Words by Gemma Baird
While on a family holiday in Assynt (the top of the course) last summer, I suddenly felt the urge to do a huge ride in the year I turn 40. And what bigger challenge than the HT550? I’d been building my rides up gradually since lockdown, a particularly tough time as I had recently finished treatment for breast cancer and then was thrown into isolated home-schooling life. The bike became so important for me to process everything and feel healthy. I had been inspired by the distances and routes my friend Christine was doing and joined her on a few. She calmly coached me not to spend quite so long in cafes, just have one beer in the pub dinner stops and faff a little less; I was amazed at how far we could go.
Having a young family means I don’t feel an event of this magnitude can be the norm for me. I was planning to do it once and do it well; to complete in a respectable time was my goal. One or two days a week, I’d drop the kids at nursery/school and head off into the hills, getting as much climbing on my singlespeed as I could to harden my body. By mid-May, I felt strong. When I got COVID just 11 days before the group start, I was gutted and promised myself I would get round the route this year no matter what.
I rode a small rigid Karate Monkey with 29er wheels. Being small means frame space is premium, so I wanted a good triangle for a custom bag (using every available mm) and the rigid fork meant I had plenty mounting points and wouldn’t need to worry about handlebar bags buzzing the front wheel. I fitted beefier tyres than I’d normally ride and Jones bars for comfort.
Why singlespeed? Before kids, I exclusively rode singlespeed and so had the mentality and knew I could go a distance. I wanted to reduce my chances of a mechanical, and I also felt that sharing the walking and riding more evenly would be a good thing for reducing the likelihood of fatigue or injury. After a few months training, I was convinced it was the right choice.
I don’t think I carried anything that wasn’t used. My only mechanical was a bent brake lever and bottle cage, after dropping the bike in a burn, but thankfully the lever was fine, and being steel, the bottle cage bent back. I did clean my drivetrain and tightened the chain twice when things were sounding a bit rough. I was cursing my decision to go rigid on the first couple of days. I was riding well, but the extremely rough tracks felt like they were shaking me to bits. The second half of the route was less of an issue with more walking and more techy, slower descents.
Going solo was a challenge. It would have been so easy not to bother or even give up at times. I wasn’t really sure how hard I could push myself without other riders, so my plan was to do two steady days riding with about four hours of sleep and see how I was feeling after that. I had shared a link to my Garmin dot with some friends and family, which helped for morale and to keep the pressure on. They were all a little less productive at work due to ‘Gemdot’. After a few days, I wasn’t alone on the bike and had developed a split personality. I was looking after someone else and had to ration my snacks in case they got hungry and not leave them behind at stops. A symptom of sleep deprivation and being a mum?! Then there was also a constant chatting noise—like the radio being on—whenever I got in my tent at night. It sounded like people commentating on American football. All a bit weird, but it didn’t stop me sleeping and maybe kept genuinely scary noises out.
My most memorable parts of the route? Day one was straight after an incredible amount of rain in Glencoe. The rivers were well and truly full, and I was tucking my InReach into my bra for crossing torrents within the first hour. This, together with some Garmin GPX file issues, meant day one was quite stressful, and I didn’t get as far as I hoped, missing a proper feed in Fort Augustus. After that, things picked up, and day three, the Northern Loop just blew me away with its rugged beauty. I was really finding my rhythm right up until having to navigate the Ledmore traverse in the dark. It was so slow, so wet, and extremely tricky navigation. I ended up buying Sealskinz socks in Ullapool after trench foot was setting in. It turns out that Sealskinz don’t get sweaty if you have a constantly refreshing pool of cold bog water washing through your shoes!
The Fisherfield section was going really well until the final steep climb when my back said ‘no’ and even affected my ability to put power through my legs. I thought this was the end of my attempt, but thankfully it just needed a rest, and I allowed myself four and a half hours of sleep that night. The following day had my favourite descent into Achnashellach, so good even when tired, and a wee fan club in Strathcarron to give me a boost. Glen Ling started so well, but my oh my, what a long bog trot it became. Then, at the very end, there was a newly repaired deer fence with an impossible set of narrow steps to get a bike through, so I tried to copy something I’d seen in photos and hooked my front wheel over the top and then tried to recover the bike on the other side. What a mess(!), at one point my bike was hanging off a post by its brake hose, another moment when I thought it was all over.
The final 24 hours were a rollercoaster, having been nervous (due to my back pain) about the hike-a-bike into Glen Affric, I had a really nice evening, gently pushing my bike up in a very smooth, zen-like way. I got to Camban bothy, had a good snack on salami, cheese, and peanut butter, and decided I’d have a 30-minute nap and then try to ride through the night and push on to the finish. The next six or eight hours were at snail’s pace, and all I could think about was sleep. When I got to Fort Augustus and hit the straight and flat canal path, I was forced to take a couple of short naps. In Fort William, I had a bowl of coffee and sausage sarnie, bought a bag of snack-size stroopwafels, and hit the trails. After so much pushing and hard terrain, I was loving the rideable, fun singletrack. There was no need for nav anymore as you could see a steady stream of West Highland Way walkers making their way north. I enjoyed the bustle and didn’t find I was held up much. After hitting the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase, I was on the home straight but starting to feel sleepy again. There was only one thing for it: to put the hammer down and ride like I had stolen it all the way to the finish!
I was prepared for a very quiet finish to my ride, but two amazing friends were there to catch me and celebrate. Friends, beer, massage, good food, and a real bed; the perfect end to a long ride. I find riding my bike a long way the perfect time-out from parenting, which can often feel relentless and overwhelming. The simplicity and mandate to purely look after myself for a few days feels luxurious, and I come back to the family positive, calmer, and content.
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