My eyes flickered open at the sound of tyres rolling over gravel. It was light. I looked round but couldn’t see any sign of anyone. Maybe I was dreaming. The wind had dropped, and the midges were out in force. Breakfast would have to wait. In conditions such as these, I was glad I had my sleeping set up well dialed. Everything was centered around a single 5 litre dry bag that mounted into my Wildcat Lion harness, and it wasn’t long before I was up, packed and back on the trail. It was 4:45am.
The track rose steadily until consumed in the clouds. I pushed up the loose gravel track, the rounded granite rocks constantly shifting under my feet. At the fork in the trail, a faint line along a narrow peaty path leaves the gravel track and takes you to a small Lochan. For the second time in a row, the cloud was down here. I would have loved to have seen this section without the cloud, but as it was, it carried a dark and mystical feel that would not have been out of place in Lord of the Rings.
I picked my way around the lochans on the intricate and damp singletrack. The trails flow nicely here, but my legs seemed to be lacking something.
I picked my way down through the peat hags and cross the stream that issues out from An Dubh-loch. The level was low, despite the rain of yesterday and I managed to get across without getting my feet wet. Actually, preserving my feet was something I paid particular attention to. Swollen feet and ankles (known in the Highland Trail context as “Cankles”) is something most riders suffer. I’d packed three pairs of socks in total, and today was going to be a “new socks day”, but not just yet. I turned to face the steep push out from the stream to the top of the Bealach Horn, but not before a can of Coke…
The push up wasn’t as steep as I remember, aided no doubt by an injection of sugar and caffeine. I took my time though, listening carefully to my body and paying attention to twinges and discomfort from various joints. The summit came eventually, and with it the gradient was soon in my favour; down, down, down, and eventually out of the cloud. The loamy top section was firm and grippy, but part way down there is an exciting transition to lose granite pebbles that yielded much less grip.
The descent just keeps on going and going. Twenty minutes later, I reached the bottom, with feet that were really painful. I was getting a lot of pressure on my little toe, and it became particularly sore on the descent. Never mind cankles, I think I’ve got toe-kles. Just after the “famous” split boulder, I pulled up by the open-sided barn at Lone, and set about a proper breakfast, and to tend to my feet. Now it was time for new socks. It was twenty more minutes well spent.
The section from Achfary to Kylesku looks straight forward on the map, being mostly a single climb, but the climb was nearly one continuous push. Despite all I’d eaten yesterday, and this morning, I was still hungry but couldn’t face the food I had with me. I needed real food. I set my sights on the hotel at Kylesku, and arriving at a little after 10:00am, I saw Kenny was just leaving. We chatted briefly; he’d bivvied by An Dubh-loch but had suffered issues with punctures. I rolled down to the hotel and found my way into the eating area. I asked for a cooked breakfast, but the lady said they could only do egg baps, bacon baps or sausages baps. I nearly asked for one of each, but decided I didn’t fancy a sausage bap. I got a large cafetière of coffee and some toast and marmalade. It was utterly fantastic.
As I was getting ready to leave, Andy Laurence rolled in. He’d stopped right at the bottom of Glen Golly last night, by the road, so had done well to catch me up. [In reality, I’d spent longer stopped than I’d realised]. Off down the road, I began the 20-odd mile ride to Lochinver. The road to Drumbeg is a lumpy thing, and particularly unforgiving for tired legs, even those now filled with bacon and egg rolls. I rode all I could and pushed the rest. I passed a sign for Drumbeg Stores, dedicated to Highland Trail racers. How awesome is that? I didn’t need to stop particularly, but felt compelled to as they’d gone to the trouble of making a sign for us. The chap in the shop was great, so accommodating and helpful, it was a real lift of my spirits.
The road eases after Drumbeg and I let my mind wander a bit until, at last, the Achmelvich singletrack came up on the right. This marked the beginning of the last section to Lochinver. I remember from 2014, this was slow and tortuous for me as this was where I first began to feel my Achilles tendon giving out. This time was better though; my toes hurt, but they were functional and there was no Achilles pain, which was good.
Eventually the trail spat me out on the edge of Lochinver, and I coasted down the road in search of the Lochinver Larder. In 2014, I’d managed to miss this entirely, being so preoccupied with my Achilles. Not today though; I made a bee-line for it. I leaned my bike up outside the restaurant and quickly commandeered the wall and railings to dry out my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. Then inside to order food; I’d been looking forward to this all day.
Half way through, Andy joined me and we chatted about the day so far, and checked in on how others were doing. The sharp end of the race was looking very sharp indeed, and I was amazed how quick and how much ground had been covered by those at the front.
After our fill of pie, it was time to roll of out of town and face the Ledmore Traverse. Tracing an intricate and rocky line past the magnificent Suilven ridge (hidden in cloud today), and through Glen Canisp, it was (so I thought) one of the harder sections of hike-a-bike on the route. It was also the scene of my scratch from the race in my 2014 video, so my memories of this section are painful both emotionally and physically.
The initial passage up the glen is on double track with only a few tricky parts that are unrideable. After a few miles, the track ends and the “singletrack” starts. It’s more like microtrack really, as the line – if you want to go as far as calling it that – has such little margin for error in places it’s a battle to stay on the bike and keep moving forward. But, this was to be my antidote to the route. I’ve found that the 29+ front wheel is particularly good on very rocky ground, and provided you can get the front wheel over stuff, the back will usually follow. Coupled with the handling of the Shand Bahookie, even with bags on, I found a lot I could ride. The extra inch of diameter in the wheel seems to make all the difference to ease with which the bike will roll over obstacles. Thus, I was committed to riding as much of the trail as I could, and though not necessarily much faster than walking it was considerably more fun!
I emerged at the road a little over 3 hours since leaving Lochinver, which I was pretty pleased with. Only tarmac lay between me and the second passing of the Oykel Bridge Hotel. I arrived at 9:00pm. James Roberstson, a photographer who was following the race was there. I’d seen him on a couple of other occasions (Contin & Kylesku), and he was enjoying capturing the essence of the race mostly through the pain etched on riders faces at various points along the route. I think I made a particularly good subject!
So here I am at Oykel Bridge, with the hard Ledmore Traverse through Glen Canisp now behind me. My day isn’t done yet; I’m still 3 hours riding away from Ullapool… In fact, this is a new target. My “must-stick-to-the-plan” schedule, still tucked in my back pocket, took me only as far as Suileag Bothy today. I passed there more than 3 hours ago. If I could get to Ullapool, I’d be something like 40 miles or 6+ hours ahead of schedule, and that would be worth gunning for.
Andy and I left the hotel together, and began the ride out to Ullapool. Along the way, we passed School House Bothy, and there was Kenny caught in a dilemma of stopping in the bothy, or joining us to Ullapool.
“You carry on”, he said, “I’ll catch you up!”
He wasn’t wrong. Before we hit the narrow and technical singletrack around to Loch an Daimh, we were riding as a three. Past Loch Achall, over the bridge and left onto the off-road route into Ullapool, I spotted a piece grass that looked comfy enough to sleep on without a sleeping mat. There was a faint breeze, and the midges weren’t so bad. There we stopped.
Day 3: 149.2 km | 19h 50m | 3482 m ascent | Link to Strava Activity
It was midnight. A long day, but also a long time spent not riding. I felt like I’d eaten my way around the West Coast. But now was time for some sleep, for tomorrow we ride through the mighty Fisherfield.
To be continued…