Since the ITT I rode of the Highland Trail 550 in May last year, I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about optimising kit and strategies for covering a lot of miles as lightly and efficiently as possible. Of course, it’s always possible to go faster by having a better engine or spending less time stopped, but well thought out kit makes a massive difference to ultra-endurance racing, and requires some very different thinking to the longer trips that I’ve been in previously. Comfort and the removal of time-wasting temptations were the focuses of my thinking this year, and I think that my choice of kit played a big part in cutting 41 hours from my time in 2016, among other things.
There doesn’t seem to be a whole load of information out there on the web on what works for a race like the Highland Trail, so below I’ve shared what I took (and what I left out). Doing it this way round, after the event rather than before it, means you can find out if my plans paid off or if there were areas where I tried to be too clever!
The Bike: Santa Cruz Tallboy CC, medium.
This was the biggest change from last year’s kit for me – in 2016 I was riding a rigid Surly Krampus with a carbon fork and 50mm Rabbit Hole rims shod with Maxxis Chronicle 29 x 3.00 tyres. That setup was tried and tested under heavy loads on long tours, but wasn’t that well suited to high mileage and light loads, as the weight was still relatively high at 30lbs and the lack of suspension became very apparent even on land rover tracks after a couple of days.
I ummed and ahhed over it, but eventually settled on taking the Tallboy over a hardtail after using it on the Cairngorms Loop in April. That ride wasn’t a successful completion for other reasons, but it proved to me the concept that a short-travel full-sus bike is quicker over all off-road terrain, and on-road a VPP frame is essentially rigid anyway, such is the performance of the frame and suspension technology. This bike weighs a few pounds less than the Krampus, is extremely composed over technical terrain and thankfully seems to fit my preferred idea of positioning on the bike very well. I feel very at home on it, and I knew that the travel (130 front and 110 rear) would help me to stay comfortable over multiple days, which I guessed would add up to being faster.
- Santa Cruz Tallboy CC, medium
- Fox 34 Performance Elite forks, 130mm
- Fox Float Performance Elite rear shock
- 1 x 11 XT drivetrain, 11-46t cassette, 30t oval AbsoluteBlack chainring
- Hope Tech 3 X2 brakes, 180mm rotors
- Hope carbon seatpost
- Hope Pro4 hubs
- ZTR Crest rims
- Maxxis Ikon front and Ardent race rear, 29 x 2.35
- WTB Volt Pro saddle
- Santa Cruz carbon bar, 10mm rise, 760mm width
- Ergon GS1 grips
- Shimano XT trail pedals
After playing around with getting bags to play nicely with a Reverb, I just plugged in a Hope rigid post to keep things light and simple. I also dabbled with a Shwalbe Thunder Burt on the rear for a while; although I really like the tread pattern, the casing on a 2.2 just wasn’t big enough and I feared punctures, so I stuck with higher volume tyres with a bit more reinforcement. I figured I wouldn’t be riding in a style that required a dropper anyway. The Ergon grips did a much better job of keeping my hands happy than the ESI grips I’ve used in the past – two weeks later and they’re pretty much back to normal.
Handlebar Bag: Revelate Designs Sweet Roll
I’ve been using Revelate Designs bags since 2013, and really enjoy the small innovations that Eric adds as he thinks of them. The Sweet Roll is a familiar bag, and can easily be rolled down to keep minimal loads packed snugly. I know that at the end of a long day of pissing rain, my gear will be dry. I kept my sleep gear and waterproofs in here, although the trousers ad jacket spent a lot of time in the seat bag, only going in the bar bag when my seat pack and jersey pockets were rammed with food.
The Borah Gear event bivvy was new for the race and totally untested, so I was a bit sad not to get to use it as I ended up stumbling into a bothy at almost exactly 1am all three nights!
The Criterion Sleeping bag is rated to 0 degrees, which I find a slight overestimate for me, but I knew that temperatures shouldn’t be going anywhere near that low, and with the Primaloft top I would be fine for a few hours sleep. The Montane Primaloft mitts were my backup in the case of cold hands when riding – they’re magic and weigh 45g.
- Criterion Quantum 200 sleeping bag (0 degrees C)
- Borah Gear Snowyside event bivvy, with bug net
- Montane Fireball Primaloft smock
- Sweet Protection waterproof trousers
- Scott Trail MTN 20 waterproof jacket
- Merino liner socks
- Montane Primaloft mitts
Seat Bag: Defiant Pack Toklat seat bag
I’ve been using this bag for a few months, and it’s perfect for light overnight loads or long day rides, being compact, simple and easily adjustable. It isn’t quite as refined as Revelate bags, but its size is perfect at around 3 litres. As well as the tools, spares and electronics listed below, it also contained overflow food and/or waterproofs a lot of the time.
- Plastic packaging from a BB for storing tools and spares
- Gear cable
- Tubeless plug kit and traditional glue/patches
- Fiberfix Kevlar spoke
- Mech hanger
- Small pliers/snips
- Bag of spare bolts, 3 x 11sp power links and spare valve core
- First aid kit: 1 Israeli trauma dressing, zinc oxide tape, Ibuprofen.
