Three days in, and Phil’s having to really dig deep….
A solid four hours sleep later and I woke to overcast skies and a brisk wind over the Loch. I remembered where I was, thought over the plan to get packed up so I didn’t faff and then pulled myself out of the bag. I faffed, ate a cold steak and kidney pie, washed in the stream and then was off about four thirty. I assumed as I had climbed up to Lochan Fada the remainder of the track down to the road would be a breeze. How wrong could I be. I spent the next few hours frustratingly pushing and dragging the bike across rocky moorland, sometimes jumping on to the bike only to have to dismount seconds later. I eventually hit the road and was surprised how long it had taken to get from Lochinver back to Oykel Bridge. I was convinced that I would be caught soon, ignoring the fact everyone had to go over the same terrain.
After two hard days, my body was starting to suffer. The usual back pain was there from an old injury, but I have learnt to mentally deal with that. However, my knees were starting to take over in the pain stakes. I had foolishly changed cleats before the ride and the positioning of the new cleats must not have been right and had started to cause sharp pains in both knees. I arrived at the Oykel Bridge Hotel early in the morning, so I decided not to push my luck for another bacon sarny. By this time the weather had turned and the rain was now lashing down, the first real downpour I had got caught in. I cracked on to Ullapool knowing the trail was a rideable double track most of the way. At this point I bumped in to Nik Kinloch who was just about to embark on the northern loop. We exchanged pleasantries, wished each other luck and quickly went our separate ways. I think I tried to be positive about the northern loop that he was just about to embark on, but maybe he could see the pain in my face showing that I was not telling the truth.
As I moved nearer to Ullapool, I escaped the rain and by the time I arrived in the town, it was sunny and I had dried out. Time for more food. I wasted time finding a cafe, but when I did I was treated with a bacon and egg sandwich and two cups of coffee. I then picked up some supplies from the shop and some ibuprofen cream for my knees. Ullapool is a lovely town and the only times I have been there have been during this race. I must come back with the family to enjoy this place, and actually that goes to all the places I am visiting on this crazy ride. They need to be enjoyed at a much more relaxed pace!
Next was the horrible hike a bike climb over Meall Dubh and the descent into Dundonnell, the location of the rear mech failure on last year’s race. The climb didn’t seem too bad this year as the sun had now returned and it was now a beautiful morning. I descended the other side at a slower pace that I usually descend, determined to avoid a mechanical. I did make it safely down and was now riding into the unknown of Fisherfield. Big climbs, amazing descents, river crossings and amazing views. These were all comments I had read from the blogs of racers from last year and I was looking forward to experiencing it myself. The climb in to Fisherfield was steep and rocky and in most parts rideable. Once over the pass, the downhill was a long and fast taking you to the base of the most amazing valley. The route then followed the course of the river and the further you continued along the valley, the more difficult the terrain became.
It was at this point I met a fellow bikepacker. His name was Eric Robinson, who was following the Highland Trail route for pleasure at his own pace. It turns out Eric was from Bolton, lived about 10 miles from me and knew some of my mates who work in Cookson’s Cycles – small world. We reached the head of the loch at the same time and Eric took some photos before I tackled the river crossing. It was about time my shoes had a wash, so I waded straight in expecting the water only to reach my shins. As I got further across the water became deeper and deeper until it reached my thighs. It wasn’t fast flowing but you could be in trouble if you fell over with a heavy bike on top of you. I continued wading across, made it to the other side and pushed straight on.
Fisherfield (Photo courtesy of Eric Robinson)
The climb over Gleann na Muice Beag was brutal. I wasn’t expecting it as I hadn’t studied this part of the route in too much detail. It seemed to take forever and I could feel myself tiring quickly. The weather had also turned again making it more difficult and this was the first time I had felt exposed. Even though I had been eating and drinking well, I was now feeling a deficit from all the effort I had been putting in over the previous days. Small snacks and energy products were now not cutting it. I started to think about what I was going to eat when I reached Poolewe, but I knew the shop would be closed and I had no idea if I would be able to pick anything up. The descent down to Carnmore was incredible and lifted my spirits. The weather had also moved on leaving behind it a clear and beautiful evening. As I passed along the causeway between lochs, I was blown away by the majesty of the place. It was probably the most beautiful place I had rode through during the race and it did cross my mind to forget about the race and just stop, take in my surroundings and stay the night in the valley.
Then I came to my senses, promised myself that I would come back and pushed on. The ride out of the valley was long and tiring, however I eventually made it to Poolewe. It is a small place and didn’t take me long to find the only hotel in town, with a bar! By this point in the race, I was very dirty and smelly and probably looked pretty bad. However, the hotel welcomed me in and I sat at the bar, whilst all the other customers looked at me in bewilderment. I had decided on the ride out of the valley that I needed some fresh vitamins. So I treated myself to mushroom soup and a roll, a chicken salad, a bowl of vegetables and two glasses of coke. I was tempted to have a beer but decided to save it for the end of the race, when I would hopefully have something to celebrate.
I struggled to get out of the hotel but knew I needed to get more miles in. I think it was about 9 o’ clock and the heavy rain had returned outside. I knew I couldn’t wait it out as I would lose the lead I had worked hard to create, so I pulled on the waterproofs and headed out. The rain didn’t last for long but by the time it had stopped, I was drenched. After the storm had passed through, it left behind it clear skies and no wind. This was great to help dry me out, but with all the standing water, the midges were having a field day. Stopping for any length of time was not an option.
The rocky downhill in to Slattadale was a fantastic technical trail, but the rain had turned this into a waterfall and with a tired head and body, I picked my way down it. The road section that followed down to Kinlochewe and then on to Torridon was easy but the sections of road were now reminding me how much my knees and back were hurting. My target was to head into Torridon and then sleep before I attempted the climb up to Coire Lair. I arrived in Torridon about midnight and as soon as I stopped, the midges were intense. I knew that if I bivvyed outside, I would get no sleep. Luckily there is a Youth Hostel in Torridon, so I was able to take some shelter there.