Highland Trail 550 – If you like to ride your bike …

Andy and Alan, two names that will stick in my mind for a long time.

I met Andy in October at the Halocross in Dalkeith, after racing to the race, racing the race as good as I can, and racing back to see my girlfriend. In between we had a chat over a coffee, as Andy raced me at the race. We were both on singlespeed bikes; we had something in common. And we had a beer. Now I am standing in front of a steep assembly of rocks and grass, and can only guess what is behind the other side. For a moment I curse myself, the race, the bike, the mountains, Scotland. Then I look back. I have passed two Bealachs today already after almost falling asleep on a long stretch of road. I did know that anything called Bealach on the road means trouble, would I have known what to expect of the ones offroad, I would have never made it to the start. Although the last thing I want to do now is turning around and admitting defeat. As there is no way back, the only way is up. Giving up more than half way through? No chance!

I remember when Alan replied to my email to enter the race in November, days after I met Andy. ‘I hope you know how hard this ride is!’ was Alan’s first reply to me. A ride through the Highlands at the end of May? With the security of a spot tracker on my bike. Hard? I thought I’d find it much easier than they were expecting. I am very serious about mountain biking and having all of the accessories, even a good MTB stand for maintenance! I thought I should let them know about my experience…

It was winter then, grey and miserable outside. I could only look forward to summer. ‘Hi Alan, well aware that it’s hard, but used to that. Cycled home to Germany in winter twice on a singlespeed, just done Relentless 24 on a singlespeed as well, and a lot of touring in New Zealand and Scotland with backpack and mountain bike (the not so fashionable starts of bikepacking), so it’s right up my street really. I live in Edinburgh since four years now, so this’ll be my 5th anniversary in Scotland.’

I take the bags off the bike and make my way up. I slip, try to hold my balance. At least I make slow progress up the path. I forgot how light the bike is without luggage strapped to it, at least one advantage of doing this race singlespeed. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated gearing will ever get, in this terrain all you can do is to carry your bike uphill, no matter how fancy your bike is. I turn around. The bags have disappeared in a deep valley, with dark clouds looming above it. In between the sun lights up the scenery and makes it look dramatic. In this very moment I wish I had chosen a less dramatic race.

At 12.06am on Sunday morning I cross the finish line in Tyndrum. Spotting two lights down the path I near the car and can see Sophie, my girlfriend, hiding from relentless midges. I get off the bike, give her a kiss and hug her, and chuck the bike straight in the car. For the moment that’s it, no more riding.

Seven days, 15 hours and six minutes after the start I have finished what to me can easily be graded as one of the hardest mountain bike races in the world. I am shattered, exhausted and glad to be off the bike. Trying to make it, comfortable before the cut off, I have also just finished the longest day in the race, longer than 100 miles. Starting early in Glen Affric Hostel, I started racing along the shore of Loch Affric, basking in beautiful sunshine.

If there is a great way to experience some of the most scenic and most dramatic places in Scotland in a week, it is undoubtedly the Highland Trail 550. If you are after relaxed travelling, comfort and a ‘normal’ holiday, scrap the idea straight away. And never think of anything like this again. Every inch progress in this race must be earned, and some inches are incredibly hard to earn.

And then there are the midges, and the bog.

The sun is shining, a beautiful morning. I have to stop, look down my front tyre and discover it’s almost flat. So far I have been incredibly lucky, or maybe picked the right tyres for what was to come. Nobby Nics, a great choice for former military roads, roots, stretches of road, mixed with diamond black-graded sections, slippery grass sections, but most of all, bog. By the end of the ride my feet are black, my skin is broken and itchy. The bog is so aggressive that my skin hurts for days after I finish the race.

I stop, turn the bike on its head and take the wheel off. Five seconds later I am surrounded by midges. I am next to a river; there is not the slightest breeze and I am in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. If you would pick any place to fix a puncture, this would be your last choice. I swear to myself. I could have exercised more care when packing the bags in the morning, as both spare tyre and midge net are buried in the middle of the front bag. I try to empty its contents as quick as possibly, pull the knee warmers down to cover my legs, and promise myself to set a new record fixing a puncture. I don’t brake any record, I use a pump I never used before. And suffer. I leave the midge net on and pedal on. No stopping anymore unless I can be fully convinced there are no midges.

I fold up another page and stick it behind the other maps. There are only nine A4 sheets left to go through. Some of them will take longer to get through, some of them shorter. With every piece I fold, I come closer to the finish line.

The printed maps save my race half-way through, while I lose my GPS on the shores of Loch Maree. I am devastated, having finished a really rough section from Poolewe to the shores of Loch Maree. Just about to hit the road and crank the final two hours to a nice hostel in Torridon I discover that the bar mount is empty. Another three and a half hours walking later, I still have no GPS, but lost valuable time at a very crucial point of the race. I ditch myself in a shelter next to the street and try to sleep. I barely sleep on the bed of gravel, in a hut smaller than these garden sheds. Maybe someday, I might be able to upgrade and get one of those fancy sheds that seem to be on sale in America. There are loads of sheds in pittsburgh that would be perfect, and i’ve seen a lot of bikers in the US make do with one of the sheds. Some bike trails even repurpose them for certain events. Come to think of it, one of those would also be great in the garden for storing my bikes. I better start saving for the shipping bill from the US to the UK. The more the night progresses, the more stones are pinching my skin. Cutting down a £3 sleeping mat to three-quarters of its size only gives you limited comfort.

