enthDegree Cycling Blog

enthDegree Cycling Blog

Highland Trail 550

cyclePosted by Jon Entwistle Fri, June 02, 2017 16:10:34

Thanks to Jamie Bell for this brilliant account of what it takes to complete a truly epic endurance ride. This was one of Jamie's priority events for this year and our plan was to firstly get him as fit as possible, but secondly to actually use the Highland Trail 550 as a marker and platform for base fitness and aerobic capacity. Now that he's successfully completed the H550 it now allows us to push Jamie to higher levels and fine tune his future races without constantly worrying about overtraining (he so fit and strong, he can recover quickly now).

It's all about the base!

Two “normal” blokes take on the Highland Trail 550 (H550).

Day 1

We’re not as early as we imagined we would be. 6:45 we roll over to the exit of the Green Welly and take a couple of “before” photos. Excited, nervous, a bit groggy from the 5 pints in the Tyndrum Hotel the night before – will we ever learn?

I’ll point out now that the words we and I are interchangeable. I am doing this ride with friend David Knowles. I don’t ride with him that often due to our differing work and family commitments but when I do it counts. He is the only person I know that I could do this with. We are of course totally self-sufficient. All our own gear, spares, GPS route finding devices, food etc. This is for two reasons – firstly it’s the rules and secondly what if we split up? It’s no good having a puncture if Dave is carrying the pump and he’s buggered off back to Tyndrum? Some people will think this detracts from the undertaking – it’s called an “Individual Time Trial” right? I don’t agree. There’s no help being offered and having a bit of company is nice. In some ways, harder to deal with someone else for such an intense period of time. I've proved I can suffer in solitary on any number of events. Anyway, its common on these events to bump into people riding at exactly the same pace as you so you end up spending hours if not days with them.

So we roll around the imposing Beinn Dorain opposite Bridge of Orchy, it’ll be an awful long time before we see it again. Into Glen Lyon, cross a river, the first of many over the next week. The trail is a wide double track that rolls well and progress is good. I won’t be describing the route in detail as it’s just too bloody long and you’ll get bored of endless names of glens you’ve never heard of, feet soaking river crossings, leg sapping hike a bikes. I’ll just point out a few bits that stick in my mind. Or caught us out. Or both.

There is a café in Glen Lyon, its 9:45, the owner is stood in the garden of the café. “We don’t open for 15 minutes” she says. OK “See you then” we say. Not a riveting story but something that will be repeated over the next 7 days. As with many things in life it’s all about timing. I've studied the route, poured over maps, read the blogs and forums. I know where everything (almost) is. But this knowledge is somewhat useless if the place is closed. We will find certain opening hours in Scotland over the next week to be a little challenging.

Onwards to Ben Alder. It’s a humid day, I have no water left, so I fill up in a stream. It’s a bit brown but it tastes nice. I don’t die of typhoid or dysentery. Result. There is a hut before the hike around Ben Alder. Rich and Tom Siepp are there enjoying a sit down and snack. They are a father and son team who have taken on many challenges over the last few years. Rich is a strong rider with a couple of H550 completions and many other long distance challenges to his credit. Tom is 11. Yep 11 years old! I am a 43-year-old bloke with years of miles in my legs and any number of races, challenges and multi day trips that have led me to here. Tom is 11! He has ridden a lot of the route before, recently completed the Lakes 200 and is a veteran of the infamous ‘Puffer 24 and Dirty Reiver.

There are two women brewing up chatting to Rich. We have our “Hayfield Hub” jerseys on. “Is that our Hayfield in Derbyshire” she asks. So there we are 6 people in the middle of nowhere, having not seen a single person on the hills all day and I’m the only non-Hayfield resident. I recognise one of the ladies. Her husband bought my old campervan a couple of years ago. Small world. This is ludicrous so we say our excuses and press on.

Wet feet. The path from the reservoir to the trail up the pass around Ben Alder disappears. There are plenty of bogs though. I think this is the last point for almost a week where I genuinely have dry feet. The descent over the other side is an amazing piece of singletrack and we quickly learn to handle our laden bikes over the ubiquitous Scottish drainage bars. I’m glad of my 29” wheels. One catches me out and I tumble into a ditch. No harm done fortunately.

Good weather, fast double track, we’re making strong progress and the clicks are, well clicking by. Over to Laggan where there is a café at the Wolf Trax trailhead. Its 5:05 pm. Its closed 5 minutes ago. Obviously. The lights are on and people are inside but they ignore our knocking. We really are on our own for this one.

The Corriieyairack pass awaits so we press on. There is a bothy up there but it’s too early. 6:30 pm. We want to get over the pass at least. Its huge. And steep. At the top it ramps up to an unrideable gradient with the appropriate number of false summits to chip away at moral. Jackets on and down the other side. It’s gone 8 now. We’ve been on the move for nearly 13 ½ hours. 140k, 2.7k of climbing. What an effort. We’ve worked out we need to average 125k a day to complete inside 7 days so we’re pleased with this. As we will find out though not all days are created equal. Sometimes a 15-hour day doesn’t result in 125k, more of that later but with hindsight we should have pressed on. There was light, we felt OK and we could have ridden a couple of hours more. A lesson learnt for later in the week.

Camp one. Tents up by a stream, down clothing on for warmth and a jetboil dinner. Homemade dehydrated food. Sleep comes easy even though its light until well after 11. At gone 9 Rich and Tom roll past – looking for a Bothy around the corner they shout, see you in the morning!

Day 2

Awoken by the rain bouncing off my tent at 5 am. It always sounds worse in a tent right? Wrong. It really is pouring down. After a couple of “5 more minutes” moments I get dressed, get up and stick a brew on whilst I collapse my tent, pack the bike etc. we get rolling at 6:20 am on a fast downhill to Fort Augustus. On the mass start a week later the fast boys will be aiming for FA by 9pm to catch the pizza shop and press on into the night. I will wish we did the same. Breakfast. Its 7:30 and everywhere is of course closed. Even the “open all hours” petrol station shop. “We’re not open until 8” says the lady dragging in the papers. “I know” says Dave, “I can read the sign on the door”. There is a local walking a dog, “try the B&B up the road” she says. It’s closed but a really nice Polish lady answers the door. “Breakfast?” she asks, “We start in 20 minutes but you can have now if you like?” result! In we go, de-robe, full Scottish, coffee refill. It’s Saturday morning and it’s the first “real” meal since Thursday night. With hindsight, this is a short wait compared to some days… tom and Rich turn up for a brew. We have a chat, I don’t eat carbs so young Tom eats the toast from my breakfast.

