Firstly – not all these photos are mine. Any of them featuring me riding, aren’t mine – obviously. Credit to Angus Hamilton (the start) and Tam for their shots.
I know Gary Tompsett from the Highland Trail and Cairngorms Loop, and he’s known for having mad ideas around biking routes. I’d first heard of the GT24 a couple of years ago, and back then it seemed like a monster of an achievement and way beyond my capabilities. The ride itself is, in the style of the Colorado Trail Race, run in alternate directions each year.
This year, we would be riding South to North. A 7am start at the riverside museum in Glasgow, then a cruise up the Kelvin walkway to Milngavie, ride the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way, and then finish at the South Kessock slipway in Inverness. The aspirational time to complete this 180 mile and 6000m undertaking is 24hrs, but I’d be happy with just a finish.
Buoyed from my success at the Highland Trail, and feeling fit, I decided to make my intentions be known and enter the ride. My friend Tam got wind of this and put his name forward too, a blessing in disguise as it meant we could push each other on (metaphorically) as the end grew near.
Once again, the Jones came out. I’d ‘won’ a frame bag on eBay for an exorbitant price, thankfully less than I’d pay for a Revelate bag but still more than I’d have liked to. The bike:
A relatively straightforward setup, food and tools in the frame bag, Sol Escape Bivi and down jacket in the Wildcat saddle pack, Stem Cell for food, gas tank for gels and battery, and another Stem Cell on the truss fork for a water bottle. This was a new addition, and aside from wearing holes in the bottom of it I thought it worked well. I chickened out of going bagless so took an Osprey lumbar pack, a perfect size for a wind layer, lock, chamois cream and other miscellany.
Rolling around to the Riverside museum before 7, the familiar sight of faffing was encountered. A few reunions with riders from the HT550, and it was established that almost all those present had finished the HT550 – clearly a perfect qualifier for a ride of this type! I chatted to Anita and Elizabeth who I’d not seen since Oykel Bridge (Anita) and Kinlochewe (Elizabeth). Sadly Elizabeth wasn’t riding the full route as she hadn’t secured a train ticket, but then neither had Tam and I – our plan was to wing it and plead with the Invernesians to let us leave. It turns out that for a 4 space train, Scotrail will only book out two of them anyway, so the rest are first come first serve. Hindsight…
We started properly at 7:07, having missed the 7am start time.
The roll out to Milngavie was straightforward enough, a time to chat with everyone in a big group. This would split up over the course of the next day but I certainly ensured I kept with the group for now as I didn’t quite know the way to the Way!
Hitting the familiar sight of Milngavie and the WHW obelisk, I knew from here I could navigate blind. I know the Way well, having ridden the bottom half this year, and the top half many times.
The group pressed on, fragmenting slightly as we hit the gate-a-thon into Drymen. Some choice words at the diversion through a field – an annoyance, but a mild one knowing what we had ahead of ourselves. At Conic Hill I could see us breaking apart, I had two visible ahead of me and a few behind too. Tam, the faster technical rider between us, quickly caught me on the downhill, the fast descent never wise on my rigid bike and I decided working wrists were preferable to a PB (which I got anyway!)
When I finish Conic Hill, I normally take advantage of the tourist prices at the shop in Balmaha and get some overpriced food or drink. Not today though, the objective was Inverness, so onwards we continued. The Loch Lomond singletrack diversions were packed with tourists, but they were mere blots in the Way of our objective, so I pressed on. I always like to stop at Inversnaid for a few minutes before the hike a bike, but again, not today.
There are many who state they’ve ridden the West Highland Way, but when pressed admit to getting a ferry here and then another from Ardlui, missing this section. That isn’t the West Highland Way then, it’s just a ride. The hike a bike isn’t that bad, it’s just two hours of pushing and carrying, and you know you’ve reached the end. There are a couple of bastard sections, mainly where you need to edge on rock while supporting a bike, but they are few and far between. There’s a wee gap between two rocks that you need to shimmy the bike through, but again not bad (library picture here)
Once you reach the grassy area by the side of Loch Lomond you’re finished. There was a post here that indicated this and made for perfect photos but sadly this is gone.
You can definitely be sure though once you reach Doune Byre bothy.
Disaster though, no sandwiches in the shop. Crisps, Coke and Fanta for me, and then the short but uphill climb to Crianlarich. Descending to Strathfillan Wigwams is always fun though, a lot of height lost in the best way possible (good trails). No stop here though, so we pressed on for Tyndrum.
It is customary to start and finish the HT550 in the Real Food Cafe, but given I did not have 40 minutes to wait for a bacon roll (true story), the Green Welly got our custom. Sadly a group of about 25 arrived just before us, so we got sandwiches etc in the petrol station instead.
Leaving Tyndrum for Bridge of Orchy, I could feel the miles begin to make themselves known to my legs. This was only around 4:30pm though so we were running quite quickly. I’d previously done Milngavie to Tyndrum in 10:15, and this was 9:25 including the Clyde start. We’d need that hour later.
