You can view the whole ride on Strava
Part 1 of 3
Highland Trail 550; My road to Loch Lomond: mere hurdles
I have been road racing for around seven years, since I was 21. I began with my first laps around Herne Hill’s outdoor velodrome track in London. Then I tried mass start circuit (criterium) and road races. I enjoyed and have had success in time trials too. Eventually I found my spiritual home in ultra-endurance, though I still dabble in the rest, when time allows.
I can safely say that I have never experienced bike racing as I have in the spring of 2019. First with the extraordinary challenge of the 1200 km Italy Divide. Now, just a few weeks later, with the prospect of racing a proper mountain bike across 880 km of beautiful Scottish wilderness.
Halfway through the race, with 400 km of rain, river and racing behind me, I was asked some questions by veteran hardman Karl Booth: ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘How did you find out about it?’.
I was here in Scotland because I love to race my bike over long distances. To test my mental and physical resolve and to see where I can take myself and find my limits. Riding off-road amplifies the challenge.
I had found out about it when I first met Lee Craigie at Eurobike in 2017 and she gave me a copy of her book ‘Joining the dots’ with James Robertson’s superb photography. It was a wonderful, eye opening read. She talked, in awe, about the Highland Trail 550; the rugged terrain and the racing challenge of extreme competition. Since then, in my mind, it was an elite, mystical and unachievable event that was held while I was doing exams. It took place in a strange and spectacular country that I had never visited.
I did have a minor issue though, which was pointed out to me by the race organiser, Alan Goldsmith as I flirted with an entry back in February. This was an elite, almost invitational mountain bike race. I may have won the Transcontinental twice, but I was completely unproven off-road. He said I needed to prove myself and sent me a list of a few qualification races.
Italy Divide wasn’t on that list. It’s a long race, mostly on gravel. However – and I write this with the benefit of hindsight – it included real, even hardcore sections of off road and hike-a-bike. In late April, I rode and jointly won the race on a gravel bike, a Fairlight Secan. The day after I finished, Alan wrote to me: ‘James, don’t worry about a qualifying ride, just rest up and come race the Highland Trail 550.’ So, I had my starting place now. What I hadn’t told Alan was that I didn’t actually have a mountain bike. A mere hurdle!
I had a contact at Canyon Bikes, so I asked for a bike and I was delighted to find a large parcel on my doorstep one day in May, just a week before the race. It was a brand-new Canyon Exceed. Clearly, just like Alan, they were looking forward to seeing me suffer!
Now I was about to break a few ultra-endurance racing basic rules – rules I hark on about to newbies. I would compete in an extreme and unknown discipline, along a strange and untested route, riding a brand-new bike, sitting on a new saddle, wearing inappropriate carbon soled shoes. What could possibly go wrong?
A few frenzied days of preparation resulted in a fair amount of bike customisation and some brand-new kit. I needed new luggage and Lucy Rusjan at Rusjan bags in Italy turned out a full set of custom bags, in a week, with no detail spared. I needed proper off road suitable lights and so I contacted Exposure Lights, who I consider make the very best. They kindly sorted me out. The weather forecast was very grim, so I invested in a Arc’teryx Gore-Tex pro jacket. As in Italy Divide, I would be wearing Café du Cyclist cycling kit.
Soon, I was on the train heading north, full of excitement. My first ever visit to Scotland. My first ever full on mountain bike race. Within 24 hours I’d be on the start line next to Lee Craigie – who when I asked if I should come said ‘You must!’
For better or worse, 880 km of incredible racing would await all 60 of us on the start line.
Highland Trail 550; Racing north: Rookie in the rain
My race preparation had not been good. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would need. I was apprehensive because I knew I would be racing through some very remote areas with many hours between any kind of opportunity to re-supply. I knew that the risk of hypothermia, for example, was real. Tugging at the bottom of my consciousness was my own growing realisation that this would be really different. Just a week of riding my new Canyon Exceed around the horse poo strewn bridle paths of Kent and Essex had convinced me that there’s a chasm between a mountain and a gravel bike. I felt like a novice because I was one.
On Saturday morning, 60 of us started from Tyndrum, just north of Loch Lomond, amid a bubble of excitement and nerves, at least on my part. Within minutes, there was a slight climb and I had to get off and walk. This was embarrassing because there were people queueing behind me to ride past. In the end, I stepped aside, saying “sorry, sorry, excuse me”. I wondered, what they were thinking? Race organiser Alan must have been chuckling to himself as this road rider struggled from the very start.
