An Turas Mor: Cape Wrath to Glasgow by Bike
Despite her attempt to set the new fastest time on Scotland’s An Turas Mór being invalidated before she could even start pedaling, Naomi Freireich recently set out for a solo time trial from Cape Wrath to Glasgow. Find her story of pushing herself in the face of failure here…
Mindset. Having that positivity to push on when the only reason to do so is that mindset itself; it’s a life skill that doesn’t come naturally to most. When faced with hardship and no reward for enduring, what is there to spur you on to succeed? Mindset.
Undertaking a 560-kilometre bikepacking route through the wilds of the far north of Scotland in autumn weather definitely takes a certain mindset. And aiming for the fastest time over the route is the ambition that spurs me on, but if the possibility of completing it is dashed from the offset, what drive is there to suffer anyway? This would be a journey about far more than just the distance I would ride.
An Turas Mór is a long-distance MTB route from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery in the beautiful west end, all the way to Cape Wrath’s remote lighthouse. It uses old drove roads and military roads and new hydroelectric access roads, all linked by small sections of minor country road and walking paths to create a 354-mile (562-kilometre in new money) route from Scotland’s largest city to the most westerly part of the north coast. Designed to be ridden over a leisurely eight days, its inauguration was a race event, which saw the record time being set at just over four days. At the time of researching the route, the most information I had was someone thinking the record was around three days. My goal was to go faster.
Crammed into a long weekend, this would be tight, with work sandwiching either side, plus the intricacies of the route itself. First, a delayed start pushed us to rethink and turn the route on its head, starting at Cape Wrath itself to remove the unknown of a return home from the far north on the final day. Then, on arrival, the weather scuppering our chance of a ferry crossing from Durness (the only means to reach Cape Wrath) meant I would be starting, not from one end, but with 20km unridden and unrideable by me. I would be starting having already failed.
On the plus side, we got to spend a glorious afternoon and night on the north coast of Scotland. We parked up the van next to Ceannabeinne Beach, which was utterly breathtaking. We walked on the sand at low tide, climbed rocks, ate dinner with a view, and after a good night’s rest, woke with the sunrise over the bay. As failures go, this one was certainly a winner. All that remained was the small matter of what now.
In the morning (and if I’m honest, from when I found out about the ferry cancellation), I knew what I was going to do. Why did it have to be an FKT to be worth doing? The route begged to be ridden, and I wasn’t going to let 20 small kilometres stop me from enjoying the other 540! We rose with the light, enjoyed a tasty breakfast with our view, and headed to the ferry point, the closest I could get to the end to begin my journey. Standing there in the wind and rain, I knew the old me would have been making my excuses already, but in that moment I knew I was ready for this, and I also knew just what completing the journey no matter what now would mean to me.
Day one can be described as incredible remoteness, tough hike-a-bike, rain, wind, and stunning landscapes. Little of the north of Scotland is inhabited, either through its unsuitability or because of the devastating Highland clearances of the 1700s. Seeing the remote remains of former settlements really brought home just how much this period changed the landscape of Scotland both physically and emotionally for those families forced out of their homes. It also made me appreciate just how much comfort we have in our lives now, from basic Maslovian needs to our modern lives that increase our scope for travel and communication. During this period of uncertainty, it has been nice to return to thinking about our more basic needs. For me, being warm and dry and knowing I was safe and had food and water simplified the task ahead.
The penultimate section started from Croick Church, possibly one of the most haunting reminders of the clearances, with the names of the families who sheltered there after their houses were burned to remove them etched into the glass windows. I rode through a large estate and then on through spectacular glens, beneath mountains, and past solitary dwellings into the growing dusk. Here I met two separate riders going the other way, the first people I’d met on the trails all day. It was lovely to stop and chat to both and hear the stories of their ride.
By the time I reached the road again, it was dark. Rather than stop there, at the edge of a busy road, I decided to push on to Contin, home of the Strathpuffer 24-hour race, and my first 24-hour title. What looked like a short distance ended up taking a good hour and a half through overgrown paths, and by the time I met up with my husband Charlie in the trailhead car park, I was famished. All in, 175km and 3,281m of climbing
Day two was all about climbing. This day I knew would be tough, with three big climbs before I even got to the biggest of the route, and the highest road pass in Scotland, the Corrieyairack Pass. Thankfully, the first climb started with a smooth hydro access path. The vast uninhabited highlands have been really opened up for riding by the hydroelectric industry, with the access roads reaching high up into the hills where the dams, turbines, and solar generate 90% of the energy consumed in Scotland. Beyond the damn, however, the paths became rough and loose and at times very boggy. Nothing my bike couldn’t handle. And of course, with each climb came an adrenaline-inducing descent. One after another after another.