We stock up at the now open garage shop and press on in the rain down the Great Glen. Joking about a sighting of Nessie. Rich and Tom are with us so I pump Rich for a bit more information on timings, the infamous northern loop, Fisherfield etc. We ride off and that’s the last we will see of them.

We are aiming for Contin, a place I recognise from numerous Strathpuffer outings. It’s a long way and its rainy and pretty cold. The miles just tick by. I have a concept of micro and macro time for these events. Look after the micro time and the macro hours will take care of themselves. It’s not really about counting down the miles it’s about riding for all the hours possible. Its incredible sometimes that a 3-hour section can drag all afternoon whilst whole days can disappear?

We get to Contin, stock up and find a little hotel a couple of miles out of town that’s open so we stop for a hot drink. I watch Dave fill his face with a huge basket of cheesy chips. “Everything is local” says the proprietor, the cheese is from Orkney. Local we joke. Their hospitality is great though.

As its still raining we decide the only thing to do is keep riding so we press on in the hope it stops. It brightens up and stops raining. There is a bivvy spot, allegedly, some 14k or so further on. Despite our efforts we can’t find it but a spot by the river in Strath Rannoch looks good. It’s 9 pm, we’ve been on the go over 14 hours. Another 133k, 3k of climbing has slowed us a little. Another good day. Progress is too good we joke, we might need to slow things up a little. We will not be joking so much in a few days..

Day 3

Today we head for Oykel Bridge and the “northern loop”. We know things are going to get a lot tougher. People talk about how hard the loop from Oykel back to Oykel is but details are scarce. More double track so progress is fast. There are a lot of estates up here and there is clearly a lot of money in driving people up glens to gun down stags. The pass roads are in a better state than some of the B roads back in Derbyshire.

We reach the Oykel Bridge Hotel at 11 a.m. and the staff rustle up a plate full of scrambled eggs and bacon and three bacon sandwiches for Dave. Eager to get stuck into the northern loop we don’t hang around. Initially the going is good but the track gets increasingly vague. The climb is a giant push but we’re feeling pretty pleased with our progress. We’ll soon find out this is the easy bit! The amazing views of Ben Hope and beyond distract from the effort but by now we’re walking everything and progress is slow. We are at the most northerly point of the route now. I have never been this far north in Scotland and have got here entirely by bike!

We’re nearly out we think and we crest a hill to see a hidden valley before us. There is a small loch in a bowl of mountains with waterfalls tumbling into it. We are speechless. But there is a 300 metre drop into the valley and a giant climb out. I joke that it looks like Simon Fell but 3 times the size. An hour later we’re at the bottom. A pretty serious little river crossing and then a giant push up the other side. I will not forget An Dubb Loch.

We finally crest the pass onto a huge technical descent next to the imposing mountain Arxle. On to Achfary the first GPX file provided by Alan Goldsmith runs out. 400k and its only day 3. I load up the route suffixed “back”. It feels like quite a milestone.

Again, we decide to press on but we haven’t eaten much and we underestimate the size and gradient of the climb. It takes an age to push up. I just don’t have the legs to ride it. It’s gone 9 when we reach the top. It’s getting cold and there is nowhere to pitch a tent. What can we do but press on? The top becomes a descent. We try a couple of spots but they're wet, boggy and lumpy. Finally, a small clearing. Pitch up, soup, bed. Utterly exhausted but we feel pleased with ourselves. Northern loop? Wasn’t that bad. It took us nearly 15 hours but we have completed another 142k with 2.6k climbing.

Day 4

I have clean dry socks, jersey and bib shorts. I decide this is the time to deploy them and cheer me up. With hindsight, I would have waited another day. It’s a moot point really as by lunchtime they will be wet and stinking anyway.

I can see the sea! The morning is taken up by a very pleasant but very lumpy road ride around the coast of Wester Ross. It’s part of this new North Coast 500 route. It’s clearly very good for tourism as some very sleepy little villages seem to be benefiting from a lot of campervan and motorhome traffic. I find the whole thing a little incongruous though. This area of Wester Ross is a marine conservation area and the authorities are encouraging vehicles to drive around it in their thousands?

We left at 6:15 so everywhere is closed. Every shop, café and hotel. I stop to eat a piece of cheese. Nice breakfast. Drumbeg loudly advertises itself as the best village store in Scotland. Well we’ll see if it’s even open first. We arrive at 8 am. The shop is closed but the lights are on and the owner occupiers are busy inside. “We don’t open for another couple of hours” says the lady, “I know” says Dave, “I can read the big sign. We’re starving, we haven’t eaten properly since yesterday morning.”, “There are benches up at the viewing point if you want a sit down.” That’ll be a clear off then. Her husband asks me where we are going, I stare blankly at him and roll away without saying a word. In my head I am saying fuck you Drumbeg Stores.

At Clachtoll we stumble upon Flossie’s beach hut. Its open! They have a real espresso machine. I drink 2 pints of milk, a giant Cappuccino and eat two sausages and two pieces of black pudding. Dave nose bags his usual pair of sandwiches, sausage this time. This does the trick and the legs finally get working as we press on towards Lochinver. Some amazing singletrack trails slow us a little but they are great fun to ride.

This is a pattern that will now repeat over the coming days. Set off early with no breakfast, try and coax some miles out of increasingly tired legs and minds until we can get some breakfast and then things get a little easier. The riding is always easier with a belly full of food.

In Lochinver, Dave pays £5.50 for a huge venison pie which lasts about 4 minutes. We stock up and I have a brief conversation with my wife Rach which moves me to tears. I hear her voice and I actually cannot speak for a minute. I cannot over emphasise how much you miss your family on trips like this. I think the fatigue heightens the emotions.

