The Tour de Ben Nevis must be the only race of its type in the UK – a 72km marathon circumnavigation of Britain’s highest mountain, with a carry climb, and river crossing thrown in to keep it interesting. If that wasn’t enough, within the timed circuit there are 4 enduro style ‘special stages’ in which you have to turn your race head up to 11 to gain valuable points for the overall classification. As well as a unique race it’s also great to see so many people out in the hills at once, and the barbecue pit-stop at the midway bothy shows that No Fuss understand not everyone is here to bury themselves in the pain cave.
With such an unusual race comes some unusual tactics, and it’s always interesting to see what people’s thoughts are on the fastest way to go about the balancing act between speed in the special stages and swiftness over the course as a whole. This year there were a lot of 29er XC bikes going about, and with the number 1 and 2 spots falling to Paul Newnham and Ruari Watt on their big-wheeled bikes, they seemed to be the answer.
Starting the race with the now traditional pipe band lead-out down Fort William high street was as magic as ever, and predictably the pace up the first road climb was as brutal as it always is. I sat behind the front pack of XC whippets having chosen to ride my Five for the day, and once the pack hit the rough doubletrack through the lairig to Kinlochleven we started to separate. The pummelling starts here and doesn’t let up until you hit the smoother fireroads home through Leanachan forest some 40km later. I was sitting sound 7th or 8th from the front when we hit the first special stage, the west Highland Way descent into Kinlochleven. Off the start line, over the first water bar and round the first corner, and then the dreaded sound of escaping air ended my hopes of being competitive in the overall results only an hour and ten minutes after we had begun. It’s always a horrible feeling to suffer a mechanical during a race, but puncturing on the same stage where I had crashed and broken 3 ribs a year earlier made me want to sack it off and head home. Reluctantly, I stuffed a tube into the tyre and rolled down to re-assess the rest of the day.
Stage 2 is a long, loose doubletrack climb up from Mamore lodge and down a very brief descent to Loch Eilde Mor. For me it was definitely rage-fuelled, and it that seemed to pay off, as mine was the fastest time of the day up the climb. From Loch Eilde Mor to the river crossing there’s the landrover track of doom – several kilometres of undulating, rough and usually extremely wet riding that tries to sap your strength and steal your enthusiasm before the brutal timed hike-a-bike of stage 3. I tried to stay on top of things, but by the time I reached stage 3 with Gary Macdonald it was hard to stay motivated and not dwell on how badly things had gone so far. I fell away from him on the climb, started cramping up and rolled into the end of the stage at the bothy feeling pretty low.
Luckily, anyone who has done the Tour will know how much of a moral booster the fast descent out of the lairig is – a few kilometres of warp speed corners and rocky booters can put a smile on anyone’s face, even when your legs are starting to question the wisdom of not stopping for just a few burgers at the barbecue. Once you turn left into the darkness of Leanachan Forest though it’s the start of the long spin home. After the fireroad kicks up again to spite you, it’s time to put your head into gear one last time and get wild on the Blue Crane descent, forcing your legs to give a little bit more to see you along the flat sprint in the middle. I came to the top of stage 4 with Gary right behind me and Ruari Watt just visible in front, so once the stage was over it was time for a final effort to time-trial the cycle path to the final dibber and some long-awaited respite. We span into town swapping our different versions of events, and when we got there found that the local butcher was dishing out free pasties and cups of tea – good news does not get any better than that in the circumstances!
I knew I was out of the running, but as always I had gotten caught up in the adventure of the event, and although I was disappointed it was far from a wasted effort. Regardless of times and positions, the thing that was most noticeable about the faces pouring into the High Street for the rest of the afternoon was the mixture of pain and wide-eyed enjoyment.
Paul Newnham took the antlers overall, and Lee Craigie was the women’s winner. Mishap of the day surely went to Joe Barnes though, after his unplanned bike-bollard interface on the final section of cycle path somehow snapped his timing chip! I always say that it hurts too much to do again, and I always end up changing my mind about 2 days later. It’s been 3 days now, so see you next year!