Trans Pyrenees by Mountain Bike

All good ideas….

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Early in 2018, in the grip of a hard winter… you can’t always get out as much as you’d wish, so you sometime resort to dreaming and scheming… It was then that I thought about the idea of merging a bigg’ish ride into the start of our summer family holiday in northern Spain. As the Pyrenees was close by it seemed almost logical to capture the Trans Pyrenees route. After a bit of research (and there was not a huge amount of stuff out there) it lead to me finding some GPX tracks of various routes – all Mtb of course! or ‘BTT’ as it is known in Spain. The route seemingly had a choice of start points on the Mediterranean, either Llanca or Roses, both small seaside towns. We chose Llanca as it was connected by rail and had more choices of places to stay. The GPX traces indicated a route distance of approx 950km, altitude gain was suggested to be around 24000m. We knew it would involve lots of climbing!

Mark Wildsmith a friend from the running club indicated an interest in doing it as well and I was glad to have some company on a ‘tour’ style ride and share the experience and journey.

As usual in life, time is often the limiting factor and I could only really ‘eak’ out 7 days to do this journey and after comparing with the Trans Pyrenees Race stages it seemed easily doable – albeit some long days cranking the pedals.

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Dreaming of this….

The splits are shown below and gave us a target of what to aim for. Most people take 12-14 days to do it.

116km2200m LLANCA > CAMPRODON

114km2700m CAMPRODON > LA SEU D´URGELL

115km2930m LA SEU D´URGELL > EL PONT DE SUERT

98km2785m EL PONT DE SUERT > AINSA

97km2200m AINSA > JACA

132km2595m JACA > BURGUETE/RONCESVALLES

97km1980m RONCESVALLES > HONDARRIBIA

Like any long journey the memories often get merged, blurred and mixed-up, so mainly for my benefit I have done a short recap on each day…

Day 1 Llanca to Llongrriu (area) 109km 2728m

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Saturday morning, a poor nights sleep in an uncomfortably hot hostel…  It always feels good to start rolling, a lot of worry and anticipation builds up before hand and almost as soon as you set off it all seems to disappear as you’re off on the adventure, and pretty well nothing else matters! Concentration goes into the bike, the route finding and keeping the body going. Then the sights and wildlife you pass are a bonus and will be collected all the way along the route. The extended UK summer had helped to condition us, however today was a hot day, in fact a ‘really’ hot day –  the forecast suggested 38degC and the hostel owner said that it was the hottest so far this year, not great for setting out on a long journey, but hey ho, it has to be better than rain, or wind, or no ride at all. The bikes were reasonable well loaded up – probably around 8-9kg of kit and liquid and that was ‘paired-down’, but it allowed for kit in the mountains and bad weather – most of which felt superfluous at this stage. The trails were pleasant jeep style tracks and small roads, it generally felt all uphill as we climbed into the mountains.  Of the villages we rode through and they generally all had drinking water taps, this is a real bonus and removed a lot of worry of where to find water.

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We passed by a large lake and made a short but worthwhile detour, it was late morning, things were hotting up and a cool off was required. It was like a bath! We dried in an instant, the journey continued through scrub and bush, it took us through some delightful old villages, one of which we stopped at for lunch. This is where we realised our diet for the week would largely be made up of egg tortillas and Coca Cola. The first big climb was reached and I was conscious of drinking way too much and not being able to stay cool. The climb was around 800m and would take two hours. I started to suffer, pedalling was just unpleasant, with cramp onset and a feeling of weakness and nausea. I had to push on many sections, meanwhile Mark seemed relatively unaffected. In my head I was not overly bothered, I just knew it was the heat and I would have to manage it and then get over it, but when my legs locked up with cramp I just had to lie down. Mark had the look of ‘hmmm Alex is broken, its day 1, Alex does not normally break…’ I had 30 minutes of pained rest and eventually got back on the bike, we had made the col and Mark had assisted by pushing my bike as well as his. Good teamwork Mark!

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Mileage so far was around 80km and it was now late afternoon, the plan was to get down off the hill and find somewhere for a drink. We passed through a stunning gorge, were there where families picnicking and swimming, but not for us, we pressed on and found a hostel and got drinks, first a coke and then a beer – it seemed to sort things a little. We had planned to get to a little town called Comprondon, but the map indicated that it was around 40-50 km away – too far. So we made progress up a quiet valley and found a nice bivvy spot in a forest near a river. It was nice to wash and get some food into us and we were asleep by 10pm with the intention of rising at dawn, which would be around 6.20am, so a good rest really.

The image below so the temperature trace for the day, I usually knock off 5degC as the watch is not always in the shade and rides higher – nonetheless it was around 38degC, the hottest that I have ever had to cycle in, I think.

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Day 2 Llongrriu to Baga 128km 3810m

We were rolling at 07:30, things felt a little sensitive and weak to start with, but the rhythm of the continuing climb soon distracted us and it was a case of getting on with the job in hand – and getting to the mythical Comprondon for a proper feed. It took quite a while, but we eventually rolled into the bustling, medieval place at around 10:30 and a nice little bar-café was awaiting us for breakfast. Lots of food, some nice coffee and a coke seemed replenish us nicely. After leaving town we knew that the first big climb lay ahead, we had climbed 400m to Comprondon, the mountain col was a further 1200m, peaking at 2100m. We passed through more lovely mountain villages, slowly, and they get smaller and more rustic the higher we progressed, eventually it turned to dirt at 1600m. We would climb for about 30min and then have 5min rest or push, just to rest the muscles on this relentless climb. It was exciting to feel that we were now in the big mountains – the Pyrenees proper! The trail however was slightly disappointing as it seemed that some people were doing the route in their cars, which spoilt the ambience a little.

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After a 1000m descent we had lunch and studied the route ahead for the day. We realised that we were not making progress fast enough and with so far to go, we elected to miss out a mountain loop, it looked nothing too special and it would give us probably 2hrs to cycle on further, we had no idea where we get too and tried not to think of the ‘big picture’ too much. Another big climb lay ahead and the small road seem busy with the Sunday traffic, after an hour we were back on the trail and in the wilds, we saw many eagles in the next section and the weather looked moodier and was feeling a little cooler and damp – we were high up and started to pass some ski small stations, which I think always look ugly without the snow cover to hide the mess. Route finding was quite fun and it was lovely to do our first bit of ‘single track’, if we had more time we would of preferred more of this stuff. At the second top of the day (2200m) it was now getting on a bit around 19:30pm and we wanted some food, so we decided to make the descent by road instead of the forest tracks. Baga was our destination around 30km and all downhill. We passed only one car and had the pleasure of a race track like surface – we were in town 45min later buzzing! and so was the town with a carnival and fair. A bar was found and much food was ordered. A good day, but no plan of a place to sleep so we headed out of town to a park and found a nice little area and bedded down. Here we found to our annoyance that the town clock rings throughout the night and strikes twice on the hour…

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Day 3 Baga to Livorsi 125km 3111m

The body was now adjusting to the new routine of life – long days in the saddle and a big feed-up in the evening and a bivvy-spot on the trail. As usual the morning started with another long climb and we were soon warmed up. With the sun poking through the trees we were already trying to hide from it and enjoyed the steady woodland climb that took us into Cadi Moixero Natural Park, here we passed several other groups of bike-packers – comrades of our journey! As we came out of the trees big limestone monoliths appeared, this was spectacular country for sure! After a short breather at the col we were soon speeding down with the thoughts of a late breakfast in mind, the next village was Tuixent, perched high on a rock, and were we hopefully we would find a café… Typically a four hour climb on one side will be rewarded with a 45 minute descent on the other – and so we were soon nearing the little hilltop village, with a climb of its own. We sniffed out a little café and shop and enjoyed an egg tortilla some coffee and cold Cokes. The route after this seemed to take a series of roads over some medium sized cols – it was good to get a rest off the bumpy trails, but the tarmac soon became a chore and it would be several hours before we met the trail again.

Day 3 was tough going again for me, I was still not finding my form and this extra struggle distracted a little from the ultimate enjoyment and I was hoping it would soon change! After another monster climb that seemed to take most of the later part of the afternoon we reached a large Refuge that, as it happened had a road up to it and so quite a few people where milling around there – we had not seen many people all day and it weirdly felt uncomfortably busy, but I wanted to stop and fancied another cold Coke and some crisps. It was here that Mark the genius, suggested we try to get a hotel or B&B in the next town – the wonders of 4G and Booking.com and we had a nice little place booked. We would pass the previous Plan A accommodation on the way down – another little refuge and as it happed it was  a gem, bad timing it would be nice to have stayed there or had another like this for the night after. Livorsi was the next town and it had a few shops, hotels and bars. The hotel was lovely and as soon as we had de-kitted and locked the bikes we both raced to the shower! It was good to wash and refresh our kit. That done we headed out for food …and a good feed was had!

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Day 4 Livorsi to  Col de Espina (near to Laspaules) 128km 3534m

Usual routine… shop for food then start mahoosive climb, expect this time it would be our biggest; a 1400m non-stop and to the high point of the whole journey passing through the Parque Nacional De Aigustortes. A picture paints a thousand words – so here it is…

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We met another couple of Brits up here on a motorbike tour which looked good fun and maybe a little easier/quicker than our effort…? The scenery was magnificent and we had a lovely contouring track that endlessly lead around the mountains until the next big valley was reached. Mark was now mastering his bike and his descents and he took off at speed and it was great to follow his dust infused trail, down at least a hundred switch-backs to valley floor – time for Coke stop..? and so we switched on our bar-radars …before too long we had found a watering hole, this time nuts and double Cokes – we needed it!

We checked the map and the next 40km looked a little non-descript and some of the GPX trace did not sit on a map trail, so that could be interesting… I felt more on it today and was happy on the next climb, after several kms of tarmac we hit a little trail over some cols. These became small and eventually lead to an hour of Hike-a-Bike, but it was quite pleasant. The villages we passed through were really out of the way and very rustic, quite often we would not see a sole and they would feel like ghost villages. As always we could always get water in these places and it was our little routine to find the tap and fill-up our bottles and splash the face. We heard some thunder and as we climbed up to the next relatively short mountain stretch the skies really darkened. The urgency meant we upped the pace and the wind would pick-up little ‘dust devils’ it was very eerie…  The thunder soon came nearer and the lightning flashes were very intense, as was our pedalling – on we sped with some rain drops getting us. Would it pass? …No after another 20 minutes it was coming down thick-n-fast – time to find shelter and layer-up.

