Winter Wanderings

This is a bit of a rambling script, and is mostly made up of pictures from this winters bike-pack journeys…

You have to love the winter as we have so much of it, but you have to be opportunist to make the best of it, especially for us in the UK with its nortoriously unpredictable weather. It would be nice to move to Spain or somewhere and enjoy those blue sky winter days  …but this is not really possible when you have a life that revolves around a 101 home based commitments. This winter (2018-2019) has all in all been a pretty kind one to us – generally mild, dry and not that windy, with only a small handful of ‘named’ storms trying to get the better of us.

During the winter I believe that it is also important to try to maintain a base fitness, it is also the time you are most likely to get colds and illness and avoiding these is always a good thing, keeping active, involved and in tune with yourself is important, likewise is having good rests and recovery.

In winter time the mountain biking is sometimes superb, okay, you do have to pick your trails as everything will be wetter, but mountain biking and mud / wet is par for the course, unlike road cycling which can be pretty miserable when it is wet, windy and cold.

With the onset of late November and the shorter days it is easy to go and hibernate, but sometime you can still get a good weather window pop-up. This leads me on to an amazing ‘smash-n-grab’ opportunity to head to the far north. Incidentally after the freekishly good summer I have become addicted to Scotland and not just the Highlands, it is my mission to explore it all, the wilderness there is my new second home. I often keep an eye on the weather up that way, usually a quick peek on a Monday morning when back at work – it helps me get through the working week, and to start planning the next weekend adventure…

A Smash-n-Grab Ride Along Some of The North Coast Route

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NC500 – Empty roads, near to Gairloch.

I have long fancied doing a simple, unsupported no-faff North Coast 500 ride, ideally going minimal on the road bike, but with bike-packing kit and having a couple of camps. So with a ‘weather window’ of several days over the North Highlands and some ‘Brownie Points’ that i’d somehow managed to credit I blagged 3 days away. I decided I would do a variation of the NC500, thus avoiding the A9 return and also starting / finishing at Dingwall, as I knew that to do the full route would have been a big undertaking (in November) and that was not what I really wanted, I wished for long days on quiet roads of around 110 -130 miles, rather than 170 mile days of just churning it out! I got some well priced advanced train tickets, splitting the route, the ticket machine spewed out 28 orange cards – crazy! and off I went…

I will tell the story in pictures, but to get you started I roll out of Dingwall station at 7pm Friday evening and start heading west on a clear and quite warmish night…

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Road side camp spot, just after Applecross 130km in, pitching up at just after midnight, the highlight was most surely the monster Bealach na Baa pass under the moon and stars.

 

R.I.P. Whistlestop Cafe!

Very sad to see this lovely place close, I hope that it gets re-opened, it was closing that weekend. I did manage a very nice breakfast and stole some warmth from the wood stove.

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Lock Maree and Slioch – possibly no finer Loch and no finer mountain. And all to myself in November!

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Seaside village of Gairloch, just further on I watch some whales surfacing in the flat almost oily waters.

 

Half way through and a change of plan, I decided to miss-off the far North West loop and head back east from Ledmore Junction, I think I had bitten off more than I wanted to chew! The second night I happened to stumble on this amazing wooden chalet, perfect place to sleep in – but it was cold and I wished that it had a door! After a clear crisp start and a further 70km I was back in Dingwall midday Sunday for my train home. I only really managed one full days riding, but I think it was worth the effort of getting there and I amassed almost 420km (260 miles) of riding. I quite like not finishing things, as it means you have a reason to go back again!

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A Pre-Xmas Escape – A Girt Lush Mid Wales Bike-Pack – and a very wet Mid Wales too!

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Wet weather kit testing in the Elan Valley (on the 2015 Chiru Pulse)

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Pumping!

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Bothy life – getting dried out and re-hydrated. I could not persuade anyone else to join me on this ‘ratch’, maybe the weather… My memories from this ride are, spending much time in PC’s under the hand driers trying to warm everything up! I also remember lots and I mean lots of Red Kites and finding two bothies, both well stocked with wood, to get dry and cosy in. Screen shot 2019-04-27 at 12.41.16.png

The route…. Wales was deserted…

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Borders Bothy Raid… Objective to visit the 10 bothies in around the North Pennines / Borders / Kielder Area …oh and starting that from home (Settle)  …oh and going over Cross Fell…

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Late evening, not really a good place to be on bike in a blizzard – time to get moving!

