[Sticky] The West Highland Way by Mountain Bike in 3 Days
I did the West Highland Way by Mountain Bike over 3 days, Mon 26th to Wed 28th September. I did it on my own and it's fair to say it was the toughest thing I've ever done in my life, both physically and mentally. It was epic and absolutely worth every bit of pain or pushing/carrying the bike for the scenery, the descents and the sense of achievement. I probably could have done it in 2 days but 3 gave me the chance to take more photos and enjoy the scenery a bit more. I'd recommend doing it that way on a bike if you're going to try it. Don't underestimate it though . . . it varies from easy/mundane landrover track riding to sections where you literally have to shoulder the bike and climb over massive rocks and waterfalls. I've got reasonable fitness but there are some tough climbs in it and a few that you simply can't cycle up. Might not be that tough to walk but pushing a bike up makes it all that tougher, especially when you're on your own!
I've included a few photos below but you'll find the full set here http://www.flickr.com/photos/dezzy/sets/72157627785407654 /"> http://www.flickr.com/photos/dezzy/sets/72157627785407654/
Here's the full write-up . . . warning, very long post!! Hope you enjoy it though! 😀
Day 1: Milngavie to Inverarnan (Drover's Inn) - 40 miles
Riding/Pushing/Carrying time: 11 hours (includes photo stops)
Full time including stops: 12 hours
Runkeeper routes: (had to do this in 3 parts due to battery running out and I had to enter some of it manually as I lost GPS for a bit, but it's pretty accurate):
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
I set off from my flat in Glasgow and cycled over to the SECC train station to catch the 7am train to Milngavie. It looked like the day was going to be okay weather-wise, but when I reached Milngavie it was drizzly. Oh well, not much I could do, so just stuck on the waterproof jacket, got my obligatory photo at the start and got on my way! The guy I asked to take my photo said it was a hazard of walking by the official start! 😀
The first section of the Way, up to Drymen, is pretty flat and quite fast. Although this is when I realised the first mistake I had made . . . should have brought a rear mudguard!! The path was very wet from recent rain and it's fair to say my ass got a soaking!! hehe 😆 🙄 The rain went off and the sun started to come out as I headed out of Milngavie 😎
I made really good time to Drymen and then it was off up towards Conic Hill. I got my first glimpse of the rather long loch I'd be working my way up the side of and my first "proper" climb:
Conic Hill was rideable in places on the way up, and a definite push-up in other places. Even where the gradient wasn't too bad, it was unrideable due to a lack of traction with mud or loose stones. The Way doesn't take you up to the summit, but I nipped up the path to the summit for the view. The weather was definitely coming in again at this point as you can see by the clouds . . . but it was still a stunning view!
The descent was a mix of riding and pushing. There are sections I didn't do simply because I was on my own and didn't have my pads on. I decided not to wear pads to do the West Highland Way due to weight/comfort and I'm confident it was the right decision, but it meant I played it sensibly at times. No point trying to ride something gnarly just to hurt myself on the first day! I did have a funny slide down some muddy grass near the summit though where I just lost the back end and ended up on my side sliding down the hill. Some mud to add to my already wet shorts! It stayed a bit drizzly down into Balmaha but started to dry up as I stopped at the Oak Tree Inn for an early lunch.
The section between Balmaha and Rowerdennan was a mixture of emotions. There were some sections that you had to push the bike up. People don't tend to mention this in their blogs or write-ups of the WHW by bike. Many people will claim the only bit where you have to push/carry the bike is north of Inversnaid but this isn't true. There were some sections north of Balmaha where you had to push the bike up stepped rocks in a steep climb - there's no way anyone could ride some of those sections. It was pretty tough going and I'd say this was where the mental challenge really began. There were some fun singletrack flat or downhill sections too here but it was a constant mental battle when you hit another tough climb. This was one of the nicer sections and my first glimpse of Ben Lomond:
I made it to Rowardennan and had a wee break for an energy bar. On approaching Rowardennan, I passed a woman out walking her dog . . . she looked quite shocked at the sight of me and just said "Oh my goodness, you're muddy!" as I passed 😆 She was correct:
I have never been that muddy in all my time mountain biking! Be prepared for this whatever time of year you do the Way as if it's been raining at all recently then you're likely to end up like this too!
It was then off up out of Rowardennan along a landrover track past the Ptarmigan Lodge. This was a long gradual climb with a few fast descents too and some nice views:
It eventually turned to single track and was a mix of rideable sections and some pushing up to the Inversnaid Hotel, where I had another rest and refuel:
This is the point where many people tell you to get the ferry across the loch and miss out the next section north of Inversnaid as it's completely unrideable. I felt that I couldn't claim I'd done the full WHW unless I did this section so I'd come prepared with a couple of foam tubes that I'd cut to fit my frame. I taped these to the frame and prepared myself for the carrying!
