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The Highland Trail 550


I have done many physical challenges over the years. In 2011, I cycled around the world. I have completed a standard ironman triathlon, then another ironman with Ben Nevis as part of the final marathon. Lots of other cycling adventures have taken me over the highest road in the world and across Mongolia and I’ve completed many other events and challenges. I have completed a lot of very difficult physical challenges but if you were to ask me what is the hardest thing I have ever done; I would instantly reply; the Highland Trail 550. I have never pushed my body as far as I did on the HT550. I finished the race exhausted, broken, unable to drive my van and with very swollen ankles. But it was perhaps the most rewarding week of cycling I have ever done. Bikepacking is a wonderful way to squeeze a big adventure into a small space of time. Now that my wife, Laura and I have our first baby on the way, I don’t have the time to do longer trips anymore. This is the new way for me to get my dose of adventure. Despite finding it so difficult, I will ride it again as soon as I can.

To qualify for the Highland Trail, you have to complete a qualifying event. In the previous two years I had completed the Yorkshire Dales 200, the Bear Bones 200 twice, the Peak 200 and the Lakeland 200. All of which were wonderful experiences but I knew that this would be another level of challenge. To help prepare for it, I had been training and eating well for a few months. I had purchased some excellent kit and built a lightweight bike from mainly second hand components, based around a carbon fibre On-One Lurcher frame I had got hold of on eBay for £200. I had studied the route and made a top tube sticker to help me to keep track of my progress and to know what to expect, including resupply points, bike shop locations, elevation and the expected quality of the trail.

I was ready to go and I couldn’t wait to get started. I drove up from my home in Sheffield the day before the group start and had to go via a bike shop where I bought a set of new cranks. My last set had failed the day before on a test ride. I hastily fit them and continued up to Scotland, praying that my £850 van wouldn’t break down. I made it in good time, checked into my room at an inn in Tyndrum, then got an early night. After a hasty full Scottish breakfast, I cycled round to the start line where I met the other competitors, including a friend of mine, who has also cycled around the world: Pete McNeal. It was time to get going and the scale of the challenge ahead of me was intimidating. 550 miles of epic scenery, 75 percent of which is off-road and much of that is not rideable. The ride includes 16,000 metres of climbing, which is nearly twice up Everest. I wasn’t feeling particularly competitive and had no real plans to attempt to finish in a good position. My plan was just to make sure I finished the ride in a respectable time.

My bike set up and ready to go

Day 1: From Tyndrum to the Enrich Bothy

It was nearly nine o’ clock. 50 riders lined up at the start line in Tyndrum, ready to set off on the epic 550 mile (880 kilometre) journey through the Scottish Highlands. Alan Goldsmith, the event organiser introduced Jenny Graham, who is going to be setting off soon on an attempt to break the round the world cycling record. She gave us some advice, enjoy it… I would certainty try to!

With the sun beating down on bone dry trails, Jenny announced the start of the race and off we went. I started behind the front group, who set off at an impressive pace. I had promised myself not to go to quickly for the first few kilometres, so I followed behind, riding with Pete McNeil and Stu Taylor. We followed a short section of the West Highland Way, before reaching a wider track that climbed gently into the Grampian Mountains then skirted around the shores of Loch Lyon. The deep blue water was framed by Munros on either side, their lower slopes coated in deep green grasses that gave way to brown, heather-coated moorland at higher altitude. We chatted about our plans for the next few days and all had a relaxed mindset, none of us with any real ambition other than finishing in a respectable time. For me this meant completing the ride in less than six days, which would involve averaging around 100 miles (160 kilometres) each day. Despite this, we were all feeling strong and dealing with the heat well, so the pace was high and we weren’t far behind the leaders.

Joining the road along Glen Lyon, a few miles passed under our wheels with little effort. A couple of riders passed me on the road in a time trial position, tucked down with arms resting on their handlebars. I tried to do this but couldn’t get comfortable and decided that I would rather take it a bit slower, rather than risk hurting my back or injuring something at this stage. At Bridge of Balgie, a steep climb began, heading towards Ben Alder. I had built my bike on a tight budget, so I had gone for a hardtail, rather than a full suspension frame. It is a very stiff cross-country carbon frame, which does not descend as quickly as some of the other bikes but is a rapid climber. I could also only afford to spec it with 11 gears, rather than the new SRAM 12-speed Eagle groupset, so I had to ride fast up the hills, compared to riders with a lower gear option. This meant that I soon overtook a few riders, including Huw and Phil, both of whom are very quick. I was pleasantly surprised!

The track undulated for a while and Huw soon overtook me again. Soon I reached a boggy section around Loch Ericht. Normally this section would be mostly unrideable, but today it was possible to cycle most of it due to the long dry spell. I seemed to be holding my pace well compared to the other riders around me, except for Javi, an extraordinary Spanish guy riding a singlespeed bike. After riding at my pace for a few minutes to have a chat, he powered off into the distance. He is a five-time veteran of the ride and on this occasion looked, along with Huw, to be one of the favourites for the win. This is typical of the people competing in this event. Although it is a race and is taken very seriously, everyone’s foremost intention is to have a good time and contribute to the spirit of the ride. There are not many events of this magnitude with such a strong social side.

Soon I got off and started pushing, up over a small hillock, then down to a small river, where I caught sight of Javi, once more; an orange dot in the distance. After a short push, began one of my favourite sections of the entire ride; the singletrack over Ben Alder. A narrow, hardpacked and well-maintained track led up on a gentle gradient towards the pass at the top. Despite only having been riding for a few hours, I already felt like I was the only person in the world. Javi had now disappeared and I couldn’t see anyone else in any direction. Climbing at a good pace I left the glen and rounded a valley side, at which point I could see the pass. Every few metres along the trail, there was a drainage ditch which I had to hop over. I would need to be careful on the way down the other side as hitting these too hard is a common cause of punctures.

