889 km / 555 miles
58 participants of which 26 women
Ledmore traverse because of its huge variety of terrain, hiking the lakeside, some technical parts, some route finding, bogs, and the views of course.
Only one flat tyre (with the worst timing possible)
hardly any and they didn't bother me that much.
The start of the 2023 Highland Trail 550
Finally its D-day. We are Saturday the 28th of May and we are all lined up for the grand depart in Tyndrum next to the cemetery. After a short briefing from Alan, the startshot blasts and we wave goodbye to a fair amount of supporters who were cheering for us.
Angus Young and Christophe Dijkmans took off very fast, but I took the time to get the engine going and have a chat here and there with some other racers. After a solid 8-9 hours I catch up with them in Fort Augustus from where we share the trail for a few miles. The first 270km were rather fast, a lot faster than what was still to come. No hike-a-bikes yet, just pretty straight forward cruising with a few slightly challenging sections. After around 100km I had a good crash on what probably was the smoothest gravel section en route. My front wheel got stuck in a dried gulley and I hit the ground at around 35km/h. After a few tumbles I found myself landing in some bushes. My GPS-mount partially broke and for some reason I had a second Garmin mount already installed on the bars... almost like I knew this would happen... kind of scary actually! A good amount of road rash, but the bike was OK. It took me only a few minutes to get going again. I was lucky.
The weather was pretty great for Scottish terms, just lots of wind...basically like riding at home on Belgian ground but the surroundings where far more stunning off course.
A romantic campspot
Late in the first evening, I found myself leap-frogging every now and then with Alex and Angus who decided to call it a day a bit sooner than me. I was hoping for a cabin/shelter to actually be there, all I knew about this waypoint on my gps was that there was a dispersed cabin, hundred meters away from the track. Two cabins appeared. The first one had no windows in it and when lighting inside there were about a hundred sheep staring at me, not welcome here, so I checked the second cabin which had a wooden floor, a fireplace and some freeze dried meals left by hikers. Pretty romantic to my opinion. A few efficient minutes later I jumped in my sleeping bag, noticing a light outside, Christophe apparently had done his homework just as good as I did so we ended up sharing the place.
Resupply at the Drumbeg stores
After a bit more than 3 hours of sleep, I felt pretty good, legs were fine and I was ready to face what this race was about and so I started riding towards the Northern loop.
This is where the speed drops pretty dramatically compared to day one, but I felt like my pace remained pretty consistent overall, keeping my second position.
The first challenge was the Bealach Horn, a remote place that definitely characterises the HT550. The first sections with a fair amount of hike-a-bike and a relatively technical and slow downhill section. Pretty muddy and many times it was hard to tell if a puddle was a footsole deep or big enough to swallow your entire frontwheel and send you over the bars. A bit of focus was defintely required here but I liked it a lot in the end. Every now and then I noticed Angus Young in the far distance, good motivation to push the pedals just a tiny bit harder.
For those on a fast pace there were no resupplies from Fort Augustus until Drumbeg-stores on route which made me go through about 3/4 of my +-40 hours of food stash.
With still a good amount of gels and bars leftover I arrived at a very well known store, whose owners are nothing short than fabulous. They follow the race, keep open late if they know some riders are close and even open the shop when a rider in need knocks on their door outside of the opening-hours. Fair enough to call them trail-angels?
I stuffed my face with a big amount of yoghurt here, ice cream and some fruits while Angus was working down a 1,5 litre bottle of coke.
Filled up with Sandwiches and as much real food I could get my hands on and back to going Southbound.
Lochinver and the Ledmore Traverse
In the next town, Lochinver, I took the time to get my hands on a pizza before hitting the next remote section called the Ledmore traverse of which I heard many stories of very slow progress.
As the weather was fine I ended up making good progress anyhow. Temperatures dropped to 2° so I layered up to hit the second night.