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We dug out our jackets and duvets and put them on the temperature had gone from 26deg to 16deg, we had a big descent and it would be cold… The next town was 15km off and we decided to make a dash for it! We got soaked, but were soon rolling in to it and on the lookout for a food place, soon enough we found a bustling little café/bar and rushed in. The rain continued for a while and after much food, beer and our body weight in olives we did not have a plan of where to stay… Mark suggested that we stay and drink beer and ask to kip in the bar. We soon dismissed this and I persuaded Mark we could ride on into the damp night and find a ‘doss’ somewhere! We rode and climbed and then climbed some more, through damp woodland – not very appealing, eventually at the col it opened out and we thought it wise to stop – now that it was almost midnight and pitch the tent… I had a scuffle around and saw a faint outline of a building, on investigation it turned out to be a view point on the col and in the circumstances was almost perfect – trial gods on our side yet again! Mark put on some club music and we sorted our stuff and had a little party and scoffed a bit of emergency whisky. Not long after we were in our bags and snoozing. However…

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Day 5 Col de Espina to Fiscal 120km 3200m

The cows, the cows, the cows and their damn bells – they were making so much noise all through the night!!! It was a damp cool start and Mark was not for waking up, even when on the bike, I think this was his first big low point and quite often I find the first of morning after a hard day (or nights) ride tough to deal with. But you do come through and the solution would be to find a place for a proper breakfast and coffee. It took a while but by 9am we found a reasonable town and had the usual platter of stuff. I laughed again at Mark as he now the face of a man who needed a good sleep – like an adventure racer on day 4!

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After breakfast we found a market and stocked up on some lush fruit and provisions for lunch. Rolling out of town the descending valley closed in on us and we had a magnificent gorge to pass through. The weather warmed and our combined morals grew some. After the gorge came a turn off and the start of the next long climb section. Our legs churned away, slower than of the previous days, with all the riding so far wearing us down a little. We head off the tarmac into a deep forest, very vegetated and damp, almost like a rain forest. As we climbed to the col we detoured to a refuge and decided to stop for lunch, which turned out to be a very wise decision as the heaven’s suddenly opened. We had lots of bread cheese and tomato – it was a great feed! As usual the big map was our table cloth and we studied it and looked at it – we were only just over the halfway mark, maybe 2/3. The reminder to be done the time we had left depressed me a little as I knew it would mean some decisions would have to be made on ways to accelerate our progress.

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We headed off the mountain in more haste as we felt the pressure to press on our travels. At the next valley it looked like we would be heading up a long gorge, however on arrival at tits start the sign said road closed, which meant a detour, but thankfully not that much longer – I was majorly disappointed not to do the Gorge de Huica, we thought about trying it but decided a thwarted route would be a pain and mare our progress some more, on we pedalled on the detour. Day 5 was a tough day and at the next stop we talked about a hotel stop for the night and get a good evening feed and a monster breakfast, Booking.com did not reveal much and I suggested that the trail gods would sort something for us, so on we pressed. We now were at the top end of said gorge and the mountain scenery was stunning, it was a popular spot as would had seen a lot of traffic and folk around holidaying. The next town we headed for was called Fiscal, we had our fingers crossed for finding a place and before too long we were checking into another ideal place. Everything was such good value here in Spain – 90E for dinner B&B for the two of us, and beers only 1.40E a bottle – Bingo!

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Day6 Fiscal to Jaurrieta 163km 3150m

Running out of time and not particularly near to the end of the road…

The previous night’s map studying suggested we had somewhere between 250km and 300km to the finish – a tall order to do in what was ideally just less than 2 days riding, so we planned to defer to the road were possible and try to take the easiest route, while avoiding any main routes. The start out was a bit of an exception to this as we had about 40km on the N260, which traversed the south side of Pyrenees. It wasn’t overly busy, but it did have the appearance of a road built to drive quickly on… and there was a long 3.5km tunnel, which Mark was dreading… We soon reached the tunnel and switched on our lights so we could be legal and seen.

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It was not too bad when in and to our surprise as we entered a large overhead road sign illuminated ‘bicecletas’  80kph > 60kph. Amazing we both thought, the tunnel had recognised our presence and had slowed the traffic – what little there was for us, how nice! Fast progress was made, until we reach a more exposed part in the valley and the wind seemed to funnel into our path, but the kms ticked quickly by and by the mid-morning cola stop we had done some 50-odd kms. Back on the little roads it was pleasant going, but quite up/down again. The hills were a little softer but to the north the main ranges could still be seen. Dinner was had in a beautiful old town called Hecho, were we found a nice grocery and grabbed bread, cheese, tomato, fruit, crisps and drink. We enjoyed the feed before the next long climb to a 1300m high point, through some more spectacular gorges. We picked up a few bits of technical downhill, to spice the ride up a little and it was nice to be whizzing through dark, lush woods then sun-drenched open meadows. We had enjoyed the days ride so far, despite it mostly being tarmac and soon we had reached the part of the map where all the places had ‘Zs’, ‘Xs’, in the name and this was good, as it meant we were getting nearer to the coast.

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We passed through more quaint mountain villages, that look distinctly Austrian/Romanian – certainly not your typical Spanish names or looks – It felt like we’d been transported to Eastern Europe! We found places that served food were few and far between and all busy, so we made do with an expensive delicatessen that night. It was now the evening and we had one quick beer, before we decided to press on and find a sleep spot for the night – the last of the ride it would be… It took some time and was almost dark when we found a little roadside picnic and bbq spot, with nice grass area and a water tap – sorted! Your needs really boil down to simple things on these trips – food – shelter.

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Day 7  Jaurrieta to Hondarribia 137km 1597m

So far the ride had been one of those – rides-of-a-lifetime, so much amazing scenery, lots of nice people and places and lots of great things to remember. The last day is often mixed feelings, but I have to say I was keen to get to the Atlantique, see the family, have a swim and get my sore arse off the this bike. I think the heat and sweat had given me a hard time on this ride and despite feeling okay on the last day I was wanting ‘normal-life’ back! But not before some more kms and hills – but it would be downhill surely…  …as we spent the night at 1000m..?

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We continued on a lovely road crossing rolling countryside in the hole of finding a bar or café open for breakfast, everywhere was still sleepy looking at first light, with no signs of life, it wasn’t until we had done about 35kms of riding that we found a nice little place to stop for breakfast and again we had the usual order of stuff.

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More road continued, quite a big road, but not too busy, however there where a lot of ‘roadies’, coming the other way – I’m guessing out of Pampalona, the next big city some 40km away. Luckily we would not pass through this place and turn on to smaller roads that would take us over our last ‘col’. We passed through some woods and the last climb took an hour to get to the top, it felt good knowing we had downhill to the coast. The road was twisty and it was a good buzz as we raced down, it also noticeable warmed up and at the bottom we found a place for food and final snacks to get us through the last 30-40km. The road had been upgraded, with tunnels and bridges to make it faster for vehicles, cyclists were prohibited and had to go on the old road, which was good, but meant more distance and some extra hills. We soon reached the outskirts of towns, first ‘Irun’ then Hondarriba, it was bustling and busy with cars, the cycle lanes seemed to come and go and it was hard to find the best route through all this metropolis stuff –  our senses were not attuned to this! The exact finish point was not really known but we rode to the beach at the end of the promenade and parked our bikes and waited for the ‘Pilkington Support Team’ to arrive.

The Finish! – After some 580miles and 76,000ft

Post Script.

A journey like this provides lifelong memories of all the special places visited, the hard-ships enroute, the funny moments, the kind/interesting/unusual people we met, the wildlife, the mountain weather  …the list goes on.

I would like to thank Mark for joining in on the expedition, he was a rock-solid, biking companion and sharing the journey with someone like this is really important. You need people with a strong resolve, but also chilled-out to take the rough with the smooth. It would be remise of me not to mention our bikes, which were both impeccably reliable – with not a single mechanical, or puncture or anything, they just performed. My biggest thank you however goes to my family who tolerate, or dare I say support my passion for exploring and adventure and being at one with nature – and that’s with just the basic things you need to stay safe and keep moving. Go and find your journey and do it!

Southern Upland Way – A Labour of Love…

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Getting Hooked…

Last year I set out about extending my long range bike-pack rides into the borders area of southern Scotland as a new region to explore. It was an area that I for one had passed through many times before when heading to the bigger mountains in the north and it is probably the same case for many others… My first foray was a 3 day expedition from Carlisle to Edinburgh, where I was going to meet the family and go to my cousins wedding – what classier way to arrive than as a dirty hobo bike-packer and make your mark! On this journey I stepped on to the SUW near the Lowther Hills and headed east for many miles. It was a lovely wild trail and what I had done of it had captivated my attention to do more…

The first attempt…

Roll on a couple of weeks and the May time weather was still holding out, also I had been given the offer of a lift from Portpatrick back home. I started to prepare a plan and my kit. I also tried to do some research on the whole route. There was not a huge amount of information, particularly for the Mtber, I did find some interesting descriptions though and this excerpt is worth a mention:

At 212 miles or 341km, the Southern Upland Way is Scotland’s longest official Long Distance Path. Southern Scotland is all too often overlooked by visitors simply seeing it as an area needing to be crossed in order to get from the Scottish Border to the “interesting” parts of the country. Anyone walking all, or even some, of the Southern Upland Way will realise that this too often overlooked part of the country offers plenty of variety, interest and challenge in its own right.

And it is worth holding onto that word “challenge” for a moment. Given the widespread lack of knowledge about southern Scotland, it comes as a surprise to most people to find that the Southern Upland Way is Scotland’s most challenging Long Distance Path. In part this is because it passes through some of the least inhabited and most remote areas of countryside in the United Kingdom; in part it is because it cuts across the grain of the country, involving a series of climbs and descents and a highest point of 725m or 2,378ft; and in part it is because the lengths of individual stages can be very long, up to 27 miles or possibly longer, depending on how you divide the walk.

All of this makes the normal warnings about fitness and equipment levels, and need to be able to read a map and use a compass, especially important. The Southern Upland Way itself is well waymarked. But if you stray from it – always a possibility, especially on upland stretches in poor visibility – you are likely to find yourself, literally, on your own, without any signposting, and possibly a very long way from help. Oh, and quite possibly without a mobile phone signal as well, so “phoning a friend” is often not an option.

Interesting…!

