Against the storm
Updated: Jan 22, 2020
A tale of two riders who faced the storm, left the east coast and tasted the west coast, all while racing to catch the last train home. Across Scotland in mid-winter against the elements and themselves.
Wet, soggy and bedraggled but smiling gingerly, both achievement and relief painted on our faces. We felt it. You could have asked us, but you might not have believed us. We’d just ridden across Scotland against the storm. Eyes bloodshot, skin worn, lips cracked and bodies aching at the end, the beginning was very different and everything in-between was brutally beautiful – I wouldn’t change a single minute for the memories of a lifetime.
Whilst sat in the train carriage from Strathcarron back towards Inverness slowly being rocked off to a well-earned sleep by the motion of the train coasting along the highland line, we began to unpick our traverse from east to west. All the details, from our naïve beginnings earlier that day to the hard truths and gristly details in-between to that very moment sat consoling each other. Everything was laid out bare between us. The only totem of our efforts in the form of gpx files slowly uploading to strava, just lines and numbers. So here I write for you the emotion, feeling and memories now etched into my mind in a hope they begin to capture what really happened that day and inspire your own adventures.
The day in numbers:
Distance : 178.42 km
Moving time: 6:21:12
Elevation gain: 1568 m
Average speed: 28.1 kph
Max speed: 68 kph
Average heart rate: 142 bpm
Max heart rate: 181 bpm
Temperature: 7 degrees Celsius
Strava data: https://www.strava.com/activities/2965778791
On a warm spring day last year whilst driving out to the Isle of Skye via Strathcarron something caught my eye and placed an idea in my mind which has been eating away at me ever since. Just after Strathcarron heading towards Kyle of lochalsh the road narrows forcing both cars and the trainline to fit through a tight gap between loch Carron and it’s cliff faces. It was here that I saw it. It’s not unexpected to see the small two carriage train making its way along this stretch of scenic line but it was what came just before it. Hurtling towards me was a lone rider, spinning, pushing, urging his bike onwards, glancing every so often over his left shoulder and then doubling down again. I didn’t think much of this immediately but then as he drew closer I saw the reason for his urgency. The silhouette of the highland train pulled into view round a bend and I realised he was either racing, or soon to be chasing the train. I pulled into the next layby as he flew past me and watched as the train came careering past. I knew it was still another kilometre and a half to the station at Strathcarron and wondered if the rider wanted to beat the train there, was just racing it for fun or really had to catch that train. I pondered this unanswered question over and over in my mind as I carried onwards again to Skye and a simple answer began to form. It didn’t matter if the rider had made it or not, it was the story of his effort that mattered more to me. An idea was born. I knew the train ran at least 3 – 4 times a day from Kyle of Lochalsh back to Inverness through the summer but would it be possible to catch the last train back after riding out from Inverness in a day. Definitely was the answer but it would take some planning and the right conditions. The opportunity slipped by over the summer. Life and work had taken control and there didn’t seem to be a day that fitted in with my ride idea. As winter approached it seemed less and less likely with the daylight hours shortening and the train schedule tightening. Then another idea crept into being as I toyed with the idea of completing my first festive 500. Could I do it as part of 500, definitely. When I suggested it to my riding partner Charlie, a man of few words but diesel engine legs that can do the talking all day, there was no going back. ‘yup, am in’ and just like that we we’re truly committed, the shame and possible loss of self-pride now too great to loose. Plus we both couldn’t let the other just prattle on for the next year about some epic mythical ride only a fool would undertake, we both had to be those fools, together. A date was set and the route mapped out - obviously we just had to hope the weather would be in our favour and all would be well. Little did I know, little did we know.
The build up
In all sense of the matter we’d probably have been fine riding the whole route easily within the limited amount of daylight in the north of Scotland at the time of year (roughly 6 hours), at an average speed of 33kph, with a few coffee stops planned out along the way and a leisurely stop for lunch. Adding in the dynamic of catching the train at a set time only upped the ante, what’s a challenge without a bit of pressure and the thrill of the chase. And chase it would be.
As the day approached the long-range forecast became ever more realistic and our hopes of a pleasant easy day on the pedals heading west quickly slipped away. Winds of 25mph and gusts up to 50mph forecast for all day. Moderate to heavy rainfall, chances ranging from 60-90% for all day. The silver lining to this would be that thankfully temperatures had picked up and would be a balmy 3-11 degrees – positively Scottish summer time weather all in all. We’re used to that kind of torture, especially on the west coast, its only December... With the forecast in mind we changed our departure time from 9am to 7am. Giving ourselves extra leeway for battling the headwinds or encase of mechanicals made for some relief but the aforementioned wall of water we’d be battling certainly made for a grim outlook.
