The man on the train was wearing a greyish-white suit that matched his face. He was struggling to keep his balance as the train swayed, and holding his hand to his mouth. This was a troubling gesture, given that my bicycle bag and I were between him and the nearest exit.
Welcome to Scotland! Feel free to read the rest of this post with the corniest Scottish accent you can muster!
Audun and I decided to go on summer vacation to the only place that could possibly be wetter and cold than Norway in late June: the Scottish Highlands. Our first evening in Scotland found us on the second to last train from Edinburgh to Helensburgh outside of Glasgow. Our sober, tired beings significantly reduced the blood alcohol level on the train. We were headed out to visit a friend of mine from my exchange year in France, Roddy (previously featured some of these blog posts).
After a refreshing but short night of sleep, we were on the road to the Highlands, in particular the Arrochar Alps. Roddy was participating in a particularly nasty trail race that climb 4 mountains in 25 km (Arrochar Alps race). I was dying to sign up, but given that the female course record was just shy of four hours and it was still only a week since the marathon, I deemed it prudent not to. Audun and I quickly put together our bikes and head out to spectate on our mountain bikes.
Studying the map purchased at the tiny store in Arrochar.
After studying the local Strava heat map, we determined that Ben Ime, the third mountain that the race would be climbing, was rideable. At least 9 other people had gone to the top, so we could too. The start of the climb was nicely graded switchbacks, and we were chugging right past numerous hikers. The trail grew steeper, and I inevitably had to get off and push my bike up the steepest section. Then the hikers started passing me. Turns out I can’t walk that fast while pushing a 12 kg mountain bike.
Once above treeline, the trail grew more technical, and the drainage ditches started. Drainage ditches are channels built across the trail for the purpose of, you guessed it, draining water out of the trail. Most of the ditches could in theory be ridden over if one lifted one’s front wheel over the ditch. Every time I approached one, though, I started to see my front wheel getting stuck and myself collapsing into the ditch. They grew in my mind from small obstacles to gaping holes ready to swallow me. Needless to say, I started getting of my bike to walk over the frequent ditches.
Audun below the Cobbler, attempting a river crossing.
The trail brought us below a characteristic feature known as the Cobbler, and a side trail funnelled most of the hikers up to that steep, rocky summit. We continued on through a valley between the mountains, relieved to no longer be leapfrogging with hikers. The trail was flatter and more bikeable now, although still scattered with drainage ditches.
Enjoying a Crunchie below the Cobbler.
We reached the saddle between Ben Ime and Ben Narnain, the neighboring peak and the final peak in the race, to find an orange tent. The race checkpoint! Scottish hillracing is kind of like crude orienteering. There is no marked race course, but the racers are required to cross through a number of checkpoints marked on a map. The route you take between the mountains is entirely up to you. In this race, there were checkpoints on all the mountains the race passed over, and the route between the mountains would be principally off trail.
The remaining climb to Ben Ime was steep, with an undeveloped, loose trail surrounded by marshy grass. We meet the two volunteers bound for the checkpoint tent as they headed down from Ben Ime, and they informed us that the race leaders would be heading off of the summit soon. The volunteers were friendly and chatty, and seemed pretty surprised that we were riding our bikes up the mountain.
We ascended into the fog. If there is one thing I learned on this trip, it is that there is always fog on the tops of Scottish mountains. Soon the first racers passed us, flying down the hill in the shorts and singlets. They seemed to be using the trail as a suggestion only, mostly running on the softer grass parallel to it.
The third place racer on the chase.
Some of them asked us if we had seen other runners, in an almost desperate tone which made it clear they were afraid they were lost and had gone down the wrong side of the mountain. I laughed and told them, yes, they were on the right trail.
About 10 runners of the 30 total racing passed us before we reached the summit, only to meet an elderly couple sitting on top, out Munro bagging. It was cold (due to the fog), and we didn’t last long before the lack of a view persuaded us to head down from the summit.
We came for the view.
On the way down, I discovered that I could use the trick the runners had, and descend on the soft grass next to the trail rather than the loose, steep, rocky trail itself. And the sport of off-piste mountain biking was born. It was great fun.
The trail is just a suggestion.
Audun chose to follow the trail, and due to its difficulty we were descending at almost the same speed for once.