At the 700-metre-high pass, I didn’t stop but began descending straight away. The descent was incredible; a flowing, twisting path that wove down the mountainside before reaching a wider track that led to a main road. Halfway down I experienced the only mechanical problem of the entire ride. My disc brake pad return spring got bent so I took the pads out and removed the spring. It isn’t a vital component so I didn’t try to fix it. I got back onto the bike and finished the wonderful descent from Ben Alder. It was just after four o’ clock, which was a shame because I had wanted to stop for a snack at the café at Laggan Wolftrax trail centre and I had been told it shut at four. I decided to go slowly for a few miles, as in front lay the highest point of the route; the Corrieyairack Pass. As I approached Laggan Wolftrax, Phil caught me and to my surprise the café was still open. We both pulled in and ordered some food. I bought two flapjacks to take away, two cans of coke and a packet of crisps. It was a welcome stop.

Phil was going faster than me as I was still of the mind-set that I needed to conserve energy for the next few days, so he went ahead. I climbed steadily up the road that leads to the large Melgarve Bothy, then on up the stony track towards the pass. The Corrieyairack pass is a proper pass! The last 200 metres of altitude gain are achieved on a steep winding series of switchbacks, the end in the summit. I managed to ride the whole way up, grinding the pedals slowly over the rocky, loose terrain. At the top a strong headwind blew into my face, making what should have been a relaxing descent a bit of a struggle. Every few minutes was a short climb. Each was a challenge since I was tiring, and the wind was slowing me. Soon though, I had descended to Fort Augustus, the first town I had reached since the start, and the last I would pass that day.

I reached Fort Augustus surprisingly early; at around seven o’ clock in the evening. This meant that the shop at the petrol station was still open, so I stocked up on about 5,000 calories worth of snacks. I then made a beeline to the chippy and ordered fish, chips and mushy pees, which were utterly glorious. There was a collection of Highland Trail riders at the chippy, including Lee Craigee, the leading female rider, who was looking like she would be competing for the overall win. She left as I arrived and I sat with a couple of the other riders, including Phil as we ate fish and chips. After a well-earned half an hour’s break, I was ready to set off again, in the evening fog. Another rider, was also ready to go, so we set off together into the Great Glen; the epic valley that follows a geological fault that runs across the Highlands from Fort William to Inverness and contains Loch Ness.

A short forested section of the Great Glen Way took us along Loch Ness to Invermoriston, where we turned west. Loch Ness is relatively narrow but 36 kilometres long, so it appeared to out endlessly into the horizon. A few aches and pains had started appearing in my legs, particularly down the back of my ankle, so I slowed down so as not to risk injury and was alone once more. After a welcome flat section came the steep fireroad climb towards Loch ma Stac. I slowly ascended into the evening fog that sat on the higher altitude ground. This presented a new problem since I was wearing glasses rather than the contact lenses I normally ride in, which steamed up instantly. I was forced to remove them and ride without any vision aid. I’m short sighted but not too badly, so I could still see where I was going, but the not the details on the undulating rocky surface so I took it steady. The track climbed up through a windfarm to the dam at the end of the loch, then then route followed its shoreline. This may have been rideable in better conditions, but with everything a bit blurry, I decided to push my bike over the rocky banks of the loch, for around two kilometres, which took half an hour or so. It is a great route, following the eastern shore along a rocky beach on the water’s edge. I considered Scotland’s enlightened views on the importance of renewable energy, having passed many installations that day; an example to many other countries perhaps?

At the end of the loch is the haunted house, a derelict tall and narrow shooting lodge that peers imposingly over the loch, eerie in the midnight twilight. The longer evenings of the Scottish summer were a useful asset as I didn’t need to use my Exposure Maxx D bike light until the early hours. Finally, after passing the loch, it was too dark to continue without a light, so I switched mine on, on a low power setting so as to conserve battery life for the next few days. Despite feeling tired, I was pleased with my first day, having covered well over 100 miles. I was still hoping for a sub six-day finish and I seemed to be on track for that. I continued through a dark marshy landscape, fording streams and looking for the driest path to take over the drenched moorland. I was heading for a bothy that I had spotted when analysing the route, just a few miles down the hill.

Soon the track lead to another wind farm access road and my speed increased dramatically, as I freewheeled down to the bothy. A short push along a grassy path later, I was inside the small stone bothy and dry. I ate some snacks, inflated my mat, got into my sleeping bag, set my alarm for five o’clock, which was depressingly only four hours sleep away, then lay down. Five minutes later, two more cyclists entered but went into the other room, so I was fortunate to have a quiet space for the night. Day one was complete and all was going well.

Me and Pete McNeil at the start line

Singletrack climb up Ben Alder


Day 2: One aim… get over the Beallach Horn before dark

I awoke in the cold bothy shivering. It seemed that five o’ clock was a popular start time, as the other two cyclists had also woken up and were preparing for the day ahead. One of them turned out to be Pete, whom I had started the ride with. I was slightly quicker getting going so I waved goodbye shouting “see you later”. A pleasant descent to a main road followed, on which I met Alan Goldsmith, the ride organiser and a very nice chap. We had a good chat about the ride and Alan’s previous experience on it. I was jealous of his Scott Spark full suspension bike, which looked to take a lot of the impact out of the bumps. My very stiff On-One Lurcher carbon hardtail didn’t do this as successfully and I think that this is what was causing my Achilles tendons to be sore. I followed the main road for a few miles to the village of Contin, which contained a well-stocked and very welcome convenience store with a coffee machine.