- Exposure Joystick
- Midge net
- Chammy cream squeezed into a 75ml Savlon tube
- Tyre lever
- Pump with duct tape
- Not pictured: small power bank with iPhone cable, 2 x AA lithium batteries, 4 x AAA lithium batteries
On the Bike
- Rehydration tabs
- Sun cream
- Single rehydration tabs (caffeinated)
- 15ml bottle of Juice Lubes wet lube
- Exposure Race handlebar light
- Garmin eTrex 20
- SPOT tracker
- Knog Blinder rear light
- Crank Bros multitool
- 29er tube
- Revelate Washboard straps
- Not pictured: 4 x protein powder portions (made up into a 500ml drink each night before sleep)
This stuff was variously strapped to the bike (tube, SPOT), in the Revelate Feed bag (multi-tool, sun cream, chain lube) or attached to it elsewhere (lights, GPS). You can never have too many ski straps so I used an extra one to hold the tube in place. Also on the bike but not pictured were a Revelate Jerry-can, Mountain Feedbag and a Mag-tank. They contained almost exclusively food, and could hold enough between to get me between resupplies. The caffeine tabs were a good idea: they really helped me through the last night. After falling asleep leaning against the bike, I took the last one at the summit of the Devil’s Staircase, a few hours from home. It worked a little too well and I set off down the hill like a madman for a minute straight into a double puncture…
- Giro Wind gilet
- Giro Ride LT jersey
- DHB Aeron ASV bibs
- Gore Alp-X Pro Windstopper shorts
- Scott weatherproof kneewarmers
- Random cycling cap in glamorous colourway
- Thermal armwarmers
- Sweet Protection full-finger gloves
- Merino socks
- Giro Privateer R shoes
- Giro Atmos helmet
- Smith Pivlock Max glasses, rose lenses
The warmers and cap lived in my jersey pockets when not in use. DHB’s Aeron bibshorts are surprising for their price – I can’t complain at all and they feel like a high quality bit of kit. They were certainly comfy with enough chammy cream rubbed in. It was pretty warm the first couple of days, so I didn’t need the cap or warmers much.
The standout piece of kit for me was the Gore Windstopper shorts. They ‘should’ be too warm in summer weather, but they’re just not – the fabric breathes unfeasibly well, the cut is spot on for long stints pedalling, and they have now ridden the HT550, 24 hours of the Strathpuffer, the Cairngorms Loop as well as a ten day tour of the islands, not to mention the vast majority of my riding since January. They’re still showing no more wear than a slight fading of the fabric under my bum. They keep out light rain and make a huge difference to staying dry, warm and comfortable in cool conditions. Go and buy some, they’re incredible.
I’ve been getting on very well with the Privateer R shoes, although given the amount of technical ground that necessitates walking on the HT550, I did wonder if the more hiking-friendly Terraduro might have been better suited. Either way, they were fine, but slid around a lot on the boggy, rock-infested purgatory of the Suilven traverse and later in Fisherfield.
So there we go, maximum geekery achieved. I wanted to share this kit list because I was really peased with how it all worked out on the trail. The big thing for me is avoiding a backpack wherever possible – I feel much more relaxed without straps on my shoulders, and if I need to make an effort to actually get that extra layer or bit of food out I’m more likely to do it if it’s there in front of me in a frame bag, and less likely if it involves stopping and taking off a pack. I was trying to anticipate tired Huw and his excuses for not doing what he needed to do. It seemed to work. No pack also meant that I was able to wear a waterproof for longer without sweating and getting wet, as my back wasn’t smothered and the material could still breathe. This makes a bigger difference than you’d think, especially as armpit vents allowed more airflow without straps keeping them closed.
I kept tools and spares fairly minimal, but did carry a spare for every bolt on the bike, plus valve core and basically enough to repair all the problems I’d actually experienced in real life whether personally or in a guiding situation. Example: those bolts that hold your jockey wheels in are actually very specific, and a spare weighs a couple of grams. I have seen one disappear mid-ride on a client’s bike before…
My sleep kit worked perfectly, although I was sad not to get top use the bivvy. On that subject, the unplanned but very welcome bothies meant that I was sleeping on hard surfaces every night, so I regretted not taking my tiny Klymit sleeping mat. Perhaps the discomfort stopped me sleeping in though.
The food capacity I had to hand was also spot on. Although I had the opportunity for at least two resupplies each day, the fact that I wasn’t always relying on them kept my forward planning a lot more positive, rather than focusing on the next food point and no further like I did last year. I didn’t use any fancy sports food outside of the liquid meals, but I did learn that a 14” pizza rolls up into your back pocket really nicely at Fort Augustus. In the past year I’ve learned that wetter food is worth the weight penalty over dry bars because I’m far more likely to eat it and it’s easier to digest. This ride bore that theory out very well, and anecdotally the protein seemed to help, although I have no hard and fast proof for that.
There is very little that I would change if/when I ride the HT550 again, although you could always throw more money at a lighter bike. Given good weather, it would be interesting to see if an even lighter sleeping bag could be used as I was too warm every night, but that’s about it. Oh, and a hidden seat tube motor as well please…