Only an hour into the race I saw a river crossing, ahead of me. Two riders had decided to get off and walk. The third rider, Dustin Erol, just rode straight through. I was so impressed, how cool was he? If he could, why couldn’t I? I went for it, deciding it must be all about speed, though obviously with a little bit of skill and finesse. Halfway across and I go straight over my handlebars, I’m completely soaked. I get up quickly because there’s a guy walking across actually next to me, who laughs. I make a special show for him: “Better to try and fail!”
The test was only getting started. The trails had been fairly straightforward, so I’d been able to push on. Then, as we got to a boggy section, the leading riders all streamed past me and disappeared into the distance. This was humbling, I was being absolutely schooled.
After the big technical climb and descent from Ben Alder, the rain really set in. We arrived in Fort Augustus so I went into the public toilets to get myself sorted out. I got into my proper rain gear and prepared myself to head into the night. I took the opportunity to eat a good meal thinking I didn’t know when the next would be. I was able to share a few words with the formidable Lee Craigie over some chips. What a bike racer.
Around dusk I found myself reduced to walking on a rocky section. I realised that just behind me and approaching fast was a rider. I made it off the rocks and onto a boggy climb, the rider was getting closer. Over the top and descending, I felt I was at snail’s pace. I heard the rider right on my tail and I pulled in to allow the pass. Lee flies by and glides off down the boggy trail towards the horizon. Wow! A masterclass in mountain biking. I caught her a bit later on, she’d stopped briefly. She seemed in good spirits and we shared a few words. She knew what was to come, I was in for the ride of my life.
It was dark, it was still raining hard and the track seemed to have become a river. I started thinking about shelter. I knew about a place called the ‘Hydro Bothy’ and eventually, at 0130, it find it. It’s not in good condition, the windows have been knocked in and the door doesn’t really open so you have to sort of bang it, which wakes up the two riders who are already sleeping there. I set my alarm for five hours, more than normal during a race. Physically I was okay, but mentally I was feeling drained. It had all been such a whirlwind since getting back from Italy. Frankly I had also found the first day’s racing to be difficult. During the night I heard other people’s alarms go off and was aware of them leaving. When my alarm eventually went off, it was still raining heavily. Even though it was now daylight and time to be riding, I decided to give myself another couple of hours. Eventually I couldn’t put it off longer and I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and got into my wet clothes.
As I busted open the bothy door to escape the poor shelter, the day improved, a lot. Jenny Graham turns up and we end up riding together for a short while. She is really one of my heroes and I think that her 2018 round the world record is one of the greatest ultra-endurance feats. Around 0830 we arrive in Contin, a crucial re-provision point.
I had been thinking that my brakes were really noisy as we came into the town, so I checked them. Front disc pads – down to the metal. Rear pads – a bit left. One day into the race and I have already finished a full set of brake pads. I only have one spare set. It’s pitiful as I’m having some mental breakdown about my bloody brake pads in the shop. Eventually I convinced myself that I wasn’t doomed and changed the front ones only. I’ll go till I can’t.
I set off on my own and work out what’s just happened. As a novice, I was just not riding the bike properly, I was using my brakes too much. From now on my race would be more difficult as I must use the brakes as little as possible!
Lunch was fantastic though. I stopped at the Oykel Bridge hotel in the middle of nowhere, which seemed to be just full of us. Ben Steurbaut, Dustin Eroh (eventual winner), Nelson Trees, Thomas Burbach, Javier Simon, Markus Stitz. What company! We’re all damp, smelly and hungry. I had the double main course: pasta then burger with chips. Outside the rain teemed down and soon I was back in it with a relentless headwind. Sometimes I just had to stop a moment, perhaps to just skulk behind a tree for five minutes. Thankfully there was a moment of magic to lift my spirits, a majestic herd of red deer crossed the trail, just in front of me.
I arrived at another river crossing as it was getting dark. In my civil engineering degree, I’ve been looking at fluid dynamics. There it was in practice, right in front of me. The water was breaking right over the track. I knew if I went upstream there would be slower water, which I soon found. I laid my bike on the bank and slid in to see how deep it was. Up to my armpits! I went back, got my bike on my shoulders and waded across. I was so far out of my comfort zone, I really felt alive!
After a long boggy section, there was another double river crossing (the second one pretty fast) and I’m joined by Nelson. Again, I’m feeling really good. It’s 0°, it’s been raining for 48 hours and it’s getting dark. I jump in, at the point I feel most comfortable and get across. What a great feeling.
