In the Autumn of 2018 new endurance events for 2019 seemed to appear weekly, including two which both started in Scotland. I love the excitement of the unknown the running of a first event gives, the PanCeltic ticked all the boxes and I went for it as soon as entries opened.
The two long ferries included in the entry would add some jeopardy and excitement, and a fun regroup to share stories with riders. It promised a big climbing route showcasing some great areas in three Celtic countries.
I had ideas to ride up and complete a door to door tour but after All Points North my head was in a turmoil. This potentially would be the last race against the clock so I thought it deserved my best attention. With that in mind, and a bigger budget to allow for some indoor sleeping, I dusted off the faster Salsa Colossal and booked the train to Edinburgh.
I had cycled through this great city twice before and never had time to explore, so this time I went for a lap of Arthur’s seat before heading over the Forth road bridge and following the river. I had a date with my old Transam riding buddy Jon, and could not wait to see his new self built house in the country.
Carrying the minimum of bivy gear I grabbed a camping pod in Aviemore to hide from the midges. Almost glamping this one; it had a kettle and a fridge and a ton of mattresses.
Rolling into Inverness a day early I checked into the Hostel the organisers had secured to be met by The Stephen Haines, yes you are right he is stalking me. The night before, the night before the start, well you have to go out and bond with your fellow racers, and the Black Isle (also another hostel) was a good place to start in town. What you shouldn’t do is carry on into the small hours with the PanCeltic crew until kicking out time, and then in the Welsh Embassy, now that would be stupid.
It was a great friendly group assembled for the race, the clan feeling was strong . After meeting the legend in Dublin at the start of the TransAtlanticway, Rhino was here as a competitor this time.
The next day was cancelled for me, signing on and picking up the swag was about all I could open my eyes for, what happened to giving this my best attention. No food or drink the day before an ultra, like that will work ;-(
Race morning has the extra bonus fun of a closed kitchen, who would have thought that 50 hungry racers would want to get up early and eat. The start is just outside the hostel and pretty relaxed in the end, Stephen is there with his Celtic race face on, I expect no less than a win this time.
This is me rolling out at the back of the start pack, no rush, I wouldn’t want to get to the first corner with my one functioning brake, Doh! I wave everyone good bye and go hunting. Oh and can you spot my new rear pack that I paid for over 12 fricking months ago, no you can’t because it’s still not here; That’s a cheap yellow Lomo rack bag doing a sterling job.
My bike had sat motionless in the hostel for 2 days, I wheel it out 15 mins before the start, and the front brake lever is just pulling air. Sensible head takes over, and despite wanting to go and make do, I know I have to hang around here and wait for a shop to open and fix this, not easy on a Sunday.
Luckily the cafe part of of Velocity has some activity and they open the door to my sad face at the window, they graciously allow me to help myself in the bikeshop spares and I start ripping of my bar tape and cables. It’s not pretty but it works, and with the tills not even open I leave them cash and my eternal thanks.
It is quite relaxing heading out to start the race on my own, I am determined not to smash it, I’m about 30 mins behind so lets call that 7 miles, nothing in the big scheme of things, more damage will be done by stressing about it. I can’t help wondering though just how long it will be before I see the first rider. It takes until midday until I see the tell tale sight of three riders ahead, it’s warming up so I stop and strip off before I start the passing game. I can’t help but start counting, it calmed me down when I got to double figures.
The countryside was getting more barren and the nagging headwind was testing, I followed one rider (Chris Sherriff) for ages, showing I had reached my speed level, before stopping at the Crask Inn. this place is in the middle of nowhere and it seems the law to stop, at least for a photo. Two other riders here are tourists, and I end up spending more time taking pictures of them on their phones.
Passing a beautiful Loch on a single track road with a few riders in sight, a “Tour de France” style horn signals the passing of the Welsh Embassy; Mally and the camera crew in the team camper van. Further up the road they have the drone out for filming but I think I’m to early to appear in what would be stunning footage. After this and 100 miles in on reaching the Sea, there is a fast drop down to a bridge to cross the Kyle of Tounge. Distracted by navigation I drift left and hit the high verge bank. Shit! slamming my foot into the ground as my front wheel is dragged sideways somehow saves me, that would have been one messy crash, that’s one life gone.
