Joining The Dots on The Highland Trail 550

The extreme physical and emotional demands of multi-day bike racing often change people. It moves some to tears, and others to the brink of collapse. The Highland Trail 550 is no different. For former pro mountain bike racer and current UK 24 Hour Champion Lee Craigie it was such a profound experience she needed to share the story. Fellow HT550 racer and contributor Ian Fitz sat down with Lee, and a bottle of fine Scotch Whiskey* to find out more.

The Highland Trail 550 is the pinnacle of UK bikepacking routes. It takes in 550 miles and 50,000 feet of Scotland at its most rugged and beautiful. It features some seriously remote terrain including world renowned single track, rough dirt roads, hidden glens and lochs not to mention a few testing hike-a-bike sections.

  • Highland Trail 550, Scotland Bikepacking
  • lee-craigie-joining-the-dots-rj2
Photos above by Lars Henning and RJ Sauer.

The route is the product of Alan Goldsmith’s warped imagination, originally intended as ‘just’ a training ride for his attempt at the Colorado Trail Race it has since been tweaked and extended to create this beautiful monster of a route.  It seems like this year the route came of age. A perfect storm of settled weather and dry trail conditions coupled with a competitive field resulted in some blistering racing and, for many riders, a life changing experience. We caught up with Lee Craigie to find out more.

Interview by Ian Fitz, photos by James Robertson

Hi Lee, can you introduce yourself to us.

I’m based near Inverness in the far north of Scotland in a wee cottage in a beech forest. I was the British MTB champion in 2013, represented Great Britain at World and European Championships and Scotland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games. This year, I’ve become UK 24 Hour MTB Champ, I’ve nearly pooed my pants in the wee hours of the Strathpuffer and I’ve engaged herds of deer in conversation on the Highland Trail 550.

Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

So you’re not racing bikes anymore?

I’ll never not race bikes. I’m too easily persuaded. It’s pathetic really.

Tell us about your relationship with bikes.

I began riding a mountain bike because I love the freedom that’s yours as soon as you’re on one. I was always on one as a wee girl and without really trying too hard I got pretty good at it. I then somehow got stuck on a conveyor belt of improvement that I didn’t want to get off before I felt I had achieved what I was capable of. This did mean a lot of structured training using power taps and heart rate monitors and travelling to race courses all over the world… which was massively at odds with what had led into mountain biking in the first place. So since giving all that up I’ve been much happier returning to adventure riding. I’ve put my heart rate monitor in the bin and I’ve gone from weighing my pasta and getting 9 hours sleep a night to scrabbling about at the bottom of my feedbag for jelly babies covered in fluff and sleeping whenever and wherever I can.

What are you doing since you stopped racing bikes full time?

I think we all know the emotional benefits that bikes, outdoor adventure and exercise can have and so I’ve been involved in setting up several projects that work with disadvantaged groups of people to try and get them healthier and happier using bikes as a medium.

I’ve co-founded the Adventure Syndicate with Emily [Chappell, the female winner of this year’s Transcontinental Bike Race]. Emily and I are all over the country riding bikes and delivering talks and events intended to inspire, encourage and enable more people to adventure by bike. We’re being kept pretty busy.

  • Lee Craigie, Highland Trail 550
  • Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

What’s the idea behind The Adventure Syndicate?

We hope The Adventure Syndicate provides the world with alternative, diverse female sporting role models. We feel what we are doing on bikes is more important than how we look doing it. We deliver a variety of talks, events, workshops and training camps and we broadcast articles, films and podcasts online all in an effort to engage and inspire but also encourage and enable others.

To launch The Adventure Syndicate a group of women rode for 500 miles in 36 hours non-stop using each other for support and motivation. We weren’t sure we could do it and were public about our apprehension beforehand. I think there is a powerful message in being honest about having a plan that you are not sure you’re able to complete but having a go anyway.

What unique strengths and difficulties do you think apply to women bikepackers?

It’s an interesting question and I shy from away answering it because in doing so we must assume that men and women are two homogenous groups which possess the same strengths and challenges as each other. But since you asked, I think as women we compensate for our differences in physical strength and competitive drive by being more creative in our problem solving. We also often have higher levels of tolerance for discomfort and are more patient than many blokes. All of these aspects of character can be incredible performance enhancers over long distances on the bike.

Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

What made you want to ride the Highland Trail 550?

The HT550 practically goes through my back garden so I’d ridden most of it in sections before.  I chose to live in the Highlands of Scotland because I love the riding here so how could I not be part of this massive, iconic ride one day? I was planning on racing the Tour Divide this year, but for various reasons that didn’t happen. So I took the chance to ride an alternative long and demanding bikepacking route on trails that I know well instead. It was interesting being out there for so long non-stop and knowing how hard some of the trails ahead of me were going to be. I’m still not sure if knowing what terrain was coming next was a help or a hindrance.

Give us some details of the best and worst of times on the HT550.

On the night of the third day, I reached the edge of the plateau high above the Fisherfield Causeway, the remotest part of the route, and felt utterly at peace and completely invincible. (Incidentally, this was also where I communed with the aforementioned herd of deer. It had been a long day) It was 10pm and the night air was still warm after the hot day I’d ridden through. I felt like I was connected to the bike that night and felt totally liberated by the fact that I had ridden 4 days straight on little sleep and rubbish food but still felt full of energy.  

But by the end of day four I was in quite a state. I weaved into a tiny local shop and stood swaying slightly while looking cross-eyed at all the things I could buy. Paralyzed by choice and indecision I made myself pick things up: some sandwiches, custard, cupcakes, milk, coke and sardines (sardines?) then staggered outside and buried myself in calories. When I had eaten everything I stood up to survey the scene and was shocked at the carnage I had created. The quiet village green with its newly cut grass and neat rows of flowers was strewn with wrappers, tools, clothing and half-eaten cans of fish. I had grass in my teeth and hair and was giggling uncontrollably. A local man was standing outside his house, keeping a safe distance but obviously curious. I raised a hand in salutation and he turned quickly and went back inside. I returned to the shop in a slightly more composed state to buy food for my onward journey. The kind woman behind the counter pretended to ignore the grass and the memory of the wild beast that has visited her just moments before. I behaved impeccably this time, but still felt a bit like a drunk teenager who was trying to buy her second bottle of cheap booze.

Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie
  • Lee Craigie, Highland Trail 550
  • Lee Craigie, Highland Trail 550, Shand Bike

What bike did you take on the HT550? How was it?

Shand Cycles from Livingston in Scotland had made me a custom Steel hardtail for this ride. He’s called Jimmy Shand and has stood up admirably to the challenges of a hard life so far. Jimmy and I have ridden over the Swiss Alps and the Spanish Pyrenees this year as well as helping me out at the UK 24 Hour MTB champs . He had 29er wheels for the HT550 with xc tyres (risky!) but I’ve ridden 650b+ too with a rigid fork. Jones h-bars and 1×11 gearing make for a reliable and comfortable ride. Maybe too comfortable? I reckon it was resting my head on those comfortable bars that made me fall asleep on the bike and sent me into a ditch on day three.  

What was the best and worst bit of kit you had with you?

I forgot to change my rubbish, synthetic socks to wool ones before I left my van so my feet were in bits on the final day.

But my friend Rickie Cotter lent me her bivvy bag with an integrated midge net in which I lay weeping with gratitude one night in a midge infested bog near Lochinver.

Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

Do you think that there’s a level playing field for male and female bikepackers? How did others relate to you being at the front of the race?

The field is definitely levelling. There are still some guys out there who find it hard to get their heads around the fact that women can match their pace on rides like these but, to be honest, the majority of men are nothing but supportive and generous. Times are changing. It seems like the longer the distance in endurance challenges the more level the playing field becomes between men and women and that is fascinating to me. I’m intrigued by the psychological element at play under these sorts of conditions. In our heads, we are all who we choose to be and how we react to situations under difficult, stressful conditions day after day is what wins and loses a race.

So you wrote about the HT550 afterwards. Why? Was it an easy thing to write?

Why? I couldn’t not write it! In the days after we finished I just started vomiting words. All the finishers were basically living in the Real Food Café at Tyndrum waiting for others to come in and pretty much everyone felt that they had been changed by their rides.

Eventually others started producing write ups too and it was incredible to read others describe what had happened to them on the same ride as me. There was so obviously a powerful story to be told.

Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

So explain the ‘Joining The Dots’ printed journal and how it came about?

