Online Feature: West Highland Way On A Mountain Bike With One Brake

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Reproduced from his blog at nest, here is Dene Happell’s tale of his three day ride across the West Highland Way. Lots of stunning shots and …

I always fancied riding The West Highland Way. In July I managed to convince my friend Kevan it would be a good idea, at the beginning of October we did it. Here’s our story;

Day One – Milngavie to Inverarnan 40 miles 11 hours with stops

Left Milngavie at 10am and set off full of energy and enthusiasm about the trip ahead. We soon left the familiarity of Mugdock and descended quickly into Dumgoyne along some lovely tight singletrack, passing the many walkers, the sun beat down on us and the blue skies opened up, the hills increased in size, was this a taste of things to come?

After a quick refuel in Drymen we set off towards Balmaha, I had a niggling feeling my back brake was a bit dodgy. Leaving the Garadhban Forrest we were soon out in the open heading towards Conic Hill and the heavens opened, wet and grinning, we pushed to the top. After a quick check of my bike I realised my back brake was knackered – the piston had snapped off – just what I needed. This made the descent of Conic Hill a bit interesting as I slid down on my front wheel most of the way. After lunch in The Oak Tree I called the various bike shops to see if they could arrange for a brake to be sent on ahead. No joy. That was it then, I had no alternative, I decided to cycle the rest of the way with one brake, I’d swap the front one to the back at the next stop.

We cycled and carried our bikes the 7 miles along the loch side road and path to Rowardennan, passing and smelling wild mountain goats as they meandered along the road. We reached Inversnaid around 5.30pm and the rain had just started again. Initially the path looked OK and rideable and we had fun trying to work out where Rob Roy’s cave actually was. I’d researched the stage between Inversnaid and Inverarnan and been told it was a little tricky but rideable. Nothing prepared us for the nightmare ahead. It took us 4 hours to do this 7 mile section carrying our bikes up, over and down steep rocks and thorough tight crevasses. The ground was muddy and slippy, the rain was heavy and we were losing light fast. We passed the bothy on route, its welcoming candle in the window acting like a siren to our needs.

If you enjoy lugging 30lbs bike over piles of rocks then this is for you, if not hop on the ferry across the loch and rejoin the WHW at Rowardennan. This section is rubbish with a bike, don’t bother attempting it.

We were exhausted, had one small head torch between us and beginning to wonder what we were doing out here alone in the dark. After a gruelling 4 hours, we eventually saw the welcoming lights of The Drovers Inn and spirits lifted, made our way there. The bar has a certain charm about it although the rooms are a fair bit more shabby than chic. After a quick bath we devoured haggis and whisky – the best way to refuel after a day like we had. Sleep quickly set in and we hit our beds by 11.

Day Two – Inverarnan to Kingshouse Hotel 32 miles 5 1/2 hours with stops

We awoke to the clatter of diving rain against the broken window and mentally prepared ourselves for the next 32 mile stretch in the downpour. We decided to delay our departure til 12 and see if the weather cleared, this gave me time to swap my brakes over and get a super tacky High Roller up front. By the time we’d got our stuff together the rain stopped and the sun popped out.

We managed the first few miles at a decent pace and the joy and enthusiasm returned. It’s an easy ride from Inverarnnan to Crainlarich with a really nice descent through the woods. I had my stomach in my mouth a couple of times forgetting I only had one brake and nearly ended up over the wrong side of a waterfall.

Onto Tyndrum and a refuel and the great The Real Food Cafe. Easy ride to Bridge of Orchy – a long, slow descent over the old motor road, riding in the ominous shadow of the graceful Beinn Odhar and Beinn Dorain.

We were soon climbing out of Bridge of Orchy through the forrest to the top of Mam Carraigh and a great, rocky, technical descent down to The Inveroran Hotel. The ride was made all the more interesting with only one brake – maybe this was the new way to ride? I definitely enjoyed sliding around on my back wheel rather than drifting on my front wheel.

It’s then a slow, steady climb through The Black Mount and Rannoch Moor. Riding so close to the enormous mountains on our left hand side was a humbling experience, it felt like their giant cupped hand was about to scoop us up and embrace us for eternity.

We were relieved to eventually arrive at the cairn which marked the end of the ascent, both of us starting to feel a bit weary. Our tiredness quickly disappeared as we were greeted with 3 miles of amazing rocky doubletrack leading us all the way to The Kingshouse. What an awesome end to the day’s riding.

Day Three – Kingshouse Hotel to Fort William 22 miles 5 hours with stops

Looking out of my bedroom window in the morning I could see deer grazing on the lawn, overshadowed by the monstrous wonder that is Stob Dearg. The sun was out, the sky was blue, we had an epic day’s riding ahead of us.

We quickly caught up with the tourists fighting their way up The Devil’s Staircase, managing to overtake most of them before the almost 5 mile descent into Kinlochleven. This is great riding, sweeping switch backs, burns, rocks and boulders with the occasional rocky slab thrown in for good measure. A few sections are there to catch you out and snake bites are common place, (the ones on your inner tubes, that is).

After a quick lunch we climbed slowly out of KLL, noting the various spots where home had been shot, and made our way onto the old military road through Lairigmor. The scenery here is breath taking and you feel so alone in the remote and barren wildness. This is incredible big country riding, the mountains either side so enormous we had to keep stopping just to take it all in.

The 3 mile descent was great too, it lead us all the way towards Fort Bill with the occasional glimpse of Ben Nevis in the distance. We were nearly there!

With the chance of catching the 5.30 train and surprising our wives back in Glasgow we sped on with the wind blowing through the glen behind us.

The journey ended with us racing and laughing along the fire road to the youth hostel. Here we picked up our luggage which had been dropped of earlier by Travel Lite (well worth doing rather than lugging all your extra kit with you). We then cycled into town for the ubiquitous snaps in front of the now two official old and new endings.

What an amazing, epic, big mountain ride, definitely worth doing if you like mountains and biking.

Doable over a couple of days but certainly more fun over three. Do it in one if you’re fitness fiend and like that kind of thing. Definitely don’t bother with the Inversnaid section. We rode it south to north and the riding was great. Not so sure it’d be as good the other way round.

Do’s and Dont’s

Do take a friend or two. Them mountains are pretty big and will eat you alive.

Do take spare brake pads and all the usual kit needed for big mountain riding.

Do make sure you have more than enough water and energy bars.

Do take your full susser. A hard tail would be pretty hard going.

Do take the usual midge repellent in the summer and waterproof gear in the autumn and winter.

Get out there and enjoy it!

Dene’s day job is as a designer and builder of some rather lovely home extensions and improvements around Glasgow and Scotland – take a look at this site HERE.

Comments (6)

    Nice one. I fancy Tydrum to FW in a day, and back on the next.

    i did this in may 2010 3 days of hot sun, just one tip get the train to fort william an ride back to glasgow the descents are better an you can ride most of the techy climbs no hike a bike 🙂

    I really should have done the whole thing when I lived 3 miles away from the start, now im 300 miles away i’ve got no chance!!
    Good effort, esp with 1 brake. Dont fancy the devils staircase with just one though!

    Riding with one brake just sharpens up your skills. Make sure its just your back brake though, riding with just the front is no good. You’d be surprised how much more speed you carry through corners as a result : )

    I actually did this a few years ago with my girlfriend. She was borrowing my singlespeed as she didn’t have a bike then, and I was riding my Specialized hybrid with 42mm slick tyres and v brakes. It was ace.

    Sounds like it was quite an adventure!!
    Anyone thinking of doing the West Highland Way will be inspired by your blog for sure. And they will find the following short video useful.
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