The Ultimate Mountain Bike Survival Week

I’m not even sure how this trip came about, it was certainly fairly organic in its conception. It all started as we downed Saki at a raucous NYE party whilst guessing 90s pop songs. Nat announced she wanted to race Glentress 7.  I drunkenly agreed to be her partner for the 7hours pairs race.

Fast forward a fair few months and a tiny flame had been growing, a little niggling itch. The subconscious influence of Instagram was taking its toll – perhaps some bike packing would be fun. I floated the idea to Nat. Thankfully Nat is not only one of my best friends she also hugely adventurous, talented and up for anything. Having already dragged her along to a hard core cycling and drinking training camp in Calpe, we were the only women with 20men and people kept asking us if we were on a stag do. Nat was primed and ready for more pedalling and boozing. How about we combine going to Scotland to race with some bike packing? Now I’ve done a little bit of credit card touring in Cambodia and Vietnam but never anything much in this country. I had a bit of idea of where to start but not much. We agreed we wanted to do it off road. If we were going to Scotland to race mtbs then those were the bikes we were going to do it on. As with all things in life if you aren’t sure then consult an expert. Thankfully we had one close at hand in the form of Scot Easter, fellow Magspeed bike racer, Salsa brand manager and all round bike packing equipment expert. Scot suggested we look at the West Highland Way for a route and intro to bike packing.

I set about to doing further research. A couple of people had written about riding the West Highland Way and it seemed achievable even for us two – who quite frankly are only in at an amateur level when it comes to mountain biking. The WHW is clearly signposted and there’s plenty of places to stop along the way and we wouldn’t be too far from civilisation if it all went tits up. I ordered a map.

Armed with a map and a vague plan, I started to feel all Bear Grylls. We managed to beg, borrow and steal/purchase the equipment we would need. We decided not to bother with a lightweight tent and to book some “glamping pods” along the way (Sorry Bear). A word of warning glamping is a pile of shite, there’s nothing glamorous about sleeping on a cot bed in a cold garden shed. Except for the fact that it meant we didn’t need to carry a tent.

Our set up included a bar bag each, Nat had an Ortlieb bar bag with the lovingly named “snack pouch” attached to the front. Like a horse’s nose bag to keep her topped up with calories at all times. I used a Salsa anything bracket which then had a Ortlieb dry bag strapped to it. This was lovingly named the “black Pudding”. This was a better set up in my opinion as it was quicker and less fiddly to get on and off. We both used Ortlieb seat packs – 100% waterproof by the way (thoroughly tested by us). We each carried a rucksack with day to day usual MTB stuff in and even more food. We both had lightweight Exped sleeping bags, and silk liners. We had planned to carry a stove but we sacked that off. When you plan a trip like this you think about all the things you want to take. Then when you are start packing you try and veto as much kit as possible. Our top essentials included clean socks and shorts, sleeping bag, down jacket, woolly hat, flipflops and hipflask. As well as enough mechanic stuff to bodge any major disasters.

With a route planned and the equipment prepped things were looking good. Nat travelled up from London on the train looking like a lonely festival goer. Nat is super sociable so she was off to a party and I was to pick her up somewhere near Penrith. I eventually found her and we headed to the Lake District to start our adventure.

Day 1 of MTB survival week

Nat dragging her hangover behind her was rescued from Penrith railway station. Rather than truck straight to Scotland we thought we’d visit the Lake District. Once I’d found Nat we headed to the YHA at Glenridding for our first night’s accommodation. Giggling like school girls we booked in, the smell and sight of the place reminding me of school trips and climbing out of windows in the middle of the night for romantic teenage trysts. Unfortunately the chance of any romance looked slim. Youth was not the correct term for the other guests. However Nat loves to make friends with pensioners where ever we go. We’d been there approximately 2 mins before Nat was assisting Derek with his sandwiches in the communal kitchen. The woman checking us in was absolutely delightful especially when she asked us if we were under 25. “Of course” we said holding back tears of laughter. Apparently women in their 30s don’t hang about in YHAs. We had a room to ourselves and picked a bunk bed each. Sticking to the bottom bunk the days of the heady heights of the top bunk are beyond me now.

