I spent over an hour meticulously cleaning every part of my drivetrain, hoping my shifting issues were related to the sheer amount of gunk that had built up. Chain and jockey wheels gleaming, my shifting was… almost exactly the same. At least my chain would roll a little more efficiently to start the stage with!
Day 1: Good legs have arrived
Scotland, here I come! I’d heard from a handful of people that you had to get through stages 1 & 2 to reap the rewards which are stages 3 & 4. I didn’t make the same mistake as CP1 where I wasn’t ready to leave at 8am, and it was nice to roll out at 8am on the dot for stage 3 in a small group of around 8 riders.
The first 30km was fast, smooth roads slowly dropping down and smooth gravel tracks took the first group of riders to Haltwhistle in just over an hour where I stopped to quickly resupply. There were no more shops until Biggar around the 200km mark so I loaded my pockets and frame bag with Huel (of course), steak slices and a variety of other snacks. Onwards.
The first 200km was awesome, pretty much everything was rideable and it was another day full of spectacular scenery. I don’t usually pay much attention to average speed but today it was noticeably higher than previous days which was great for morale. My legs were feeling good and I was enjoying the endless winding gravel tracks through Kielder Forest and over border into Scotland – the final country to cross!
Fast forward the day and I was a 45 minute ride from Biggar, I’d fuelled well throughout the day but I’m always keen for the next resupply point. Resupplying gives me the chance to reset and remind myself of what’s coming next. Plus, in all honesty, I just like food.
Suddenly, a huge rain cloud rolls in and almost out of nowhere the heavens opened. It’s raining so hard. It’s crashing down off the road and bouncing right back up and the roads are instantly covered in a shallow layer of water. I whip on my rain jacket and tighten the hood beneath my helmet before rolling on – surely it’ll blow through.
Thankfully it does ease just as I roll into Biggar and head towards the Co-op. I come across Simon on the way and he’s donned full waterproof gear including trousers – why did I never think to bring waterproof trousers? I was wearing waterproof leg warmers from dhb, they’re amazing for keeping me dry and warm, but if it was to rain for hour after hour full trousers would have been a far better shout. Noted, for next time…
We find Charles in the corner of the Co-op, shivering and clearly shaken from the storm with kit everywhere trying to dry out. Grateful in that moment for how dry and nearly-warm I was with my kit selection, I quickly lap Co-op picking up what had become my usual snack raid of Huel, steak slices, plus various chocolate bars and sweets depending on what caught my eye.
I say a quick good luck to the others and roll on, knowing that I’d like to get through Falkirk, and maybe Stirling too, before I settle down to sleep. I was riding with the same mentality as I had in stage 2, the further I go on day 1, the closer I am to the checkpoint on day 2. My best case stage 2 scenario was to roll in on the second evening, this time the plan was to finish the stage by midnight.
The weather cleared into quite a beautiful evening as I pressed on over flatter roads towards Falkirk, the temperature really dropped at night so I stopped in a bus stop to layer up before quickly crossing the town and heading for Stirling. I was riding along a residential street and I could see someone walking ahead of me, as I come to pass them they turn around and give me a mighty cheer of encouragement. You find dotwatchers everywhere! I did later get a message on Instagram from dotwatching Fraser saying:
“I was the pissed up fanny cheering you on just past Tim Hortons in Larbert” – definitely made me laugh. Thanks for coming out, Fraser!
I’m nearly 16 hours of riding into the day now and the time has ticked over 2am. In an ideal world I’d get myself through Stirling as I can see from race tracking that I’m not all that far behind the lead few riders. However, a quick glance at the weather forecast shows heavy rain due from around 5am until lunchtime and I don’t fancy waking up in the rain. I come across an open field just before 3am, quickly put my tent up and get down for a couple of hours kip.
Day 2: Stress, relief, stress, relief
My alarm goes off and I’m packed up and riding by 5.30am. I’m lucky enough to catch a stunning sunrise but in reality this is an ominous warning of the weather to come. Red sky in the morning, shepherds warning turned into a pretty accurate description of the morning to come.
In the first half hour of the day the rain began to pour and this soon became the order of the morning. I came across a bakery in Callander and stopped for breakfast, a double breakfast bap and a coffee went down a treat. I rolled on knowing my only resupply until CP3 would be in Killin which was about 40km away.
The rain was unrelenting as I wriggled along a mixture of smooth and gravel cycle tracks passing by loch after loch – somehow this scenery becomes the norm when you’re riding for so long but it truly is incredible here. You don’t get cycle paths like this back home in Bristol!
