Perfect time to find a problem with your setup for the Highland Trail. A split rim! Nevermind, throw the spare rim on and worry about it went I return home. Nope. Spare rim had about 6-7 loose spokes. Quick text to Shona at Keep Pedalling in Manchester. Usual reply “for F*%K’s sake, bring it in!”. Rich quickly checked the spare rim and got that true. The other rim was due to arrive 1st thing Thursday morning but no luck. I was to use the spare rim but we had a bike (nearly) ready.
I arrived in Tyndrum on Thursday evening. I now do this as a matter of course to ensure I have a chilled out day on the Friday. If I don’t then work seem to pile the pressure on and makes me a grumpy Karl, no one wants that – trust me.
A group of us highly honed athletes went out to socialise that night at the Tyndrum Inn. It’s always good to meet friends old and new. Everyone is just “super excited” (for our American friends) to be there. It was a steady affair, the beer isn’t great anyway.
Friday was a lovely day. I woke up at Pinetrees campsite, hassled Sean (he’d just recently won the Broughton 150 – ask him about it) for some hot water from his glamping pod (how other side live hey) and had a lovely slow morning having breakfast and get stuff sorted. Alistair McLean and JT were heading up towards Rannoch moor in the van for some singletrack fun which sounded nice but Sean had planned to travel down the West Highland Way to Crianlarich for lunch so me and Andrea (TripidExplorer) decided to join him. I’d not ridden the WHW since me and Cat rode it back in 2011 so a trip down memory lane would be nice. We rode down to Crianlarich, I’d forgot how much climbing was involved in this section but it was nice to check the bike out. The weather was lovely but we all knew this was going to change over the next couple of days. As we sat at Crianlarich train station café and had some lunch I think me and Sean felt fairly confident in our preparation for the HT550. We had some prior experience to cloud our judgement that everything was going to be alright. Andrea seemed less sure. She is a strong rider, which she showed on the ride down the Crianlarich. She was adamant she was going to be at the back but was going to take it as it comes. She’d not been well on the build up but was just about recovered. Me and Sean offered some advice about certain sections of the route and our objectives. Not sure how much this helps. After lunch we pottered back to the campsite and then went for the traditional meet up with all the competitiors at a river and drink a special Highland Trail beer (I didn’t, wanted to save my beer until after the event).
After that it was off to bed after a takeaway pizza from the Green Welly. Nice and early in bed, 10 hours sleep here we come.
I’d been awake most of the night. I could not switch off. I normally can’t sleep, like a lot of riders, much the night before but this was a joke. I decided to get up at 5am and make a brew and have some breakfast. How was this going to affect my race was too early to say. On the plus side I was able to get a final shower and been ready well in time to meet everyone at the Real Food Café.
That was until my garmin showed it didn’t have the route on it. No panic, JT to the rescue to wirelessly share his route. 15 minutes of transferring data (it’s a big route) but still no track showing. Don’t panic I’ll use my spare garmin. Same problem, never that this issue before. I’d transferred the tracks at work in the week and I was sure I’d checked them. I knew most of the route so decided that it wouldn’t matter. Off to the Real Food Café. On my way I met Andy Jefferies who had a laptop, excellent. Quickly plugging in my Garmins I transferred the routes over but they already existed. Why isn’t it showing them on the device? As a last ditch effort I changed the batteries, bingo. I run the garmin off the dyno so don’t need batteries normally but apparently you need them for the memory to cache (or something like that). Anyway we were back in business. Thanks to everyone who helped. Not the most relaxed start.
Off to the start we went. The top riders get called to the front, I thought I’d hold back a bit and give them a much needed head start. 9am and we’re off. It’s a steady start, everyone knows we’ve got a few days of riding bikes ahead but think we were happy to be riding and not being rained on yet. I quickly found my position near Steve Large. I always have a nice bit of banter with Steve about one day beating him. In truth I really look up to Steve, a top rider and a thoroughly nice guy, but don’t tell him I said that. Anyway Steve started to pull away from me around Loch Lyon but that gave me an opportunity to ride with Lars Henning (I rode with him in 2016 on this section as well).
