No Fuss’s Tour De Ben Nevis is one of those events that makes first timers question why they entered.
But this is no bucket list race that you simply tick off and move on from, it gets under your skin. Once raced and short term memory loss helps you to forget the lactic acid and oxygen debt, you are left only with the memory of a real adventure. Of a truly wild route, with some spectacular scenery and the nagging mistakes you made that you know you can improve on, next time.
Any bike is both the perfect bike and totally the wrong bike for this race. A XC whippet will get you so far (pretty far in fact), but a 140-160mm enduro weapon will get you further on some of the special stages. Your final place is based on points earned from each stage so bike choice and tactics play a big part of your day. Are you racing some stages and winching the distance, or racing the distance and losing time on the gravity stages?
This was the second time I had entered the Tour, I had ramped up my training with gym work and a lot more long distance training rides on natural and rugged terrain. I was feeling fit and the bike was riding well.
The previous year it had rained for a prolonged period in the run up and it showered throughout the day. This brought on certain challenges but kept the temperature and the dust down, the wet conditions made the loose land rover tracks a good bit firmer and easier to climb on. This time the sun shone down with the mercury hovering in the low twenties, the trails were bone dry and some key climbs were loose and dusty.
The race always starts with an atmosphere that is unique to the tour, the sense of pent up tension is palpable as the racers follow a Pipe band down Fort William High street in a rolling start. Reaching the start line the race breaks with the contenders going full gas up the road climb that helps to thin the pack out. The race is self seeding, so you quickly discover how optimistic or unrealistic your performance expectations were.
You gain height fast during the first few kilometres, climbing the road out of Fort William towards the West Highland Way the pack naturally thins out. Upon reaching the end of the tarmac, the long, loose and rocky road begins, the races rhythm changes and the work truly begins.
The undulating trail is flanked by some jaw dropping scenery that helps to distract from the fact that you are still climbing. The usual bottleneck at the start of the first of the special stage gives you a nice break and a chance to refuel and taking in the view. You clock out once you get there so the queue doesn’t affect your overall time, its not far off of one third of the race route, but you would be a fool to think the rest will be straight forward, that was the easy bit!
This stage is a descent from the WHW down into Kinlochleven, it starts on open hillside and is rough, rocky and loose with the kind of water bars that would stop a small tank.
It is a trail that will bite you hard in the tubes if ridden clumsily and requires your A game to take at race pace. Having brought my A game the previous year and still flatted hard I was determined for a clean, if not a competitively paced run.
Dropping through the rocks and keeping it light on the rear wheel I was passing fellow XCers with tyres around there feet as they had been bitten by the trail. A tyre change on the stage could be considered a tactical error as the clock is still counting, last year I shouldered the bike and ran the remainder of the stage, another tactical error as it was a waste of energy when the stage (and arguably your race) was already done.
On meeting the tree line the trail mellows, slightly, with a wet roots and rock adding to the mix with grippy wet loam in the damper turns with a final sprint down a shaley rut.
Dibbing out I was instantly hit with cramp in my hands and calves, this would a recurring feature of the rest of the race. The hands eased up with some ibuprofen to keep it at bay. My legs were another story, fives minutes of crippled crouching and I was able to straighten my legs enough to get back on the bike, it was going to be a long day.
I think preferred doing it in last years rain.
The next stage was the first climbing stage of the day and one many riders will be familiar with, the long haul out of Mamore Lodge up to Loch Eilde Mor is a 3.5km thigh burner with 135m vertical gain. Easy, knuckle down and grind it out, or so you would hope. The unseasonal heat had turned the land rover track into a morass of bone dry sand and pea sized stones that robbed you of all traction and momentum, having to keep changing your cadence so you wouldn’t dig into the trail meant the burn was pretty fierce. All under the blazing sun that still showed no sign of remembering it was the end of September, in Scotland. I think preferred doing it in last years rain.
Not far after the end of the stage was the river crossing and the fabled hike-a-bike climbing stage, at least the dry weather was on our side for the river crossing. The previous year it was thigh high this year you could ride straight across, well, almost.
The Goat track that forces you to shoulder your bike goes 250m up a narrow rutted peat bog between Meall a’ Bhuirich and Meall Mor in a mere 2.7km, before a sprawling delta of slab and rock take you down to the bothy and the second feed station. When saturated with a fortnights worth of rain the previous year it felt like a full on rout. Curtains of rain washed over muddied and broken riders who were sinking into mud and peat, this year, who know what we would find.
The Indian summer had dried the bog all the deepest pools and was a quick scarper up the stair like ledges of turf and stone. The cramp was never far behind as the acid build up caused me the hunker down on more than one occasion. Cresting the many false peaks it was starting to look like something you could ride down rather than climb up. letting the bike run and using the trail, the decent from the saddle was a total blast of natural terrain. Line options were abundant with some sneaky dead ends to catch you out, it rewarded heads up and looking long down the trail.
Reaching the bothy, the barbeque was in full flow, quickly feeding up and changing socks it was a short spin to the 5.5km of unbroken descent on fast and rough Landrover tracks down the other side. Back into the respite of the forest after a day without shade, the relief from the heat was soon tempered by yet more cramp followed soon after by the slow, creeping, hollow feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem).
slow, creeping, hollow, feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem)
For cyclists that have never properly bonked, it is a feeling of near desperation and helplessness that makes you want to lie down by the side of the trail, and to wait for the woodland creatures to finish you off. Your body has run out of fuel and has nothing left to give.
Once you’ve bonked its too late, you cant get back to feeling fresh and recovering on the ride, the best you can hope for is a limp home. Eating like mad and pleading with the velo gods that I could eat enough, fast enough, to arrest the bonk and get enough steam to get me home. I tried to block out the knowledge that another special stage was at the end of the forest slog.
Making the final push to the top of the stage four, it was a mix tape of brilliant trails linked together with a punishing fire road sprint. Starting With Blue crane and bomb hole then on to Nessie before dibbing out.
The final push is through to Torlundy and onto Fort William, the race actually ends before you reach the main road to keep riders safe and not racing on the roads. That said the group that had built up at the end of the course couldn’t help but slowly build into a sprint to the finish.
Totally smashed and grinning from ear to ear, it was time to collect the timings and make plans for next time.