We were set. We had a route, we had a distance, we had the bikes, the kit was primed, the schedule set and the train times triple checked. We just had to make it to catch the last train home now or we’d be stranded for the night.
Lights on, tyre pressure checked, chains greased, water bottles filled, pockets stuffed with snacks, computers charged and legs itching to go we rolled out from Inverness in the dark of mid-winter on a Sunday morning. It was eerily empty, the roads were damp, the wind had been battering the house all night but the temperature was milder than expected after an abnormally mild 16 degrees weather phenomenon. We welcomed it as we began to tack into the wind. The A82 trunk road was our chosen path, a relatively flat but often busy road offering a path south west of Inverness along the banks of Loch Ness. As we cleared the first rise out from Inverness after the Caledonian canal we hit it, directly into the on-coming storm. The pace dropped off, sheltering behind each other, taking turns to keep up the pace and rest the legs, and this was the format for the day. We neared the head of Loch Ness and took a welcomed wind break behind the tress sheltering the road. The prevailing wind roaring up the great glen was whipping the waters of Loch Ness into a white spray atop waves as we continued south. Luckily we hadn’t had to face any rain and the weaving nature of the road along the loch side meant we were saved from the full force of the winds. It was only when the land became more sparse, the rock faces steeped, closed in and pushed the road close to the loch that we truly felt its full force. We kept our heads down, still taking turns, conscious this was the flattest section of the route and where we could make good time, aiming to keep the pace high. 45km in the average speed was sitting around 30kph as we reached Invermoriston, the sun rising and the turn off for the road to Skye our next marker. We’d made good time so far however there was no wish to stop for coffee as this is where we met the rain. We’d been lucky so far, now it would be with us until Kyle of Lochalsh.
Initially it was just a soft misty swell pushing against us as we left Invermoriston. As we climbed up towards the open glen we met our nemesis at full force. The wind was howling all the way down, straight up to meet us and right through us. The land became more sparse, the road quality was still very good but it made for slow going. I watched our average speed begin to slip down. Here was where we really felt it, our backs began to ache as we hutched over the bars trying to eek out every aero advantage possible, our legs constantly pushing as if climbing up a 10% gradient, all the while making slower and slower headway. The average speed dropped to 27 kph, I was beginning to worry we might not be able to make any stops at all if it kept creeping down. However there were some sections of lighter relief, sheltered by a few pine forests and craggy outcrops but the soon fell away as we approached loch Cluanie and there really wasn’t any hiding from the wind now. We tried to keep our efforts to 5 minutes each on the front, giving the other time to rest, take on fluid and maybe take in a gel. This was out routine, we had it drilled in, we didn't need to say much anything to each other we knew our roles and the rhythm we could keep.
The damn(ed) stop
As the road continues west it gradually climbs upwards but there are two sections of note. The first is the climb after the turn off for Invergarry. It rises up to meet the head of Loch Cluanie and the Dundreggen Dam, usually a fairly uneventfull climb with gradients only just touching 5% but on that day it was a different affair. The wind still howling straight at us it made this climb far tougher, like pushing up a 15-20% gradient at points. It seemed to go on forever but in reality was only a few short kilometres. We had to take a break. After we reached the lip of the damn we stopped, ate a few snacks and let the legs recover. We were now 70km into our ride, not even half way but felt like we'd done 140km. We took a few photos at the dam, suited up again and struck out on the most exposed section of the whole day along the edge of Loch Cluanie.
The long drag
It was here that the rain really got bad. Heavier and heavier, blown up by the wind, needles hitting out faces. It was like being in a washing machine. The spray off the road, the cars rushing past, the constant buffeting of the wind made it all a pretty bleak experience. I can’t remember much from this part other than trying to keep my wheels straight, follow charlie’s wheel or look down at my computer to check the time. It felt like it went on forever, I knew it would be over but time felt like it was moving slower. The headlands and craggy ourcrops of the loch side looked battered and broken, the moorland an empty grey/brown/yellow, the treeline ahead indicated we would be closing into the top of the climb soon but there was an open exposed road winding its way up the glen before we could reach this oasis of shelter. We doubled down, gritting our teeth, water pouring over us and the constant roaring of the wind rattling around our ears. This was the second part of note on this section of road. An exposed climb winding its way up steeply before the summit, again usually only touching 6% but under the conditions we faced it felt like 16%. We gradually closed in, nursing our frames up, bracing against the wall of water and wind which reached a building crescendo the closer we got to the summit.
