Congratulations to Tom Rowntree on finishing the Tour Divide Race in 8th place after 18 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes in the saddle. A total of 2,704 miles and 49,608 metres of climbing.
Tom was riding his rigid Shand 29er, the same bike he used to win the Highland Trail 550 in 2015, although not this time in singlespeed setup. You can read more about his race experience on his blog: newretrotom.blogspot.co.uk/
It wasn’t until I rolled out my sleeping bag in the Heathrow departures lounge, all ready for my early morning flight to Seattle, that I realized how tired I was. This year so far has been a non-stop frenzy of book launch, book tour, Adventure Syndicate launch (which, as well as all of the admin and bureaucracy, consisted of a 500-mile ride around the North Coast of Scotland) and occasional brief attempts to earn some money and ride my bike in between times. I’d spent half a day in London, giving a talk on ultra-distance racing with Juliana Buhring (my better-looking and more famous friend), and I was due in Oceanside, California on the 10th of June, to support Juliana through her attempt on RAAM (“the world’s toughest bike race”, or so it claims…).
But I had a precious three-week window between the two, and I’d decided to spend it cycling down the length of the US West Coast to get to the start of the race, picking up where I left off last winter. If I was going to be trapped in a car for almost two weeks, I wanted to be good and tired, plus there’s the fact that I’ve signed up for the Transcontinental again, at least partly as a pretext for spending most of the spring and summer on very long training rides.
It wasn’t until the first day of the ride, rolling through the glistening greenery of the Olympic peninsula with my old friend Nhatt, that I remembered this ride had been many years in the making. Back in 2010, two years after Nhatt had inspired me to have a go at being a bike messenger (and I’d found it quite suited me), we’d plotted to ride from Vancouver to San Francisco together the following spring. But then Nhatt won a prestigious art scholarship, and I got carried away and decided to cycle round the world instead, and the ride I had wanted to do for longer than any other got shelved indefinitely. But now – here we were.
I reluctantly waved goodbye to Nhatt at Olympia (after extracting a promise from her to come and mountain bike across Wales with me in 2017), and carried on alone, musing upon how strangely things sometimes work out. Back in 2010, the West Coast would have been my First Big Adventure. Now it felt like nothing more than a holiday. The tarmac was smooth, the bike lanes broad, the coffee stops frequent, the drivers forgiving, the language familiar, and the peanut butter plentiful.
“I should be blogging about this” I thought. But I found I had nothing to say. I’d been so busy before departure that I hadn’t even got round to announcing this particular trip on social media – and as the days rolled on I found I was avoiding Twitter and Instagram almost entirely. What, six years ago, I had envisaged as a grand expedition, had instead become a welcome opportunity to slip through the cracks. I was tired of reporting my every move; of examining every vista for its photographic value; of what I sometimes think of as my writerly simultaneous translation, where I ride along automatically converting every observation and experience into language in my head, turning it this way and that to see how it’ll sound, tuning and tweaking and topping and tailing, until I’ve crafted what will eventually spill out of me in a long and rambling blog post, some weeks hence. This time, there was nothing but silence.
I enjoyed the small talk in small-town diners, whilst also revelling in the anonymity of being nothing out of the ordinary. Last time I toured on this continent I was soon known up and down the Alaska Highway as “that crazy biker from England”, since few have ever ever been reckless enough to attempt that route in winter. But Route 101 is a cycle-tourer’s highway. Several times a day a fellow traveller would whizz past me on the other side of the road, and we’d greet each other with a shout and a wave, instantly friends the way London cycle couriers used to be, even before they’d properly met – but rarely would we stop to chat, because there’d be three more just over the next bluff. The regulars in the diners where I lingered over my morning coffee were friendly, but not over-curious. They had seen my type plenty of times before.
