“Guys, I don’t think I’m going to keep going.”
Stuart has just caught up with us in Braemar, where me, Campbell, and Chris are sitting on the ground outside a Co-op, exhausted, and engulfing calories after the hardest climbs of the Cairngorms against a powerful headwind have left us already shattered — and we have only just passed the first checkpoint (CP1).
“Keep with it Stu, this headwind is unreasonable. Come ride with us and it will feel easier.”
Although it’s meant to be a race, we’re hardly acting competitive, and I’ve fallen into a group that started as five, became four, is now three, and with the new addition of Stu is back to a new four. We’re essentially “the pack”, and the company in addition to the teamwork is helping the toughest of the route fly past.
Of course, for Stu, it’s not just the howling wind that’s making this difficult: Stu’s riding a fixie. While I dragged, huffed, and hauled my road bike up the infamous Lecht, seriously considering replacing all of my components to have a triple next time (or better yet, getting off to walk), Stuart was on a fixed gear. I’m still in awe that he made it at all, let alone kept up with the rest of us. It’s a beyond ambitious bike to take on the TransScotland, but it’s also in the spirit of bikepacking: just ride what you’ve got, and make it work. This is all for the love of riding bikes.
The four of us set off from Braemar together to tackle Glenshee. Chris, Campbell, and I watch with jaws open as Stuart pushes up and spins down the undulating climbs, and unanimously agree that the route is hard enough with working gears, but applaud him nonetheless. We form a paceline again, taking turns leading into the wind, sometimes riding two-by-two so we can chat when the wind doesn’t overpower our voices (although Stuart is really stuck on his own pace, which feels slightly out of his control, so he comes and goes depending on the gradient). I’m used to long hours on the bike alone, having always been intimidated by the ubiquitous MAMILs that dominate road cycling, so I’m thrilled to be enjoying the company of other cyclists — people just as daft as me — and enjoy hearing their stories of previous cycling adventures. We’ve been riding for over six hours now, but still have three checkpoints ahead of us before reaching the finish line in Glasgow. The night before, there had been discussion of making it to Glasgow for midday, but expectations are already being reset and most riders are just hoping to finish before Monday — or finish at all. The scale of the effort ahead is too much to focus on, so instead we stick to one goal: Pitlochry for a pub dinner. It’s dusk by the time we pull in at the Old Mill Pub, all on low battery and alarmingly cold, considering it’s July. We pile on all of our layers while we wait for warm food to bring us back to life. It works like magic.
We turn on our lights and leave Pitlochry after 9p.m., riding silently into the night. We’re on a bike path now, which feels much safer now that it’s dark, and the wind pushes us back along with brief intervals of rainfall. Around midnight, I notice a bike light heading towards us. It seems like an odd time for anyone else to be out for a cycle, and soon Tom comes into view of my headlight.
“Are you guys in this TSR thing?” Hell yes we are. “Don’t go that way, it’s terrible”. In the pitch dark it’s considerably harder to tell where the route is, and where it isn’t.
I ride alongside Tom briefly, talking long enough to confirm that we’ll both see each other again soon, at the start line of the Transcontinental in just a few weeks’ time. Tom makes quick work of dropping me, however, taking a lot of my confidence with him.
With Tom and Stu now well ahead of me, and Chris and Campbell presumably somewhere behind me, I am alone in the night, fighting a headwind that is worse than it’s ever been so far. I struggle to keep the bike straight at times, and turn my headlight on full-beam to avoid going off the path (I have a few close calls). The path is mixed gravel, and the jittering and jolting of my handlebars is becoming painful. I’ve been riding for over twelve hours now, and it’s taking a toll. The wind and rain dampen my spirits and I wonder if I’ll be on this bike path for the rest of the night. Every time I consider joining the A9 and riding on the smooth tarmac above, a lorry comes screaming past to remind me that, although it’s painful, I’m much better off here.
