Riding the West Highland Way

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7am in Milngavie – 97 miles to go

The plan was simple. Take two riders of complementary strengths and weaknesses (me: local, OK on the technical stuff, iffy fitness, full sus bike; Jules: from the south of England, not so hot on the technical stuff but good fitness, hardtail) and ride the full length of the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William. Here’s how it went…

30 May

Drop off dry clothes at overnight stops in Inverarnan and Kinlochleven. Drop off Colin’s car at finish point in Fort William.

31 May

Take bikes in Jules’s car to the start at Milngavie. We were lucky to find a man delivering bread at 7am to take the obligatory start of ride photograph. And then we were off, heading through Mugdock Park. After a few minutes we reached the first hill – a short, steep, gravelly number with a wooden step board across it. It’s on one of my regular rides and I cleared it as expected. Jules had to step off halfway up muttering something about gear changing. I hoped this would be the pattern for the ride – Jules is considerably fitter than me, so I was hoping that my better technical skills would even us up again…

In seemingly no time we passed the landmarks of Killearn and Gartness and were rolling in to Drymen (13.4 miles). We had a dilemma with Conic Hill. It’s more doable going in the opposite direction – heading south to north we’d have to walk both up and down, whereas north to south we could have walked up and cycled down. As we’d both done the hill before anyway, we skipped it and continued on the dreaded Tarmac to Balmaha for breakfast.

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On the way to Inversnaid

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A short break

Arriving in Balmaha (17.9miles) ahead of time meant that no shops were open, but we were feeling fit so decided to press on. It was here that we met four Dutch cyclists on what appeared to be hire bikes – Specialized Hardrocks with rudimentary forks, V brakes and luggage racks. They told us they were starting from Balmaha and heading to our evening destination of Inverarnan before pressing on to complete the West Highland Way. Having done this route a number of times and knowing how difficult the section at the top of Loch Lomond is, I tried to discourage them from trying it but they were adamant. We told them of the bail-out points where they could get a ferry, thus avoiding the top of the loch which is well-known to be untraversable by bike and very difficult to walk.

We continued north towards Rowardennan but unfortunately a navigation error by me meant we had to pass the Dutch guys again! This is supposed to be my local cycling grounds so I felt somewhat stupid…

Rowardennan (26 miles) was duly reached with little drama, but we did enjoy the first real quality off-road sections with some good fast smooth singletrack and fast drop-offs of various sizes. One section involved stepping round a big rock on a ledge about six inches wide with a sheer drop of about 50 feet through trees to the loch! After refreshment and a good meal at the Rowardennan Hotel we prepared to set off again just as the Dutch riders arrived. I vowed to buy them all a pint if they reached Inversnaid.

Leaving Rowardennan was easy on good quality smooth Land Rover track, though it was all uphill for about two miles. The fast descent saw us reach our highest speeds (Jules got 36.7mph), before starting the first of the difficult singletrack. The section to Inversnaid is a bit of a warm up for what comes after. About half a mile outside Inversnaid I had a bad fall shooting a rocky gully which I should have walked. I was probably showing off, knowing that Jules was on a hardtail and I was on a full susser, but I went over the bars, landing heavily with my ribs on the left-hand bar end. The right-hand bar end dug into the ground, breaking my new carbon bars about three-quarters of an inch from the end. Oops. We limped into Inversnaid to count injuries and breakages – very sore chest, abrasions to arms, sore left shoulder!

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A bit too technical

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If you’re going to flat, best do it in the sunshine

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Magic disappearing brake pads

We decided not to abort the trip and concluded the most difficult section of the first day. Suffice to say that most of the next four miles were walking over rocks and roots. Some sections needed teamwork to haul the bikes up and down the rocks and through gaps too narrow for handlebars. No sooner had our tyres returned to the trail than I incurred the obligatory puncture, fortunately in bright sunshine.

We reached Inverarnan (39 miles) and our B&B, where we cleaned ourselves up and headed to the world famous and most welcome Drovers Inn. Given the exertions of the day, after a couple of pints and a good meal we called it a day at a rather early 9pm and headed back to the B&B. We had every intention of having a quick snooze then looking for our Dutch friends to buy them the pint for a well respected arrival (if they did arrive) but in the end we stayed in and slept instead.

1 June

After a very uncomfortable night’s sleep with my ribs, we breakfasted and headed off in the rain. After a mile or so I had a phone call saying that my car keys were at the B&B, so we retraced our steps. I fended off a well-earned slagging from my ride partner, only to find that the keys were Jules’s which could easily have stayed there until our return journey in my car… The slagging was duly returned and we re-passed the walkers we had met earlier. One of them told us that the Dutch cyclists had turned up at the pub, extremely tired, just after we’d left. Apparently one of the guys was so exhausted that one of the others had had to take two bikes up the hills. We never saw them again or heard how they got on…

The next few miles passed uneventfully until we reached the woods above Crainlarich. It was quite a hard slog up the hills, but the downhills were very fast and dangerously off camber. We crossed the main A82 and picked up a strong tailwind that propelled us towards Tyndrum (51 miles). We were very wet at Tyndrum so we went into the Green Welly Stop for a cup of tea and a sandwich. By the time Jules had come out of the loo several buses had pulled in, depositing their load of octogenarians and tourists and leaving us at the back of a horrendous queue to eat. But eat we did, and well too.