We are in good spirits climbing the pass through Glencanisp Forest, Canisp to our left and the imposing looking Suilven towering to our right. The climb is hard but it’s amazing how much of it we actually ride – I think this is when I begin to realise that no matter how tired you are and how many days you’ve been riding you can ask your legs to give time and time again. At this rate, we’ll be back at Oykel bridge by 2 or 3 pm. Or so we think.

It sneaks up on us at first as the trail becomes increasingly unrideable. Before we know it another 3 hours has gone and we are barely 5k further on. At times the path simply disappears and you are reduced to following a line on your GPS, trying to pick a route through. The worst bit is the downhill. As mountain bikers were quite used to having to push up stuff. We accept this in return for riding down. But when you can’t even ride down what you have pushed up… demoralised we reach the Cam Loch and wade through a calf high bog of about 500m to reach the road. Wet feet, again. Really wet feet. With hindsight this is a really low point for me. The slothness of the progress is just so unexpected and demoralising. We expected to reach the Oykel Bridge hotel at 3pm latest, it’s now gone 4 and we are over 25k away. Heads down we grind into a headwind and on to Oykel where we arrive in time for a bar meal sometime after 6.

There is a couple from Belper who start chatting to us. We later joke about this. “Belper, in Derbyshire”, she says, Belper? West Midlands you mean. She is super annoying, reading things off her map really loudly and trying to engage in conversation. I am so tired that when Dave leaves the bar to tinker with some part of his kit or other I close my eyes and pretend to nod off so I don’t have to interact with them.

We don’t hang around after food but head off into increasingly heavy rain. On the map it looks like a straightforward up and over to Ullapool. We decide to ride what we can and see where get to. The weather really turns for the worst as we pass a bothy – we hole up for 10 minutes or so as the worst passes.

At the top of the climb I have a moment. The sun has gone but there is plenty of light. Dave is silhouetted ahead of me, it’s gone 9 and we turn off the main track onto a fantastic winding footpath. If we were back home on a night ride, riding this trail we would be delighted and it makes me grin. It goes on too long though. We want to be in Ullapool and instead we are detouring along a meandering, rolling path. It’s off camber to a huge drop on our left. I really hate this sort of trails and inevitably I crash, over the bars rolling down the hill. I am OK but a bit shaken.

It’s gone 10 pm when we roll into Ullapool, lights on via yet more singletrack – there is a perfectly good road into Ullapool Alan. We were hoping to catch the Tesco and perhaps the campsite but we’ve been on the move for 16 hours now so pitch tents on a piece of grass next to an industrial wasteland that was once a factory that has been torn down.

12 hours riding and a lot of pushing has resulted in 125k and 2.5k of climbing. We sleep knowing we couldn’t really have done any more. We are also a bit afraid to be honest as tomorrow is the hard day.

Day 5

Today is going to be what we have now agreed is the money shot of the whole route. Ahead of us lie Fisherfield Forest, a river crossing, Letterewe Forest and the infamous “Postman’s Path” to Kinlochewe. Alan, creator of the route, sadist and master of understatement has described this as a “serious bit of trail”. We head off at 5:55 am. Dave is not enjoying the early ride so an hour or so in, just as we reach the appropriately named “Coffin Road” trail into Fisherfield I suggest breakfast. We brew up and I eat Chorizo and cheddar cheese whilst Dave demolishes a huge steak slice. We feel better after this until the first climb. It’s a monster. It’s so steep you can’t push. You have to thrust the bike forward with your arms, pull the brakes step up to the bike and repeat. It’s painful and it takes an age. Near the top we meet some walkers. They are somewhat sceptical that we will get our bikes through the trails ahead of us. We have no choice but to get our bikes through.

Next is the river crossing. It’s a beautiful, imposing remote place. Described as one of the true wildernesses left in Great Britain – there is no road for at least 50k in any direction. Mercifully the river is shallow and we cross unhindered. Another major milestone passed.

What follows is 25k of trail that takes us 5 ½ hours to get through. Writing this only a few days later this is a blur. The physicality was brutal. I had a couple of packets of nuts, a bit of cheese and some protein bars to get me through. I do remember an amazing exposed descent with several switchbacks and crossing a causeway across two lochs. It felt like an eternity before we finally popped out at Loch Maree. Letterewe Forest had taken its toll on us. Still though we are in the middle of nowhere.

The Postman’s Path is 12k along the side of the Loch. It took us over 2 ½ hours. In places it simply doesn’t exist. “Serious bit of trail”? Serious pain in the arse. We arrived at the Kinlochewe Hotel exactly 5 minutes after the kitchen had closed. It was heaving and plates of food were being ferried from the kitchen to the tables. “I’ll go and see if the chef has anything he can serve you” says the owner. Things could have got violent at this point but fortunately she offers us a bowl of stew and finds us a table. I drink 3 pints of squash in 20 minutes and we sit in silence, contemplating what we have come through and the hunger and fatigue that is upon us.

The waitress brings out two bowls of stew that look like children’s portions. We have eaten so little all day that we struggle to finish them though. I don’t eat carbs but I eat the bread roll that is served me. Outside the wind has picked up and the rain is lashing against the windows of the bar. It’s 9.30 pm and neither of us can face leaving the bar let alone riding bikes. It’s taken us 15 hours to get through today – all 75k of it – and we are empty. Physically and emotionally drained.

We decide on what Graham Obree describes as motivational training and order a pint of IPA. Half way through it I am tipsy so I have a bag of cheese and onion. We ask the barmaid about camping, she suggests a patch of grass opposite next to the public toilets and car park. Excellent, we’ll have another pint then. And more crisps.

We leave the pub at 10.30pm and pitch up opposite. At least I won’t be shitting in the woods when I wake up in the morning. The smell in my tent reminds me of the old people’s home I used to visit my gran in years ago. I decide to throw away the pair of socks I am wearing. They are wet and smell of the death of something or other. The smell of my shoes is indescribable. I know I will have to replace them. Wet for days my feet are shrivelled in agony. Like being in the bath for days. When they dry out in the sleeping bag overnight the skin cracks.

