Highland Trail Race – Day 2

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As soon as I woke, I started to wonder whether Mark had ridden past in the night. Phil was right here, and sorting himself out for departure. I ran through my morning routine. Eat, pack away the sleeping gear, get some snacks to-hand for the day, check my water situation. While Phil repacked, I headed down the hill to get water (he had told me about an off-trail tap he knew from the Strathpuffer). By the time I got back up, Phil was gone. I hit the trail as fast as I could, trying to catch him. My legs were neither sprightly nor defeated, they just worked. Before long, I saw Phil with a mechanical. Checking that he wasn’t stranded or injured, I rolled on by.

With moderate gradients and the power he has, it was no surprise that Phil caught me back up. We settled into a rhythm through the beautiful country.

Widely spaced and ancient-looking trees in Strathgarve Forest put me in mind of the Cairngorms. Powerful deer herded and ran as we worked our way along glens and over braes. Trail conditions were good – uphills were often rewarded with high-speed downhills, culminating in 10 miles of fast-going along Glen Achall. This was more like riding on the Great Divide, big skies and simple miles. A civilised morning ride, with the promise of real food at Ullapool.

In town, the goal was simple. Find the public toilets, get some food, then get out before getting too comfortable. Despite our appearance and odour, the tea room was hospitable and served excellent soup. Avoiding the temptation of an ice-cream and a sit-down in the sun, it was back onto the bike for Phil and me.

I had an inkling that things were going to be pretty hard out of Ullapool. But I wasn’t quite ready for 1000ft of climbing in 1 mile. That was an hour of pushing with heels dug into the turf. An hour where predictions of an arrival time in Poolewe vanished beyond our grasp. There was no mile-munching contoured descent from the top. Another loch, and then steeply back down on rutted trails. The gradient and the tightness of the downhill lines forced me into a careful pace, only riding within the bounds of what I could see. With this much caution, it was confusing that Phil wasn’t right on my tail. At a gate, I couldn’t see him and waited a little. I got that sinking sensation. It wasn’t my role here to shepherd him, and he didn’t need me to do that anyway. But the delay was so long, it could mean a rider down. Just as I started to push back up the hill, he came into sight. His rear derailleur had caught on the side of the trail and was damaged.

At the bottom, Phil pulled off the trail to attempt to deal with the damaged derailleur. His bike had sliding dropouts, so he proposed to singlespeed it. Weighing up where we were (on a road) and the kit he had with him, I decided that Phil was perfectly capable of looking after himself from here. It was time to go and get on down the trail.

There was some riding, but pretty soon the climb became pushing again and brought me up to Carn Na Canaich where white rock lay down a fun trail. Afternoon was creeping across the sky and, as the wind picked up, I stopped to put on a jacket. In that pause, I took in the sight of lochs below me, mountains above, rock and heather at my feet. It was the perfect time in the perfect place. Miles were coming slowly, but they came wrapped in rich experience.

This philosophical satisfaction didn’t last long, though. The downhill turned to steep, and cut down a sheer valley to Shenavall. In fact, cursing punctuated nearly every step. I didn’t even have room on the trail to walk with my bike. It had to be carried. Bike shoes skidded over the grass and tantrums boiled. I barely looked up at all as I carefully planted each foot, the bike a useless anchor.

From the bottom, plenty of bog provided a squelchy skirt to the crossing of the river Abhainn Srath na Sealga. The river flowed into a dark loch that had its own pebble beach way up here between the mountains. At the GPS-indicated crossing, the water was clear, wide, and lazy. Looking up and down the bank, this seemed like the best place, so I waded in. Shins, knees, mid-thigh, creeping more. The water really was flowing slowly and I was making good progress, able to see my feet. In the end, no dramas and my feet were no wetter than they had been from the bogs.

It was feeling dusky as I headed up out of this valley. I had heard that all this pushing was for the sake of a fun descent and a 6 mile singletrack, so my goal now was to hit that singletrack with some daylight. Pretty soon, though, the climb became another grinding push. Walkers were jaunty as they pointed out how silly it was to push a bike up here. I could not disagree. And when the descent started with steep switchbacks and steps cut into the trail, I began to think we were about to lose 1700 feet of height in one arm-pumping shot. The trail widened, though, and it was possible to have some fun heading down. Fairly steep, as wide as a road, and pocked with steps and exposed rocks, the trail gave no time to ponder the sun setting over a loch so big that it might as well have been a sound.

The gradient levelled out and a skirmish of rain came in with the wind. I plugged in my dynamo light and zipped up my jacket a bit. It felt like the forecast rain was approaching and a cold wet night was due. On the plus side, my tyres sat on singletrack and this may be what had been promised. The lazy devil in me cursed the twists and turns and pumps and flow. A nice forest road would be quicker. But, if you give a mountain biker singletrack, they’ll be happy. I didn’t even look at the GPS, this was the only trail and I rode it as fast as I could. Like a Tuesday night dust-up, not an adventure race, it was time to get all over the front of the bike and stuff it into the corners. My flooded rear hub was silent and the only sound was tyres on dirt.

The previous 30 miles had taken more than 8 hours. It had felt like an adventure in itself. It was around midnight now, and I had finally reached Poolewe. The town offered nothing helpful at this hour, but it was a milestone that had been hard won. I put a fleece on under my jacket to counter the rain that was now steady and unflinching. It was time to keep moving and put pressure onto anyone who was still chasing. If Phil had managed to singlespeed his bike, he wouldn’t be far behind. Mark was riding so strong that he might have already passed Phil. The midnight hour was for making tough miles and not backing down.

Before long, I was pushing up another hill. Rideable stretches passed quickly, but heaving the bike over boulders and seeing sheets of rain catch in my helmet light, I started to regret coming onto another exposed hill. The downhill was even worse. This was no manicured bike trail, it was boulders and cut rock. It was streams and braiding tracks. It was heading down the hill so sharply that I couldn’t see beyond each rock outcrop until I was on it. Tired and cautious, I would creep forwards, checking everything before I rode it. Can I ride that line? Where can I stop if the next section is unrideable? Often, a creep and a look over the lip of a rocky section would reveal trail that was unrideable that night. I wondered what the trail would be like in daylight, without bikepacking kit, and with a downhill bike. I walked. It was just too dangerous to risk rolling into the jaws this rocky trail. I hopped back on, I hopped back off. I walked some more. I screamed into the night. Frustrated at being unable to ride this. Cold, wet, losing focus, and just wanting to find somewhere to lay my head.

When I finally reached the forest that I had seen on the map as a possible bivi spot, the rain was coming through the trees almost as fast as on open ground. All I could determine from the GPS was that there was a car park and toilet coming up. Maybe there would be shelter down there. Maybe I would end up sleeping on a concrete floor that stank of urine. My body was shutting down, failing to maintain heat, and my mind was clouding. If the car park didn’t work out, I was no shape to press on and look for somewhere else. I went for what I had here, a soft bed of wet pine needles and whatever cover the trees could provide.


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