Six other riders were sitting on the picnic tables outside the shop. I headed in, bought a massive calorific breakfast and a large black coffee as well as snacks and energy drinks for the rest of the day. It would be over 24 hours until I reached the next shop. Having made a strong start to the ride, I wanted to keep my stop time to a minimum so I didn’t wait around for long and joined some of the riders who had been there before I arrived as they left. It was a gentle ride to start with, along a road that followed the River Strathglass to the town of Struy, then followed a long climb up to a spectacular moorland that had again been developed by the renewable energy industry. We were heading towards a large hydroelectric reservoir, which I had cycled past a year ago on a cycle tour in Scotland.

A Belgian man named Lieven passed me at a crazy speed uphill. I was riding with Alan again, and he told me that Leven had been very successful in a few bikepacking events in the past so was a very quick rider. He had gone the wrong way near the start of the HT550, which is why he wasn’t somewhere near the front. We continued up the climb at a nice pace chatting all the while, which helped pass the time. We soon reached the top, after which the wide track skirted around the edge of the hillside, passing the Hydro bothy; a small hut that was used as a cement store when a pipeline was being built across the moorland. I had slept there a year ago on my tour and it had provided a much needed shelter from the midges. The crossing of the hydroelectric dam was as beautiful as it had been last time, providing sweeping views of Orrin Reservoir and the impressive rock formations surrounding it.

The next few hours passed uneventfully but were very pleasant. Each of the riders got into their own rhythm on the easy section that followed, first a long tarmac descent from the reservoir, then a beautiful forest track with a strong smell of pine in the air then another fireroad that followed the valley of Strath Rannoch before skirting the edge of Loch Vaich. This was the Highlands, unspoilt and perfect; a vast landscape, dissected by rivers, with mountains in every direction, some of which still had snow on their peaks. Despite the riding being easy and not particularly exciting during this section, I really enjoyed riding through the beautiful scenery as the hours ticked by and my mind wandered to thoughts back home, where my wife was pregnant with our first baby. An exciting future lay ahead!

But back to the task in hand. I was feeling good and had plenty of food, so I decided not to stop at the Oykel Bridge Hotel, thinking I would stop for a quick break in a few miles at the next pub marked on the map. I continued alone past the Oykel Bridge Hotel, in which I knew a few of the HT550 cyclists were having lunch. The road climbed slowly but I paced myself and continued in my reflective state to the village of Rosehall, where my intended lunch spot was closed. No matter, I made myself a cheese sandwich and had a packet of cheesy puffs before continuing. Alan was surprised to see me again and was shocked that I had skipped the pub, an option he had clearly not considered!

The next section was wonderful. I rode with Alan up the valley along the River Cassley. More stunning Highland scenery with a bright blue sky. We talked our way along the next few miles, until we entered a large plain alongside the river. There were hundreds of deer scattered across the grassland, I had never seen so many. The fertile pasture reminded me of my bikepacking trip across Mongolia, the only other place I had seen so many grazing animals in one place. Alan was faster than me again as I was still trying to pace myself, bearing in mind what was coming over the next couple of days so I continued alone as he went ahead. My ankles were hurting again and I was starting to worry about whether they would survive the next 300 miles. I moved the cleats on my shoes backwards and put my saddle down a bit, which took a bit of the strain off them.

I continued up a very steep road climb followed by a flowing road descent through patchy heather to the giant Loch Shin. I was now further north than I had ever been in the UK and nearing the most northerly part of the HT550 route. I knew that this included the long ascent and descent of the Beallach Horn, following a remote track through the moorland of North-West Sutherland, almost at the tip of Scotland. As it was getting late in the evening, I wanted to make sure I got over this hurdle before dark as a technical descent of a large mountain in the dark was not ideal.

A beautiful road along the shore of Loch Merkland provided some easy miles, followed by a well—surfaced gravel track that led to a spectacularly situated lodge. Soon, though, I left the main trail and followed a small shooting vehicle track along the wonderfully named Glen Golly. The track got steeper and steeper and less well defined as I gained altitude but I was feeling great, despite having been low on energy a couple of hours earlier. I managed to ride bits of the trail, and hiked other bits, straining on my handlebars and using the brakes to ensure I didn’t slip backwards down the slope. Sooner than I expected, I had reached the high point in this vast landscape, which was almost entirely unspoilt, a rocky, mountainous amphitheatre, dotted with little pools of waters, with no human settlements in sight.

I later found out that this section of the race had claimed one of the early leaders, Huw. He had had stomach problems, probably from contaminated water, and that combined with the unusually hot conditions had caused him to become dizzy and require assistance off the mountain. Fortunately, another rider, Scott had scratched from the race and helped Huw down, saving him from a very tricky situation. This was a real shame for both guys, who had made such a strong start to the race.

I couldn’t believe the condition of the trails across the moorland. I could imagine that during a more normal span of Scottish weather, this ground would have been boggy and waterlogged. The trails that day however, were dry and dusty and the descent from the pass was wonderful. A flowing, rocky, rollercoaster of a ride down to a midge-infested grassland on the banks of Loch Stack, illuminated by the evening twilight. I was feeling good still and considering continuing a bit further, but I ran into Stu Taylor and Alan again at a barn that they had been given permission to sleep in. The shelter it provided from the midges was too tempting, so I shared a bit of concrete floor with Stu, blew up my sleeping mat, ate some pasta, set my alarm for four in the morning then crashed out at the end of a totally awesome day’s riding.