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To spend the night here – an all time favourite!

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Early morning over the Pennines.

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The beautiful Langley Viaduct on the South Tyne Cycle Path.

 

bothy
noun: bothy; plural noun: bothies; noun: bothie
  1. (in Scotland) a small hut or cottage, especially one for housing farm labourers or for use as a mountain refuge.

    Super cosy night spent at Kershope Head, having visited: Gregs Hut, Shepherds Hut, Melmerby Shop, Haughton Green, Green, Roughside, Flittingford, Spithope, Wills Bothy. Screen shot 2019-04-27 at 13.25.43.png Many miles! (or Kilometres – I am trying to positively switch to the metric distance… and its hard!) I was very pleased to report that all the bothy’s visited were all in pretty good shape, clean and looking well cared for – very gratifying. One day I will be a Bothy MO (Maintenance Organiser) …its my retirement ambition! (or one of them)

     

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    A Whisky Tasting visit with the MO  …and the odd job to do as well.

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    I have helped at this bothy on a number of occasions, the fancy stove door you see above was made by my brother Roger, this has turned out to be a popular attraction at the boutique bothy, that Greensykes is – This is Bothy TV and it does not get any better! Get it glowing and sit and watch it, while sipping whisky and talking about noodles, fish and stuff…

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    Waking up to a winter wonderland!

    Leysburnfoot (aka Will’s)

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    Eastern Highlands and then Glasgow

    The odd month of February, it was unseasonally warm. At the end of half term I had some days free and combined a forray into the East Highlands then a meet up in Glasgow with my eldest son – Henry. I have to say it felt odd going from 3 nights in bothies to the Hilton in Glasgow. Strangely (but not un-surprisingly) I preferred the bothies!

     

    Night one in a lovely ‘off-the-grid’ bothy, met a nice couple from Perth who arrived a little later than me, with mucho whisky!

    Bothy Bus-stop – I gave up waiting in the end!

     

    The road over to Glen Shee, mid-Feb and no snow. Quite sad seeing the ski station empty, it looked ugly and forlorn. I stopped in Breamar at the Mountain Rescue Centre to catch up with an old friend for an hour (but really to warm-up!) and have a couple of cups of tea. Lots of interesting rescue stories and a shed full of ace kit to look round, from skidoos to pisten-bullys. My night two destination was Faindoran, the most remote of bothy’s – 30km to the nearest road-head.

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The super-remote Faindoran Bothy in the centre of the Cairngorm Massif, quite how it ended up with ten Bike-Packers and Belgium Girl staying in it was beyond me – but what a crazy night it was – stove roaring, more whisky and quite a lot of fine cheese’s and putting the world to rights!

After Faindoran, I had no real fixed destination for the coming day (and had a bit of a sore head as well) and the only main thing on the itinerary was a coffee and a proper greasy breakfast. The route out from the bothy to the north, heading towards Glenmore Lodge was advised against, as it was banked out with soft, wet snow – which is horrible to make progress over, so the decision was made to head into Tomintoul about 35km away and then make plans.


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Exiting Tomintoul I saw the sign for the Speyside Way (Whisky Trail) and decided to ride along that. The route headed east with great riding, going past Glenlivet, then Tomnavoulin, then Knockandhu, then Dufftown, then Aberlour – this was Whisky country for sure – and a great trail too. For the evening I had decided to try the boutique bothy up in Glen Feshie and it was great as the Speyside Way took me most of the way there.

Distillery’s and the Rothiemurchus Forest – endless forested trails  …and so to the boutique bothy…

The magnificent Ruighaiteachain Bothy in Glen Feshie, its Danish owner, is very in tune with the re-wilding activities and encouraging people into the mountains. [Editor’s note – modern life is terribly cruel and there are people who commit heinous acts against mankind – In the Sri Lankan bombings 3 of his 4 children were killed. This is so sad.]

And then back to the city of Glasgow… what a great journey!

