WHW – Postmortem

Well that didn’t go quite the way I expected. This will be a tale in two parts: the story; then the geeky bike stuff.

The Story

The epic began with a mammoth drive from London to Glasgow. Start time: after work. Objective: get there before midnight! We had booked into the cheapest hotel I could find (£28 for the pair of us) on the basis that it would be nothing more than a sleep-stop. We arrived around midnight and I still had the fog of the road still swirling in my head. Ice was dropping off the front of the car and I read this as a good sign: frozen trails would be much easier riding than wet ones.

In the morning, we discovered that Glasgow motorways are probably very efficient if you know where you’re going, but very confusing if you don’t. We didn’t know them, and duly arrived late at Milngavie. We had a quick breakfast and I was on my way by 10.30, leaving Emily to attempt to shadow the trail by car.

Riding through a town park, I encountered the usual reaction to pushing/riding a fat bike. Pushing up steps: “Aren’t you supposed to ride those things?”. Riding past another cyclist “THOSE are the tyres you want! Ha-ha!”. Soon it was all behind me, and I was spinning down flat avenues of white. Crystals of frost grew on every branch, the sun shone in a blue sky and it seemed like an entirely pleasant day for a ride. However, the slight stress of the late start and the general anticipation had me pushing on a bit, trying to keep a decent pace when I could.

Gate-gate. Gate-gate. Gate-gate. Gate-gate. Gate-gate. Gate-gate. Gate-gate. Gate-gate.

There were a lot of double gates.

The first of the real mountain riding was Conic Hill and it wasn’t long before I was pushing. The steep gradient and large rocks wouldn’t have been ride-able on an unloaded bike. I had expected this, but what I hadn’t expected was glassy ice flowing down over the rocks. I had to pick my way up the trail, switching from one side to the other to get any kind of grip. As pushing goes, it wasn’t bad pushing but did raise doubts about riding downhill on this stuff later. At the top, I was rewarded by a beautiful view down to the mist covering Loch Lomond.

It turned out to be ride-able on the way down, but with tight constraints: I was heavy on the brakes, switching across the track or occasionally off-piste to keep the rubber-side down. It worked, though, and soon I was down by the Loch.

For a while, the trail was fiddly but not too bad. Up and down along the water’s edge. One bit of riding along a beach caused open-mouthed amazement from a walker. In places, the trail shadowed the road closely, being within a few metres of the black stuff. Just as I was thinking how easy it would be to cheat, I had to really muscle the bike around a rocky step. Heavy on the front brake, I tried to swing the back around and was rewarded with a loud crack: a broken spoke. If any rim can handle being a spoke down, it’s a Large Marge so I didn’t worry too much.

Before the ride, I hadn’t realised quite how little this trail is aimed at bikers. It is what it is, but that meant you had to ride very much within what you could see. Sometimes what you can’t see would be a huge drop or a set of steep steps into a 90 deg corner. For a moment, I let the brakes relax and the bike flow underneath me. I could see a bridge, but the transition onto it was smooth. As I hit the wood, I realised that the other end of the bridge fell away sharply to ground level. I braked, but both wheels slipped on the untreated wet surface. In a moment, I knew I had to get off the brakes and just get ready for the drop: I think it was 2 or 3 feet to flat. Not ideal on a loaded bike, but I got away with it.

Things got worse around the edge of the Loch and soon I was carrying most of it. Hauling the bike over large steps. Dangling the bike over the water as I walked along a narrow section. There was no ice here, but progress was slow and it was using muscles that I hadn’t trained well.

I forget where Inversnaid came in this mess, but I was half-expecting to see Emily there to top up water. We hadn’t really looked at the roads, so I didn’t know that she couldn’t get there without having to make a massive detour to get to the far end of the Loch. I was getting a bit hungry and running out of water. I made the wrong call, not taking water from the Loch and deciding to eat little until I could get water from her.

Lots of time and pushing passed before I left Loch Lomond. But even when I did, the singletrack was frequently iced over. Steady on the brakes, checking that I could stop in time to avoid a slippery accident, my progress was still slow. The signs said that there was a campsite in 2 miles. Surely there would be water there and I could eat plenty with it!

It was getting dark now and I had had 2L of water in 6 hours, accompanied by little food. Still making bad decisions, I didn’t take surface water, pushing on to the campsite. When I finally arrived, Emily wasn’t there and the campsite said their taps were frozen. Damnit! I was definitely on energy reserves now, but I could do the needed 5 miles to meet Emily.

The distance was OK, and eventually I saw the car! I topped up water and ate from my on-bike supplies. I was feeling pretty down by this point, but at least heading in the right direction food-wise. It was good to finally catch up with Emily, but too soon I had to press on into the darkness.

The food began to cheer me up, and I felt more like I was riding instead of dragging my bike around. The trail was still challenging with plenty of ice to catch the unwary, but I was enjoying myself. I’d see Emily again in Tyndrum, and this period flew by with the frost twinkling in my LED light.

I met Emily and topped up on water again. I had been drinking plenty to compensate for the earlier dehydration so it was time to keep plenty with me. I was warm but not feeling very positive about the trail. I could move along it but enjoyment seemed out of the question. I headed on up into the mist on the trail.

The trail ran along the contour of a grass bank with solid ice along the track itself. Frozen flows came down the hill, crossing the trail and this was the first time I fell. Nothing too serious but, again, progress was slow. I appreciated every moment of rideable trail.