We have passed the major milestones of Fisherfield Forest, the river crossing, Letterewe and the Postman’s path. But it’s taken 15 hours to cover 74k and it’s really taken it out of us. All our gains from the previous days are wiped out and we now feel seriously behind schedule. We know we couldn’t have physically given any more but we are disappointed never the less.

Day 6

An early start is in order, the only way to make the time up is stretch the day, so we leave at 4:58am. No food means no breakfast. Easy road start followed by a ride \ hike up through Coulin Forest. Sadly, the cloud is low so we don’t get views of Torridon to our West. What we ride though down through Drochaid Coire Lair is one of the finest trails I have ever seen anywhere and certainly amongst the top handful in Scotland. Even though we’re on the wrong bikes and we’re laden with kit it’s obvious how special this is. Even the driving rain cant remove the enjoyment. I think of friend back home Dave Freeman and how he’s dragged me up any number of Lakeland passes to find trails like this. He would literally piss himself with excitement if he rode this. I have to go back to this one day with my Hightower. I make a mental note.

We press on to Strathcarron, where the hotel is open and serves us the Full Scottish. Carbs? I order extra toast I am so hungry. We get the usual uplift in spirits and riding ability from breakfast and head off into the rain once more.

We are making good progress with the fry in us but experiences of the last couple of days have left us scarred. You look at the trail on the map and you don’t know whether it’s an hour or five to get through various sections. The “stress” of this seems to add to the fatigue. Not stress in the sense of modern life but stress from the worry. Will we be covering 70k this afternoon or will that 20k section take 4 hours? It affects everything – where you can stop and sleep, when you arrive at shops, cafes etc. It affects how much sleep you will get and whether you're putting up your tent in the dark and driving rain. All this results in your brain making constant calculations, setting and resetting your own internal expectations as the time slips by.

The long up and over to Dornie, home of the famous castle, is a bit hit and miss but we make it to Dornie Stores and fill our packs with food. I drink a 4 pint carton of milk and eat a whole can of corned beef. I’m not even sure that I like corned beef?

The next kilometres pass easily and unmemorably by. The next real challenge is getting over the Glenaffric pass. There are many walkers coming the other way, most of them German, and to a man they express their scepticism that we can possibly make it over with our bikes. We of course have no choice, not to mention the knowledge that we have got through everything so far. It takes an hour or so and is bloody hard work, it’s also breath taking.

We were told by someone earlier in the day, I can’t remember who, that the descent was a fast spin down the loch and river to Tomich. It isn't. it takes an age and is a long, long way away from the top. Dave rips a sidewall. It isn't bad but the tyre won’t hold. We are planning a break in Tomich where there is a pub so we press on. I leave Dave to put a tube in his tyre outside the pub, self-sufficiency rules prevent me from helping him. In the pub I order a drink, three packets of pork scratchings and several packets of peanuts. “We sell real food” the barman tells me, I don’t have time I explain, I am heading for Fort Augustus. “Tonight? Over the top? That’s a long way”. Oh.

We leave Tomich after being on the move for 14 hours. It’s 30k to Fort Augustus and we both want to make it. The state of the trail over the next 15k will dictate things. We feel we need to make FA, tomorrow is the last day and we want to give ourselves the best chance we can.

We climb on a steep but easy fireroad. Progress isn't quick but we are pushing pedals and discussing how it’s possible to keep the body and legs moving for so long. We randomly both independently reach the conclusion that the finest Utd player in living memory is Cantona. We finally reach the top and realise there is no surprise, no pushing, no shitty unrideable footpath were our speed plummets to 3k an hour. We both know we won’t be giving up until FA now however late it gets. The final climb and descent is on Wade’s road into FA. It was built for the English troops to march on after Culloden so we know it will be OK.

We descend in darkness and deliriousness into FA and finally stop at 11:30. We find a playground with a BMX halfpipe and some flat grass and pitch up without hesitation. We have been on the move for 18 hours now. I joke with Dave that some people don’t manage that much riding on a 24 solo! We turn in at 12:30 am, I set my alarm for 3 ½ hours later.

I don’t know how to feel now. I am so tired I could cry myself to sleep. The end is so close, just a day away. But I know I also don’t want it to end.

Today we have ridden 143k, climbed just over 3k and been on the go for 18 hours.

Day 7

We roll out of FA at 4:42 am. Onto the canal path for the flat run into Fort William. This would normally be so easy but the legs don’t work, it’s hard to sit down, finding any rhythm is impossible. I’d prefer a climb to be honest. It forces you to put the effort in and get the legs moving. A brief stop for roast chicken and cheddar cheese breakfast.

It takes us over 3 hours to ride the almost 50k to FW. We head straight into town to the Morrison’s and its café. I order the “Big Scotsman”, with extra black pudding, extra sausage, pint of milk, coffee and coke. Did I mention carbs? Potato scone, fried bread and toast. I mention to Dave that I may never be able to eat again in my life. It takes me 15 minutes to buy some provisions and get back to my bike in the car park. I am already eating again as I pack them away.

I know the rest of the route now. Or at least I think I do. I have ridden all or parts of it before. It’s just the West Highland Way from FB to Tyndrum. Just. I remember when this would have felt like an epic ride to me in its own right. The suns out and its starting to get hot. As I am putting on some sun cream I comment that I am now using the last piece of kit that has so far been unused.

The first miles are fun and the rolling wide trail to Kinlochleven is proving to be pretty much ridable. There are lots of people. Lots and lots. The further we get along the track to Kinlochleven the more people there are. We are not used to people, we are used to long empty tracks where we perhaps see a handful of people in a whole day. It doesn’t take long for me to get bored of saying hello to people. We are applauded, whistled at and saluted. I think this is more to do with the Devil’s Staircase that is yet to come. It always surprises me that people think you don’t know what you're doing. Scores of people tell us we’ll struggle to get through later up the trail. Really??! We’ve come something like 850k to this point and we’re not getting over the staircase? They don’t know this of course.