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Towards the end of February our lives were also shattered, as my father-in-law passed away. His death was sudden an unexpected, he was mid seventies and had a stroke while playing tennis. He was a massive part of our lives and his absence has taken a lot of adjusting too.

 

The last ride of the winter, in fact I think that it was probably Spring, just, was the…

Barkley Marathons of Bike-Packs

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Another bike-pack and another highland train journey. It had the sign of an exciting trip at the point of stepping off the late train. Corrour Station at 9.30pm, I left the warmth and comfort of the train and was the only person getting off into the dark, silent wilderness. I was buzzing with excitement and anticipation already, my planned bothy for the night was ‘Staoneag’ (Mammore Forest), which lay about 20km away, with a mixture of estate tracks and mountain path to get there, it was my first visit, which always adds to the interest. I arrived at around 11.30pm and it was all dark and silent and empty – I think it was pleased to have me as guest that night. I collected wind blown twigs and got small fire going, lit some candles, had some food and enjoyed a tin of craft ale, popping out occasional to check the stars.

My destination for day 2 was the remote and rugged Morvern Peninsula, (via the Corran ferry) then onwards to Arisaig around 160km ride in all and mostly road, which was good, because the weather had turned sour – very wet and a measly 5-6 degC. Despite the wet, the riding was nice going along sea loch coasts then wild moorland terrain, with the moody weather egging me along, the destination was a secret coastal bothy…

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The view from the room – nice hey!

 

 Amusing log bog entries. It was indeed an idylic place and I recommend sniffing it out!

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After Arisaig the plan was heading south to Mull, the picture above is the mighty Loch Sheil, it has a lovely estate road running down the side of its 22km length, connecting Glen Finnian to Strontian. After Strontian the plan was to go off piste a little and explore a ‘coffin route’.

 

I found some great swim holes! The riding started well but soon turned  into a tussocky bush-whack, uphill for 3km, it took me 90mins and I was pretty shattered. At the top I realised I was rewarded with more pushing and carrying for the best part of 5km down. Some routes you win some you lose, still I thought it would make for a good ‘Barkley Marathons of MTB’! I was ready for getting to a bothy for food, warmth and rest.

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So it was to an old favourite on the Ardtornish Estate. In the morning I was greeted with a stunning sunrise over the Loch, which is meant to be full of ‘brownies’. [Editors note – bothy is currently closed April / May ’19 for re-roofing and internal improvements].

 

Day 3 involved a couple of ferries, which also have nice toilets to clean up in! I was heading south to eventually make Glasgow, but first Mull (for 10km) then Oban and then through the fingers of Argyll.

 

Loch Avich single-track and the iconic bridge to Seil Island – worth a small detour. Argyll is very forested and full of trails and quiet roads to explore, also the odd nice cafe, like the one at Dallavich on Loch Awe. The plan for the evening was Carron Cottage, but still 80 or 90km to go. I was expecting Carron to be empty as it was a Monday, but surprisingly on arrival it was pretty full, with a bunch of sailors from the Merchant Navy and enough beer to sink a Merchant Ship. I enjoyed a Sol beer with them and was given one for the road (or to bugger off!), so I thought best to go elsewhere – I just hope they cleared up and left the place nice, as it was a pretty sweet bothy. My plan B was either Abysinia or Mark Cottage, a further 50 – 70km away. Hmmm, at least it was a nice evening for some more riding… I decided on Mark Cottage on the west side of Loch Long and unbeknown to me just opposite a massive and well illuminated oil depot, which detracted greatly from the cottages ambience. There was one other guest, surprised to have company when I arrived at 9pm, he had a good fire going and cooked me a fried Pollock – very good it was too!

IMG_0640The morning of Day 3 and a moderate 90km to get me to the ferry at Dunoon. After a 450m climb, I was rewarded and surprised to have a lovely 10km single track, it was narrow forest paths that followed the fingery coastline. It went past more castles, quaint villages and quiet beaches.

Almost at the end of the journey, I mis-calculated the distance and I had 20km to do and 60 minutes to get to the ferry it was a real push and I made it with 6 minutes to spare – another nice crossing to Gourock station, then to Glasgow Central and back home, to start earning brownie points again… I am very lucky to have an understanding wife and family and it’s not all about my own adventures, most other weekends we have slightly easier family outings, club rides or just rest (quite rare) .