The plan was to get a Thursday PM train to Dunbar, just south of Edinburgh and then cycle to Cockburnspath – a little village, still with a shop and some public toilets, but no pub and little in the way of accommodation, so a bivvy it was – but where…? There is always somewhere to bivvy! I remember it being a cold bivvy (I had a very old sleeping bag, which I was going to bin as I didn’t want to ride with it …perhaps a mistake, see later on…). When I set out at 6am there was a spot of frost on the trail. The weather was good, the trials were quite dry and I had a bit of an easterly tail wind, all this made the journey quite pleasant. My kit was pretty minimal and most of the weight was in my food. I had expected it to take me around 32 hours to complete. I got to the half way point in about 14hrs, which supported my belief in my estimated time. What I had not estimated for was what came next; the tough trail sections in the western half, like crossing the Lowther Hills, then Benbrack, these were really slow going sections and all my flow was lost.

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St Mary’s Loch.

I eventually reached Glen Trool at around 11am after 29 hours of riding, I still had around 45 miles to go. I needed food, coffee, more coffee and a bit of a rest and the café in Glen Trool provided this. While in the café I worked out that the next section could be taking 7-8hrs. Also I was having to manage with a bike problem – the saddle had snapped in the middle and had lost all its support. During the ‘rest’ I had decided that it was better to finish the attempt along NCN roads to Portpatrick. There-by doing a good C2C, but not completing the full SUW. A felt happy and disappointed at the same time, but was not overly fussed as I had had a great ride.

I got to Portpatrick in just under 3 hours from where I had decided to bail and I had a lift home from my brother waiting, I did not really want to abuse his hospitality and to keep him waiting for hours, as he was not there just for me.

Roll on a year and some success…

2018 and gosh how it has turned into the best summer ever – it just keeps on giving! You just can’t ignore these lovely dry trial conditions. When it is warm and dry riding both day and night is a pleasure and so is bivvying. So roll the year on to early July and after the best part of 3 months of non-stop dry weather, my brother Ben mentioned he was heading to the North East and Borders area to see family and do some walking and could  offer me a lift home from the finish at Cockburnspath, up near Edinburgh. Given the opportunity of another nice long adventure ride, it did not take long to convince myself that it was  a good thing to do, especially given the firm terrain and reasonable looking  forecast. So domestic clearances were sought and sorted – yet more brownie points to earn! Then the logistics of getting to Porpatrick had to be worked – luckily a train from my home village to Stranraer would get be there in a pretty respectable 6.30hrs, not the easiest corner of the country to get to…


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River Tweed Crossing

Learning from last time, I knew that a West to East crossing made much more sense. The west half is super tough, yet it does yield some good riding, but it has to be worked at and the rate of progress is quite slow due to this tricky terrain. Once you pass under the M74 the route characteristic change to more flowing and faster trails and far less gates!

The SUW is a tremendous bike-pack journey taking an iconic route across the wilds of Southern Scotland, yet hardly anyone does it…  [see reasons above] The West Highland Way has a hundred walkers for every one walker on the SUW! With a little investment the west section could be made much better for bikes – lets hope they can do something…? I met one other bike-packer – Chris Johnstone doing the whole route, or most of it and then just three other end-to-end walkers, that’s all.

Like last time I went for a non-stop crossing, however this time I did take a sleeping bag as I needed it to bivvy in at the start. I also had a 2hr sleep in some nice woods near to Moffat after 20 hours of riding. This rest was more to give my backside a break, with the all the heat and some extra padded Assos shorts I seemed to be sweatier that usual and sweat is so bad for inducing the chaff syndrome! The rest and some sodocrem really helped.

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Near White Laggan.

This time I did not buzz off-route and stuck to the full way-marked SUW finishing at Cockburnspath at in 38.34. I had supply stops in St Johns, Sanquar, Galasheils and Lauder. Again the Fatster bike performed perfectly and its lack of weight made for an easier job on all the stile and gate lifts and the fat tyres helped it roll over the grass sections. More memories to last a life-time!

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Cockburnspath – the end.

Back in the Mists of Time…

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Photo Credit: Pyro Photographic

We are nearing the end of 2012 and thought it fair that Team Mountain Hardwear write a short review of our Adventure Race activities and to give a big thank you to all the people that have helped us in our races and events. Firstly a summary of the year for us, showing the main races:-

Date Event Field Comment & Result
April Open 5 2011/12 Final – Derbyshire UK Kim & Alex – 1st Male Pairs

Ant and Sally – 1st Mixed Pairs

Kim – 2011/12 Series 1st place

Alex – 2011/12 Series 3rd place

May 2 Day Stage Race (ACE) – Cumbria UK Team – 1st place
June Adidas Terrex Swift – 2 day Expedition Race – Yorkshire UK Team – 2nd place
August Adidas Terrex Sting – 5 day Expedition Race – Stirling & Highlands UK + International Ant injured on 3rd day, forcing team to retire
September RAID in France – AR World Championships International Team – 15th from 65 teams, also managing to complete the ‘full’ course
October Cardiff Burn UK Kim & Alex – 1st Male Pairs

Ant and Sally – 1st Mixed Pairs

 

November Open 5 – Pentlands UK Kim 1st – Male Solo

Alex & Sam – 2nd Mixed Pairs

 

 

It was great having you along in France, helping to give us a moral boost when we were having hard times, and for popping up all along the route taking some fantastic pictures, and keeping the rest of the world posted on our progress.

A summary of 2012…

The ‘milestone’ event for TMHW in 2012 was indeed the ‘RAID in France’, for 2012 it was the featured AR World Championship Race, the pinnacle event for unrivalled adventure and real endurance. The race far exceeded expectations in its toughness and technicality. However this race did not go as well as hoped for TMHW, largely due to severe blistering on Alex’s feet. Seemingly footwear choice and the heat were probably the causal factors, as such the pace was much slower during the trekking sections and ‘bike hikes’. The team will try to learn and build from the RAID experiences. We have the skills, speed and endurance, but some time for an expedition event such as this it requires a little ‘good fortune’, apart from the introductory prologue we did not seem to get a good dose of this!

So to the rest of 2012… for Ant, Kim, Sally and Alex this was our first year of racing together, we came together through mutual acquaintance and several years of race friendship. We all had extensive ‘race CVs’ and results to prove, as such we set ourselves some challenging goals for the year ahead. As 2012 unfolded, it’s true to say we had our fair share of good luck, but also quite a lot of bad luck in our races and this is so often the case for many like teams competing in complex and demanding Adventure and Endurance Races.

So what were the highlights for the year…? probably the Coniston 2 ‘dayer’ and the Adidas Terrex Swift in the Yorkshire Dales. The team worked really well in these two races and delivered some really pleasing results. What boosts us as a team perhaps is that we are lucky to be all local to Cumbria and be able to share training sessions together and meet-up regularly and easily, to plan our events and discuss logistics, tactics and strategy.

Unlike some of the longer established UK AR teams with a larger pool of athletes to draw upon, TMHW is a straight four-some and in many ways a ‘wee family’ – we all know how each other works. This is a real benefit for us as it enables us to maximise each others potential and assist in supporting any weaknesses. Beyond a shadow of a doubt we all love our sport, our racing together and the fantastic places that it takes us too – there is ‘so much out there’ and AR has to be one of the best ways to experience it all. We also have real fun when we take on these challenges and have never had a ‘fall-out’ yet – even at the most toughest and darkest of race moments!

Plans for 2013…

Currently as 2012 draws to close we are discussing our options and ambitions for the next year, we are all keen to continue racing together and are looking at what events to we would like to enter, we have registered for the 2013 AR World Championships in Costa Rica in December. Also we have been looking at how we can improve the team and our skills and what equipment we may need as we go forward. We have been really privileged during 2012 to have been supported by some great people and great companies, and without people like your good self the sport would not flourish as it appears to be doing so at the moment!

Thank You and Merry Christmas from Ant, Alex, Sally and Kim.

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AR World Champs 2013, Costa Rica – A top ten finish as well!

Always Trying Something Different: Mountain Bike + Bivvy Kit = Bike Packing

This year I have eased back the miles on the running, particularly the longer distance ones, the main reason to manage wear and tear on the body as the years go on. I would not say I have abused my body over the years but it has had a harder life than most I think.

 

So you have to keep the adventure spirit going in some way and with less big Adventure Races planned I started doing more self-supported and extended MTB rides, exploring all corners of the Dales, some forays into the North Pennines, Southern Scotland and Cumbria. Sometimes taking the lightweight tent and sometimes using bothies, sometimes on my own and sometimes with company. There are a lot of bothies in cycle reach of Settle and they also link up to make some good tours. A bothy is really basic, usually just having a wood stove, however after a hard days peddling and especially if the weather is bad, getting inside a dry bothy is like heaven – even better if there is some wood left in there, to light a fire and get warmed up.

Bike-packed!

At the back end of last summer I was in Riders Cycles at Skipton, chatting to Stuart (the owner) and he suggested I try his YD200 route, he is big into his bike packing! He had organised this as a Bikepack event a  month earlier and said it was popular, I was away with work and could not do it. So on one fine Autumn morning I set off, as the route passed our house I started it from there, rather than Skipton. And indeed it was fantastic and the riding conditions near perfect, but it was a long day in the saddle (14hrs non-stop). Happy with finishing that, Stuart said he had a YD300 planned for mid 2016 – so I said it would be rude not too!

 

I was slightly apprehensive the last week before the ride, as I had never ridden that far before off road. I had also been given a different bike to use a Trek 29+ – basically a fat bike with 3” tyres, it was heavier than my Chiru 29er, but it was a really comfy ride and much quicker than I was expecting it to be. I planned to go light and fast and not to do an overnight bivvy, which many riders would opt to do, as sometimes I prefer to ride at night and manage with no sleep, it is really exciting, especially zooming along under the beam of the bike light and with the moon peeping through the clouds.

