Content by Phil Simcock
I never get the best sleep when bivvying, so I never expect to feel fully rested when I wake up. I had probably rolled around for about two and a half hours when I opened my eyes to see a cloud of midges surrounding my head. I put a head net on but it was no use – you can never relax when the midge is about. So I just got up, packed as quick as I could and headed off. I think it was about four thirty in the morning. The plan for today was to get as far around the northern loop as I could with a target to reach the pie shop in Lochinver that closed at 9pm. It was about 130 hard miles away!
The route to the start of the northern loop covered reasonably easy miles, the majority on fire road or double track over undulating terrain. I had continued not to eat much in an attempt to save my food, so I was hoping to be able to grab a bite to eat in the Oykel Bridge Hotel. I arrived before opening time but they were fantastic and made me the best bacon sandwich I have ever eaten followed by two cups of strong coffee and a chicken sandwich to go – great hospitality.
I had checked the internet at the hotel and found out I had created a decent lead by riding into the night and starting early. This was good news as it is never fun having to continuously look over your shoulder. I decided to push hard for the next section to try and improve my lead and give me breathing space in case I had a mechanical.
There was a reasonable section of road to keep the pace high, which eventually turned into a fire road heading along Glen Cassley this then turned into a steep climb out of the valley next to the power station, another section of road and then back off road heading off towards the northern most point of the route. The next sections are a bit of a blur. I remember nice sections of undulating double track, peat bogs with the track barely visible, a steep hike along Glen Golly and some fast downhill tracks until I popped out at Achfary. This marked the end of the outward section, so I stopped to change over the return track on my Garmin. I was immediately surrounded by midges, which made sure I didn’t stop for long. Another steep up through Achfary forest and then the track descended down to Kylescu and the start of a road section that I hadn’t been looking forward to.
Bealach Horn (Photo courtesy of Rich Seipp)
Looking at the route before the race, this section of road was littered with chevrons, so after 250 miles this was going to be difficult. I had been eating and drinking better during the day which had maintained my energy levels, however I worked out that if I covered this road section quickly I would still get to Lochinver for 9pm and catch the pie shop before it closed! My race strategy was now being driven by hotel and cafe opening times.
I cracked on passing through Kylesku and heading towards Drumbeg. The views across the bays were amazing in the evening light and I did consider stopping to enjoy my surroundings. However, I’m not sure if my competitive spirit or the smell of homemade pies got the better of me, but I carried on crawling up and flying down the other side of every lump in this brutal road. I neared Lochinver and the route turned off road a few miles from the town. This route took in some amazing beaches and bivvy spots but my mind could only think of one thing – pies! Time was ticking by and this off road section was slower than I wanted it to be.
Finally I made it to Lochinver just after nine and the pie shop was still open. By this time I realised that I was now very hungry and energy bars, gels and flap jacks would not be enough to get me through this race. I needed to start to eat more protein and carbs. With this is mind I ordered a homemade chicken and mushroom pie, a slice of homemade quiche, a chocolate milk shake and a can of coke. That’ll do nicely. It was now nine thirty and I wanted to keep going until midnight and then try and get 4 hours sleep. So with a steak and kidney pie purchased for breakfast, I carried on towards Glencanisp Forest. This section of the route didn’t look too bad on the map with no major climbs, so I hoped to get back to Oykel Bridge and then bivvy somewhere on the track to Ullapool.
The track through Glencanisp was anything but easy. It started along some nice singletrack but soon turned into a nondescript path where I had to drag my bike through boggy undergrowth. As the light faded, I was then following a narrow rocky path alongside a steep valley with the river a long way below. I was now feeling very tired after two days of hard riding and my pace was slow. I needed to be very careful to avoid ending up in the river. I pushed on to the high point of the track next to Lochan Fada. It was now 11.30pm and I decided to call it a day. The wind across the loch meant no midges and the soggy grassy undergrowth meant for a comfortable night’s sleep.
A solid four hours sleep later and I woke to overcast skies and a brisk wind over the Loch. I remembered where I was, thought over the plan to get packed up so I didn’t faff and then pulled myself out of the bag. I faffed, ate a cold steak and kidney pie, washed in the stream and then was off about four thirty. I assumed as I had climbed up to Lochan Fada the remainder of the track down to the road would be a breeze. How wrong could I be. I spent the next few hours frustratingly pushing and dragging the bike across rocky moorland, sometimes jumping on to the bike only to have to dismount seconds later. I eventually hit the road and was surprised how long it had taken to get from Lochinver back to Oykel Bridge. I was convinced that I would be caught soon, ignoring the fact everyone had to go over the same terrain.