The fog was getting crazy, now. For extended periods, visibility was down to around 2m. The moisture was freezing onto the trail and I was struggling to find enough traction to climb up what would have been a reasonable gradient. I had to chuckle a bit on the switchbacks, but I was getting impatient. Then, when the trail turned downwards, I really started to worry: It was a good-looking surface but I had to stay on the brakes because of the short visibility. All of a sudden, I was sideways. I tried to stand, but even my massive Neos overshoes wouldn’t grip. Every single part of the trail was devilish, so I was reduced to clomping through the heather. The trail was clearly a fast descent and I could only walk along the edge of it.

I ride in a very calculated way. On “adventure” rides, there may be risks, but ones that I feel confident to manage. On jumps and drops, I’ll only do them when I know I can and I’m ready to accept the consequences of failure. Out there, on that trail, the risk was beyond where I wanted to be. Worse than a 7ft drop. Worse than 45 mph on the South Downs Way at night. Worse than shouting bears away on the Tour Divide. If I hurt myself now, then I might have to pull out of the Iditarod. If I knocked myself out, the consequences could be severe. I could not honestly say that continuing was an acceptable risk.

Unfortunately, there was no option to bail yet. Eventually, I slipped and trudged my way out of the fog.

The climb up the Glencoe Drove Road was a beautifully easy section. It rose above the fog and I could enjoy the moonlight as I spun away. A line of faint lights danced up and down the ridgeline ahead of me and I thought to myself that those riders had some pretty dim lights. A few minutes later, I realised that they must have been deer with their eyes reflecting in my lights. Hmm… not hallucination, but not the sign of a full-speed brain.

I could see the far-off headlights below me on the A82 and fog over the loch. The riding was good and I was debating how bad the previous section had been. Should I bail or not?

It was a fun ride down to the ski centre and I was comfortable when I arrived there. With the Devil’s Staircase to come, though, I decided to end the ride. If the worst of the foggy conditions returned, I could be walking most of the way to Fort William and that was a long walk. I had ridden for around 13 hours, 7 of which were in the dark. I wasn’t prepared to risk going further on that night so, when I met Emily, we packed everything back into the car and bailed out. The mud had frozen the frame bag’s velcro and as I stopped my activity, the cold came in. We got it done, though, and managed to bag a last minute room in a hotel.

Geeky Bike Stuff/Introspection

It’s easy to look back now and think that I should have done more. Going into the ride, my minimum expected effort was to spend 24 hours on the trail. I didn’t make it that far and the reasons came down to Scottish weather and commitment.

I normally enter an event with complete certainty that I won’t give up unless there is grave danger. Which means, one way or another, I’ll finish. I didn’t go into the WHW with this certainty. Partly because training had become too much based on constant power on the turbo. That kind of riding is useful but doesn’t provide the grit to ride all day or the brute force to ride singlespeed in real hills all day. I think the ideal for me is to mix both turbo training and full days in the hills. The two can complement each other.

The other major factor was keeping the eyes on the prize: the main goal for the moment is Alaska – WHW was just a stepping stone and not a place to risk failure on the main project.

To anyone planning to attempt a WHW double, I would say this: Go light, and go in summer. Singlespeed is OK, but gears would be easier. A fat bike isn’t really much help, a light good bike would be better. I’m pretty sure I didn’t need a stove for the conditions I had, maybe if there was going to be lying snow, it would have been useful. I would have preferred bottles as they’re easier for collecting surface water (but more prone to freezing than a camelbak). If you’re going to have support, figure out your strategy beforehand!

5 comments to WHW – Postmortem

  • Ian

    Mate, well done for attempting, I enjoy long distance stuff and MY interpretation of ‘epics’, but I would have dismissed this one straight away!

    We were riding the same weekend (keeping our eyes open for you) but enjoyed much better conditions, I did wonder why I only saw one set of fat bike tracks on the Rannoch moor section.

    However, and I hope you don’t mind a very ‘tartan tinted glasses’ type comment* especially given your pedigree on big rides, do you think perhaps you underestimated it a bit? I was impressed enough that you even attempted a double in the winter, with your bivvy gear, but was a bit gobsmacked that you also went singlespeed!

    I rate the WHW as a great ride but it definitely deserves a wee bit of respect.

    *especially from one who has only attempted (and failed) a one-way effort.

  • I don’t know if ‘underestimated’ is quite right. That ride was a means to an end i.e. good training for going back out to Alaska. I knew that people had tried and failed before so I knew it was going to be pretty tough. Maybe that meant I was overly ready to come up short. Perhaps announcing it as an attempted double was overdoing it, then. I don’t know.

    Singlespeed and bivvy gear were more because of that than anything else. I never ride with gears and I was geared pretty low!

  • Ian

    Fair enough, I’m rapidly being converted to singlespeed myself, just wouldn’t have the guts to make a serious attempt on the WHW that way!

    Good luck in Alaska.

  • Marshal Bird

    “If you’re going to have support, figure out your strategy beforehand!” So true, split focus can be more effort all around. Good luck on the real one!

  • Allan

    Planning on riding the WHW in May this year. It will be my first distance cycle and plan on allowing 3 days to complete. Will be using a hardtail and taking camping equipment with me for the nights stay, will be travelling as light as possible.

    Any advice/tips?