I have to stop on the descent to Kinlochleven. My hands are buzzing from the hits and drops. At the bottom I unlock my fork and it feels much better after that! A coffee, more food and 20 minutes in the sun in kinlochleven and we’re off again. Dave has never ridden the staircase and I am trying to recall it from my hazy memories of 10 years ago. It’s not rideable Dave I say. Too steep at the bottom and too rocky further up. But we ride. And keep riding. I don’t know how but we clean the vast majority of the super steep double track that is the first 4k or so of the climb. Clearly my legs are a bit stronger than they were 10 years ago! There are people everywhere now and the comments and applause continue. As do the helpful comments about not getting over the top.

We meet an English family and the dad asks what we’re up to. “You’re not doing the Highland 550 are you?” WTF. Nobody has ever heard of the H550. My wife has no idea what I’m doing and half my cycling friends don’t know what it is. “Is that miles or kilometres” they usually ask. This chap has been to a speech by non-other than Lee Craigie, so he knows all about it.

We’re off the bikes and for an hour or so we’re on and off as the rocky trail dictates. The little Shepherd finally comes into view over the horizon in Glen Coe and we’re there. A few pictures. A helpful chat with a German chap. “I think you will find the drop here a bit too much down”. Whatever that means. Red rag to us we’re off. And we clean most of it. We have become rather adept at manhandling these heavy inappropriate bikes down some pretty serious trails. Perhaps it’s the effort involved in getting on and off that pushes us into taking a deep breath and keeping going.

It’s harder than I remember climbing over to the Kings House. There are dozens of young people lounging around drinking in the sun. It looks like some sort of mecca for backpackers, and a little out of place. Last time I was here a few years ago it was deserted.

We stop next to Glen Coe Ski village and I fall asleep for a moment on the grass, late night, early start, huge effort, excessive sun and dehydration. A car passes and beeps its horn. I take this as a sign to get up and get moving.

We are 25k or so from Tyndrum now – we need to get this over the line but the next 3 hours will take an age. I am expecting an uplift in spirits and a “final second wind” but it doesn’t come. If anything it’s the opposite. Subconsciously I don’t think I want it to end even though I am desperate to finish.

We pass a man dressed as a banana. A little time later Dave asks me what I think of him. I reply honestly, total ambivalence. I put in a big effort to churn the pedals to Bridge of Orchy. I can see Beinn Dorain now so I know we’re close. It’s the same scene at Bridge of Orchy Hotel as the Kings House. We opt to just press on.

The final 8k or so take an age and then suddenly its 3k to go, then 2. I remember this climb at the beginning so it’s all downhill to the end now.

We roll into the Green Welly 6 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes after we left. I am not sure either of us really knows how we should feel but we know we have achieved something big. We’re on a high, we’re relieved, exhausted and elated. After a few pictures, words and fist pumps we hug and then buy some beers. I think we’re a bit in shock really.

We have literally come full circle as we get into some “civvies” and head to the Tyndrum Hotel for a pint. There are a group of bikepackers sat at a table. The H550 mass start is in 2 days’ time so we know why they're here. The event attracts people from all over the world now. Lycra, facial hair, Italian riding caps, pony tails and foreign accents. They stand out a mile. We grab a pint and I go back out to talk to them. They are not overly friendly. “Who’s bike is that I ask?”, “Are you doing the 550?”. We receive a couple of grunts in reply. “We’ve just finished about an hour ago”, I say, “6 days 12 hours.” They all stop talking and it’s like a switch with them. “Sit down boys”, “How was it?”, “How’s the river crossing?”, “How was Fisherfield?” We talk to them for half an hour or so as they are eager for any bit of information we can give them. Only one has attempted the ride before and he didn’t make it. I am trying to explain a couple of sections of trail and how many hours it will take them. I can see they don’t believe me. “You’re shit” their thinking. “Of course I’ll be able to ride it.” I am not the strongest rider I know but I know what's rideable and what isn't. I also know that when you're off and pushing through boulder fields we all move at pretty much the same pace.

I finish the conversation by saying I am glad I am in the position of having finished and not waiting to get going, I am also probably a bit jealous of the adventure and journey ahead of them. We wish them luck and repair to the pub.

After 2 more pints and a big steak we are nodding off and head back to Dave’s camper. The exhaustion means I can’t even walk in a straight line across the Green Welly carpark. Too tired to think I am asleep in seconds. Now we have finished it’s like the brain relaxes and the body lets go a bit. My hands and feet are sore and tingling, days later they still will be.

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Three's A Crowd

cyclePosted by Jon Entwistle Mon, May 29, 2017 16:43:33

With Sportive season in full flow there’s no better time to introduce two individuals who have agreed to sign up to my latest initiative.

What initiative?

A few month’s ago the organisers of the Etape Royale approached me and asked me if I would be some kind of ambassador and ride their event in September. I thought about it and then came up with a better idea; why don’t I train and coach two riders and the three of us ride this Sportive together and blog about our journey as we go through the summer? This way I can take a break and talk about someone else which is way more comfortable (but perhaps not for them, heh heh) and only interject with technical issues such as pacing etc.

So here we are. First blog post dedicated to Barbara and Darius. Perhaps a little background into these two wouldn’t go amiss?

Who is Barbara Murray?

Barbara first met at the end of a DTCC Evening League TT a couple of years ago. I vividly remember the day as so many bizarre events took place (which I’m happy to bore anyone over beer) and Barbara and I got chatting as we headed back to the race HQ in Drumoak on our bikes (I was on timing duty that evening). And I thought I could talk! Over time, we kept in contact and then boom, out of the blue last summer Barbara asked me if I wanted to coach a female specific group of riders. And the rest is history…

Even though Barbara managed over a thousand pregnant miles on her bike, motherhood eventually and naturally won over the bike, but undeterred Barbara is keener than ever. Back in January she managed 4.5 laps of the Strathpuffer 24 hour MTB endurance race riding two laps with my eldest daughter, but it’s my youngest daughter (who’s a wee bit lazy by default) who becomes hyper-charged when I tell her I’m leaving her with Barbara and they’re going mountain biking. Barbara is no stranger to long distance rides, as she’s completed Ride London, London to Paris, Cork to Derry and curiously Banchory to Shetland, but Etape Royale is a different fish and Barbara knows that the incessant gradients and high mileage on this cruel and gruelling route will push her to the edge of her limits, though it’s my remit to make this a cake ride for her. Well there’s only one way to find out!

