Bike Packing – The West Highland Way
Part of me knew he was right and after my first 87KM ride on Christmas day, on my own in the cold and rain, randomly loosing a rear mudguard due to intense vibrations I knew enough was enough. I simply couldn’t force it.
So I didn’t. I took Ben’s advice and decided to wait until that motivation and excitement came back naturally.
Too much of a good thing is bad for you or so they say, and maybe the TCR and the training was enough to take a wee chip off the top.
My first ride of 2016 was commuting to work, cold and wet, the same commute I’d abused last year whilst training for the TCR – Nothing had changed. I needed something to reinvigorate, inspire and motivate me.
Que text message from Tom Hill.
“Hey Tim, Long shot but how do you feel about doing some epic gravel track in Scotland this weekend?…”
… HELL YES …
A two day weekend from Tyndrum to Glencoe, mostly grave track with bits of road along the way. The weather was set to be cold but dry which was ideal for me, perfectly happy with cold conditions, it’s the wet that often puts me off (especially after such a damp December).
Overnight kit in the bar bag, Tools and food in the saddle bag, spare clothes and optional warmth in the saddle bag.
The woodrup bike was built as an ‘all rounder’ it’s seen touring, mountains, fast CG’s and group rides but never mud. This filled me with excitment. Knobbly tyres were loads of fun when I did the Morvelo city cross a few years ago so I was looking forward to experience the Woodrup x Restrap on rough terrain.
Fully loaded I make my way to work, the first time I’d ridden a fully loaded bike since the TCR. I felt a crazy nostalgia and knew that particular nostalgia might crop up a few times over the weekend.
Driving up from Leeds, typically we experienced four different weather climates along the way. It’s Scotland after all, but I love it and they can handle it without a problem. It was a long drive up but with the support of an 30GB iPod (the cool one with the touch wheel) on shuffle plus a few snacks we were in high spirits for what was ahead.
We arrive in pretty good time, about 21:30, get settled in the back of the van in preparation for the cold overnight temperatures. We crack open a few beers and reminisce about past adventures whether it being the Trans Continental Race or similar rides up North with Jenn.
My first experience of sleeping in a camper, warm from the sleeping bag but with a frozen face, I clearly need more experience!
We get up fairly early, around 7 in order to make the most of our day. In the greasey cafe for 7:30, 2 x english breakfast ordered and some organisation as to camera lenses and what would work best for the adventure.
Back at the van ready to unload the bikes and we soon realise how cold it had been that evening. The side door where the bikes were easily accessed was completely frozen solid, inside and out there was no force that would open that door. The drive up, past Loch Lomond, had some pretty huge puddles along the way, some of which splashed the entirety of the van so we assumed the seal must have been wet and thus frozen overnight.
Nonetheless we weren’t going to let a wee problem like this get in our way. Carefully Tom removes the rear wheel from each bike and passes over each frame through the front seat. We both prep our gear, make final adjustments and double check we have everything before we depart!
Maybe half a kilometre down the road we soon realise how tricky the terrain is going to be. Sheet ice covers the small climb up to the start of the trail. Tom makes a seated attempt at slowly passing, rear wheel with no grip at all he just crosses the section to soon find the rest of the path right up to the gate again, frozen solid.
We knew the day would consist of a fair amount of walking but that didn’t put us off, in fact I was inspired by Tom’s immediate efforts to pass the first section of ice as I chickened out without second thought.
Up the mountain side we climb, this section was pretty much impossible to ride on a cross bike, steep, extremely rugged & completely iced over. We soon realised there were parts that would be worth testing our abilities and other parts that would just end in broken bones.
The West Highland way was full of these little gem features, this tunnel passes under the railway line.
Once over the first section and into the valley things got a little more manageable. I began to grow a little more confident with the icy sections, riding over frozen puddles sometimes sailing over hearing a small crunch and other times a large crunch with an added bump as my front wheel breaks through almost throwing me off my bike.
We’re only 30 minutes into the ride and I’ve already got a huge grin on my face.
The bike handled perfectly, just as good as I remember when it was fully loaded during the transcontinental race. I had a great deal of nostalgia during the ride, unclipping luggage to grab food, the feel of the bike being that little bit heavier. It also made me realise how versatile the woodrup is, CX 32mm clement tires installed it had no problems at all and took every rock, cobble and patch of ice (or just about) in it’s stride!
Scotland has so much to offer, so many hidden landscapes and generally un-noticed beauty. When I studied in Glasgow 6/7 years ago, typically I never managed to experience a great deal of what Scotland had to offer. But I knew it was there, welcoming everyone with open arms whenever they choose to explore. We were particularly lucky that it was so cold as it added a crisp edge to the entire landscape, snowy topped mountains almost teasing whats potentially to come.
