Having cycled a long way on the tarmac ribbon in the last decade, I thought that I knew pretty well what 150 miles on a bike felt like. It feels like a great day – a good stretch of the legs. But nothing to write home about.
And so with this mindset I committed to a 12 hour, 150 mile Scottish coast to coast. But the twist… this route was almost entirely off road. As a fairly novice mountain biker, I completely failed to appreciate the difference and readied myself for the task with naive gusto.
The day started at 7.30am in Buckie, between Aberdeen and Inverness on the east coast, where a very enthusiastic BBC Radio Scotland presenter was the only soul stirring at such an hour on a Sunday. My riding partners were Stuart Doyle, whose mad cap plan was to compete 12, 12 hour challenges in 2012 – the treble 12 challenge and also Alex Glasgow, the recent winner of the insane Celtman Triathlon and professional mountain bike guide. At least one of us had a clue what they had signed up for!
Our route was the length of the Speyside Way, up and across the Cairngorm National Park and then a mixture of forestry tracks and open hill riding to the west coast at Kinlochleven near Fort William. And the pace from the start was ambitious! The first issue was that the Speyside Way is very much a ramblers route, signed by quant little markers – easily missable by speeding cyclists – and miss them we did. One blissfully fast forestry track descended to a dead end in the valley bottom, and we realised that our plan of crossing Scotland in under 12 hour was looking impossible.
A few hours later and Stuart had to pull out. The tough terrain and stiff pace was aggravating an old injury and with over 100 miles still to go it was the sensible decision. And so Alex and I pedalled on, sometimes following grassy single track, other times on fast stony paths and at worse along a long section of large stepping stones across a bog. Without any of MacAskill’s bag of tricks, I was left running along with wet feet, bashing the bike through a long series of walkers gates.
Talking bikes, I was riding my new Koga 29er, which in my limited mountain biking experience rides like a dream, covering the big miles effortlessly. Alex was riding his full carbon, 20lb Trek race bike and covered the rough ground with incredible ease. It was small comfort that when it got very technical, I was almost as quick running with my bike as he was skilfully picking a route whilst riding.
It was some relief to leave the ramblers path and head into the hills past Nethy Bridge. And with that came the first real climbs and also some stony, bone jarring descents. This middle third through the Cairngorms, past Aviemore Ski Centre was the only part of our day populated by other cyclist and walkers as we sped by Glenmore Lodge, past Loch Morlich and down to Newtonmore. There were a few surprised looks, from a few snatched conversions when fellow mountain bikers asked where we were riding to in such a rush.
In the support van we had Euan Wilson from Highlands & Islands Adventures which had seemed like an excessive luxury during planning – but now I realised was the key to our success. We could ride ultra light and meet every 30-40 miles – just enough to stay fuelled up.
Past Loch Laggan meant 25 miles of tarmac, the only roads section on our coast to coast and we redoubled our efforts, setting a fierce ‘roadie’ pace, taking turns at the front. But I soon paid for this. I felt broken by the time we reached the van, now in the pouring rain and in a plague of midges. We were 11 hours in with what looked like fifty miles still to ride. The 12 hour dream was obviously out the window, but more than that, this now looked like an epic that was going into the night.
All credit to Alex’s unwavering spirit which picked me up as we set off from the van for the last push. We were now alone till the west coast. Incredibly, the first 25 miles were fast, well kept estate tracks. But by now my arms and shoulders were protesting furiously at every jar and bump. A cocktail of painkillers, energy bars and drinks were keeping me going. And then the glorious moment, just as the sun set between the hills ahead of us, when we looked across what looked like a steady descent to the sea. We stopped, took photos and congratulated each other. Too soon.
The OS map showed a five mile section of single track, the last unknown terrain on our route. We needed to follow a river upstream, then find a place to cross, before the final dirt track lead down to the coast. Just as the last light disappeared we found ourselves on a sheep track through a bog. Riding was impossible and we had the next hour and a half plodding upstream, sometimes falling up to our knees in mud. And then my bike light gave up and I was left using my head torch to find a way. We said almost nothing to each other, but wrestled our bikes through seemingly endless mudbanks and ditches. It was hard to know exactly where we were, or to know a place to cross the river, now lost in darkness to our left.
The relief to wade across the fast flowing river and find our track. It proved slow going over rocky terrain for 5 miles until the final long descent, which was made more exhilarating by the scant, dancing light of my head torch. Eventually I spotted some headlights a long way ahead and below – an unbelievable welcome sight which could only be our now quite concerned support team, waiting. And with them, Chris Sleight from BBC Radio Scotland, equally enthusiastic as the early shift despite us being over four hours late.
After making the final descent to the road, we had just 500 meters to go until Kinlochleven. Despite the 17 hours in the saddle and utter exhaustion, Alex and I rose to the challenge in a fit of boy-racer exuberance and sprinted the first streetlights. This picture says it all!
Kudos to mountain bikers – its tough stuff!
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