Monday, May 26, 2003

West Highland Way - Part 2

Monday 26th May
It’s overcast as we settle down to breakfast at the Little Chef in Tyndrum at 7am. We are waiting outside for it to open as we want an early start and the hotel doesn’t start serving until 8am. Omelettes are the order of the day – nothing too heavy or I’ll be heaving. I’m having trouble sitting down at this point and have decided that two pairs of cycling shorts are the order of the day. We are sore – but generally quite positive – surprised that we have got this far after yesterday’s problems and looking forward to today’s ride – although I am dreading the Devils Staircase.

At 8.15 we set off – climbing out of Tyndrum up a steep climb – why does it always start this way? I get to the top of the climb to my amazement without pushing – and in front of Alistair. My legs seem to be working – but Al tells me to slow down – not because he can’t keep up, but because I’ll be knackered if I don’t. It’s good advice.
This track eventually goes under the railway bridge – it’s slippy and there is a stile the other side – and then heads off down towards an old military road. We run into a herd of cows – big horns and shaggy coats look impressive – but we dismount and they let us through. This is an easy bit of the ride – the track is good quality, there isn’t much climbing (you have just done about 60m so far today out of 1300m) and in fact there are a few good downhills. Enjoy it – it gets worse. We followed this all the way down to a road where there was a house ahead of us. Straight across and to the left and we headed for the Bridge of Orchy. Look up to your right and you have Beinn Dorain standing at 1076m - incredibly impressive – this gives you an idea of what today is going to be like.

We ride down into the Bridge of Orchy and carry straight on – the road is signposted as a dead end – but don’t let that worry you! We stayed on this road for quite some time – and you can feel yourself becoming more and more remote as you ride around Loch Tulla. Across the Victoria Bridge and we see some of the walkers striking camp – soon the road turns into cobbles – we stop by the side of the road and read the notice telling us of how and when these parliamentary roads were set up. The climb from here is another long and arduous one – drop to the granny ring and spin, but at least there are no cars and the scenery is amazing. The wind gets up occasionally – but we don’t get more that a few drops of rain. I can imagine that it can get pretty hairy up here when a storm kicks off and I’m guessing you don’t get much warning. Gortex is the order of the day.

Ba Bridge is the next stop and here we scoff down some well earned peanuts. This is an impressive sight and a brief respite before the next climb. Off we went – up the long climb to the col between Beinn Chaorach and Meall a Bhuiridh. There is a big descent here down past the ski centre on our left and out on the access road to this. Straight across the A82 and another fast descent on tarmac (albeit with big holes) and we are at the famous Kings House Hotel. If you have read any mountaineering books you will have heard of the infamous climbers bar at this hotel – and it is here we stop for lunch under photos of mountaineers and climbers adorning the walls. Hot tea, Leek soup with extra salt and a big glass of orange juice and lemonade sate the thirst and hunger we have, then it’s off again on our trusty steeds – but not before a chance meeting with two other bikers who have come from Tyndrum this morning – leaving at 9.45am and arriving at the hotel at 12pm – only half an hour after us. They are riding to a deadline – they must catch the train from Fort William at 5.30 pm and hence they are pushing hard. We wish them luck, but doubt that they will make it (I hope they did).

We ride over the bridge and turn left – the track heading off left gives Alistair an idea for a future ride and then we are on the A82 again for a hard slog into a headwind up to the start of the Devils Staircase. I have been dreading this point all day long – and from below it doesn’t look any better. We step off the road and begin the climb. There’s no riding here – I know the MBR boys rode this – but that was the other direction. This is a push – hard and simple – there are tiny sections you can ride of about 5m in length – then you have to get off again and push which becomes tiring – so I pushed and Alistair carried. The switchbacks are deceiving, tiring and the drainage cuts are a pain to carry across. Eventually you see the cairns at the top and know that you only have 20m left to go.
I drink my fill of orange and eat a Mars. I’m knackered – but the view makes it all worth while. I can see the top of Ben Nevis from here – everything that surrounds me is massive. 3000 footers jostle for my attention – it’s a sensory overload and so different from the flat stuff of Northamptonshire. Even though I grew up in the Peak District - this is something completely different, and all of a sudden I know – I’ll be back to Scotland again soon, I need to see more of this.

