Last week, UK endurance mountain biker and Team Syncros Endurance team manager Rob Lee attempted to ride the full length and back of Scotland‘s
West Highland Way
In this ride report, Rob charts the adventure ride and the point at which he decided ‘enough was enough’.
Trying to push myself to do something beyond my previous ride has been a reoccurring theme for me since I first picked up the mountain bike in ’93. Rarely does it go to plan, often far from it, but I’ve usually calculated fairly accurately even if my body can’t deliver what my mind can envisage. Occasionally my flights of fantasy take me to a place that I dare not imagine I tread. The Double, on the
West Highland Way
, I always had a challenge on my hands!
News spread pretty fast that I’d failed to make the return leg to Milngavie. No surprise there, I sent the twitter announcing I’d climbed into the van moments after I stopped. Honesty comes from failure as much as success, and I’ve never been afraid to fail, only afraid not to try. Humbled though I was at the warmth of response that flooded to my phone as I dipped in and out of consciousness as we drove through the mountains. Complete strangers and friends alike sent me congratulations for getting as far as I did, and encouragement to return and conquer the ride next time. Blessed am I to seek to inspire others and then at my weakest (and strongest moment) be repaid a million times over by the support and inspiration of my biking fellows. If I ever manage to double the
West Highland Way
some day in the future then that day will be for all of you. For now I have only this ride to offer…
The day was as perfect as an April days comes. Clear skies, big hills, slight breeze, and the promise of my love of bikes and trails. I ate alone in the living room as the rest of the house slept, then eventually, one by one, my partners in the escapade rose from their slumber and readied for the day. Surrounded by dearest: my closest childhood friend, my parents, Mark, Cass, Sam and Scott, this was going to be a great day. As we loaded the van Andy arrived, his mission to capture the moments for a magazine feature, and we were away to Milngavie for the start.
Rob’s santa cruz blur xc: rob’s santa cruz blur xc Rob Lee
Rob’s Santa Cruz Blur XC
I love the start; no fanfare, no tape, no starters gun, just 5 guys, 2 cameras, a bike and a sense of adventure. “Shall I start?” then I’m away, winding my way through the parkland on the edge of the city suburb and out towards the waiting clutches of the mountains. I felt great, fantastic even, with my new lightweight bike, lightweight kit, lightweight body and a return to fitness that has been too many years missing. My coach and my lass have given me such guidance and support for me to feel this good on a bike. After so many years of “getting away with it” and pulling through with mental strength the contrast couldn’t be greater.
I dusted through the opening miles, then the 20’s, 30’s and into the maze of rocks and barely walkable rocks on the eastern banks of Loch Lomond. I took my time, treading precisely, no hurry, just smooth movement. Legs were fine, arms started to ache. Mark filmed from a boat as Andy snapped away, the pair of them enjoying the sun that baked me as I scrambled. Progress was good, a 24lb bike to carry and I was catching walkers who only had a day sack and poles. I expected to leave Loch Lomond a bit worse for wear. Strangely I felt great.
I climbed, and descended, and climbed, and the big stuff loomed closer and steadily grew towards the sky. One hour up on schedule, then two hours up, I wanted three by FortWilliam . I knew it wouldn’t continue once sleep deprivation set in and so a buffer is a good thing to have. I stopped at Tyndrum for soup and stood chatting with everyone. Then onwards, the mountains are calling.
In the hills: in the hills Rob Lee
The view into the hills
As I climbed from Tyndrum it felt like a different day. The sun had dipped below the ridge and the wind picked up and licked away with a cold iciness that cut to my core. I stopped for my jacket on the trail, and then more clothes as I dropped into Bridge of Orchy. The next climb felt like I’d blown it. One hundred percent power to zero in the blink of an eye. I almost cracked there and then, so dramatic was the change within the environment within my body. Cold to my bones and as weak as a baby, I crawled my way up the climb one step at a time. Breath, step, breath, step, don’t think about the distance, don’t think about the time, don’t think about the weakness washing over your body. The soup began to digest, the blood left my stomach and returned to my muscles , the power came back on!