Eventually, the pain lifts as if by magic: the bike path smoothes out to fresh tarmac, and the wind disappears for the first time today. Instantly, I am enjoying myself again. My pedal strokes are smooth and my pace quickens once more. I wonder if it’s an hallucination, but if it is, it’s a good one.
In no time, I’ve arrived in Dalwhinnie, somehow with a smile on my face. I spot a gas station and pull over to look for a tap — I know that I won’t pass anything before reaching Fort William, which is still hours away, and I’m drinking my water too fast. Happily, a tap exists and I stop for a brief rest and refill. Soon, the lights of Chris and Campbell come into view and I’m beyond relieved to see they’re still going.
The guys are ready to bivy down for the night, but I’ve chosen not to sleep: it’s far too cold for me to sleep comfortably, and carrying my winter camping gear for a short kip didn’t appeal to me, so I made the decision ahead of time to push through the night, and if I need to, find somewhere to sleep during the day when it’s slightly warmer. That never happened, of course, but that was the original game plan.
I say goodnight to my riding buddies, saying that I’ll see them at some point tomorrow. I’m now really alone, with all of the other racers finding bushes and bus stations to sleep in.
The night is silent except for the sound of the wind through the forest. I downloaded approximately three-dozen podcasts before the ride in preparation for this segment, but decide instead to enjoy the total silence. Riding a road bike seldom comes with such serenity, but at 2a.m. in the Highlands, I have a completely traffic-free road to enjoy. I can’t remember what I thought about in these wee morning hours, I was in ‘the zone’, a place that endurance athletes wax lyrical about and yet none of us can really describe accurately. I hardly noticed that it was raining, except that I had to pull over to get out my spare warm gloves and socks to maintain dexterity. The cloudy sky was partly illuminated by the moon, making a dramatic ceiling outlining the munros surrounding me.
First light comes soon this far north, and I can see my GPS screen again by the time that Fort William approaches. This is an important milestone: it’s the first 24-hour gas station I’ve seen since dinner last night, and it’s the last one I’ll see before CP3. Shivering and soaking wet, I drag myself inside, confusing the night staff only slightly while I feebly work the buttons on the coffee machine. Large mocha is definitely the breakfast I deserve. I linger here, warming myself up and filling water bottles before carrying on to CP2, Old Inverlochy Castle. As I near the castle, the sky opens and the rain turns torrential. I am fighting sleep deprivation, blinding rain, and cold that makes my hands too useless to perform important tasks like pulling the brakes or taking the necessary time-stamped selfie at CP2 — the self-regulated way that this race works without crew, volunteers, or entrance fees. I have to hide under a tree to get my phone out without drowning it, and try my best to prove that I was at the checkpoint at 5:05a.m.
If there was a good time to scratch from the race, this would be it. Fort William is the last train station I’ll see for a while, and the weather has taken a considerable downward turn. If the rain persists at this level, I won’t just be miserable, I’ll be useless. My teeth chatter as I pedal at a painfully slow rate along the shore of Loch Linnhe, seriously wondering if I should turn around and wait for the first train home. How long would I have to wait? It’s Sunday morning, so probably a few hours. I decide I would freeze waiting, and that cycling is the only solution. I am pedalling slowly now, left, right, left, coast… right, left, right, coast… It’s hopeless. A car passes, waking me up from my trance, and I remember what’s ahead: Glencoe and Rannoch Moor. I need to get this stretch done before the weekend traffic becomes too heavy to enjoy one of my favourite places in Scotland. This, and this alone, propels me forward, finally moving south, which at least feels like I’m moving towards Glasgow.
It’s 7a.m. by the time I reach the town of Glencoe, and I know I’m moving too slow, but here is where Scotland gives me a gift: as I reach the base of the climb, the rain dissipates just enough to reveal the stunning landscape ahead of me, and now that I’m heading east, the wind is directly behind me for the first and final time on the course. The summits are still shrouded in dark clouds, but I can enjoy the ribbon of tarmac weaving through the green middle, with only a few cars to worry about. My body wakes up to this, and I feel great again, forgetting that I never did sleep last night. With the help of the wind, I reach the ski resort and then the summit of Rannoch Moor in no time, beginning the long and blissful descent less than an hour later. The rain comes back, but by now my spirits and core body temperature are lifted enough to continue.