‘One more Mars bar and another cup of coffee please!’ I mumble. There is no juice left in my body. I smell, look tired. At least there is a pub now. I almost crashed on the last few metres, almost falling asleep on the bike. Any more miles on the road would have ended in the ditch. The waitress in the pub puts a smile on her face: ‘50p please. Refills are on us!’ I thank her and stumble outside. She just made my day. I go back for another and add a can of Coke to the bill. The stretch ahead of me is more unknown country, and I desperately need to keep myself awake. Mentally I collapsed this morning already, no sleep, no coffee, absolutely nothing left in my body.

While sipping the coffee I remind myself of day two of the race. ‘Hey Markus!’ I can see Rich in the door of the Strathpeffer Hotel. ‘Shall I order you food? They stop serving in 5 minutes’. Rich looked tough, tougher than me. I had overlooked him at the start. Rigid bike, Belgian race socks, cotton cycling cap. We had set off together in the morning, after I collapsed on the couch of Melgarve Bothy, at the bottom of the Corrieyarick Pass. I bumped into Rich again near Loch ma Stac, both looking for a way through bog and mist. We had both made it through a ford, which could have easily ended the race there and then. The rapid was so strong that it almost ripped my front wheel away. Somewhere on the way Rich passed me.

Staying with Rich at Strathpeffer reminds me of what I had classed for me as the toughest race I had ever done. While cleaning the multiple layers of dirt from my bags and breaking the shower, I think of Strathpuffer. I think about riding Strathpuffer for a week. On the finish line I have a clearer idea: Think about riding Strathpuffer for a full week and you get an idea what the Highland Trail 550 is about.

But the Highland Trail 550 is so much more. Jumping over the last fence I am about to kiss the tarmac at Ledmore Junction. I have walked, walked far! Not cycled. The last miles from Lochinver have almost shattered all my belief in bikepacking. ‘I wouldn’t even walk that track’, a fisherman tells me. He is bloody right! I continue another mile and notice an awful noise on the front. I stop outside a restaurant, which looks closed, to check the bike. As I change my pads a man steps outside: ‘Fancy a coffee mate, you look knackered. Are you one of those?’

‘Which ones?’ I reply. ‘Highland 550 or whatever it is called?’. ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘Want a bucket of water and a cloth as well, maybe that will help?’ ‘It’s just the pads, again, but sure mate, a drop of water might help to rinse the bog off.’ His wife comes out and we continue chatting while I fight off the midges, one by one. I pack the bags and say thanks.

‘The pub closes at 9, but we have a few frozen meals downstairs. My husband cycles, what are you up to?’ ‘Highland 550, a race over the Scottish Highlands. There were a few of use at the starting line in Tyndrum, but I have no clue who is left.’ ‘I spotted another chap outside the chippie the other day, he didn’t really talk.’ ‘He must have had other things on his mind, it is not your average race.’

As cruel as the race is, it is one of the best things I have ever done in my life. Three months later I find myself chatting to Henning Wehn, a well-known German comedian who has just endured a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe. This is the moment when I again realize how much of an adventure the Highland Trail 550 has been. You can define a great adventure by the amount of good stories you can tell afterwards. I have to stop as the bar closes. The Highland Trail 550 stories would have easily provided enough material to chat until the next morning.

Big thanks, in no particular order, to Sophie, for being an ace girlfriend, Dougie for fixing things I can’t fix, Harald, for kindly borrowing me the bags for the trip, all my family, and all colleagues at Scottish Swimming, that tracked my progress and gave me a round of applause when I went back to work. Andy for telling me about the race, without that helpful bit of advice I would have never written that story.

Useful links:

Highland Trail 550 Website

My picture Gallery on Flickr

Ian Barrington’s video from the race

Iona’s report (first woman to ever finish it) in Singletrack 91

Packing/Gear List

Bike: Cube LTD, dating back from 2003 I think, singlespeed conversion with an old Deore LX derailleur, Surly/KMC steel drivetrain, Deore cranks, Hope BB, Race Face bars and stem, Ritchey post, Spech saddle – overall: nothing fancy.

  • Bags: Relevate Viscacha and Sweet Roll
  • Cheap as chips mat, cut down to 3/4 , wrapped around top tube (too cheap!)
  • Down Sleeping Bag
  • Rab Bivvy bag
  • Opinel Knife
  • 2 spare tubes
  • Specialized multitool
  • Ortlieb map case
  • Lupine Piko Light, spare battery pack and handle bar mount
  • Exposure Maxx 4 plus spare battery pack
  • 4 spare energizer batteries
  • Spot Tracker (rented)
  • spare singlespeed chain and link (KMC)
  • midge net
  • Rock’n’roll lube and Brunox fork deo
  • Sunscreen
  • Voltarol Gel
  • Sugoi Bib Shorts
  • Trek towel
  • 2 sets of gloves
  • camera USB cable
  • charging cable for lights
  • Iphone charger
  • Iphone cable
  • Merino gloves
  • Head scarf
  • Swobo merino pants
  • Knee warmers
  • Tineli summer jersey
  • Tineli long-sleeved thermo jersey
  • Skins compression top
  • Montane bionic long sleeve
  • Montane velocity DT jacket
  • Titanium spork
  • Lezyne pump
  • two water bottles (one filled with food and tools)
  • spare pads for brakes (3x)
  • Garmin Edge Touring GPS and charging cable (didn’t return)
  • Printed set of maps
  • and possibly many more things!