- West Highland Way in a day – My experience
Thanks for the compliments!
I definitely recommend taking a light weight pair of trainers as the rock section up Loch Lomond side could result in a twist or trip. I think it’s around 90mins of walking if you’re going for it. I was quite a bit slower than that.
I’d say that the South Downs Way suits singlespeed bikes better because you are almost always riding up or downhill. At night with buddies would be a great laugh! Have fun Tom!
ColPosted 5 years ago
See bottom for summary of kit, route and my thoughts.
I’m posting to give my experience to anyone else who is considering a long ride like this, as I have benefited greatly from reading other peoples stories. Also to boost my ego – of course!
Last August I rode the South Downs Way, Eastbourne to Winchester in a little over ten hours with a few mechanicals. This was a great experience and preparation for the WHW. I am no racer but my aim is always to travel as quickly as I can. If you read Rab Wardell’s account of his WHW effort, he has a different attitude, stopping for 10 or 20 mins, but riding really hard. My longest stop was 5 mins for a double espresso at Rowardennan YHA, but my top speed would never match his.
As I no longer live in the UK, I have been reminiscing about the great Scottish hills. I was back on Skye this weekend and used the opportunity to ride back from Fort William to Glasgow. After a superb stag weekend, see here: Dinner on The Table – Quiraing, Skye, I was dropped off in Fort William and started out just before 18:00.
The first 4 hours got me to The Kings House in Glencoe with plenty excellent views and big, tough climbs as well as some lovely singletrack. The sunset cast beautiful red light onto the Buachaille Etive Mor and the view behind me of the winding trail looked truely epic.
My friends left a little package at the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase with Kendal mint cake, a Mars bar and a gel. The note inside was better fuel than any of the food! This kind of riding is more about mental fitness than physical. At the Kings House I refilled my Camelbak and got my light on. The spin along (and it really was a spin with the singlespeed) to Bridge of Orchy and eventually Tyndrum was great. I was worried about the transition from day to night, especially after a taxing weekend of boozing, cigars and late nights – not to mention the 5 hour ride the day before! I was relaxed and alert and managed to keep a great ryhtym – I believe that having thought this part of the route through previously, I was prepared and was able to stop my brain going to bed. I loved the peace and the beauty and vastness of my surroundings.
As I was coming down the hill to Bridge of Orchy, I bunny hopped my 1000th drainage ditch of the weekend but misjudged it and went over the bars. Nothing hurt or broken – a great reminder of how this could end – sensible head back on. I rode along and up the pass before Tyndrum where more than a few cars on the A82 stopped and were no doubt wondering if I was a walker in trouble or just an idiot. I ate a sandwich as I slowly rolled through Tyndrum, better to roll slowly and eat than stand still. My food plan was quite simple. Cereal bars, flap jack and soreen every 20-40 mins, ham sandwich at every 1/4 of the ride and a handful of nuts and raisins whenever I felt like a change. I was going through 500ml of water every hour and had no problems, though I was sweating like crazy as it was still around 15DegC.
6 hours to Tyndrum – chuffed with that as I’d done the biggest climbs and the long flattish section is a massive penalty with the singlespeed gear.
Tyndrum to Crianlarich is a really nice section though I made a few wrong turns – only losing one or two minutes. Some of the ups I could ride but opted to push and eat instead to conserve. As I passed the turning to Crianlarich and the view opened out over a stary night sky with stunning hills and loch, I made my one and only, non-essential stop and turned my light off. I just listened and took it all in – incredible! Strangely the light reflected by the loch was brighter than the sky it was reflecting – explain that one please physiscists!
Light back on, my next focus was the beginning of Loch Lomond and putting my fell running shoes on. I had a spare pair of socks and my shoes were dry so this was a luxury I was going to love! I had not studied this part of the route very well beforehand. It was longer than I expected. I made one wrong turn and there a break in my eating rythym made things a little tricky. I stopped to change my shoes and socks and once I was walking munched on my 3rd sandwich. It was the half way point. I knew that, but I’d tricked myself into thinking the second half would be easier. The walk along Loch Lomond’s side was tougher than I expected. I’d walked it the other way last April when my best man and I rode the WHW over 2 days. It seemed like a breeze in the day, with a light bike, a friend and walkers to banter with. On your own, in the mist at 3 in the morning after such a long weekend of flights, whisky indulgence and over doing it, it was a struggle. I kept my rythym and only stopped to fill my camelbak or pee, but I had no spring in my step. With a bit more energy you can spring from rock to rock and fly through this, but I plodded and had to assess each rocky climb or drop before starting it. I lost no focus or drive, I just kepy moving forward as effectively as I could.
I only once got angry, by Rob Roy’s cave where I ended up on a big boulder covered in slippery algae and could have falled a long way into the loch. Most people walk the WHW from South to North. A big disadvantage of travelling against the flow is that the path isn’t so obvious at times. Shortly after this the going go easier and the sky lightened. There were now also flurries of rain and the thought and getting soaked through in the final hours filled me with dread. I popped out at Inversnaid, put my cold spd shoes back on and whipped out the last ham sandwich – final quarter of the ride. it was 06:00 now so I figured a 09:30 arrival in Milngavie feasible.
