Bonus content! This is Chris Hinds’ full diary from his Great British Divide 2021. We’ve used a lot of images to try and illustrate the enormity and repetition of the ride, so you’ll likely find this article is best viewed on a desktop or laptop, rather than your phone.
Day 1 Canterbury
I could have done with more sleep but pre-race anxiety and the late night partying of Canterbury have done their best to prevent that. The day doesn’t get much better when I head down to breakfast to find that the chef’s done a runner and it’s the hotel manager doing the cooking. Having missed registration yesterday I’m supposed to be at the start early today for signing on, but the world is conspiring against this; a potent mix of luck and procrastination is finally catching up with me. I catch sight of a weirdly familiar face at breakfast and do the weird ‘I don’t know you but we’re clearly off to do the same event as we’re standing in bibs at breakfast’ introduction. We grab a table and talk about the joys of home moves and renovation while breakfast is served. Talking to Josh Ibbett is a pleasant distraction from the enormity of what is to come, inevitably I chat too long, now chasing my tail to get to the start line in time.
First section of hikeabike comes in the form of trying to negotiate my loaded bike down the spiral staircase of ye olde Travelodge, an omen of things to come… 10km to the start line but not before I’ve found a post box to post my casual clothes home, a cunning plan to avoid carrying excess kit, that is until I get the postal bag stuck and end up standing at the side of the road punching a post box till it reluctantly accepts my offering. In true fashion I arrive at the start line, late, stressed and a bit all over the shop, trying to juggle fitting a tracker, sorting brevet cards and not lose my wallet while trying to hold a conversation with the event team. Organisation and focus ain’t my strong point.
Eventually I’m gathered with the rest of the riders, small groups sitting silently in contemplation or discussing bike set-ups, the usual mix of nervous silence butting up against nervous humour. There’s a mix of gravel and mountain bikes at the start, no one too sure of the Goldilocks set-up at this point, and various quantities of baggage. I’ve gone pretty minimalist this time round, but I’m having second thoughts seeing the amount of kit everyone else has – too late to raid that post box for some more clothes?
Soon enough the first wave of riders is called up, we’re off in groups of eight at two minute intervals. Just a bit of spacing to string things out at the start. I’m off in wave two and with no real idea of pacing decide to follow Donnacha’s wheel for a bit and see what happens. Trundling single file through wheat fields the scenery is very much hitting the stereotypes for what I’m expecting the south to be like. To my shame I’ve not really explored the UK much, part of the reason for entering this event and I’m interested to see what it’s like. We soon catch up with the lead group of Josh and Niel, the four of us rolling through towards the start of the South Downs Way. Donnacha pushes on and we lose Niel while I chat to Josh for a bit, trusting in his experience to manage the pace, eventually we catch back to Donnacha and riding as a three again. The terrain so far is pretty mellow, some fun swoopy singletrack and relatively chilled bridleway action on towards Jevington (apparently birthplace of the Banoffee Pie?) and the start of the South Downs Way. Not without its hazards though as Josh finds out when he slices the sidewall of his tyre; it feels odd leaving someone in your group to sort themselves out. but he’s got spares and there isn’t much else we can really do – there’s also that feeling in the back of your head that there’s an unspoken competitive element to it, so the two of us push on. As we hit the road sections I use my clip-on bars a bit more, it’s early days but I’m determined to minimise the stress on my hands as much as I can. Before I know it I’m out on my own at the front but the two of us will leapfrog for the next few days, meeting at level crossings and resupply points. I might have the better speed but Donnacha is hyper-efficient and unrelenting.
The change in topography upon hitting the South Downs is jarring; gone are the winding bridleways, replaced by steep chalky singletrack climbs onto the top of these rolling hills with amazing vistas over to the South Coast. The views to the sea and the slowly setting sun is amazing and to an avid childhood fan of MBUK, pure utter Mint Sauce, I’ve never seen anything like it. Smiling at the memory while churning across the draggy grass tops of the hills, it feels like I’m riding over giant pillows, steep climbs onto a big rounded top before a screaming descent back down, wash, rinse and repeat for 100miles. Soon it’s dark enough for lights as I buzz down the steep slippery chalk descents, fatigue starting to show from last night’s poor sleep. Any fatigue disappears in an instant of adrenaline as a badger shoots out from the undergrowth, we both duel it out on the singletrack, no easy bail out for either of us, I focus instead on holding my line and in true Glaswegian fashion scream a litany of expletives for what feels like an eternity. I’ve a healthy respect for Meles meles and the last thing I want is to be in a tangled heap with a pissed off badger. After what feels like a lifetime he ducks off into a hedge and I can slow my descent to take a breather.
Unfortunately I don’t take this as a cue for a break and push on until the inevitable happens and on the next descent I go OTB into a barbed wire fence. I tentatively go over myself by torch light, waiting to find the gash that signals the end of my race before day one. I’ve shredded my jersey (time to put Rapha crash repair to the test), but other than some bruises and a chunky cut to my finger I’ve got away without too much damage, lucky. Duly chastened, I roll down to the valley floor to find somewhere to sleep for the night; adrenaline has bled off and I’m dog tired. I find a field with a comfy looking corner of cut hay, nestled against the hedge. I set my bivvy up, out of sight behind the hedge and crawl into my sleeping bag. A quick dinner of energy bar and honey roast cashews and I’m done for the night. Sleep should come easy but the day’s nettle stings and thorn scratches gnaw at me, it’s looking to be a long (short) night… 220km in the bag.
Day 2 Somewhere on the South Downs
There’s no graceful way of getting out of a bivvy bag at the best of times, with a full day of riding in the legs the best I can do is flop across like an insect from a cocoon. The desperate need for a pee has woken me up and it seems more hassle to get back into my bag than just get pedalling. I curse myself for stopping at the foot of a greasy chalk climb, legs burning in protest at the cold start, there’s an early mist across the fields of wheat as the sun starts to rise, no Theresa May in sight though. Big push onto Checkpoint 1 in Winchester, just a bit of a slog up the remaining hills of the South Downs Way but with the checkpoint in sight morale is high as I trundle over the remaining 70km.
I roll into Winchester on market day, weaving precariously around the shoppers as I try to find the checkpoint. Uncertainty sets in as I stop to check the race manual for Checkpoint 1
CP1 is Lyndhurst, not Winchester. Dick.
I shuffle to the nearby Greggs and buy the shop… lemonade, roll with sausage, chicken pasty, chocolate doughnut and 2x sausage rolls, for the road of course. Sit down outside on the pavement against the shop to neatly arrange the bags of food for my first real audax picnic. Between bites I reread the race manual and check my GPS files. CP1, Woods Cyclery, Lyndhurst, another 50km to go then. The good people of Winchester pass by and stare, I can’t blame them though, the blood from last night’s crash mixes with the chalky mud on my arms and legs, while the scrap of jersey on my shoulder flaps forlornly in the wind. There’s something oddly satisfying in shrugging off some of the social norms, living dissociated from the world passing by. By the time they’ve sat down to dinner I’ll be having the same odd looks in a totally different part of the country.