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An “easy” evening spin up Helvellyn and the only time you will see me in front of Nat on a climb

So there we were sitting around at 5pm in the YHA, the sun was shining it was a beautiful evening. Helvellyn was looming over us. What were we to do. Nat’s hangover had abated. We decided lets pop up Helvellyn. We spoke to our resident advisor and Lakes MTB guide Scot who stated he could be with us in an hour and show us the way. The last time I went up Helvellyn it was about -10 Celsius, snow and ice on the ground and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. This was pure luxury in comparison. We made it to the top hoping for some epic views and maybe a sunset but the clouds rolled in and again there was nothing to see. We toasted the top with some homemade damson gin and rolled home. Pie and a pint for tea and we were tucked in our bunk beds for night. Thankfully Nat managed to loose Derek at some point and she wasn’t left with the task of helping him into his pjs.

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Hoping for sunset views but the cloud rolled in.

 

Day 2 – Sightseeing 

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After the first of many full English breakfasts we set about planning the day. The weather was amazing in the Lake District, wall to wall sunshine and clear blue skies. We checked the forecast for Loch Lomond where we would be heading to start the WHW and the forecast was grim. We weren’t planning to start the WHW till Day 3 so we decided to explore the lakes. But first there was important business to attend to. Nat and I bonded initially over a film called Sightseers, where a couple travel around tourist attractions killing 

3267EE72-5611-42E2-A283-C1BD33CD4B90off members of the public. It is both hilarious and slightly terrifying. An important attraction in the film is the Pencil Museum in Keswick, so naturally we headed straight there. Stoke levels were high and we were both boasting about the huge novelty pencils we were going to buy there. We were met with crushing disappointment. Despite enjoying learning about the manufacturing of pencils and spy pencils used in the war, and even an extensive pencil sharpener collection (God bless you Patricia) there were NO novelty pencils for love nor money. Only posh artists pencils – this was not what we were after.

Reeling from bitter disappointment we decided we’d better ride bikes instead. We met up with our Lake district Guru who by this point we were starting to suspect was part human part Herdwick sheep. Scot suggested we do the Borrowdale Bash route. The route and the Lakes really made up for the despair we had felt about the Pencil Museum, tough road climbs helped us gain height before tricky rocky descents. We even rode up to the Honister Slate Mine (another sightseers spot) for a piece of cake. Scot, a man who seems to sustain himself on air rather than cake was slightly shocked at the amount of food stops Nat and I required. Full to the brim of ice cream and cake we completed a superb ride and possibly one of the best days I’ve ever had on the mountain bike.

 

 

We had enjoyed ourselves so much it was a rush to get to Loch Lomond. We planned to camp at Beinglas Farm and had been told to just turn up. We weren’t sure how late that meant we could arrive. We booted it up to Scotland. Nat’s crowning moment was whipping out the Derry Girls playlist from Spotify, a true musical masterpiece allowing us to sing our hearts out and relive our youth. The drive flew by and before we knew it we were nestled at the side of Loch Lomond with a beautiful sunset. Nat threw up the tent whilst I faffed about with kit for the morning. This camp site surpassed itself. Just at the North of Loch Lomond and next to the WHW it was the ideal location for us to start our ride. They also had a superb bar. Having completed the “massive erection” aka tent we headed straight to the bar for bed time beers. Except I sent Nat to the bar and she did not return with a beer, she returned with Whisky. I didn’t think I liked whisky but it turns out with enough exposure you can learn to like just about anything. After a couple of whisky’s we retired to bed.

 

Day 3 – the start of the WHW.

This would be the start of the bike packing leg of our trip. We prepped the bikes and equipment, vetoed anything we couldn’t be arsed to carry (such as pyjamas) and filled our bellies with another superb full Scottish breakfast complete with porridge.

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Packhorses ready to ride.

I was so full I could barely push the pedals when we set off. Advancing along the WHW we passed many walkers setting off. Some were laden with huge backpacks and we spent many hours deliberating about what they were actually carrying. Others had opted for the luggage shuttle service and some handy looking Scottish men were loading suitcases into a van as we rolled out. A tiny part of me thought maybe I should have just asked them for a lift. I reconsidered this thought when we came to a number of tricky styles. We just about managed to muscle the bikes and kit over them and we continued making good progress. The weather was just right, the trails were dry and we enjoyed breath taking vista after breath taking vista. dsc_0556The first stop we had was at the Green Welly Stop at Tyndrum. Apparently a fairly legendary place to stop when travelling through Scotland. We ate some lunch on a bench whilst trying to avoid some brief drizzly rain. Scot had to be dragged out of the gift shop as he been distracted trying to buy multiple crystal dragons for his collection. IMG_1543