The watered out summit top
We didn’t stop long, we just wanted to push on. Rain capes on, buffs pulled up to protect our faces and hands tightly gripping the bars. Rising over the top there wasn't much let up, we didn’t get much of a relief descending either. It was relentless. There didn't seem to be an end to this wall of water and wind ahead of us.
The wind just made us feel like we were pedalling through treacle, sucking our energy and sapping our legs of strength. The water made everything slippy, our clothes sodden with water weighing us down further and the dampness beginning to seep into our spirits. Even so the descent whizzed by and was certainly more fun than pushing ourselves uphill into the storm. We had ridden 90km and we knew we’d soon reach Shiel Bridge only 10km away where the west coast awaited us and we'd be well over half way. The rest of the road quickly fell away, twisting down a tight glen with waterfalls, overflowing rivers and washed out debris scattering the road. It was a quicker than we thought and we were both more than glad we'd come away without any slips. Down by the loch side the winds eased slightly and we were able to cruise along towards Scotland’s shortbread tin castle.
The castle to rival all others
Perched on a spit of rock and connected to the mainland by only a small humpback stone bridge, Eilean Donan Castle is possibly the image people hold in their minds eye of Scotland. For us that day it was both this and a sign we’d reached just over 110km, but we weren't finished yet, no matter how tempting a slice of shortbread, coffee and a warm fire at the visitor centre looked. We still had to face the final stretch into the wind towards Kyle of Lochalsh, ever aware our train would be departing with or without us.
We didn’t stop long, the train beckoned and the wind still howled in our faces, but thankfully the rain had eased to a fine mist. Truly moody weather for the setting of this picturesque post-card spot. The tourists still seemed intent on swarming over the island like ants even with the weather so grim, as determined to capture it on firm as we were for pressing on. There was a shared resilience in their and our efforts.
The reach out for Skye
Leaving the bus loads of tourists behind us we struck out west again. The road now far more open and exposed, no more trees or headlands to hide behind. We hoped for an easier run to the next stop but it wasn't flat either. Rising and falling steeply all the way to Kyle the road picked its way along the rugged coastline and we continued to follow it no matter the gradients or the unforgiving wall of wind.
As I say there weren't many opportunities to shelter on this stretch so we adopted our routine once again. Turn on the front, rest, recover, turn on the front. The pace really had dropped right down. I was feeling particularly washed out and drained of energy by this point. Charlie's diesel engine was still ticking over but also wavering. We were close to being spent but we still had time. It was only really getting close to mid-day and the train wasn't scheduled to leave until mid-afternoon. We'd almost made it to lunch without any hiccups despite all the elements being thrown our way. Here we were cresting the final rise before Kyle of Lochalsh, the Isle of Skye in sight and the Skye Bridge just round the next bend. We'd done it, against the odds. Now it was time to find somewhere we could refuel before the next leg from Kyle of Lochalsh to Strathcarron.
The food and refuelling
We pulled up into the centre of Kyle of Lochalsh looking for anywhere that was open with a warm and welcoming appeal. Being a Sunday in mid-winter there really weren't many options but we found Hector's bothy near to the train station and struck some luck setting the bikes up outside in view of window booth which featured a radiator. We really had lucked out. Soggy and bedraggled we ordered ourselves lunch and set about making sure we still had plenty of time to make it to the station.
We could have ended it all there, settled down to an afternoon of warming the bones and reviewing the days triumph of 130km into the westerly storm. There was that itch though, an unpleasant gnawing feeling that we weren't done, to press on again, to make it to our planned finish point at Strathcarron. It would be plain sailing as well with the wind finally at our backs, the only time that whole day we'd get to harness the elements rather than fight them. As we finished off our plates of fish and chips I ran the idea past Charlie once again, just to check we were still game, a silly question, of course the answer was yes. We wrapped up lunch, the time just after half one, put on our sodden kit and opted to head down to the station to make sure we'd still be able to make the train. There it was sitting eagerly, tempting us to give up right then and board it now without having to continue onwards. The last train of the day, sitting patiently for its departure time just after three pm.
