West Highland Way and more frustration

It’s hard to know how to look back on the year so far. I’ve managed to get pretty fit, met some great people, and been to some incredible places. But… and it’s a big “but”, I’ve ended up being the plucky loser. Which is certainly better than being a diffident loser, but it’s still inescapably disappointing.

My second effort on the West Highland Way Double continued the tradition. Last time I attempted this trail, it was winter and I was ill-prepared. Scotland kicked my ass and that was pretty much what I needed it to do. This time, I had residual fitness from the Tour Divide and a free weekend so I thought I would just give it a punt.

To keep it low key, I only told one person (for safety). I packed a cut down version of my Divide kit: sleeping bag and bivvy, tools, arm/leg warmers + waterproof, food. My normal rear wheel had a cracked rim, so I was on a Mavic Crossmax that I had borrowed from Sam Singular with (for reasons unknown) a Bontrager mud tyre. In my rush, I just left it there and that turned out to be a mistake. Most everything else was normal, except that I was going to try taking caffeine pills to burn through the night.

I headed off to Bristol to go see some new Chris King road wheels on behalf of Singletrack Magazine. In the back of the car I had my Singular Pegasus, the old prototype Singular road frame, a pile of food, and my synthetic sleeping bag for the night before the WHW.

The King stuff was shiny and nice – not going to sway me from Hope but I’m sure fans will love it. We got the chance for a test ride with some pretty decent roadies who admitted that, upon seeing my lugged steel frame with mudguards, they expected me to end up in the broom wagon. Needless to say, that didn’t happen but we did average 20mph for a couple of hours and I tried hard to keep a lid on things. You can read the article on Singletrack’s website here, but I was back in the car at 4pm to reach Glasgow before sleeping.

When I got to Milngavie, I had already eaten so all I had to do was find somewhere quiet to park. I pulled up in a secluded lane and put my bivvy down between my car and the verge. Perfectly dirtbag! In the morning I made espresso with my camping stove, repacked the boot of the car, and was excited to hit the trail around 7am.

The first few miles are easy. Their flat, easy-going nature could easily be mistaken for gentle English countryside rides. Things changed a little as Conich Hill took me over to Loch Lomond. It was a lot easier this time than when it had been coated in ice, and I could chuck the lighter bike over boulders on the way up.

I had built up the shore of Lomond in my mind to be one gigantic swearing hike-a-bike. That’s what I remembered of it, so I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of it was rideable. Again, less weight meant that I could hike the bike more easily and was less often required to. Short rises and pokey roots were not a problem. Except that the stupid Crossmax wheel had come unseated from the tyre. I put a tube in and carried on past Rowardennan. Now I was frequently putting my bike onto my back and walking briskly between clambering efforts.

By the end of the Loch, I felt a whole world better than I had in the winter. I had collected water as I went, so I had eaten enough and was ready to go all day. The weather was so bright that I was beginning to wish I had suncream.

Steep ups and downs took me to Tyndrum and, despite the volume of walkers, they were fun and pretty rideable. I was absolutely flying! Before I knew it, I was at Glencoe ski area. This is where I had bailed before and it felt great to ride through. But things soon started to come unstuck.

On the way to the Devils Staircase, I took a drink on a flat trail. With my bottle still in my hand, I spotted a drainage channel. Its square edges were going to require a hop and I had no time to put the bottle away. I stuck the bottle in my mouth and totally failed the hop. My rear wheel smashed into the square edge, pitching me over the bars and face first (bottle still there) into the ground. It was no great surprise to find that I had pinched the tube. I had no more spare tubes, so I put a couple of patches onto it and got ready to continue.

I was taking it easy now. Couldn’t afford more mistakes, and my lips hurt from the landing. The trail heads up and over to Kinlochleven via some mighty rockiness that is pushy on the way up and picky on the way down (if you have 4 patches to last > 100 miles). Still, I messed up another drainage and hit full frontal onto a square edge. My Stans/Maxxis Ikon front wheel was still tubeless and shrugged it off. Phew! But damn, why couldn’t I have two good wheels?

I took a couple of the caffeine pills (about equivalent to a decent cup of coffee) and rode on. The run-in to Fort William was long, but joyful. Sweet trails snaked towards the dropping sun. Another pinch flat irritated me and took another couple of patches, but couldn’t stop me for long. I weaved between abandoned farm buildings, whizzed past walkers’ campsites, rumbled over rocks, and eventually shot down into Fort William itself.