This last stretch was my weak point. I hadn’t studied the map so well (there were no big climbs or super rough ground) but I had no idea of the landmarks or the distances other than Conic hill. I was now 12 hours into a very long ride and my body was slowly shutting down. I had really bad stomach acid but kept to the food routine. I fell asleep whilst riding for a few seconds on the straight and boring firetrack to Rowardennan – I meant to buy one of those Red Bull Shot bottles for this part of the ride but forgot to. Luckily I was able to grab the attention of a nice girl in the Rowardennan YHA who was nice enough to fire up the espresso machine and make me a double at 07:00 – SAVED! Just chatting to her brought a little more energy to me.
Back on the road now, I got the map out whilst rolling along the easy tracks and started to make up for my lack of preparation buy memorising the route to Conic. Looked OK. It’s not. It’s rough with lots of sharp ups and downs. Nice if you’re fresh! Conic was fine – the intensity kept me focused and I don’t think I was much slower than I would be now as I just picked the bike up at the bottom and carried all the way to the top, stopping only to chat in Swedish to some Danish people complaining about “the terrible midgets”. The southern descent from Conic is not my kind of fun – lots of big loose rocks.
The final section I continued my plod and now began to meet people setting out on the WHW. Soon I was passing the Dumgoyne and then into Mugdock. I got lost a few times in the park, thinking more about the 4 social appointments I had that afternoon and evening!
I rolled off the trail a little under 17 hours before I started. Circled the obelisk, slapped it, got my phone out to take a photo “Low battery – camera on standby”, bought a pint of milk and a Red Bull and set off to my friends house to see the new baby, have a wash and then be taken out to lunch with my aunt and uncle.
There was no doubt this was a challenge for me – I didn’t know if I’d be finishing when I set out. I succeeded due to preparation and a little luck from the weather. If it had been drizzling throughout, it would have been a different ride.
On-One Ti 29er singlespeed (32-19)
Maverick SC32 100mm fork
Front tyre – Racing Ralph 2.4 front run tubless with Stans rim and liquid.
Rear – Crossmark 2.1 LUST (Tubless) with ghetto tubless conversion on a Mavic rim.
Exposure Diable MKI with 3 cell piggyback, mounted on my head mostly, but clipped it to the bar when the going got misty.
Porcelain Rock frame pack – see here
Osprey Tallon 22 – not been a fan of Osprey, but this is a wonderbag! More like 28L though.
Harvey Maps – West Highland Way map
Bib shorts, baggy shorts and long sleeve merino
buff, gloves, cycling cap and leg warmers
waterproof jacket and trousers
spare socks and polyprop base layer
Alpkit bivy bag, sleeping bag liner and a 30x40cm piece of roll mat. I didn’t bivy but had no idea what to expect and wasn’t up for getting rescued. In total about 600g and worth carrying on something this risky.
“Ride your bike a lot” should be a given.
Don’t worry about speed. As Mike Hall said; “It’s not about riding fast, it’s about living fast”. This is my opinion – maybe have a few breaks suits you better.
Look at the map lots and break the route down. Know where the hard bits are
What bike you use doesn’t matter too much, though if you want to do a fast time don’t use a singlespeed as the large flat sections are a huge penalty.
Take a bivy bag or survival bag – don’t be an idiot.
South to North on the WHW might be a little easier. I can say that I’d rather climb northerly on Conic, the Devil’s staircase and north out of Kinlochleven as they are short and sharp and not good for descending.
Know what the weather is going to be doing in Milngavie, Crianlarich and Fort William, before you set off.
Food is important. Take whatever you like, as long as you will eat it for 12-20 hours. Make sure you have a choice instead of 2kgs of Clif bars.
Ham sandwiches feel like such a treat after so many carbs. I’m not a big fan of gels and “energy” bars but did have one gel at my lowest.
Text a friend at key points in the ride. I got in touch roughly every 2 hours except betwen 02:00 and 06:00.
My Mental Strategy:
Exactly 50% of my ride was darkness. Make sure you’re experienced in night riding and that your brain doesn’t make an exit at 2 in the morning.
At any moment I had three goals. Short term, mid term and long term.
Short term – top of this climb or tunnel under the railway etc.
Mid term were my segments of the ride – roughly 1/8th pieces – Kings House, Tyndrum etc. As a “milestone”, I had a ham sandwich at every second segment.
Long term – finish the ride and don’t die.
Motivation is the key factor in keeping going. When you’re on you own in the dark, rain and wind, it’s easy to forget why you’re here.
I saw a lot of tents with WHW walkers sleeping inside. Every time I saw one I thought of the people snugly and dryly snoozing inside. I made an effort to put that out of my mind immediately.
I think that’s all I have to ramble on about. My email is in my profile if you’d like to get in touch.Posted 5 years ago
Happy riding!b rMember
b r: You’d be surprised what can be ridden on a single speed. I believe rider skill dictates how much of a climb can be ridden, as opposed to the number of gears.
