a tough nut to swallow I thought. Out in front by a couple of hours was the Spanish ‘Single Speed’ legend Javier Simon. ‘Javi’ had made really good progress on Day 2, while I had been suffering with the heat and dropped off pace. The Spanish weather obviously ‘being his thing’.
Looking at the Trackleaders post-race, you could see that the field was well spread by now, with the leading pace being roughly twice that of the ‘tail-enders’.
Also the HT 550 route builds in toughness as it progresses, with route mile 300 to route mile 450 probably being the roughest and toughest, but in some ways the most rewarding. In these sections you would find long sections of HaB, lots of hard climbs, but yet the most awesome natural single track in the UK – all in super dry conditions – you might even see a Golden Eagle! The crossing of the Fisherfield Forest is surely most HT 550 riders highlight. Despite the name, there are very few trees in sight; 33 miles of wilderness from entry to exist. Today it was just stunning; in bad weather I guess that it can be quite inhospitable and brutal.
Night 3 and I had decided to make ‘the move’, my plan was to reach the Tea House Bothy, it sounds all romantic, but it is at best a 6’ x 8’ shed sleeping 3 at squeeze, so by my reckoning it would be Lee, Javi and me, however it may already have guests…?
The night was warm, clear and it was a FULL MOON. Never waste a full moon I thought!
Sure enough arriving at the Tea House stood three bikes and Javi who had just ‘pipped’ me there. ‘Awesome’ I thought – a good excuse not to stop, lets push on through, I told Javi I was going to ride on a bit, and set off up the Achnashellach single track.
I put on some Armin van Burren and turned the music up, there was a party in my head and the mountains where my dancefloor – I felt like a kid! Off I flew into the night and it was the best nights riding I’ve ever experienced.
The ‘Race’ had now started for me and it was 150 miles to the finish. I did not know how long the ‘other two’ would sleep for, maybe two to three hours…? Who knows? I just had to ride quickly and efficiently. I knew that at some point on day 4 the lack of sleep would catch-up with me and I would pay the price, however at this stage, and in the ‘cool’ of the night I had to make the best of it and all was going good. Because of the dry weather Torridon had seen some fires and one of the most surreal moments was seeing the mountains on fire at night – so Bizarre!
My plan was to have a one hour ‘power-nap’ at the next bothy. By now my food supplies were getting low and I was in need of a strong coffee. The next town was Fort Augustus and that was some 35 miles away and was around 5 hours riding. Despite the stunning scenery of Glen Affric this section was tough going for me. I was not switched-on and just wanted to sleep. I recall Neil B saying that this was his ‘low’ bit of the race from last year.
10 miles before the town I had a minor navigation error, which cost about 20 minutes. This was a blessing in disguise, as the ‘inner-anger’ it created got me back in ‘race-mode’ again. Before long I was in town and happy.
You pass through Fort Augustus twice in the race; I like this three-loop arrangement of the HT 550 route. I also liked the next section – 32 miles of the easy going ‘Great Glen Trail’, nice to have some easy I thought and all ‘way-marked’ riding to the next town – Fort William, it was time to ‘cruise’. The food re-stocks at both these places were so lush; it was nice to eat some real food, including several ice-creams to help cool off. We had a ‘4G’ signal here and it was good to have a check on the Trackleaders to see what was happening behind, it looked like Lee was just at the last town (FA) about 2 hours back. For the first time in the race the end felt like it was in reach. It was still 40 miles away with two big hills and quite a lot of single-track, all following Scotland’s most popular long distance path – the West Highland Way. It was 17:30 when I left town.
The ‘crux’ of this final section is the climb over the ‘Devils Staircase’ and with a tired and depleted body it was all pretty hard work – even the smallest of inclines started to feel impossible. The long stretch across Rannoch Moor was bleak and for the first time in this race I felt cold and had to don my waterproof, hat and thicker gloves. Much needed water was scarce, as I had hoped to get a ‘coke’ from the King House hotel, only to find it shut for refurbishment. I was helped out by some trail side campers who gave me a bit of their water. For this year’s race, Alan had included a ‘new’ section near to the very end – the ‘sting in the tail’ as he called it! – yet more tough(ish) trail, with 500ft climb, instead of the much needed flat road…!
I rolled in to Tyndrum at 01:50 Wednesday morning, the finish was sweet and minimalist, my family where there and a couple of photographers. It was nice to get out the ‘Race Bubble’ and return to ‘Normal Life’. Scotland had been so, so, good to me. I was lucky with the way the race had gone, my home built 29er Plus bike – The ‘Fatster’ had not missed a beat and was the ideal tool for the job. I had managed my sleeps and my eating well and had only made a couple of minor mistakes on the navigation. Memories to last a lifetime…
A finishing summary from Alan Goldsmith (the HT 550 Creator)…
Well done to Alex for an impressive win on his first attempt. His time is the third best ever and he is the oldest winner so far.
Lee Craigie was a close 2nd overall and 1st woman knocking almost 30 hours of the previous record! Her time was 5th best ever.
No previous winners have ever come back but hopefully Lee and Alex will buck that trend in the next few years.
Javi Simon was 3rd, improving his own singlespeed record by nearly 8 hours and the final rider to break the four day barrier this year. Who knows what he could have done had his back wheel not come loose.
Once again the youngest finisher was Tom Seipp at just 13. This year he carried all his own kit so was fully self supported. He managed to knock over 2 hours off of his 2017 time despite having done only 200 miles training in 2018!
The oldest finisher this year was Ron Thomson at 55. He had the added hassle of having his luggage delayed after his trans-Atlantic flight and was only reunited with some of it on the morning of the start.
This year was the hottest and driest HT 550 yet and I think the heat was the reason for a higher percentage of scratches than in the previous two editions.
The rider with the most bizarre reason for scratching was Karl Booth who was attacked by a cow.
A big thanks to Stuart Taylor for the HT 550 beer which he made to help raise money for a cancer charity. Stuart also made a video diary of his ride and the film should be out at the end of the week. The trailer and links to his fund raising page are available here:
Further Details of Route and all finish times on: www.Highlandtrail.net
Results HT550 2018
- Alex Pilkington 3:16:52
- Lee Craigie 3:20:53
- Javier Simon 3:21:55
- Nelson Trees 4:04:00
- Pete McNeil 4:06:31
- Tom Bruce 4:07:03
- Stuart Taylor 4:07:24
- Lieven Schroyen 4:09:30
- Steve Walls 4:09:32
- Steve Heading 4:11:12
- Alan Goldsmith 4:13:50
- Philip Fraser-Thomson 4:15:43
- Matt McWhirr 4:22:44
- Sean Belson 5:00:55
- Bas Rotgans 5:05:58
- Samuel Becuwe 5:08:17
- Jakub Zajik 5:08:43
- Michael Collins 5:09:58
- Richard Munro 5:09:58
- Pascal Cazaux 5:12:50
- Craig Thompson 5:15:32
- Berten De Canne 5:19:15
- Fabio Lucantoni 5:19:15
- John Sedgewick 5:23:18
- Johnny Baker 5:23:26
- Daniele Migliori 6:08:48
- Liam Landers 6:13:57
- Ron Thomson 6:22:45
- Tom Seipp 7:18:08
- Rich Seipp 7:18:08
- Michelle Dulieu 10:15:06