After two hard days, my body was starting to suffer. The usual back pain was there from an old injury, but I have learnt to mentally deal with that. However, my knees were starting to take over in the pain stakes. I had foolishly changed cleats before the ride and the positioning of the new cleats must not have been right and had started to cause sharp pains in both knees. I arrived at the Oykel Bridge Hotel early in the morning, so I decided not to push my luck for another bacon sarny. By this time the weather had turned and the rain was now lashing down, the first real downpour I had got caught in. I cracked on to Ullapool knowing the trail was a rideable double track most of the way. At this point I bumped in to Nik Kinloch who was just about to embark on the northern loop. We exchanged pleasantries, wished each other luck and quickly went our separate ways. I think I tried to be positive about the northern loop that he was just about to embark on, but maybe he could see the pain in my face showing that I was not telling the truth.
As I moved nearer to Ullapool, I escaped the rain and by the time I arrived in the town, it was sunny and I had dried out. Time for more food. I wasted time finding a cafe, but when I did I was treated with a bacon and egg sandwich and two cups of coffee. I then picked up some supplies from the shop and some ibuprofen cream for my knees. Ullapool is a lovely town and the only times I have been there have been during this race. I must come back with the family to enjoy this place, and actually that goes to all the places I am visiting on this crazy ride. They need to be enjoyed at a much more relaxed pace!
Next was the horrible hike a bike climb over Meall Dubh and the descent into Dundonnell, the location of the rear mech failure on last year’s race. The climb didn’t seem too bad this year as the sun had now returned and it was now a beautiful morning. I descended the other side at a slower pace that I usually descend, determined to avoid a mechanical. I did make it safely down and was now riding into the unknown of Fisherfield. Big climbs, amazing descents, river crossings and amazing views. These were all comments I had read from the blogs of racers from last year and I was looking forward to experiencing it myself. The climb in to Fisherfield was steep and rocky and in most parts rideable. Once over the pass, the downhill was a long and fast taking you to the base of the most amazing valley. The route then followed the course of the river and the further you continued along the valley, the more difficult the terrain became.
It was at this point I met a fellow bikepacker. His name was Eric Robinson, who was following the Highland Trail route for pleasure at his own pace. It turns out Eric was from Bolton, lived about 10 miles from me and knew some of my mates who work in Cookson’s Cycles – small world. We reached the head of the loch at the same time and Eric took some photos before I tackled the river crossing. It was about time my shoes had a wash, so I waded straight in expecting the water only to reach my shins. As I got further across the water became deeper and deeper until it reached my thighs. It wasn’t fast flowing but you could be in trouble if you fell over with a heavy bike on top of you. I continued wading across, made it to the other side and pushed straight on.
Fisherfield (Photo courtesy of Eric Robinson)
The climb over Gleann na Muice Beag was brutal. I wasn’t expecting it as I hadn’t studied this part of the route in too much detail. It seemed to take forever and I could feel myself tiring quickly. The weather had also turned again making it more difficult and this was the first time I had felt exposed. Even though I had been eating and drinking well, I was now feeling a deficit from all the effort I had been putting in over the previous days. Small snacks and energy products were now not cutting it. I started to think about what I was going to eat when I reached Poolewe, but I knew the shop would be closed and I had no idea if I would be able to pick anything up. The descent down to Carnmore was incredible and lifted my spirits. The weather had also moved on leaving behind it a clear and beautiful evening. As I passed along the causeway between lochs, I was blown away by the majesty of the place. It was probably the most beautiful place I had rode through during the race and it did cross my mind to forget about the race and just stop, take in my surroundings and stay the night in the valley.
Then I came to my senses, promised myself that I would come back and pushed on. The ride out of the valley was long and tiring, however I eventually made it to Poolewe. It is a small place and didn’t take me long to find the only hotel in town, with a bar! By this point in the race, I was very dirty and smelly and probably looked pretty bad. However, the hotel welcomed me in and I sat at the bar, whilst all the other customers looked at me in bewilderment. I had decided on the ride out of the valley that I needed some fresh vitamins. So I treated myself to mushroom soup and a roll, a chicken salad, a bowl of vegetables and two glasses of coke. I was tempted to have a beer but decided to save it for the end of the race, when I would hopefully have something to celebrate.
I struggled to get out of the hotel but knew I needed to get more miles in. I think it was about 9 o’ clock and the heavy rain had returned outside. I knew I couldn’t wait it out as I would lose the lead I had worked hard to create, so I pulled on the waterproofs and headed out. The rain didn’t last for long but by the time it had stopped, I was drenched. After the storm had passed through, it left behind it clear skies and no wind. This was great to help dry me out, but with all the standing water, the midges were having a field day. Stopping for any length of time was not an option.
The rocky downhill in to Slattadale was a fantastic technical trail, but the rain had turned this into a waterfall and with a tired head and body, I picked my way down it. The road section that followed down to Kinlochewe and then on to Torridon was easy but the sections of road were now reminding me how much my knees and back were hurting. My target was to head into Torridon and then sleep before I attempted the climb up to Coire Lair. I arrived in Torridon about midnight and as soon as I stopped, the midges were intense. I knew that if I bivvyed outside, I would get no sleep. Luckily there is a Youth Hostel in Torridon, so I was able to take some shelter there.