I very kindly had a lift from Bristol to Land’s End with fellow Bristol-based rider, Molly, and her Dad. A relief from the stress of taking a bike on British trains! Molly smashed through the first stage in impressive style but unfortunately came down with the rona on the first day of stage 2 and had to scratch. I hadn’t really worried about if I could have also caught corona since hearing the news, I had been feeling as “fine” as I could after almost 1500km of racing.
You have a lot of time with your thoughts during a race like this, and when something starts to mentally niggle away at you, it can quite quickly become an overwhelming and un-shiftable thought. Pre-race, I was wary of the Scottish highlands and the weather in particular, having heard how fast it can turn bad in the remote areas.
Suddenly, all I could think about was what if I have covid? What if I press into the highlands and put myself in a bad situation with the weather and potentially feeling unwell? I turned my music up and tried to put the thoughts aside. No such luck, these thoughts were here to stay.
It was still pouring with rain as I pushed on towards Killin when I found a tree to shelter from the downpour and took a look at Killin on Google Maps. I knew there was a Co-op, but had no idea what else was in the town. I spotted a pharmacy on the high street and decided I’d drop in to pick up a covid test and put my mind at ease.
Finally, Killin. Into the pharmacy I go, sold out of lateral flow tests. Fuck. Stress. I was set on getting a test here to cast aside any rona-related worries, the next pharmacy was 20 miles off route – not an option. I rolled away from the pharmacy when I spotted a post office. In hindsight, I’m not really sure what my thought process was but I headed in just in case they happened to have some tests. Amazingly, one of the cashiers had a spare test in her bag and she cautiously passed it over to me.
I imagine I looked pretty feral when I went into the post office, pretty wet from the rain and most likely smelling horrendous after clocking up however many hours on the bike in my one set of kit. Just to top off my feral look, here I was desperately searching for a covid test. I’d have given myself a wide berth.
Anyway, time for Co-op. I did the covid test, propped it up on my aero bars and headed into the shop for my usual refuel. It was 170km from here to CP3 with little civilisation or refuel opportunity so a big refuel was on the cards. Cans of coke stashed in my frame big for an on-the-go cafe stop later, I anxiously waited until 20 minutes had passed before checking my test.
It was negative. Instant relief rushed through me. I’d spent enough time faffing around Killin so hit the road straight away, feeling suddenly energised and keen to eat up some more kilometres. CP3, here I come.
Another day of brutally epic riding was on the cards. Scotland was every bit as good as everyone had said and I was lapping up every minute of it. Big climbs, pristine gravel tracks winding past endless lochs. This was bucket list style riding.
The next climb was a whopper, I can’t remember how long it was but I do remember how steep it was. I’d hit a block cross-headwind and my shifting was still poor so the climb became a mixture of pushing and riding as I went switchback to switchback. The route took a hard right at the top of the climb and I picked up a wicked tailwind as I dropped down the descent. This was arguably the best descent I’ve ever ridden, on a par with the road descent off Mount Vesuvius towards Naples from Italy Divide.
With mountain passes on both sides of me I plummeted towards the loch in the valley, for the next 15km the road gently dropped away and with the tailwind I was flying along when I started to feel really sleepy. Eyes closing at almost 60kph on a narrow lane, not a risk I was prepared to take. I opted to lie in the grass on the roadside for 10 minutes to regain myself before pushing back on. This did the trick, and soon after I was making more good progress towards CP3.
The lochs are endless here, and they’re all stunning. As I rode by seeing people wild camping along the shores I realised why so many people come bikepacking here. It looked amazing, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t deep in the hurt-locker focussed solely on making CP3 today.
I think it was as I was riding along the shores of Loch Rannoch I started to notice these huge houses, often made entirely of glass, dotted in the trees to my left. I’m in the middle of nowhere here and all I can think was who lives out here, where’s the closest shop, or pub?! I’m overtaken by the occasional 4×4 and I start to find the houses really creepy. I’m getting horror movie vibes. I’m exhausted and all I can think about is films like The Purge or The Hunt, where schemes are put together by the “rich” to basically hunt and kill people, often in the middle of nowhere, just for fun. I’m starting to actually freak myself out with my own thoughts and I consciously press down on the pedals, keen to put some distance between myself and the imaginary nutcases I’ve created in my mind.
I find myself on flatter roads and tracks and know I’m on the approach to the final climb before CP3. Corrieyairack Pass is quite a famous climb on the gravel riding scene, it’s an iconic off-road Scottish pass which ramps up into Alpine-esque switchbacks towards the summit. I’m excited to ride this, but also nervous. This is one of the spots where a bad weather system can roll in near instantly and everything can in a matter of minutes, to be blunt, go to shit.
