West Highland Way in a day
Al here this time – I figured this is sort of related to LeJog as it’s all training related…
I’d been considering the West Highland Way in a day for ages, it had been on the radar for at least three years. There are a handful of reports online, and having ridden several road centuries I figured that doing the same offroad couldn’t be that difficult, could it??
I arrived at Milngavie railway station at 23:52 on a Wednesday in May, with my intention to start at midnight on my merry way. Arriving at the obelisk that signified the start of the way, I managed to meet that target and took the obligatory photo of the bike and set off.
After a couple of hundred yards, I noticed my speedo and HRM wasn’t working. Adjusting the mount didn’t seem to make a difference, but strangely the thing would sporadically burst into life when my main light was off. This wasn’t much use, given a five hour night ride ahead of me. I abandoned plans to use it as a speedo and wore it on my wrist so I could at least get some benefit from it.
The first few miles were easy and unremarkable, broken up by a lot of gates. On a normal ride this wouldn’t have been much of a deal, as the sprung gates would just slam shut. However, on a night ride I felt it would be rude to do this at midnight so spent an age closing them all gently. With hindsight, the only memorable things were the deer I saw in Milngavie and the hedgehog I nearly didn’t see when it appeared a couple of feet away from my quickly approaching front wheel.
Fun finally arrived after Carbeth with a loose and rocky descent at Dumgoyach, setting the scene for things to come. However, that was not to be just yet, instead more spin miles on the flat to Drymen. As I arrived at what I think was Drymen, I noticed a turnoff over a small bridge and into a field. This was muddy and with no discernible path, so I was forced to peer into the gloom to find the marker posts. I genuinely don’t see the point in this diversion whatsoever, all it did was allowed the avoidance of a couple of hundred yards of pavement.
Out of Drymen, the route heads into a forest. Duly ignoring the “Forestry Operations Underway” signs (it was pitch black so unlikely they were working), I passed through the forest. It was here that the tiredness hit me. A lack of sleep through the day meant I had already been up for 15 hours, and the lack of any company on the route combined to give me a mental tiredness that no amount of food or drink could help. At this point I was eating only cereal bars and drinking Science in Sport PSP22 energy drink so it would have been a waste to move onto either simple sugars or caffeine.
I must point out that I can sleep anywhere. With that in mind, and with a comfortable bed of grass, rocks and logs in front of me, I curled up for a power nap.
Fifteen minutes later I awoke with a start, and felt immediately refreshed, motivated and ready to go. There followed a few minutes of sweeping forest on fast tracks, and in my enthusiasm I missed the turn towards Conic Hill. This is always cited as a spectacular viewpoint on the Way, with a beautiful vista across Loch Lomond. However, I shed no tears whatsoever in deciding to ignore the ascent and press on to Balmaha. For a biker, I would be pushing up then carrying down so it made no sense at all to do Conic Hill, especially not in the pitch black.
I’ve stayed near Balmaha in a campsite up the road and remarked how good the tracks would be on a bike. I was right – they’re fantastic!! Faced with a stone staircase just beyond the Oak Tree Inn, I gritted my teeth and got on with it. It went on for a while, then the trail went up to another viewpoint, lost on me in the dark. However, per Newton, what goes up must come down. The descent was loose in places, steep and with tight corners – I can see where the trail centre designers get their inspiration but this reinforces my view that natural (i.e. not designed for bike) trails are better!
After this highlight, I got onto a hideous loch-side trail, which was basically footprints in pebbles. Conscious of the time, I tried all manner of methods to minimise the noise I made – turns out it’s not possible to make anything other than a racket so I pressed on.
Approaching Rowardennan, there were a few more glorious sections of singletrack. Empty trails, next to no mud, all rideable and the pure focus required in the dark made for the most memorable night riding I’ve done to date. I think I made the right decision in my scheduling by starting at midnight.
That said, by 4:45 I could see the beginnings of the day and by 5am I’d switched off my lights. I was feeling confident that I’d finish in daytime so cut the cable ties that held my headtorch on my helmet. With hindsight this was overconfidence…
Back on track, I knew that the worst section of the ride lay ahead. There were a few previews to whet my appetite, with some boulders to lift my bike over involving some very basic scrambling. I got to Inversnaid at 6am, and passed straight through, filling my bottle up in a stream just after. It was here where I thought my decision to carry a Camelbak and an empty bottle was a good one. I’d drank 2.5 litres already, but didn’t want to carry another 2.5 so just filled the bottle up periodically. I don’t trust stream water near towns or farms, but once in the wilds I strictly follow the dead sheep rule (if the water runs off rock and there are no dead sheep upstream it’s normally fine). A quick taste of it confirmed nothing immediately dodgy so I was ready to go.
