Highlands to Home was an experiment. All of my previous long rides have been events – personal challenges to see if I could ride that far, pushing my own boundaries driven by the desire to finish in time. And although (mostly) solo and unsupported in nature, all of these were organized events, which means they were never really done alone, or in isolation. H2H was the very opposite of this. I had a goal to complete it in 10 days, but there was no cutoff clock running. And with no official route, or checkpoints, my route was not only my own, but also not fixed – I could (and did) change it on a whim. The daily distances I set myself were also conservative – designed to maximise my enjoyment of the scenery by riding almost entirely in daylight, and ensuring I had plenty of time to sleep and recover for the next day. So how was very much my first experience of what could be called “solo long distance touring”?
Facts and Figures
I’ve resisted posting the full log until I could include it in something around the wider context of the ride. I guess here is that point.
During route planning my buddy Nico commented how modest the elevation was for such a long ride, and that is evident the headline stats. There were definitely some hills that worked a sweat up and put some strain on the legs with the bike weight, but the majority of them were enjoyable rather than brutal. One aspect that did surprise me a little was the moving average of 16.5km/h. That is not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s only around 1 to 1.5km/h slowly than an average speed I’d ride on an Audax, where time actually matters. I guess the difference there is time on the bike per day – which on Audaxes can easily end up being he whole flipping day, all 24 hours of it. Probably the most telling statistic of is riding time – at 103 hours, it’s less than half of the 10 days spent actually pedalling. There’s no brevet or bikepacking race in the world where you’d manage that much downtime without a DNF. And I have to say, I did not miss the sleep deprivation, halucinations, or for weeks after the ride waking up screaming in the middle of the night with no clue where I was (seriously, that shit happens, ultra cycling PTSD is a thing).
The more long distance riding I do, the more I feel that “alone” is a state of mind rather than something real or tangible. Even in the company of friends, there are often moments where you are pedalling along on your own, lost inside your own thoughts. Solo touring doesn’t really feel much more like a very long – and also very therapeutic – extension of this. You’re rarely pedalling for more than 3 or 4 hours between stops, and when you do stop at a garage, or cafe, or pub it’s rare that you don’t end up engaging with the people around you. Even if you’re not a natural conversation starter, the strange appearance of both you and the bike almost always leads to some form of exchange. For me, there’s a desire to take this a stage further – as a lover of stories and storytelling, I have an innate curiousity to learn about the people I meet along the way. And in this single regard, I have to say that solo touring at a relaxed pace is right up my street.
There’s probably not many years when this could be said, but based on the evidence of this tour: stay in Scotland. The weather turned to crap the moment I left. As if the scenery, breakfasts and people weren’t a good enough reason already. Anyone who has ridden in the UK will know weather is a highly unpredictable and changeable thing – but as long as your kit is up to it, even the worst parts are generally outweighed by the moments in between. That was certainly the case here – in fact the extreme winds and rain will probably live in my memory long after many other parts have faded.
The NC500 was an incredible experience, even with the busy summer traffic – but if there were one single highlight above all others, it would have to be the trip out to Cape Wrath. Every aspect, from the quaint little ferry, to the bombed out track lived up to expectations and the framed Cape Wrath Fellowship certificate sits behind my desk as a daily reminder of the adventure.
The other route highlight, in a more general sense, would be the many kilometres I spent on cycle paths, converted old railways, and canal paths. The gravel bike and tyres were a necessity for Cape Wrath, but their biggest payback in terms of the whole tour was the number of times that setup encouraged me to venture away from the road and onto countryside tracks and trails. I hadn’t realised my “A6 alternative” involved sheep tracks across a moor, but having travelled it, I’d recommend taking a gravel capable bike just to have that as an option to avoid the busy main road across Shap.
The only truly nasty road experience was the short stretch of A82 around Loch Ness – although even now, I’d struggle to find an alternative on the north shore of the lake that wasn’t a full blown mountain bike track with significant stretches of hike a bike. There was at least a positive take away from that couple of hour’s riding, which was to convince me of the need to find a better route the next day, and in so doing discover the utterly delightful Caledonian Way down towards Oban and the wonderful riding across the hills and around the lochs from there.
It wouldn’t be completely fair to class this as a regret, since the goal was to tour a part of the NC500, visiting John O’Groats and Cape Wrath, and riding back home. In that context, it wasn’t possible to spend more time exploring the Highlands and Islands – but I wish I could have. The five days I did spend there simply wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface. There’s plenty of road riding to lure me back on the gravel bike, but I think I’d be tempted to go back at least once with a hardtail and a tent so that I can get properly lost. In fact, I’ve a desire to take that one stage further and take an ultra light inflatable canoe and go full scale bike rafting. There are so many places on the map where the ability to self sufficiently cross a narrow expanse of loch opens endless riding possibilities. Which is perhaps, the best part of this solo touring lark, getting home fuelled with a passion to dream up future adventures that need no more reason to exist than “because”.