I’m 8km from the start of the climb and it’s tough terrain, it’s slow progress and my anticipation for the pass is growing when I finally hit the old military road where the climb starts. It’s around 7.30pm and I’m keen to get over the summit and as far down the other side as possible before it gets too dark.
The climb starts off steadily, gradually winding up the mountain-side with a handful of small water crossings which I can ride the bike through with relative ease. The summit of the pass is engulfed by thick dark clouds and it’s starting to rain as I pedal on. The water crossings get gradually bigger as I climb and I’m soon dismounting to jump across them, I’m pretty cautious about keeping myself dry and warm for as long as possible as I’m not sure what’s waiting for me weather-wise at the top of the climb.
The final water crossing appears. It’s a biggie, about 4 metres wide and it looks thigh deep, it’s littered with big rocks and the water’s running fast. I’m still in my don’t-get-wet mindset and start looking for a stepping stone route across. There’s a cluster of rocks about 20 metres further upstream and I clamber along the bank and decide I can hop my way across some well positioned(ish) rocks here. Bike over my shoulder I hop onto the first rock. Compose myself and hop onto the second then the third. This third rock is shaped like a mountain peak, I’m kind of balancing on it when I realise how dangerous this is. I’ve got my bike, loaded with bags, hooked over my shoulder. The rocks are wet and slippery and the water’s running quickly beneath me, if I fall I could seriously injure myself. If I hit my head on a rock I could die on this mountain, and I’m doing this so I don’t get wet feet?! Regardless of my sleep deprived decision making I’m almost across now. I can just about step onto the far bank from here, I push off and just as my front foot lands on the bank, my back foot slips off the rock and I end up as a heap on the far bank with my bike on top of me.
I give my head a wobble and repeat out loud: “Walk through the next water crossing.”
I reach the switchbacks where the gradient ramps up. My pesky shifting is still keeping me out of my two biggest sprockets which is a major hurdle on these steep off-road climbs. The rains coming down much heavier now and I’m pushing the bike around each switchback where the gradient kicks up, before riding to the next bend when the gradient eases. Progress is progress, but it’s frustrating.
The always welcome “climb complete” message pops up on my Garmin. I’ve been totally engrossed in getting over the climb as fast as I could, locked into a zone of pure focus when I realise that it’s now absolutely sheeting it down with rain. Visibility is really poor, I can only see about 20 metres in front of me and I can hear a helicopter whirring somewhere overheard. It’s probably search and rescue and it sends a stark message through me, get off the mountain.
I hit the descent fast, I’m balancing caution with my desire to get off the mountain and am rattling my way down and out of the clouds as fast as I dare. It was a thankfully uneventful descent, a few false flats and short spikes on the way down sting the legs but I can see the “bright lights” of Fort Augustus getting closer. I’m arguably riding ahead of my best case scenario and again, I’m not going to let that slip.
I’m off the pass now and winding towards the campsite hosting CP3, one more steep climb through the woods had me pushing the bike before I found the gravel fire road taking me to CP3. On the route’s elevation this looked nice and flat and I was ready for an easy spin to finish the stage. This wasn’t the case. It was dark now and the fire road was dragging its way up and up, seemingly forever. The final few kilometres ticked by painfully slowly until I finally hit 500 metres to go as the route turned off the fire road onto a narrow piece of singletrack.
I rode the first section of singletrack until this quickly became unrideable, for someone with my technical skills at least. Big slippery roots criss-crossed the steep off-camber trail and I was back off the bike and pushing. A real kick in the teeth and I’ve seriously had enough of walking my bike at this point. 10 minutes later I’m almost out of the woods and I can see the white hue of the CP3 gazebo. Happily unscathed, I roll into the field to finish the stage in 5th place at 10.45pm.
Race co-organiser Ed is waiting inside with the offer of chilli-con-carne, yes please. I wolf down some chilli and a hot drink and head off for a shower. I take my socks off and hop into the shower to wash myself and my kit when I realise how sore my feet (and entire body) are, a quick glance shows they’re not looking too great. I’ve obviously had warm but damp feet all day from either the rain or an earlier water crossing, and my soles are looking pretty trench-footy. Lovely stuff.
I stand under the hot shower for at least half an hour contemplating my life decisions leading me to destroy my body like this before realising there’s a hairdryer – what a luxury that is compared to my minuscule quick dry towel! I switch the dryer to max and slowly dry my entire body and all of my kit.
Stage 3 is in the bag and I settle down for a good 12 hours of sleep.
Stage 3 Statistics
Time: 38 hrs 45 minutes