You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the slow road
As with all these personal goals you set yourself, it’s generally easy to recall the seed that gradually germinates into some yearning, then, over time, into a plan. This one was fairly fast-growing. It started in February.
We went on what’s probably best described as an attempted Ski mini break to Glencoe in February half term. I say attempted because this February was pretty much the warmest on record. By coincidence, the little cottage we’d booked was in Tyndrum, and right on the path of the West Highland Way.
This February was’t the first I’d known of the WHW. I generally came to know about it through going up to Scotland and like many long-distance routes I had accepted it was going to be a thing taking in beautiful landscapes. There’s a certain simple poetry to the WHW too, in that this starts from the notional greenbelt of Milngavie right on the northern tip of Glasgow and ends up right in the Highlands. It’s obviously a journey as well as a route. Pretty much from one extreme to the other. (Except Milngavie is lovely, leafy and quiet, and Fort William is generally much louder and more urban than Milngavie… but you get the general picture)
I walked on short stretches of the WHW too – probably 7 or 8 miles in total around Conic Hill and Tyndrum – just on separate trips and never with the intention of walking the whole route. (And people do that in their droves. It’s surprising how many). Then over the last few years my brother Phil and all his family walked the entire route in shifts. Each one a mini holiday where one or two full days were spent walking legs of the route of up to 15 miles at a time. There was no doubt some envy bubbling under in me. It’s gorgeous up there.
Plan of Action
The bike aspect was inspired by two things. Firstly: my nagging guilt that I have a lovely Mountain Bike and have really neglected it over a number of years. Life’s just crammed with road cycling, cyclocross, fell running… it’s been hard to really get out and adventure. The second was just chatting on occasion to friend Phil Simcock who was amazingly done ‘the double’ WHW on a bike. Endurance athletes perplex me just as much as they impress me. There’s something freakish about stuff like that. Phil broke the record at the time for the double. I was in no mood for a double. I was in no mood for a record. I’m not an endurance athlete. I just wanted an adventure. I didn’t mind it being hard. But not that hard.
I had a chat with Phil (brother, not Simcock) about getting the train back from Fort William to do the ride as a single go, because he knew the area and logistics. But Phil saw an opportunity to do this at the same time as the Scottish Six Days Trial – taking place in Fort William in early May each year. So there was the logistics sorted. A road trip with my bro. ?
You’ll take the high road ?
It was an early start for me and Phil – I left home 3am and on wonderful, clearer-than-clear rodes, we drove in the van up to Milngavie. Great time to chat, great time to get excited.
The start, in the middle of a modest small high street, was where we said our ‘see you later’s. I knew that my Garmin battery wouldn’t last the half-a-day-solid so had done a bit of research and set up my phone to record the GPS and send a LIVE tracking signal to Phil (safety first… you never know). The battery on the phone would more than survive that… but it was something I’d later regret. There’s nothing quite so irritating* as not capturing a big ‘do’ on GPS.
(*Well… nothing quite so irritating to me. Okay… I may have a problem)
So off I went. (And off Phil went. First to Gregg’s and then to Tescos – on a mission. But that’s another story). It’s satisfying to get going. Great also when you’re on a point-to-point journey. There’s a feeling of having to get on with it when it’s point-to-point. And get on with it, I did.
Within the first two miles, I’d already seen a deer. Flipping ace. A lovely wake up into the ride. Yeah, I see them round home, too occasionally, but it’s always special.
The route starts to wind its way firstly through a town park, then country park, then old railway lines until eventually it becomes too rural for any of that. Forestry land starts after Drymen and the gradual ascent to Conic Hill is gentle on the legs. If I wasn’t riding all day, I’d be trying to crack on a bit here… but… well, I know a thing or two about endurance even from my relatively low experience of it. I’d done a summer ‘cross 36 hours earlier so had all that enthusiasm nicely dealt with. This was a case of gently cracking on …!
Conic Hill’s the first real landmark. It’s a lovely ridge of three mini summits and the path skirts around the side. I knew from reading up too that it was the first taster that the West Highland Way is not built as a cycling track. It was the first time it became properly gnarly, rocky, and step-strewn. To be honest, I had been looking forward to it after a couple of hours of basically ride-able and gentle trail.
