Today I’ve woken from a dream. I’ve just spent 4 days covering unfathomable distances over some of Scotland’s most remote mountain passes on the Highland Trail 550. I’ve been sleep and calorie deprived, bruised, battered, rained on, midged and largely alone for days and can honestly say I’ve loved every single minute of it. I just felt constantly surprised, delighted and privileged to be moving through the day, dawn and dusk in such wild beautiful places. It was hard yet effortless at the same time. I can’t explain it better than that right now but I feel different today as a result of my four days on the HT550. Yes things hurt. I can’t get my shoes on or drink tea because my feet and lips are so swollen but this isn’t even an inconvenience. It’s just what is going on for me right now and what I’ve realised is it’s up to me how I feel about everything. Isn’t that liberating? I enjoy writing about most of my big rides but I can’t wait to write about this one. Utterly, honestly, weirdly life changing.
Shand are a small Scottish based independent bike manufacturer who build the types of bikes that make people like me swoon. Steven Shand and Russell Stout took pity on my drooling, pitiful form when I arrived at their workshop earlier in the year to pick up Emily Chappell‘s custom made Stoater. At the time, my plan was to race The Tour Divide and, being adventurous types, this captured both Steven and Russell’s imaginations. They offered to build me a bike too.
What I didn’t realise was that I was entering into a relationship with them. The building of a bike is a very intimate thing and requires a frame builder to have an almost psychic understanding of their customer’s deepest wants and desires. Knowing the motivations, fears, passions, fantasies and hidden aspirations of a person having a frame build for them might not seem immediately relevant but sit on a Shand and tell me it’s not like having had your innermost thoughts read. I remain disconcerted in the extreme that Steven Shand has had access to this part of my mind.
I’ve since decided not to race the TD this year but save it and build up to a 2017 attempt (reasons why here) but Steven took my measurements anyway and at the same time established a rapport that had us bouncing ideas and dry humour around in a way that I understand now to have been important to the final build of my bike. We finally settled on a tweaked version of his award winning Bahookie with a greater standover height and slightly slacker head angle than is customary. To this we would fit 650b Halo wheels with plus sized Schwalbe tyres on a rigid carbon fork, run a Shimano group set with XTR 1 x11 and finish things off with a rather lovely set of Jones H-bars. I was even to have my first ever SP dynamo hub to USB charging unit stashed neatly in my stem top cap. So clever.
Well, that was the plan (and still is long term) but for now we have had to adapt a little. Our plus sized fork is somewhere still in transit on the Atlantic Ocean and I start the Highland Trail 550 in two days time. We have had to improvise. Jimmy Shand will have 29inch wheels on the HT550 and a short travel fork. This has not dampened my spirits at all only made me marvel at the versatility of minds and metal. It also means I get custom The Adventure Syndicate graphics on the outers which pleases me an unnatural amount.
And so a star is born. Complete with soundtrack. I’m already pretty sure this one’s for life.
Since the North Coast 500, people have been asking “what next for The Adventure Syndicate?”. The answer is lots of different things for different Adventure Syndicate athletes. Emily Chappell is somewhere on the west coast of the US riding south to meet Juliana Buhring to help her Race Across America. And, this weekend, I am riding the Highland Trail 550. This is a self supported bikepacking race over 550 miles in the Scottish Highlands. Starting in Tyndrum, the route follows a mixture of fire road and singletrack all the way to Assynt and back. You can eat and sleep when you like but the clock keep ticking. It’s a proper adventure with no prize or glory. In some ways, more like a moving solo retreat than a bike race and it’s this that fascinates me. I’ve no doubt it will get dark (figuratively and literally) but it’s this part that intrigues me. For me the Highland Trail is the essence of adventure and I am so excited to be pitching my wits against it.
You can follow the race live on Trackleaders. Watch our dots as they inch their way across the Highlands (ooh, that sounds interesting I hear you say but it actually is quite addictive) and think about your next adventure.
The Fred Whitton Challenge is a hill climber’s dream / nightmare. The route consists of 112 of the steepest, hilliest miles found anywhere in the UK with the infamous Harknott pass (30% incline!) at mile 100.