These were days of sunshine and solitude. I avoided the beery bustle of the hiker-biker campsites, preferring to spread my bivvy bag out in the fragrant undergrowth that skirted the beaches and fall asleep listening to the thundering Pacific roarers pounding the sand a few metres away. Often I’d wake up in the middle of the night, opening my eyes to a bright canopy of stars and thinking about how very far away the rest of the world seemed to be.
And very far away it was. Most nights no one knew where I was, and most days my only commitment was to ride far enough to stay on schedule. And riding was easy on roads like these. I’d roll my sleeping bag away as dawn broke and the first few dog walkers started strolling the beaches, then pedal until the rising sun began to break through the morning fog. I’d reward my efforts with pancakes, eggs, bacon and endless coffee refills, before getting back on the road and riding for the rest of the day – because what better thing was there to do?
The mossy forests of Washington State segued into the jagged coastline of Oregon, before the road turned inland and I rolled along the Avenue of Giants, cooling my sunburn in the dappled shade of the world’s tallest and oldest trees. Any twinges of guilt I felt at not stopping with the other tourists, to gawk and take photos, were easily dispelled by the conviction that speeding past it on a bicycle was exactly the right way to experience all of this scenery. The flickering shadows of the redwoods were a veritable oasis to one who had spent the last few days scorching her skin under a cloudless sky, and their height and girth dwarfed me and my bicycle far more than they did everyone else’s camper vans and SUVs. And since these trees had been amply photographed by everyone else, I didn’t see any need to stop and join the crowds. I carried on, watching the scenery change around me, eventually rejoining the coast after a whole afternoon of climbing and half an hour of descending, knowing that the salty breeze and the glistening blue ocean were far more refreshing a sight to me than to any of the drivers who had pulled over at the side of the road to admire it.
Sometimes you don’t want to stop, you just want to ride. I rode. And kept riding. The swooping California roads made it easy to cover 120, 130, 150 miles in a day. And I knew that awaiting me in LA was one of the world’s great international food scenes (plus friends eager to help me replenish my calorie deficit with all-you-can-eat sushi and Korean barbeque) – and then in Oceanside I had nothing to look forward to but sitting in a car for two weeks, following someone else as she cycled across America. So I exhausted myself quite happily, ignoring my sore back and aching muscles as I sped along the final stretch of coastline towards Malibu, thinking instead how lucky I was to have ridden so many of the world’s great coast roads in the past year – Italy’s Amalfi Coast back in November, Scotland’s North Coast 500 last month, and now this – and gazing inland at the looming Sierra Nevadas, planning future rides without even meaning to. Over the years I’ve developed a knee-jerk reaction to mountain ranges – and even bends in the road. I want to know what’s on the other side.
But that was a ride for another day. I rejoined Juliana in Oceanside, ready to set out on her big adventure, and all of a sudden it was as if no time had passed at all since we said goodbye to each other outside Liverpool Street station. The intervening three weeks slipped away into a blur of dappled sunlight, sparkling ocean, and endless cups of coffee, and I felt only slightly regretful that I could remember so little of it. This had been the whole point. To switch my mind off for a while; to ride and not to think; to let things slide for a while; to coast.
By Emily Chappell
We had the two riders (Lee Craigie and Ian Barrington) competing in the Highland Trail 550 on Shands this year, so we asked them to share their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say about the experience.
So Lee, this was your first go at the HT550, can you tell us a little bit about your biking history and how you ended up at the start line in Tyndrum this year? It seemed like a pretty late decision to race, is it an event that you’d had your eye on for a while?
I got into mountain biking as a teenager who used her bike to gain freedom to explore (sometimes during school hours, shhh don’t tell my mum). I got into XC racing quite late but got on a learning ramp quickly and before I knew it I was in the GB squad and racing for Scotland at the Commonwealth games. After the Glasgow Games I wanted to draw a line under XC racing and get back to riding for the love of it. The HT550 is the ultimate big mountain adventure and epitomises my love for mountain biking. I was meant to do it last year but sponsorship commitments got in the way. This year I’m riding for myself and can do whatever I like!