Agree, to a point, but you’ll still be pushing when the trail is steep enough for me to need to use the granny – and on a long day, having the ability to drop even one gear can be a godsend.Posted 5 years ago
Garry – what’s unserious about baggies?!
I like to have my lycra and skin protected during falls and bumps against trees, I like to have pockets, I like the style of baggies. Normally I just wear a good pair of boxers like Finisterre merino pants but wore lycra this time as it was such a long route.
Here are some pre-ride photos. Link. There are more on my phone – will get them up later.Posted 5 years agohighlandmanMember
From one with a lot of experience of this ground, Well Done.
Sound advice too, especially on planning, motivation and kit.
There will always be both faster and slower riders out there but your own experience of any such epic is unique.
I’ll need some focus this weekend while riding to and from Lossiemouth again, for another of the Ultramarathons that I medic at (Speyside Way race this time).Posted 5 years agoShackletonSubscriber
Knowing the man behind the tea cake I imagine it is probably a straight up description, maybe even understating the booze, cigars, pain and torment.
Anyway, well done that man, something I’ve wanted to do for a while but never quite manged to convince myself to do. Now you just need to get a fat bike and do the Swedish equivalent. Can’t remember what it was called, someone mentioned it while I was up in Umea. Doing it in summer is hard due to midge related blood loss so early autumn is the time to go before the first major snowfall.Posted 5 years agoAlasdairMcMember
Nice write up. Pretty mental doing most of it in the dark as well – kudos for that alone. When I did it South to North (in a much slower time) I started at midnight so I’d come into the Lomond section at first light, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like in pitch black!Posted 5 years agobillyboySubscriber
I swear those path constructors have a real good giggle every time they construct one of those water bars (drainage ditches). They must rub their hands and think of all the mountain bikers that are going to get injured at that spot in the future, and all the flat tyres and all the cursing and swearing when the sensible bikers get off and walk over their bas…d constructions every 40 meters or soPosted 5 years ago
Yes I did indeed do this on a Sunday night after a stag weekend! I’m not in Scotland often so had to shoehorn it in.
Regarding the drainage ditches – a 29er makes it a lot easier. Once I was too tired to bunny hop, I was actually able to just wheelie the front wheel over then unweight the back, enough that it didn’t hit the rock edge too hard. Tubeless makes this a lot less stressful.
Here are the only photos I took whilst riding: Link
Oli – yes it was Bob’s Stag. Great weekend and the Friday night was a laugh, though we’ve been accused of acting like the Bullingdon Club! I doubt that lot would shift a table and chairs up a flight of stairs let alone a misty mountain!
Shackleton – I’ve got my eyes on a Surly Grampus – ideal for long distance rides in Sweden. The trail you mention is the Kungsleden. It is on the list. Sept is probably the best month as you say! Hope to see you soon.
Highlandman – Do you know my friend Lucy Downie? She is very into her ultra running. Have a great time in the hills this weekend mate!Posted 5 years agopixelmixMember
Superb! I really fancy this but reckoned two days. Interesting to hear your take on the North or South direction issue. Most folk seem to come out in favour of starting at Fort Bill but I was always convinced that the opposite direction would have the best riding.
Having ridden it over 2 days, South to North, I reckon that is the way I would do it again if choosing. Probably not much in it, but S to N means you get the Loch Lomond walk out of the way on the first day, so you can enjoy the riding more on the second day.
Thanks for the write up teacake – you’ve got me thinking again about doing it in a day (which was the intention – my 2 day stint being a recce ride really). Hmmm….Posted 5 years ago
If I was riding it again, I’d do it South to North.
The Devil’s Staircase is a quick carry but a rubbish descent (in my mind). It’s far better to be going north there and have that huge long 550m descent into Kinlochleven.
Also the descent into Inveroran is a good one and rideable from Bridge of Orchy but a very tough climb if going south.
If was I doing it in a day again, I’d probably start at 3 or 4 am and that way be reaching the techy stuff in good light. You’d also be finishing in the daylight – and before the pubs close!Posted 5 years agohighlandmanMember
The WHW race begins at 0100 in late June, to give the most runners the best of the long daylight. You can cope with limited light early on like that and get the darkness out of the way while fresh.Posted 5 years ago
Teacake is right, for biking an 0300 start in summer would be ideal and the descents will also generally work better S-N.NeilMackSubscriber
Great write up!
I walked a bit of the Kungsleden when camping in Abisko national park a decade ago. The Swedes were most amused by someone in a kilt who then headed off the track and up a corrie (the Swedes like to stick to the path it would seem). Nasty mossies up there though…
From there we went to the Lofoten islands – now there was some choice cycling & scenery there…Posted 5 years agogarytompsettMember
nice work Teacake. Esp the Quirang dining. My gang have done a fair bit of extreme dining (Coll, cave, beach, skye, behind waterfall, mull, Nevis Range). Do I know you from Rat Race and Wan Dae as Team Teacake? I did the WHW back to back earlier this month with Nicola McLeod. I should take your example and write it up!Posted 5 years ago
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