Despite these disconcerting statistics I’d always wanted to ride the Fred and this year I managed to keep fatigue and nausea at bay just long enough to finish in a time of 6 hours and 43 minutes. I subsequently spent quite a long time lying on the ground moaning.
2000 people set off between 6 and 8am on Sunday morning to begin their own personal challenge. It was a beautiful day in the Lake District. 24 degrees of soft sunshine which turned the rolling hills to green velvet and made the lakes look effervescent. The weather made things special but what made this event really stand out for me was the people. This is a hard event. Possibly the hardest I’ve ever done and yet the understated, self effacing, gnarly veterans and all the organisers were friendly and helpful and genuinely grateful you were there taking part.
In the 24 hours I was in Grassmere I was adopted by a local cycling club, given excellent free coffee, a much needed free crepe, endless friendly advice and invitations to dinner. A ride was always going to go well under these conditions.
Thank you to the lovely guys I rode with from Kendal Cycling Club and to Rory for putting me in touch with them. An enormous thank you to the ride organisers, crepe, cake and coffee providers and massage therapists which made my reemergence to the physical world possible having put myself into a bit of a hole in the last 10 miles of the ride.
And thanks to Fred Whitton. It seems the spirit of this generous, popular, humble local lad who died tragically young from cancer lives on in this event.
Full digest soon from @leecraigie_ and @carboncyclekate at www.theadventuresyndicate.com
It’s all systems go. Support crew crib sheets, menu planning, scheduling pee stops, press releases, interviews, calculating averages, trialling chamios cream, creating motivational playlists, encouraging others to join us on route, playing it cool, freaking out. There are so many factors to consider when attempting to get 7 women to ride 500 miles non stop in a group around the north of Scotland.
We must prepare but we must also be prepared to let go of our plans. We must be confident that we will succeed but not overly so.
If you start racing a 66 mile close road circuit around Loch Ness at 6am in the company 4000 people, the rest of your Sunday is always going to feel a bit surreal. If you then drink champagne and deliver a talk as part of the Aviemore Mountain Film Festival in the afternoon, the chances are you’ll be seeing unicorns by the evening.
It was cold and bright when we rolled out from Bught park at a time most sensible people are still fast asleep. We bowled down to Fort Augustus in an enormous peleton of riders, each of us considering our form that we knew would called into question the second we hit the climb at the half way point. My form on the day was not so good. My legs screamed on every little undulation and I knew that if I were to get a good time on this years Loch Ness Etape I would have to ride carefully and with other people as much as possible. There is no hiding on that climb though and in order to stay at the front of the group to be helped back to Inverness along the flat, I had to empty my reserves and shut my ears to my protesting legs.
On passing the piper at the top of Glen Doe, we breathed what we could of a sigh of relief and began the rolling descent back to Inverness.
I completed the climb in 23 painful minutes .At this point last year I had gapped the riders behind me but been dropped by the guys ahead so spent 10 lonely miles pegging it back to the leading group. This year, I was lucky. I arrived at the top and began descending amongst the group I would cross the finish line with making the second half of my ride much more comfortable that the previous year.
I crossed the line after 2 hours and 57 minutes of effort – exactly the same time to the minute as in 2015 – and earning the title of Queen of the Mountains for the fastest climb too.
This event showcases the Scottish Highlands at its very finest and is so well organised that participating is a delight even when taking into account the 6am start. I encourage anyone to take part no matter what speed you average and enjoy the ride.
Last week I had the pleasure of staying at the Hotel Viva Cala Mesquida in Mallorca. It felt odd initially to go mountain biking in a place so familiar to me for it’s fantastic road riding but a whole new side to the island opened as a result. Cala Mesquida is in the north east of the island, a hidden gem with deserted sandy beaches and rocky bays littered with single track. I spent 7 tedious days GPS tracking mountain bike routes in the surrounding natural park (only riding, no swimming in the sea, no cocktails on the beach, no eating from the extensive buffet) and have come up with some great routes I can show some of you this October if you like. Get in touch to find out more.