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Pedalling the West Highland Way

Pedalling the West Highland Way

Postby Beam » Fri Jul 03, 2015 10:11 am

Route description: West Highland Way

Date walked: 02/09/2013

Time taken: 3 days

Distance: 160 km

Ascent: 4400m

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And we made it! Over 4,400 metres climbed and more than £2,500 raised. I can say, hand on heart, that the last three days have been the most physically demanding days of my life. Neither of us were really prepared for what was ahead of us. We expected it to be hard, we knew about those dreaded carrying sections, but actually, it was a lot tougher than that. We weren’t fit enough for the hills so there was a lot more pushing sections than maybe there should have been. I realised I had worked all the wrong muscles too. Someone should have warned me that actually walking up a few mountains beforehand would have been a good idea. Even better, push the bike up a few mountains as the angle you walk uphill when pushing is slightly different and my legs did not appreciate it one little bit. Neither did my arms, shoulders and neck. But hey, no pain no gain!

There were some very tough moments and both of us hit a couple of walls, but now that I look back on it, it was actually quite enjoyable. The weather was on our side and we didn't encounter a single drop of rain. Only on the third day was it a little cold, but had we actually been pedalling a little faster I’m sure we wouldn’t have noticed it. The scenery was amazing. I have driven up the Glencoe Pass before but never have I had the chance to go so slowly allowing me to take it all in. Unfortunately the photos don’t do the trip justice as once we were going we didn’t want to stop (and everything that would make a nice photo always happened to appear when we were going downhill and there was no way we were stopping once we had finally got going!).

The riding as well was good. The ups were tough and the legs are still suffering but actually, we were both put out of our comfort zones by riding terrain we would have avoided had we not been so desperate to get to our hotel. A lot of the descents were very technical with very big drops (some of them surprise drops), big rock gardens and very loose big rocks. I’m definitely glad I did some training beforehand as otherwise I would have undoubtedly fallen and hurt myself. As it happens we made it with only one fall (more of a slip off) and no blood (just lots of bruises!). There were no tears either, just lots and lots of sweat.

Below is an account of our 3 days written at the end of each day.

Day 1

Ready to go!

After lots of issues with our bikes and very last minute repairs (falling off on Sunday was not the best idea) we finally made it to Milngavie at 9 o'clock last night ready for a very hearty 3 course meal (including chocolate brownies).

After a good nights’ sleep Doug's pessimism seemed to have evaporated and we were both in high spirits for the start of the ride. And the sun was actually shining! :-)

This is alright... nice and flat :-)

The first 20 miles weren't too bad. Mainly undulating ground through fields and forests. The only annoying factor were the gates. Every time we got going we had to get off to open a gate. I’m not talking of just a couple, they were everywhere! Despite the gates we made good time and once we were past Drymen and on the top of a mountain (15 miles in) we stopped for a quick bite to eat whilst taking in the views of Loch Lomond in the distance. We were being lured into a false sense of security that this ride might actually be enjoyable.

Enjoying our first break

The next section saw us climbing Conic Hill. The whole way up was littered with steep steps so we had no choice but to carry and push our bikes. We even had to get off the path as there were some very lazy West Highland cows having a snooze. Once we got to the top we were rewarded with a lovely view and our first treat of the trip: the descent back down! A little scary at times as I've never ridden drops that big before on such loose slippery ground but oh ny was it fun! Once we were at the bottom (both unscathed) we were grinning ear to ear.


On our way down

2 hours after starting we made it to Balhama (20 miles). Both very pleased with our progress we took a 5 minute break to refuel before heading on up to Rowerdennan knowing that the hard bit was now to come (how bad could it be though?).

Doug enjoying a 5 minute snooze

After a very sharp climb (pushing) we had a lovely descent which again tested our skills by adding drainage channels which we needed to jump. Doug didn’t quite make it over though and got a puncture. Luckily we were right by the beach on the shores of Loch Lomond. He couldn’t really have timed it any better. I will never say no to a chance of sun bathing.

