Thursday, 10 March 2016

The West Highland Way by Mountain Bike

Some of you will know that I've completed the West Highland Way by mountain bike twice - once over 3 days back in my "not so fit" days and once in one day (16 hours riding, 17.5 hours total) as a challenge to raise money for the Beatson Cancer Charity.

My original report on the three day trip still gets a decent amount of interest over on TrailScotland and I did include a write-up of the one day ride on my blog a couple of years ago, but I thought it would be good to do a summary article with my advice all in one place.  There's been a bit of interest on a Facebook group recently and I think people still find my advice useful so here it all is in one place, regardless of how long you plan to take to do the trip.  I would highly recommend every mountain biker includes this on their "bucket list".  It's not just a great achievement to tick off, but who can resist a trail with views like this!


I'm planning to do this again this year, in order to smash my previous best time.  I will let you know when I confirm a date.  I'll be doing it for charity again so any contributions would be appreciated!  Watch this space!

The West Highland Way

The WHW is a 96 mile walking route, covering some beautiful rugged Scottish terrain, typically walked south to north from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William in the Highlands.  Some people walk it the other way though.  Most people walk it over 5, 6 or 7 days to take in the beautiful scenery and there is also a one day running race mid-summer where some amazing trail runners complete it in record times of less than 15 hours.


Over recent years, more and more mountain bikers have been enjoying this route too.  Given the wonderful access rights in Scotland, there is nothing to stop you doing this on a bike (as long as it's not motorised!).  It's a challenging route but well worth the effort for the amazing scenery, great trails and sense of achievement when you complete it.

Not only have I complete the full route twice (once over 3 days and once in 17.5 hours), I have also used most sections of it for other individual rides.  I know it pretty well and I've tried to summarise my advice below.  If you have any other questions, please post them in the comments below or pop them on my Facebook page.  This isn't intended to be a detailed step-by-step write-up, but I'll no doubt do another one when I complete the route again this summer!

If you want to read the detailed step-by-step write-ups, my original 3 day one is here (although my advice would be quite different from the list at the bottom of that article now) and my one day write-up is here.

Here's my advice if you're planning a WHW mountain bike trip:

Terrain and bike choice

I'm not going to get into a hard tail vs. full suspension debate, but the one thing I will stress about the WHW is that it's rough and rocky.  Even when you're not on singletrack, the old military roads and land rover tracks can be very rough.  Bear that in mind with your bike choice, along with these tips:
  • Go as light as possible.  There's a lot of climbing and there are sections of "hike a bike" where you'll have to carry your bike
  • I would recommend a full suspension bike due to the points above about the rough tracks and I also find a hard tail can be hard going on my back on such a route.  A full suss will also help reduce the risk of rear punctures against sharp rocks.  However, if you only have a hard tail, don't let that stop you - it just might be more comfortable and less puncture-prone on a full suss
  • Go for pretty chunky tyres but something that still rolls reasonably well on the rear.  My choice these days would be Bontrager XR3s, with perhaps an XR2 on the rear for lower rolling resistance.  Good puncture resistance for those sharp rocks will help
  • Consider going tubeless if you don't already have that set up on your bike.  If you're not tubeless, consider inflating your tyres a little higher than normal to reduce the risk of pinch-flat punctures, but not so high that you lose grip
  • Make sure you've given your bike a full service beforehand.  This will be hard going on components
  • Make sure you have fresh brake pads.  There's a lot of sandy gritty stuff on those trails that will eat away at your pads.
  • If you're on a 1x11 or 1x10 gearing set-up, I'd go with your smallest chainring due to some of the climbs.  You may spin out on occassion on some of the flatter sections but it won't hold you up too much.  Given you have to carry your bike for some sections, you don't want to unnecessarily add more carrying because your chainring is too large and you can't get up steep climbs
  • If it's wet, fit a mudguard.  Some sections can be full of puddles and it'll prevent you having a wet rear end!  If it's been dry for a few days you'll be fine though, or you can just put up with getting wet!
  • If carrying your bike for more than a few minutes hurts your shoulder, consider putting some foam on the top tube - it doesn't add much weight and it'll save you hurting your shoulder
  • If you use both flat and SPD pedals, I'd go with the SPDs.  Although you have to get off at times to carry the bike or to go through gates, SPDs will help you on the steeper climbs and provide security on some of the rough descents
One final point on terrain - the infamous hike-a-bike section between Inversnaid and Inverarnan at the top of Loch Lomond is tough . . . but it's not the hell some people make it out to be.  You don't have to carry your bike the whole time - there are rideable sections.  I'm about to come onto direction choice, but this section is easier going north to south if you carry your bike on your right shoulder like I do.  If you carry it on your left shoulder, the other direction is easier.