CP1, Round 2. At least it’s relatively flat on the run in so the miles tick past quickly until the New Forest. It’s a weird place, lovely but weird. like some odd Lego village made real, narrow strips of tarmac flush with the grass weave through the trees and thatched roof houses, all enveloped in the now constant low level cloud. Despite knowing about the wild ponies it’s still odd to watch the traffic dodging the unfazed livestock, nice to see one part of the country embracing “roads were not built for cars”. The GB Divide team are out in force at the checkpoint and it’s a relief to see some friendly faces. Any pain I feel disappears as I hop off the bike for some photos and a brevet card stamp. I’m a bit scatty as ever, luckily the Woods Cyclery guys are brilliant and help extract what I need to do from my sleep addled brain.
Turns out my bars are squint and holy hell do I need some chamois cream. The penny also drops that I’m first in to the checkpoint; no idea where I passed Donnacha but he rolls in five minutes later. I wander across to the nearby pub and grab a sit-down lunch, while Donnacha does a quick shop and is away again. One of us is significantly more focused than the other. Eventually I’ve managed to have lunch, buy some food for the road, get the chamois cream (and get it on) and prepare myself to head off. I’m coming up with excuses not to push on, but finally I’ve had all the conversations and fettling I can justify. Time to hit the road again.
The miles out of Lyndhurst are a mix of tarmac, flat gravel and winding, barely there singletrack. Progress has been similar to yesterday and it’s hard not to feel optimistic about how long it’ll take to get to the finish, maybe nine days wasn’t such a crazy estimate…
The singletrack sections are getting more and more overgrown though, requiring more bushwhacking and much more clearing of the drivetrain. Not far to get through this though and we’re onto the safe environs of the canal path to Bath. Sun’s back out and spirits are high, even my finger’s stopped bleeding over absolutely everything. I hit the chalky outline of White Horse at the Golden Hour, brilliant views over towards the canal and hopefully the newsagent I’m planning on rehydrating at. I’m on the canal before I know it, flying (relatively speaking) past the families out having drinks and BBQs along the path. There’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere and as the miles slide past I take in the holiday atmosphere, exchanging the odd chat with the locals.
Darkness quickly closes in quicker than I expected and I roll into Batheaston waving at a couple of the surprisingly numerous dotwatchers at the side of the road. Keen to find a hotel for a shower and some kit cleaning as the livestock of the New Forest and Salisbury plain have been liberal in their gastric output and I appear to have collected most of it on the bike and bibs. I opt for some local knowledge and check in with the dotwatchers, Cat and Lewis (or Lucas, sorry dude I was really sleep deprived!), turns out the only hotel involved retracing my steps to Bath.
But, big happy best news ever…
They stay just across the road and have a spare bed avec shower that I’m welcome to use. I mull it over and consider the line from the race manual “The kindness and support of the dotwatcher community and ‘road angels’ is permissible but you should only accept such help that fits well in the spirit of the race”. It’s a fortuitous meeting and I was aiming for a hotel anyway. So I opt for a mea culpa if I’ve crossed a line, now show me the way to the shower!
Day 3 Cosy Bed in Batheaston
4am. After the relatively luxury of last night’s accommodation I should have slept far better than I did; however, the cumulative effects of yesterday’s thorns and nettles have left my shins an itchy, burning, sleep-depriving mess. None of this can dampen the joy of seeing that Lewis/Lucas has both washed my bike and charged my lights the night before. I’ve managed to get a hot meal, a shower (with obligatory kit wash) and a lovely chat with the two of them. In another one of these odd quirks of fate they themselves have relied upon the kindness of strangers while riding from Thailand to the UK and are paying that forward to me. For the most part, cycling is a sport for the privileged, we’ll never need to rely on handouts or really engage with the kindness of strangers, perhaps making it all too easy to only see the negative aspects of humanity writ large in the media. The daily discomfort of a wet ride is balanced by the warm home we return to. Events like these strip that veneer of comfort away, a bed for the night and clean clothes, quickly becomes an uncertain luxury, the exhausted dirty body sitting at the side of the road is an outlier to the daily goings on of society. The small (or sometimes large) gestures of kindness from strangers on the road are a refreshing tonic to the usual narrative of life.
It’s still not refreshing enough for the mile-long 8% gradient climb that starts the day. but at least I’m warmed up. I’ve learnt my lessons about sleeping at the top of big descents. Luckily it’s a big plateau of lanes and easy riding bridleways that make the first 50km a bit of a breeze. Trundling through the creeping dawn mists, at one point I realise I’m riding a bridleway down the middle of a grass airstrip! By sun up I’m rolling across the Severn Estuary, glad to have mentally ticked off England (Round 1) in a reasonable time. I bump into another dotwatcher, Sarah, who’s out on the course; turns out Donnacha is just up ahead with Josh making good time behind. Seems like a case of when, not if, I’ll be caught by Josh at the moment. She also confirms that the Greggs I’ve got marked on my map is just up ahead. Breakfast time!
I roll up to find Donnacha sitting on the pavement outside Greggs, midway through the four-pack pastry breakfast. I grab a couple of pastries and the by now obligatory chocolate doughnut before joining him on the pavement. The conversations have now become pretty structured and much like our bodies, slower. How you doing, where did you sleep, how’d you find the previous day and any news about the other riders. This Greggs has the added bonus of the petrol station toilet, a luxury not to be sniffed at (in every sense of the word!). Donnacha’s away while I faff again with kit set-up, no surprises there.
The introduction to Wales has been positively pleasant; the rolling lanes are a needed escape from the energy sapping bridleways and fields. The lack of boneshaking terrain though is leaving some space in the background noise of pain to notice that my Achilles tendons are really not doing so well. I’m loathed to stop if I don’t need to so it can wait until CP2 to fix. The 20% climb up to the canal becomes a dismounted shuffle – that Achilles issue that could wait, couldn’t. I crab walk sideways up the thankfully short hill, with as much grace as my frozen ankles will allow, promptly forgetting to address this again in my rush to the checkpoint at Talybont-on-Usk.
The sun’s splitting the sky at Talybont and I’m aware that my shredded jersey won’t do much to protect that pasty white skin. Flexibility was never my strong point though and trying to self-apply sunscreen with even stiffer shoulders requires windmilling my arm over the opposite shoulder to slap some cream on the offending hole. While we’re in the process of fixing things I try dropping my seatpost a bit in the hope that a bit less toe pointing will sort my ankles, or at least limit the damage. It’s all I’ve got as a solution, so it better work. PB&J sandwich, a chat with the checkpoint crew where we discover some mutual friends from TCR, and then we’re off to the next big feature on the course – The Gap.
The climb out of Talybont is 500m of vertical gravel heaven, comfortable gradient, decent surface and a stunning view over the lake (is there a welsh equivalent of Loch?). The motivational fuel tank is getting a decent top up and even the boulder strewn singletrack leading to the top of the gap doesn’t seem too bad in the sun. The buzz carries me straight into the descent and the sharp reality of where my bike handling skills end, an ungraceful but damage-free dismount is about as much as I can ask for in the situation. I shakily pick my way down the first section on foot and take in the trail slashed into the valley side, leading straight to the next resupply point in Brecon. The remainder of the descent is a proper buzz. I’m aware that I’m right on the edge of totally shredding a tyre, but where’s the fun in playing it safe.