What were your aims for the race, did you have any particular goals? Was there anything you felt you wanted to get out of the race?
Not really. I had no idea how it would go. I just knew I had to remain as positive as possible throughout and not go to hard at the start. I managed the first part ok.
The obvious question: How was it? How did it compare to how you expected it to be? The mental aspect in event like this is something that scares the heck out of me. Not to mention the physical aspect.
It might sound odd but in some ways it was really easy. That’s not to stay it wasn’t the most physically demanding, sustained thing I’ve ever done but there’s something about the simplicity of eating, sleeping and riding that means you can operate on autopilot. Choice is stressful. For 4 days I had one goal and every decision I had to make could be answered straightforwardly by considering one thing – what would make me go faster?
Did you speak to other riders, veterans of the race beforehand?
I’d been a pretty avid dot watcher the year before and had ridden it emotionally and in training with my friend Jenny Graham. I asked a lot of people into endurance sport including Mike Hall and Emily Chappell how they handle themselves in general and that was helpful. Everyone has such different strategies.
Can you give us a run down of your kit list and how did that work out for you? Were there things you wish you’d had / things you wish you hadn’t bothered with?
From my Jones H Bars I hung a Revelate Sweetroll with my sleeping bag, thermarest, bivvy and thermals. And on top a Wildcat Tomcat that held all my electrical stuff for charging lights and phones. I ran an SP hub that could charge devices using a USB port in my top so and I was really glad for my phone charging capacity because my Garmin had a meltdown half way round and I had to navigate the whole second half using my phone! I didn’t really need lights other than the last night when I rode really late, but my Exposure Joystick and Diablo held so much charge from home I didn’t have to worry about recharging or running out of beans.
In my seat pack were my down jacket, second chamois, wool top and waterproofs. I did’t use my waterproof trousers or down jacket but was glad I had them for emergencies. If I’d injured myself and been unable to move I wanted to know I’d be able to stay warm. In my frame bag I carried food, water, bike repair and first aid.
You said you’d ridden most (if not all) of the route before, but never in one chunk. Were there any surprises, things you’d not expected on the route, or perhaps sections that rode very differently in the context of this particular race?
I rode within myself the whole time. I didn’t want to make any mistakes or take unnecessary risks out there. That said, some of those descents are so much fun that even fully laden I just had to go for it at times! I battled with the shame of pushing a Tarmac climb after Lochcarron but I had absolutely nothing in the tank at the time. Although I’d ridden most of the west coast sections before, what was different was the time of day I was passing through places. Descending to the Fisherfield causeway in the dark was magical. I couldn’t see much but just felt the huge expanse of space below me and it felt like I was tipping off the edge of the world.
Did you get involved in the social aspect of the ride, it looked like you were alone up at the pointy end for a good portion of the race, I’m guessing not much time for chatting? What about the last few miles where you appeared to be riding with two other riders?
It was actually pretty sociable up front. There were 4 of us (and later 5) who kept meeting up at food resupply points. The boys would ride later and faster than me but I’d stop when it got dark and was up before first light so always caught and passed them in the mornings. Philip was funny. He just couldn’t comprehend how a woman was keeping up with him. On the third morning when I waved them a cheery hello, his face fell again and he actually said “Oh for God’s sake, give it a rest!” Both he and Stuart were lovely to me though. Javier and I rode together a bit but I had to be careful no to try and go too deep to stay with him on the climbs. He is an actual mountain goat.
When Liam passed and sailed up the hill Out of Ullapool I managed a couple of words then never saw him again! On the last day, Ian caught me and an unspoken understanding was established as we fell into a steady rhythm beside one another that we would ride over the line together. When Javier joined us later that day, he understood immediately what was going on and the 3 of us finishing together was the best possible ending I could have imagined.
