Monday, 16 May 2016

Highland Trail 2016 Recce

So I am getting to the conclusion of my training for the Highland Trail 550 this year. I have kinda been a bit more flexible with things this time round, and not planned that far ahead for what my exact training is, apart from obviously getting the miles in. So, with an awesome forecast plus a desire to check out some of the sections of the route I haven't been on, I decided to ride some of the HT550 last weekend.

I first thought about the Fisherfield section, but it is hard to get a decent loop up there without a bunch of road miles, plus I wasn't sure I'd get enough riding in. So my thoughts turned to the new opening section. I wasn't sure about any of it, Alan had said it was an improvement, but I was interested to know myself. I know psychologically for me, any route is easier if you have ridden it already, and the opening 70 miles seemed kinda important!

So, at 10am on Saturday, I set off from Tyndrum. I did think about an earlier start, but I was definitely planning on camping out, and wanted a reasonable sleep the night before. I decided I wanted to  'tour' it rather than heads down try to set a time.

To that end, I also took a camera, my Panasonic GM5 with a Leica 25mm f1.4 lens, in a newly acquired Lowepro Dashpoint 30 pouch that attached to one of my shoulder straps down low. This was a success (I hope the pics below prove that) with me taking over 450 pictures on the ride, it being easy to stop and take some snaps. I'm not sure how much this really slowed me down, and it really helped the enjoyment of the route. Jury is out as to whether I take the camera or not for the main event!

Before I get to the pics, I will say the new route is awesome! It is a massive improvement on the old one IMHO, especially avoiding the outward West Highland Way section, that is really not my favorite. The new section is 99% on the bike riding, a really good 70 mile warm up for sure, and the scenery is better I think. You decide...

When the 1st mile starts like this, you know you are going to have a good mountain bike ride!

Looking back up Loch Lyon. Lots of nice good quality landrover track on this one, easy riding for miles!
Onto some lovely single track road in Glen Lyon, another 14 miles in the bag, scenery is breathtaking!

Looking back along the road. Scotland at it's finest.

At this point, I can into Bridge Of Balgie /  Innerwick. There is a shop / post office here that sells cake and coffee, and is very popular with cyclists. Alan has asked me to check out the coffee there, and although it is quite early in the ride, I obliged.

To start with, a warning. I barrelled down the hill into Bridge Of Balgie fairly fast. There is a car park close by the cafe. A car almost wiped me out by reversing onto the road with me doing 25mph. My skid made them look and stop. Take care here, it is busy and you'll be going fast!

The coffee was average, the cake was good. This stop is going to be a temptation for the field. Cake and a warm beverage, or keep riding onto the next harder section? Hmmm....

Off the road after Innerwick straight onto a reasonable climb. I cleared it, but it was loose and steep in some sections. Worth pushing some parts to conserve energy?

The climb flattens out and rewards you with this view. Those mountains way way WAY in the distance are where we are heading to, Ben Alder!

Getting closer to the Ben Alder range, a lot of nice fast landrover track.

Looks not that fast to ride on, but is yet more awesome groomed landrover track propelling us onward!

Loch Ericht before the Ben Alder section. Scotland again looking magnificent.

Loch Ericht, almost the end of the road before the reasonably short boggy push to the start of the Ben Alder section. Scenery still to die for.

The Ben Alder singletrack. Whoever made this created a masterpiece! Just be careful of the multitude of stone drainage ditches peppering the route.

The top of the Ben Alder descent. Looks great, but the top section is quite steep with more drainage ditches. I walked down the steepest section, not wanting to mess up my rims! The rest was good.

"Character" bridge, water not troubled

Almost at the road

That was the 70 mile new section done! I have already ridden the route to Fort Augustus via the Corrieyairack Pass, so my plan was to take the easy 30 mile downhill road trundle to Fort William, and pick up the last 45 miles of West Highland Way, which I hadn't done in that direction before...

On the road section to Fort William

Sunset from the road

I got to Fort William about 10:30pm on Saturday night. I rolled into the center, expecting the local pubs and clubs to be in full swing. They were. I didn't care, surely there was a fish and chip shop open. There was. I ordered, with my unlocked bike outside the window, and a friendly local talking my head off about selling a crazy expensive carbon bike to someone then them breaking it, whilst I kept an eye on my bike, almost sprinting for the door when I thought I saw someone making off with it. Being tired can to strange things! 

I got the fish and chips and retired to a quiet park bench some way off to scoff the lot. I put on every item of clothing I had to keep the night chill at bay, then started cycling. I got lost and confused, and had to stop and down the can of Fanta I had bought. All better, I figured out the route and set off into the night, up the climb out of the town. This is the reason doing a recce is good!

Fort William from the West Highland Way section, 11pm

After 14 hours riding, 2 hours after sunset, with only a single AA torch to see with, things get a bit weird! Maybe time to camp...

Just after 12 midnight, I decided i wasn't making quick enough headway and was likely to fall over myself, so I set up camp. All my gear was working well, I was under cover within 10 minutes, comfortable and bug free...

Morning by the West Highland Way

I knew this return section  wasn't going to be the most enjoyable, and I wasn't disappointed. The West Highland Way sees a lot of traffic, and so a lot of the route is eroded and loose. I plugged on.

Sunrise on the way to Kinlochleven

Kinlochleven, Spar calling!

This is the kind of wheel eating drainage ditch that I brake and get off the bike for!

The sun splitting the trees just before Kinlochleven. The track is rough here, and most of the way from Ft William to the end of the Devils Staircase.
At Kinlochleven, I got some pastry and Pepsi in the local store, 7am! 

The climb up to the Devils Staircase wasn't that enjoyable. Not my favorite section to be honest, but still...

Looking from the top of the Devil's Staircase. The view is the best bit of this route IMHO, the riding is very hard and slow.
 The last few miles finally allow some smooth cycling, it was 12 noon and it was getting very warm (for Scotland). 

The end. I haven't seen it from this direction yet, looks nice!

That was it done, 148 miles in the bag in 26 hours, including a bunch of photo stops, chatting with some friends I met on the way (hi Andy and Dougie!), and general relaxed riding. All in all not a bad route in of itself, if anyone fancies it. If you are thinking of doing the HT550 this is a good taster, although I'd recommend including the Corrieyairack section for a full 2 day route to get the full flavor.

Now all I have is a mixture of dread and fear. 12 days and counting. There are only three things that can go wrong:

* The bike breaks
* I break (physically)
* I break (mentally)

On the bright side, the bike doesn't have feelings, so I can't break the bike's mental balance, no matter what I throw at it!

Wish me luck.


  1. Lovely pictures.

    Do it this time eh. ;)

  2. Great Photos - good for the psyche! Take your camera on the event

    1. Thanks mate, glad you enjoyed them. I think the camera will be getting packed...