On the bridge I shout out as I pass drinking buddy Jason Hayles, a young event rookie who loves a TT, I wonder how he is doing hoping he hadn’t gone off too fast. From here is a long climb up to an area I’d ridden before, stunning but barren. lying ahead is the long lap around Loch Ariboll. There will be no food and the race is now on to get to the pub at Durness before they stop serving.
On the home stretch I pass Jamie Robison from the RATN event, he and a few others found a small cafe that stayed open late until they sold everything to the locust swarm of PCR riders. Passing the stunning beaches into Durness he races off, that last Tuna sandwich he found was working.
The Drago Sands is still serving food, super relief, 30 mins to spare. Toby Willis and James Burrows are there too and we eat together. Toby is taking great photos as part of the organising crew, as well as riding and has some inside info on the days action so far. I check the tracker for the first time I need a good rest, that wind was draining, and I guess my pre race faux-pas was catching up on me. A few riders pass by while we eat, their loss, good late food up here is rare.
Heading South, expecting a tailwind but not really getting it, I enjoy the long evening light from being as far North as the West coast allows. I pull up behind a young German tourist towing a huge trailer. It is a complex form of welded tubes hugging a flight case like aluminium box, the lid of which is a large solar panel. How large, no exaggeration, the size of an average house door. The road rises and I drop down the gears and this guy in flipflops and a beanie hat is keeping pace with me, now that makes me feel tired. We chat, he is looking for a beach to sleep on, how I wish I was too, Strike 1 damn racing. I never even considered at the time he could have been on an E-bike.
This section was amazing flirting with the ends of two lochs, the sky glowed with amazing colours, I had no intention of missing out on this scenery in darkness and looked for a place to stop. The large campsite at Scourie at 11pm was deserted, I found James Burrows bedding down, they had showers and charge points, Bingo. 154 miles is nothing special for day 1, but after abusing my body on Friday and 14 hrs on the road it will do.
4:15am and I’m on the road, blimey this is serious. It’s pretty cold and when I pass a rider bivying in the roadside grass, I felt fortunate I was indoors. What followed was Scotlands West coast at its best, away from the main roads used on the NC500 route. From Unapool to Drumbeg, Lochinver hugging the coast on brutal short 10% drags, amazing rock scapes and views. The most scenic section of road I have ever ridden in the UK, and I had it all to myself. Photos not words do this justice, I feel sorry for the race heads who did this in the dark.
It became super hot, and after seven hours it is great to arrive at the Hostel race CP at Ullapool. It’s a lovely setting and time for a much needed sit down, cups of tea, and eat some food I have been carrying. A few riders are here and there’s talk of the event scratchers already. I walk down the seafront to stock up on food at a shop and outside in the sun a riders rear tyre explodes with a loud bang. He’s walking back to the hostel with the bike over his shoulder, tyre off the rim and a mess of latex sealant everywhere, oops.
I meet a bewildered and lost Jason Hayles heading out of Ullapool looking for the CP; bewildered, well he asked me if I was in the race, how quick they forget you these young-uns 😉
I know the next section well a long climb and then a fast drop to the coast on the Gairloch loop, before today the most stunning ride I had done in Scotland. Adding this on top of what had come this morning, without doubt the most scenic road ride ever in the UK. I start to catch a rider, now this is most unusual, it’s Belgian Bruno de Naeyer and he is walking the climb. Not the place for a broken rear mech, personally I would have stayed in Ullapool and fixed that.
I see a few other riders with bikepacks going the other way, this again is back on the NC500 route, but no other racers. My race is now to get to Applecross, there are reports of the weather turning really bad tomorrow and I had to make full use of today. At Shieldaig I start the Applecross loop, 20 miles the signs say, it takes forever, another stunning sheep track like road in and out of coves. the rain starts, the skies blacken.
I’m a battered wet wreck on arrival at Applecross at 10.45 pm, as a target I have phoned ahead to a hostel on the other side of the feared climb. The owner is happy to accept my ETA of after 12 pm, I do not want to do the climb in tomorrows downpour. Nick Underhill-Day and Jamie Burrows come out of a pub, they have found a camping pod here, they think I’m mad as I set off to climb the legendary Bealach na Ba climb.