On the last day riding to to the finish we agreed that the experience had been profoundly life changing and the need to share was unavoidable. We talked about  The Cordillera which is published every year and contains collections of different peoples writing inspired by the Tour Divide, there’s clearly an interest in reading about this type of riding. Then later, having the time to read what other people had written made me appreciate both the similarities and differences in our rides. It was fascinating to hear how different people experienced certain times of day and enjoyed different parts of the route as well as how they managed themselves physically and emotionally. This diversity of experience fits so well with The Adventure Syndicate’s message that we are all motivated and repelled by different things and that there is such strength and richness to be found in listening to someone else’s (tut) world view. That’s how the idea was formed.

Complementing the words in the journal, James Robertson is contributing his haunting imagery. James was all over the HT route shooting these images. He has taken photos on the Transcontinental Bike Race these last few years and has a special interest in capturing suffering. He was keen to be involved as he felt the desire to share what he’d captured out there in the same way as the riders felt with their write ups.

We decided to use the crowdfunding route for two reasons. Firstly, cash flow – there were brands willing to sponsor the whole magazine but selling out like that didn’t feel like we were embodying the spirit of the HT550 yet actually finding several thousand pounds to pay for printing any other way is a challenge. Secondly, we wanted to get people involved and the crowdfunding set up is perfect for that. As well as people committing their cash we are asking for an adventurous pledge for 2017. What do you want to do that you aren’t sure is possible. It’s gone better than we could have hoped for, the Journal was funded within 3 days and we’ve gone to 2 stretch targets. We are now funding a bigger print run and the extra cash will be used to deliver Adventure Syndicate talks, and workshops to an even wider audience of people who aren’t getting the chance to experience the outdoors and able to challenge themselves on adventures.

  • Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie
  • Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie
Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

Who else is involved in the project and what do they bring?

Emily Chappell has had an enormous input into the editing of the words. As well as being an excellent bike rider she is also a talented writer (her book What Goes Around is a great read) and was on hand in the days immediately afterwards to encourage me to go wild with paper and pen.  James Robertson has volunteered his beautiful, atmospheric images which capture the feeling of the places, people and emotions so well. He also has a good eye so is contributing to how the journal will look.  Russell Stout (from Shand Cycles) is in charge of the layout and getting things formatted for which we are in awe and embarrassingly grateful. You’ve [talking to Ian] been involved from the start. In fact, come to think of it, this journal might have been your idea. It’s a surprisingly good one though so perhaps it was mine after all. You’ve been a big help with social media and pulling things together behind the scenes, things like getting this interview out there.

Everyone involved is working on this for free, no one is taking any money from the project. Any funds generated over and above the print and postage costs go back into The Adventure Syndicate’s programme of talks, events and workshops to schools and communities across the county.

It was difficult to choose whose words to include. There are so many incredible stories from this year’s race and it’s been great to read them and really difficult to leave some out. Advice was that the best way to have a clear and consistent narrative was to focus on the people whose rides coincided with mine. So we will hear mostly from Philip Addyman, Liam Glen (the winner), and the two others I finished with – Javi Simon and Ian Fitz. Ian Barrington, RJ Sauer and Scott Linsdey also feature because their stories added some real colour and context. We were also keen to include the voice of those back home who were experiencing the race through dot-watching on the Trackleaders website. My sister Kim would set her alarm for all sorts of weird hours of the day to check on my progress and her story offers yet another perspective.

  • Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Ian Fitz
  • Joining the Dots, Highland Trail 550, Lee Craigie

You are asking backers of Joining the Dots to make an adventurous pledge for 2017, something they want to do but are not sure if they can complete. A great idea! So, Lee Craigie what is your pledge for 2017?

I have some unfinished business with the HT550 but I also have plans for the Rovanmeni 150 in Finland, the Tour Divide and the Colorado Trail Race! Plans are important but I consider them just a structure I can deviate from. We’ll see…

There’s still a few days left to get your copy and put your 2017 plans into print. The crowdfunder has worldwide shipping options and runs until November 22nd

*The Whiskey was Caol Ila 12 year old. From the Isle of Islay it’s a beautifully pale dram with peat, floral and peppery notes. It’s highly recommended by Lee.

For more info (Jimmy Shand)

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