Me and Lars started racing bikepacking events at the same time. We both entered the 2014 Bearbones 200 and finished. I think we like to punish ourselves. Our ‘careers’ have some parallels except Lars is a wee bit quicker than me. I know Lars has been suffering with confidence on these events and totally understand where he’s coming from. After completing an event, you wonder how fast you could have done it in. Then you go back and try to turn yourself inside out. Problem with that is you sometimes get lost not knowing if you’ve done as well as you could. Lars if your reading this, you’re an awesome rider that on your day will absolutely kick butt! Trust me.
Loch Lyon and the road section along the river Lyon to Bridge of Balgie is always fast rolling. It’s a nice opportunity to settle into a rhythm. The next section if the first proper climb of the ride out of Innerwick. Nothing too strenuous, but I was seem to struggle. The sun came out and I stripped off. At the same time in traditional fashion Alan G rode pass me telling me I couldn’t be still suffering with the heat, I was!
Side note: I’d asked Alan if this years Highland Trail could be cold and wet, when the sun comes out and it gets warm I just always seem to struggle. Be careful what you wish for!
On this section I noticed that I front brake was squealing, making it harder than it should be. Back on riding I caught up Rich Munroe. He was having tyre issues but had it all under control so wished him luck and carried on. It was good to see Isla Rowntree at the road junction cheering all riders on. She’d broken her foot before the event, so I wished her a speedy recovery and carried on.
I really enjoy seeing Loch Ericht, this always feel like the start of the Highland Trail to me. It’s generally the first hike-a-bike section when wet and the first bothy on route (Ben Alder cottage). This year, first year ever I rode the edge of the Loch. Well chuffed! Probably no quicker than walking but we set these pointless challenges for ourselves.
At the bridge to Ben Alder I caught up Sean Belson (Broughton 150 winner) and Jenny Graham (always smiling). I was in full swing so said a quick hello and cracked on. Sean and Jenny were both grabbing some water anyway. As with the HT550, if you pass someone, expect to see them again and again and again, just the way it is.
The next section down to Laggan is good fun, just get the timing of the water bars right. I’m usually sprinting to get to the Café at Laggan Wolftracks in time for Coke and ice cream (usually arriving 20 minutes after closing and standing at the window looking a bit sorry for myself – it works!). This year Alan diverted us away from the trail centre but I still sprinted anyway.
I’ve tried not to set many targets this year but one target was Fort Augustus. If I arrived at Fort A before 8pm, I’d go straight to the garage and get food (missing the Pizza shop). I’d never arrived in Fort A before 8pm so this was a tall order but looking at the time on the Garmin I was within touching distance of making it. I had the Corrieyairack Pass to climb but I had a couple of hours, I knew I could do this. At that moment, Nelson caught me up. After his spot tracker issues he was flying. That highlighted how quick the quick guys are!
I managed to get to the garage before 8pm, I was so chuffed but still wanted pizza. So I went and got pizza as well. In the Moorings it was busy with very, very wet HT riders. A lot of the talk was scratching. Phil Clarke called it a day, Sean Belson was wavering, even Alan Goldsmith was talking about it. These are strong guys, the weather was THAT bad.
I focused on finding cover for the night. I didn’t fancy getting my bivvy bag out on the first night and getting completely soaked. Options were Loch Ma Stac haunted building, or the Corrimony Bothy just off route after the bog trotting which followed Loch Ma Stac. I arrived at Corrimony to find Steve Large and Lars Henning fast asleep. Steve had originally planned to get to the hydro bothy. My original plan was just 2 hours sleep. Setting my alarm for 2.30am seemed like a bad idea. I then set it for 4.30am, still didn’t seem great. So I finally decided that 5am seemed reasonable. It had been a tough old day but I finished it riding further on day 1 than I’d done before by some margin. Laying naked in my summer quilt I was happy with my progress but bloody cold.