tl;dr: I cycled 1500 km from Somerset to Sutherland, and realised I wasn’t as prepared as I thought.
On Monday 18th June I set off from rural Somerset to cycle up to the Scottish Highlands.
The idea was to simulate an ultra-distance race like the TCR or TAW, covering as much distance per day as physically possible. It didn’t work out like that, but in the end the lessons I learned were important.
Pretty simple: I wanted to ride 400 km per day, averaging 20 km/h between sleep stops of 4 hours or so. I would carry a bivvy bag, inflatable mattress, and down jacket, and would sleep in bus shelters, churches, or whatever shelter was available. I did some research beforehand and identified shelter in the places I would likely stop.
Day 1: a bad start
I’d spent the weekend with Miranda at her parents’ home in a peaceful part of the Somerset countryside, which gave me time to relax and make some finishing touches to my equipment and route plan. It seemed like a good idea beforehand, but I didn’t foresee how hard this would make it to leave it all (and Miranda) behind, with nearly a week of solitude and hardship ahead of me.
While the first day was physically easy (tailwind; mostly flat), it was mentally much tougher than I expected. Starting at 10am, the route took me from Somerset, through my childhood home of Bristol, over the Severn Bridge, and north through the Welsh Marches. Moving through this familiar and homely part of the country and gradually leaving it behind me was very emotional – in ways I probably should’ve anticipated – and I really struggled to stay positive.
I was well into Wales, with the light waning, before my low spirits started to lift. Being in unfamiliar territory helped distract me from the comforts of home I was leaving behind (the good weather and tailwind also helped). By the time I found a bus shelter to sleep in at 2am, having covered 370 km, it was at last starting to feel like an adventure.
Day 2: cold and wet
Four hours later I was on the bike again, somewhere near Shrewsbury, aiming for another bus shelter just over the Scottish border. The first 200 km toward Bolton were easy going, but after this things started to get tough again.
The problem with any cycling route that goes along the West side of England is the horrid conurbation connecting Wigan, Bolton, Preston, and Blackburn. The only way around it is up, so I took the hilly route over the A666 and through the Forest of Bowland. By the time I was out of the Forest – beautiful as it was – I was completely fed up of the endless up-and-down, and behind schedule. The hills continued all the way through the Westmoreland Dales, where it also started raining.
The bad weather and slow progress chipped away at my morale and I began to doubt my ability to finish. I was kicking myself for blithely choosing such a hilly route just to avoid a bit of urban sprawl earlier in the day. I’d tricked myself into thinking that the Highlands would be the “hilly bit”, and that until then everything would be plain sailing.
Another spanner threw itself into the works here: my old left knee pain. Several times this has forced me off the bike, so when it started twinging going into the Dales — not even half way into the route — I started worrying about a DNF. I pressed on, but the nagging pain was a constant worry.
When I arrived in Penrith it was getting dark and I was behind schedule, freezing cold, soaked to the bone, and seriously worried about sleeping outdoors in the wind and rain. My morale was now at rock bottom and I didn’t know what to do, so in desperation I phoned Miranda in a petrol station forecourt.
After a bit of a pep talk,
we Miranda decided the only practical option for shelter was the Travelodge in Carlisle, 30 km north. An hour later (tailwind!) I was checked into a room and munching on a pair of hot Domino’s pizzas, feeling a bit better (turned out they were doing BOGOF on small pizzas that night — some good luck at last).
I was 60 km short of my target for the day and was upset that I’d had to abandon my outdoor sleeping itinerary. I knew that sleeping outside in these conditions would be reckless and possibly dangerous, but it still felt like I’d copped out somehow; that I hadn’t upheld the spirit of the ride I’d planned. This taught me a bit about mental resilience and the need to improvise, but I’d learn even more about that the next day.
Day 3: another bad start
The wind and rain howled until around 8am, so I gave up more time and started about three hours late. I was already behind schedule, so this didn’t help my morale.
I underestimated how long it’d take me to cross the Southern Uplands toward Glasgow. Naïvely, I went in thinking it would just be a bunch of boring hills to get through before the interesting stuff began in the Trossachs, but I should’ve given the area more credit.
They’re only a stone’s throw from the English border, but the Southern Uplands are apparently the least populous part of Scotland. It’s a surprisingly beautiful and quiet place; covered in rugged farmland and great, sweeping hills, it reminded me a lot of Wales. And, like Wales, the area is also large and very lumpy, my route across it being more than half the length of Wales, with at least as much climbing.