We carried on along the good track to Bridge of Orchy (58 miles) until Jules complained of no back brake on a fast descent. The problem didn’t take much diagnosis – his brake pads were down to the metal. Fitting the pads was easy enough, but the system seemed to have got air into it and we couldn’t get the lever to feel solid for any length of time. Oh well, the next 35 miles or so are with front brake only then… We unofficially renamed Bridge of Orchy “Bridge of Midges” as we got eaten alive. Fortunately I’d brought some 100% DEET, which got rid of the midges but had the amusing side-effect of making our lips numb so we couldn’t speak properly.

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The Devil’s Staircase

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“Can we descend now, please?”

What with the very wet conditions, Jules’s brake issue and having done the hill before, we took to the road to Inveroran. From there we carried on past Victoria Bridge and across Rannoch Moor. We stopped briefly at Ba Bridge before arriving at the Kingshouse Hotel (70 miles). Jules stopped for the loo and returned with two very welcome cups of tea, whilst I tried to resolve his rear brake problems. My investigations revealed that he also needed new front pads, and I needed new pads all round. Be warned about Scottish wet grit on these trails. Jules had new front pads which were fitted with no dramas. I only had one set of new pads so did the best I could, putting the new ones in the front and the best of what was left in the back. We now had to finish the ride with both of us only having reliable front brakes, with 23 miles and the two biggest descents to go (570 meters and 270 meters).

We left Kingshouse at 6pm and headed for the famous Devil’s Staircase. We climbed up through the clouds and eventually arrived at the top. This was the furthest up the route that either of us had been so from here on it was new territory. We expected a big but quick drop down into Kinlochleven, but in reality it was very long and technical, made even trickier by the rain and wet, loose rocks until we reached the fast track for the final 150 meters descent over two miles.

At Kinlochleven (78 miles) we had to climb a very steep trail to the hostel before finally resting. We cleaned up and headed to the Tailrace Inn but had missed meal orders – don’t you just hate it when that happens? The barmaid offered to do microwave meals, though, which were soon devoured. We returned to the hostel and sat up for a few hours talking to some girls, and finding that being married had changed our attitude towards the opposite sex – I didn’t realise that some of them are quite interesting when you’re not chatting them up! We knew that we had to share a room with someone else and tried to avoid going to bed just in case he was a psychopathic axe murderer. We named him Herman the German but he turned out to be Dutch and perfectly pleasant.

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The End

2 June

After a really bad sleep due to the continuing pain we got ready to leave Kinlochleven for the final push. We discovered that Jules’s rear Centerlock rotor was loose on its boss but lacking the necessary tool we could do nothing until Fort William. Still, his back brake was fairly suspect anyway…

We headed up the 250m walk out of Kinlochleven and started on the best part of the whole trail. We had about six miles across a mountain pass with none of the steep hills being more than about 30m up or down. We very quickly travelled this section, through river crossings and fast loose sections with a good following wind.

The final push turned out to be just that, with a disappointing section through the woods towards Fort William. But at least we knew we were nearly there. The final two miles were along the Glen Nevis road under the shadow of Ben Nevis – in the rain of course!

We arrived at the end of the West Highland Way with much hand shaking and congratulating each other! On checking the trip computer we had covered 97 miles in a total time of 15 hours, 11 minutes and 8 seconds.

Lessons learned

  • Take more spare brake pads than you think you need!
  • Take more waterproof and warm gear than you think will need!
  • Drop off spare gear at your stopping points before hand
  • Full susser was definitely more comfortable but the weight difference was really noticeable, particularly climbing over fences
  • Don’t push too hard early on. Remember you still have to complete the ride
  • Wrap around shin guards (sixsixone veggies) were great for avoiding lower leg scrapes and bruises whilst walking
  • If you know you have to walk with your bike a lot, make sure you can carry it. I couldn’t carry the stumpy FSR very well at all.
  • If you want good accommodation, book you dates carefully to avoid school holidays or public holidays.
  • Try to ride against the normal flow of walkers so you meet them head on. We met no walkers attempting the whole route north to south.

The West Highland Way runs for 95 miles from Milngavie, north of Glasgow, to Fort William. Certain sections are signposted as prohibited to bicycles, but a change in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code early in 2005 now permits responsible cycling in most places with certain restrictions. Find out more at www.outdooraccess-scotland.com or www.west-highland-way.co.uk.

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