Direction

It's a simple choice and here are my reasons for each:

South to North, Milngavie to Fort William:
  • It's the traditional way the route was intended to be walked
  • You're gradually moving further away from the city and more into the hills, so that has a nice feel to it
  • I personally prefer the Devil's Staircase in this direction
  • You can get the hike-a-bike Inversnaid section over and done with earlier
  • I hate the climb out of Kinlochleven in this direction - it's much better as a descent in the other direction
  • Rannoch Moor is a bit of a drag in this direction
  • There's more climbing in this direction
North to South, Fort William to Milngavie:
  • You'll be facing most walkers, since most tend to walk South to North, and so they'll see you coming and give them more time to get out of your way (but remember to always give them room and stop if you have to - they have priority over you)
  • You feel like you're "coming home" rather than getting away from it.  When trying to do a fast one day time, I like this.  I live in Glasgow so it feels like I'm racing to get home!
  • The Kinlochleven descent is great fun (but horrible as a climb - see above!)
  • Rannoch Moor is easier and faster
  • There's less climbing in this direction
Duration

3 days:
  • The way most people do it by bike
  • Gives you time to stop for lunch, take photos, enjoy the scenery
  • If you're going south to north, I'd recommend getting to Inverarnan to get the hike-a-bike Inversnaid section out of the way on the first day.  It's a long first day but good to have it over with
  • For your second night, I'd recommend aiming for Glencoe/King's House
  • An alternative would be getting to Inversnaid on the first night, doing the hike-a-bike section early on your second day and spending your second night at Tyndrum or Bridge of Orchy.  The remainder is still achievable on your last day
  • If you're going south to north, book yourself somewhere nice in Fort William for when you arrive - you deserve it!
  • If going north to south, I'd recommend the same two alternatives for overnight stays above
  • I personally would much rather stay in hotels or B&Bs than camp - it keeps the weight down for what you have to carry and it's nice to have a real bed after a full day on the bike.
  • But if you do choose to camp, it gives you the freedom to stop where you like
2 days:
  • Regardless of direction, your most likely stopover points are Tyndrum, Crianlarich or Inverarnan.  They are all achievable for a one day ride in either direction if you have the fitness
  • This is a nice compromise between the slower approach of 3 days and the all-out effort of a one day trip.  You'll still have time for photos and to admire the scenery, but do expect to be on the bike for up to 12 hours each day depending on your fitness level
1 day:
  • For the fittest among you and an amazing achievement - if you think you've got the fitness, go for it!
  • Two options - supported or unsupported.  I did it unsupported the time I completed it in 17.5 hours.  I carried a fair amount in my backpack but there are plenty of shops and pubs where you can fill up on water or food
  • If you want to have a go at the record (12 hours), you'll probably need to do it supported, so you can carry less and have someone meet you every now and again to re-stock food and fluids for you
Time of year

Clearly the best time of year to do this is in the middle of the summer when the days are longer, giving you more daylight.  I'd still recommend taking a light just in case you get caught out in the dark though.  Here are a few other considerations:

  • April/May is lambing season and there is sometimes a diversion round Conic Hill.  This means you won't technically have completed the official full route.
  • The Saturday/Sunday closest to the summer solstice (21st June).  This is when the WHW running race is held.  Avoid it - you'll just have to stop all the time for runners and you'll not give mountain bikers a very good reputation if you get in their way when they're trying to get a new PB or break the record.
  • Spring/Summer is worst for midges - beware!
  • Winter - it's possible, but check the forecast and make sure you know what you're doing as there can be snow and ice in many sections.  If you get the right weather, it could be amazing . . . and free of midges!
Navigation

The West Highland Way is way-marked over its complete length.  If you've gone a while without seeing one of its famous thistle markers then you may be off the track.  However, it's pretty difficult to get lost.

Despite that, I would highly recommend you study the route in advance and have maps with you if it's your first time.  The following OS Landranger maps will cover the whole route:  64, 57, 56, 50 and 41.  Rather than carrying that many individual maps, you could buy one of the many dedicated WHW books, many of which have smaller pull-out maps.

Then there's GPS.  If you have a dedicated GPS device, like a Garmin Edge with OS maps, then you could use that.  But don't rely solely on it as batteries can run out.  The same goes for your phone, and it's best to keep a phone switched off to save the battery until you need it, especially if you're on your own.

What to carry - kit list

If you're doing a supported one day attempt then clearly you won't have to carry as much as this, but please still be sensible - you could injure yourself in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal so ensure you still carry the essentials.

If you are doing a multi-day trip, you can obviously consider a change of clothes and more bike spares, toiletries, and so on.  If doing so, for your own sanity and enjoyment, I highly recommend a service like Travel-Lite.  It's not too expensive if you're only doing 2 or 3 days and remember this isn't about proving you can carry a heavy backpack with you!  Enjoy it and just take a day pack!  These guys will drop your large bag off at each overnight stop and pick it up again.  This means you can take more clothing, food supplies for each day and even some basic bike cleaning stuff and lube to ensure your bike stays in working order.

With all the great bike luggage solutions these days, if you're camping or do decide to carry 3 days worth of kit, I'd recommend using Alpkit or Apidura packs rather than panniers.  Remember you're going to have to push or carry your bike at points so you don't want even more weight.  I also can't begin to imagine panniers and the Inversnaid hike-a-bike section!

