Before I tell this story, I feel it’s important to answer the question “What is the Highland Trail 550?”
To do this I thought I’d use the words of the man who put the route together, Alan Goldsmith:
“The Highland Trail is a long distance (550 mile), self-supported mountain bike time-trial route through the Scottish Highlands.”
“There is no entry fee, no prize money, and definitely no support. It is a self-timed Individual Time Trial (ITT). All that is provided is inspiration, a suggested start time, a GPS track file, and a list of completion times.”
I first heard about the HT550 in October 2016 whilst at the 24hr Solo National Championships in Fort William. I was handed a flyer detailing a crowdfunded book that was to be released. This book was to become Joining the Dots by Lee Craigie, the book details, vividly Lee’s first attempt at the HT550 in May 2016. Once I’d read this book, I was hooked! From this point onwards, it was a descent into obsession.
As with all great plans this one spent some time on the backburner due to other commitments but from late 2017 the plan was most definitely on. In the time between the initial seed being sown to late 2017 I had managed to enthuse (rope in) two work colleagues, Ben Yarnold and Rob Burns. We had all ridden together many times and had squeezed in a Lands End to John O’Groats ride in June 2017 so we were well acquainted with each other and were keen to get going on a new adventure.
After months of planning (and some faffing) the day had finally arrived to begin the trip up to Scotland and put this plan into action. Ben and Rob arrived at my house early in the morning to much wetter conditions than we’d hoped for. The forecast had promised us proper summer conditions for the foreseeable future in Scotland, so we remained chipper nevertheless. With the final bit of kit loaded it was time to wave goodbye to rainy Shropshire and embark on a Scottish adventure.
Around 3 hours after setting off we were all starting to get a bit peckish. When you know you have a big bike ride on the horizon, going hungry isn’t an option, eating tends to come to the forefront of your mind often as the fear of starting a ride empty creeps in. With this (very much) in mind we called into the nearest services on the M6, Charnock Richard. Usual stuff. Toilet. Obligatory coffee, snacks. We were away from the van for maybe 20mins, tops.
As Ben and Rob got into the front of the van I went to the side of the van to get my water bottle to have in the front (got to stay hydrated) as I was routing through my kit bag Ben turned around and with a panicked tone to his voice said the one thing you don’t want to hear when en-route to ride your bikes “where are the bikes?”.
As I looked into the now empty space the bikes used to inhabit, I went through a moment that seemed like minutes but was in reality probably seconds where my brain couldn’t comprehend that the packed van was now empty. It’s a good question, “where ARE the bikes?”.
As soon as the reality had sunk in we set about being pro-active, we burst out of the van, looking, hoping to see the bikes, maybe we’d catch them being loaded into a van? We then set about getting organised. Ben called the Police, I spoke to the Services Manager, to see if there was CCTV on the carpark and Rob went over to the filling station to see if they had cameras. Nothing. Phone calls to family were made, disbelief was aired. And then, we sat. We sat in the back of the now empty van for a good 10 minutes. Each of us with a million and one thoughts running through our heads. How? What can we do? After 10 minutes or so we put a post up on the Islabikes social media accounts, from stories we’d heard in the past speed is of the essence, let’s at least make these bikes un-sellable, “too hot to handle”.
After posting on various social media accounts and getting the word out there the mood steadily moved from despair to amazement. The sheer amount of contact we received in the hour following the theft was amazing. Faith in humanity restored! The kindness that had been shown already took a further lurch forward when minutes later Isla (yes, that Isla) got on the phone and said she had been in touch with Steven Shand (of Shand Bicycles fame) and he had 3 bikes ready and waiting for us. All we had to do was get to Livingstone and they were ours to ride. WOW! Faith in humanity not only restored but overflowing. After this amazing offer was put on the table we had a reality check between the three of us. “ok we have bikes, but we are still short a lot of kit”. Minutes later Jon Fearne of E3 Coaching had been in touch, Naomi Freireich had offered us all the bags and most of the rest of the kit we would need, and she lives just up the road(ish) from Livingstone in Edinburgh. Double Wow!
From the ashes, the plan was very much back on!
From this point on the new mission took centre stage and apart from the occasional airing of disbelief that this had happened we just cracked on. First stop Livingstone. We met Steven, he gave us a quick tour of the Shand workshop followed by an introduction to the 3 bikes we would be riding. To say we were grateful would be a major understatement. Thanks again Steven.
From the bike pick up and the quick tour of Shand we headed up to Edinburgh to go and meet up with the incredibly generous Naomi Freireich. She’d just got back from a pack rafting trip and was preparing to travel to Slovakia the following week to take part in the European 24hr Solo Championships (which she won!). Despite this she had dropped everything and sorted out 3 sets of Apidura bikepacking bags, tools, spares, bottles and a few other bits and bobs with approx. 3 hours notice. With kindness like this thank yous never cut it, but thank you. It was much appreciated.