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40 riders where at the start, and a civilised time of 8am with a social breakfast provided, it was nice way to start things off, sun shining and a real mix of bikes and people – it was going to be a good, good day. Stuart set us all off in what was a very steady, lethargic start (and Stuart did keep saying it was not a race, in fact it was known as an Independent Time Trial (ITT) – no support, no kit caches, or pre-booked accommodation etc etc.) We were all rolling, myself not wishing to bimble along all day, picked up momentum and slowly rolled passed everyone and by Embsay I was out on my own and in the far distance behind a string of bikes slowly pulled up the hill over into Wharfedale, and that’s the last I saw of anyone. I planned to push hard, several hours of rain was forecast for late afternoon and I wanted to get some distance in. Dale after dale was covered, slowly working my way up towards Reeth, via Nidderdale, Coverdale, Wensleydale, Apedale, mile after mile…

 

In Reeth I called into Dales cycles for a couple of cans of Coke and some cake, had a quick chat with the owner, who was keen to hear of progress and was off 4 minutes later – 73miles done. Now raining quite hard – Waterproof top on and hood up and pressing on to stay warm, up the massive Fremlington edge, then over to Arkle, then Gunnerside, this was a milestone, some 95 miles and half way and now heading south – yippee all good, but a bit damp – 7pm and it had stopped raining. Over to Wensleydale we go, up the huge Cam High road to Newby Head, then down into Dentdale. A second stop for more Coke and crisps at the Sportsmans pub, I was his briefest customer that evening, another 4minutes stop, the second in only 14hrs. By this stage gates where becoming a nuisance – I had opened a hundred of them! The climb over the back of Whernside to Ribblehead was tough, I felt some tiredness in the legs and my climb rate slowed. 11pm at Ribblehead and time for lights, the night had begun – 64miles to go, just look after yourself and on very familiar territory, so no need to navigate. I have a good memory for routes and with the previous 200km ride I managed to do it all off memory, but with more unfamiliar territory on this ride and the extra distance I needed several more map checks – a wrong turn and several extra miles is not what you want, so it always pays to have a 30 second stop and check.

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The eyes were quite tired now from the wind, 4hrs of rain and riding concentration, so I had a caffeine gel at midnight which picked me up, I reckoned my ETF would be 5am, thinking it would take 21hrs in total. The routed winded through Crummack, Feizor, round the Settle Loop over to Malham, along Mastiles Lane towards Grassington and then just 15 miles to go – still all off road though. It was nice to see brother Roger at Stainforth, unable to resist the lure of a night ride, he joined me for the last 42 miles, Roger struggled to grasp the concept that I had already done 148 miles of MTB, thinking 42miles was a good ride! The company was lovely and we shared the night adventure, seeing owls, shooting stars and then one of the best sunrises possible from the top of a misty Barden Moor. By now just 5 miles to the finish and almost all downhill, it was 5am, we were in no rush, but the downhill provided some lovely progress and by 5.20am we were whizzing down the High St of Skipton, 8min later all finished and off the bike at last at Riders Cycle Centre on Engine Shed Lane.    Job Done!

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It would have been nice to have someone else pushing me along or to share the ride with, last years quickestrider another Stuart (Cowperthwaite) from Arncliffe, was not doing it due to an injury, shame as we would have been well matched I expect. The hardest part on an endurance event, is feeding the machine, your stomach has a hard time and often craves for stuff you have not got. I ate 16 choc bars, 1 cake, 2 butties, 4 gels and a pack of Haribo, 2 FGS, some biltong and a couple of pepperami, oh and 2 bags of crisps, 3 cans of Coke and about 5 litres of water and electrolytes. I had expended 13000 Calories, completed 190.7 miles and almost 22000ft of climbing. No punctures, no mechanicals and no crashes.

 

So if your run legs are tired, give the bike a go and explore. Get some lights and have a night adventure, or bivvy out, or go for luxury and try a bothy. Make the most of the long days and dry trails! Try a bike pack. Give me shout for help.

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An Account of the 2018 Highland Trail 550

 

Pre-Start at the Real Food Café – Tyndrum

In the beginning…

The Highland Trial 550 race has been on my radar for some time, previous years I have been committed to a team on the Three Peaks Yacht Race, a different sort of endurance adventure race, I had done this four times and was ready for a change, I am always keen to try new things and I soon get bored of doing the same event. I emailed the creator of the HT550 – Alan Goldsmith last November and he asked me to send in a resume of my rides, in it went and that was it, he said I was in! – it was six months to go to the event… I was already apprehensive of the undertaking, not having mtb’ed so far before in one go; also my concern for the reliance on technology was my biggest worry. All my previous ‘expedition style’ races were Adventure Races (ARs) with traditional paper maps, where proper ‘navigation’ and good route choice is the key. I had not really entered the world of GPS apart from using my iphone maps – call me a Luddite!

I was lacking my ‘race head’ this year, having taken a step back from the AR and MTBO circuit, but I had enjoyed a year that was made up of long, hard touring style adventures; so having to ‘bury’ myself in ‘race mode’ was another minor worry, also I wanted to enjoy the journey and quite often it is not always appreciated when your head is down and racing. As such I was keen to do some reccies at a ‘touring’ pace and to soak it all up beforehand. The reccies were all ‘opportunist’ based on the weather, fortunately this year my work has been quiet, so getting a ‘long weekend’ was not a problem and my family is very understanding to my needs! What was a problem was the long winter that the UK has had this year, this meant carefully checking on which sections to reccie.

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The HT550 Route

In February I did most of the northern loop in dry and super cold conditions, the highlight was crossing Fisherfield – I did not see a person from entry to exit, the solitude was almost overwhelming, I stayed in Shenaval Bothy and even had to break the ice in bare feet to cross the river, it was no place or time to have a problem! That was about 170 miles of the actual HT route reccied. Next reccie was a month later, more snow cover this time meant a more limited reccie of the middle section, the highlight was the frozen tundra of Loch na Stac. That was about another 80 miles of the actual route reccied. Final reccie came at the end of a week of family holiday on Mull in April, feeling slightly warmer now, but still in winter kit I joined a bike-pack buddy and we did the first section from Tyndrum to Melgarve Bothy, so that was another 70 miles done. With these three reccies I had started to feel that I had just ‘touched the sides’ of the whole HT thing. I had enjoyed every minute of each reccie and was blessed by lovely weather each time.

In the months running up to May I started to hone my kit and get new stuff and properly test it, so again more excuses for bike-pack bivvies in my local area of the Lakes and Dales, each week I’d try to spend a night out under the stars, so much so it now feels like my life norm – something that I plan to carry on for the rest of the year! Half of the fun of these ‘expeditions’ goes into the preparation and in the absence of multi-day bike-packing experience, good preparation was the best thing I thought. A little bit about ‘the’ bike… for the last couple of years I have been given a Trek Stache to test ride around on. The 29+ tyres seemed a gimmick to me at first, however as my rides on the bike progressed, as did my love for it – it was a comfy, capable, reliable and fast old stead – I loved riding it and it soon became my Mtb of choice – I recommend that you try one!. It did have some niggles though; the 1×11 gearing was limited – meaning easy to spin out, it was also quite a chunk heavier than my previous endurance Mtbs (Chiru Pulse), the Stache was around 13kg. Over the winter months I got the funding permission to build my own new 29+ bike. It soon started to take shape, most of it from China – Frame, Rims, the group-set was the super-sexy Sram X0 Eagle – engineering excellence! I loved sourcing and building it all up, even spoking up the wheels. In January the ‘Fatster’ was born a superlight 29er+ weighing in at 9.8Kg – even with the volumous Chupacabra 3” tyres!

Pre Race Countdown…

The year rattled past quickly and soon the month of May arrived, it was now countdown time to the race… I learnt that Rich Rothwell would not be racing as he had the Colorado Trail race to attend and also the Phil Addyman had decided not to race after having had 3 HT550 races in him already, this was a bit of shame as I was keen to meet those guys and enjoy the journey and race with them. Having read their HT blogs from last year I felt like I already knew them, I also enjoyed reading Neil and Chris’s accounts; they were all so well written and gave a good insight into all aspects of the race. So I hope that my account can do similar!

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Pre-race Social – enjoying a HT550 beer down by the river

I travelled up to Tyndrum with Stuart Cowperthwaite another race veteran and it was a good opportunity to pick his brains on the little things that were still bugging me. I had never used a ‘Spot’ tracker before and had hired one from ‘No Worries’, so after a bit of guidance on how to make it work I was okay with this bit of kit. I considered buying one, but for the amount of use the hire option from ‘No Worries’ was ideal and I would recommend them. Tyndrum was nicer than I had remembered, with a lovely camp site and a small selection of places to eat, but mainly the ‘Real Food Café’, arriving on Friday afternoon we prepared the bikes, because of the dry and warm forecast some kit was ditched – out went the lightweight duvet jacket and other such stuff (I have done my kit list at the bottom of this account). We then had a lovely evening group ride down the valley to a river; some special HT550 beers were provided by Stu Taylor of Kirby Lonsdale brewery – another local to me rider / bike-packer. It was a great prologue to the race and the beer would be my last for a few days. The weather was warm and dry, as was the forecast for the week ahead and as had been the previous few weeks weather, the trails would be dry and fast, however the heat could be a problem as could finding ‘good water’.

Day 1 – Tyndrum to Garve. 157miles. 16,000ft. 17.00hrs riding.

Race-day dawned, I had had a mediocre sleep, the bunkroom had been quite noisy all night. I stuffed down a mammoth 6 Weetabix, Stuart out-gunned me having a whopping 8 Weetabix. We were good to go and rolled around to the café for a strong coffee, with riders all congregating and chatting about the journey ahead, it was warm and shorts and top would be the norm. I was fascinated by all the different bike set-ups and rigs – stuff attached to the bike in all sorts of odd places! At the start line by the cemetery Alan called five riders forward to start – I was one of them. I had met Alan the night before for the first time. I liked him, he was a bit of a comedian and it seemed he liked to ‘big up’ the competition in the race and apparently I was told I was one of the race favourites. I was not overly welcoming of that, but I did know I could ride a Mtb bike quite well for a long time and was good with dealing with ‘shit’ and all the pressures of multiday races. 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.

As expected it was a pretty fast start and I settled nicely into a group of 4-5 riders. Stu Cowperthwaite edged away and was soon out of sight – I’m sure that was not the ‘game-plan’ he described to me on the way up…. A fast pace I thought, no one put up chase. Glen Lyon soon came and soon went, then a big climb over to Loch Rannoch. I found a nice Exposure Diablo light on the trail, I assumed it to be Stu’s – he might be needing that I thought! Soon across the ‘bog of doom’ under the majestic Ben Alder, the bog was in fact okay and could almost have been ridden, but I choose to push – save the quads and a helpful opportunity for a leg stretch. For some reason along here I got really bad cramps down the inner quads, really painful and worrying at this stage – just 50 miles in, perhaps the heat had caused it, but I had been having plenty of electrolyte.