Embattled by a screaming northwesterly headwind and a still-aching knee, it was 5pm when I made it back to civilisation near Glasgow, having covered only 160 km. I suffered another crisis of confidence here; I wouldn’t be making it to Fort William that night, but would have to sleep somewhere in the Trossachs, with very few options for shelter. The Met Office predicted an effective temperature of 3°C with high winds and hail.
My plans were falling apart, I had no contingencies, and I suddenly felt like I wanted to quit there and then. I’d wanted to push myself and see how far I could get each day, finding the limits of my body. I hadn’t expected to be stopped in my tracks by practical matters like bad weather, and felt like this wasn’t the challenge I’d signed up for.
I think if there had been an easy way out at that point I would have abandoned, but the nearest train station was in Glasgow, some 50 km away. I phoned Miranda again for support and encouragement, and after some soul searching over what to do with myself I decided to cycle 60 km to Stirling, instead of my prescribed route around Glasgow. This would at least get me a bit closer to Fort William, but would also let me jump on a train if I really couldn’t bear to continue. I arrived at around 9pm, 220 km from Carlisle, and holed up in a Travelodge for the second night in a row.
Days 4 & 5: things get better
The silver lining of the last two nights was lots of sleep. The forecast for the next two days was looking up (no rain), and my knee hadn’t got any worse, so I rallied myself and and set off under a 5am sunrise with restored mojo. I’d trimmed the route a little to fit into what time I had left, which meant cutting out Bealach na Bà and some of the Northwest Highlands, but I figured this was sensible given my persistent knee pain.
The next day and a half nearly made up for the hardships of the previous two. The A84 carried me easily (or so it seems in retrospect) through the Trossachs, the beautiful but windswept Lochaber Geopark, and Fort William. The great open landscapes of Rannoch Moor were my first taste of the Highlands, and I had plenty of time to admire the views as I crawled along the A82 into a crushing northwesterly headwind. This wind would bedevil me for the rest of the ride.
Just before descending into Glencoe, I had a nice encounter with some police officers. They’d just parked in a layby up ahead, and after getting out, signalled for me to pull over. Uh oh, what had I done now? Well, it turned out they were doing some field surveys for Operation Close Pass and just wanted to have a chat about the road conditions, and whether I’d had any problems with the traffic on the A82. They gawped when I told them how far I’d cycled – the usual response – and wished me luck, and then off I went. As a cyclist, it’s rare to have anyone show any interest in your wellbeing – most of all those with authority – and this really put a smile on my face. Thanks, Highlands & Islands Police!
I followed the A82 through Fort William and up the Great Glen, along the Caledonian Canal, and past Loch Lochy. When I turned northwest onto the A87 at Invergarry that infernal wind slammed into me again, and kept at it for the next 30 km along the shores of Loch Garry and Loch Cluanie.
Until this point I’d been surprised by how busy the roads were. They’d all been large, arterial A roads connecting the Highlands’ major tourist destinations, but when I eventually escaped the Skye-ward traffic of the A87, things got a lot quieter.
Turning off the A87, the journey westward to Garve in the evening light was one of the highlights of the whole adventure for me. No more wind in my ears and not a car in sight. 40 km of peace and quiet, with near-effortless pedalling and beautiful surroundings made up for the earlier headwind. I could think my own thoughts and admire the scenery as it moved slowly past.
That bliss ended abruptly when I turned left at Gorstan onto the A835. Riding into the night along this road was surreal and far from peaceful.
For at least an hour that familiar northwesterly wind was pounding at my face and shrieking in my ears while the last of the solstice dusk turned into night. The road took me up and over 20 km of wide open high ground, with its great expanse just about visible in the dying light. My only company was the odd deer startling by the side of the road as I approached (which scared the hell out of me the first time), and occasionally the light and roar of a passing HGV.
I’d hoped my extended sleep over the last two nights would let me ride straight through to dawn, but my eyelids were leaden when I got to Ullapool at about 2am. Thankfully Ullapool is one of those towns that’s made for ultra distance cyclists: absolutely no nightlife. I surreptitiously set up
camp bivvy outside a bar, trying to conceal myself from the nearby dock workers on the night shift.