The spoke and the spent
We weren't going to let it beat us, but then disaster struck, Charlie's bike took matters into it's own hands, or spokes more accurately. A loud snap-ping exploded from his rear wheel. A spoke had gone, blowing out the rim. We both looked stunned and immediately saddened. Was this how it was all going to end when we'd come to far, at least the train was ready to board. We were also glad that this hadn't happened whilst we'd been riding or mid-way in the remote wilderness against the wind. It had all been going so well, was this karma trying to tell us to give in whilst we still had it good. Maybe it was for Charlie, his bike had had it's fill and was signing off for the day. I still wanted to push on but I was torn leaving Charlie this way, we'd come to far together battling against it all. He insisted I press on, we shook hands and said he'd see me at Strathcarron with a smile. Time was now slipping away further as it was just after two pm. The train was scheduled to arrive at Strathcarron by 15:56 and I still had 30km to go.
The going solo to the end
With the wind behind me those first few kilometres along the outskirts of the westerly coastline following the path of the railway line soon flew by, I even had time to stop and take photos with the rain easing and only a fine mist hanging in the air. I knew in my head though there were some nasty steep sections between me and the station with gradients up to 20% at points. I'd never ridden the outer coast road before between Kyle and Strathcarron, the tarmac was pristine, I only met two cars and was spoiled with endless stunningly harsh windswept coastline views. The railway line weaved even closer to the waters edge, always trying to maintain the route of least elevation fluctuation. I on the other hand had to follow where the road took me, over gorges, up gullies, round cliff edges and all the way back down again, over and over. Up down up down. I knew even then I wanted to come back, to see it all again, though this experience was truly unique. Every river and waterfall was bursting at the seems, gushing and roaring as I flew past them. The trees swayed and whipped around almost taunting me to go faster.
As I neared the section of road where my idea had first been born, where I'd seen that rider hammering along throwing quick glances over his shoulder to check for the train at his back, where I was now approaching the exact same spot, I began to feel a real sense of what this day had been all about. It was all about the memories and not whether I really made it or not, whether I was racing the train or not, whether it had been the middle of summer of the depths of winter. It was all about the journey to this point and everything that had led me up to there. I looked down to check the time. Just before three o'clock, plenty of time to make the train. Then something odd happened again, an idea started forming in my mind, all this while I had been clocking up distance to complete the festive 500, by the time I reached the station it would be 160km of riding that day and 482km of my total for the festive 500. That meant all I would have left was 18km, plus it would also take me to 178km or 100 miles, rounding out an epic days riding total target. The idea became a challenge and the race to catch the train was truly on.
The race for the train
I pulled into Strathcarron station with 45 minutes to spare before the train would arrive. That gave me plenty of time to do another quick loop and finish off the 18km. There aren't many roads in that area with loop options so I opted for a straight out and back heading towards the small village of Strathcarron and a bit beyond, again into the wind, banking on the tailwind to blow me swiftly back to the station just in time to catch the train. I headed off, constantly watching the clock and distance counter, 4km down to Strathcarron. Heading back into the wind was brutal, my legs had decided to take a full rest and had now switched off completely after the last punishing sections steeper gradients. Onwards again following the coastal road west. 2km past Starthcarron my phone was buzzing. My partner had been tracking me all day and now was messaging frantically as they saw I was heading away from the station, unclear why I was going in the wrong direction away from my only chance to get back that day and as the daylight was starting to fade. I turned the bike at 9km, only 9km more back to the station with 25 minutes to go. With the wind behind me now I made simple work of this final stretch, even getting close to some KOMs, but really all I was interested in was catching the train. The final kicks of adrenaline rushed through me as I pulled into Strathcarron station with 10 minutes to spare, texted my partner and let Charlie know I was safely at the platform, ready to catch the last train home. It was over, 178km done, festive 500 completed, the race to catch the last train home a success.
Wet, soggy and bedraggled
As the silhouette of the small two carriage highland train pulled into view further down the line, as it pulled to a stop with Charlie beaming inside, as he meet me a with a firm handshake and childish grin on his face, I felt a warm glow building inside of me. Despite now being considerably wet, soggy and bedraggled as we both sat in the carriage there was a sense of achievement washing over us that no one could take away. In that moment and forever afterwards I will remember that feeling and remember that day we raced together against the storm.