I struggle to remove the tiny pin holding in my worn-to-the-metal brake pads under the light of my headtorch. It’s 11pm, getting dark and I’ve been riding for 19 hours. I’m 1,600ft up a mountain at the top of a steep descent right in the middle of one of the remotest parts of the Highlands and I’m questioning my logic at changing the pads now. In my exhausted state it is very frustrating and takes much longer than it would otherwise. Once finished I take a moment, looking out past Carnmore, across Fionn Loch and out towards Poolewe in the rapidly fading light. I love this place. I knew of the fantastic singletrack down to Carnmore and then out to Poolewe that I was about to ride and in that moment I couldn’t be happier. This was it. This was why I was here.
The day started with the discovery of a slug in my open packet of oatcakes that I had been too tired to put back in a bag the night before. I picked off the top oatcake with slug attached and threw it into the bushes. I didn’t have enough food to get to Ullapool without the rest of them. I was back on the bike around 4am pedalling along the empty coast road. I missed a turning again for the singletrack into Lochinver and told myself I needed to pay more attention. I half expected to meet Tom when I got back on the right route. Some of the singletrack was quite fun but on my way out of Lochinver I noticed I had left the feed bag on my top tube open and a whole pack of caffeine ShotBloks was gone. Now I had even less resources to get to Ullapool. Small things like that can deal quite a blow to your morale.
The track from Lochinver to Ledmore quickly became mostly unrideable, rocky hike-a-bike. This was by far the hardest part of the route for me and it seemed to go on forever. I stopped at what appeared to be the high point and ate a load of food whilst dreaming of a nice descent back to the road from there. It wasn’t to be, it only got harder with plenty of the descent being too tricky to ride. I imagine the views whilst passing between Suilven and Canisp were fantastic but I was too busy not enjoying myself to take any notice.
It’s amazing how quickly you forget about the hardships though, even during the race. I eventually got to the road and turned my phone on whilst cycling. I learnt, by texts from my girlfriend, that Tom was behind but gaining and that Steve was quite far behind Tom. This was surprising since I had not seen Steve at any point and fully expected him to be up ahead of me. It was good news though since it now put me in 2nd place and it gave me the boost I needed. I pedalled hard along the rest of the road to try and put some pressure on Tom and also excited by the prospects of the rest of the day: good trails, food in Ullapool and then into Fisherfield.
I barely managed to resist the temptation of the Oykel Bridge Hotel again but I continued on even though I was running low on food. I had ridden the track to Ullapool before and from memory it didn’t seem too long. It is mostly good tracks with a brief singletrack section in the middle and then a road down to Ullapool from Loch Achall. I clearly hadn’t studied the route closely enough as I very nearly continued on down the road until I realised we went off up a singletrack walkers path to get to Ullapool. By this point I was hungry and looking forward to the Tesco in Ullapool so I didn’t appreciate the surprise singletrack much. I pulled into Tescos with a plan in my mind of what I needed to grab and get out. Kid in a candy shop syndrome set in however and I ended up with none of what I had planned, it’s strange how the mind starts struggling as exhaustion sets in. I also underestimated how hungry I was at that point. I ate lots on the road section out of Ullapool leaving me with not as much food as I would have liked.
Worries of not enough food, a full on thunderstorm and a very steep, long hill climb did nothing to dampen my spirits at this stage though. I had a full stomach, I was in 2nd place and I was on my way to the Fisherfield mountains. I had been looking forward to this section along with the Torridons for the whole trip, in fact, for months leading up to the race. After passing 2 tents right at the top looking very out of place in heavy rain, on an uninteresting hill and in a very exposed position, I tore down the soaking wet descent. My front brake was beginning to fade but I didn’t want to stop to change the pads so I just continued on.
The next climb was long but easy enough followed by a fast descent and singletrack along to Shenavall bothy. The bothy looked very tempting in the fading light and it had started raining again. I persuaded myself to at least push on to the shelter at Larachantivore on the other side of the river crossing. At this stage I was seeing quite a few sets of tyre tracks and I was convinced Tom and Steve must have passed me, maybe whilst I was in Tescos? The track down to the river becomes indistinct and difficult and I was reduced to stumbling across a bog. The river is always surprisingly wide (about 50m) and looks very daunting in the half light. I walked out about 10m with the bike on my back and stopped in my tracks. The water was just about to go over my knees and I began to worry there may be a deep channel in the middle. When I had last crossed here the water had barely touched my shins. I stood there uncomfortably for what seemed like ages fighting a mental battle, backtracking to the bothy was a very appealing prospect. I managed to push on and thankfully it stayed around knee deep. Somehow I summoned the courage (or madness) to bypass the shelter with the plan to try and make it to Carnmore Bothy. This involved a fairly serious hill to climb and descend, without much light, in the rain and after 17 hours of riding. I wasn’t confident it was a good decision to say the least.
The path soon became too steep to ride as it wound it’s way up to 1,700ft. My mind was beginning to play tricks, parts of the landscape appeared to be moving around me, stones on the track seemed to scuttle away. The climb went on forever, I was stopping frequently, each step seemed like a dream. Finally the trail levelled off and became a fun rideable singletrack across the top of this mountain pass. My front brake was having very little effect by this stage and eventually I decided it couldn’t wait till the morning, the descent down to Carnmore would be dangerous without it. I stopped right as the path steepened downwards and began the long and slow process of changing a set of brake pads whilst exhausted. I glanced at the back brakes as well, the entire caliper was covered by a thick crust of mud, this seemed fairly good protection from further mud and water so I left it as it was.
As I readied myself to continue I realised how much I was enjoying this. The whole situation seemed perfect. The mountains, me and my bike, the fact that I was in control. I had everything I needed to survive out here on my own. I decided there that I wasn’t going to stop at Carnmore. I had the whole of the fantastic singletrack out to Poolewe laid out before me and I was loving it. I tore off down the trail, dynamo light clearly showing the way forward. With the front brake biting well again and my mind awake the singletrack was a joy to ride in the dark.
The singletrack comes to an end in a forest a while before Poolewe. I set up my bivvy on the first nice looking patch of pine needles. 21 hours and 110 miles, it had been a good day.