One of the greatest if not hardest climbs in Britain, it would only take 14 ascents to Everest it, and I’m going to summit it at midnight in a rainstorm. At least it’s quiet, it is so narrow that meeting vehicles can get stuck, reversing up 20% is not easy. I am determined not to walk any of this but at the end of a long day I am missing the low gears of the Tripster triple. Even with a 33-40 I am grinding and straining all muscles, it breaks me several times. Strava tells me I took 1hr15 for those cruel 5 miles
Descending is hard, my cold hands are struggling, a worried Hostel owner phones me to check and provides valuable guidance by leaving his lights on, it’s bleak here. I drip into his almost normal looking house and get a quick tour while being asked not to shower, so I don’t wake the others there. Luckily there is a huge drying room and I find space among the bikes and gear of the sleeping Toby Willis, Bryn Williams and Lee Grieve.
I boil a kettle for endless teas and a strip wash to try and get warm. Bending over to take off my socks, on returning upright I am racked with pain like I’ve not felt before. There is a lump sticking out of my abdomen just below my ribs stretching the skin in a shiny dome, WTF, I ease it back into place. My core muscles had been overworked on that climb and it would appear might have caused some damage, Tom Boonen had made his first appearance. (shiny dome and often pops [out] on hard climbs) Slightly worrying.
It had been a rewarding but hard day, 194 miles in 20 hours with 16,000 ft climbed. I slept well, no alarm set, letting my body decide how to proceed.
Waking naturally it’s light, well as light as it gets when the sky is covered by a huge storm cloud dumping its load big style. A rider is just closing the door to leave, it is proper chucking it down. Full on, noisy bouncing back off the road horrible cold rain. Well I’m sure glad I got Bealach out of the way last night. Still on point I’m out the door at 7am with everything precious moved to the super 100% storm proof Lomo bag.
I know this next section well having done it on my longest one time session on a bike in the Highlands and Islands Audax. Funnily enough I got drenched that time too, also in July. The first few climbs it was apparent that Boonen was keen to pop out again, I would have to step off the gas up these. After only 2 1/2 hours I was wasting time searching in off route villages for somewhere to hide from this deluge. The Eilean Donan castle visitor centre came to the rescue, hiding under an arch before the cafe opened. Dripping wet hugging a bowl of soup and a coffee I had already had enough, a low moment, I decided that I would stop short today at Fort William and decide how to proceed. Booking that B and B relieved the bad mood even if the guilt of giving in remained. No rush now so it was a long stop here. I took a screenshot of the riders ahead I was letting escape, including Toby and Ryno. It was a real shame that I only saw that Fast Tony Clare had arrived on the way out, we had a brief chat.
The long drag up and over the busy A87 to Invergarry in the wet, buzzed by tourist campers is a low fun point of this route and let’s just forget the rest of this ride, wiped from memory. Sadly I take comfort in the golden arches of Fort Bill, it appears this is a common rider refuge from the gloom of today. Tony rides in later on and I bid him and the race farewell, retiring to my expensive B and B in town. Only 83 miles today, that’s the distance of a quitter. Well I get to lie in a warm bed, watch the Tour de France highlights and there is a great cooked breakfast to look forward too.
McD; The scene of Ryno throwing his wallet away with his tray of rubbish and Mally rumaging through a dumpster load of waste to try and find it, gaining enough stickers to have endless free coffees in the process
Day 4: I cannot believe I’m riding out of Fort William at 4 am missing what was billed by the landlord as his wife’s legendary home cooked breakfast. As compensation I stuffed my face and pockets with Jam sandwiches and set off in the dark on the flooded roads. The next coastal section has hardly any climbing and with almost 12 hrs rest I’m hoping Mr Boonen is settling down. I’m guessing the riders I saw yesterday are now long gone. Over the bridge at Ballachulish the route then drops down some steep steps; yes this is the right way. Moss covered steep steps carrying loaded bikes in cleated shoes, come on route team you are very lucky you didn’t break somebodies back. The dancing steps of doom.
The coastal views were good and once down past Oban I knew where the food stops would be, and also that 3G access would be limited. I had expected to ride all day yesterday and reach Glasgow and my first ferry was booked for this afternoon. Around Oban I have to stop and re-book that for tomorrow.