The trail started to get rockier and rootier, and with more of those boulders too. If you ever find yourself doing this section with a bike, best not be precious about it. It will get scraped and dragged, and it needs to be one that you can carry easily.
I had considered taking my 2004 Specialized Enduro, but it’s heavy and doesn’t have a top tube as such, making portage difficult. It would have been good for the mileage but is probably too slack for all the climbing. I decided that my Genesis Altitude 10 would be the best choice. I’ve toured on it, and it’s fast enough while still being comfy due to it being steel. Phenomenal value as well – it has served me well!
Back on the boulders, I found myself having to balance my bike on various rocks before pulling or pushing myself up. As I was alone, I wasn’t too bothered about disgraceful technique, just getting up or down. All the while, I knew that the worst bit was to come. It has been described as a nightmare scramble above a waterfall pitched precariously over the loch. I was expecting the Hillary Step but was disappointed. It’s basically a flight of steps, a bridge and then another flight of steps. Holding the bike in my right hand but on my shoulder, I went straight up and down without any problems. I don’t know whether it’s because I climb and have no problems with exposure (1000m drops in the Alps either side of the ridge for example), but I didn’t find it that hard.
The trail descended slowly towards the loch and I knew this part was finished, so I sat down on the bank and looked back at where I’d come from.
I had another quick powernap and rode on to Beinglas Farm for breakfast.
Beinglas Farm gets mixed reviews on Tripadvisor – some good and some bad. My two bacon rolls reinforced the bad side – why would you toast the rolls?!? That said, the food and a pint of Coke set me right for the trip to Crianlarich.
By this point, the weather was great, it was turning into a summer day. I regretted not bringing sunglasses and I now regret not bringing suntan lotion either.
On the way to Crianlarich, the Way starts with the road and railway on your left, then you go under both and climb high up on the hillside. I passed a small plaque set into a post on the path and I really wish I had photographed it. It proclaimed that this section of the path was restored by the organisers of the Caledonian Challenge, which raises thousands for charity. I’ve encountered that event once before on my way to Fort William and found that it was very corporate with loads of teams from banks, accountancy firms, law firms and auditors all trudging their way South to Ardlui. Clearly their approach to the countryside is just to allow hundreds of people at a time to use the paths and leave them churned up for the next users. I do appreciate that the organisers have a conscience and have decided to ‘do their bit’ in return, but the irony of the plaque was that the restored path was of such poor quality that a diversion had formed up the hillside. It was like a herd of cattle (the Challenge participants perhaps?) had walked it daily for the last five years with no support underneath for the weight. Once out of the muddy section, the trail became a muddled collection of stones that might have been a path, but it was horrible on a bike – especially a hardtail!
I reached the turnoff for Crianlarich, but as I was making alright progress I decided to press on. I stopped at the viewpoint for a couple of photos of Ben More, and then took the woodland singletrack back down to Strath Fillan. This was a revelation, I’d previously ignored this section of the Way and started from Tyndrum, but I missed a great descent, again rocky and fast and I could smell the brakes cooking. Arriving in Strath Fillan, it was just a gentle meander to Tyndrum via part of the track that heads to Ben Lui among other things.
I stopped for a disappointing lunch at the Green Welly, their menu unappetising to say the least. I wished I had gone to Real Foods; they sell good coffee by the pint and have a good selection of fresh food daily.
I took a moment to look at the train times. Genuine doubt had begun to set in, and the ride was beginning to fall apart. The climb out of Tyndrum is constant and begins on good road before hitting loose rocks. I could feel myself fading at the end of the road bit, so I stopped on a conveniently man shaped bit and rested for a while. I decided to have yet another snooze, and after another fifteen minutes felt no better. I knew there was a train in half an hour from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William, so pushed on. My biking mojo had disappeared, I pushed my bike down a section I’ve ridden twice before and made a slow and pathetic meander towards the station.
The train passed me, and I knew I had four hours or so to kill before the return one and my trip home arrived. I got to the station soon after and then my fortunes changed somewhat.
There was a team rider wearing Kinesis kit and riding a 29er, just setting off towards Tyndrum. He stopped for a chat and we discussed our respective plans. He’d ridden to there from Fort William in five and a half hours, and this gave me renewed motivation to continue. I knew I’d not manage that, but at least I knew my goal was achievable.
I hurried to Inveroran, stopping again for another pint of Coke and then onto Rannoch. The climb up the cobbled road is long and steady, and every time I do it I’m relieved to see the end of the trees which signifies the moor proper. I continued through the moor, stopping at the only stream that never dries up, fed from the snowmelt from the hills behind it.