Alistair bombs off down the rocky track – bunny hopping the drainage channels when his rear tube blows after said hop. He puts in one of my thicker fat boy tubes and sets off again 15 minutes later. It doesn’t take me long to catch him up as he has puncture number three of the two days. This time it’s a pinch flat to the front. I eat some more peanuts and repair the tube while Al puts in another spare. He say’s that he is going to take it easy down here now as we have spent an extra 30 minutes changing tubes – but he’s off again like a greyhound down the track. This is rough track – and while in some places it’s good fun – it’s hard work for tired legs that were looking to take it easy!

Soon enough we hit the forest track. This was constructed by Alcan – the local Aluminium works and has signs at the serious corners advising the cyclist to dismount – now while we didn’t follow this advice, we did slow for the corners, and they are quite sharp. We passed a walker who shouted at us that we wouldn’t be able to sue Alcan now if we fell off and broke our legs. A strange thing to say to us given the terrain we have covered in the past two days. Not sure what mountain biker would dream of suing a company because they rode too quick and fell off!

The track brought us out in Kinlochleven where we stopped to refill our Camelbacks and grab a bite to eat. It was 4pm and we still had to climb up to Mamore Lodge. We decided on following the path rather than the road. We thought we could carry the bikes up as quickly as we could ride the longer track. I’m not convinced about this now in hindsight – it’s an awful climb – comparable to the Devil’s Staircase only with rocky steps which I hate and you cannot see the top as it’s all wooded. Take the road.

I arrived at the top, wet but too warm, to find Alistair ready to take off again. “It’s all downhill from now on mate”. Yeh – right. This was to become a re-occurring theme as it was all downhill just round the next corner or after this next climb. If I only knew.

Again we were on an old military road and again, some of this was fun, and some of it was not. There were some good downhill’s with river crossings (go across the bridge like Al and not through the water like me) and some horrible rocky ascents. Tired legs now made everything seem worse than it probably was and I was no longer looking at the hills admiring them. This section seemed to last for ages – but eventually you descent through the forest and across another stream to Blar a Chaorainn. We now had to choose – the quick exit on the road to Fort William (which I was in favour of) or the longer trail through the forest following the route (which Al was in favour of). Well we had come this far – so it seemed a shame not to finish properly.

Much of the forest section is singletrack and rideable – it’s got some pushes from this direction as it gets pretty steep, but some of the technical riding is good fun. It’s just longer than you imagine. Alistair kept promising that just round the corner the descent started. There are loads of fences and hence stiles to climb over – and these are quite big. Still – all of a sudden you can see the sky and before you stands Ben Nevis. I could only see the bottom half – everything over 600m was covered in cloud, yet you could feel the very size of this mountain. Alistair – who has climbed this – pointed out the route up to the hanging valley. I didn’t feel as tired anymore – I had reached Ben Nevis and below us was Fort William.

The descent is fast – forest track and lots of it bring you out at the road where we turned left and raced to the round about and end of the West Highland Way in Fort William. Passers by were asked to take the photo of our finish and they told us how they had stood in the same place two years previously. They asked us how long it had taken and looked taken aback when Alistair answered “Two days!”

Sunday, May 25, 2003

The West Highland Way - Day 1

Sunday 25th May
The weather is reasonable – not too bright and no rain or wind. We stand by the start of the West Highland Way – the 100 mile track from Milngavie to Fort William and for some reason we have decided to do it in two days. What’s worse is that we have told others that we will be doing it in two days as well. Alistair sets the timer on his camera, jumps into frame for the mandatory start of route shot and then we are off.