Soon on the Ben Alder single track which is mostly all ridable, but the going was tough under the unusual and intense heat, Lee Cragie rattled past me up here. A quick word about Lee… I had not met her before, but I certainly knew of her, it was nice to have a girl with us at the sharp end; she was a pedigree rider 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 have to swallow! A couple of other riders came past on this single track Huw Oliver another strong contender and previous race veteran; and then the incredible single-speed legend Javier Simon, who I was told was a ‘postie’ from Spain – so I thought the ‘Post mans’ path down Loch Maree must be his favourite section! Ben Alder was hot going, it was my first time in the heat this year, so I was not yet conditioned to it – I was keen not to push it into the ‘red zone’. Not long after and with the fast decent we soon arrived at Laggan Wolftrax, a cold coke and ice cream was much needed, I caught up with Stu here and gave him back his Diablo in return for said coke and ice cream – it was lush! Stu and I then rode together over the massive Corrieyairack Pass into Fort Augustus – 95 miles ridden it was 18:30 and time to re-stock at the garage (also on offer was Pizza or Chip Shop). Not keen to pig-out too much I settled with food from the shop. It was 10 degrees colder in Fort Augustus, with a strong north-easterly blowing and I was keen to eat-up and get going again to warm-up.

Stu was looking cold, I urged him to get going and I set-off. That was the last I saw of him in the race, sadly he scratched as he discovered an issue with his front wheel axle rattling. Two riders were ahead – Javi and Huw.

I was ready for the evening-into-night section, there would be two big climbs and about 40 miles of trail and 20 miles of road ahead, my plan for the night was to get to the ‘lean-to’ shed that Phil had used last year near to Garve village. The darkening evening was cooler, which was good as it meant the pace could be ‘upped’ a little and not risk over-heating. The hike-a-bike (HaB) around Loch na Stac was spooky in the evening mist but it was good to test the bike a bit on the rough lake shore path, the soft tyres allowed it to roll-through the rough going terrain and it was good fun. I came across Huw by the spooky old house, so we rode together and it was nice to chat and get to know each other a little, I left him at the road where he was ’layering-up for the night section. The 10 miles or so of road where a welcome respitr as you can just press the pedals and relax a little, also the ‘tri-bar’ set-up on my bike allows a rest of the hands – it works well for me, despite the laughs it gets! I rode past the ‘Hydro’ bothy without even noticing it in the thick hill fog, but no intention to stay there, I wanted to be off the mountain and through Contin, ready for the next day. The lean-to soon appeared and it was full of roof insulation packs, these where perfect and I fashioned a nice bed, ate some food, sorted some stuff and went to sleep. I went to sleep very quickly – it was 02:20. I wanted 3hrs of sleep, this is usually a good minimum and from the research and practice from in our previous ARs, 3hrs is sufficient for the to reset the mind and rest the body.

Day 2 Garve to Suilven. 136mile. 16,000ft. 19hrs riding.

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Early Morning Day 2 – Inchbae Forest

I awoke naturally at 05.10, a rider had just sped past, I think it was Javi. I had some more nosh – like a quick porridge (aka Breakfast Bomb), packed my stuff up and was off quickly by 05.25. I felt refreshed with the short sleep and it was good to be back rolling along. The next sections where nice fast trails and would take us back into the wilds, I saw a deer and was aware of the back-ground melody of the Cuckoo, also the sweet smell of the Silver Birches was noticed, it seemed that my senses where hyper-real. 40 miles to Oykel Bridge. I was not sure if the hotel there was amenable to racers and decided not to stop, besides I was good for food and drink. I caught Javi just after Oykel he was ‘spinning away’, a brief chat and I pressed-on. It was quite a bit of fast road over to Loch Shin and so to the start of the top Bealach Horn section, Huw soon appeared in the distance and 30min later we were riding together and chatting again.

These social interludes were a pleasant interruption to the solitary riding. The weather was clear skies and warming up, I had sun creamed-up already, but was keen to have a short break and power-nap before the big Bealach Horn climb. I found a nice flat shady spot, ate some food, watched Huw disappear up the long slope, got my feet out and closed my eyes – 10 minutes should do me.
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Day 2 – Dusty trails en-route to Bealach Horn

Javi cluttered past on the rocky track 15min later and triggered me to get going, so I 5 min I was rolling and it was about 13:00. Normally a ‘power-nap’ is a great way of getting a ‘waning’ pace back up again, not on this occasion though, I felt really ‘flat’, no leg power and a general willingness to get off and push. So that it was. The climb went on and on, Javi soon disappeared, but no one behind yet, the heat was intense and the sweat was causing additional chaffing – my backside was a bit sore and a slapped on some Sudocrem which eased things greatly. It’s a tough trail up to the back of the Bealach Horn, mainly all HaB and it must have taken 2hrs to do the 5 miles, ahead I saw Huw’s distinctive blue top, I was surprised to see him. I stopped for few moments before him, the scenery at this point was mind-blowing – a rocky amphitheatre with lochans at different levels – it was Eagle country for sure. Eventually I caught Huw and he said he was rough, I assumed he’d over-cooked it on the climb and told him to get his face in the next stream. He started moving again, so I also carried on assuming he’d pull-through.

I later found out he had a gotten a stomach upset, presumably contaminated water, from somewhere lower down…? Having had a bad stomach in previous races from consuming dodgy water, I was treating my water with an iodine dripper to sterilise it. It makes the water taste unpleasant, but it does do the job. Huw was assisted off the Bealach by a fellow racer / friend (Scott Lyndsay) and then decided to scratch from the race, which was a real shame.

The long descent off the Beallach Horn was dry, dusty rock-spitting fun – something more like in the south of France and not Scotland. Soon at the start of the next climb, I asked at a house for some water and got a bottle filled, the young guy there was interested in our journey and I told him he could watch it all on Trackleaders, I was super-thirsty and it was nice to have a big swig of drink. The next climb almost broke me, the heat was over-bearing and I eventually summited after a hard 45min push. On the summit I felt nauseous and seeing me wobble around a bit some campers came to me, sitting me down in the shade of a shieling, I soon started to feel better and we chatted, I appreciated their assistance, they were doing the Cape Wrath Trail. After a 10min rest I was okay to get going again, Kylesku Bridge and hotel was about 10 miles away. Some real food and a cold coke were on the mind.

Traversing the Loch and who should come past, but Lee, it was nice to see another racer, but she wasn’t for slowing to my pace and was soon disappearing into the distance. We caught up again at the hotel and had a nice ‘fast-tracked’ meal together, some soup, bread and salad, could not stomach much more. The staff at the hotel where ace. 30 min in there and it was time to hit the ’roller-coaster’’ road to Drumbeg and so on to Loch Inver. I stopped at Drumbeg Store and got more coke, some fudge packs and a couple of yoghurts. Again another example of race solidarity, Steve from the store was happy doing night shift and welcomed me by name as he was following the race on the tracker. The food was good and I was starting to feel a little ‘more me’, I had been off form all the afternoon. My sleep plan was to get past Loch Inver and bivvy on the trail side somewhere by Suilven at the end of the rideable track and before the Assynt HaB. I had hoped to be nearer to end of the HaB or even Oykel Bridge, but I was grateful for just feeling better.

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Day 2 – Loch Inver Sunset

The moon which was almost a full one, hung in the sky above the mountain, a warm easterly wind was blowing, it was almost midnight and still 17 degrees. I could not believe that this was Scotland! I soon found a good spot on a glacial slab, the usually routine started – food down me – bike check and prep – bed prep – teeth – treat any sores / abrasions and clean myself with a baby wipe. I even rinsed my socks as well and hung them on the bike. I led down watched some stars and was soon fast asleep in no time. I did not set an alarm as I would wake at first light around 4ish.

Day 3 (which merged into Day 4).  Suilven to Tyndrum. 257miles. 24,000ft. 45hrs riding.

A awoke with a midge nibbling my face, it was 4.05, no time to soak up the nature, there was a job to be done and the midge was present. I was packed up and rolling at 04:25, I had plugged in some tunes and it felt really good to be moving, the best bit was that my socks had dried out! The Assynt trod is a good quality HaB, some sections are okay to ride, but not much. I even had a spring in my step and enjoyed running with my bike, the sun had not yet appeared but the skies were clear. Am I really in Scotland? Arriving at the end of Cam Loch was a photo opportunity, not much of a ‘selfie’ fan it had to be the bike with the mirrored loch and Suilven behind. Soon I was on to the long road section from Ledmore Junction to Oykel Bridge and I had a big fat breakfast on my mind…

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Early Morning Day 3 – End of the Assynt HaB

I was feeling really good today, the bike was flying and I was thinking that this would be ‘race day’ perhaps…?

I arrived at the hotel at 08:30 and was surprised to see Lee, she was finishing her breakfast, we chatted a bit before she packed and I also had a ‘job’ to do while a loo was nearby – it was good to get sorted and cleaned up a bit before my hotel breakfast – us hobo-like racers were in the bar with no other guests nearby so it was okay! The owner lady was following the race and keen to provide a fill. The breakfast and coffee was eagerly consumed – my body was hungry for calories in any form! The lady informed me that the rivers were so low the fishermen were unhappy as the fishing was poor – I privately laughed at them, they were there in the mountains surely they could do something else…? Outside was parked my bike and then a line of ‘Range Rovers’ with their rods attached. Some people have more money than sense – I was glad to be a hobo bike-packer! I was soon rolling again up the long Strath Mulzie, the song of the Cuckoo and the Sweet smell of the trees was back – it was another gobsmackingly nice day! It was going to be hot, hot, hot. I sun creamed up before I left.

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Day 3 – Oykel Bridge Hotel – A Good Breakfast!

I did not want to put an effort in to catch Lee, I had another much bigger plan hatching… The Oykel to Ullapool crossing went well and I was riding strong, eating lots and enjoying the moment, highlights of this section being the technical single track and Broom descent to Ullapool. While going along here thoughts of an old friend – Mike, who past-away this time last year came in to my mind, I felt quite emotional, but I could feel his good vibes encouraging me along. I was so lucky to be doing this great adventure!

My body was beginning to feel that it had gone through a ‘Change Curve’

Day 1 – Shock

Day 2 – Rejection

Day 3 – Acceptance

Day 4 – Normalisation

Once in town I decided that Tesco’s would suffice, I had a fair bit of stuff to get, that I had been thinking about on the way in, I used a handy little draw-cord bag to carry it all in – so into the basket went fresh fruit, milkshakes, juice, ice creams (Solaroes), chicken slices, packs of sandwiches, baby bels, meat sticks, crisps, fudge, sweets. I ate the ice creams and gave one to a chap (can’t recall his name) who had just done the HT550 the previous week from Ullapool where he lived, he filled me in on the race, it was good to know what was happening. Lee 15 min up front, Javi 120min up front, Fraser 90min behind. The food was good and I must of looked a bit wild eating it all so quickly while sat in the shade next to the parking drop-off. The Coffin Road loomed!