I stopped for lunch with Charlie after the second of these descents, the climb to which had been on an old and very rocky military road. These incredible roads, which quite often head straight over the tops of mountains (see the Corrieyairack as a case in point), were built in the mid-1700s in a push to get General Wade’s army into the highlands of Scotland to control the Jacobite rebellion. So much history is attached to these roads, and to be able to ride them still is pretty mind-blowing.
Climb three was comparatively easy, which was good because I needed everything I had for the Corrieyairack. From the north, the pass climbs almost 700m over 12km to its highest point, then descends on a majestic but incredibly rough set of switchbacks that keep you on your toes. I’d ridden it once before with Charlie a couple of years ago and knew what was ahead of me. And despite the pain and fatigue I felt, the joy of being there and knowing my body was capable of powering me to the top kept me pushing on and kept me smiling. This was the hardest section of the ride and I was through it. The rest was (almost) all downhill.
After checking in with Charlie and deciding on a camping spot for the night, one final small climb of the day was all that remained. A shorter day at 124km, but still over 3000m of climbing.
I woke late on day three. I’d been up in the night needing the toilet and had to hobble. My Achilles tendon at my left heel was really painful and the climbing of the day before was evident in my legs. I really worried that I wouldn’t be able to ride. Accidentally switching off my alarm meant my morning routine was condensed to 15 minutes of mad panic. Thankfully, everything was packed from the day before and that surge of adrenaline meant I wasn’t thinking about the pain. It didn’t seem to hold me back though, and I made it through the Ardverikie estate in record time and was heading up to Loch Ossian.
This would be among the most beautiful places I passed through on the ride. The nearest access point is Corrour Station, the highest train station in the U.K., which is only reachable on foot or on the train itself. Similarly, the Loch Ossian Youth Hostel is only accessible by foot, so the whole area has this incredibly remote feel to it. Add to that the low-lying clouds I was to pass through and that whole section of the trip was shrouded in the air of mystery and wonder. A truly magical place that’s well worth the effort to get to.
From there, the path became more familiar to me. Another hydro road climb followed by a beautiful switchback descent took me close to Killin and a lunch break. The Killin to Callander cycle path gave me some easy, flattish kilometres, albeit into a headwind before hitting the three lochs route from Loch Venachar. By the time I popped out in Aberfoyle the dusk was creeping in and I had around 80km to go until the end. It was here I knew I could do it.
Riding along the familiar West Highland Way, even in the opposite direction to the other times I’ve ridden it, felt like I was home already. It was so dark by now, but my lights kept me safe and marked the way onward. From the end of the West Highland Way in Milngavie, the section along the rural parts of the Kelvin was definitely experimental, and the combination of mud, fallen trees, and giant hogweed could have really destroyed my calm were it not for the knowledge that I was mere teens of kilometres from the end.
To ride to the end of the trail past my old University haunts, along the Kelvin cycle path, past Maryhill, the Botanical Gardens, and through Kelvingrove beneath Glasgow University felt like such a fitting way to end my ride. And to see the Gallery lit up in all its glory was properly emotional. I’d done it. And not done it all at the same time. But I knew this ride counted more than an FKT would. This was the ride I did against all odds and completed anyway, always with a smile. This was a ride that was to mark my growth in mindset. Day 3 stats: 225km and 3478m of climbing.
Many thanks to GORE Wear for having my back (and legs, arms, feet and hands). To Mason Cycles for loaning me the über-capable InSearchOf; truly a bike for all terrain (and I checked this was true over the weekend!). Exposure lights for their excellent bike lights keeping me safe on the roads and on the right path off them. Straight Cut Designs for making a custom bag for the InSearchOf that carried everything I needed and worked like a dream. And finally, to Charlie. For the support, the selfless gift of his time and patience, and for the stunning photographs by which to remember a truly unforgettable weekend.
About Naomi Freireich
Naomi Freireich is the current UK and European 24-hour Mountain Bike Champion and a GORE Wear athlete. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her husband, two children and two step children, where she works as an IT Project manager. In her spare time, Naomi loves to take off and explore the wilds by bike. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @frikfrak74.