For this race, you were riding a pre-production Shand prototype 650B+/29er. How did you get on with this? Obviously a little different from some of your super lightweight XC race bikes…
Jimmy was brilliant! So comfortable and strong. The big volume Halo wheels and Jones H bars made everything just that bit more comfortable so although not the lightest fasted rig, over time, definitely the most energy conserving. The Schwalbe tyres were a great combination of fast rolling, light and durable. I can’t wait to put a rigid fork on him and change the wheels to 650+. I think in doing so I’ll have found the perfect all round bike. At times it felt like the bike was doing the riding and I was just hanging on.
Bit of a clumsy question, but do you have one or two high points and any low points you’d like to share with us?
A high for me was dusk on the plateau above the Fisherfield causeway. Four deer actually approached and waggled their ears at me. I think they may have thought I was one of them. Proof that I had turned completely feral perhaps?
A low was losing my Garmin. The maps just wouldn’t load and the unit switched itself off repeatedly. It threw me a bit and I lost time getting my head around it but in the end I think I turned it to my advantage by using the navigation to help keep me sharp and awake. I did still fall asleep on my bike coming out of Ullapool though!
Is this a race you think you’d do again? From an outsiders view (fixated on those blue and pink dots) it seemed like this is a race you could win. Do you see it that way?
I do. I think women and men can compete at this sort of thing on equal terms. We have different strengths but also different weaknesses. What women lack in strength and power they can make up for in technique and endurance. This is a race won or lost in the head. Men and women equally as diverse in this department. Maybe you should be able to choose the colour of your own dot next year. My favourite colour is green. I’d like a green dot please.
You ride as part of the Adventure Syndicate and are founding member (have I got that right?), can you tell us a little about that?
I’m a director and founding member
The Adventure Syndicate are an extraordinary collective of female cyclists who’s exploits aim to challenge perceptions of what we think we are capable of. Emily Chappell and I set it up as a way to put a rocket under the bike industry’s marketing departments and the media general. We wanted to point out that women’s needs aspirations, physical prowess and attractiveness are diverse and entirely subjective. We hope we can do this while inspiring the next generation of girls to be proud of the way they behave and the things they do rather than how they look.
Final question, what’s up next for Lee Craigie?
I’m currently eating and sleeping a lot. In 3 weeks time I’m off to the Pyrenees for the Trans-Pyrenees: a 10 day MTB stage race from East to West. Then I might ride home! Easier than flying with the bike and better for the environment!
This is your 3rd entry for the race; how were the other two and what made you make the trip up north this year?
The inaugural 2013 race (then ‘only’ 440 miles) was a venture into the unknown for many. Riding unknown trails covering big distances across remote terrain was hugely appealing, and finishing in 2nd place massively exceeded my expectations, and set new levels for my ability to pull off big distances and long shifts in the saddle with minimal sleep. In 2014 the route gained an extra 120 miles in 2014, and I couldn’t resist. Things didn’t turn out as planned though, as I had to retire with an inflamed achilles at around 300 miles. Now with a success rate of only 50% for the event, I definitely had unfinished business with it. I decided not to race in 2015 (which turned out to be a good move, as the weather was diabolical), and focus on 2016.
What were your aims for the race; did you have any particular goals and was there anything you wanted to get out of the race?
It was not without a good dose of apprehension that I lined up this year. I’m sure others were expecting to see me right at the pointy end of race, but I wasn’t entirely confident that my training had left me able to produce that kind of effort and I wouldn’t suffer the same fate as 2014.
So with that, my primary goal was actually just to finish the route! A few supplementary goals were to ride in the daylight some sections I’d previously done in the dark. I also wanted to capture a lot of photos of the whole route. I had set myself a conservative schedule for a sub 6-day finish that would hopefully be achievable without the aforementioned deterioration of limbs or joints. I also wanted to enjoy it, and ride as efficiently as I thought I could.
How was it, and how did it compare to your previous years?
In comparison to previous years, the 550 feels suitably harder than the 440 did. The northern loop is challenging in some specific areas, but if you break it down the sections of sustained difficulty are comparatively short. The difficulty comes when you hit the harder sections that follow the northern loop, but with an extra 120 miles in your legs. As a result, the cumulative fatigue definitely has an impact.