We rolled along to the Bridge of Orchy where we had to do a bit of bike carrying and pushing but it wasn’t too strenuous. We then hit an old military road, I was glad of the big tyres and full suspension on my bike, it smoothed out what would have been a bone jarring section of the ride. We climbed into a headwind working together and taking turns on the front. Nat continued to make friends with every pensioner we passed and developed a new passion for engaging enthusiastic Americans in conversation.dsc_0471

After 5 and a half hours of riding we caught our breath and rolled into Glencoe. It was magnificent.dsc_0665

I had booked us into a delightful camping pod at the Glencoe Ski resort. After a large plate of chips and a celebratory pint we chilled in the pod. We were both hungry again so I had to go back for another plate of chips and a few more pints. We were asleep by 9pm and shattered. We’d said good bye to Scot who had to ride back to Beinglas to go to work the next day. We had lost our gate opener and photographer. We were women set free to fend for ourselves but we knew we didn’t really need any help any way. We settled into bed that night convinced we had done the hardest part of the WHW today and tomorrow would be a jolly jaunt to Fort William.

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The Pod

Day 4 The Devil’s Staircase

Oh how wrIMG_1322ong we were. After yet another full English/Scottish breakfast we rolled out of Glencoe. It hadn’t been the most luxurious stay and as we descended we passed a very smart looking hotel and lodge ( I quietly reflected that next time I’d stay there). We knew we had to get over a slightly tricky bit of the route aptly named the devil’s staircase. But having managed well with the riding the day before we weren’t too concerned, that was until we made it to the base of the climb. The hillside rose up in front of us like a vertical wall. We could see hikers snaking up the steepest part of the route, zig zagging backwards and forwards like slow motion tortoises. This was going to be tricky. It was wet, grey and windy but moral was still high. We reminded ourselves we both weren’t at work and we loved riding our bikes. We continued on foot mostly singing the hits from the Derry Girls Sounds track. We pushed and carried the bikes for what seemed like hours (probably wasn’t) whilst the enthusiastic and ever encouraging Americans shouted things like “ that looks impossible”. Shoulders and arms burning, tasting blood we made it to the top.Shit we’ve got to make it down the other side. We are both fairly conservative mtbers. I’d describe myself as a complete coward, afraid of just about everything. We hit the slippy loose rock on the other side. Bobbling along tentatively bouncing over the rim busting drainage ditches and shouting at Derek and Doris to move out of the way we made it over the Devil’s staircase. On we rode – direction Fort William. The riding got easier and some of it was absolutely superb, the terrain became more rugged and more remote. Nat had less and less pensioners to talk to and had to resort to making friends with the sheep as we rolled along.

We descended down into Kinlochleven for lunch – continuing the gastronomic tour of Scotland with a cheese toasty and a fried egg sandwich. We decided against visiting the aluminium museum as we were short on time (one for next year). A tough climb out of Kinlochleven had us divert slightly onto a gravel fireroad. This was hugely worth it, the climb was mega but the view from the top was something else. Scotland you stole my heart that day. Pausing to take it all in we caught our breath.

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The view above Kinlochleven

As we neared Fort William energy levels were dipping, it was clear after another 5-6hours on the bikes we were pretty knackered. The final push to the top of the ridge above Fort William was done in silence. One of us occasionally saying “nearly there” “won’t be long”. Eventually we made it, descending down the fire road and onto the tarmac we smashed the last couple of miles into Fort William to reach the end of the WHW. Our low energy levels were initially relieved by the euphoria of finishing. Pausing for a photo we then rolled into Fort William in search of food.DD94B663-6F82-49DA-9C9B-2C955E945563

Once firmly wedged into a warm café I broke the bad news to Nat. I hadn’t been able to find any accommodation in Fort William that suited our budget so I’d booked a camping pod nearby, well what I thought was nearby. Turns out it was about 30km away as we didn’t want to ride down the busy A road. But thankfully Nat’s love for me is fairly unconditional and she took the news well.