After our unplanned detour to the East we spent a night over in Edinburgh with the plan to pick up a final few essentials in the morning and then head to Tyndrum. All went to plan with no further dramas. It was then a case of setting the bikes up in the campsite and loading them up with bags and kit. As anyone who has been on a multi-day ride will tell you, it is imperative that you ride the bike with all the kit you plan to take, prior to setting off on the journey for real, as you will inevitably have forgotten something or a strap that was 50/50 will inevitably go pop as soon as you point the bike at some rough terrain. Unfortunately, given our new situation we just didn’t have the time for this, so we just had to “run what we brung”.
Day 1- Tyndrum to Fort Augustus 149.64km 2594m
After one of the better nights sleep I’d had for a while, sleeping next to a gently running stream, the time had come for us to finally set off on this long-anticipated trip, despite the setbacks and because of the generosity and kind words of numerous people we were ready. We grabbed a few last-minute supplies from The Green Welly Stop and it was time to go.
After the highs and lows of the past couple of days this trip was always going to be different to how we had imagined. Our goals had changed, and we were happy just to be pedalling, with every metre gained a bonus, after the very real realisation we may not ride at all.
We set off on the climb out from Tyndrum with a comedy 30mins of kit shedding where all our untested fastenings, bottles and other accoutrements seemingly all went wrong within the first 2kms. This is why you build in time for a shakedown ride.
After the initial hiccups and with kit now held fast we got into a really good rhythm as we slowly adjusted to our new bikes. Kilometre by kilometre we rolled through the Scottish countryside and before we knew it the first opportunity for cake arrived at the perfectly situated Glenlyon Tea Room in the Bridge of Balgie.
Although in reality this was possibly a bit too early to stop we were now in full touring mode so why not relax, eat cake and take in the views.
Fed and watered and feeling relaxed we left the Bridge of Balgie and set about the first big climb of the day, at this point it was very hot and we were all still feeling pretty full, so this was a bit of a struggle. We kept pushing on and fairly soon we found ourselves navigating the shoreline of Loch Ericht before heading North West and soon after cutting North East as we contoured around Ben Alder, all the while knowing that we were getting ever closer to the last big challenge before reaching Fort Augustus, The Corrieyairack Pass. The road leading to the pass forms part of General Wade’s Military Roads running from Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus. This section of the road, which was built in 1731 zig-zags its way up the Correyairack Pass up to a height of 750 m.a.s.l before descending (mostly) into Fort Augustus. It’s hard enough winching your way up the 11 steep switchbacks of the pass but you can’t help but spare a thought for those that built it. It must have been back-breaking.
As we crested the top of the pass it was starting to get dark and after another 40mins to an hour of riding we were ready to stop, eat and get some sleep. Besides, we were touring now, why push on into the night.
Day 2- Fort Augustus to Dubh Choille area next to the A835 123.1km 2000m (approx.)
With another great night’s sleep in the bag and a relatively full belly from the previous evenings meal it was time to roll the remaining few kilometres into Fort Augustus. Once there it was our first opportunity to stock up on food that would see us through the day, I always find this part really difficult as your looking for food that is high in calories but also quite packable, this is usually the opposite of what I actually want so you have to be quite disciplined. Food highlights of this stop were the macaroni pie (it’s a thing) followed by Ambosia’s finest rice pudding. Let the fine dining begin.
Once we were loaded up with food it was time to start turning the pedals again. The loose plan for today was to get somewhere near Oykel Bridge but that was as much thought that was put into it, we were all just excited to see what day 2 had to offer. As we left Fort Augustus we manoeuvred our way up and then contoured the West bank of Loch Ness. We stopped a few times to take pictures as the morning sun over the glassy loch looked too impressive to pass with no acknowledgement.
By now we were into a good rhythm and the Shand’s were holding up well. It can always feel quite odd getting on a bike that you’ve not ridden before especially if you ride your own bike often. You get to know all the nuances of your own bike and learn to ride it sympathetically. A new bike can feel quite alien but given the amount of riding that we already had under our belts from day one we were all feeling pretty comfortable. The first location of day two that I was really looking forward to riding through was Loch Ma Stac, this is a much photographed and spoken about place and has intrigued me since first seeing pictures of it. I’ve been able to find very little on the history of the building, but it didn’t disappoint. What I hadn’t understood when I had looked at photographs previously was how difficult it was to get to. Go too high upon the East bank of the Loch and you are in thick bog interspersed with Heather. If you follow the Loch’s edge it was a boulder strewn assault course. I was feeling pretty smug at this point as I was on the Shand fat bike with 4.8” tyres which I was starting to learn could ride over pretty much anything you put in its path. Having been constantly amazed by what this bike could get over, meant the roughly 1km of boulder festooned shore passed by relatively quickly and we were all soon gathered at the North East end of the Loch gawping in awe and wonder at the building on Loch Ma Stac.
