Winter Training: 4 days to The Highlands, both difficult & beautiful.

These four days have taught me a lot. As I suppose any true adventure or ‘journey into the unknown’ will.  Isn’t that why we do it?

Oo er...

After my trip from the Arctic last year, myself & others may have ignorantly thought ‘pah, cycling in Scotland will be fine’! But these few days have given me some of the most difficult moments I have faced on a bike. And it didn’t even rain or snow. Thank God.

The plan:

Booked on a winter climbing trip to Inveralligin, near Torridon for the week, but realising I need to kick the cycle training up fast & big style, I thought what better way than to cycle there.

Turns out the Highlands are quite far away

Day 1
Wirral to Penrith, via Kirkstone Pass (never done it before, so thought I’d treat myself)
147 miles
2,250m ascent

Day 2
Penrith to Glasgow
118 miles
1,515m ascent

Day 3
Glasgow to Fort William
130 miles
Ascent, unknown but hilly!

Day 4
Fort William to Inveralligin
120 miles

What a road.

Obligatory border shot

What actually happened:

As Sod always likes to be thoroughly consistent with his laws, this ensured a northerly wind the entire way. Yes, I was going north, in some very exposed areas. Good training though, eh?
Once I was headed up through Lancashire, via Morecombe Bay & into the Lakes, day 1 was absolutely incredible. The tough invisible barrier pushing against me was often outweighed by the elegant calm & commanding serenity of the open landscapes & mountain vistas. Oh, & the sun was kindly donning me with bright light (thank you!). A shame that once surrounded by Lakeland beauty, darkness had well & truly taken over. 

Morecambe Bay, you beaut!

The finale, if you don’t mind me going all hippy on you now, was very special. I was ascending the Kirkstone in pitch black, but clear skies, peppered with milky-white stars; the beaming full moon to my right was hovering above a dark ridgeline, all as I continued to slowly climb towards a wall of white mountains. Utterly magical. 

Strange, no one else was around

Its days like these, moments like these, that inspire me & remind me why I ride. Of course over the pass, the crazed rampant beast was free to get at me – we’re talking riding 7mph fastest at times, down a 20% slope…
Thanks to the White Lion Inn at Patterdale for some water, & a nice chat after that. Then mission to Penrith was accomplished.

Definitely getting colder, hello Scotland

What came next was a real battle. The M74 motorway passes cross-border to Glasgow, with an associated cycle route following it. Day two took me along here after a late start (minor bike repair needed): a miserable road to which I am already familiar with. Once nighttime arrived, I found myself constantly climbing uphill, to a point barely noticeable except that you can’t push faster than 10mph. The wind, whilst weaker, was still head on, & the temperature dropped to -3 degrees. The psychological battle was unreal, I would have to face 80 miles of this section, mostly in the dark, on a single road with nothing to look at or do, except to keep your head down & try to just keep at it, for hours & hours, very very slowly. 
This was tough, so tough. I realised the difference that sights to see & upbeat music can make.

If only there were views like this from every road...


20 miles outside Glasgow, finally reunited with towns & other signs of civilisation (also a bit of downhill: I could have cried with joy), I seized a valuable water-refill opportunity. The two women at the service station stared at me with combined horror & suspicion. They told me I couldn’t make it to Glasgow that night, inflated the distance it was away (almost with condescending joy), & told me to stay at a nearby campsite. I smilingly brushed off the distance & walked back out into the cold. Then I shockingly made it to Glasgow, with the help of some amazing cheesy tunes!

A good athlete listens to their body

Waking at 3am to predictably stiff legs, as I hobbled to the bathroom I received jolts of pain in my left knee. Oh dear. Perhaps this trip was a little too much, too soon? Clearly, a destructive attitude of ‘just do it anyway’ was not going to benefit any new niggle, or my training for after this week. So I calmly, albeit a bit disheartened, rejiggled my plan. I got a train to Oban on the west coast, then cycled the remaining 44 miles ‘steadily’ to Fort William, testing the knee out. Arriving there early I could get enough sleep, & hope that I would be physically ok for a final big day.

Ahh, Scotland you bonnie bonnie place

Just a sunny Sunday in Scotland

On day four I was blessed again: the skies were so brilliantly bright, that they exposed the finest detail of the range of peaks I cycled past; most of them seemingly coated in dense icing sugar. 

Wow. The spectacular scenery begun past Glen Garry, then along Loch Cluanie & down Glen Shiel. Here I had a nice chinwag & kindly a water top-up from the lovely Biz & Paul. 

Even more perfect was how my knee was seemingly much better, & how much stronger I was physically. Right decision the previous day.
I’d never seen the Isle of Skye before(!), so after a treating myself to riding along Skye Bridge, I headed on for the last 1/3 of the ride, informing my climbing buddies of my expected arrival time. 

Skye bridge

Once again I was soon shrouded in darkness & things got colder, with ice appearing on the single track Highland roads.

Re-route & unfortunate extension…

Last minute to avoid a likely more remote & icy/dangerous road, I decided to follow a larger, if slightly longer A road to my destination. Similarly to the M74 route, the 18 mile road to Achnasheen in the dark, & without knowing the hill profile in advance/on my satnav, was a total mental grind. It seemed to constantly climb, gradually, getting colder & me getting slower. A man waited outside a van for me to come by & shouted something after me, I wasn’t about to stop to ask what he wanted.
Finally after that tough drudgery, I started pushing, depleting my last water supplies & my light signalling low battery, but knowing I was so close. I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to ‘Torridon’ on my satnav… it seemed the google maps cycling mileage that I had briefly chosen to go with earlier was incorrect, or I had misunderstood. This left me 15 miles out, at least.

Sunset over Isle of Skye

What a serene view

It’s a bit of a knock, to have given it all you have, to find you’re still at least an hour away, & in need of water. Luckily however, I was 10 miles away from Kinlochewe where I knew there was a hotel, & thankfully it was open, so I re-filled. My phone was malfunctioning, likely due to the moist -4 degree environment, so I couldn’t contact anyone. As I rushingly left to ride 10 miles down the single track between the hills north of Torridon, my charger repeatedly falling out of my light, I kept thinking of how I could have done this better.

Safety, is key

  1. I always ‘check in’ with people & they know my destination, but I should send my route. If my lights had died, or I’d had an accident in those freezing temperatures, & without a phone – no one would know where or which road to find me on.
  2. Keep people posted – I should have asked the hotel landlady if I could have called the guys in the Inveralligin cottage, to have informed them.
  3. Resources – if something were to happen, you need enough water, food & layers in this environment. Stupidly I let the lady only refill one bottle, feeling rude to give her another one (there is no room for politeness in matters of survival)!

Obviously it was no big deal really, & I survived the extra 15 cold & hilly miles (seriously, that hill to Inveralligin, gawwwd…what a way to end the day!)

But this little trip up north has definitely given me food for thought, which is great, because food is my most favourite thing.
Now I think I deserve to eat the equivalent of my body-weight for at least the next few days, mwuahaha; cycling is great!

Until the next,
Alaina X

Kindly supported by Vaaru cycles, Assos, & Adapt Outdoors Liverpool