Alan Goldsmith cycling through Strath Rannoch

Trail along the River Cassley

My bike, “lurch” at our lunch stop

Looking back down the climb up the Bealach Horn 

A Lochan on the Bealach Horn

Dusk on the Bealach Horn

Day 3: To Fisherfield, via a morning of culinary delights

I awoke at the same time as Stu and Alan and we set off together. Unfortunately, soon into the ride, my Achilles tendons were really hurting so I decided to stop and adjust the position of the cleats again to try to take the pressure off them. I moved them as far back as I could so that my feet were much further forward on the pedals. This made a huge difference and I think this decision may have saved my ride. This combined with wrapping them up with a couple of compression bandages was enough to get me going that day and after a couple of ibuprofen kicked in, I was fighting fit once more. I think the combination of the stiff carbon frame and the unsupportive shoe/pedal combination I had chosen was not helping the situation. When I next do a long bikepacking ride, I will need to look at alternative setups.

A short tarmac section later, I was climbing once more over a steep fireroad through a pine plantation. The road rose over a small pass and then descended to a lovely coastal road that passed through Kylestome, Kylesku and Unapool; the first small villages I had been in for what seemed like an eternity. With plenty of food and water, I pushed on as it was still early and there were more places to restock coming up soon. I crossed an impressive bridge over a sea loch, then took what must be one of the hilliest roads in the country. The narrow country lane skirts the Southern shore of Eddrachillis Bay; climbing inland, then descending to coastal inlets and rivers repeatedly.

It was a beautiful and fairly straightforward ride to the lovely village of Drumbeg, where a group of HT550 riders were sat having breakfast. The Drumbeg Store’s owners are historic supports of the ride and they stay open late and open early during the HT550, allowing riders to stock up and have a well-earned rest. I ate and drank a lot; a giant tuna baguette, crisps, flapjacks, bananas, a bottle of smoothie and two mugs of black coffee. I felt a hundred times better after half an hour’s rest, then I set off again, with lots of food in my bags, ready for the wilderness that lay ahead.

It was a lovely morning ride, skirting the headland on a tarmac road, past a number of beaches, campsites and small hamlets. I could have been anywhere in the world, it felt so far away from England, this little slice of paradise in the north of our little island. Soon, the trail left the road and followed a small off-road track around the headland. This was the bit that Lee Craigee, the leading female rider this year had missed the previous year and had been disqualified. This must have been heart-breaking as the navigation error had been caused by a battery issue on her garmin and offered her very little advantage. I made sure not to make the same mistake though and followed the undulating path to the town of Lochinver.

After a few minutes of riding along the undulating single track, I heard tyres rolling up behind me. It was Pete McNeal. He was looking in good shape and I was going through a bit of a dip in energy, so I let him past and didn’t try to keep up. On a long ride like this, you must keep to your own pace, trying to ride at somebody else’s is a bad idea. At times you feel good, so it’s important to capitalise on it and get some fast miles in, at times you don’t and it’s then a mental battle to keep your spirits up. I was going through one at that time and kept persuading myself to keep going, bribing myself with a treat from the town of Lochinver that I knew lay ahead thanks to the sticker I had made and stuck to the top tube of my frame.

Fortunately, this section didn’t last long, and I was back on tarmac before I knew it. A few miles past by in a bit of a blur. This section was very picturesque, with lots of white sand beaches and caravan parks on the roadside, it would be a wonderful place to come on holiday. I rolled into the village of Lochinver and saw two HT550 bikes outside the Lochinver Larder. I recognised the Sonder Transmitter to be Pete’s and the Scott Spark to be Alan’s. I entered and they had both only just arrived. We all ordered pie and coffee and had a very well-earned rest. The steak and ale pie was exquisite.

After a decent length break, the three of us left together. I was feeling a million times better and now Pete, Alan and I were riding at a similar pace as we began the climb up to the next major off-road section: The Ledmore Traverse. I was really feeling good now and took the lead in the group of three that we were riding in. Soon Pete and I were riding ahead of Alan and at quite a pace across a remote, barren hilltop, with lots of large boulders and smaller rocks strewn across the ground. Both of us are good technical riders so we were able to ride this section very quickly and soon caught up with a few of the riders who had been ahead of us, including Stu Taylor once again. The traverse between Lochinver and the road leading back to Oykel bridge took me 3 hours and 32 minutes of hard riding, and I was delighted to find once I uploaded my route to Strava, a app that tracks people’s rides, that I had got the King of the Mountain on this section (fastest ever rider)!

Using our phones to get an update of the race progress, we could see that we were doing well and were in about 10th place (as a group). The leader, Javi, appeared to be in trouble. Asking the barman what he knew, he said that he had heard the Javi had had a problem with his rear wheel and this had slowed him down. He had been stationary for a couple of hours but appeared to be moving again. Alex Pilkington and Lee Craigee were close behind in second and third but no-one else appeared to be in the running for the win.

Stu was just behind me when I reached the road and there was a tailwind blowing so we quickly made progress on the smooth tarmac and before long we were back in Oykel bridge, having completed the northernmost loop of the HT550. This time I did stop for food; a large burger and onion rings as well as a pint of coke. It was a really hot day and the break from the beating sunshine was most welcome.

Pete, Stu, Alan and I left the pub together and continued in a group. Alan and Stu were going faster than Pete and me, so they cycled on ahead on a gravel track following the River Einig. We turned off up a narrow track that climbed up to the secluded Loch an Daimh; a long and narrow body of water perched in wide valley with barren, grassy slopes. From the south-west end of the loch we traversed around the hillside, before descending steeply to the much lower River Douchary that runs into another fair-sized lake; Loch Achall. By the end of the descent, Pete and I were back with Stu and Alan, so we cycled on together, discussing what we were going to buy in the large Tesco shop that lay ahead in Ullapool. A quick climb followed by a fantastic singletrack descent led us into the comparative metropolis of Ullapool. Although Ullapool is actually a village of 1,500 people, after having cycled through the remote Scottish Highlands for the past two days, it seemed a town of unrivalled luxury. I purchased half of the food in Tesco and more ibuprofen and bandages to strap up my problematic ankles. We sat as a group in front of the main entrance and no doubt the poor locals were confused to see four lycra-clad, exhausted and smelly cyclists lounging on the paving stones in front of their shop.

