So far I was happy enough with my progress, I knew I had clocked up at least 100 miles a day, probably more on the first day, and that would hopefully see me home in the six days that I was aiming for. I knew that the trail would only get hillier, rougher and slower as I hit the west coast though, starting with the delight of Glen Golly and the Bealach Horn on day three. After sleeping in again, and a nice start up Glen Cassley and over an unexpectedly tarmacced surface past Cassley power station, a few more hours saw me at the bottom of Glen Golly around midday. Whoever designed and built the track up Glen Golly has a lot to answer for: it seemed wilfully steep and ridiculous, so much so that it was funny. Rule one was still ‘don’t stop moving’ so I fed well before entering what I knew was going to be a hard few hours. I wanted to make the pie shop at Lochinver that night before it shut at 9, and I was beginning to taste them, so as the trail dissolved away to bog and mush I kept moving, sometimes on foot. The peat hags provided a short lived but exciting descent when the trail disappeared into a two-metre cliff of peat on steeper sections, but I plodded on, up the final climb and briefly into the mist on the top of Bealach Horn, the route’s most northerly point and one of its highest, at 500m in the shadow of Foinaven. It felt surreal to have arrived here, by bike, just two and half days after leaving Tyndrum, far to the south. Whatever it is, the Highland Trail is not just a bicycle race. It was a few hours since I had actually sat on the saddle, I was knee deep in peat time and time again, and the nearest person was an hour or two’s travel away in the still remote estate at Achfary. Arkle and Foinaven were hidden in the mist, showing only the slick rock slabs of their flanks every now and then, but this was definitely their kingdom and I was only visiting. Being alone, and tired, and wet made me feel very small compared to the shadowy coires and buttresses, but there wasn’t time between repetitions ok “just keep moving” to feel nervous. The descent to Achfary was pretty gripping, as I was beginning to tire and sharp, loose rocks woke me up every time I heard the rims ground out against them, sucking air between my teeth each time I thought I had punctured. I shot out from the cloud into the grey of late afternoon – the rain greeted me as did another 400m climb up and over to Kylescu. Don’t stop moving.
I had convinced myself that I had earned a quick cup of tea at Kylescu, now that I was on the homeward gpx track, but it was 5pm, and I knew that the coast road to Lochinver wasn’t going to be quick. It was only 26 miles, but if you have driven or ridden the rollercoaster road you’ll know that in profile it looks like the teeth of a sawblade. It bucks and dives for the whole length, forcing me to crawl upwards for ten minutes before flying down the other side for what seemed like ten seconds. In my tiredness and desperation to eat those pies, I hadn’t even noticed that the route leaves the road just before Lochinver, heading on to old singletrack for the last bit along the coast. I overshot the turn by a kilometre, had to double back, and could feel my pies slipping away from me. The Prius engine got put away for the next half hour and out came the Ferrari engine, as I knew that the pies were my last chance for hot food before Ullapool, and right now I could do with that mental boost. I made it, dripping wet from the now driving rain, at five to nine, and asked for four pies and some cake, please. I ate three of them outside in the rain, and saved the last for breakfast. Feeling better but cold, I rode the last hour of daylight to Suileag bothy in Glencanisp, where I was grateful to get out of the rain in the deserted bothy. By now, after a third day, I was beginning to feel the effects of nearly fifty hours in the saddle. My left knee was creaking and aching, my palms and fingers felt numb from the pressure of the grips, and the rain had dampened my spirits a little.
I slept in again the next morning, my unconscious brain completely dead to the world and the two alarms that went off next to me. My eyes didn’t open until 7, having had eight hours sleep, and guiltily got out and riding towards Elphin as soon as possible after polishing off the last pie. Strangely, although I was riding alone as an ITT, and the people I met on the way had no idea what the Highland Trail actually was, I constantly felt a hand on my back, pressing and motivating me forwards: there was no time to lose and the sense or urgency was a weird, self-imposed constant. I didn’t resent it, I had set off to ride the route as fast as possible, and although I worried beforehand if I might lose motivation with no one to ‘race’ against, that was never a problem.
What was a problem, was the trail from Suileag to Elphin, which soon dissolved to rubbly, boggy nothingness as is often the case in the northwest. Walking uphill, on the flat and even ondescents was frustrating, but at it was the most efficient choice, and I tried not to think about the trail, only the way forwards. The good thing about such a long ride is that there’s always the next bit, and by late morning I was on the road back to Oykel Bridge, looking forward to the boost of having finished the northern loop and anticipating more hot food in Ullapool. I dropped my elbows on to the bars on the road through to Glen Oykel, as much for the relief for my hands as for the aero position. Passing Oykel Bridge felt good; I knew then that I could finish this if I could just keep moving, but it was a long pull up Strath Mulzie and then back down to the coast at Ullapool, beyond which lay the wilds of Fisherfield and Torridon. The rain set in then and never really left again, turning slowly from a few warning drops to a steady patter and rising puddles. I skirted Beinn Dearg, beginning to feel the food I was eating make a smaller and smaller dent on the heaviness in my legs. My mind began to wander dangerously close to the negative thoughts, the doubts, and I ate some emergency sweets to drag me in to the Tesco in Ullapool at about 4pm. Luckily, the hot food section was having a sale, and nearly everything was reduced. I warmed up beneath the heater, filling my face, and tried not to feel too awkward, among the clean, normal looking people. I knew that being warm and fed would see me right for another eight hours or so, and decided to push on into Fisherfield that night, where I would have a choice of Shenavall or Carnmore bothies to shield me from the rain.
The two 400m climbs to get me into the shadow of An Teallach went steadily enough, although the coffin road over to Dundonnel was a savage push. A couple of walkers pointed out, as I struggled past, that my bike had big tyres so I should be able to ride this. Luckily I was still in a good mood and feeling merciful, but they didn’t realise how close they came to having their legs sawn off with a rusty spork. The pull over from Dundonnel was mellower than I remembered, and in the big sprocket I rode the majority of it before dropping like a stone down the landy track descent to Shenavall, where I could see a crowd milling outside the bothy in a rare burst of sun at about 9.30. The bothy was clearly full, I felt good from the food in Ullapool, and I had at least an hour more light to play with, so I decided to push on to Carnmore that night, getting the remotest part of Fisherfield dispatched. It felt amazing, to be out there, in the mountains as the light dimmed. I hadn’t brought a light on purpose, to remove the temptation of riding through the night and exhausting myself. I had a small headtorch though, and the descent down to Carnmore through the hanging coire was a memorable one, as I freewheeled to the door of the bothy at half past midnight. I opened the door, glad to have a roof over my head from the rain, only to find the place was full! Full of snoring bodies all over the place, a possibility that I hadn’t even considered on a weeknight in mid-May. I cursed them all to hell for having been so inconsiderate as to not think of poor old me, and went to sleep in the lee of the locked shooting lodge. The rain stopped as I got into my bag, so I hoped for a good night. Unfortunately so did the wind, so when it began to rain again shortly after the wall offered no protection, and it became a wet night…