I arrived somewhere well past midnight in Ullapool, one of the bigger towns the race passes by, everything was dead here so no resupplies to be found other than a water refill and a hose to quickly rinse the mud from my bike. I started looking for a bivy spot fairly desperately and ended up at the beginning of the so called "coffin road".
Just before I passed Angus as he was sleeping right next to the trail.
Once in my sleeping bag I thought to myself, why the hell didn't I just got myself inside a warm and comfy public toilet, instead of this wide open place under a cold clear sky? I guess because it's Scotland and this rarely happens, so better take the 1000-star option nonetheless.
Slow Progress in the Highlands
As I just got to sleep, I heard Angus sneaking past me again, he must have had a really short nap but I couldn't care less so I went for a little less than two hours of sleep. The steep climb straight-out-of-bed rewarded me with magnificent views on the mountains. It felt remote and that's where I love to be. As the day passed by, in the late afternoon I started shivering once I was out of the sun where it was a bit more chilly. I started worrying a bit if I was getting sick, I was also coughing up some nasty stuff from my lungs so I considered an early stop, after a few calls it seemed there was no place available to stay inside so I just kept going. I had no power in the legs for the biggest part of the day but I guess I wasn't alone so I just tried to make progress, being it on a lower pace than what I would have liked. When sunset arrived I found myself at the base of a big hike-section. As the temperature slightly dropped, my energy level got way better again, the sunset was beautiful and after a few hours of pushing the bike and riding where possible, I got to the Glenn Affric summit. I quickly made my way down a really nice flowy descent in the dark towards the first bothy where I had a nice and efficient 1,5 hour sleep. I wonder what the hikers in there must have thought.
The battle with Angus Young
The first few hours the terrain was pretty forgiving on me and I saw one of the best sunrises ever. What a scenery!! Energy boost, check. Ready for the last day racing, and from here with Angus being only several miles ahead, the race was on. in the early afternoon I think he had a 6 mile gap on me with only 60km to go. I was honestly doubting if I wanted to take the shot and go all in to catch up with him. With all this in the legs I was doubting myself if I had it left in me. I decided to at least give it a try and I got closer and closer until hikers started telling me "your friend is just ahead". There was no single other cyclist in these hiking trails so I knew I was getting close to Angus. At the angels chair case I saw Angus carrying his bike so he was only a few minutes ahead so from here it was all or nothing. Afterwards he told me he even waved at me from the summit. However, the last 30km were brutal and no angels to be found from here on, mostly because of the heat. On the other side it was very motivating and easy to find focus in this last part of the race. Both of us were sending it down these techy trails way harder than what should be done on a loaded hardtail but it was so much fun and I felt confident I was gaining time here, this is where I had to make the difference.
Eleven kilometers from the finish, I finally got to 50 meters behind Angus, I finally caught up with him him. I was stoked to go all in that last part and push out every single bit that was left, if there was any at all...adrenaline would get me there and I was determined to get to the finish line first. I almost felt like I took the win already until my bike felt a bit strange, where seconds later, I noticed I had a flat tyre that needed to be plugged. I knew straight away that it was over... F!# NO!!* It took me only a few minutes to plug the tyre but pumping took me a bit as the tyre was totally flat. I was getting totally blasted by the sun as it showed 36° on my Garmin at this point.
I knew the game was over so I walked down 300 meters to pump my tire in the shadow. Once i found some shade, I noticed I lost my pump valve somewhere on that small part I walked. It took me a bloody hour to find this as I wasn't going to walk this last 10km to the finish line, NO WAY. Yet I managed to find this needle in a haystack, pumped the cursed thing and ride to the finish line finding Angus and several other scratched riders waiting for me. Even though I was gutted at first, I was happy to be finished, still a few hours under the previous record. 3 days, 7 hours and 59 minutes. A beautiful trail, great conditions and a massive amount of fun on these technical trails. Congrats and thanks once again Angus Young for the hard batlle, Chris Dijkmans for claiming the third place and hats off to everyone else who even considered being a part of this years edition.