Over time, the group got bigger so that by the time we left Ullapool, we were a group of six. The group included four riders who had done the HT550 before, and they were all talking with some trepidation about the coffin road; our next climb. This infamous footpath rises from the shores of Loch Broom, a sea loch on which Ullapool is situated. It climbs 400 metres, or which 300 occurs in around one kilometre – rather a steep hike-a-bike. There is a network of these old traacks throughout the Munros of the Highlands, which were used to transport corpses to their final place of rest. The location of their grave was determined by their church, so they had to be transported over sometimes large distances, a very difficult journey in what must often have been extremely harsh conditions. Due to Scotland’s right-to-roam laws, these can now be used by mountain bikers to travel to the most remote corners of the country, including Fisherfield; to where the coffin road we were about to take led.

Having cycled twelve kilometres along the main road along the side of Loch Broom I was feeling good again, having eaten well at Tesco and taken more pain killers to mask the aches from my dodgy Achilles tendons. We reached the turning from the road and ahead lay a very steep valley side. After a short rideable section, I lifted my bike onto my back and started walking. I didn’t stop until I reached the top, out of breath, sweating and exhausted, but looking forward to the descent ahead. Alan was with me but we had left everyone else behind us so we continued towards Fisherfield. A steep descent lay ahead, a wonderful piece of singletrack that was technical enough to raise the adrenaline levels but all rideable.

At the bottom I was alone once more and crossed the Dundonell River, before climbing up the next pass on a steep gravel track. I enjoyed getting into a rhythm and switched my mind off until I reached the top, where started another long descent which was technical and slower. I was caught by Stu who was riding a full suspension bike and was descending quicker than me. I was also tiring and the pain in my ankles returning so I took it easy as I finally reached the spectacular view over Fisherfield. It is without a doubt one of the most spectacular places I have ever been to. The vastness of the magnificent, glacial-formed U-shaped valley, completely untouched by human influence was humbling. On the far horizon, a series of lochs disappeared into the distance in the evening light. The valley is surrounded by large mountains including five Munros (over 3,000 feet) and the meandering river in the bottom of the valley gave way to the stunning Loch na Sealga, in front of which was the best location to cross the river to continue the route to the south.

Scotland really is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I have been to some of the most stunning landscapes that exist, including the Pamirs of Tajikistan, Yosemite National Park in the USA, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the empty deserts of Central Asia, the Indian Himalayas, the Mongolian Steppe and many other contenders. Fisherfield is right up there and is possibly the most stunning landscape I have ever seen.Having cautiously descended to the valley floor I continued with Stu. We chatted and both felt a rest would do us good. Stu said he intended to sleep tonight for the last time on the HT550. I thought this was crazy as we still had around 300 kilometres remaining. We both planned to find a good spot, then to get a few hours’ rest before continuing. The midges were bad in the valley though so we thought we would see if there was space in the bothy at Shenevall, which was few kilometres along the river. Unfortunately, it was full of drunk Dutch hikers, so we gave it a miss and continued to the loch side. It was as good a time as any to attempt the river crossing, so we took off our shoes, tied them to our bikes and waded the river. It can get very deep, up to neck height apparently. Fortunately, the long spell of dry weather meant that the crossing never got above our knees. We reached the other side, set up our sleeping kit in a stiff breeze, which was a mercy since it kept the midges away. The full moon lit up a panoramic view of the mountain lined loch, in both directions along the glorious valley; perhaps the most spectacular place I have ever slept. I fell asleep quickly, shortly after midnight having set my alarm for four hours’ time: what a day.

Pie in Lochinver

Looking down on Fisherfield

Sunset in Fisherfield

Fisherfield moonrise

Moonrise and sunset in Fisherfield

Bivvying in Scotland’s wilderness

Day 4: All night long

After just four hours sleep, it took me a little while longer than Stu to get going as I had to go through the process of strapping up my ankles again. They were very stiff, sore and more worryingly swollen when I woke up. I took some ibuprofen again and a few minutes later the pain and grinding sensation I felt when moving my ankles reduced a bit and I was ready to get going. Having packed up my bivvy bag, air mattress and sleeping bag and eaten a peanut butter sandwich, I set off for another long day. I cycled the first few hundred metres then started a long push up the southern side of the valley. Stu was visible on the slope ahead and I used him to mark my pace, slowly closing the gap between us. After gaining around 400 metres of altitude, the steep path levelled off and was rideable once again. Stu had stopped for a bite to eat so I caught up with him and we rode together once more, until yet another glorious view greeted us.

We rounded a corner and below us was another vast landscape. Dubh Loch lay beneath us, separated from the much larger Fionn Loch by a narrow causeway that we would soon ride over. On the horizon sat two large mountains with rocky cliffs lining their sides. Fionn Loch stretched out into the distance under another glorious blue sky. After a slow start and a low point mentally, I remembered where I was; one of the most remote and most beautiful parts of Scotland. This cheered me up and after the adrenaline fuelled descent that followed, I was wide awake. Stu rode all of the descent down to the valley floor. I rode most of the wonderful flowing single track but didn’t risk some of the more technical switchbacks and drops as I didn’t want to risk breaking my bike or myself. Stu was ahead of me once more, but I was ready for a section of riding alone. I wanted to experience this lonely landscape, well, alone…

A slow climb, followed by a descent on a mixture of a wide forest track and more excellent singletrack led me to the vast Loch Maree and the start of the historic Postman’s Path. This twelve kilometre path is so-named as it was used by the postman to deliver letters to Letterewe Lodge; an incredible ten-bedroomed building that is not accessible by road, only by boat over the loch. This must have been quite a journey for said postman, who used to run the length of the path both ways in order to deliver the letters. Apparently a man was sent up from London to investigate this route and, unused to such extreme conditions, required rescue by the postman, who carried both the man and the mail back to Kinlochewe!