This year, everything went very smoothly. Weather was near-perfect. Trails were dry and as fast as you could ever expect them to be. I only had to deal with about 3 hours of biblical rain (just so you knew you were in Scotland) on day 2, between Contin and Croick.
Expecting the conditions to be worse, or the trails to be slower riding, I was making good time against my schedule. By the end of Day 2, I was about 6 hours up on where I expected to be and this allowed me to push on in incremental stages during the race.
As a past competitor, did you get the chance to talk to other riders, perhaps first timers, before the race?
I’ve always been quite open about my race experiences, both for 2013 write-up and the 2014 video, so I’ve attracted interest from other competitors via that route. I think most of the information was already out there.
The bikepacking community always seems a friendly and welcoming group of riders, so by the time we all arrived at Tyndrum, it was the usual friendly face-off of who’s going with which set-up and carrying what gear.
Can you give us a run-down of your kit list. How did that work out for you, were there things you wished you’d not bothered with?
Up front I had a Wildcat Lion harness, which held a 5 litre dry bag that contained all my sleeping kit:
– PHD Minim Ultra 900 sleeping bag
– PHD Minim Ultra down vest
– Mountain Hardwear fleece hat Head midge net
– Merino base layer (long sleeved) First aid kit
– Klymit X-lite sleeping mat (punctured on first night, not used thereafter)
Around the dry bag I rolled my Terra Nova Goretex bivvy bag before fitting into the harness. Deployment of my sleeping gear and subsequent packing up was very quick, typically less than 15 minutes.
Also at the front of the bike, I had a Lioness front pack which contained food, spare gloves, spare batteries and a repository for arm warmers and gillet depending on conditions.
Within the loop of the Jones H-Bar, I ran a Tom Cat, which held more food and my camera.
At the rear, I had a Tiger harness within which was the new Wildcat tapered dry bag, which held my waterproofs, thermal top, more food, spare socks.
Tools were held in a Wildcat Cheetah top tube pack, and the frame carried two 610ml water bottles. Around my waist, I had an Inov-8 waist pack which contained food, wind top, smidge & electrolyte tabs.
I have a bit of a reputation for carrying as little as possible anyway, so there was nothing I packed that I didn’t expect to use regardless of the conditions. I was pleased to have honed the kit fairly substantially from 2013 and 2014. In the end, only one piece of kit was unused, and that was the thermal top and spare gloves.
Kit is only one aspect, of course, with correct use and deployment also being critical to get the best out of it. I think I gained well in this area, which no doubt contributed toward my getting under 5 days by the end.
Was knowing the route in detail a good thing or bad?
I had ridden the 440 route and the northern loop in 2014 so I was familiar with a majority of the trails. To keep the route fresh, there were two new sections this year; a different starting section via Ben Alder and a different exit to Fisherfield. Few people has ridden these, so we were back to the ‘into the unknown’ feeling of 2013.
I was able to prepare my 6 day schedule with a good deal of certainty about what would come up each day, and that my chosen stopping points were sensible. Whilst I was exceeded my expectation by riding further each day than scheduled, I also realised how much of the route I’d forgotten. I remembered all the ups, and the majority of the downs, but the bits across the top that join the two together were frequently longer and harder than I had appreciated. At times this was demoralising when, having felt I’d done the hard work up a climb and wanted the joy of the descent, I had a few km’s of hard riding to do first.
How important is the social aspect of the ride; both out there in the wilderness and also knowing there’s a massive army of dot watchers following your every pedal stroke?
Having decided not to participate at the pointy end of race, I actually enjoyed a bit dot watching myself while I stopped for food at cafes and hotels.
Out on the trail, I had some long sections of solo riding, especially nearer the end where larger gaps opened up. Earlier in the race, some social riding was good, but often I found the pace of others not quite the same as mine so such opportunities were often fairy short-lived.