The high-speed descent from the isolation of the hills into the bustling tourist town of Brecon is completely jarring as I roll through the town centre to find the obligatory Co-op resupply. The scowls I’m getting tell me everything I need to know about whether I can ride through the town, but there’s not a chance I’m walking further than I need to. It seems today is just a day of pissing off the locals/tourists; while I’m at the checkout an older gent approaches me, apoplectic with rage. Unfortunately for him I’ve got my headphones in and stare blankly as he continues the tirade, my brain struggling to put together the steps needed to resolve this. As I get to my turn at the checkout he storms off, back over to the other side of the checkouts where he’s been patiently standing in the queue I’ve just jumped… I seem to have taken all the flack I’m getting for this so decide just to pay up and get going. I’m quite glad not to have my race cap at this point. The Subway at the exit provides an opportunity for some beige carbohydrates that aren’t pastry based for once.
Turns out a foot-long sandwich will fit in a thigh cargo pocket without too much bother. Trying to then get it out and eat it though is another matter altogether so I leave the good folk of Brecon in a hail of lettuce and onion for the North. Rain rolling through as I hit the bleak, windswept expanse of Sennybridge Training Area, warning signs and staccato soundtrack of rifle fire a reminder that we’re riding through one of the largest military training ranges in the UK. The pub I had in mind for a water top-up turns out to now be part of the range itself, a lesson to never trust Google maps… Sennybridge keeps the grim weather as the terrain starts to feel reminiscent of home trails. Wales even has its own Devil’s Staircase, a comically steep 20% gradient that I weave my way up, desperately criss-crossing the road to try and avoid grinding to a complete halt. Even the drivers seem to be sympathetic as I wobble past, bent over the bars in an effort to keep the front wheel down.
It’s worth it though for access to some superb gravel along the ridgelines. The sunlight itself beginning to warm as the evening approaches, highlighting the clouds of dust on the bone dry trails, there’s absolutely no flat to be had, either grinding climbs or fast dusty descents. I hit one climb just in time to catch the sun perfectly framed in the massive stone arch at the top. At the back of my mind though I can start to feel the panic monster mutter about lack of water. I last refilled five hours ago in Brecon and that’s down to dregs in the bottle. From my notes I reckon I’ve got about 15km until the next possible resupply. Trying to guess how long that will take though is pretty futile, today’s been relatively fast. but there’s no telling what the trails are like further up the road. The setting sun only serves to drive home the passing time as I press harder on the pedals.
The course gods are smiling on me though and the miles are fast and (relatively) flat. I’ve got the refuel rhythm sorted now, two litres of water, bottle of coke and a Supermarket Sweep of sandwiches, Haribo and chocolate. I’ve not got sick of any one food group yet so I’m rolling with variety as the spice of life for the time being. The local pub goers of Machynlleth get treated to a horrifying ultra-striptease as the temperature plummets and I stick on some more layers in the centre of town before racing on into the night.
There is a hell and it’s in the Cambrian mountains. I’ve been dragging my bike through waist-deep grass for over an hour and I’ve just about covered a mile. Despite what the map says the path gave up its claim to this land a long time ago. Now it’s just long grass, a forestry block and barbed wire fences. The epic view is a small consolation for the unbridled hell of this morning’s climb, something that’s just rounded off by the bum shuffle descent down the vertical mess left by the Forestry Commission’s latest handiwork. The morning becomes a blur of vicious climbs and all-too-short flat sections, the only real relief coming in the form of a set of brand new, as yet unsullied, blue loos in a field. The trowel will have to wait another for another day to shine as I engage in a moment of quiet contemplation and downright civility.
Grass climb, sheep shit, check average speed, swear repeat.
The hours tick on and the doubts creep in, I’m way behind on my mental schedule but get to Oswestry and there’s 100km of pan flat course to recover on, plus there’s no way the rest of the course can be like that…
I crawl into Oswestry as a broken but relieved man. Underestimating the morning means I ran out of food hours ago and I’ve been trying to avoid drinking from my sheep shit covered bottles, the last thing I need at this stage is gut rot, but in the 20C heat I’m now feeling like a slug in salt. I hit the now obligatory Greggs for as much food and drink as I can carry before treating the good people of Oswestry to the sight of my pale, already soggy feet drying in the sun, while applying dollops of suncream into the gaping hole on my shoulder. A quick check of the map shows Donacha at 100km behind and Josh rapidly catching him up; it’s my first time being out front on something like this and the feeling of being hunted is decidedly unpleasant. It’s the kick in the ass I need to get moving, even if that movement is the rat in a maze attempt to get through Oswestry’s one-way system.
The emotional highs are inversely proportional to the elevation on this route and the next 100kms of pan flat, sunlit tarmac is more restorative than even the comfiest hotel bed. With the tunes on and the speed sitting up in the 20kph mark I could almost believe that the worse of the route is behind me, with a bit of luck we’ll be back up on schedule, that is if I don’t get squashed by the hedge-width tractors that appear from time to time. Before long the canine tooth profiles of the Peak District are beginning to appear on the GPS. In the headlong charge across Wrexham and Stoke I’ve neglected to pick up water or food and the soggy, sweat-cured sausage roll is a sad saviour to get me over the 500m of climbing between me and the next possibly resupply. Finally roll into Hartington to find some food. The beer gardens are in full swing, watching the laughing groups sitting in the sun I’m hit by a wave of loneliness and exhaustion; what I wouldn’t give to sit with a beer and let the comfortable sound wash over me, instead I head for the youth hostel, the cheapest, quickest food nearby. Five hours of sitting on the aero bars has done a right number on my back and I hobble into the reception, dazed and broken-backed, past happy families and backpackers, seeking out a table near a plug to charge the various battery packs.
The pace of service is rightly sedate; part of me feels the urgency of grabbing food and moving on, the Donnacha stratagem, while the other part of me is desperate to enjoy a beer and relax. I opt for the later and grab a beer, burger and brownie alongside a pizza to go. The sideways looks I get are an inevitable result of inhaling a family’s worth of food while ramming a pizza into a collection of freezer bags and old Greggs wrappers. Too soon I’ve run out of excuses to stay. Repacking the bike is something out of a comedy sketch as I put one item down, pick up another, then put that down to repeat the process with the first item. Nothing seems to be fitting anymore and in a pique of frustration I punch the pizza and clothing back into my saddlebag.
It turns out that ultra afficionado and Peak District local Grace lives nearby and comes out to join me for a bit of the ride along the High Peak Trail. We meet as the sun dips into the golden hour of evening light, riding along the disused railway amongst the walkers and cyclists enjoying a beautiful summer’s night. For a while I escape from my own head and the miles ahead as we chat about the route so far, what’s to come and the general gossip of the ultra-racing scene. It’s maybe a rare positive spin on the power of social media that we’ve never actually met before but simply follow each other on Instagram, and the conversation feels like it’s with someone I’ve known for years. As a local, Grace know this part of the route pretty well and a good chunk of the next section; she makes a few comments regarding the technical nature of the bridleways that I don’t really take in at the time. but will soon come to haunt me. Grace waves me off as I ride off into the encroaching darkness.
After a pleasant afternoon of riding my bike, the return to the 10% gradient gravel hikeabike is a jarring experience. The route dips into precipitous valleys before scaling back up the other side. The Achilles pain is back, a gentle niggle that has now built into a crescendo, pushing the bike up these gradients has become an agonising crab-like shuffle across the shingle, slipping back with every other step as I wrestle the top-heavy bike up the hill. My grand plans to put a big shift in tonight are well and truly dead in the water; I need a proper rest and ideally a bed if I can get one. I start calling the hotels in Castleton. but I’ve left it way too late and the phones ring unanswered – time for another night under nylon.