It took me around three hours to negotiate the twelve kilometres to Kinlochewe and I look back on this section as the most difficult of the whole ride. I wasn’t expecting such a long hike-a-bike, having not researched this section of the route properly. I started the path, expecting to be in the café in Kinlochewe in a bit over an hour. It was hard going, scorching hot and mentally very tough. I zoned out as I pushed through the beautiful countryside; steep grassy hillsides above the giant loch that lay below. The path entered a woodland, I rode a little and dropped down to a stream, I carried my bike up a rocky outcrop, I pushed my bike along a technical section, then descended a grassy slope. This process repeated itself for three hours. The only other rider I met on this section was Phil. I thought I was going slow, but we kept passing each other and the fact that another HT550er was going at around the same pace as me was reassuring. We didn’t talk much, both being exhausted at this point and having one shared goal in mind; the café that lay ahead.

Finally… finally, I reached the end of the hike-a-bike and onto a rideable track that soon led to the road. I rolled into the small town and straight into the Whistle Stop Café at last. Stu was there, as were Steve and Phil. We sat together, eating huge amounts of food and in one of two states of mind. Stu and I were buzzing to have covered the distance and feeling good about continuing. My ankles were swollen and hurting again but I was otherwise loving this experience. I took some ibuprofen and soon felt better. Phil was finding things difficult in the heat and planned to take a long break in the café. Steve looked relaxed but ready for a break and was charging his gps that was almost out of battery. Stu and I ate up and left as soon as we could (Stu a few minutes before me) Steve and Phil remained behind.

I was alone again but feeling strong after a huge meal followed by cake. A pretty track alongside the River Coulin, followed by a steeper rocky trail led me to the Drochaid Coire Lair Pass and the start of one of the best descents of the ride. Steep, rocky, flowy and technical, the descent went on and on. I was taking it easy as I didn't want to fall off on this rocky ground and there were plenty of small drops and features that could have caused a crash. About two thirds of the way down, I came across Stu. He was sitting by his bike and bleeding. He had had a fall but not injured himself badly. He told me he had been enjoying the riding too much and had ridden it too fast. He was adjusting the position of a few components that had been twisted round in his fall but had almost finished. After checking that he was alright, we continued on together for the rest of the descent that led to an easy road section alongside the River Carron.

The relaxed riding along the river leading to its estuary was welcome as I digested and thought about the ride so far. I was very surprised with my speed and had been delighted to find that I was in the top ten riders when I had checked in the cafe back in Kinlochewe. Alex Pilkington, Lee Craigee and Javi Simon were miles ahead but I had a chance of beating most of the other riders. Could I finish in the top ten? I had just wanted to finish this monster route and had had no expectations of being competitive. I looked down at the sticker on my frame. Could I complete the rest of the route without sleeping? No… that would be too much; but maybe a very short sleep to recuperate and then finish the following day at a good time. I could book a hotel and sleep as soon as I got back to Tyndrum. I had a plan. I needed to do as many miles as possible before midnight…

In a bit of a daze I rode on up a gravel track climb led out of Attadale, then a slow grassy section and a lovely descent along the meandering Glen Ling back to a tarmac road near Loch Long. Time seemed to have lost meaning; I was just existing in this odd state. I felt very mentally strong and physically fine despite the many miles in my legs. I felt I could go on for hours. It was great to have some company and we chatted about the plan for the evening ahead of us. Stu also planned to go as far as possible today and sleep very little. I was enjoying having some company after having been isolated for most of the morning. It looked like we were on course to complete this ride at a similar time so we planned to cycle on together for the time being. We rolled in to the beautiful coastal town of Dornie and found a pub that was serving food. We ordered quickly and scoffed down our last proper meal of the day; pie and chips. Steve and another cyclist, Matt, who I had not seen since Fort Augustus rolled in, grabbed a coke and we all left together, passing Eilean Dornie Castle; a beautiful 13th Century castle spectacularly perched on an island just off the coast.

Our route led out of Dornie up a very steep road climb on a small country road that runs more or less parallel to the flat main road along the bank of the sea loch we were following. Inwardly cursing Alan for this additional and rather pointless climb, we reached the top, then descended back to the loch side. We followed this to the River Croe, which led us to the entrance of the wonderful Glen Affric. After a few kilometres of easy riverside trail, the long hike-a-bike began. The four of us had different methods. I alternated between carrying and pushing my bike up the many steps on the rocky path. Steve and Stu exclusively pushed, and Matt carried his bike all the way up. He was the fastest climber and soon opened a gap. The rest of us ascended at a good pace but conserved energy for what lay ahead. It was a glorious evening and as we climbed the winding rocky path past raging waterfalls I remembered the other time I had been to Glen Affric during A fatbike tour of the Highlands the previous summer with my mate Rob. We had descended this path in the mist. Soon we had made it to the top and the magnificent glen opened out in front of us. Its lochs glistening in the evening light, lined by hillsides covered in Scots pine and its moorland stretched into the distance; the way we were heading. Still chatting about our plans for the evening and debating the importance of sleep, we soon reached the Glen Affic Youth Hostel. Steve decided to go and get some sleep and recuperate for tomorrow so he cycled on in search of a place to bivvy. Stu and I entered, in search of a strong coffee. We were still planning to carry on and cycle through the night.