Reaching the col, I knew the next descent was a good one. I love the downhill to the ski centre, it’s continuous and just wants you to stay off the brakes. I paused to cross the road and got to the Kingshouse soon enough.
Strangely I had no appetite whatsoever, but I forced down a panini with yet another pint of Coke. I think it’s the combination of sugar and caffeine that makes it so good for long rides, once the conventional wisdom of complex carbs stops working. However, I was still dutifully drinking PSP22, which perhaps contributed to my lack of appetite and somewhat nauseous feeling.
The Devil’s Staircase, while shorter than the Lomond carry, is still a brutal proposition. By this point I’d been up for 32 hours so exhaustion was setting in. I felt myself fading, so decided to count steps before I’d let myself stop. I resolved to do fifty steps at a time, but if I felt I could do more I’d do another fifty without stopping. The rule was that I could only stop on a fifty, which motivated me to finish that block, but by that time the thought to stop had passed so I kept going. I think I got to 500 in one go, but I was going slightly mad so it could have been less.
When I reached the top, I was questioning the decision to ride one of the best descents in Scotland while sleep deprived and potentially exhausted. However, and this is the weird part, I found that these feelings disappeared as soon as the descent started. My biking mojo had returned, my focus was back and I felt completely sharpened and ready to go. It is surprising how much tiredness exists only in the mind, and how you adapt to the circumstances and your body reacts quickly to these stimuli.
The descent was once again fantastic, flowing well between slab and rock staircases. I rode it well (for me at least) until my first fall…
I was approaching an off-camber slab into a corner and there were a couple of walkers on the path who stopped to let me through. Naturally they were watching, which must have given some performance anxiety or whatever. I hit the slab but my front wheel slipped off down it, and I fell forwards slightly but stopped myself before going over the bars.
At this point I must recommend the Topeak Tri Bag. It sits on the top tube and you fill it with food or whatever. Mine had cereal bars in it, and it served a great purpose in reminding me to keep eating through the whole day by having food visible to me. The reason I am recommending it here though is simply that it prevents you sitting on your stem when you fly forwards, which can be painful to say the least.
The descent ended all too quickly, and I was on the access road from the dam. Time for another brake cooking descent, and another good one for the bruises on my hands gained from thin grips and bumpy riding. I arrived in Kinlochleven for about 8pm, and filled my bottle and made up another dose of energy drink. By this point I think I had drank about 5 litres of the stuff through the day, and it was keeping me going. I toyed with the idea of stopping there for the night, but I figured 15 miles in four hours was doable.
I knew the last big climb was ahead of me, and I pressed on. I could feel myself shutting down, and my motivation was at an all time low. Sunset would arrive in under an hour, and so I would be out on Lairigmor on my own again. In my sleep deprived state, I genuinely felt my personality had split into my conscious and unconscious beings, and I found myself having to consciously motivate myself to continue.
I got onto Lairigmor, and saw the vast expanse ahead of me. I wish I was there in the light as it’s a spectacular view. As I was savouring the view, a huge deer ran across the path in front of me, clearly uninterested in the spectacular vista. I made my way slowly through the valley, and had to stop at every uphill and push the bike. By this point it was dark, but my light still had juice so I switched it on. I saw things moving in the shadows, my
mind playing tricks on me. Clouds had formed (actual as opposed to in my head), and I realised that I really didn’t want to be here anymore. I gave myself a final talking to, along the lines of “Stuff this, HTFU and get on with it” and with that found a renewed motivation. I cleared the valley, and then arrived at the forest. The next part is a complete blur of forest roads and tracks, then I arrived on the Glen Nevis road and I knew I was done.
I stopped at the finish point (the original one), and then went to the new finish point for completeness. I got there just before 11, so the whole thing took me just under 23 hours. I tried for a photo but my camera was dead, so got a hotel and resolved to return the following morning.
I had done it, achieving something I’d aimed at for years but was convinced it was beyond me. In hindsight, it was this self-doubt that slowed me down in so many respects. If I’d been confident in my bike handling, I’d have ridden more of the sections I pushed. I wouldn’t have doubted I could have completed it which would have kept me moving.
Would I ride it again? Definitely. It’s a hard route for a day ride but it’s a great challenge with good amenities on route and some of the best riding you’ll find stitched together. The fact there’s a train station either end just makes it all the better. I’d go at the same time as well but make sure I’d got more sleep to start with.
(Note to the West End hotel – Nescafé in a pot is not a pot of coffee)