Is bailing an option?

Markus on West Hghland WayIt took me some time to rethink my attempt to cycle the We(s)t Highland Way on Sunday, and I must admit I haven’t really reached an agreement with myself so far if it was a good or bad thing to stop so close to the finish and leave it for later. I am still debating whether bailing after 16 hours in the saddle can really be called bailing, or if it should rather be described as ‘ending a brilliant day cycling with the most sensible option’. At the same time I am still looking for the answer if yesterday’s main achievement was the fact that I ended a trip without reaching the planned destination, and decided not to ruin the experience for the sake of reaching a goal. Will there ever be an answer? Possibly not.

As I was thinking about all those things, I had to remember those famous words from ROAM, that film that finally got me into mountain biking properly: ‘To roam is to search for something new. On a mountain bike you can cover a great distance in a short period of time, or a short distance in a great period of time. They say that the journey can be more important than the destination. In mountain biking there is no destination. Just a bike, a rider and a place to ride.’ Maybe it was perfectly fine to opt for the train home that I had booked a week in advance, without knowing that I will battle a cold for the the weekend that made riding a mountain bike pretty tough. Maybe it was fine to stop cycling after the longest day I had so far in the saddle, taking into account that I didn’t tackle the West Highland Way in the mid of summer with plenty of daylight, but in wet and muddy conditions in the middle of November. Maybe it was fine to stop after all – but then again it wasn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. Or did I get fascinated that, for the first time, I had the power to put the importance of the journey above its destination? Was there really a goal, or did I just enjoy 17 hours in the saddle?

Balmaha at nightAfter all it was an epic day. I spent the whole of last week thinking whether or not I should give it a go. Cycling the West Highland Way was one of those things on my list to tick off and I had planned it for a long time. Various things in between made me postpone it, but with the Stumpjumper back in old fashion it was a no-brainer to give it a try. It also fitted perfectly in my mental training schedule for cycling back home to Germany again and doing Strathpeffer in January. It was a minor goal towards bigger achievements, and seemed good fun after all. I needed more experience in cycling with lights, not just a few hours but a whole night.

The initial plan was to take the train on Saturday morning to Westerton and start from there. But waking up at 3am on Saturday morning felt awful. I had noticed a cold the evening before, and now it arrived with full power. I left it and decided for a later start instead, which was at midnight the same day. That bought me some time for preparation, but also some more hours to deal with my coughing. In health terms things got worse, it was a wee bit pretentious to think I might recover that soon. But the iron will made up for the rest, at least I thought so.

Regardless, after 2 hours of sleep and getting bike and kit ready I was on the train on a Saturday night, to Glasgow. For the whole day I had listened to epic music from Clint Mansell, now I was on an epic mission myself. Secretly I wished for changing into something more stylish than baggy mountain bike shorts and a cycling jersey while on the train, but I had possibly more fun ahead than most of the people that could hardly walk off the train at 11. I arrived at Milngavie at midnight, 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

The lights were on, and after the (tacky) picture to mark the start of the occasion I was on my way, on a mission. The next human I got to see was another seven hours away, for now all I had was darkness, the odd patch of mist and myself. I truly enjoyed the tranquillity and the fact that I was cycling under an almost full moon, with the odd patch of fog flying by and stars following my progress though the night. It was tough going though, as I had never encountered that many gates on a route as on the first 20 miles of the WHW. The steady opening and closing of gates broke the rhythm of my cycling, and after 10 gates my fingers got cold from opening them. After the first, rather easy stretch, came one of the obstacles that possibly decided the outcome of this journey: Conic Hill. Best skipped by most cyclists for obvious reasons it was worth a challenge. It truly was an experience. Imagine pushing your bike up something that comes closer to a river or small waterfall than a path, is pretty much unridable uphill and gets even steeper on the other side of the hill, this time sweetened with wet grass patches. Some of sheep watched my progress and must have felt rather amused how clumsy a human being can look trying to negotiate their home territory.

By the time I got to Balmaha it was 3.30am, as time seemed to fly past at night even quicker than at daytime. I stopped outside the local hotel for some food and was off to the next adventure. As my plan was to do the whole way I didn’t cheat by taking the road, even though that would have made things much easier. It was an ongoing up and down, some of it ridable, but then again too steep in parts even for pushing. I struggled into the night, enjoying myself. By now I had cycled the longest time with lights ever in my life, so the first goal was achieved. Fortune left me at an intersection. Instead of turning right up the hill I followed the path towards the shore of Loch Lomond, which seemed shorter and better to ride. I cheated, and got the bill for it immediately. The path quickly turned from dual lane to single track, and shorty after that into an unridable mess. By now common sense had left me as I was bush bashing myself and the bike trough the night. After half an hour I used the GPS on my phone and had to turn around. By now it was 6.00am already, and I had not even reached Rowardennan, way behind schedule (was there ever one?)

By sunrise the clouds had taken over and I was at Inversnaid. From experience I knew that the hardest part was yet to begin, and I was surely reminded why I hated that bit so much five years ago when I cycled up parts of the WHW with my friend Martin (have a look at the pictures here). The stretch from Rowardennan to Inverarnan is an absolute slog, with the section around Rob Roy’s cave the worst you can encounter. Some parts needed some proper thinking on how best to get me and the bike down the rocks, but I finally managed to arrive at Inverarnan around 11.00am. From here the riding began again. Despite some steep stuff the way from here on is fine for a decent mountain bike and rider to handle. It was the usual bog and mud that marked sections of the way, all in all manageable for this time of the year. I was making much faster progress from here on, and the section above Crianlarich was an absolute joy to ride. The only problem was my left hand, which was playing up most of the time, but here things became worse. Two fingers cramped constantly, to a point the I could only slide the hand of the bars sideways and bend the fingers back into shape with using the other hand. Needless to say that it doesn’t work without proper pain. Riding downhill with the need to pull a brake, even a hydraulic one, was a challenge.

In Tyndrum I knew that getting the 17.37 train in Fort Bill was wishful thinking. Still I thought about making it in time for the 19.00 Sleeper, which would have given me an additional 80 minutes, not much considering the time I had already spent on the saddle. The other option would have been an overnight stay in Fort William and the train back to Stirling the other morning. But then again that wasn’t really an option, considering that I had appointments at work and no spare clothes with me. All those thoughts raced through my head on the way to Bridge of Orchy and the Forest Lodge before I entered the Rannoch Moor section to Kingshouse Hotel. Half way trough I decided to stop at a bridge for some nice pictures. Up until then I was racing the clock to make it to Fort William in time. After looking at the great scenery for another few minutes I decided to try it again another time. My body would have easily made it to Fort William, but my mind wasn’t. I had reassured myself that I can spend long hours on the bike without sleep, and I was ready for the train back and the most sensible option to get home. With another big trip planned for Christmas I chose to opt out this time, with a beautiful sunset in the Central Highlands. An unbeatable experience, as the whole trip was. In my mind I had finished, although the real finish line was another 45km up the road. ‘They say that the journey can be more important than the destination.’ So true. Why did I argue with myself in the first place?

Have a look at the pictures here

More West Highland Way pictures from 2006 are here