I catch and pass a rider on the flat coastal road, that’s rare for me and it doesn’t last long. It’s a new road buddy, Jon Stainsbury and he soon wakes up and rides off faster. After Oban we are reunited just as Tony appears, our trio share stories of the weather struggles. Still easing up on the climbs they ride off until we all stop for coffee and hot sandwiches from a village shop on the banks of Lochawe. Back solo again and on very familiar roads to Glasgow, at least the climb up to “rest and be thankful” is easier this way. A horse lorry coming the other way is beeping madly and waving, dot watching race fans on the road, always makes you smile.
100 miles comes up at Tarbet (naa more) and the breakfast at the cafe on the corner was superb, proper cycling portions, gallons of tea included. Just then there is a message from race HQ not to use the road as someone has been hit by a car. The cycle track beside loch lomond is great , why would you, oh yes race heads on. The views down the loch are great and it provides some good twisty fun at times.
I liked the cycle route from Balloch to Dumbarton following the river Levan and I know my way round the Erskine bridge, I’m guessing a few might have cursed it. There is a river bank side bike shop, very handy, just after it I catch with Spaniard Andre Rodrigo. He has been in there, his shifter is kaput, and he can’t believe how much they wanted to order a spare. I suggested he hit central Glasgow and severely lower his spec choice for a reasonably priced fix. On the steep ramp up to the bridge I hear his loud cursing scream from behind which scares every bird out of the trees like a gunshot, not a happy boy.
It’s 4pm and I’m on familiar ground around Glasgow airport, I stop at a subway I know and work out the options, I could make Stranraer in 10 hours for the first ferry tomorrow, but I’d be a broken man. There was a time I would have pushed on, but this place is awash with easy beds. I take my subway and go for another early bath. For the 2nd day running I watch the Tour in bed warm and well fed. Today there is no guilt, just no race head; 136 miles in 12 hours without busting a gut (literally) is being smart.
Seems I had passed Rhyno according to the tracker, he has the sense to carry on for the earlier ferry. Jason Hayles is also close by and on the ball, moving up the field well and joins him, learning fast
Back on the road at 00:06 so Day 5 begins. The rest of Glasgow is quiet and easy at this hour, the only views are the coastline lights through the mizzly rain I catch a blinking tail light at about 3 am, it’s Oliver Rubinstein, for a complete novice with a previous longest ride of 60 miles he’s doing pretty good. When he turns off because he has found a B n B that will still accept him turning up at 3 am; I’d say he was a magician.
In the dark I hear a metallic tinkle, now this is not unusual, running over rubbish in the road, but I’m not sure and stop. Going back my pump is in the road. It has fallen out from between my frame bag and top tube, where it has lived untroubled for years, lucky escape, glad I wasn’t listening to music.
Around dawn I need a sit down to rest my back and eat, the first two bus shelters are full of Celtic Clan slumberosi and their drying clothing. The next has Nick just awakening, it’s a three sided bench beauty, he sure found the 4 star option, I left him to it.
I catch Jamie up once again and once again I’m the shock that wakes a rider up and he powers off. Over a cattle grid I feel the rim hit metal on the rear tyre, relieved I still had a pump, it blew straight up.
Somewhere on this journey there was a hole in the sky, it’s the only explanation possible for just how much water hit me for about 20 minutes. Right on the most exposed high point of this area too. It was comical, when your spluttering to clear the water from your mouth and can’t see the road because it resembles a river, you know it’s pretty special.
It’s like it was meant to be, after Mally’s last little gravel reminder of Scotland, a pack forms; me and Jamie are joined by Tony and Jon, the four drenched rats of the apocalypse, as we roll in to the surprisingly busy ferry terminal together. Nick is not far behind us as we drip all over the floor, as more and more people cram in. It had taken me nine hours to cover the 103 miles from Glasgow and I only stopped for 26 mins.
On most ferry trips I do, you get on board and head for a quiet bar or rush to the cafe before the queues form. On this boat the bar was already packed and noisy, some were on their second pint. The clan decamped to the cafe for some peace, it didn’t last long, welcome to the good ship Rab C Nesbitt No kidding the rebellious songs start, the bar gets drunk dry and they start on the wine, at midday.
This was the first reminder that the next day would be disrupted in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Orangemen were on their way to the parades. The Orange Institution holds hundreds of parades throughout Northern Ireland every year. The biggest of these are usually on the twelfth of July (‘The Twelfth‘), in commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne.
Continued in Part 2 – Ireland.