That positivity lasted until just outside Inveraray, where I discovered that my climbing segments had not yet ended, as I had let myself believe. When I finally rolled into CP3 at Inveraray Castle at 11:23a.m., I was bordering on broken. I pulled into Brambles, an excellent cake and brunch stop that I had visited on a much better day previously, and sat next to the electric fireplace (yes, in July, it was on) and cradled a cappuccino between my frozen hands, hoping to kickstart my now dormant thermoregulation. It didn’t work, but I had some french toast that I probably needed and got back on the bike, heading out into the driving rain once more, now in pursuit of CP4 and the finish line, just slightly over 100km away. The home stretch, in a sense.
By now the dispute between my cycling shorts and my body had reached critical pain levels. There was nothing I could do but fantasize about buying new bib shorts on Monday, and whimper audibly every time I sat down on the saddle. I literally winced in pain as I rode, probably providing some entertainment value for the passing drivers, safe inside their heated vehicles, repelling the elements with windshield wipers. I wished my glasses had a set so I could see where I was going. It might have helped to prevent me from ending up on a gravel track, which soon became completely overgrown and I had to get off to push through mud and bushes which clung to my shoes and got tangled in my spokes. This mistake costs me forty minutes and most of my patience, until I was finally able to drag the bike up a cottage driveway and back to the main road. Strava gave me a QOM for this, and I am not even slightly proud of this. Not. Even. Slightly.
The route through the beautiful Cowal Peninsula is a blur of pain and hardship that often looked like it would almost be over, but the round of a bend presented more endless undulating miles before the ferry dock at Hunter’s Quay. It’s actually a great place to ride, but that was mostly lost on me as I tried to blink hard to keep my eyes focused, pausing frequently to stretch out my calves on the pedals.
“Terrible day for a bike ride” the ferry crew offers me as I rush down the ramp after the gates have already closed to vehicles.
“Is it?” I attempt to smile through chattering teeth while fumbling for cash for my ticket. I take shelter in the passenger waiting area, where I sit staring at my cold and drenched feet for the entire twenty minute crossing, head in my hands. I am bordering on delirious, but I’m too close to stop now. This really is the final sprint, and this time it really is going to be flat. Although ‘flat’ takes a new meaning at this point — even the ferry ramp on the other side feels like The Lecht felt yesterday.
My GPS is confused about our brief voyage, so I follow the bike path signage towards Newark, where CP4 is located. The sun finally greets us as I roll up to the last castle of the journey, and for the first time since starting I am riding without a jacket, the way that July really should be.
My GPS finally comes back online and guides me along the Clyde towards the centre of Glasgow. Crossing the Clyde on the passenger ferry, the operator casually asks “you been out for a long ride today?”. I stare back, unsure how to explain my weekend. “Yeah… sorta… I started in Inverness… I guess.” He shakes his head.
I do the last hour of the ride completely standing out of the saddle, the shorts now too abusive to suffer a minute longer. Traffic lights, which I haven’t seen in the entire preceding 500km, offer temporary breaks as I pedal feebly towards the finish line marked by the Necropolis, now locked for the evening. Hands shaking, I finally push STOP RIDE and upload to Strava to verify my completion of the race at 6:42p.m.
There is no cheering crowd, no big finish clock to sprint under, no free t-shirt or finisher’s medal, no event photographer, no volunteers handing out chocolate milk and space blankets. There aren’t even other finishers — I have no idea where the other riders are, except that Twitter tells me that Fraser finished hours ago, posting a time which I’m completely blown away by.
In 32 hours and 42 minutes I cycled 539km, climbed 5225m, and held an average pace of 20.5km/hr. The numbers blur meaninglessly on my phone screen in front of me — all I know is that the pain can finally stop, and I really need to go to sleep.