62 riders signed up in November. 36 riders rolled across the start line in May and 12 riders made it to the finish. This is not an easy race. 560 miles of some of the toughest trails the Highlands has to offer.
We rolled up to the start line after a nice birthday celebration for race organiser, Alan Goldsmith, of cake and bagpipes at the Real Food Café. My Garmin was refusing to turn on when Alan called ’30 seconds’ which was not helping settle my pre-race nerves. Thoughts of riding the whole route with the basic paper maps I had or trying to keep pace with someone for the whole ride were flying through my head. It finally turned on though and seconds later Alan’s voice was heard, “Go”. There was a slight pause, not the all out sprint across the start that is typical of shorter races, and then we hit the trail.
Finally. I instantly felt a huge wave of relief. Months of thinking about this race had got me to the start line feeling very nervous. Now at least, all there was left to do was ride, eat and sleep.
The first section of the West Highland Way is a nice introduction, easy pedalling and chatting with other riders. The pace was not too fast but I watched a few riders pull away along the brief road section after Bridge of Orchy, I was spinning away on my 32:18 gearing and couldn’t keep up with the geared riders, was singlespeed the right choice? I had converted my bike to singlespeed just 2 weeks before the race in order to make it much lighter (I had an Alfine hub before that was 1.3kg heavier!), more fun to ride and of course, much simpler with less to go wrong.
I had started the race with too many layers on for what was turning out to be a nice warm day. I was desperate not to stop and be passed by other riders but just after Kingshouse Hotel I decided that it needed to be done before the hike up the Devils Staircase. Sure enough, Steve Large, Gary Tompsett and Tom Rowntree passed me while I was stopped. In such a long race riders can pass each other often when one or the other stops so this was little to worry about so early on but it did make it clear to me that stop time plays a major part in these races.
At the base of the Devils Staircase I caught up with Tom Rowntree and we got talking while pushing up and passing walkers (some didn’t seem impressed to be overtaken by heavily laden cyclists!). We were both riding singlespeed with the same gearing and our pace was often well matched over the first 2 days. Tom was a strong rider and faster than me at walking, he pulled away from me near the top of the climb and I could do little to keep up. I decided I was going to have to ride fast when I could and just maintain a good pace for the rest. I tore down the hill to Kinlochleven, perhaps a bit too fast but thoroughly enjoying it, passing Tom when he had stopped and catching Gary and Steve in the process. Boosted on adrenaline I attacked the steep tarmac climb out of Kinlochleven and tried to work out how you rode these hills on a singlespeed (I’d not had much practice!). It’s just a case of keeping the pedals turning which with only one gear means you ride at a certain pace or you walk. I was beginning to see how singlespeed could work out faster than gears, you can’t spin slowly up hills!
The next section began to feel like the real ‘Highland’ Trail Race, the West Highland Way is too busy with walkers compared to the Highlands I’m used to. I was very much looking forward to the wilderness of the northern loop and the Fisherfield section for a proper taste of that ‘out there’ feeling. The river crossing and bog trot after Meanach is a tough hike-a-bike section and marks the end of any riding with dry feet! Many fairly easy miles followed on nice tracks, with good views and weather, time passed quickly as Tom and I rode together.
The Corrieyairack Pass came and went, a big hill but with a good track up and a fast, chilling descent into Fort Augustus. We arrived just in time for the shop to still be open and I restocked my food whilst Tom went off in search of something hot. I got back on the trail as soon as I could. A brief section of forest tracks with some good views of Loch Ness in the evening light and then the final hill for the day. Light was fading as I made my way round the rocky shore of Loch na Stac. I don’t remember much of the descent apart from taking a quick look in the bothy which I later learnt was where a few riders behind me took shelter. A hard concrete floor with no sleeping mat did not look very appealing so I continued down to the road and pedalled a little way along Strath Glass to find somewhere softer. A landrover track with grass verges leading down to the river looked very appealing and I quickly got set up on a patch just big enough to bivvy.
Stopping at around midnight seemed a little early since I knew Aidan Harding and Phil Simcock had continued to 4am last year but I was exhausted and content with 125 miles on day 1. I just hoped the bothy would be too tempting and no one would continue into the night and pass me while I slept. With the alarm set I quickly fell asleep.