Below the fog, there were views!
Off the main slope of Ben Ime, we hung out at the checkpoint for a while watching more racers tick through. Still, unfortunately, no sign of my friend Roddy. I hoped he was OK.
The majority of the remaining descent was marred by the frequent drainage ditches, and feeling stupid when I got off my bike to walk over them. It was refreshing to reach the final section of switchbacks, which was finally all rideable for me.
When Roddy finally finished the race and arrived back the local community center, he looked like this:
Clearly someone who has just had a good time! After learning the hard way that you should book your train ticket in advance if you are planning to bring a bike, we caught a bus back to Glasgow and enjoyed some well-deserved fish and chips and beer.
After a leisurely morning in Glasgow, we took the train with our pre-booked bikes to Crianlarich. The village of Crianlarich consists of a train station, a pub and a handful of establishments catering to people walking the West Highland Way, a popular, 150 kilometer footpath between Glasgow and Fort William. I had managed to pick a charming B&B with a talkative proprietor, who apparently had lots of nieces and brothers and things who lived in Norway. After depositing our things, we were sent off on the West Highland Way with the advice of hiking to the next town over, Tyndrum, and then taking the bus back.
Me being me, I insisted that we run. The West Highland Way between Crianlarich and Tyndrum climbed through a verdant forest on double track and swooped above the valley for a time.
Audun can run too! Imagine that!
After about 5 kilometers, the trail descended to the main road, where it followed dirt roads along the valley bottom parallel to the highway. Less charming maybe, but certainly faster.
It was still pretty picturesque.
In Tyndrum, we treated ourselves to more beer, fish and chips, and cake at the Real Food Café before jumping on a bus back to Crianlarich.
Mmmm carrot cake.
The next morning we got up early and delivered our baggage to the local hotel for transfer to Fort William at the end of the West Highland Way. There was 78 kilometers and 2000 vertical meters between us and Fort William, and I had never intended for us to bike all of it in one day.
My plan was for us to take a morning bus to Bridge of Orchy, shaving nearly 20 km from the day and giving it a more manageable size. The best laid plans of mice and men...
So. Many. Midges. Invisible, bloodthirsty creatures.
After 20 minutes of waiting for the (late) bus among midges, which bite like mosquitoes but are so small you can’t see them, the bus driver informed us that he was absolutely, under no circumstances, allowed to take bikes in his luggage bay. Which was strange, because the same bus company had allowed us to do just that the day before.
Screw it, we said. The train wasn’t for another two hours, and we could easily get to Bridge of Orchy by then, right? We bypassed the first hill above Crianlarich by pedalling down the main road and rejoined the West Highland Way where it parallel the road towards Tyndrum.
Climbing sheep fences while carrying a bike is a skill we got to work on.
Riding half of the West Highland Way in one day was a daunting prospect. Neither of us had ever ridden that far on the mountain bike before. Usually, we ride technical, slow-going trails. However, if our experience jogging a section of the Way the afternoon before had shown us anything, there would be significant section of faster riding on dirt roads. We hoped.
The almost 20 kilometers to Bridge of Orchy were fast going and only took us a little more than an hour. The Way weaves back and forth through a valley, frequently kissing the highway before climbing up to the other side of the valley and cross through bucolic farmland. I felt myself pushing to keep the pace up. It was going to be a long day no matter what, and I wanted to speed through the easy stuff in case the Way got harder.
It was an overcast day, and it started to drizzle as we hit the first really climb out of Bridge of Orchy. The climb was well-graded, and staying on the bike made it pass quickly. From the top of the small pass, we were treated to a zooming descent on rocky double track to Inveroran, where the Way cross the road at a solitary hotel.
Descending towards Inveroran.
The section between Inveroran and Kingshouse crosses Rannoch moor, which affords expansive views. The Way follows an old military road which is studded with small rocks, lodged firmly into the ground by the passage of time and footsteps. These quasi-cobblestones vibrated our bikes constantly as we pedalled down the road. As the my Garmin ticked towards 35 kilometers, I marvelled that the only thing that hurt was my hands, due to the vibration in the handlebars. I tried to shift my grip around and stretched my fingers out to relax them.
Audun and the ‘cobblestones’ along Rannoch Moor.