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On we rolled to Nepture’s staircase and then we joined the Great Glen Way along a canal path. 30km we rode through and off as hard we could, only pausing at the Commando memorial to take a quick photo and allow some circulation to my numb bum. We made it tired and stinking to Bunroy Caravan park. We were met by David the world’s friendliest man, who obviously immediately took a shine to Nat. After a full and very indepth tour of the campsite (including the showers which had constant music playing and LED lighting) we threw our bikes in the Pod and walked to the nearest restaurant. The hotel up the road looked the best bet. It seemed quite busy but we managed to squeeze in. I’m not sure what the other guests thought of the two women in bobble hats and muddy bike kit enjoying a three course evening meal and sampling all the local beers. Thankfully no one complained about the smell of us. We slept that night in our camping pod on what David informed us were US army issue camp beds. I feel great sympathy for the US military if that’s true. They were deeply uncomfortable.

 

 

Day 5 more sightseeing

Day 5 didn’t get off to the best start. It turns out you can’t buy breakfast in Roy Bridge and I had vetoed the stove (oops). After pooling what was left in the snack pouch we dined on pepperami and mini cheddars (world’s worst breakfast). We had to get back on the bikes and ride back towards fort William. We joined some coach trips for a fried egg bap in Spean Bridge and I managed to whisk Nat away from the pensioners before she made any more friends. We waved farewell to the Commando memorial noting that even more cheerfulness in the face of adversity was required that morning as we were both extremely tired and hungry. We battled the headwind back into town and jumped on the train. The plan today was to visit Glenfinnan and go for a ride. We wrestled the bikes into the racks and settled into a most picturesque train journey despite the drizzle and low cloud. The heavens opened as we arrived in Glenfinnan and made straight for the visitors centre. We whiled away as much time as humanly possible in there trying to stay warm and dry. We irritated the staff a great deal, giggling at the Men in Kilts doing yoga book for at least 20mins. I thought we might be asked to buy a copy it was so heavily thumbed by us.

 

We braved the rain and headed up the hill to visit the Glenfinnan viaduct and hopefully catch sight of the Hogwarts Express passing through. Nat barged a few tourists out the way and bagged a prime rock to sit on. In the pouring rain we sat there waiting for a train and a few times I questioned how exactly I had come to be in this situation. Finally the train came through and we were able to leave. Nat was satisfied. We didn’t feel we could spend any more time in the visitors centre and by this point we were really cold and wet. Instead we visited a nearby hotel as we had some time to kill before our train back to FW. We enquired as to whether or not we could have a drink in the bar. We were informed if we removed our wet clothes we could. Now I’ve probably removed my clothes in a few bars before but I’m not sure they would be happy for us to embark upon a game of naked bar at 3pm on wet afternoon. We took the worst of our kit off and set about tasting a number of their finest whiskies. Pretty drunk we wobbled back to the station and caught the train back to FW. Tonight we had the luxury of staying in a Hostel at Glen Nevis.

 

Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud as we rode into Glen Nevis. The Glen Nevis Hostel was very snazzy having been recently refurbed. We checked in and fuel levels were running low. I was definitely feeling a bit tired and ratty. The whisky had worn off. Nat being the ultimate friend that she is recognised this and supplied me with a bag of crisps. I was back in the game. We would be sharing in a room of 4. Back to bunk beds, duvets and actual pillows. During the bike packing aspect of our trip we had become experts at fashioning a pillow out of a dry bag stuffed with clothes. We dumped our stuff and set about snooping round the room to see who we would be sharing with. Nat and I were concerned it might be a man due to the style and size of a pair of trainers and the presence of some hair gel, especially as one of the items we had vetod was our pyjamas! It just shows what gender stereotypes we have ingrained in us because Becky certainly wasn’t a man. We were also sharing with Anne. Anne was a bit of a legend. Anne was older and therefore Nat immediately latched on to her. Anne had walked the Great Glen Way and was planning on going up Ben Nevis the next day. Anne was wonderful , super friendly and fun and had achieved great things in her life. She was travelling solo and we left the next day reminding ourselves to be more Anne.

 

Day 6 Glentress

Now having racked up some serious hours on the mtb this week you’d think we’d have earned ourselves a rest but no the ultimate mtb survival week was not over. Remember that drunken NYE party where I’d promised Nat I’d partner her at Glentress 7 mtb race. Yeah that! That’s why we were in Scotland in the first place. So we jumped on the train from FW to Ardlui and rode a couple of miles back to Beinglas campsite to pick up the van.

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Smiles all round as we realise the van has not been stolen.

