First time on the tour and the weather had been playing against us in the weeks and days leading up to the race, the day itself wasn’t looking to hot either.
Waiting for the rolling start to kick off I was wondering if my decision to stick with my XC rubber and to not go with mud spikes had been a good idea. it was to late for that now as the pipe band were warmed up and the procession down Fort William Highstreet that marks the start of the race had begun.
Reaching the start point the pace accelerated quickly as racers didn’t want to get caught by slower riders or parked cars.
The pack started to thin as the first climb was long road haul out of Fort William and towards the West Highland way, this road section rose and fell and rose again. The road was wet and slick with a few moments of two wheel drift on the fast descents as we finally went off road and the real work began.
The rain had washed out the already rough West Highland way turning it into a rocky river bed, some sections had flowing water moving over the trail which retained a surprising level of grip if you trusted your tyres. The peaks of the hills that towered over the route were lost in cloud and fog, whisps of rain drifted down the hill on the race going on below them.
Reaching the queue for the first special stage (stage 2 stage 1 is the complete journey) I dibbed out so the wait wouldn’t affect my overall time. Taking a breather and a feed I nervously dropped my post as I started to notice the number of 140/160mm bikes around and worried that my 100mm HT was going to be under biked at some point.
Reaching the head of the line a marshal counted me in, charging blind down a line that would be technical for me in normal circumstances, I had no idea what was round the corner. I was not expecting the waterbars gouged so deep in the rock that they could swallow a 29er whole, or the loose shale over everything. Picking my way through the rock minefield (rock garden is to gentle a term) pleased not to have been over taken, seeing the tree line up ahead it happened, I’d flatted the rear.
With the clock still ticking I shouldered the bike and made like this was cyclocross and ran the rest of the way. Passing a marshal who said something to me which I later decided was “your my hero” whilst being passed by several Orange Fives, I also ran past people wrestling with tubes in the driech conditions. finally reaching the end I dibbed out and looking around there was at least a dozen fellow riders fixing mechanicals and flats which I joined and performed a puncture repair at F1 pitcrew speed.
The game had changed, the flat had effectively ended my race but for the overall time, changing strategy I had to go full gas on the transitions and not do to much damage to my time during the remaining special stages. Easier said than done as the next two stages where climbs, tough climbs.
Having lost all our elevation in one not so swift descent it was now a prolonged climb out of Kinlochleven past Mamore Lodge, made all the more interesting as climb was the third special stage.
making steady progress on the climb and passing riders who had flown past me on the descent, I started to appreciate the wide spacing of my 8 speed cassette, the water washing the mud and grit from my drive train, it never skipped a beat the whole race. The now considered narrow ratio also necessitated a fast climb as there was no 36 tooth to fall back on, that said the granny on the triple up front saw plenty of action.
The race was starting to feel like a shared ordeal that only riders who had raced this year would truly understand, riders had the middle distance stare of a true physical ordeal. The full gamut of mechanicals where starting to rack up along the route with more and more riders dropping out, I even saw a race ended by a snapped Renthal single ring.
Reaching the end of the climb and the stage I could see I was mid pack and was keen to try and maintain my position. Clouds were still rolling off the hillsides with misting showers drifting over the route. The next transition was a straightforward and fairly flat landy track to a river crossing and the next and toughest special stage, a hike a bike up a peat bog.
Cresting a rise the river came into sight with a undulating descent to the river bank, letting the bike move beneath me and enjoying some free speed a sniper rock suddenly shot out the front wheel beneath me. Sliding out side ways a fairly substantial rock came towards my face in slow motion, “well here it comes” was the surprisingly calm thought that drifted through my head as I hit the dirt like a sack of spuds.
Abandoning their bikes other racers huddled round me, no doubt expecting a bloodied mess and a broken face. To everyone’s surprise I was completely unscathed, my wrist was a little sore but nothing that would stop me holding onto the bars. Checking the bike was fine it was onto the river crossing and the dreaded hike-a-bike up the goat track.
Fording the swollen torrent the bank on the far side was no more dry or inviting than the river itself, the trail leading to the dibber and the start of the stage was a muddy unridable mess with pushing the only reasonable option. This was to be the theme for this stage, once committed to the climb it was a slow jog uphill with the bike on my shoulders, here the XC bike made sense as I was able to make good time with the lighter bike. The climb was without flow over a saturated and flooded peat bog. Hints of granite slab teased at what would become the descent as the vertical metres were slowly counted up.
Topping out the climb transitioned into a sprawling delta of narrow rocky ruts charging down towards the bothy and final feed station. A barbeque for a feed station is a fairly unique feature for any race, so a quick feed and change of socks before getting back to it.
After an incredibly fast storm down a drifty fire road it was onto a traverse through the wood land leading to the Nevis Range and the final special stage. This would be a fairly uneventful clocking of kilometers if it wasn’t for the second puncture of the day. Another fast tube change and I was back on in, but something was up, having had so many free kilometers on the fireroad I had forgotten to eat and I was starting on the road to bonking.
I knew it was coming, I could eat now but it would get worse before it got better. Forcing myself to turn the pedals the fireroad just went on to the horizon, the incline went back towards the heavens and the emotional breakdown and numbing of the full on bonk was in the periphery of my vision. Then finally, I reached it, Shangri-La, the promised final stage and a rest to allow the feed to kick in before the final sprint.
With my emotions returning to a harmonius state and with some more fuel in the legs the last stage awaited, this “Enduro” style trail incorporates some of the Nevis Range classics. Starting off with Blue Crane, Bomb Hole, Cackle and Drop and Nessie all making an appearance with a straight out fire road sprint in the middle. This 1.9km greatest hits mix tape has become a trail classic in itself and having visited it again on the big bike the red mist of a run between tape has always resulted in my PB time.
leaving the North Face car park and the final few KM to Fort William, you could catch your breath and allow your legs to recover but that wont happen as this is still racing even after 60km+. A small pack of similar paced riders had gathered together and none of us wanted to be the last over the line, it was purely pride making us hurt ourselfs on this final leg as the points system meant it was irrelevant who actually came first out of us. But right now that didn’t matter.
Rolling onto the opposite end of the High Street from which we had left that morning the circle was complete, Sven was done, I was done, it was done.
| Stage 1
| Stage 2
| Stage 3
| Stage 4
| Stage 5
Total Points: 1238