Immediately after there is a long ‘hike a bike’ section and I’m on my own again, pushing 20kg of bike and luggage up a steep hill. This really warms me up, just what I need. At about 0130 I arrive in Drumbeg. It’s a nice time to stop and I see my favourite accommodation, the public toilets. The men’s? Smells like piss. No thanks. The women’s? Smells like roses and it’s large, even cavernous, with a table and a hairdryer. I get my wet stuff out on the table to dry and settle down to 3 hours of warm dry and peaceful sleep.
Perfect; 2 ½ days racing with over 400 km covered and the end of the Northern Loop. As I fall asleep, I’m actually race leader. Little did I know the real terrain and racing was only getting started.
Highland Trail 550; Racing south: Joy and despair.
I woke up on the floor of the public toilet. Such a glamorous sport.
I’d slept really well and I started my day holding my socks under the hand dryer. I wasn’t prepared for what greeted me when I opened the door. It was a beautiful morning; the sun was rising across the water and some warmth was beginning to seep into the day. The race route also provided a pleasant early surprise: tarmac. This was part of the North Coast 500, a classic touring route for bicycles and motorbikes. What a wonderful start to the day.
Normal service soon resumed as I spent the next four hours on the Leadmore Traverse; 19 km of pushing, carrying and walking with occasional ‘sort of cycling’. The sunny morning turned to a rainy afternoon as I raced along on my own. There was a truly unpleasant section with a single track along the edge of (what seemed) a 200 m steep drop. The reverse camber didn’t help, it was slippery and I was feeling tired. It seemed to take me forever but eventually, after a long boggy section, I started the long descent into Ullapool.
When racing, I try to treat descents with caution. Off-road, with high-speed impacts between rock and tyre, it’s easy to get a puncture or break a rim. Of course, I just went flying down this track. I was hungry and wanted to get to Ullapool. Bang! I had jumped a little stream and hit a (sort of) line of rocks across the track. I knew it. My tubeless tyre went down, with barely a whimper from the sealant, a good sized tear.
I was nearly at the bottom, where I stopped to start the repair. It seemed okay as I went to take off my pump but the valve had become stuck inside. Long story short, with the help of my pliers I sheared off that valve. Absolute disaster. I wheeled my bike to the Tesco supermarket, the only shop still open. I fantasised that they would have a small range for cyclists including pumps. I’d buy a new pump, stock up on some food and I’ll be racing again! Obviously, no pump.
Some Dutch holidaymakers appeared. I can use their pump! No good though because my tubeless dream is over and future pinch flats are certain. There’s a long way still to go. I can’t head into the wilderness without my own pump. Not only that, my brake pads were down to the metal.
Any challenge for the podium was finished. I decided to stay the night and if necessary, go to Inverness by bus in the morning for the parts. I found a BnB, settled down for the night and demolished an enormous cooked breakfast the next morning. In the bike shop they had a pump and brake pads, but; Oh dear! The pads didn’t fit. I’m sitting outside a shop on the pavement, with my bicycle in bits.
A stranger appears and asks if he can help. He’s called Alan and, unasked, he tells me that he has the same brake pads on his own bike. He disappears for 10 minutes and came back with a precious gift. I want to point out that he had no idea about the race or who I was. My spot tracker was turned off so he couldn’t have tracked me down as a dotwatcher. In unsupported racing there can be a grey area about getting assistance. In this case, for me, it was pure luck. I’ve also lost 16 hours , which is a kind of self-penalty for breaking my pump and carrying insufficient spares. Anyway, I am back in the race. We shook hands: Alan – thank you so much!
Soon I was on my way pushing my bike up the well-known climb out of Ullapool called ‘The Coffin Road.’ It was a lovely morning, I was rested, well fed and feeling strong. I caught up with Marcus Stitz. Then I saw the photographer James Robertson, who I already knew well from the Transcontinental. Of course, James was there to photograph riders tackling something really difficult, the renowned river crossing at Fisherfields Forest. I stopped in the bothy to build up some energy and had a great chat with Karl Booth before we headed off to look at the loch. Wow! Around 60 m to cross with no indication of depth. I knew that other racers had already got through and that the loch bed would be flat, we were crossing right at the mouth. I hoisted my bike above my head and waded in. The water was waist deep but slow flowing and soon I was on the other side. This crossing had been built up as the most difficult but I found it quite straightforward, compared with some previous.