Who is Darius Carr?

When I got a job in the real world back in 99, I joined IT company Logica (and spent the next 15 years cutting my teeth and suffering computers for a living), Darius was my staff manager. I didn’t really get to know him that well (I was never an easy person to manage), as within a couple of rollercoaster years I’d left to join the biggest database company in the world. Over the years our paths crossed now and then and we kept in vague contact.

Though a couple of years ago I’d been invited to a quiz night by Accord ESL (with whom I have many friends, connections, clients and acquaintances) and Darius asked me if I could give him a lift, so naturally I duly obliged. I’d always been aware of his enthusiasm for cycling (I had him down as a demon squash player), but I was unaware of his passion for cycling. So, of course since then we’ve kept in touch more often and now I have the privilege of coaching Darius and then when he told me he has a fear of the Lecht climb

A wee lightbulb went off in my head.

And so here we are…but what next? Well as it happens, both Barbara and Darius have already been chatting are heading out this evening on a cycling date with hills I assume?

I guess I’ll find out tomorrow and start intervening. Or perhaps they won’t need me at all? That would be mission complete at the first opportunity! I await with bated breath...

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The Inaugural Tour Of Glencoe

cyclePosted by Jon Entwistle Tue, May 16, 2017 12:01:27

It started and ended in a surreal situation.

On Saturday afternoon I was shaving my legs in my van watching Emma back her dayglow orange van into a barrier in the Clachaig Hotel car park, Glencoe.

Crunch. Oops.

It sounded worse than it looked. “Och it’s fine”, she said “Let’s get something to eat”. I made a joke about my legs being smoother than hers and how odd I find having to shave my legs for time trialling. Roll on winter!

In the Clachaig we got chatting to Alan and Stephen from the Couriers. They too were racing the inaugural Tour of Glencoe time trial the next day and we were all buzzing with excitement whilst my pocket was buzzing with messages from Stevie Blom and the GTR boys just to add to the waves of excitement…

From Chris to the GTR WhatsApp group “Well done Stevie, it’s a belter”. He and Andy from GTR had recce’ed the course on Saturday afternoon.

From Stevie to me “This will be my big effort of the year going on…people here are dynamite…I’ll be up at 06:15 tomorrow to do a risk assessment”.

After an indifferent sleep in the van I awoke early due to the morning light and decided to get the kettle on. Another message from Stevie at 05:46.

“Well the tent seems intact after last night’s epic wind and rain. Saw every hour pass through the night. See you troops at the rallying point”.

No sign of Emma stirring in her van. So I decided to stretch the legs and do a little work to pass the time. As 7am approached Emma appeared in the gloom of the car park and so I got the kettle on again and then we boosted over to HQ at Ballachulish Hall in our respective vans to start the bike preparations.

Riders from all over the country were beginning to arrive. Some had come from Jersey! Familiar faces started to appear too and the car park down by the Loch was awash with turbos and bike chat. I turned my attentions to the ever-enthusiastic, committed and energetic Emma. She was off early (09:07) and I had some bike checking, gear selection and number pinning to do, along with race tactics. And then she was away to start, excited and race ready. I decided to wrestle with my skinsuit and get the lo-down with the GTR boys before nipping up onto the A82 drag to snap the first ever female to start the Tour of Glencoe.

And exactly 50 minutes later after the first female, I was away too. Was this to be an enjoyable date with pain?

Oh yes!

I didn’t have a particular agenda or focus for this race. Just enjoy it. Surprisingly good early season results had settled the usual concerns that come with winter training (am I faster, fitter, stronger? Answer, yes, phew). But the course felt very different from the Sunday in March when we did some promotional work for the event. The hills were shorter (ha ha, of course, doh!) and by the time I got to Kinlochleven, I’d miscounted the big climbs. Not to worry, headwind is coming. I love the wind! Time to bury thyself!

The second part is undulating, scenic and windy as it’s exposed in places as the trees give way to mountainous vistas over the sea loch. Having met Ed Hood in person (usually it’s on the phone or via messenger) for the first time in the car park a couple of hours earlier, I recognised him and could see him snapping away and driving ahead. This gave me an extra boost and I found turning the 60 tooth front chainring quite easy, particularly as I’d opted to experiment with a higher cadence in this race. Always experimenting, always learning. Even in races.

The finish came quicker than I was expected and unlike the winner of Vets category Pete Nicholl, I had managed to keep my breakfast down and was wanting more having recovered quickly from the last killer climb which caught everyone out, even course record setter and overall winner, John Archibald.

Back to hall and my eyes lit up. Dope control had arrived. Yes! No. I checked the numbers and mine hadn’t been selected. Ah well hopefully next time? I’m fascinated by the process and unless Malbec has been black listed as a banned substance (maybe I need to check?), I’m dying to be tested. This year (yeah, another experiment) I’ve decided to eat and drink everything as close to source. So, no multivitamins, no gels, not even taking my hayfever medication and despite having been diagnosed with asthma for nearly 40 years, not even sprays (I stopped taking these about five year’s ago, though I do a great Mutley impression). No supplements. Nada. Like our GTR skinsuits, keeping it simple, keeping it pure.

In the hall, there was a different buzz from normal. I really like CTT events, there’s more of a convivial feel. Less glitz, less formal, but more integral. Graeme Obree nailed it in between speeches from Willie Cosh, Mark Atkinson and Caroline MacIntyre. Graeme talked how amateur sport doesn't happen without volunteers who are equally as passionate as the racers. And for the racers all you have to do is pin a number on and have a go. Emma did and even she was the only female not to pick up a prize (the first five got vouchers along with the lantern rouge), she was buzzing with the satisfaction of becoming a proper bike racer. I was in her good books…but for how long?

But as we waited in my van in Tyndrum (after fish and chips and then spending my white envelope on coffee and cakes), Graeme spotting and figuring out ways to get back into Emma’s bad books, it slowly began to dawn on me that we had contributed to something special.

And then as I loaded Graeme’s 20 tonne bike into Emma’s van in a deluge as he wished me all the best for the season, I realised she had picked up the biggest prize of them all…to drive the double World Champion and hour record holder home!