The route guide highlights the Cave Dale Descent as being best done on foot – this has to be the understatement of the century… a rock strewn 10% gradient hellscape that I couldn’t ride with a DH rig, never mind the shonky top-heavy cross-country frankenbike. If I make it down without breaking my ankle or neck I’ll be claiming it as a win. I’ve timed my check-in call with Karly badly as I try to tell her on speaker that I’ll be camping somewhere at the bottom while cursing, stumbling and occasionally screaming into the void. It’s a rough night for me, but one that’s going to be full of worry for her. It takes the best part of 30 minutes to negotiate the 2km of descent: if my Achilles were in a bad way to begin with their utterly fucked now. The panic monster sits muttering on my shoulder, the course is getting steadily harder and my legs are in tatters, I’m only at the halfway point and I know that the last section in Scotland is going to be as bad, if not worse than where I am now. I ride around the ghost town that is Castleton, it’s approaching midnight and the temperature is plummeting. I hoped to get a place to sleep in the town, maybe in the lee and relative warmth of the public toilets, but the local car cruise is going full gas in the car park and my riding around aimlessly has already drawn attention. Sleeping out exposed on your own is a bit unnerving at the best of times, but there’s a level of security in being tucked out of sight of sight in the cracks of the world, this is definitely not one of those cracks. It’s also noisy as hell. I admit defeat and ride out further into the darkness; turns out this is a terrible place to have chosen to kip down, the hills are steep and exposed and there is absolutely nothing in terms of shelter that doesn’t involve camping in someone’s garden. Too tired to really care I throw my bike over a dry stone dyke and tuck myself into its shadow, ducking from the constant car headlights in an effort to avoid any attention. I grab the pack of chilli coated nuts that I’ve picked up somewhere along the line and dive into the bivvy for a midnight feast and hopefully some sleep.
I’ve clearly taken a wrong turn and ridden into the Arctic Circle last night. In the four hours of bivvy habitation (let’s not call it sleep) the temperature has dropped to 1C overnight. I’ve put off getting more layers during the night and the end result is uncontrollable shivering and a hint of desperation, as good a time as any to get moving. I can’t get dressed in the bivvy so fall out onto the wet grass in a state of undress, frantically pulling on all the layers I can, before wrapping myself in my sleeping bag (thanks for that tip Innes!). ‘Slow is smooth, smooth is fast’ is a good adage for repacking the bike. but that goes wholly out the window while I frantically pack and repack in an effort to get things onto the bike and get moving. Man and bike are launched back over the wall, myself still wrapped in my sleeping bag, looking like a down-filled Michelin man. Luckily the route climbs straight up to Mam Tor and soon I’ve built up enough warmth to stuff the sleeping bag away. It’s evident that last night’s bivvy site was rubbish, the lack of shelter and heat from trees or buildings means that the condensation build up in the bivvy has been next level. My sleeping bag is near enough soaked through; I can’t afford another rerun of last night, I need a room tonight no matter what. There’s a bit of a lifting of the spirit over the ridgeline of Mam Tor, there’s a bit of a thermal inversion on the go and the sunrise over the cloud in the valley is spectacular. These unplanned fleeting moments are the real ‘This is Why’ of ultra-racing for me. I take a minute to enjoy the view before bombing down the slabbed ridge into Edale and onto Jacob’s Ladder.
Jacob’s Ladder might deliver you to heaven, but the process itself is sheer hell. The route notes state this is the easier path compared to the parallel bridleway and I contemplate this as I drag the bike backwards on its (non-drive) side up the path – short of having landmines on the path I struggle to see how anything could be more difficult than the steep rock steps I’m bouncing my bike up. I take regular breaks to take in the stunning vista opening up behind me and swear profusely at Kev, the organisers and sadism, before doubling over again to drag the bike a few more steps up the hill. Eight hundred metres in one hour: this sets the tone for the morning, ride along the valley bottom to the next climb, push up the next climb, bounce down the bridleway with a total disregard for safety, repeat ad infinitum until cooked.
Last night’s dried-out, deconstructed, youth hostel pizza has managed to keep me going to the next resupply point at Hadfield. In four hours I’ve made it 32km. I roll into the town utterly defeated. I haven’t checked the dots today. but at the rate Josh was moving up this will be my last day in the lead. I’m now well off the map in terms of distance and duration previously ridden and I can’t help that I’ve maybe paced this wrong. I slump beside the bin outside Tesco Metro with a wealth of comfort food (I’ve noticed there’s regional variation in the baked goods in each branch; chocolate chip shortbread was a particularly good local delicacy here), and catch up with Karly and the flood of messages which at this point are one of the only things keeping me going. One message sticks out above them all “Josh has scratched” – all of a sudden my decreasing lead has just gone out over the 100km mark. On this terrain that’s basically a day’s lead. It’s never nice to hear someone’s abandoned, we’re all aware of how much commitment has taken to get this far, but I’d be a liar to say it isn’t a relief. The news is the kick in the ass I need to get moving again and I push on with renewed energy into the sawtooth profile of the route.
The renewed energy lasted as long as the start of the next climb… beginning to wonder if running shoes would have been a better option over SPDs. Shoe fears become reality when I find when I find out the hard way that you can’t unclip with one bolt in your cleat. The unscheduled lie-down isn’t exactly unwelcome and I take a minute to consider the situation before pulling my foot out of my shoe and wrestling the cleat out with the help of an Allen key. I get my first chance to have a proper look at my shoes and groan, alongside a missing cleat bolt, the rubber tread is peeling and the carbon sole itself is starting to splinter. The bill for the event creeps ever upwards…
Luck again intervenes in the shape of a recessed bolt from the (borrowed) clip-on aero bars. Handlebar integrity seems like a small price to pay for the ability to pedal and we’re back on the way again to the nearest bike shop.
A farmer catches me just outside of Todmorden and says ‘a friend is just up the road waiting’. I can’t think who I know around here, but I put it down as another dotwatcher and hopefully a bit of company! Round the corner there’s a figure up on the hill with a camera out. I quietly swear at them as I realise pride is going to mean not walking this part of the climb. As my calves scream in pain it occurs to me that falling over with cramp might actually be worse than walking. I don’t know the rider at the top but I definitely recognise the face, even if I can’t place it.
The riding is becoming more, well, rideable! The winding gritstone steps into the valleys making for some spectacular descents into the local towns, even the climbs seem a bit more manageable, marginally lower gradients and maybe the desire not to walk with an audience. My calves, just about getting used to the endless walking, scream in protest, my head filled with images of snapping Achilles tendons, I vaguely remember that you can hear an audible pop when they go and I brace myself for it with every creaking pedal stroke. Somehow though they survive through to Hebden Bridge and the obligatory Co-op stop. Quick ice cream stop in the heat of the afternoon sun, then I say my goodbyes to Chipps and head off towards, well nowhere really, still haven’t actually figured out a stop for the night. Some frantic googling and there’s just one room left in the only hotel within a rideable distance for the rapidly approaching night.