So, assuming you've taken care of all that, here's what I'd carry in a rucksack for the day:
  1. Water (either in a reservoir in the backpack or in a bottle on the bike) - there are plenty of places you can fill up.  Ensure you have enough for a few hours though.  Consider using an electrolyte drink or a carbohydrate drink (the latter may be easier to consume than solid food but do mix it up with solids too)
  2. Food - for a ride like this I'd recommend a mix of "real" natural food and energy bars/etc.  There are shops along the way but don't rely on them - make sure you have enough for the full day.  I'd recommend including a few "emergency" energy gels or jelly babies for those moments when you need an extra boost!
  3. First aid kit
  4. Phone, plus spare battery if it takes one
  5. GPS device and/or maps
  6. Spare base layer
  7. Hat or buff to keep your head warm if it gets cold
  8. Spare gloves
  9. Packable waterproof/windproof jacket (even if it's sunny!  You never know, and it'll keep you warm on descents if you ride late into the evening and it cools down)
  10. Multi-tool
  11. Chain breaker, quick link and/or chain pins
  12. Tyre levers
  13. Pump (and CO2 cannisters if you use them - but have a normal pump too)
  14. Spare tubes - minimum of 2
  15. Tube patches
  16. Tyre boot
  17. Cable ties
  18. Spare brake pads
  19. Spare rear derailleur hanger
  20. Midge repellent
  21. Sun cream
  22. Midge net (your saviour if you have to stop to repair a puncture and the midges descend!)
  23. Whistle
  24. Good quality bike light fully charged and with spare batteries (a light you could actually ride with at night - just in case you are delayed and stuck out in the dark unexpectedly)
  25. An emergency shelter like this (Optional, but can be life saving if something goes wrong)
  26. Camera or smart phone (optional, but if you are not trying to set any records, stop and take some photos!  Those views are worth capturing!)
Where to stay (if multi-day)

I have no affiliation to any specific accommodation, but my personal recommendations for a 3 day south to north trip would be:

First night, Inverarnan:  The Drovers Inn or Beinglass Farm Campsite (the latter has B&B, self catering lodges and camping options)
Second night, Glencoe:  King's House Hotel or Glencoe "hobbit huts"
Third night, after arriving in Fort William:  There are so many accommodation options in Fort William there's no point in me listing what Google can find for you.  However, I believe you deserve a treat after completing the WHW so I'd highly recommend The Lime Tree.  It is one of my favourite hotels (in the world, not just Scotland!) and the food in the restaurant is amazing!

All of the above have somewhere secure you can leave your bike and Travel-Lite can deliver your bags to them.  I stayed in the Drovers, King's House Hotel and the Lime Tree when I did the three day trip.

Make sure you book well in advance, especially for the summer months.  Given there are not too many accommodation options at Inverarnan or Glencoe, these can become fully booked quickly with all the WHW walkers.

The return trip

If you've cycled south to north, and don't plan on turning around to do the WHW "double", then consider returning using the train to Glasgow.  It's an absolutely stunning train ride through some amazing scenery and you can stare out the window reminiscing about the highs and lows of your WHW mountain biking achievement!

If you're going north to south and don't have someone to drop you off in Fort William, I'd again recommend the train ride to get there.

Summary and some random hints and tips


I appreciate this is still a pretty long article but rather than wade through my original full step-by-step (or should that be pedal-by-pedal?) write-ups, I hope this has provided a "one stop shop" of advice for mountain biking the West Highland Way.  To finish, here are my key bits of advice and some other random tips:
  • You’ll enjoy it more on a full suss, especially some of the descents like Kinlochleven
  • You will go through brake pads if the weather is bad, so carry spares
  • Fit a rear mudguard if it's wet
  • Consider taking padding to put on your bike for carrying it north of Inversnaid, or just deal with the bruises on your shoulder!
  • You will have to push your bike more than you think
  • But, the Inversnaid section is not as bad as some people make out
  • If you are not confident bunny hopping the drainage channels on many sections, don't risk it - you could damage a rim if you miss-time your landing and that'll be your trip ruined
  • Don’t just ride – stop to enjoy the scenery . . . it’s stunning! Take a camera if it's not too heavy
  • If you're doing it over multiple days, stay in hotels / B&Bs . . . I love camping but couldn’t face it after a day on the bike like that
  • If doing it over 3 days northwards, do the Inversnaid section on the first day to get it over and done with
  • If doing it in one go, do it southwards
  • If you’re doing it on your own, 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

19 comments:

  1. Great read Derek and lots of valuable tips. I've walked it several times - may consider having a go on the bike having read your advice. Thanks for posting.

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  2. Great read Derek and lots of valuable tips. I've walked it several times - may consider having a go on the bike having read your advice. Thanks for posting.

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  3. You're very welcome. Glad you found the blog helpful

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  4. Good read! Thinking about doing it next week weather forecast looks good but unsure if snow on the route, south to north 2days was the plan stay around tynedrum bridge of orchy

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