We blasted over to Peebles and arrived in the evening ready to do a practice lap of the Glentress 7 XC course. Now you will have noticed a theme, Nat makes friends wherever she goes. Sometimes this is irritating when you are wanting to go out for a ride and she’s helping some doddery pensioner find his way to the bus stop but sometimes this is very useful. Nat has a friend in Peebles who had offered us a bed for the night and a tour of the XC course prior to the race. We met up with Keith who took us round the course and broke it down into sections. Despite some of the epic mtbing we’d done that week we are not experienced XC racers. I find trying to go fast on the mtb really stressful and my skills often go to pieces. It really helped us to see the course beforehand. After a superb bit of fine dining in Peebles we settled into Keith’s house. I thoroughly enjoyed the luxury of a double bed all to myself but I did miss annoying Nat and making her listen to the cycling podcast before bed.

 

Day 7 Race day

Keith’s superb hospitality continued as he cooked us poached eggs on toast in the morning and we set off to the race. Now the only thing that had been getting me through the thought of the GT7 race was the fact that we’d have a good showing of the Magspeed crew. We had 4 teams in the race and we set up a Magspeed HQ so that at least in between laps the constant piss taking that is synonymous with being on the team could continue.IMG_1447

My nerves were awful having not raced since the cross season and there were some aspects of the course I was dreading. Nat agreed to do the first lap. As she came round and handed over to me I realised the course was brutal. SO much climbing and then I was taking a battering on the descents and twisty single track. My skills are pretty lacking but I was climbing well and despite 25hours of riding already in the legs that week was going ok. I kept cracking on as best as I could on the climbs and tried to limit my losses on the downhill. The worst part of mtb racing is feeling like you are getting in peoples way. After my first lap tears of frustration were stinging my eyes as I’d had to keep pulling over to let more technically apt riders bomb past. As I handed over to Nat I wanted to pack it in. However that is the nature of pairs racing you can’t give up you’ve got to keep going. We hadn’t ridden all those hours, sung all those songs for me to have a melt down and sack it off. I grabbed something to eat and had a pep talk with my team mates and prepped to go out for the next lap. As Nat rolled into the changeover area she must have sensed my despair after the first lap, she handed me the timing chip and whispered in my ear in a thick Scottish accent “do you by any chance do yoga?”. Howling with laughter I set off for another lap, I reminded myself we were doing this for fun to finish off a mega week. I took the pressure off and started to enjoy the course. We handed over a couple more times and by the last lap my legs were really feeling the week of riding. It had started to rain and the course was so slippery. The wet roots were causing me a lot of grief and I minced round, limping into the finish. We were done. 4th overall which wasn’t too bad for a pair of amateurs on a tough week of riding. The boys fared much better taking 2nd and 3rd in their category.randr-photo-4008465-3000px

Now was the time to party. Showered and changed in the pouring rain we made it to the Glentress hotel and location of the After Party. The short walk was augmented by a tin of espresso martini. Stoke levels were high. After a superb meal the party could start. As expected the DJ was playing some fairly hardcore dance music but no one was dancing. Never one to let the people down Nat and I took to the dance floor. We managed to snare a few other victims and get the party going. Despite a tough week of riding and racing, Jaegermeister numbed the pain in ours legs and we danced late into the night. Walking back to the campsite we stumbled into our tent, our last night in Scotland. What a wonderful week we had had. Nursing our hangovers the next day we finished off with yet another full Scottish breakfast – perhaps the best yet. With the Derry Girls playlist blasting from the van we bid Scotland farewell and made our way home to plan the next adventure.

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Bikes

Me – Specialized Epic Evo (huge thanks to the guys at the Nottingham Specialized Concept store for helping me get the bike sorted).

Nat – Specialized Stumpjumper (huge thanks to Specialized HQ for sorting)

Essential Kit 

  • Salsa anything bracket
  • Ortlieb 13l dry bag
  • Ortlieb handlebar pack 9l, plus accessories pouch
  • Ortlieb Seat Pack 11l
  • Exped ultralight sleeping bag
  • Map – West Highland Way XT40 Route Map
  • Helmet – Specialized ambush
  • Shoes – Specialized 2FO Cliplite mtb shoes
  • Rab down jacket 
  • Hipflask 
  • Derry Girls Playlist – Spotify 

Film Scenes reenacted 

  • Sightseers
  • Harry Potter
  • Trainspotting 
  • Braveheart

 

All the superb photos are thanks to Scot Easter @scoteaster on Instagram, all the dodgy ones we took ourselves.

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