The petrol station I had hoped to shop at was closed but I replenished my water and ate some of the food I had. Light was fading, but I was feeling good. On a bad out-and-back, the turn-around point can often be a real source of self doubt. Can I do all that again? Not so this time, I was itching to get back on the trail. I figured that I would spend a lot of the darkness pushing over the Devil’s Staircase. Perfect: By dawn I would be riding faster trails just as I needed my vision back.

It took a while for the light to fade completely from the sky but, as soon as it did, I hitched up the arm-warmers. I was working hard in places but, without the warmth of the sun, I wanted to keep what I was generating. My mind divided the remainder of the ride into manageable chunks. Pushing back over towards Kings House was perfectly fine and I could see some light returning as I reached Glencoe.

Riding through the night does make the sun seem mythical. On the whole, I was warm, but small chills now and again made me long to feel that radiance against my skin. The slow sunset was balanced by a slow sunrise and pedalled harder as if I could hasten the day. Climbing hard, though, the rear of the bike became squishy. Another puncture. Not a pinch this time, so I only used up the 1 patch in the pre-dawn cold. One of the existing patches had come loose as it was trying to repair a cut on the seam of the tube.

This delay was eating into my quota of wakefulness and making me cold when I could have just pedalled into the light. I was frustrated and worried. With one patch left and the existing repairs looking suspect, I was beginning to face the possibility of failure. Failure for stupid equipment reasons. Surely not.

Sure enough, mere minutes later and still on the Drove Road between Glencoe and Inveroran, the tyre was down again. One patch left and certain that I wouldn’t be able to ride the whole way back, I pulled out my bivvy kit. It was a bad area to bivvy – no tree cover and damp ground but I didn’t care. As I unrolled my bag, the midges started to come in. Not so bad, but I was glad to get my body zipped up and away from them.

I grabbed a couple of hours sleep, but the midges were coming in through my air-hole in the bivvy. I blocked it up with my silk liner, but with the warmth of the day beginning to come on, it was time to get up anyway. Poking my head out, everything was covered in midges. A thick layer of them on my bag, my shoes, and my helmet. A cloud of them above my bivvy.

Moving as fast as I could, I packed up. I paced as I stuffed dry-bags, trying not to inhale too many insects. Flicking them from my head. Swearing and sighing. I used my last patch on the the rear tube and, shoved remaining kit away and tried to ride from the little blighters.

Again, it was only minutes before my tyre was down again. I wasn’t surprised, angry, or anything really. I was just trying to figure out options to get home. The journey back to the car was long (about 8 hours – longer than riding without incident would have been) and pretty much sucked.

Trying to drive home after this, I napped frequently in service stops and tried to eat away my tiredness. That reached stupid proportions when I vomited a load of sugary junk onto the M42, but the naps got me home in the end.

The WHW double is completely do-able and actually quite enjoyable in the summer. It’s pretty rough on a fully rigid bike, but not impossibly so. I’d like to go back, but the reality is that I almost certainly won’t have the time or money to do it this year. I was certainly encouraged by my overnight performance (felt fine when I bivvyed after 21 hours of riding) so maybe one day I’ll be able to challenge the likes of Kurt and Jefe 🙂

1 comment to West Highland Way and more frustration

  • IanC

    Nice writeup, and yet another frustration on the WHW2 – is it cursed?! (Not just your attempts, everyone elses too…). You know Kurt was riding part of the WHW last month for a film? (I met him extremely briefly on my attempt of the AZT700 when he caught up nearly a week on me, so I know what you mean about the overnights and challenging him and Jefe!). This tale of tire, tube and patch woes sounds eerily similar to my Arizona experience.

    Out of interest, how did you manage to get back to the car? I did one stretch of AZT by cycling a bit less than a mile on tarmac, pumping 100 pumps into the tire, cycling the next mile, pump again, repeat until arm falls off and you reach the nearest motel some 20 odd miles down the line… I’ve tried the stuffing the tire with grass thing back in the day, and a) there was no grass in Arizona only spiky things, and b) it doesn’t work anyway you just end with a ball of grass in one part of the rim and nothing in the rest, so it’s like riding over very narrowly spaced speedbumps continuously…