Before the start of the infamous ‘hill’ I decided to park the bike at the river bridge and go for a cooling dip in the water – air cooling was no longer enough, we needed water cooling! It felt beautiful and I was looking forward to the big hill. Sure enough it was despatched quickly and I was then down at the bottom of An Tealach – time for another swim before the next climb. I enjoyed the fruit that I had got; it was good to eat something healthy and real! The Fisherfield section is next and possibly my favourite of the ride, it is about 33 miles between entry and exit, on a good ride it is about 8hrs to cross it, it was 14:40.

The music was playing some nice tunes, I especially enjoyed Avicii and the words to the songs were very clever, it’s sad such a talent has now gone… I rode most of the hill, while the water was cooling me. Soon arriving at the ‘crossing’, which was pedalled easily through, I met a friend – Jim who I knew as race marshal from the ‘Open Adventure’ races, it was nice to see another face and one that was familiar, I was happy to chat for 5 min, he was on a wild camp with some friends. Jim had had a bad fall on a Welsh fell Race 5-6 weeks ago and required many stiches to the head, so it was nice to see him back in action. I was not envious of their camp, in fact quite the opposite; I was still loving my ride and LIVING THE DREAM!

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Day 3 – In the middle of Fisherfield and fancy bumping into Jim and Hilary…

Near Carnmore Lodge I stopped for my Chicken Dinner, which I knew would be a winner! I also dried and talc’d my feet which made them feel much more comfortable. Despite the holiday weekend and the lovely weather the place was still empty in the early evening sun. The single track to Letterewe was good going and almost all rideable. It was nice to get to Loch Maree and the start of the Postie’s Path. I put on some compression socks to protect my legs from the brush and also from ‘pedal bites’. I really enjoyed this section and my biking skill on the narrow off-cambered trail was super precise and sharp – better than I have known before. Next up on my mind, I was wanting to get a coke at the next hotel, it would be close call for last orders, but was not going to bust-it to get there.

I got there at 22:55 and went in the landlord was clearing up saying that last orders was 5min ago, after pestering him and the offer of just leaving two quid for him, he just gave me a can. I was happy, but I did not want to upset him; however I did think he should make the most of the trade while he can – I would have done. I was surprised to see that Javi was still at the hotel – odd..? I found out he was having problems with his rear axle, he’d been there a while, maybe 2hrs. He said he was scratching from the race, but then a short while after he changed his mind and started down the route again. He passed me while I was getting my lights and night time kit sorted – I was getting eaten alive it was a horrible midge experience. Javi has a lovely riding style, it seems like a constant cadence he pedals, I have immense respect for him. We headed into the night and into Torridon…

My planned night stop was the Tea House Bothy, it sounds 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!

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, no way was I spooning a hairy Spaniard (as cuddly as he was) in a hot shed, nor was I going to get eaten alive by bivvying outside! 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! Off I flew into the night and it was the best nights riding I’ve ever experienced.

Not sure if it was me but everything was flying past, I had a lot of lighting power – an Exposure Toro and Petzl NAO, the slabby decent was great fun, as was the road section and steep climb out of Glen Attadale – which I even managed to ride. The legs were just not for tiring! Riding down Strath Carron I was aware of smelling wood smoke, I kept expecting to pass a little camp fire. Something caught my eye above me on the left and on the skyline the mountain was a blaze – this was bizarre sight and I thought it can’t be happening – it all added to the moment, which will never ever be repeated I’m sure.

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Night 3 – The Burning Mountains of Attadale Estate

The track down to Glen Ling is okay, but the bit along the river is rough, I was having problems with my right thumb, changing ‘up’ gear was hard, my thumb was stopping working, legacy of a previous injury, it was messing up my shifting and my riding was ragg’ed. I had a small ‘off’ over the bars here, but was okay and gave myself a talking too – to take more care! I lost one of my phone power packs here I think, but I had a backup one, I did not want my phone to die, I was using it for everything – in particular my music! Dornie Castle was reached at sunrise and was looking surreal. The little back road out of the village up the hill side was cycled, it did not feel too bad, despite its 180m sea level climb – but I was now wanting to get to Camban Bothy for a rest!

However, it was a hard climb up the back of Kintail range and the weather had changed to a cold easterly wind and a strange mountain mist was present. With the waterfalls up there it felt un-welcoming and cold, in this unchartered territory I was now tiring and the wind was pushing me back on the steep climb, in a gust of wind my headphones ripped out and stopped working, which was most annoying, but it was good to give my ears a rest! At 07:30 I arrived at the bothy, I went in, one room full and people all asleep and snoring, I went into the other – empty, so shoes and socks off and a porridge breakfast made.

I had ridden hard for 27hrs, I was going to have an hour shut eye, no sleeping bag, I would wake up shivering and set off quickly to get warm again – I didn’t want to get comfy. I guessed I was an hour ahead of the other two after my rest.

Glen Affiric, although very picturesque, was hard for me, I kept getting the ‘sleepies’ and needed to ride quicker, I also needed proper food and Fort Augustus was 35 miles away. I was now paying the price for the fun in the night…

I have been ‘here’ before and knew how to deal with it; it is best to keep thinking good things and not letting the mind wander or feel negative.

Tomich Forest was beautiful in the warm morning sunlight, another place that I had not before visited and I pledged to return and enjoy the trees sometime. I ate the last of my sweets and half of the last bar. I had some biltong, but was not enjoying that. On the second big hill I took a wrong turn and pedalled a mile up hill, sensing I was wrong I checked my phone – DAMN my ‘dot’ was off the line, back down I whizzed. The error maybe cost 20min, but I think that it was a good thing as it woke me up and got me racing again, an hour later, around 14:30 I was back at the filling station in FA. More sandwiches, ice creams, gold bars, pies and fruit. My feet where killing me after the bumpy descent and needed to be aired – I headed up the locks and de-gunged myself there, I had fancied a rest, but now that I was in 4G land I checked the tracker, it looked like Lee was about 80min behind, which sounds like quite a lot, but can soon disappear at this fatigued stage of the race.

The Great Glen route was a pleasure to ride, we had a north easterly wind helping things, and it was nice to get down on the tri-bars and spin a bit. Fort William was about 32 miles away, may be 2.30hr if all goes well…? We followed the vast canal on shady paths, there was some sections of single track, to break up the easy bits – I was happy with ‘easy’, but had to follow the route line. The route line was my life and I was in my race ‘bubble’. I stopped at Coop just before Fort William, it was just after 17:00, more ice creams, coke, sandwiches, chicken and Friji. I afforded myself a 10min rest and de-socked again. This was a ‘scuriest’ moment of the race, at the back of the Coop in the shade, I sat – a pile of dried vomit one side and a small drunk man the other. He pestered me for money to buy a tin of Tenants beer. I check the tracker again and it looks like Lee is 20 mile back and Javi 25 mile back, you have to be a little wary of the trackers as the updates aren’t always at 5 min intervals.

For once in this the race the end now felt in sight, but that was still 40 miles and 6-7hrs of hard riding away.

I was happy with things and set-off through the suburbs of the town. Turning off up the ‘Glen’ a roving reporter ambushed me for a chat, it was quite nice she wanted to get some of my insights to the race – it wasn’t easy for me and I think I strung together some garbled nonsense… It was very welcoming to get out of the vast metropolis and be back on the forested trail, the climb was steady away and my legs where still happy pedalling – I can’t believe how well this day had gone! – which was now a merge of day 3 and day 4 into one!

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Day 4 – WHW The back of the Devils Staircase …enroute to the finish!

The West Highland Way is a popular trail but at 18:00 it was now empty and fun to travel along. The fat tyres soaked up the bumpy terrain – the bike had been faultless. A lovely long valley lay before me and a steady climb before the steep drop into Kinlochleven, it was another stunning evening. Soon the descent arrived, another fast rock-spitter. On the descent I missed a turn and had to back track up again to re-join the WHW – my second navigation mistake, but not too bad – some walkers had been stood blocking the way marker!

Kinlochleven looked interesting and very industrial with the big black pipes and the big buildings – no time to sight see though! Very quickly it was back climbing again and surprisingly rideable, apart from the steep start, this section leads up high and on to the ‘Devils Staircase’. The going was slower especially with tired legs, I was keen to progress over the mountain and get to easier terrain before darkness. I managed the decent without lights it was around 22:30 and it was pretty rough going, I aired on the side of caution and pushed down some bits – no time for a stupid prang. I did not realise the King House Hotel was shut and being refurbished as I had banked on getting a coke there. Not so. I was super thirsty and Rannoch Moor was inhospitable – even with a big bright moon, with the dry weather there was no healthy looking water around, I passed some campers having a fire and sing along – it looked so nice to crash and joint their party, they afforded me a bit of water and said there was tap back down at King House – I had no intention of going BACK!

I was getting lazy and not being bothered to look at the map I did not realise how long that cobbled road went on for, at least after a short climb from the Glen Coe Ski Station it seemed to be a slight downhill for a long while. I had to wrap up as it had got cold on parts of the moor; so on went the hat, waterproof and thick gloves. I eventually found a good mountain river and filled my bottle; this was just before the last HaB section which was a ‘new’ addition to the HT over previous years. I prayed that the decent was rideable, fortunately it was and I was in Bridge of Orchy soon after, at about 01:00. I was starting to ‘shut down’, I had pushed myself to the limit and I remembered the pictures in Phil’s blog of him wrapping up in a space sheet and taking on the look of an alien at this point in the race – at least it was warmer tonight – I could have just slept anywhere I recon. I rang Kerry saying I was about 30 min away – it was about 5 ½ miles and actually took 52 min – the last push up through the railway cutting was a ball-buster. It felt good to be finishing and return to ‘normal’ life. A lot of emotion passed through my mind as I rolled into the village. The route was magical, the weather was perfect (if a little hot) and I had raced the best that I had ever done. I was elated – I’m pretty certain all this will not happen again. Scotland was so, so good to me, I simply loved it!

At the finish Kerry was there and the boys and a couple of photographers, it was a minimalist and sweet finish. Kerry was expecting me to look worse I think, we hugged, she said I smelt, which I was surprised about given all the swims that I had! After a couple of pictures later and we rolled back down to the camping. I was craving food and beer, so had a quick feed and crashed into a deep snoring sleep…

The morning after it was sunny (yet again) and I met Stu and his family and we walked up to the café and then met Lee and Javi who had arrived not long since. Breakfast was SO good.