After leaving Loch Ma Stac we rode some amazing singletrack that really reminded me of riding back in Shropshire, following sheep tracks in places the track winded its way through the landscape for what seemed like hours. After passing by Cannich and picking up a bit more food we carried on through Struy where we began climbing, first past Lochan Fada and then winding our way up to Loch Ballach. We then circumnavigated Beinn Bheag Fhada and started a long descent on a stretch of rough gravel track to the Orrin Reservoir before which we stopped off at a small bothy that provided a welcome break from the now blisteringly hot sun.
Once we left the refuge of the bothy our next stop would be Contin Stores, which we needed to call at to restock as the next stop would be Oykel Bridge, some 80-100kms away. Shortly after Contin Stores after much undulation on gravel tracks we descended to a bridge that crossed over Black Water to the A835. We decided to camp here, around 2130 while the sun was still up to get a wash and cook while it was still light.
This was just what we all needed as it had been particularly warm and to feel properly clean again was amazing. It’s funny how in your day to day life you can forget the simple pleasures of getting clean and eating a meal, but when your life becomes simplified in this way it becomes so much easier to attain happiness.
As it started to get dark the midges came out in force, luckily with our stop over in Edinburgh we had had time to re-stock on such essentials as midge nets. While we didn’t totally avoid being bitten, it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been without these essential pieces of kit. To aid midge repellence and to dry some clothes we had washed in the river we decided to light a fire next to where we had set up our bivi. This helped no end and sent us all off to a restful sleep.
After another great sleep and after striking camp (don’t worry we left no trace of a fire) we set off again at around 0730. We left slightly rushed in the end as it appeared the midges had woken up with us and were not hiding the fact they were around. We left at a speed which possibly wasn’t in keeping with how tired we felt and as soon as we got moving we were again in the sanctuary of the breeze.
We had woken up to low-lying mist and it was bitterly cold, all the signs of a temperature inversion, and as we began to climb the layers that we had donned early on started to come off. By the time we reached Loch Vaich the mist had all but disappeared and it had started to warm up to the level of the previous days.
We were making good progress and as we took a turn to the North East riding through Gleann Mor we had settled back into our rhythm of the previous two days and then all of a sudden I became very aware of quite a loud creaking and grinding sound from the bottom bracket area. This instantly made me feel sick to my stomach as it is a noise that I’ve heard before but as I pulled over to make a more thorough inspection there was still part of me that was hoping that I was just being paranoid. As soon as I stopped, myself Ben and Rob surveyed the scene, they knew as well as I did that if it was an issue with the bottom bracket it was probably game over. On closer inspection our suspicions were confirmed, it was just about done.
At this point we had no real options other than to crack on to Oykel Bridge, this was a borrowed bike and I was worried that if the bottom bracket totally disintegrated it could easily damage the frame, I really didn’t want to have to hand a damaged frame back to Steven Shand, especially after he had been so kind to lend us bikes in the first place. We kept going and made steady progress to the Oykel Bridge Hotel with the promise of a cooked (second) breakfast, coffee and a good seat. Once there we would have chance to have a think about what to do next.
After possibly the best (second) breakfast I’ve ever had and a couple of good strong coffees all three of us started googling local bike shops. It wasn’t good news, we knew we were in a fairly remote area and were about to embark on the most Northerly and most remote loop of the entire route, so we knew if we were to continue it was going to have to be with either a new bottom bracket or not at all. We couldn’t risk being in the remotest part of the whole trip and have a bottom bracket completely fail. It would have been a long push back to civilisation and certainly wouldn’t have done the frame any good.
After considering the bike shop options things weren’t looking good. Sourcing a standard bottom bracket would have been tricky in this area. Sourcing one for a fat bike, which uses a different standard, would have been nigh on impossible. Our best bet would have been one of the shops in Inverness, but this would have essentially added a days ride there and then a days ride back to the route which would have left us 2 days to do the route (before we were due back at work) and would have added close to 200 miles to the route. With this in mind, we decided to call it quits this time around. It was gutting to make this decision, but after what had preceded the trip we were content with having got some riding in and to get a sense of the route. Scotland is beautifully wild and had completely undone any anger or disappointment at having our bikes stolen. The landscape coupled with the generosity of people in the cycling community was breath-taking.