West Highland Way by Mountain Bike

West Highland Way by Mountain Bike

By Ian Palmer

This is a series of texts sent at 5am:

Me: Guess what? I feel awful. I don’t think I’m going to come. You guys get going and have a good time.

Friend: Whatever, see you in 30 mins.

Other Friend: Do you need a cuddle?

Me: No, no, seriously, if I feel like this now, by mid-afternoon it will be dreadful.

Friend: No, you are coming, we can go slowly. See you in a bit

Other friend: You’ve done sillier things since being ill. We can stop whenever you want.

It was now 5:30am. My bags were packed, my bike was ready and my friends were on their way, the general consensus being that I would really regret not going (and that I should stop whinging).

The reason for all this indecision? Nearly 2 years ago I got Lyme disease and still get the odd ‘hangover’ day. I know they’re coming and I know how it affects me, so I basically write the day off and then I’m good to go the next. At 5:30 that morning, it felt like one of ‘those days’. The trouble was, after failing to complete the last attempt to mtb the West highland way a few years ago, I’d spotted a weather window, actually had some spare time to finally get this off the ‘to do’ list and had 2 friends who could also make it then. It was terrible timing to be feeling like I wanted to throw in the towel already.

By 5:45am, all 3 bikes were loaded into one of the friend’s vans and it very much looked like I was going to have to do this thing.

This was the plan:

Day 1 - Leave Kendal 5:45am – start riding 8:30am

Hotel for the night at Tyndrum

Day 2 - Ride to Fort William

4:00pm taxi back to Milngavie

Drive back to Kendal and bed by 10:30pm

So, back to the start. Myself and my two ever-patient friends Steve and Matt were finally going to ride the WHW. I’d fast-packed it a few weeks before with Katie and Ern so I remembered the route pretty well. My 2 friends are very able, and we have trained and raced together for a lot of years, so we know each other very well and know what each other’s foibles are. We had all packed pretty lightly and each of us had shared kit and some clothes for after riding. Matt took the lions share because he likes to look after everyone. I probably packed too light, but my friends always take too much so I figured I’d be ok!

After a service station breakfast, we took advantage of the free parking at Milngavie station, had a last minute faff about with kit and promptly got lost. After skirting around the back of M&S we found the start, had our obligatory photo opportunity at the official WHW obelisk and set off. The first bit is pretty much a cycle track out of town and at that time in the morning it was full of dog walkers who all seem pretty friendly (though it made it hard to stop for a pee). It’s pretty fast going and by the time we had ridden a couple of miles we were just in short sleeves and making good progress through the countless gates and along the big flat farm track. The monotony of this section was broken up by Conic Hill which is a nice little climb and a great steppy technical descent (which I hasten to add I couldn’t ride all of) down to the shores of loch Lomond. We made it here for a very early lunch, which surprised me as it took most of the day to reach this point when we ran it.

I was feeling a bit rough, but the steady pace was ok; we were not trying to beat any records, so the constant resting/moaning was compensated for by the great weather and conditions. All was good. As you start riding along the shores of the loch you are in this dreamy wooded single-track with swoopy hills and really great riding. It all then gets a bit ‘exciting’ (by that I mean completely rubbish). I have reported before on the non-stop ‘on bike, off bike, climb something, duck under a tree’ nature of this trail (see The Murder Bothy). This was about mid-afternoon and I knew the worst parts were still to come. I also knew I would be feeling pretty dreadful at this point and it didn’t disappoint – I hated every minute of it. I couldn’t get any flow and was really struggling as I walked/carried my bike. Credit to Matt and Steve who were very patient, waited for me and generally listened to me moan. I’m sure this will come back and haunt me at some point.

The whole crappy Loch Lomond section took about 2.5hrs but a pint of Coke and pack of crisps at the Inversnade Hotel helped before we got moving properly again. We cruised by the Murder Bothy knowing we only had another 20km or so to go for the day. This still isn’t the easiest of 20km, but at least we were on our bikes actually riding now. We stopped for an ice cream at the Beinglas campsite then it was steady riding. We had to cross a river where the bridge was down, but didn’t even get wet feet (a few weeks earlier, on our run, it was a torrent and meant taking a detour). The sun was setting now as we rode past the halfway mark into some thick pine forests and some more fantastic riding. We cruised up the valley following the river to Tyndrum and found our hotel (which bore more than a passing resemblance to the one in ‘The Shining’). We grabbed a quick shower and a pub dinner then headed off to our beds. We had been out for 10hrs and I was definitely in need of the rest.

Waking the next morning, the fatigue had passed and I felt like I was back to my normal self. We had a great big breakfast with entertainment laid on by a customer shouting and screaming at a young waiter about something or other! We set off in a warm mist over to Bridge of Orchy then onto Rannoch Moor. The riding was great; a few lumps but mostly quite easy-going, a lot of midges if you stopped, and, as we were getting to the ski station at Glen Coe, blue skies and inversions over the lochs to our right.

We then rode into the mountains, over the Devil’s Staircase in just amazing alpine conditions. It’s only a 30 min hike-a-bike and not as daunting as it sounds, then you have a huge downhill into Kinlochleven for a spot of lunch. There is a biggish climb out of the Leven Valley which left me pretty zapped; in fact I was having a moment going up there but that was more to do with my insufficient eating rather than anything else. After this climb you end up on an old military road down a hanging valley. It was really good riding and nice to be out in the warmth of Scotland. We then joined a superb single-track, which winds itself around and about until the mighty Ben Nevis shows itself. At this point you can almost see Fort William, which was handy as I was tired.

After another long fire road descent, you are spat out onto the main road into Fort William. You have to ride to the far end of the town to get to the ‘finishing bench’ but once there, we had 15 minutes to kill before the taxi was due. It was just enough time for another ice cream and a can of Coke before snoozing in the back of the taxi to get back to our car in Milngavie.

I was pretty glad I’d actually got round to doing the WHW by bike. The original friend I’d failed to complete it with lives in NZ now so I wasn’t going to be able to do it with him but Matt and Steve stepped up admirably to the task. Although I felt pretty bad at times on the first day, I was so glad my friends had cajoled me and bundled me into the car to actually go North. The weather was amazing, the riding was great (besides the rubbish bit on the shores of Loch Lomond) and if you want a good, easy-to-navigate, 2-day mtb trip, I highly recommend this.

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