The setting sun brings with it the first of the bad weather that the rest of the riders have already been hit with. In the space of an hour the temperature drops 15C and the rain turns the bridleway into a torrent. The last 30km is an unrelenting, never-ending, shit-fest that could only be topped by finishing off the ride into a sewage treatment works. If you can’t tell the tears for the rain are you really crying? The only thing keeping me going is the promise of a bed, shower and hot meal. Several lifetimes later and I arrive at the unfortunate boutique hotel that agreed to my booking. The shambling, shivering, shit-covered wreck that makes it into reception is a truly sorry sight. The staff, to their credit, are unwaveringly helpful and friendly, as I apologise for creating a puddle on the floor. With a table booked for dinner in 30 minutes it’s a mad dash to the immaculately decorated room to wash rider, kit and bags before heading back down for food. Shuffling across the restaurant in my clean but now soaking cycling shoes, I take a bit of time to really regret the lightweight choice of running shorts, base layer and down jacket as my only non-cycling clothing. The haunted shivering mess ordering a pint of water, pint of beer, pint of lemonade, three starters, fish and chips and all the desserts on the menu brings the standard set of questions. Where are you going? Where did you start from? How long is that going to take you? Really? In one go? Why would you do that? Unable to stand up straight, unable to heat up, and unable to feel anything in my fingers, I’m really struggling to answer that last question other than with: “Because I’ve made a terrible mistake.” If I sit and enjoy the pleasure of this civility any longer I’m never going to leave, so it’s time for bed.
I’d have been better off just sleeping on the ground for how good the night’s sleep was. Despite the comfort of the bed, every muscle fibre of my body, used to the unrelenting rhythm of the day’s efforts, twitches and misfires in a staccato rhythm designed to push sleep tantalisingly out of reach. I scream inwardly as the agonisingly few hours of allocated rest fly past while I toss and turn. Too soon I pivot out of bed, glad to not be on the ground at least and begin packing the shanty town detritus of my drying kit. The simplest task has become Herculean as I pack, repack, realise I’ve packed my clothes and I’m still naked, re-repack and eventually make it back out to the farmyard stench of the bike. I’m actually looking forward to getting back on my bike and the familiar ache of the pedal stroke instead of the agonising shuffle I’ve spent my morning doing.
The morning routine is getting slower and slower, and the first blue hues of dawn are already creeping in as I set off onto the trails again. The horrors of yesterday’s hikeabike are a dim and distant memory and I begin to hope that, once again, the worst of the hikeabike might be behind me. As my legs and back settle into the rhythm of riding again, the aches and pains give way to a growing rumbling in the stomach and generally feeling none too good. I go full continental at the Co-op with a croissant and orange juice in the vain hope that some Vit C might magically reverse that last few days of self-abuse.
Vit C has certainly not been the magic bullet that I’d hoped for and by the time the Ribble Viaduct appears on the horizon it’s become clear that last night’s farmyard dirty protest was not without its consequences. The background rumble has suddenly become a desperate urgency as I frantically unpack the Deuce trowel I’ve been carrying around the last few days. There’s a delicate art to using a coke-can thickness, ultralight trowel to dig a hole in hard ground without folding it into origami, not something to learn on the fly with the enemy, somewhat too literally, at the gates. I frantically saw at the pebble-strewn mud watched on by a flock of the fluffy offenders and I hurl some insults at them while realising the full extent of the Barnoldswick belly.
Feeling lighter. if not better. I head into the slightly more familiar territory of the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race, thankfully bisecting the course rather than following the route itself. As I hit the next climb between Moughton and Ingleborough, my shifting, which has already slowly degraded to a few favoured gears, suddenly becomes a crunching, grinding, skipping mess. Desperate to avoid any more mechanical issues I gingerly ease off the pedals and take a closer look at the cassette. In all my years riding and working in bike shops, I’ve never seen this before. A single tooth of one of the sprockets has neatly folded at 90 degrees to the rest of its mates. I’m not even sure how you manage to do this without breaking the chain in the process, but if there’s a situation where it’s going to happen I suppose mashing the pedals on a heavily laden bike on steep hills is going to do it. A couple of tests make it clear that trying to bend the tooth back is only going to ruin the rest of the cassette. The next checkpoint is at the Dales Bike Centre so I’ve just got to nurse it another 50km to hopefully get things fixed.
Gingerly skipping across the broken sprockets the rest of the day swings between knee-poppingly slow and spin class blender legs cadences in an effort to nurse things along. Luckily the steepest climb of the morning is still to come so there’s adequate hikeabike to give the cassette a breather. At least there’s plenty of time to take in the striking landscape of Malham Cove and its imposing limestone cliffs. The solitude and remoteness of the area is overwhelming, even on such a beautiful day as this the landscape has a rugged, haunting feel to it that I’ve only ever felt in the Highlands before. A feeling that you’re merely allowed passage at the inclination of the land itself. The course pans around the cliffside, leaving time for some contemplation of what memories I’d miss out if I decided to scratch. I resolve to see it through to the bitter end and push on for the final checkpoint.
But not first without a sausage supper in Hawes and possibly the best chippy I’ve ever come across. I’ve actually ridden back up the hill to visit, having screamed past on the descent before being arrested by the smells emanating from the cottage-turned-fryer. Some things in life are just a bit too good to pass up and despite the checkpoint being just over the next hill I take some downtime to enjoy Hawes finest delicacies.
There’s ample time to relive these flavours weaving up the 13% gradient of the ill-timed next climb up and over into Reeth. Progress is slow enough to have a decent conversation with the pensioner briskly striding up the climb… I’m dying a thousand deaths, clumsily stumbling across the cassette in an attempt to avoid the sprocket of death. Make it over the hill and it’s the final descent into the last checkpoint before the finish.
Whether by design or chance, Dales Bike Centre happens to also be hosting Ard Rock Enduro the same weekend. Stu, the owner, is a ball of optimistic Yorkshire energy and it’s hard not to feel uplifted and ready to take on the world after five minutes in his presence and before I know what’s going on we’re at the SRAM tent talking to the one and only Tim Flooks. Turns out that he’s not just good with suspension, but also pretty handy with a hammer and punch, somehow managing to straighten the tooth back out. The shifting is still ragged as hell, but at least I don’t have the constant fear of snapping a chain. I know I’m eating into daylight hours, but I take some time to sit down with Kevin the organiser of this madness and his long-suffering family who have been driving up and down the country to stage manage this logistical nightmare! It’s great to hear more about his riding and how the event came together, sitting on a picnic bench chatting in the sun it’s easy to forget there’s still 500km of riding left that isn’t going to happen on its own.
The buzz from the event village combined with the tarmac respite carries me flying through the next 70kms on a wave of optimism and sunlight. It’s the flattest bit of riding I’ve had in the last two days and it’s a pleasant change to watch the average speed creep up. I stop for a quick dinner in Appleby, sausage supper just for some novelty, a controversial opinion, but the chip shops of England are really missing a trick with the true range of fried delights available north of the border. Black pudding, pizza crunch, the deep fried Mars bars would really mix things up a bit! Sitting on the pavement I have a moment to consider my options. From Appleby the next challenge is Great Dun Fell – the highest road in Britain. In typical GBD fashion we wouldn’t be doing the normal out and back route, but riding to the top of the road before disappearing into the moor to the north. The route manual ominously described this section as “exciting”. Stopping now would mean either riding the hill at night or taking a long stop to ensure hitting it in daylight.