No it wasn’t a dream, a one-off. It was the start of something special. It’s already organically started to grow arms and legs. People are still buzzing two days on.

Thanks to you Stevie Blom!

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Groundhog May

cyclePosted by Jon Entwistle Mon, May 08, 2017 12:50:21

I love racing a week into May. I don’t know why but something special always happens from a cycling and personal perspective.

And the weekend past was no different. Yesterday, just like a year ago, I stood on the podium in a national time trial with a silver medal. Last year I was working hard to catch my top mate and GTR teammate Chris Smart. Yesterday it was the new kid on the block, the irrepressible and incredibly talented, John Archibald. Last year it was 8 seconds, yesterday, 43. And for a minute or so I think I had the, CR - Course Record!

Have we gone backwards? Absolutely not! I was telling someone a couple of months ago that last year someone had unofficially labelled me as the fastest guy on the road in Scotland because on a Tuesday night in mid-August I entered the elusive 19’ club for 10 miles and then the following Sunday smashed the Scottish record for 100 miles. Composite all rounder. And so this year, I’m already fitter, stronger, faster and more powerful.

Impossible, surely?

No it’s not. I’ve proved it. I’ve done my homework and I’ve stuck to my task. No deviations. I trained for 3 years with a 10 year plan (I actually have a 25 year plan, but that’s for another day). I wanted to make the most having quit smoking and I was fed up being a tubby, grey family man with good genetics and a massive aerobic tank who believed he could do better even if no-one else did. So I worked hard, trained harder, rested smarter and slowly the snowball began to, well, snowball. But in 2017 I'm not the fastest, so far.

Yesterday’s defending champion, Chris Smart, is national winner (Scottish and British), umpteen times over. I won’t go into details because he won’t thank me for it. But he has a cupboard full of trophies, medals, jerseys and like me he’s a bit uncomfortable talking about them or showing them off. But I’ve seen it and it’s impressive. Like me, he works really hard and he has a plan which he sticks to and he too is fitter, faster, stronger than before.

So we haven’t gone backwards. Nope. We’ve simply been eclipsed whilst travelling at what feels the speed of light. And quite frankly, I think it’s wonderful. One of the advantages of having a tiny ego, is that I can enjoy my racing, do my best and live in hope, not expectation. Race because we love racing. Not for positions, podiums, white envelopes. Someone has to come last, someone has to come first. It’s that simple. I wasn’t beaten. I was 96th slowest, or second fastest. And on the day, I gave it my best shot.

As so did my teammates, ex-Marines, Chris and Lewis. We literally left it on the road and it still wasn’t good enough to take the team prize, but we’re a team regardless and that matters more to me than anything else. Mates, band of Brothers. We look out for each and we support each other. We win together, we lose together, we swear at each other and we do fist bumps, high fives and the odd man hug too.

Last week after I won the CTT Scottish 10 mile Championships on the Westferry course outside Glasgow, I’d found my own elephant in the room. How would John have fared in the race? The truth is he would have won by 30 seconds. I’ve been using software to model my clients and rivals for a couple of years now and he’s got the power and a CdA to die for. It’s an aerodynamicists dream and now justifies 4 years of studying turbulence to gain that PhD from Edinburgh Uni back in 99. So after the CTT champs, Chris and I spent the afternoon, figuring out how he can go faster (we’ve started with a new helmet, more changes are coming). I did this last year when we were just rivals as I felt I owed him for planting the seed of the 19’ club in my head and I badly wanted him to join me. And so he did, 4 days later. And then a couple of days after that, a certain John Archibald posted 19:59 on the Cambusbarron Stirling course (he has simply obliterated that back in March with an incredible 19:25). The wunderkind has arrived, rejoice!

2017 thus far is John’s year. But it’s also Jon’s (without an “h”) year too. My eldest daughter who I don’t see much of these days messaged me to ask how I got on. You can read the transcript in the photo above (excuse the grammar Natalie). I’ve made somebody proud and hopefully inspired both young and old to pin a number and have a go. That’s what it’s all about. I always say even when you win there’s always someone faster than you. And if we can’t give John something to think about (believe me we are trying!) then I personally hope he quickly moves up another level too, or we will never see his true potential and I for one, would be truly gutted.

So silver once again after a week of May. One for the collection, but I got more satisfaction out of learning how to team time trial when Lewis, Chris and I took to road after the medal presentations to try something I’ve never done before and always wanted to do.

And for a brief moment, despite my usual cluelessness, we moved like a well-oiled machine at high speed, inches from each other’s wheels at high speed having listened intently to the guy who I have the upmost respect for, who’s been there, done it all and will come back and do it all again, as he moved effortlessly through to the front, I had a moment of complete and utter euphoria and shouted to Chris almost in tears of joy…

“This is what it’s ….ing about!”

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Warts And All

cyclePosted by Jon Entwistle Thu, May 04, 2017 10:45:22

I really wanted to write this post in the middle of last week, when I was at my lowest ebb, but as per usual my instincts overrode any negative self-indulgence and forced me to get through the weekend as I had a funny feeling I would have some positive self-indulgence to write home about instead.

And, once again, sorry twice, so it proved.

But let’s rewind a couple of weekends.

My racing season started with a 200 km off-road gravel event/race. It’s not a race, apart from the top 20 fastest get a prize. And it’s timed. But then you are set off in waves like in a Sportive. Me confused (easily done). Whatever it is, I decided to enter it for a number of reasons. One; I feel I needed a long day in the saddle. Two; it’s a proper challenge, both mentally and physically. And three; I had coerced a number of my coached clients to enter it – and as I you know, I like to practice what I preach.

And so the Dirty Reiver was a grand day out. Great weather, great to catch up with my Team JMC buddies and great event. What wasn’t so great were my guts. The Jedburgh chippie from the night before reminded me to take it easy, which was the plan, but when Keith Forsyth goes out of the traps like he’s been shot out of a gun, it’s very hard not to be tempted to get the race face on.

But it isn’t a race I told myself, so settle down and stick to the plan (you silly sausage Entwistle).