A long climb followed, with plenty of walking. At the top, the view was totally spectacular. Huge, bleak, wild, lonely. This was one of my great moments of the race. The difficult and technical Postman’s Path followed as night fell. The track was just a tyre’s width within an unhelpful camber. I would get off and walk but it was too narrow, so I would get back on and pedal but it was too slippery. It seemed to go on and on but eventually I arrived in a small town at around 2230. Somehow, in the company of Karl and John White, I managed to get some Coca-Cola, short bread and cakes from Scotland’s most unhelpful barman (who, while confronted by three ravenous ultra bike racers said: ‘I’ve already cashed-up!’).
Full of sugar, that night I did Torridon, a mtb single track climb, mended a puncture then mostly walked down a big descent. By 0300 I was in my bivvy bag and fast asleep. Three hours later, after a really deep sleep, my alarm woke me and I quickly dressed and got back on my bike. It was -7 degrees C!
The morning was a long slog on very testing terrain, which I’ve mostly selectively forgotten. In the afternoon I arrived at Glen Affric Way for some more ‘hike a bike’. Three enduro riders on full suspension bikes came past me. WTF? I was walking, they were riding? Then another came past, on his own. He knew I was in the race and stopped to give me some unexpected encouragement. He shook my hand then pedalled off, leaving me feeling cheerful, though still pushing and carrying my bike.
Again, I reached the top for an enormous view. I jumped back on the bike and started to ride fast on rolling single and double track paths. This became the moment when it made sense. Everything seemed to just click and I felt not only that I knew what I was doing but also that I was enjoying it. I was riding this track, jumping over the drainage channels, sliding past the rocks. I had never ridden like this before, I was having the time of my life.
I arrived back in Fort Augustus and stopped again for a meal at the fish and chip shop, stocked up on food at the petrol station and then headed off down the canal with enough food to get me through the night. My plan was to ride from here straight to the finish, which I thought would be around nine the next morning. What could go wrong?
I was still riding by the canal. Another puncture, my third since Ullapool. The pump I’d bought was pretty terrible and I couldn’t get enough pressure in the tyre to stop it pinch flatting. Then another within 10 minutes, because I hadn’t fixed it very well. Fixed it again. This time it held. Within 20 m, the gear shifter fails. I’m so used to electronic, it just works, but for this race I have mechanical. The cable seems to have stretched. I try to adjust it, but it still doesn’t work. I decided to replace the cable. This took me an hour thanks to internal cable routing, dodgy hands, and general tiredness. I don’t know what I did wrong, but it just wasn’t working and I had cut also it off too short. To add to the general fun, it was now dark and raining. Many thousand Scottish midges had also decided to support the impromptu bike rebuild session. I fitted my second spare cable. I’d lost two hours and two race positions as both Karl and John had passed me. Frankly, I can say my patience had never been tested as severely. I learnt a whole new level of zen and patience. Sadly I’ve not been able to repeat this since!
Within 20 minutes of getting started again, the rain really set in for the night. I knew the Ben Nevis range was the final challenge and I was apprehensive. I decided to stop and bivvy for a couple of hours so I could tackle it in the light, I was nervous with my lack of route knowledge and skill.
I was back on the bike by 0430 and was soon coming into Fort William where I spotted a slight sleeping figure propped up by the bike shop, waiting for opening time. It was Karl. I left him sleeping.
The West Highland Way was quite busy with walkers at this point as it is so near the road. To my surprise I actually met someone I know, my friend Nick and his girlfriend, who were walking the this section. Soon I was coming down a well-known trail, the Devil’s Staircase. There were plenty of walkers. Some of them stepped aside so the trail can be shared. Some of them just carried on walking, literally blocking the trail. In the interest of openness, I admit that I may have shouted at some people! I was on a mission and not stopping for anything, or one.
I mended another puncture. I went up (what I thought) was the final climb and came down (what I thought) was the final descent. I found myself going too quickly (enjoying myself) and of course crashing on some slippery mud, sliding off into some grass and bushes. Then it was really the last climb and descent with a fast finishing double track, which I absolutely tore down.
There they were, waiting for me, race organisers Alan and Sarah. I got my handshake, that’s why I do this. Then I was in the café where Ben, John and Javier were sitting together. More handshakes and that was that.
Alan told me afterwards that it had been the toughest edition ever. The brutal weather, a combination of rain, cold and wind, meant only a third of the starters made it to the finish, 20/60. I had been tested physically and emotionally. I was more than happy just to finish.