I’d been warned. After a very brief stop in Balmaha for an egg butty and a couple of bottles of energy drinks to replenish the bottles on my bike – less than 2 hrs into the ride, things were going to get more heavy going.
The path running basically alongside the eastern shore of Loch Lomond is beautiful, and starts out particularly flowy with some lovely parts to ride. Gradually, it gets more staccato until it hits you after Inversnaid to the point where you notice you’re hardly moving forward. The faces of WHW walkers tell a tale or two. Rocky, steps, stairs cut into the steep bank, there’s very little riding to be done, but worse still, you’re in cycling shoes and there’s parts where it’s a bit of a scramble without even having to lug a bike with you. Deeply engaging and testing. You’re on a Loch and there’s no key. It’s a case of (as one of my endurance gurus Jason said to me) “Remember – it will always end. Everything does“.
Patience tested, I noticed that I was leaving the lake side after taking an incredible 3 hours to cover under 18 miles. Lomond was done.
I hadn’t quite prepared mentally for the next 6 miles of climbing. In my head, the bit from Inverarnan to Tyndrum was a blip. It was sure nice to be pedalling again but after almost 6 hours out there this was already my longest bike ride for over 3 years. And all off-road. Things were starting to niggle. Out of the frying pan…
… and into the fire
But that soon was put into context when just around the summit of the forest above Crainlarich, the heavens opened with what appeared to be the contents of hell. Firstly hail. I stopped to put on my waterproof. Then snow. I stopped to smack my hands together to feel my fingers. Then rain. It was around 2 degrees at the tops and although luckily not too blowy, it was belting it down and I was cold. Luckily, I knew there was warm tea and a pastie at the Green Wellie Stop in Tyndrum. Jeez I needed that.
I dipped my fingers into the scorching tea. Didn’t care. Couldn’t feel ’em.
I got out my phone and spoke to Phil. Gave him a brief update / explained about the weather, and said I was roughly on for the 12 hours total I’d guessed. I set out with some fresh gloves on back into the rain on the next stretch over the old miltary road to Bridge of Orchy and then on to the gradual climb to Buachaille Etive Mor. Faster trails. At last.
Did it really all happen? Who knows. After Bridge of Orchy you only have my word for it. Because somewhere around there, my phone and the Strava app decided to stop talking to one another. The trail I was recording had ended and had I known I’d obviously have done something about that. Doh.
To be back on faster surfaces, despite the rain and cold now, was a blessed relief. Fewer gates, less rocky storm drains, just generally having forward momentum was good. My legs felt fine but jaded a bit after not being used to long rides. The bike was intact and stunningly so, actually. Bum was starting to get a bit sore with all the spray from the rain now flushing grit up around the saddle. But generally, all good.
The section to the ski station at Glencoe and on to Kingshead is stunningly lovely. It’s the first time that things really start to get bleak and cut off. (You’re never really cut off doing this in May though – I must have not gone a single mile since about 8am without seeing walkers going the WHW).
On the gentle but rocky descent to cross the A82 on Buachaille Etive Mor I noticed that my front suspension had faded. It had lost air and the rest of the journey was going to be tough on my upper body. It’s incredibly rough going and fairly technical rocky paths on much of what lies ahead. But never mind… the views were stunning and I was about to be walking uphill anyway for 20 minutes, climbing the Devil’s Staircase…!
When I started the climb up the staircase, I really felt like I was in the Highlands, properly. Sure, there’d been plenty of bleakness, but I realised that, on the summit, I’d have my first glimpse of the Mamores and basically a vista consisting of loads of 1000 metre beasts. Ace. This typifies the WHW ride, really. If you ever start going inward and thinking of hurt and fatigue, it’s easy to look up and see gobsmacking, changing landscape.
I will admit to being a bit nervous about the long, snaking descent from the top of the Devil’s Staircase towards Kinlochleven. The front suspension now totally useless I was going to have a hard ride. My wrists and biceps were sore by the bottom, and I had to back off quite a lot on the rockier parts, but it was somehow enjoyable. The nice thing about descents is you’re moving forward without pedalling or walking. Yes, there’s pain in the arms and bum, but it’s a shift of pain !