Now, I'm not claiming the next section was easy at all, but it's not as long or tough as some people claim. I've read blog posts where the author claims they had to carry their bike for 4 hours. Nonsense! I timed the carrying section and it took my 2 hours, but this wasn't all carrying. There are some sections you can push and some sections you can actually ride, even if it's just for 100m or so at a time. Yes, there are really tough bits where you've got the bike on your shoulder, clambering over rocks and across waterfalls, wishing you had two hands to hold on and not a heavy bike on your shoulder. Yes, I have bruises all over my shoulder from the bike even with the foam padding on it and yes it was tough, but if you just get your head down and get on with it, you can do it. You won't be fast obviously . . . I got overtaken by a walker (he didn't have a bike to carry!!), but you can do it. There's even the occassional mountain goat to chat to and keep you company 😀
I reached the end of the carrying section and had a well-deserved rest:
I checked the map and knew I wasn't too far from Inverarnan so it felt great to be on the home straight. However, what was to follow almost broke me! I personally think the next section is way tougher than the carrying section north of Inversnaid. This is simply because you think you're finished carrying and get a false sense of excitement at being able to ride your bike again, but every time you get on the bike, a few metres later you come across yet another fecking drainage channel! This whole section, from the end of the loch to Inverarnan, is infuriating. Just when you think you're getting started pedalling again, yep, another drainage channel. Now I can't bunnyhop, but even if you could I don't think you could clear a lot of these. So, I resorted to pushing most of this section and only riding when I could see a clear run that was do-able on the bike. It then started to rain again and got dark. I'd come prepared with my big bright lights for the bike, so the dark wasn't a problem, but this was definitely the toughest section mentally. Being able to see the Drovers and not quite be their yet as I pushed my bike along in the dark, was really hard going. I was wet, muddy, cold, tired and had been on the go for almost 12 hours.
I was so happy to reach the Drovers and it was made even better by the fact that my girlfriend drove up to meet me for dinner that night. 😀 I had an amazing sense of achievement and it felt so good to know that the longest, hardest day was over. I'm really glad I did it this way and if I ever do it again, I'll still do that distance on the first day to get that bit over and done with . . . or I might get the ferry!!
The Drovers was great. Such an interesting place and we had a great meal, Heather headed back to Glasgow and I got a fantastic sleep! The Drovers also let me lock my bike up in their shed and the next morning they let me use their hose to get rid of some of the crap and mud that was all over my gears. I was getting a large bag carried by Travel-Lite. This is a must! It meant I could carry some bit and bobs for cleaning the bike as well as all my clothes and stuff. I also had to change one set of brake pads the next morning too when hosing the bike.
Day 2: Inverarnan to Kings House - 30 miles
Riding time: 6 hours 20 mins (includes photo stops)
Full time including stops: 7 hours
Runkeeper routes (this one is accurate as I had GPS the whole time and battery lasted)
Although Day 1 had involved some rain here and there, it was overally dry and even sunny for quite a while. Day 2 involved me getting wetter than I've ever been in my life! The rain was torrential at points, but hey, there's not much you can do about it so you just have to get on with it and enjoy the riding. It does spoil the views a little though.
I had a great breakfast at the Drovers then set off into the rain:
There's some nice riding and nice scenery heading up towards Crianlarich. There are a few sections where you need to push the bike a bit but overall mainly rideable on either landy track or singletrack. Just don't try to ride through this!
When you hit the corner at Crianlarich (option to head down there if you were stopping there), you are faced by some rather tough climbs. Mostly rideable but some were pretty steep low gear efforts! This winds its way through the forest, so I got a bit of shelter from the rain, then there was an awesome descent back down to the road crossing. Loose, technical in places, steep in places (bum touching rear wheel!), and at points it was like riding down a river due to the rain and water running down the paths. You then cross the road and head across the river and out towards Tyndrum.
Again, more singletrack after you leave a farm behind and head towards Tyndrum. This section was nice and apart from the odd push over some rooty sections but I was absolutely soaked at this point. I therefore stopped into the Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum to have lunch. I had a packed lunch with me on the first day but had planned lunch stops for Days 2 and 3 to save me carrying lunch again. My planned stop on Day 2 was actually the Bridge of Orchy or Inveroran Hotels but I was so wet and hungry by this point I got lunch in the Green Welly Stop. I also got some strange looks from the tourists! Overall, on the Way, I didn't get too many strange looks. A few walkers thought I was nuts doing it on a bike and the odd person didn't say hello, but the vast majority of walkers were really friendly and supportive, some saying "wow" or "keep on pedalling" 😀 I didn't have to pass too many walkers either. I guess I chose a quiet time of year to do it. I found the best was to pass was to say "good morning" or "hello" rather than "get oot the way!" hehe
I've done the next section of the Way before, out of Tyndrum and all the way to Victoria Bridge on the Glen Kinglass ride I did a few weeks ago, so I knew what was coming here. The climb out of Tyndrum is fine and mostly landy track other than a singletrack section up the hillside for a bit:
After the Bridge of Orchy hotel, some people might be tempted to take the road round to the Inveroran Hotel and miss out the climb, but don't! It's worth the climb! It's about 90% rideable and the descent on the other side is awesome fun. This was me just about to begin the descent:
I passed a few walkers on the way down but they were all friendly and some stopped to watch and were very impressed at the nutter on the bike! 😎 I stopped for a wee sugar boost (coke!) in the Inveroran Hotel then it was off up Rannoch Moor, back onto a section I hadn't done before.