Times for top 5 finishers (Trackleaders times):-

Alex Pilkington – 3:16:52

Lee Craigie – 3:20:59

Javier Simon – 3:22:00

Nelson Trees – 4:04:00

Pete McNeil – 4:06:31

This year’s race had claimed a higher rate of attrition than previous rides, probably due to the heat and also drinking untreated water.

Post race

Almost a week after finishing and I’m still feeling a little tired, my sleep pattern is not the normal circadian rhythm yet. My hands and backside are okay and my thumb is starting to work again, my feet now have leather skin on them and where it is cracked it is a little painful, but they are healing. I went into the race at 76.5kg and came out at 73.5kg. My ideal race weight is 75.0kg and I’m loving the eating! The extra weight is no bad thing in these long races, especially if it is colder conditions, as it makes you far more robust than a skinny speedster. The bike just needed a quick dust-off; nothing was too trashed apart from the saddle that had cracked in half – the third saddle I have broken on long rides – do other folk have problems with saddles breaking in half or is it my skinny hard arse that does it?, the other thing was my soft soled, lightweight North Wave cycle shoes – these where practically new on at the start and the front of the right shoe is now separating!

My next big ride is the Trans Pyrenees as an Independent Time Trial (ITT) in August. The question is will I be back again for the HT550…? Maybe – I loved this one, but I may go and try something bigger… I know I won’t get a ride quite like this one again – everything seemed to align so perfectly! I would like to say a massive thanks to Alan Goldsmith – he is a legend and should be so proud to be the creator of this iconic race – I got him a bottle of Whisky as a token of my gratitude. My family have been unbelievably supportive and I felt them willing me along during the race, as have all my ‘dot-watching’ supporters, wider family and friends – I hope I put on a good show! Also to all the fellow competitors, you’re all nuts and some of you have the most intimidating beards ever – but you are a new circle of wilderness loving folk that I now have the pleasure of knowing, so please keep up the exploring and adventures!

HT550 – Alex Pilkington

Kit List:

‘Fatster’ 29er+ Bike Lavender-oil (antiseptic and bug repellent)
Alpkit Food Caddy Foot-powder
Topeak 10l Seat Post Bag Sudocrem
Alpkit 8l Bar Bag Caffine Pills
Topeak Top Tube Bag Multi-Vits
Drawstring bag (packed away) Mountain Hardware (MHW) Water-proof Top
750ml bottles x2 Montane Featherlight bottoms
Spokes x2 North Wave light weight Shoes
Tubes x2 Mavic Windproof
Chain Links & Spare Rear Hanger MHW Base-Layer
Puncture Kit MHW Arm Warmers
Zip-ties Short Sleeve Top
Gorrilla Tape Assos Bib-Shorts
Multitool Compression Socks
Pump Leyzne High Vol Gore Fingerless gloves
Bungs & Plastic for tyre repairs MHW Warmer gloves
Chain Oil MHW Hat
Suunto Ambit+bar-mount (route logging) Buff
Iphone (navigation, camera, music) Giro Helmet
Spot-tracker + batteries Rudy Photo Chromatic Glasses
Charger-pack (x2) + leads Alpkit Bivvy-bag
Petzl Nao Head torch MHW Hydrophobic Down Sleeping-back
Exposure Toro light Inertia Sleep Mat
A4 Back-up Maps Midge-net
Earphones Biltong x4
Sun-cream For Goodness Shakes powders x4
Bum-cream Bacon Strips x2
Toothpaste + brush Flapjack x4
Wipes & Tissue Chocolate / Granola / Paleo Bars x8
Comprehensive 1st Aid Sweets
Iodine (water treatment and for wound treatment) Nuun Electrolytes
Breakfast Bomb x3 (porridge/protein stuff)

…quite a lot of stuff – but a lot less than I would have taken if the forecast was not so good!

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Eilean Donan Castle, Dornie – Mar ’18

2017 Three Peaks Yacht Race – Team Wight Rose

At the start of this year I had planned in my head not to do this Yacht Race for a forth time…

DSC03584 Ship Shape

 

That was then this is now, and I have decided to write a few words about it as it is my only big race this year and I had a bit of time on the yacht… not often you can do a blog mid Adventure Race!

I have had three great races with the team, getting some good results including winning overall and also cleaning up most of the mountain stages. The skipper Geoff West called me in March and announced that he was fancying another race, this one would make it his fourteenth, he has won seven – he likes doing it and he’s retired – so has plenty of time! I said I would have a think and ask around the ‘odd-ball’ end of the running community who like to do this stuff. Not surprising the Czech Machine – Pavel Paloncy was keen to race it again, so that was half the run team formed. Most others I asked where committed to the other smaller Scottish Islands Yacht Race. So it looked like I was going to have to do it…

That was March, ages away until June. But I was conscious of my lack of running over the last year or so, but the lack of running has given way to tonnes of biking, so I was still fit, but not properly ‘run-fit’. The months ticked by and my running achievement’s were really quite minimal and those few that I did, made for some really sore legs and long recoveries, hence the shift to riding more, as recovery is much, much less. So it reached a point where I thought I would just ‘wing it’ and manage as is [stupid me!] Normally for this race I suffer through Leg 1 – up/down Snowdon, then super-perform on Leg 2 – Scafell and then scrape through Leg 3 – Ben Nevis. Not the best approach really. Also I did not want to let my partner down either – Pavel Paloncy is optimised for endurance, so he’s not what you’d call super quick, but he just keeps going and no distance or ascent seems to phase him. He is now known as the Czech Machine and many organisers like to invite him to their races to test him and test their race on him.

The other worry for me on this race is sea-sickness, previously I have suffered then adapted, this year I thought I would be clever and try to get hold of some anti-sickness pills, so I had a chat with  Dr Morris a fellow racer and adventurer and he provided the ‘gear’. June drew closer and my life seemed to explode into a million things to do and some additional problems thrown in for good measure, also the passing of Mike Wynne was a bit of a struggle for me and all my ‘coping mechanisms’ where being stretched to the full. Then the biggest difficulty came – Mike’s funeral was on the Wednesday after the race, I knew in my head that it was I bad idea to race as the chances of finishing Tuesday and in time to get back to Yorkshire would not be guaranteed. I did not want to miss the funeral and Annie had asked me to help bare the coffin. So I asked around the running ‘odd-balls’ again to see if anyone fancied a go – no luck – all busy. I did not want to let the team down either, with sailors coming from Holland and runners from Czech and the boat from the Isle of Wight – it was all kind of a big operation. I had many chat’s with people including Annie and decided that me racing was the best option, I felt happier with this and explained the situation to Geoff, he was concerned but understanding, we agreed to review things as the race progressed, at the time we talked he was starting the seven day journey to deliver the boat to the race start at Barmouth and it had been super windy – wind is what we were wanting – and with good winds we could be finished by Tuesday pm.

As I checked the forecast (as you do!) in the week before the race it appeared a shift of weather patterns was forming, the constant rush of ‘lows’ where giving way to a nice ‘high’, with it – warmer days, little wind, basically lovely beach weather or bike riding weather, but totally crap for a sailing race where I had imposed myself a finish deadline! We drove down to Barmouth, picking Pavel up on the way at the airport, its a nice drive down and we arrived there at Friday tea time. I knew exactly where the sailors would be  – in the bar of the sailing club – they said that they had been hard at all day and were having a rest… It was nice to have Kerry and Henry along at the start as it is a nice festival atmosphere on the race day. I was not expecting the boat to be prep’ed or tidy. I showed Kerry and Henry our race yacht – it was no luxury and in the usual state of mess (only joking!), but that’s how the skipper likes it – he knows where stuff is, but we don’t!

We got through all our pre-race chores, the biggest one being doing a food and supplies shop – quite a lot of food for 5 people for 4-5 days. As midday approached we said our good byes to the family and got on board ready to set off to the start line a mile off shore, start would be at 14:00 – a neap high tide. The wind was blowing, the sun shining, it was a nice place to be. The flare marked the start and we got off to a flying start – 14 boats where sailing and we were at the front and edging away. Leg 1 to Caernarfon is about 70 miles and you round the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, it is a pretty sail and always an interesting one with crazy tides and currents around the Bardsey Sound (see pic) then the narrow channel into Caernarfon. My stomach was holding up and we were doing 8-9kts, so all was good. A change of direction as we rounded the Peninsula and headed north meant sail change time – time for the spinnaker, sometimes known as a kite, it is a massive sail and simple fills with the breeze and the boat zooms along, we were making 10-11ktsnow  and our time on the first leg would be super quick.

19477822_10212908983896884_1494759491_n Rounding Bardsey Sound

The downside to a quick sail is that the run into Caernarfon would be on low tide, marker buoys mark a channel through the deepest bit. That’s the theory, then ‘bang’ we hit sands and came to grinding halt just 30m off the buoy! Sandbars move. By race boat standards we were in a biggish boat with a 2.3m keel, deeper than most of the other yachts which around 2m or less. Pavel and I were down below getting stuff ready for our mountain run, the sailors scuttled, banged around and shouted above, the wind was pushing the boat onto the bank each time a wave came there was a huge bang as the boat got jolted, sail reefed in the situation seemed slightly better, but the swell was still pounding us. The engine could not shift us, so we anchored to prevent being moved and stuck further. The good thing was we were on a rising tide, if not I am convinced a rescue tow would have been in order. Other following boats eventually caught up and saw us stuck and managed to take a different route, a couple didn’t though, one ‘Team Ajax’ being perilously close and was getting pushed our way, we avoid by a few meters. After about 75mins and a lot of thrashing and pounding I could see our position relative to the buoy move, which meant we were off!

I was now feeling ill again having chucked up twice already I decided to have an anti-sickness pill – but not the best time to have it, the best time to have it is an hour before you go on the water… We made it to the pier at Caernarfon, where the runners discharge the boat. To try to give me some energy I managed some sweets and a gel, I was kitted out and ready, however I was conscious of feeling totally ‘monged’, I recalled Alistair saying the pills did have side effects (as do most pills!)… So now I start my 25 mile run, it’s 11 pm, I have no food in me, I feel like a space cadet and just want a sleep. The start adrenaline helped me adapt a bit, but I did not feel great and the 8 miles of road run to the ‘ranger path’ was pretty miserable. Surprisingly only two teams got past us in the sand bar incident, so we were 3rd on the mountain – White Cloud (Alistair Morris and Phil Scarf) 50min in front and Hare / Hill 80min in front; not likely to catch but something to chase.