Not a bad spot to change a tyre

From here on we were gradually spending more and more time off our bikes (and this wasn't even the tough bit) due to drainage channels that were too big too jump, rock gardens neither of us could master, steps or simply too technical and steep a climbs. All the time we had made up in the morning was swiftly lost with it taking us nearly 3 hours to complete 7 miles!

Our skill level wasn't enough to get us over these!

We finally arrived at Rowardennan with 14 miles of even tougher terrain still to go. Both drained, tired and ready to give up we took a longer break to pack some energy into our bodies in the hope of getting us through the next 14 miles. We couldn’t take as long as we had just taken if we wanted to get to the hotel before midnight!

The next 5 hours (14 miles) were hell. I don’t think we spoke a single word. We just ploughed on, scrambled over boulders, overtook walkers, got overtaken by walkers, pushed, carried, got on, got off. It is all a blur of never ending pain. Every muscle in my body was screaming at me to stop.

A bit of an arm workout

I was so glad to see our B&B loom in the distance. 10 hours on the go to cover 41 miles of the most challenging physical activity I have ever done. We were both really looking forward to a nice, shower food and bed.

Two burgers consumed and time for bed.

Our bed & breakfast

Day 2

After a great night's sleep, we woke up to a nice sunny day (despite the weather forecast being for rain) and very achy muscles. We had a nice hearty breakfast and made our way back to the campsite to collect our bikes.

Getting back on the bikes was not nice. We had both underestimated how painful it was going to be. Even with the best padded shorts the shape of the saddle was still imbedded on our bottoms! And our legs just didn't want to work. Even the slightest hill on the lightest gear was hard work.

The path was nice enough, an undulating old army road that took us right out into the wilderness. The scenery today was truly breath taking which was the one positive as it kept our minds off the pain in our legs (and gave us plenty of excuses to stop for photographs!).


Not long after, starting we came across our first lot of steps. Luckily, we only came across two of these all day! An improvement on yesterday!

After about 3 miles the lane went from a nice level wide path to a very rocky path. Nothing we couldn't ride over normally but really taxing on our legs so despite the path not necessarily going uphill ,we decided to walk instead as this wasn't hard at all (plus my bum could not take the bumpiness). This went on for another 3 miles or so meaning that our progress was very slow. This wasn't helped by our stopping to talk to calves, cows and bulls along the way. We met a particularly friendly bull that allowed us to touch him (there was a fence between us).

My new friend

Once we finally made it to the Crianlarich turn off (6 miles) the hills started! More pushing! When we made it to the top of the hill we took our chance to have our first bite to eat. The break was short though as the midges thought it would be a good chance for them to snack too!

The next few miles consisted of some very steep climbs and some very fun steep descents! Luckily these put a smile back on our faces.

From here we were back to undulating farm tracks and despite feeling drained these weren't too tiring. Once we got to the spot marking 9 miles to go we celebrated by stopping for lunch by the river. Rather than sitting on the nice bench on the track Doug decided it would be much nicer to sit right by the river so in an attempt to find a rock big enough for us to sit on Doug decided it would be good a idea to cross the stream leading into the river. Not quite as shallow as it initially looked we both ended up with very soggy feet! Me more so as I didn't make it across and ended up having to put my foot down!


Re-energised and with sloshing feet we set off on a mix of fire roads and single tracks both feeling positive at the thought that we were no longer that far from our hotel.

You can imagine our shock when after two miles we realised we had it all wrong! We were now at 9 miles from home! Spirits low we continued to pedal up the fire track away from Tyndrum. After a 20 minute slog we finally made it to a nice undulating section taking us right across the moors. Despite the head wind we made good progress whilst taking in the amazingly blue skies and beautiful views.


Of course, it was not to last and soon we were back off our bikes and pushing over rocky terrain. Finally we started to drop down the hillside an after a longer break (morale was getting low). We set off on what can only be described as a heavenly descent. Nothing too complicated, just a sit (stand) and allow the bike to do all the work for you type of ride. This went on for a good few miles with any pedalling sections being relatively flat. It wasn't long until we reached Bridge of Orchy.