Two hours later it was getting light and I was on the bike again. 200 km to go until Inverness. That morning took me through Assynt – an area of southwest Sutherland. The roads here were noticeably smaller and rougher and in the early twilight, with no signs of human life, it felt truly remote – like I’d discovered the “real” Highlands.
The terrain of Assynt is a barren mixture of open bogland, isolated mountains, and coastal inlets. The treeless landscape is scattered with a few clusters of whitewashed houses and crofts, but there’s little evidence of habitation – particularly at 5am – and it felt like I was completely alone in the world. The peaks of Cùl Mòr, Canisp, and Quinag all made their appearances from my route along the A835, standing starkly above the moorland.
What Assynt lacks in human population it makes up for in deer. The Highlands have a serious problem with deer, and this became very visible in Assynt, where they outnumber people.
Quite apart from the environmental damage they can wreak, they can be a real danger on the road. Like sheep, they’re nervous and flighty – but unlike sheep they can jump fences. They were out in force that morning and I had to be really careful on descents to spot deer that might like to run into my path. That said, I cracked up when one of them tried to escape over a fence, but caught its forelegs on the wire and faceplanted on the other side. A shopkeeper in Scourie told me of a deer that had jumped off a five-metre escarpment straight into the road in front of his car. Crazy animals.
The final leg from Scourie back to Inverness was painful. I’d had no real problems on the saddle until this point, but now it was really hurting. I at last had a tailwind, but I was unable to put any real power down and so ended up soft-pedalling most of the way there, alternating between standing on the pedals on sitting up with my hands off the bars to try and relieve the pain.
I’d planned to ride up to Tongue and down past Crask Inn on the way, but the extra 100 km seemed beyond me at this point, and I took the easy route down past Loch Shin. I’m still disappointed I didn’t get to see the far north of Assynt with its great open landscapes, but oh well. Next time?
After what seemed like a lot more than 100 km, I arrived in Inverness at around 4pm. I checked into the YHA there, treated myself to dinner at McDonald’s, and my wee adventure was over.
I learned a lot of things about myself on this ride. I’ve tried to distill it all below.
Things that worked well
I was aiming for an average speed between sleep stops of around 20 km/h (including stops). With sleep stops of about 4 hours, this would work out at 400 km/day, which seemed like a nice round number to aim for.
I’m happy to report that I managed about 21 km/h between sleep stops, and – were it not for my Travelodge detours – I would’ve managed 400 km/day quite happily. That said, I think 4 hours off the bike each night is maybe not enough for a ride of more than just a few days. 5 hours may be more sustainable, but this is something I’ll have to experiment with.
After my bad digestive experiences on my last long ride, one thing I really got right this time was nutrition. My strategy was just to follow my cravings, which in practice meant a “varied” diet of things like sandwiches, sausage rolls, fruit smoothies, chocolate, pizza, fish & chips, crisps, McDonalds. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to avoid too much sugary food, which seems to kill my appetite completely. I avoided sugary drinks, except for the odd fruit juice, sticking with plain water.
This worked perfectly, and I avoided any digestive problems, kept a strong appetite all the way through, and never got too hungry. I think the best thing I ate during the entire trip was a burger out of a van on the A82 on the edge of Loch Lochy.
When I did need something sugary, I tended to go with either chocolate or dried fruit; nothing stodgy like cereal bars. Mint chocolate worked pretty well: refreshing and sweet at the same time.
Things that didn’t work so well
When I look back on all the low moments and put them into words, they suddenly seem trivial and “so what”. But I found on the bike it was all too easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the task I’d set myself, and by the loneliness of dealing with all the hardships along the way.
One of the two most important lessons I learned was that rides like this are really a mental challenge more than a physical one. My legs were strong the whole way through – knee pain notwithstanding – but it felt like I had no control at all over my mood. And when your mood falls too far everything starts to fall apart.
I’m not really sure what I can do about this, other than to do lots of long, hard rides and try to get used to it.
I was pretty naive about this. I figured that with a waterproof bivvy bag and a down jacket, I’d be fine, if a little uncomfortable, whatever the weather threw at me.
Well, that was silly. In the dry I was just about comfortable down to around 12°C but, of course, everything changes when you’re wet. Being wet and freezing cold, with no guarantee of shelter for the night is horrible experience.
In the end, I learned the hard way that things won’t go according to plan, and that you have to be ready to improvise and compromise.