Fortune may favour the brave, but the weather certainly doesn’t. Hitting the most exposed part of the climb the rain lashes across the road as I grind up the desolate tarmac. The clouds have rolled in and visibility at the top of the hill is already looking pretty grim even before daylight disappears. There’s plenty of time to regret the decision; it’s the best plan from a racing point of view, but psychologically it’s left me a bit on the ropes. I’m now committed to the most exposed part of the course for at least the next 25kms and I can’t help but feel that these are the kind of situations that end up making the local news as ‘Lone cyclist requires mountain rescue after fatal case of hubris’. The situation doesn’t get any better on the descent. Best described as a boggy dark side of the moon, any path that used to be here has long either washed away into the river or become so overgrown as to be unidentifiable. Any path shown on the GPS is just a joke. I pick a point on the horizon that matches up with the route and aim for that. The clouds whip across the moor as darkness encroaches and I fight to push the rising panic back under control. Given the condition of the route walking is the safe option but I’m tired cold and want the fuck off this hill so I risk pedalling along the riverbank, all too aware of what the outcome of a fall into the rocks would be.
The latest over the bars cracks me. I sit in the mud, water seeping through my soles and my bibs, the last of my Haribo strewn to the wind, and I scream. I scream at the mud, at Kev, at me for signing up to this stupid fucking event. I scream and cry and scream again. I aim a couple of kicks at the bike for good measure, but they’re limp – even at this point I’m aware enough to know that it would be a hell of a long walk to civilization. It’s about this time that a hiss and puff of oil signifies the end of my long-suffering forks, where’s Tim Flooks when you need him…
Eventually the creeping cold and dark snaps me back to reality. I need off this hill as fast as I can. With a grim resolve I push on into the dark, blessedly finding a gravel path as night fully sets. The remainder of the descent is a constant fight against hypothermia, the temperature is down in single digits before windchill, and my gearing isn’t exactly set up for long descents. I spin my legs frantically to keep warm as I push onwards, watching the miles creep down to the next village. If I’m lucky I’ll get there before the village shop closes at 10pm.
I’m not lucky. A fountain of sealant signifies the latest puncture on my increasingly threadbare tyres. Luckily Stu refilled my sealant at Checkpoint 3 and I thought to buy more tyre plugs. One finger sealing the tyre I fumble about in the dark to undo my tool roll and dig out the plugs before the tyre goes completely flat. The repair is relatively quick and painless, but it’s just enough of a delay to ensure the shops are closed as I roll in shivering to the ghost town of Alston. I try my luck with the hostel, hoping that someone might take pity on the mud-spattered shivering wreck knocking on the door. The receptionist is having absolutely none of it and with no other plan, I decide to roll on further into town. Tired and beaten I come across the car park for the railway museum. It’s flat and doesn’t look like it’s hosting the local car cruise so I give up and crawl into the bivvy soaked and fully clothed. The rain drumming on the nylon drowns out the sobbing.
I didn’t realise it was possible to feel so much self-inflicted pain. My Achilles feel like dry, cracked leather in my ankles. The relentless clipping and unclipping into my pedals feel like they’ve torn the rest of the ligaments and tendons in my ankles. Every action brings with it a decidedly pathetic whimper. The mornings 20km descent into Haltwhistle should have been an easy ride along an old railway line. Instead it’s been a hellish obstacle course of gates, barbed wire fences and a rickety cast-iron stairway too narrow for bike and person. I flip-flop between self-pity and unbridled rage at the utterly absurd challenges on the route. If the gate or trail isn’t obvious I harness the frustration to hurl the poor bike over the nearest barbed wire fence and hope for the best.
The day progresses in the same vein. My excitement at some public toilets in the town is quickly tempered when they turn out to be an exact replica of the Trainspotting “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene. I’ve reached a low point in life, but not quite that low. I resign myself to holding till a more appropriate trowel situation appears. I sit outside the Co-op eating breakfast and absently picking at the smallpox-sized spots that six days of sweat, shit and compromised immune system creates. On the upside I’m no longer turning myself inside out, but I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again, I huddle into my down jacket and enjoy the warmth of a hot chocolate, trading the risk of lactose intolerance for some heat. I send some woe is me messages to mates and rightfully get told to suck it up and get pedalling, the motherland’s in sight and if I get over the border it’ll be a massive boost.
The border looks less and less likely as I lie on the floor with the bike looking at the deconstructed masterpiece that is my chain. I take some time to consider how a chain snaps in two places at one time. It’s impressive really. My old friend the bent sprocket tooth has returned too. The angry energy of the morning has dissipated in the barbed wire hurdling and I’m now resigned to not finishing. If I lie here a bit longer I might end up as roadkill, which would at least end this misery. I manage to fashion a shorter chain using all the quick links in my arsenal and keep riding, aware that if I snap the chain again I’m really up the creek without a paddle.
At least the ride through Kielder is familiar territory and a welcome comfort; what isn’t welcome is that the relentless monsoon rain has killed my USB charger and I’m now running worryingly low on power for my Wahoo and my phone. Rather than fix it on the trail I resolve to push to Kielder Castle where there’s a café to warm up in and a bike shop that can hopefully help with the drivetrain.
The day has hit rock bottom and continues to dig. The bike shop has made it abundantly clear that they have zero interest in helping fix the cassette. I’m a bedraggled, dripping mess in the middle of the shop and I’m not hiring a bike. I am clearly a hindrance and after some reluctant attempts to take a look at the sprocket I give up, buy a spare chain and resign myself to soft pedalling for the day. In a turn of luck the café’s also closed so I get the opportunity to eat al fresco in the pissing rain from the food truck. Unloading my woes on another sheltering body, unfortunate enough to ask where I’ve come from, I start to realise the scale of my problems, no charge left in the Wahoo and phone, a barely keeping it together drivetrain and did I mention that my spokes have been snapping like dried spaghetti too? I’m too tired to formulate a plan so I opt to sit and shiver. Eventually the stranger returns with a power bank from his car so that I can charge my various bits of kit, if I wasn’t a manky stinking mess I’d hug him. Finally the day looks like it’s taken a turn for the better.
The lone signpost with saltire marks the last border before the end, finally back on home turf, not that it gives any form of advantage. Being out in the lead I’ve had the dubious honour of being first to experience some of the route. It’s pretty clear that the lines on the maps don’t necessarily relate to the realities on the ground and I start to wonder if a machete shouldn’t have been on the essential kit list. I finally snap while thrashing through one particularly overgrown section of chin high brush, send a message back to the group WhatsApp with some choice words for the organiser saying it’s unrideable and set off to find a detour. I don’t wait for confirmation; I don’t care either way anymore.
The Borders has some truly superb mountain biking trails, unfortunately our route goes absolutely nowhere near any of them and instead opts for the viciously steep climbs of the Cross Borders Drove Road. I phone the Peebles hotels desperate to find a warm room for the night; I can’t even contemplate another night under canvas, before continuing my leaden shuffle up the hill, three steps, rest, three steps, rest. Don’t look up as it’ll just bring you down further. Hunch over the bars and keep going. There’s a gnawing tenderness in the soles of my feet, from the last two days drenching, something else to consider during the long march uphill. The hours drag by and any thought of an early finish is long gone. My first view of Peebles is a twinkling from the lights in the valley at dusk. Desperate to get down in what light remains of the day I bounce down the grassy hill side with utter disregard for safety or sense. Inevitably I push my luck too far, slashing a sidewall on an errant rock. In a Hail Mary repair I ram as many tubeless plugs as I’ve got left into the sidewall. Somehow it holds and, chastened, I pick my way down the rest of the hill to Peebles.