With only two miles to go we pushed our bikes up a mile of mountain ready for the final descent to our hotel. We tried our energy gels for the first time this trip and they seemed to work giving us that final push of energy we needed. Amazingly, they also stopped the pain! The walk up wasn't that bad and again, the views allowed us to day dream whilst doing so.


At last our hotel loomed in the distance. All we had to do now was navigate down the very loose rock path. A really fun descent. The only problem was that the scenery was so good I kept forgetting to look where I was going as I stared at the lake instead!

Despite it feeling like a never ending day (more so that Day 1) we were actually back at the hotel by 4 o’clock so plenty of time to relax ready for the final 33 miles tomorrow.

Day 3

After a terrible night's sleep and with a pulled thigh muscle we set off a little earlier today to try and beat the weather heading north.

The first 10 miles weren't too bad. A cool (as in cold) ride through Rachnoor Moor. Absolutely stunning and completely in the middle of nowhere. Luckily the weather was on our side as we would have been really exposed had it been raining or overly windy. Most of that stretch was rideable too which meant we made very good time to our ten mile marker: Kings House.


The rocky descent from the moors to Kings House was very cold so we stopped for a quick hot chocolate.


The next section took us from Kings House over a massive mountain (think proper mountain path with huge bolders and steps!) to Kinlochleven. Although only 9 miles this took forever. The climb up was very steep and particularly hard with the bikes. The going down was no better. We tried riding down but ended up having to stop every 100 yards to go over the large drainage channels. The decent was also a little too tricky for both our skill levels especially considering how tired we were. Unfortunately, the path didn't go straight down either, it kept insisting on climbing back up again so we were very relieved when we finally hit a gravel drive that took us down to Kinlochleven. The drive was so steep though that we had to stop a couple of times to let our brakes cool down!


We had another hot chocolate in the village before setting off on the last leg, 16 miles of army roads to Fort William. The guide described this as easy. They lied! It started off with another extremely steep climb before undulating its way through the mountain. The problem was that the path was made of massive loose rocks so the bikes sank into them making pedalling increasingly harder. Of course, this resulted in us pushing much more than we wanted to.


When 4 pm came and we realised we still potentially had over 10 miles to cycle (and the bad weather was hot on our heels) we decided to kick on regardless. Luckily it started to go downhill more than it did up and we just ploughed through the deep rocks bouncing and wobbling from one side to the other. Not a comfortable ride. I’m surprised our bikes are still in one piece with the amount of vibration that was coming off the rocks.

We finally reached the 7 mile marker that saw us climbing once again! Not far though and then it was single track and fire roads all the way down to the road. I have never been so pleased to see Ben Nevis. It meant we were nearly there!! The last mile or so was on the road straight into the centre of town where we got our mandatory photos at both the old and new West Highland Way finish.

Ben Nevis finally in sight

I can not describe the relief of finally reaching Fort William. I can safely say that was probably the hardest physical and mental challenge I have ever done. We both hit those famous walls marathon runners talk about and had no choice but to keep going.

Done at last!

They should have a sore bum statue too!

We definitely should have prepared more as had we been fitter we would have been able to ride a lot more of the sections. But hey, it was always meant to be a challenge, and that it was! Would I ride it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it definitely!
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Re: Pedalling the West Highland Way

Postby bigcalm » Wed Apr 27, 2016 9:49 pm

I feel your pain guys. i've done tour de loch lomond and section from inversnaid yp to ardleish was a torture indeed. no wonder why on strava it is called "hike a bike" :)
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Re: Pedalling the West Highland Way

Postby Guinessman » Fri Apr 29, 2016 4:30 pm

Well done. Having done a few recent bike and hikes in the Highlands I can appreciate your efforts. The tracks are rough and progress can be slow. I was only spending a max of 1hr 30 mins in the saddle as I cycled in, so 3 full days is a great effort :clap:
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