Last weekend was spent in server rooms, hotels and trains. I don’t do well without days off, so was quick to book my lieu days. I hadn’t kept too close an eye the weather, but saw a window of opportunity on Thursday, before the inevitable return to rain and blanket cloud cover this weekend. I knew I wanted to take the bike, I’d briefly considered an high camp on the Southern Upland Way, ascending on the Innerleithen XC trail, but wasn’t sufficiently convinced by the route. I hit upon the idea of checking out ScotRoutes blog for some inspiration. I didn’t have to scroll far before I saw the route below. A shorter, linear version on one I had mapped last year, with a return by rail.
Packing was a last minute affair, as was the switch back to big tyres from the commuters I’d recently fitted. Plenty of pressure in for speed. By the time I’d stopped by the shop for supplies and driven to Tyndrum it was mid afternoon. I’d been feeling particularly fat and lazy in the days running up to this. Hotel food and lack of bike time contributory factors. The ten pounds I’d put on over the last six months plain to see in the bathroom mirror. My recent decision to start cycling to work had highlighted how soft my undercarriage had become. Saddle position modified, I set out in the sun, straight onto the West Highland Way from the station.
30 offroad miles and 1000m ascent. Easy for some, hell some folk walk that in a day. But being honest, it’s the furthest I’ve ever cycled in one go. The plan was to camp somewhere along the way, but I was keen to ensure I was on the 1320 train on Friday, so the bias was toward the Taynuilt end. I was only out of Tyndrum when I noticed the bead of my rear tyre hadn’t seated properly in the rim. Potential disaster averted, lose some pressure and pop it in, reinflate. The old military road to Bridge of Orchy was a blast and relatively walker free. It’s warm, I’m down to base layer now. Straight on past the hotel and then climbing, granny gear, pushing, granny gear, pushing. I hate pushing. Pushing is defeat.
I topped out on Màm Carrigh. Water and Trail Mix. A view down the glen. Dynamic light and clouds. Dry trails. Three riders doing the WHW pass by, the last chats for a bit and I chase him down the rocky descent to Inveroran. Clearly big wheels and my heft have the advantage over suspension, I kept my distance, no point getting cocky. Let the bike do the work, stay loose. He came a cropper as we slowed to pass some walkers as the trail flattened out. It always happens when you slow down. More embarrassed then bruised I imagine.
Onward past Forest Lodge, I leave the WHW and the trail has flattened out. Past Clashgour, the climbing starts again past Loch Dochard. Dark cloud rolls in and the track becomes rough. My pace slows and I pull on my windshirt, expecting a downpour any minute. Wind picks up, but the threat of rain never comes to much.
The climbing ends beyond the loch, then a steady 300m drop over the next 10km, 200m of that in the first 2.5km. I’m getting tired and can’t fully enjoy the descent as my neck and shoulders are getting sore. At that moment I wish for some front suspension and better brakes, but know my rigid forks are perfect for most of what I require of this bike. I take a break and stretch my neck. If I was fitter I could work the bike more.
I find myself in high gear as the rocky slab rises and go for power in the absence of finesse. The chain snaps. A trailside repair. Relief upon finding I had not forgotten the chain tool. Despair at realising I’ve ridden down the rockiest section of the route with my car keys jangling dangerously close to the open zip on my frame bag. Somehow, I got away with it. Cue car key paranoia at each and every rest break between here and Taynuilt.
Past Glenkinglass Lodge relief as the rock and gravel give way to metalled estate road. My neck still stiff after my technique went to pot in the last section. The cloud breaks up and the sun comes out again. Into the big ring, I rip along at pace, gravity and momentum doing all the hard work. Quick progress down the birch wood lined glen. Then CHAIN SUCK. I stop and ponder how best to unfuck the situation. Split the chain? I prod it a bit. Shift the lever, jiggle the cranks. Hmm. Take photo. Meh. I stand up the bike to retrieve an allen key to loosen the front mech with. The bike, presumably bored with my inaction, decides to spontaneously unfuck itself. I look down to see the chain in the more traditional, not wrapped twice around the crankset position. Bravo bike, bravo.
I reach Loch Etive. I recognise Buachaille Etive Mor, north east, and Ben Cruachan, still snow capped just south. I’ve done 40km of the 50km total. I’m starving, but decide to press on after shovelling more trail mix into my mouth. The maps shows a decent camp spot by the loch side, which would leave only a short ride into town the following morning. The last section of trail high above the loch is soul destroying when tired and hungry. It undulates like a bastard. I swear at it as it presents yet another climb, over which who knows what waits? It’s turned out to be a beautiful evening, the gradient peters out and I emerge from the forest at Inverawe. Tired as I am, mysterious singletrack entices me off the tarmac. Where does it go? Let’s find out.
A sudden and unexpected lily pond in an enchanted wood. I hear voices. Fairies? No. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Barbour clad twin, clutching a mug of coffee. I expect he owns the place. We exchange pleasantries, about the weather, as custom dictates. He wanders off as I take more photos. What a lovely little place. Surprises like this makes these little adventures all the more enjoyable.
Past the Smokehouse, I head for the loch. My belly rumbling. The Sun will be going down soon. I find a nice spot under a massive pylon. Not exactly what I had in mind, but it’s flat and has a good view. I pitch up and devour dinner. I watch as the sun goes down, the moon comes up and bats flit around overhead. I hear strange animal noises in the gloaming, not once but twice. I have no idea what it is. I wonder if I should be scared. I’m too tired.
I sit in darkness listening the brilliant, portentous and deeply sinister Haxan Cloak album. Too much. I turn it off and decide to sleep. I hear sudden and significant rockfall in the quarry on the lochside opposite. Unsettling at first, but it makes me think of my hometown. It’s the last thing I hear at night and the first thing I hear in the morning. This quarry is still in operation (it’s not marked on my map), the crusher is fired up and producing aggregate, piled high on the shore. Smoke rises from the chimney stack. Not a classic campsite, but memorable nonetheless.
My legs feel surprisingly good in the morning. I started the trip feeling flabby and out of shape but by the end felt strong. Tired, but strong. I need to do more of this, it’s good for the body and the mind. I cycle to town for breakfast and coffee. The sun is out, warmer than yesterday. I treat myself to a bottled beer at 11am. I have a three hour wait for the train and a good book. It’s a beautiful day.