I opened the gate that signals the stretch through Rannock Moor. I expected a long grind of a climb that I’d struggle to conquer. I found a beautiful twilight wilderness where the deer surveyed my steady progress as I trespassed their home. One for the memory bank that fills with each passing year with images that I hope will never be lost from my brain. It was tough, and unforgiving surrounds, yet captivating and absorbing in it’s remote and blissful solitude. Words will never capture the emotions that ran through my veins and invigorated my body. A moment so precious I would fail to replicate and yet would never want to. It was unique.
Then suddenly, it was dark.
Deer in the distance: deer in the distance Rob Lee
Deer in the mist
My mind slipped to home, to my lady, to warmth, to safety. My heart cried inside my chest and nearly broke me by the side of the trail. Why was I here? Why was I doing this? Have I not suffered enough in this body of mine? I sank deeper, and yet continued with the program, pedal down, pedal up.
Mark was out on the trail to capture my lights on the next descent; then the multiple flashgun from Andy as I clattered through the rocks. Crazy times, crazy memories, all part of the adventure. The Devils Staircase loomed ahead concealed by the darkness. Sometimes the answers to questions we never ask ourselves present themselves anyway. I phoned and got a ring tone, I heard her voice, it was enough, it was everything, I headed up into the darkness.
I can’t remember ever walking so far with my bike, or at least that’s how it seemed. I couldn’t see further that the sphere of my light and it felt like I was on the edge of the world. Whipped by the wind and spattered by the rain I began to switch from sorry feeling human to a man of resolve. I can do these things and as long as you can still walk you can still keep going. The descent was mental and I smashed into, over, through, anything and everything. I’m not sure if I became a lot braver or a lot less caring. I rode through to Kinlochleven at a fair pace that I’d not have thought myself possible of.
From there to FortWilliam it was tough. I’m not superman and anything over twelve hours is always gonna hurt. This hurt, but it was a lot easier to handle than in previous years. My mind started to go. It always does. FortWilliam arrived; or rather I arrived in FortWilliam. 14 hours and 24 minutes, not bad I figure for a guy who took 32 photos along the way, and logged onto the Internet to regularly twitter! I stopped, ate, took photos, spoke to the camera. Pondered the intelligence of heading back into the fray and then did it anyway.
As I headed into those hills again a strange thing happened that has rarely occurred before. I realised that I had a responsibility. I realised the danger involved with this route in this condition. I’d never once really pondered this on any previous adventure. I wasn’t scared, I was just aware of the multiple small errors I was making and the fact that some terrain will forgive you but some quite possibly won’t. I pondered for almost three hours as I fought and wrestled and carried and pushed, and very occasionally rode my bike flat out into blind corners in the pitch black before I descended to Kinlochleven on the very edge of control for the second time. I knew I should stop, but I knew I could still continue, at what point do you say enough is enough and stop rolling the dice?
I tried to be honest with the crew but I couldn’t. It took Clive a good ten or so minutes to say what we were all thinking yet none were wanting to hear. Being a hero is only heroic when you live to tell the tale, being airlifted from a mountain side is not a smart way to go, and this time around I wasn’t strong enough, or fit enough, to safely make the Double. The tears weld up in my eyes as he spoke the truth that I already knew in my heart. I’m glad he said it as I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to utter the words. Mark didn’t know whether to film or not; I hope he did, I hope he captured the reality and emotion of what we do. The limit is called the limit for a reason, and finding your own – be it mental or physical – often ends this way. I took of my helmet and let go, for now, of the dream.
As we sat at breakfast the next day we already had the plans on the drawing board. For the first time in years I have a challenge that really will need a serious attack plan and suddenly everything clicks into place with the Seven Deadly Spins. A collection of rides that starts with the serious, but do-able, South Downs Double, addresses the requirements of every rider below a keen soloist with multi-day options and bail-out scenarios , and now has a tough MaXx-Daddy one-hit-adventure to challenge the hardest solo nuts that the UK can produce. All that we need now is the multi-day challenge that is the Seventh Deadly Spin – the X1 Lands End to John o’Groats offroad – that I’ll be tackling that in September to raise money for charity, and Chapter 1 will be complete, I really can’t wait.