I need a beer, some fruit and the dirtiest, nastiest pizza I can get my hands on. Luckily there’s a solid Scottish chippy across from the hotel. Mid order a voice outside calls my name and a vaguely recognised face appears at the shop door. My brain, verging on delirium with exhaustion is at a loss as to what task to deal with first. I flip-flop between saying hi to the chip shop owner, asking for a pizza from the face at the door, and trying not to break down in tears at the overwhelming difficulty in getting my dinner.
Somehow I get my pizza and head out to meet Andy from the local cyclocross scene. He’s been following my dot and has managed to track me down to the chippy to say hi and see if he can do anything to help. I can only mumble an incoherent thank you, but I’m desperate to take my soaking kit off and just stop moving. I shuffle across the road to the hotel and the many, many stairs leading to the room. First order of business is to clean and dry my kit, then inspecting the damage to my feet. I’m no expert, but the pale, peeling skin and persistent tingling has all the hallmarks of trench foot. I pop the last of my Ibuprofen, pour a bath and sit watching Netflix on the phone, drinking cider and eating my now cold pizza. For 30 minutes I can almost pretend I’m not in the middle of this unceasing hell and enjoy things before I crawl into bed.
Despite the weird salt and sauce instead of salt and vinegar thing, I didn’t used to have much of an issue with Edinburgh. That was until I humped this stupid, heavy bike up these stupid, steep gravel climbs. In a particularly unique bit of sadism the course climbs over the Pentlands, within touching distance of the flat canal section, then returns back over them to ensure a further 1,000ft of climbing before finally spitting you out on the canal. As I push the bike up the last of the completely avoidable climbs, a well-spoken walker jokes to “put my back into it”. My internal censor is done for the day and a surly “fuck off” leaves my lips before I can catch myself.
Words can’t do justice to the emotions on the ride into Glasgow. It seems like every person I’ve ever known has come out to cheer me on and by all accounts I should be riding high from all this support. In reality I’m barely keeping it together. Yesterday’s early signs of trench foot have progressed into a relentless agony, every bump on the trail is a needle into a raw nerve. There’s a growing irrational desperation to get home but despite the all-out effort it feels like I’m just crawling along. Drunk with exhaustion, unable to follow conversations or focus on any particular thing, I chew on my lip to take my mind off the overwhelming urge I have to just break down in tears for no particular reason. The dam finally breaks at the sight of an “Allez Opi Omi” sign held by a clubmate, I rush past and round the corner just as the unbridled laughter transforms into heaving full body sobs.
Things only devolve as I arrive in Milngavie and the start of the West Highland Way (WHW), family and friends are all there for the transient homecoming. Karly is first to come over. I try to form some words, but instead a choked mumble and by now standard sobbing is about all I can muster as her increasingly concerned face guides me to the nearest bench.
Glasgow was always a major milestone in my head; it’s not the end but it’s the beginning of it at least. The turnout of friends and family is amazing but I can barely comprehend, far less respond to, the barrage of questions. The bedraggled, stinking figure sitting huddled on the seat surrounded by concerned faces looks more like a hostage release situation than a race leader. Racing goes out the window for the next while as the coffee, food and conversation slowly drags me out of the pit I’m wallowing in and back to a semi-coherent state. Finally the motivational scales tip in the favour of moving on and it’s time to go.
The start of the WHW has the comforting familiarity of local trails, many of which were my first introduction to ’90s mountain biking (or as it’s now called, ‘Gravel’). Even the endless gates don’t dampen my spirits as the miles quickly(ish) tick down towards Loch Lomond and the notorious trail between Inversnaid and Ardleish, a section I’ve tackled once before and swore never to go near again, especially with a bike. In an omen of what’s to come the race route opts for the walking path and not the clearly marked ‘Cyclist friendly’ diversion for the WHW, once again the hikeabike shuffle begins to the summit of Conic Hill.
I sit outside the shop in Balmaha knocking back chocolate and Red Bull and wonder how I haven’t died on that descent. The path off Conic Hill is a completely unrideable 19% scree slope, dotted with rotten wooden hurdles from the old steps. It’s singularly the most dangerous thing I’ve ever tried to negotiate by bike and I can’t work out if it’s sadism or oversight that’s resulted in this being on the course. The rubber soles on my shoes have now completely peeled off leaving me with precious little grip on the rock face as I bum shuffle my way down the hill, sliding the bike ahead of me as an anchor. I use every obscenity in my varied Scottish vocabulary to curse the organiser for this utter madness. The shocked looks and concerned questions from the walkers passing me speak volumes.
“Am I lost?”
“Do I need help?”
“Not the kind you’re thinking of.”
“You should have taken the cyclists route.”
*barely contained rage*
The monsoon season is also upon us so there is the added pleasure of the newly formed stream forcing its way through my shorts as I shuffle down the hill. It’s often felt like I’ve been crawling up this route, but it’s now become a literal method of travel. I rapidly rethink my plans for tonight. Any ideas of getting past Loch Lomond are just fantasy. But there’s a bothy at Rowchoish that’s a decent start point for tomorrow and, above all, means no bivvy tonight in the absolutely hammering rain. Any optimism about the end being in sight is again tempered by the route taking every possible deviation to avoid using the smooth tarmac option running parallel to the trail. Dragging the bike up steep rooted steps and over boulders the night drags on, darkness slowing progress along the torturous path. Somehow the rain hasn’t rid the forest of the midges which are a side helping of hellish discomfort alongside the burning Achilles and aching back.
The bothy is slightly off route and, as per tradition, difficult to find without prior knowledge. I say a quiet thank you to old me who slavishly marked so many food stops and shelters on the route map and pray that I’ve done it right. The bothy appears in the cone of light at the end of the singletrack, a clearing of grey in the pitch black of the forest. Hoping my luck holds out I try the door handle and find it unlocked (an issue I’ve found previously in the era of Covid). The waft of heat and fug from the bodies inside tells me all I need to know about occupancy. Partially covering my headtorch beam I play it cautiously across the dirt floor and up to the pile of bodies on the sleeping platform, no room at this particular inn. Grabbing my sleeping kit and some food I duck inside and try to quietly find some space in the dirt for my sleeping bag. Sleeping area sorted, I take some precious sleep time to put my soaked shoes in front of the smouldering fire and sit, slowly drying off and enjoying the odd comfort of company in the sleeping bodies behind me. A five-star hotel couldn’t come close to this level of warmth and comfort. Suitably fed, I fall into my sleeping bag, biting back the scream as both hamstrings cramp and I writhe in pain, trying not to wake up my unwitting comrades in this endeavour.
Trying to pack my kit in the silent darkness of the bothy would be a challenge before adding in the rigid legs needed to prevent cramp setting in. The beam of the headtorch catches the edges of dampness under my air mat. The rain’s been so heavy that it’s actually flooded under the bothy door and puddled in the seating area and my sleeping bag. Stepping outside I’m quickly enveloped in a cloud of midges and it’s a frantic decanting of bags into the dirt until I can find head-net and repellent.