As one often does in remote places such as this, we met some very interesting people at the youth hostel. We tried to discuss what other people were doing over our brief coffee, and heard about mountain hikes, working at the youth hostel for a season and other cycling adventures in the Highlands. However, the conversation kept turning to the “madness” of the challenge we were doing. How do you cycle for 20 hours a day, how do you function on no sleep, etc.? Looking back on the adventure, the answer to these questions is; I don’t know! I think when you’re in the moment, it feels quite unremarkable, however observing it from afar it does seem like a crazy and impressive thing to do. I remember meeting some of the HT550 cyclists the previous year and thinking how impressive it was, doubting my ability to do it myself. Now here I was competing in the race, with a real chance of finishing in the top ten. Better get moving…

Stu and I left the warmth and comfort of the hostel with a caffeine boost and cycled on through Glen Affric. It was now night time so I turned on my Exposure Maxx D light, which despite its weight I was now very pleased to have brought. I was debating leaving it at home in favour of my lighter helmet light but the extra power and battery life was very useful. Having Stu’s company for this section of the route was very valuable and I found that despite my lack of sleep and the seemingly endless physical exertion, I was not tired. In fact, I felt surprisingly energetic, ready to carry on riding for a few more hours. With hindsight though, my memory of this section of the ride lacks detail and it seems a bit of a blur, so perhaps I was more tired that I felt.

We cycled side-by-side along a good quality gravel road that rose and fell up small insignificant climbs and descents, skirted the edge of dark pine forest and then the shores of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin. The terrain passed by as we debated when we could next take a break. For now, we were riding together for the moral support we were offering each other. I can’t describe the scenery of this part of the ride since I couldn’t see further than my light beam but I wasn’t interested in it at that point. Stu and I had decided we would try to push on to the top of the 500 metre pass before we reached the Great Glen. A quick break at the bottom of a steep slope, then we turned off the lochside, and entered another dark forest and over a small pass to the tiny hamlet of Tomich.

I now knew I would make it to the end of the Highland Trail and would have exceeded all my expectations of finishing the ride in a good time. I had also decided that at least a bit of sleep would be necessary for me to make sure that I didn’t risk having an energy crash tomorrow. Stu and I continued up the hill, I ate my secret weapon double espresso energy shot that I had saved for such an occasion and we started the ten kilometre climb that lay ahead. It was relatively easy, being quite steep but the gradient was such that peddling was not uncomfortable and it was a good quality gravel surface. It was another wind farm access track. The nearly full moon lit up the mountain side with an eerie glow as we approached the low cloud layer that sat on the top of the pass. Up and up we climbed until finally we reached the top. It had taken around one and half hours to climb to the top and it took about 15 minutes to descend again to the bottom. We had a smaller pass still to climb before reaching the Great Glen, but had decided that it was now time to sleep.

After unrolling my sleeping mat on a pile of wooden planks, I decided not to bother getting my bivvy bag or tarp out. I set my alarm for one hour’s time and was about to lie down when a bright light appeared on the nearby road. It was Pete again. He was listening to loud drum and bass music and looked wired! He had decided to get over the pass that lay ahead of us today so didn’t stop long to talk. I lay down and it took about 15 minutes of my precious hour to get to sleep. 45 minutes later I woke up, feeling way more tired than I had done when I went to sleep.

Eilean Donan Castle

A waterfall, viewed from the climb up Glen Affric

Day 4 + 7 hours: A limping sprint to the finish

After quick breakfast of energy bars, Stu and I left together once again and headed up the small pass on another forest track. It didn’t take long to reach the top where there was no sign of Pete. Maybe he hadn’t stopped. A fantastic singletrack descent with lots of switchbacks through the forest led us back to Fort Augustus but nothing was open since it was still the middle of the night so we didn’t stop for long. Stu continued while I had to stop for a hasty toilet trip but I was determined we would continue riding together for a while longer as I have experienced riding the Great Glen a couple of time before. I associate it with a headwind and a very long, relatively flat gravel track. It did not disappoint and was a significant mental hurdle to overcome with company. Alone it would have been far more difficult. So I worked hard to catch up with Stu, crouching down in a time trial position with my arms resting on the handlebars along the flat cycle track along the Caledonian Canal. I soon caught up with Stu again and we rode side-by-side, even at this late stage we were following the rules: no drafting.

The Caledonian Canal is an incredible feat of engineering. It links the Scottish east coast at Inverness to the west coast at Fort William. About one third of the canal is manmade, the other two thirds being formed by a series of lochs, including Loch Ness, that lie in the Great Glen; a geological fault line that divides the Scottish Highlands. The route through the Great Glen is nearly 100 kilometres long and the canal was built by Thomas Telford to provide a safe shortcut for fishing vessels. The Great Glen Way is also a fantastic cycling route, which I thoroughly recommend doing, but ideally from Fort William rather than towards it, to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction. It is more pleasant as a relaxed cycle tour, as I did with a group of friends six years previously. Today, it was a slog, but not a difficult one and before long, the canal gave way to Loch Oich.

The Great Glen Way follows the southern side of Loch Oich, along an old railway line with spectacular views across the water before reaching the Laggan Lochs that separate it from the giant Loch Lochy. Following the northern shore of Loch Lochy, the track undulates along the bottom of two Munros before once again reaching the Caledonian Canal which leads to the coast. It passed in a bit of a blur but my ankles started hurting again so I popped two more ibuprofen tablets hoping that I wasn’t doing myself any serious damage by continuing to ride on my injury. I was soon in Fort William, having passed the Neptune’s Staircase; the longest staircase loch in the Britain.