A short stop in co-op. It’s amazing how many calories you can get through. Most of these having been crap energy products, I was ready for something different. A litre of Chocolate milk was my weapon of choice, along with a barrage of peanuts. Blimey it’s amazing how good peanuts taste at certain times.
I texted Phil because I saw messages saying the tracker was off since Bridge of Orchy. It must have been a bit unnerving for him knowing I was out there. The kind of thing we took for granted before phones. But I’m sure he was relieved to know I was about to start the final leg over to Glen Nevis and Fort William and in good spirits.
The climb at this stage, with 81 rough miles under my bum and legs, and after around 11 hours, was really just a walk. The main part of the day was coming to its end and the walkers were really thinned out now – I felt more alone. It was nice, really. Me and my thoughts. And the lovely hills of Kinlochleven to survey from ever changing angles.
I came across some walkers starting to get a camp ready in the woods. They were from overseas, possibly dutch or scandanavian. A polite ‘hi’ and I saw a look in a man’s face I never want to see again. He spoke.
“Do you have any treatment for midges?“
“I don’t mate, I’m so sorry”.
“I need to stop them“
“Get inside your tent and stay inside”.
I felt for him. I reminded myself how lucky I was to be moving forward and not stopping in these woods in Scotland in May!
The final climb generally done (there are ups and downs everywhere) I was aware that I was nowhere near my goal time of 12 hours now. It didn’t really matter – it was an arbitrary time anyway, but the cumulative effect of not training for endurance, tired arms with no suspension, and an inevitable sore backside meant that it was just really about forward motion from Buachaille Etive Mor and not about time.
At the top of the final descent you can imagine the elation. And to top it off, another wild deer. This one let me get really close before making its departure. I obviously looked tired and the lack of any threat was clear to the animal. It was probably pitying me deep inside.
William, it was really nothing
There’s about 2.5 miles of flat road on the run in to Fort William. I was belting along with all the gusto of someone on a mountain bike with no suspension in a rush. I was quite enjoying the burn in the legs as I’d reached the ‘done it anyway’ stage a few miles back. The Smiths’ William it was really nothing got lodged as a very appropriate ear worm.
The finish ‘straight’ is grand, in a way. It’s a pedestrian high street in Fort William – I was already familiar from a previous family holiday there… and I was a bit goose-bumpy at suddenly realising how far I was from the northern suburbs of Glasgow. All adventures should have a moment like that, I reckon.
I spotted Phil who’d been patiently waiting for my slightly tardy arrival. It was great to see him and seemed strangely like minutes since he’d dropped me off, rather than the 13 hrs 20 mins it had been. I won’t say I was ready to carry on… I was in no doubt that I was ready for a beer or three and a good shower… but it seemed like the day had somehow whizzed by now.
Road trip with benefits
You can’t go all that way without making some use of it. After a decent nosh and a fairly modest belly full of beer (and even a cheeky whiskey) Phil and me slept in the van up in Glen Nevis, then the next morning drove out to watch a few sections of the Scottish Six Days Trial. I’d first watched that as a VERY little boy with Phil and my parents and the memories were sketchily faded, so it was great to see the final day of this epic trial taking place. The weather had picked up and it was a splendid sunny day.
(Photos of that here if you’re interested!)
The aftermath of the ride was interesting. After shorter, aggressive racing, it tends to be thighs etc that hurt after. On longer rides I notice that this shifts and I develop other pain:
- The left wrist swelled up and went shiny and red. It creaks with Tenosynovitis – basically tendon inflammation caused by having to handle the bike without suspension for so long. Also known as being a softy.
- The toes are killing. My shoes fit well but I have bunions and have suffered from them for a while. The 32,000 steps taken during the ‘ride’ in cycling shoes obviously didn’t agree with my feet. (Glad I put the comfy ones on!)
These trips are never solo. Thanks to Phil Haygarth for all the support – physical and moral, and for having such a generally good craic and packing so much into less than 2 days. Memories that won’t ever die!
Thanks also to Phil Simcock for the tip-offs on the Lomond route that I clearly didn’t listen to well enough. I blame beer.