There was another enjoyable descent before the Way crossed the highway again at Kingshouse and dovetailed the road for a stretch. For the first time in forty kilometers, the Way grew technically difficult, crossing areas of wet, loose rocks that had me off my bike a couple of times.
Before we knew it, we were at the base of the Devil’s Staircase, the most dreaded climb of the Way. As we stopped for a snack before heading up, I personally didn’t think it looked too bad. I was imagining the hours of bike pushing I did on the Tour du Mont Blanc. You could see the top of the Devil’s Staircase from the base - no big deal!
At the base of the Devil’s Staircase (not pictured). The highway kind of ruins the view, but whatever.
As we headed up the hill, we spotted a group of bikers in the distance ahead of us, pushing for the top. Other mountain bikers? Cool! I secretly wondered if we could catch them. Audun keep trying to bike stretches of the steep, winding trail, but I quickly settled into the rhythm of pushing my bike.
Several hikers passed us, and encouraged me. “I read it’s only 30-40 minutes from the base to the top,” one proclaimed, “And we’ve been going for 25 minutes. Not much left now!” I tried to assemble my features into something like grateful relief. Really, I felt very zen. I would keep pushing my bike until the top came. I would keep moving forward until I reached Fort William. It was a simple, explicit goal of the type I love. I could do this.
On top of the Devil’s Staircase!
We chatted with the other group of Scottish mountain bikers on top of the pass. They were doing the whole Way in 3 days, and raved about how difficult the section along Loch Lomond had been. Apparently it’s 12 miles of straight bike carrying, including climbing a ladder - ouch!
The descent from the pass towards Kinlochleven was the most technical yet, and I was on fire. “Seriously, you don’t get warmed up until you’ve been biking for five hours!” joked Audun as I tore down a rocky section I might have walked down on another day.
Good fun to the descent to Kinlochleven
Soon the fun part of the descent was over, and we were ripping down dirt roads to Kinlochleven. On the way down, these hilarious signs were observed:
Diesel smoke, dangerous curves.
Why do I make light of a serious warning sign? Let’s just say that Audun, who was descending much faster than me, didn’t even see the signs until I pointed them out. So who were they actually warning? Also, I was not about to walk down something that was that easy riding. I can descend in a controlled fashion, thank you very much!
In Kinlochleven, we stopped for some much needed lunch at the local pub (there’s always a local pub). We chatted with the Scottish cyclist group, but headed out before them as they were waiting for one of their group who had a flat tire.
A well-deserved steak-and-ale pie, chips and Coke.
The Way out of Kinlochleven climb steeply on well-built trails, which would have been much more fun to bike down that up. After around 300 vertical meters we were dumped onto yet another undulating dirt road along the bottom of a sweeping valley.
An abandoned farmhouse and the Way, stretching into the distance.
The road stretched far into the distance around the shoulder of a mountain, and we estimated we had around 15 kilometers to go. The part from Kinlochleven to Fort William was definitely not a victory lap - yet! We were both starting to get saddleworn, and I was excited to get around the mountain and finally see Ben Nevis, Scotlands highest mountain, a sure sign that we were almost in Fort William.
After pedalling around the mountain, the paths splits. The main road continued on the easiest way to Fort William, while the West Highland Way was a smaller, rougher trail. We had not gone all that way to bypass the most likely trail all day. So we took the high road.
Because nine hours on the bike is not enough of a challenge, Audun decided he would ride up these stairs.
It was great.
Sweet, sweet trail.
The trail first swooped along a green ridge dotted with sheeps' hair (and the occasional sheep) before dropping into the forest.
There was one final, steep climb up to a dirt road, and all of a sudden we were flying down dirt roads, then paved roads, to Fort William. It was nearly 9 hours since we left Crianlarich, and I was glad we didn’t have to keep riding.
We congregated around the ‘End of the West Highland Way’ sign for a few minutes with numerous other hikers, before quietly pedalling to our B&B, where there was a welcoming host, our baggage already placed in our rooms, a hot shower and bag of potato chips I had stashed in my bag.
The end of the West Highland Way, taken the following morning when there were less tourists.
What stupid plan would we cook up for the next day? You’ll have to wait and see!
- The Wild Bazilchuk