The short breaks out of my shoes have done nothing to offset the progression of trench foot and every step feels like it’s onto raw nerves. Every tendon in my ankles feels like it’s been stretched and torn, feet feeling like they’ve been dislocated at the ankles, rolling uncontrollably on the uneven ground. There’s a short 4km ‘rest’ of riding and walking before the main event. I’ve had the last two months to plan for this section and I’ve got an idea to make things (marginally easier). Stopping at the Inversnaid Hotel I proceed to fashion a rucksack out of the saddle and bar bag that constitutes most of the extra weight. It’s uncomfortable, but should make things a bit safer.
What follows is singularly the worse 10km I’ve ever experienced with (but definitely not on) a bike. It’s not a trail, but a series of gaps between the rock fall that sits precipitously on the edge of the loch itself. The gaps are too narrow for man and bike to pass side by side and in some places too narrow for handlebars to fit. Passing over and under boulders requires dangling the bike off the edge of drops before scrambling around them. Wooden ladders require cyclocross-style bike carries while carbon soles skitter on the slime covered steps. Any fall would be either into the loch or boulder field with no access to rescue. The metres crawl past in an unending cycle of adrenaline-spiked fear and baseline exhaustion. Tired mind and tired body don’t mix with these conditions –inevitably I lose my footing dropping down to one of the bridges and end up in the river with bike dangling above. Despite the cold water again flowing through my shorts I take the supine landing position as an opportunity to rest and send some angry messages to the race WhatsApp group at the insanity of including this section. I cringe at the thought of needing Lomond Mountain Rescue; I can’t imagine them seeing the funny side of this if it goes wrong. If there was any other way to get off this trail I’d happily scratch, unfortunately there’s no other way out than moving on. I scream at the top of my lungs, raging at the trail, the organiser and my own stupidity for not questioning this section more when I knew how dangerous it was previously.
Four hours later and the nightmare begins to recede as the rocks give way to trail again and a chance to rid myself of the surprisingly successful backpack bodge. I take the opportunity for a quick trowel-powered toilet break, which I instantly regret as the swarm of midges, kept at bay by the insect repellent, finds a whole swathe of new untreated territory to attack. It turns out that there’s always something lower than rock bottom.
The ride to Tyndrum is exhausting, but at least it’s safe progress. I take the opportunity to catch up on messages and to mull over the idea of scratching. My feet are literally in bits; luckily most of the toes are now just numb but the soles are coming off in sheets. If I keep going I’m going to end up with serious complications. That and mentally I’m done, I’m not having fun anymore and it’s now just become a march to the end. The thought of having to ride the Bealach na Ba twice, once to get to the finish then again to get to the nearest train station, is the final straw. As my last attempt at the WHW ended in ignominy, so will this. At least the sun has come back out and the run in to Tyndrum brings some warmth back into the bones. The town itself is absolutely jumping with tourists as I make a beeline for The Real Food Café and some much-needed lunch. I’ve mentally checked out now and made my peace with calling it a day, looking forward to sitting in the sun and enjoying lunch before getting a train back down the road. I’ll be back in my own bed tonight. So the phone call from Karly is a mixed blessing. While I’ve been trundling on it seems that with the weather conditions putting the ferry timetable at risk it’s been decided to bring the end forward to Fort William, 65km away. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In the space of 30 seconds I’ve gone from probable DNF to likely winner of the event. Downside, I’ve got to get my wreck of a body on my wreck of a bike and keep pedalling. I throw the fish and chips down my throat like a wildman, greasy fingers ripping chunks to stuff in my mouth, much to the alarm of the remaining patrons. Doubling down on the poor lunch choices with a couple of Red Bulls and chocolate I kiss goodbye to scratchville and make a final desperate push for the end.
I’ve no idea why I thought the last 65km would be any easier than the previous 1,800km. The first hour blazes past on a wave of caffeine and desperate optimism, even the drumbeat pain from the cobbled paths can’t slow me down. As two hours becomes four hours I slump back into the grinding tedium of the trail. The kilometres drag past, each climb taking longer than the one before. The Devil’s Staircase also lives up to its name: another agonising shuffle up the loose scree trail, humping the bike over the chasm-like drainage ditches that criss-cross the trail. Every step forward brings a half step back as the pebbles slip underfoot. The remainder of my shoe’s sole opens like the mouth of a basking shark and catches on every bit of rock. There’s no respite in the descent; desperate to get to the end I’m taking sketchy lines and just hoping that I don’t hook up and go over the bars (again). As the trail becomes a gravel road the gradient increases and I pick up speed, my fatigued arms and numb hands struggling to keep speed under control.
Running on a raw desperation to not be on this god forsaken course anymore I burn through Kinlochleven for the finish, now running empty on food, water and battery power. Ignoring all three warning signs I hit the final climb like a man possessed and straight into yet another bloody bike push, then I can’t even bend my ankles at the angle of the path so I’ve got to shuffle crab-like up the trail, cursing the never-ending climbing of this course. False summit follows false summit – the short black line on the GPS now has the finish line on screen but the reality is far removed from that. At some point daylight became dusk, became pitch black. In a desperate attempt to make up time I’m taking all the chances I can on the descents, with the inevitable result of being upside down in a drainage ditch with my bars at a funky angle. The charge on my light has started flashing red and I’m struck with the idea that if I lose that then I might be stuck having to camp here overnight a stone’s throw from the end. Grabbing the bars and yanking them straight I batter into the dark again and finally the sodium glow of Fort William on the horizon.
I hit the final road section just in time for all my lights to completely die and I become that most hated of people, the pavement cyclist. Running on empty in just about every single way, by now I’m a shivering wreck. I coast through the streets trying to reach the end of the West Highland Way, but with my phone battery dead I’ve no idea where the finish has been confirmed and there’s no one at the end of the Way. After aimlessly riding around the completely deserted town centre I eventually sit on a stone wall to decant my bags in the hope of a phone charge from my power bank and some form of food, the only remaining item being some well-travelled potato scones that I don’t remember buying. As I sit shivering on the wall, gnawing at a scone, the realisation that I’ve finished and won feels hollow. I’ve been in survival mode so that I’m just glad it’s over. I’m done and my bike is done. There’s little sense of achievement but an overwhelming relief that I’ve survived. I can only laugh at the farce of sitting within metres of the finish, but not being able to find it.
Eventually the phone has enough charge to turn on and call Karly who’s driven up in a last-minute rush to see me finish. There’s confusion as I’m supposed to go to the end of the West Highland Way, but I’ve already been there and it was deserted. In a glorious bit of irony it turns out the official end was moved from the end I knew into the town centre as the old one was an anticlimax. Looking to my right, I can see a couple of figures appear round a corner. I’ve spent the last 15 minutes sitting on a wall in direct sight of them less than 200 metres away. I wearily repack my kit for the final time and roll across the slick granite to the (official) finish. The cheering and excitement from the little band of supporters is a juxtaposition to my own emotions. I can’t deny there’s a bitterness at how much I’ve had to suffer to get here and I am by my own admission a sore winner. There are beers, a T-shirt and a chance for a photo. Slowly with the congratulations and cheerfulness of the little band surrounding me I realise how much it means to have friends and family who will stand at 11pm on a rainy Sunday in Fort William, and all across the country, to cheer you on no matter the stupidity of the endeavour. Now that is something I can raise a drink to.