It was a warm clear night, the best I have had for Snowdon, it was a nice place to be, but I was not performing and when we heard a gate slam in the distance behind us we knew we were being chased – Pavel took my pack and we hotted up the pace – we had a job to do and that was run as fast as we could as a pair. The summit soon came and I was feeling better after stuffing down some gels and chocolate and electrolyte. The descent was dreadful for me, as the one thing you seem to lose quickest when you don’t do as much fell running, is descending skills. I felt wooden and a lump, then I rolled my ankle – a lot of pain, but soon goes and seems to happen all the time now – I have a knobbly ankle as a result of the abuse. The pain eased and I was back on my way trying to catch my mate back up. It is a rocky long descent from Snowdon and I knew I would be paying for this later… We soon reach LLanberis, which marks the start of the 8 miles of the ‘longest’ road back to Caernarfon. To get through this it’s a case of lock yourself in the ‘pain chamber’ and get on with it.

We closed in on Caernarfon town and saw runners in front, no sign of those behind, this helped boost our moral as we pushed to get to the boat, we caught up with the White Cloud runners, which surprised me as they are quite ‘handy’ racers and my running felt pretty tardy, better still the team behind seemed to have dropped back. We hopped aboard the boat ready for the next sail to Whitehaven, normally about 12-15hrs, but we had to negotiate the Menai Straights and the fast tides that we would encounter would not be in our favour.

19458162_10212908986656953_1221532609_n  Slow progress against strong tide in Menia Straits

19433863_10212908983376871_1551192019_n  Telford Bridge – Like being on a river

Four boats got to the Menia Bridges, impressive engineering – especially the old Brunell Bridge. It was like being on a big Canadian river here, with fast currents, big back eddies, rocks on the surface, rocks hidden – not really the place for a yacht. But it is better to do this route than go round Anglesey, which adds 30-40 miles on to the 110 mile leg. We tied to a mooring buoy and watched the other boats battle it out, inching forwards and back as the wind came and went and was barely enough to compensate for the tidal flow – two forces of nature trying to control our destiny! Eventually with some bold sailing by the 72 year old John Donnelly – skipper of White Cloud, they made it – it took them 60 min to do ½ mile. Then Hare/Hill made it (more on that team later), by this time Geoff was getting super twitchy and decided it was our turn, so we un hooked on set off (see pic), with some canny sailing we got to the best channel and prayed for the wind to keep the sail aloft, we had just enough, our speed being about ½ kt. Once through that the straights open out and then it’s the problem of following the channel markers to avoid grounding and so on to the Irish Sea, normally windy and choppy. Not today. It looked like oil was on the surface and barely any wind. I won’t describe the next 30hrs, as that’s what it took us to do the next 90 miles, suffice to say it brings in a different set of sailing skills trying to eek out every bit of performance from the boat and this is where Kees was at his best – tweaking and fine tuning the sails to eek out every bit of performance. The biggest bonus was that although we did find many wind holes we did every little rowing – which is hard work on a 6 tonne yacht.

So day 2 we were closing in on Whitehaven – 180 miles of sailing done, with 200 miles to go to Fort William. Overnight we passed White Cloud, Hare/Hill and Moby J took more westerly routes, which were longer and no faster. White Cloud was moving faster than us as it was further out at a better wind angle and pipped us into Whitehaven. We had a tidal gate there of 11.20, White Cloud got in at 11.10, we were 8 minutes behind. As you enter the harbour you can put the engine on and reef the sails, effectively completing the sail leg. Approaching the outer harbour, we followed the route that the chart maps as the deepest channel, then ‘bang’ we grind to a holt 50m from the harbour lock entrance, engine on sail up we try to free ourselves, but the falling tide says ‘No’. So we can’t get off we have to sit this out – 11am, we phone harbour master and tell him our predicament and he laughs and says it will be 5pm before we are able to float free. What a pisser! The boat starts to list over, eventually at 50deg, its like trying to sit on a ‘black run’ impossible. Radio on all we can do is chill, but it was annoying as we were prep’ed and psyched for the mountain. Trying to draw out some positives, it was bloody hot and by the time we are on the hill it will be a fair bit cooler. Time to sun bathe a bit, go for paddle, look at the jelly fish, talk to locals curious to our predicament and taking pictures of us…

19441196_10212908983736880_1788538220_n  This was not the plan…    19441328_10212908984056888_873591006_n  6hrs – like resting on a ‘black run’

As the afternoon progresses other boats start to appear out side the harbour and moor up to wait for the tide to rise. 4 boats arrive, Moby J – 2 hours behind, Hare/Hill – 2 hours behind that, then two more. At 4.30 Moby J sneaks past us and into the lock, as it is a smaller boat with less draught, so there off in front… We start to move at 4.45 and make a go for it, but the lock takes an age and is filled with 4 other boats, this takes 30 min and is so frustrating, but by now I am not to bothered about waiting a minute or two longer… Soon we are in and its bikes off, and away we go up to the 5min mandatory kit check stop – all good, teams get asked there estimated time we say 5.20hrs, last year we did 5.25hrs and the record is 5.22 – we want to beat it!

19511804_10212908986376946_1064934714_n  Free from the boat and off to Scafell

It’s a brilliant ride using an old rail line path to get us out of Whitehaven and up to Kirkland village, then we drop into the stunning Ennerdale, 21 miles all in to Black Sail hostel, about an 80min ride – I love this and we get a train going! Black Sail is a bike drop and then we run over the Pass, down to Wasdale and then up the big hill, about 14 miles and should be about 3.45hrs. The evening is stunning, we pass Rod Howard (from Sleepmonsters – ace AR reports! – see pic – Rob Howard)

E5349381-8B7B-4334-8FFC-4EFFCE13D847Cruising through Wasdale     19489548_10212908986336945_1700816823_n  The Beautiful Ennerdale

Rob takes some pictures and all is good for us, but the climb is tough in the still, warm evening air – no records today me thinks as the pace drops, but we try our best, Pavel takes my pack on the descent and I take his on the next ascent, so we maximise our progress. We meet the Moby J runners and can tell they are going well – possibly better than us… Soon we summit (see pic) and begin descending, I love picking the best lines and I find some belting grass trods that miss the nasty slab/boulder path (which is a pig to go fast on). I hope this helps us make ground, but they are about 25 min ahead and we don’t see them again, all we can do is keep the ‘foot on the gas’.

19477875_10212908984496899_1496439357_n  Scafell Summit

Soon we summit Black Sail and start passing other teams 3-4hrs behind us, hi-5s as we pass, soon back at the bikes and it is a midge enhanced transition, so no willingness to faff. We are rolling and it feels good, no punctures to great us with, or bike problems. We reverse the route, by now it is dark, so it is headlamp time, the thrill of the narrow rail path as we steam along at 25mph is awesome – I hit a bat full on in the face, it does not hurt me so much but not so sure about him! The watch tells me will be in at around 5.30hr, so not quick enough to get the record but a quick time non-the-less in the hot conditions. We close in on the harbour and we do it in 5.35hr. Happy with that. We are greeted with the sailors who announce we are 10 min too late (a) for the record and (b) to get out of the harbour – arse another 5hr wait…! Being philosophical we will get to have a lovely shower and I would love a beer so much, it is now midnight. The team has some non-race personal issues to discuss, so its team-talk time…

I for one have a funeral that I am keen to attend, Kees (pronounced like case) the Dutch guy, has a mother in Holland who is critically ill (also with cancer). The race so far has been slow and we have had three lumps of bad-luck. Fort William is at least 2 days away, so ETF is Wednesday night / Thursday morning. Given these circumstances and also Pavel’s follow-on plans for a Pennine Way record attempt on the Saturday, on balance it seems the best thing to do is finish racing at here at Whitehaven and retire. Sad as it is not to finish, but it is less sad than missing the others.   –  There is always another race  –   Without doubt we had some bad luck on the sail legs, but the sailing the guys did was very well, always being one of the lead pair of boats. As for the running we managed two King-of-Mountains, but it will be a big shame not to get the overall cup. It was a much closer run this time for us, with Muir Morton and Sam Bush of Moby J team pushing us hard. This makes for exciting racing and as we have trackers it is quite addictive following this race as there are so many unpredictability’s, that can change things either way for teams – we seemed to get on the wrong end of these in this race. In hindsight the smaller lighter ‘Tacktix’ boat we raced in last year may have been much better…

I feel like I want to do it again next year…

White Cloud was the first boat home, then Hare/Hill and double handed crew, who sailed and ran it all – incredible effort! Moby J won it overall on the IRC handicap.

See Sleepmonsters and 3PYR website for more info.

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An Abbreviated Account of Highland Trail 550 For Bikepacking.Com

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.

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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:

https://singletrackworld.com/2018/06/video-teaser-highland-trail-550-making-long-distance-racing-look-fun-almost/

Further Details of Route and all finish times on: www.Highlandtrail.net

Alex’s Full Race Account, Kit List and bike details on: www.Settleharriers.org/blog.php & www.Fatsterbike.com

Results HT550 2018

  1. Alex Pilkington 3:16:52
  2. Lee Craigie 3:20:53
  3. Javier Simon 3:21:55
  4. Nelson Trees 4:04:00
  5. Pete McNeil 4:06:31
  6. Tom Bruce 4:07:03
  7. Stuart Taylor 4:07:24
  8. Lieven Schroyen 4:09:30
  9. Steve Walls 4:09:32
  10. Steve Heading 4:11:12
  11. Alan Goldsmith 4:13:50
  12. Philip Fraser-Thomson 4:15:43
  13. Matt McWhirr 4:22:44
  14. Sean Belson 5:00:55
  15. Bas Rotgans 5:05:58
  16. Samuel Becuwe 5:08:17
  17. Jakub Zajik 5:08:43
  18. Michael Collins 5:09:58
  19. Richard Munro 5:09:58
  20. Pascal Cazaux 5:12:50
  21. Craig Thompson 5:15:32
  22. Berten De Canne 5:19:15
  23. Fabio Lucantoni 5:19:15
  24. John Sedgewick 5:23:18
  25. Johnny Baker 5:23:26
  26. Daniele Migliori 6:08:48
  27. Liam Landers 6:13:57
  28. Ron Thomson 6:22:45
  29. Tom Seipp 7:18:08
  30. Rich Seipp 7:18:08
  31. Michelle Dulieu 10:15:06