The start winds up through Mugdock Wood, and a sudden climb leaves me out of breath and feeling sick – Alistair is riding ahead and is getting further away – not encouraging signs for the start of a route that climbs nearly 2500m including the notorious Devils Staircase. It takes me 15 minutes before I get my breath back and Alistair is waiting for me when we get to the road.

Straight across and following the signs through Craigallion and past it’s Loch until we reach the B821 then a left and a right and past a surprised cow and through some deep mud up to a style. Over this and onto a fantastic track that had us grinning from ear to ear and didn’t last for nearly long enough. Then onto an old railway line which we followed to Dumgoyne. Here we took to the road until we reached the railway track at Gartness where it’s off road once again for a short ride to the old railway bridge. Climb up again onto the road and say “Hello” to the walkers who have just left the campsite the other side if the bridge. We look at the GPS and see that 14km have gone already – not too bad a start really and we have plenty of time.

Along the road to Drymen now and then off up a long slog to Garadhban Forest. This is a killer slog – put it in a granny ring and just don’t stop – eventually, before we reach the top we turn left into the forest itself – happy with this I relax and take a drink from the camelback – but to my dismay they have re-surfaced the track in the forest. Once easy (and some might say tame) forest track has been turned into rubble. Worse that that – rubble and mud. It’s a mess and no fun to ride – and it’s not until we start to leave the forest that this gets better, I guess they have been logging and had to move in heavy equipment. The downhill into Milton of Buchanan makes up for this however and brings a grin back to our faces. 32k down and we’re still smiling.

Road work now – and I have to say that it’s a bit dull – apart from the scenery. We didn’t bother going off into Ross Woods by the side of Loch Lomond as it looked pretty messy and we wanted to catch the ferry after having time for lunch. Our plan was to catch the ferry from Rowardennan across to Inverbeg. The ferry supposedly runs during the summer months and we had been told that it left at 2.00pm – so we had plenty of time as it was only 12 when we arrived. The ferry is operated by the local hotel – so we checked with them here to see if it was definitely running, and were shocked to find the ferry out of the water round the back of the hotel. It wasn’t running and the only other ferry to get across runs from Inversnaid – 6m up the Loch and it leaves at 2.45 and 5.00pm. This was not good news.

The reason that we wanted to cross at Rowardennan were two fold. One – the path after this point is not strictly open to cyclists, and two the path after this point is not strictly suitable for cyclists! In fact it’s awful – still we had no option, it was either this or go back to Glasgow. So we set off – and the track lived up to everything we were told. Much of the track is a push – you can ride some of it – but you’d only do this if you had to. Imagine our surprise when we come across a family of four adults, three kids and a baby – all riding complete with Halfords bikes and stabilisers for the kids and a great big baby seat for the nipper. These guys must have been off their heads – and they told us they were heading for the ferry, well – now we know what the path was like after that point – I hope one of the walkers turned them back as they would never have made it – and some of it would have been damn dangerous for the kids.

We made the ferry with six minutes to spare – it had taken nearly two hours to cover 6 miles. The ferryman asked us if we were crossing and brought the boat round for us. He didn’t even charge for the bikes – just £3 each to cross and it takes you across to just below the power station pipes north of Inveruglas. I would recommend crossing – all the walkers say that the path onwards gets worse after Inversnaid and it’s simply un-rideable all the time rather than just the majority of the time.

If you don’t like busy roads – you may want to catch the train now – because the A82 is pretty busy – and the cars fairly fly up it. It’s a slog up this road – there is a pub half way up at Inverarnan and after this I’m afraid it just gets worse. Spin up past the Falls of Falloch and then we eventually, after what seemed like hours and in reality was, arrive in Crianlarich. We turned left and headed for Tyndrum. Just before Tyndrum the trail heads off left – and this is worth doing – it’s a good trail and lovely scenery. About 6pm we arrived – tired, sore and hungry at the Invervey Hotel where our bags awaited us along with hot food and showers. 74km done so far.