Next up is the inaugural Dales Divide Race and then in May the Highland Trail 550, let’s hope the good weather keeps going!

Go on get out on your adventures too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dales Divide – The Inuagaral Ride

The Dales Divide, but more just some words about the slightly weird world of Bike-Packing

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It’s always with some relief when the wheels start rolling at the start of any big bike-pack event, the start of the Dales Divide, the inaugural ride, the brain-child of Chris Ellison, its proud creator is just like any other bike-packing event – a small wave-off at best from something not much more than a car-park. But soon it is super-sweet as you hit lovely wooded trails straight away, you then know that this is going to be a good adventure (a really good adventure!), a coast-to-coast and all the way back. All the build-up and anticipation and time spent in preparation is going to pay off. You are going to be presented with a succession of mini-challenges and goals non-stop all the way through, one after the other for many hours to come. Days will merge into nights and nights will merge into days, a succession of sunsets and sunrises and even a full moon if you are lucky. The line that you are following on your GPS screen is YOUR world, nothing much else matters – you just have to keep making progress! You will be presented with an ever changing landscape and terrain, you will be totally buzzing as you whizz along new found trails. Eating will become a chore and keeping a regular check on your health and wellbeing is critical, likewise for your trusty stead on which you sit. The clock will always keep ticking, you sleep for as long or little as you wish. You will be a ‘dot’ being watched by another world. You will meet many people and have those random moments and encounters. You will forget chunks of the ride and hallucinate others; everything becomes a fragmented kaleidoscope like experience*. You may take stock of your life while riding and sometimes remember those ‘special ones’ that are no longer with us. You will experience highs and lows like being on drugs. You will share the journey and talk to fellow riders, making new friends, but you will more likely just talk to yourself. You will be feral, being tracked or tracking someone else and in tune with the wild life up close and personal. Your values will change while you are journeying, the world on the outside will continue as normal and you will not be really be noticed as you pass through. Things will hurt and then stop hurting when they can hurt no more and then new things will hurt, and then when it’s all over you will forget the all the ‘hurting’ that took place and recall just the pleasures – often too many of them. There will be no one to hug you when times get tough. At times you will want to be back at home with your ‘loved’ ones, you will miss that cosiness. You will be constantly peering into other people’s cosy lives as you ride by at night, you may knock on a door and ask for a refill of water, but sometime get a cake, a meal or more – those small acts of kindliness can be so gratifying. What you put in is what you get out and you will always have the memories for evermore. Each rider’s race is personal to them and any rider that finishes is a winner …and if you didn’t finish then bank that learning for next time when you will. Luck will always play a part – we are all so lucky and should be ever thankful to be able to do this sort of thing, because this IS living…

Alex Pilkington – April 2019

* Having done a fair bit of AR racing over the years you learn to manage on as little sleep as possible in each race, but there are limits. It is the lack of sleep and rest for the brain that creates the weird effects that one may experience in multi-day racing when pushing hard – also known as ‘sleepmonsters’

This stuff may not be everyone’s cup of tea and some folk don’t relate to it at all, but for those that like exploring, adventure and the thrill of a challenge then there is no better way to do it than the grass roots, no-frills bike-packing. You can pay hundreds or even thousands to undertake some over hyped and commercialised mtb adventures, but bike-packs are usually free and as a result are friendly and non-elitist and quite often a lot harder as you have no support and have to totally look after yourself.

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Arnside 7am, after coming off the night shift and 47:07hrs after the GD. Happy to be first rider back and a little tired – not sure if I needed beer or breakfast (I settled for both!) And thank you to the family for being here for me – its always nice to have someone greet you after a ride like this.

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Heard of this place…?

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Scarborough, early morning – just me, the street cleaners and this beautiful sunrise.

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North Yorkshire Moors – Hot ‘n’ Hard!

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Feed Station / Water Hole outside Chris Ellison’s house at 80km.

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 (that was 2017) 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!

IMG_1205

Eilean Donan Castle, Dornie – Mar ’18