I got to the first feed station pleased there were more “facilities” than a table full of carbohydrate. That said, I stayed a little longer than planned as I decided with a National TT the next day, fasted riding for today was off the cards. I was coaxed back on to the bike, when a familiar accent in Team JMC kit shouted “Come on Jon or you’ll just get fat!”. And so for 20km I rode with fellow JMC teammate Jason Miles, chewing the fat I was trying to burn (now that the chippie supper was out of the way and I was beginning to feel better) until his back tyre went flat (again) and for the next 130km I rode basically on my own.

And it was mentally tough. Long drags, longer views, but my mind wasn’t really in the groove and I found myself stuck in one gear, albeit a very efficient aerobic one. So I devised a new strategy at the half way point, to eat two Haribo every 5km. And from that point the ride started to accelerate and I was really enjoying it. But the course was sketchy, because it had quite a bit of yes, you guessed it, gravel. I decided to overinflate my tyres prior to the event as I’d suffered a recent spate of punctures of late and fixing them in situ makes me a bit grumpy. But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh and I found descending around corners at speed and staying on the bike quite nerve-wracking and amusing at the same time.

Which was merited as in the last section when unfortunately I found a female rider I’d been yo-yoing with all day, Amanda Nauman on the deck. Arm covered in blood, gravel rash and a non-functioning Di2 rear shifter meant she had two gears to work with for the remaining klicks. I was more concerned about head injuries, so I rode with her without making it look I was chaperoning Amanda and after an hour she seemed fine if pedalling gingerly, so I subtly got out of sight as the afterburners were finally starting to light and I found a range of aerobic gears to click through - only eight hours into the ride. Ha ha!

After a little over nine hours of riding. Job done. Now time to recover, hydrate, feed and get ready for the real race – Scottish National Olympic distance TT (aka Tour of the Meldons). So, once my co-traveller and Reiver rider Rob had got his bearings together and could remember his name (he’s an Ironman, he recovers quickly), we bombed up to Peebles to refuel in diesel, curry and Belgian beer and I started to focus on my first proper race of the year.

I wasn’t planning on doing two big efforts back to back. It was a consequence of poor planning. But I’m always curious as how my body responds to any stress it is put under and I’ve noticed after big endurance efforts like the Puffer, I’m often in great condition the day after. Omegawave once did some detailed heart rate analysis on exactly this and confirmed as much. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to test out the legs in a hilly time trial that lasts under an hour and guarantees a world of physical as well as mental pain. Double bonus!

Once Sunday morning arrived I decided to exorcise a demon I had in my head overnight. Could I manage the cruel sting in the tail of a 13% sharp hill climb up to the Barony Castle finish line with my new 60 tooth single chainring? It would also be a good test of the legs to see if they were willing to play ball.

No problem. Doddle. Next, race preparation.

Slowly riders started to appear in the parking area outside the village hall in Eddlestone. GTR teammates Chris and Lewis along with the ProVision gents and good natured banter started to flow as tyres were pumped and the riders battled with getting into their skinsuits. Although I’m sure I heard someone say to me in jest, “Hope you get a puncture” as I got ready to join the diminishing starting queue over the bridge.

Being seeded, I was one of the last to start and the traffic was starting to build exponentially. I always look forward to the line up at the start line as I enjoy the chat with the time keepers, Commissaire and officials as it stops me from getting too excited. This time the topic was about my namesake bass playing legend and someone pointed out that my number 113 might be lucky. Being seeded meant I had two minutes once John Archibald had disappeared up the road, but it soon goes quickly and as the countdown started from 10 seconds, it was time to flip the switch into race assassin mode.


This is more like it, yes legs, go go go! I was just about getting into position before the big huck of the first challenge – the Middle Burn climb, when I got slightly distracted by someone passing in a car yelling abuse, but that wasn’t the reason why I hit one of the many potholes hard, there were so many it was like the Millenium Falcon negotiating the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back. One hole was so big I was convinced lava was about to pour of it!

Bang. Oof. Ouch. I cursed myself for not seeing it, too concerned on aero position rather than focussing on the terrible road surface. No excuses, I should know better, I’m a mountain biker in disguise for Pete’s sake. I was just relieved to get away without another puncture.

As the Middle Burn climb approached I clicked down the gears and cranked up the power to attack the first hill into an unforgiving headwind. This is my territory. But I ran out of gears quicker and I felt I was decelerating despite the legs being on fire. How? Erhm, what’s happening? What the…

I looked down at my wheel and saw the problem. Puncture!

Game over.

Damn it. First time ever I’m not going to be on the podium in a Scottish national TT. I guess it had to happen sometime? I decided to turn my attention to the remaining riders. Kyle Gordon was up next and seemed baffled as to what was going on. “Just smash it mate” I urged him. Next up was the winner for the past two years and teammate Chris. As soon as he saw me, he knew. My heart sank. Any whiff of a GTR team prize was gone and we both knew it.

Once Chris had disappeared up the aptly named Middle Burn which is a highway to certain hell, I spotted a photographer on the crest of the hill. I figured it was Martin Williamson from VeloVeritas and as I’d never met him before I decided to go and have a chat. But before I could open my runaway mouth, he had already offered to give me a lift back to HQ before heading up to the finish to snap the faster riders. What a Godsend and thank you very much Martin (former winner of this race) for the lift. Our chat in the car kept my mood upbeat. These things happen, of course they do.

I wandered up to the castle to see the last riders come home and meet up with my cousin’s family who seemed somewhat baffled to see me walking with my bike. “That’s racing” I replied, law of averages and it was my turn for a DNF! I was quite philosophical about the race and it was warm and sunny so I decided just to chat with various people. John Archibald who smashed Chris’s course record and won by three minutes on my teammate seemed a bit perplexed on his return from the finish and wondering why I was standing in cheap knackered Crocs and super expensive aerodynamic skinsuit. It must have been some sight!

But it is what it is and I reminded Rob Friel (who finished on the podium with a superb bronze) that I got further than he did last year as the cheeky banter started to flow again in the car park as bikes and wheels were getting dismantled and loaded into cars and on bike racks. There’s always next year. And there’s next weekend…just need to stop puncturing!

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