Rannoch Moor is a really bleak place and although the track is generally fine and all rideable, I wouldn't want to be stuck out here alone in bad weather! The climb is really just a middle ring drag and not steep, but again it's so worth it for the fantastic last couple of miles descending down to the Kings House. Here's what I mean by bleak! . . .
And after a day of being soaked to the skin, what a great sight it was to just make out the Kings House in the distance:
Despite the rain, I did really enjoy Day 2. It took a lot longer than I thought to get to Tyndrum but was still happy with my overall time. A nice hot shower and some great food in the Kings House sent me off for another great sleep! They let me lock my bike up indoors under the stairs.
Day 3: Kings House to Fort William - 25 miles
Riding time: 5 hours 30 mins (includes photo stops)
Full time including stops: 6 hours
Runkeeper routes (Runkeeper lost my GPS route after I uploaded it, grrr! I entered this manually and it's not far off. The time is accurate but it doesn't have the pace)
I'm sure you can imagine how happy I was to see the sun shining for my last day! 😎
I've done up the Devil's Staircase and down into Kinlochleven before, so I knew what was coming. From this point it was mostly a push-up the Devil's Staircase, but it is soooooo worth it for the descent:
I actually overtook some walkers on my way up, and I was pushing my bike! Slow coaches! hehe (they were a bit old though). The guy that was guiding them was really friendly. Does a bit of mountain biking himself so got chatting away to him at the top of the staircase and he kindly took a pic for me:
Then it was on with the descent, plus a few photo stops on the way down. If you've never done this descent before it is well worth a day trip. It's one of the most technicaly rocky descents you'll ever do, in some places tougher than the Nevis Red Downhill. It's common to get pinch flats but I'm pleased to say I didn't get a single puncture on the entire West Highland Way, including this section. Here are a few pics on my way down to Kinlochleven:
I stopped for my planned lunch at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven then got on my way in the sunshine towards Fort William. Nobody prepared me for the next section though! I hadn't been told how tough the climb was out of Kinlochleven. It's mostly a push . . . it's either too steep, too technical, too loose for traction or all three! You can ride some parts but it's mostly a push until you hit the old military road to Fort William. Worth it for the views though . . .
It's then old military road all the way until you hit the forest before Fort William. In some places, it's tricky to ride due to the large loose rocks on it, but you can get through most of it. The scenery is absolutely stunning, especially in weather like I had, and you have a great feeling at this point knowing you're not far from the end. A few examples of the scenery:
You then hit singletrack again through the forest towards Fort William. It's a real pain having more climbing at this stage. You kinda want it to be all over and done with by this point but not much you can do about it! I just got the head down and got on with it, and it felt great to get the first glimpse of Ben Nevis and know I was nearly there:
You eventually hit fire road all the way down towards the road into Fort William. It's a fast descent and I gave a few walkers a fright on my way down! Oops! 😀
The feeling when I hit the road and knew I was just a mile or two from the end was fantastic. I was actually quite emotional as it had been such an achievement to do this, especially on my own. I had such ups and downs, some great riding and some horrible pushing/carrying, some pouring rain and some gorgeous blue sky. I'm not the fittest person in the world either, so it was an amazing achievement for me personally do have done such a distance by mountain bike. And doing it on my own, without anyone to encourage or comfort me when I was struggling, was a great achievement too. It felt amazing!
I had to get the obligatory photos at the original end and the new end of the Way, further into town:
I treated myself to some lovely accommodation on the Wednesday night . . . the Lime Tree Hotel in Fort William, then got the scenic train ride back down to Glasgow on the Thursday, listening to some tunes and thinking about the amazing adventure I'd just had thanks to my mountain bike!
Would I do it again? . . . probably! 😀
A few tips
- You'll enjoy it more on a full suss, especially some of the descents like Kinlochleven
- You will go through brake pads (I went through 3 sets)
- Fit a rear mudguard!
- Take padding to put on your bike for carrying it north of Inversnaid
- You will have to push your bike more than you think
- Flat pedals will make getting off/on to push much easier
- Don't just ride - stop to enjoy the sceneary . . . it's stunning!
- Stay in hotels / B&Bs . . . I love camping but couldn't have faced it after each of those days
- Do the Inversnaid section of the first day to get it over and done with
- If you're doing it on your own like me, keep in touch with someone so they know where you are and a wee text now and again reminds you you're not on your own 😀
- If you've got waterproof or quick-drying shoes, use them (my 5-10s are still wet!)
- Carry a camera and keep it handy. I had mine attached to my waist belt of my bag - I would not have taken so many photos if it had been in my backpack. And you will want to take photos!
Hope you enjoyed the read and well done if you made it this far! Just hope this is useful for anyone else considering doing this. I'm happy to answer questions or give advice so just ask away if you're considering doing it yourself.