The Highland Trail route took me passed a large Co-op, outside of which there was a small gathering of Highland Trail riders, including Pete. I quickly stocked up in the shop and jettisoned lots of my uneaten but squashed food and some of my disgusting wet socks in a bin outside the shop. I scoffed about 2,000 calories worth of sandwiches and snacks. I was in a rush, as was Pete, but the other riders seemed to be more laidback. Pete left, so I followed soon after and caught up with him as our route joined the West Highland Way, heading towards Glen Coe.

I love this section of the West Highland Way. The climb from Fort William was beautiful as it wound its way up to the “great pass”; Lairigmor. Bright sunshine made the going hot and sticky between the steep mountain sides that lined the excellent track. This was proper mountain biking once more, challenging but all rideable. It was made more difficult by the furious pace the Pete was setting. He was clearly feeling very good still. I managed to ride with him for most of the way up the pass but in the end, I had to let him go due to the pain in my ankles. I needed to take it easy and it looked like Pete was stronger than me for this last section.

Passing some old farm buildings, nestled between towering mountains, I continued alone. I knew that it would be very difficult to finish ahead of Pete now, but that if I could hold of the other riders I would finish in sixth place, which I thought was pretty respectable for my first attempt on the HT550. I carried on at more relaxed pace and soon reached the top of the pass, before descending to Kinlochleven, now taking it easy due to the jarring pains that were shooting up my legs. Two more ibuprofen later, I reached the small town. I didn’t stop as I thought my legs would lock up. Pete was their having a snack outside a small shop but when he saw me pass, he quickly got on his bike and chased me down. He was clearly feeling competitive too!

He passed me again on the climb up to the top of the Devil’s Staircase at the end of Glen Coe. It is an absolute brute of a climb, very steep and seemingly endless. Pete disappeared up it, riding the steepest sections of the tracks. My ankles were too painful to attempt it and I was quicker pushing. Using different muscles meant that the pain was much less when walking so I got into a rhythm and hiked to the top of the pass, making fairly quick progress. Approaching the pass, there are views for a long way back along the track. I was pleased to see no other bikepackers in view. I must have been at least 30 minutes ahead of the next rider back. I reached the top and didn’t stop so all the photos you see below are from previous visits to Glen Coe, one of my favourite parts of Scotland.

The Devil’s Staircase is a great descent into the wonderful U-shaped glacial valley; Glen Coe. The sheer size of the valley makes you feel insignificant. It contains some of the best walking in the country; including the lost valley where the MacDonald clan hid their rustled cattle and the Aonach Eagach knife-edge ridge, a memorable and slightly terrifying cliff-top scramble I completed as a teenager. It is also the site of the Glen Coe massacre, where 30 members of the MacDonald clan were killed for not pledging allegiance to their new King and Queen. With memories of previous trips to Glen Coe revolving in my head, I continued out of the valley and on to the edge of Rannoch Moor, following the singletrack trail, then crossing the main road on to the south side of the valley. One memory struck me in particular, the end of the biking leg of an ironman-length triathlon I had completed a few years previously, before the running leg that took me to the top of Ben Nevis. In comparison to the Highland Trail, that event was very easy.

However, with 500 miles of bikepacking behind me, I felt ready to sprint to the finish. The West Highland Way proved to be a relatively simple last leg on the wide track that led mostly downhill to Inveroran. The scorching sun still beat down and I was running low on energy and my ankles were now very sore. I didn’t have far to go but I had given up on catching Pete. Confident in my sizeable lead over my nearest competitor behind however, I decided that I had time to stop for a snack at the pub there. I ordered two packets of crisps and a pint of coke. I scoffed them and downed it respectively, then I headed on to the sting in the tail. Sadistically, Alan Goldsmith had added an additional hill to climb over on the home straight. I enjoyed it somehow, and pushed up the steepest section, before a fantastic singletrack descent back to the road at Brige of Orchy. I love this about Scotland, if there is a track, you can ride your bike on it, unlike the other countries in the United Kingdom. Although Wales is following suit in the near future.

At the bottom of the descent a drone with a camera flew behind me filming my progress. This was something that Stu had arranged for a video diary of the trip he was making. I couldn’t wait to see it. Then it hit me, I was nearly back in Tyndrum, I had nearly made it…

Ten kilometres later, I had climbed to the top of the last hill. My legs were agony but there was no one in sight behind me. I enjoyed the last descent, a short gravel track that I had ridden up at the start of the race just over four days ago. Then it was over. Javi was there at the finish line, clapping me over. I almost fell off my bike while somebody passed me a cool beer. Pete had finished half an hour or so before me and we congratulated one another. The feeling of jubilation was hard to describe. I had just completed the most difficult physical challenge of my life and I was delighted. I waited for Stu to finished, clapped him over the line, then headed back to my van. It was here that I realised how tired I was. I had to drive about 400 metres to my hotel and it took me ages. I kept misjudging the steering and I stalled twice. It was very strange to be so exhausted that I was almost unable to drive properly. Eventually I parked the van outside the hotel and checked in for a night. I slept for a few hours during mid-afternoon then met the others in a pub. After a couple of beers, we went back to the start line. Alan Goldsmith was finishing in a new record time for him. We cheered him over the line then went back to the pub and shared stories. Lee, Javi, Nelson Trees, Pete, Stu, Alan and I were all there and it was wonderful to share that time with like-minded individuals. You would have thought that we would all want a break from bikepacking for a while, but all anyone could talk about was the next adventure…

Easy riding on the Great Glen Way

Looking north up the Great Glen

The finish line

A huge thanks to the riders I spent time with on the HT550, particularly Stu, Pete and Alan, with whom I spent the most time riding. 

And a massive thanks to Alan Goldsmith for organising this wonderful, unique event. I'll be back for another go soon.