The West Highland Way features some lovely motivational images left for walkers, and Bridge of Orchy didn’t disappoint:
Pushing up the next section, I’d forgotten it was this much of a push, but the descent to Inveroran made up for it. Plenty of screamer descents on this route, the next one into Glencoe is another favourite. Brakes off, hold on and keep the speed up. Love it!
Kingshouse came and went, and then the 40 minute Devil’s Staircase arrived. An enjoyable push though, one where you need to put some thought in and just press on upwards. Approaching the top, a mirage (or an elaborate pisstake) appeared:
Descending into Kinlochleven is one of my favourite pieces of trail. Any trepidation about feeling tired just disappears, the trail gets your full focus and you just press on. The end of the trail, arriving on the fire road always appears too soon, and then you know you’ve got a brake burner of a descent to Kinlochleven.
By this time it was starting to get dark, and the chippy wasn’t open either. Poor show! An inspired idea from Tam to check the Co-op found it open and serving all manner of food, so we stocked up, and filled ourselves up outside.
The push out of Kinlochleven is both better and worse than the Devil’s Staircase. It is shorter but somehow feels harder, perhaps the lack of a visible finish to it makes it appear to last forever. Luckily it was getting dark, and we had Jenny’s effusive positivity to keep us going. She’d mangled a brake disc so had to remove it, but still she kept going despite half her braking not existing anymore.
No pictures from here in the dark, so here’s one from a ride a few weeks after. Lovely scenery when you can see it.
Approaching Fort William, we made our way into the town centre, just under 18hrs after leaving the Clyde, and 16:54hrs out from Milngavie. I’d be extremely happy with 16:54 as a West Highland Way time, so to have another 70-odd miles to go was tough to take.
However, Fort William at closing time makes the London of 28 Days Later seem like a safe place to spend a lot of time. We paused for a selfie at the finish of the West Highland Way, then resolved to GTFO as quickly as possibly.
I’d first discovered the charms of the 24hr garage when finishing the HT550 about six weeks prior, and knowing it was only a short bit off the route we opted to make a beeline for it. Yet another chicken and bacon pre-packed sandwich for me, my third of the race, plus loads of other food and caffeine. It was past 1, going for 18hrs, still a long way to go, so some wake up was in order.
Eventually we lifted ourselves from our concrete seating and set off. The first part of the Great Glen Way is pretty dire, just miles of canal path, but at least it went quickly. We rode with Jenny, Fraser and Mark, until Tam opted to pause for a few minutes and I kept going.
By this time I too was tiring, so I stopped just after Laggan Locks for a snooze. I figured that with sunrise approaching I could power nap and reset my body clock with the rising light levels. Just as soon as I got off my bike, Tam appeared and had the same idea. Bikes by the edge of the trail, find a spot and snooze in our bike gear. It’s deliberately uncomfortable as you only want to be asleep long enough to not be knackered, and to wake up quickly after.
About 20 minutes later and it was time to move again, both of us feeling more refreshed, albeit still zombies. We pressed on to Fort Augustus, by this time in the morning light, and while it was still perhaps 6am there were a few early risers out.
After Fort Augustus, things get steep. The first rise I’ve done many times on the HTR, but not the high level stuff. It’s frankly brutal. It feels almost pointless in its ascent, and the descents are a waste of the amount of steep and desperate climbing. So much potential, but big drainage gullies and off-camber corners slowing you right down. With hindsight, the descent to Invermoriston was a screamer though.
Arriving at the shop, we were pleased to see it was open and selling stuff. I couldn’t face eating though, the solitary pork pie in my bag taking an age to consume. I don’t know if it was excessive gel consumption or simply feeling burst, but I’d had a tactical chunder at the top of the last hill and my appetite was gone. This is always a dangerous place to be, because an inability to eat means a bonk is probably on the way. A sweet coffee and some fruit juice helped, as did ridding myself of 24hrs of porridge bars in the public toilet. This photo is awful, but I think I look pretty wasted in it, hence its inclusion:
Reaching the high point of the route, a wonderful wooden ring monument resembling a Stargate, I did what anyone in my situation would do, and had another sleep. This time I was sitting on a rock, head in my hands, but I managed enough to buy me a few more waking hours.
Drumnadrochit, Co-op, chicken and bacon sandwich, then we carried on. Another beast of a climb, a ride across the final plateau and then we knew the descent would start. I’d been relatively dry until this point, but passing Abriachan eco campsite I got absolutely soaked by the overgrown vegetation along the Way. The lack of care taken on what should be a premier long distance path was laughable and an embarrassment. We tried to get water from the cafe but no luck there either, it seemed to be a slightly surreal place with animals wandering around freely and a slightly odd owner. Oh well, only a few miles left…
We’d been hoping for a 30hr finish, but we soon realised this was out of our grasp, but we pressed on to Inverness. The city approached, some lovely single track and a good descent, and then we were back into civilisation. Still nowhere near the finish, some city riding and a lovely path along the river into Inverness. Passing the castle, a sprint to the quay for no reason other than the fact we had some energy left.
31:11 to cover 292km with 5900m of ascent, so we were both pretty chuffed with that. I’d say it was the toughest ride I’ve ever done, if only because it was planned as a single ride and not split in any way. With multi day riding you know to stop every night, but this was a case of just riding until we were finished.