For this race, you were riding a Shand Bahookie; how did you get on with this?
The Bahookie is over a year old now, and so I am well dialled in to it. Being custom, it was immediately comfortable from the day it was built and has never ceased to bring a smile to my face on many a piece of trail, and this ride was no exception. In 2013, I rode with a suspension fork, which by the end was so lacking in performance, it was virtually rigid. I couldn’t face 550 miles fully rigid with a normal 29er wheel (which is my preferred set up for general use), so decided to trial a 29+ wheel over the winter. It worked really well, and now having finished, I’m really glad I went down that route. Weighing about the same as a suspension fork, but with less to go wrong, the larger diameter was hugely beneficial on the ups as well as downs for just rolling over rocks and obstacles.
I ran the 3″ Maxxis Chronicle on a 50mm rim with a pressure of about 12 psi, and in terms of comfort, it was no less comfortable than a suspension fork.
My training for 2016 hadn’t gone quite as planned, and while my distance for the year (compared to 2013) was higher, there were fewer singlespeed miles. As impressive as Tom Rowntree’s win was last year on a fully rigid Shand singlespeed, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull that off this year. Gears worked really well, and coupled with the 29+ wheel, I rode a lot more trail than I expected to.
Do you have one or two high points and any low points you’d like to share with us?
High points were numerous, being in such amazing wilderness in fantastic weather.
Crossing Fisherfield in perfect conditions was an amazing experience. The other high point came on the final morning. I arrived in Kinlochleven at 9:40pm, which is about 5 hours out from the finish (with 530 miles in your legs). My family had seen me start, and I wanted them to see me finish, which arriving at 2:30am wasn’t going work. I decided I’d push to the top of the Devil’s Staircase and bivvy for the last time, which I did at midnight. Beneath a completely clear and cloudless sky, I set my alarm for 3:30am. I woke very cold in conditions barely above freezing, but the faint orange glow to the NE was just emerging. I descended into Glencoe, and as I climbed out up the ski station climb, the sun broke over the horizon. It was a such a fantastic way to end the ride, rather than trudge through the darkness and finish unseen in the depth of night. Reflecting on the previous five days, I felt hugely privileged to have completed the route in such perfect conditions; that I’d held up to the task, exceeded my expectations and that my choices of gear and bike set-up had all gone so well. Although I wasn’t quite done, it was quite a special moment.
Low points were very few actually. The heavy rain on Sunday needed a big dose of man-up, but in retrospect, it wasn’t actually that bad. The exit to Fisherfield along the Postman’s Path was a mix of sublime singletrack, at times barely wider then a tyre, and grin-inducing to ride. Towards the end though, the trail deteriorated to an awkward push through rocks and heather that grew increasingly frustrating as I chased closing time at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Kinlochewe. Alan Goldsmith was at the Whistle Stop when I arrived and I was less than complementary about that section, but with it coming at the end of a 8.5 hour traverse of the whole Fisherfield Section, I wasn’t really looking at it objectively. Sorry, Alan!
Do you have any unfinished business with this route, or now that you’ve got round in one piece with a pretty fast time, you’re done with it?
There’s certainly nothing to call unfinished business. I set out to finish the Highland Trail so I didn’t need to go back a forth time. I’ve achieved that, but a strange thing also happened; I see myself doing it again some time. Though it’s the hardest five days I’m ever likely to spend on a bike, it’s precisely because of that, that it appeals. There’s also a compelling beauty to the vast and wild places the route takes you; it is like a Siren’s Song that keeps calling you back.
What’s up next for Ian Barrington?
I’ve a few things planned. The geared 29+ platform works really well, and there are a few routes I’d like to do while I’ve got the bike in that configuration.
I have plans afoot for creating my own inspiring bikepacking route in UK.
I’ve also enjoyed the filming I’ve done previously, and I have a number ideas that I’d like to complete.
Rovaniemi needs a revisit in 2017 to do the 300 km route.