A lot of people would probably pass off this route on a CX bike but you’d be surprised how manageable it is. There was only one section that was a long continuous descent that had really rough cobbles, not in the sense that it was too difficult to ride but just in the sense the vibrations nearly through you off!
Both Tom and I discussed how useful 90mm of suspension would be for rides like this, legitimising my past dislike for ‘gravel’ bikes – It seemed the CAAD Slate would be perfect for this!
As we climbed to the top of the final pass we edged closer to the snow. I’ve never had the opportunity to ride in snow before so as soon as I approached the snowy topped mountain I found my self speeding up with excitement!
The beauty of riding a CX bike on single track – you spend all your time trying to guide it on the right line, but inevitably it’s all a game of trying to keep upright. This might not sound fun at first but it’s actually a phenomenal amount of fun. A bit like climbing shoes, they’re super grippy, but you’ve got to believe that they’ll grip otherwise you’ll fall immediately, it’s exactly the same as this. The rear wheel was all over the place, slipping and sliding, even the front wheel at times, but it corrected its self fine. The fun that can be had on these bikes is endless!
At the top of the final climb we celebrated with a wee dram of whiskey.
The descent down to Glencoe was some what ‘entertaining’. Tom, much more experienced and braver then I am, took to the descent like a real pro, carving a line like he was on a mountain bike. I was snapping some shots of his descent when all of a sudden his front wheel slipped and he found him self dancing on ice. Again, due to Tom’s experience, he managed to save him self from falling on his arse.
After the rocky descent passed a ski village we were on to the final road section, 10KM of descending. This particular part was the familiar bit from 007 Skyfall.
A successful day on the saddle, we arrived at about 4PM ready for food and beer.
Given we didn’t have a great deal of stuff with us it wasn’t long until we were in the pub toasting the days adventure with a beer or two and some venice pie. During the TCR I didn’t exactly take any clothing with me, simply a change of lycra, so I wasn’t 100% prepared for an ‘over night stay’, Tom in his running kit and me in some pajama bottoms and an old T Shirt.
Whilst playing a classic game of Shit Head we were discussing the amazing descent to the lodge, right between the valley with huge menro’s at each side. It soon dawned on us that the 10KM descent would be the first thing we’d have to climb the next day – not ideal first thing in the morning!
The first day was pretty much stop and start as we needed to get a selection of photos for Grit CX magazine, which actually worked really well as it meant we were able to stop and really take in the landscape rather then just ride past it all. The first day took us maybe 3 hours riding time and about 6 hours all in stopping & riding. On the way back we got to do the trail purely from a riders perspective.
The journey to Glencoe was much more technical from descending and the way back to Tyndrum vice versa for climbing. Both Tom and I were pleasantly surprised at how much we could tackle on the cross bike, given the ice and snow we were uncertain as to whether or not we’d have to push the bikes up the hill. The climbing was technically challenging but strangely fun too. I guess the bike handle in a similar way to descending, trying to keep up straight was the main focus with enough momentum to continue but at the same time without trying to slide the bike wheel pushing too much power.
The light covering of snow did us a favour in some sense although there was ice still underneath it meant there was a small amount of grip as the tyre went over packing the snow in order for the tyre to grip too it. It also made the scenery spectacularly beautiful!
The climbing out of Glencoe was as relentless as we’d imagined, although it did get us warmed up pretty fast so neither of us were complaining.
Once up the main hill where we stopped for a dram the day before it was pretty much descending toward Tyndrum. It was a little warmer on the way back so all the tracks were now soggy and full of puddles. My confidence grew again and I started throwing the bike a bit more between the tracks, hoping over little berms and dodging the puddles.
There were so many folk asking how CX bikes handled on a route like this, the answer being completely fine. The rocky bits weren’t too much for the bike, sure it was technical in places but it just meant you had to work a little harder to find a good line to pass. There was only one section of descending down hill for maybe 4KM where the road was just cobbled stones, that was the only point where my hands felt they were about to fall off. Other then that it was fine, I don’t think I’d want to do it on a mountain bike, sure descending might be a little faster but climbing & road aspects would be longer and much less enjoyable.
The West Highland Way is a totally accessible route for all (Tyndrum to Glencoe) and could probably be done in one day.
If you’re looking for a challenge or want to see what all this bike packing stuff is all about head over to Restrap for more info on the CarryEverything touring range and start organising a trip to bonnie Scotland!