That Time We Cycled the West Highland Way Backwards

What: West Highland Way How: On my Merida Big 29er (MTB) from Fort William to Milngavie. When: Summer of 2013 Why:  We got drunk one night and as a hangover cure/not to waste a beautiful day excuse, we ended up cycling from our house to Portobello in Edinburgh then and back again.  We had the whole day to do it (56 miles in total on a mountain bike) and the weather was beautiful, food and drinks were plentiful and the love was flowing.  In summary, it was a perfect day and pretty ruddy flat (the flat part is important here.)  We decided to do the route backwards for the simple reason that in 9 out of 10 cases walkers and other travellers would be able to see us coming, reducing the bell ringing and ‘Excuse me please’ quite drastically.

There will be a condensed version for those who can go without my in-depth waffling!

Day 1:

We did not get off to a great start.  I had booked the train tickets a couple of weeks before but I had failed to say we would have bikes (NOTE: I will include some ‘Top Tips’ at the bottom of the post).  I had asked a train person in passing a few weeks earlier who had said we would be ok, but the gruff train inspector informed us that we might not get on without securing a place for our bikes on the cycle carriage.  However, it turns out we were lucky in that we were the only 2 people with bikes on the train for the whole journey!  The panic inflicted by the inspector was obviously designed to give us a fright and ensure if we ever travel with bikes again, to inform someone.  In hindsight it makes complete sense, but as those of you who know me….I thinka about thesa thingsa….notta soo mucha!

Anyway, that wasn’t the only glitch.  I was.  It had been a gloriously sunny and breathtaking trip up, passing Loch’s and picturesque little remote train stations.  We got to the station at Fort William at around 12.30, it was the earliest train we could viably get and it was misty, damp and quite chilly.  We popped our jackets on and set off, unfortunately almost straight into an uphill segment.  I have got a lot better with my attitude and mindset towards hills, however, I’m ashamed to admit my past self showed me up a little in the form of a mini tantrum.  We slogged up the first part and it levelled of a little, but then all I can say is that the climbing got the better of me.  I had wound myself up into a bit of a state.  In the decent into Kinlochleven it was nearing 4pm and we weighed up the likelihood of actually hitting Glencoe.  Although it was only another 9 miles it was another massive ascent and we both knew I would slow us down far too much.  It was at this point both our attitudes changed towards the whole experience.  Ferg had wanted to do it in 2 days I know and I think if we had set off at 6 am on the first day we’d have done it but sometimes we pile on the pressure unnecessarily.  We had a chat and decided to see if there were any places that would take us for the night in Kinlochleven.  We were in luck and the Black Water Hostel had a spare Hobbit Hole with the use of fridge, TV and fan!  We got some sleeping bags and were set up.  We had a meal and a couple of beers in the Tailrace Inn and went back to the Hobbit Hole.  For a Micro Lodge we were able to fit in a lot of stuff and the staff at the site couldn’t have been kinder or more accommodating.

Eagle Statue in Kinlochleven

Eagle Statue in Kinlochleven

Day 2

Up early the next day we dressed and had a breakfast which was quite rubbish.  The only thing open was the Co-op so choked down half a sandwich and a banana then headed off.  Again it was another uphill start.  This time it was longer and a bit more gruelling than on day 1!  I’ll leave out the moaning and crying part or you will gain the wrong impression of me, for those who don’t know me and perhaps even those who do!  I will say though, that we have all surely experienced a time where some action or experience changes your normally quite rational response to completely reasonable situations.  The mind can be a funny thing and I have come a long way in dealing with my irrational reactions and attitudes towards cycling up a hill……But the down hill.  Oh my sweet Gary, the downhill!  It’s absolutely divine.  I’m the complete opposite to my uphill counterpart when it comes to downhill.  All sense of reasonable decision making is out the window!  The path here was pretty good and the uphill’s were gradual for a big chunk.  Obviously you have the up and down ascent to the top of the Devils Staircase through Glencoe which can be challenging in parts but is quite manageable.  Another thing to point out here is the horse flies!  Little fuckers were nippy, plentiful and if you stopped for a breather, they were on you in seconds.  I was a bit pale by this point, sweating and shivering and Ferg was a bit worried about me but we literally had no choice but to keep going, until we got to the top.  Just before reaching the top it was too steep for me to stay on the bike and negotiate my way over the rocks and uneven surface.  Once we were at the top things started picking up again. 

Almost at the top of Devil's Staircase!

Almost at the top of Devil’s Staircase!

I’m not too bad on the downhill so had managed to stay on for a good majority of it and only had to get off when nearer the bottom, where steps and drops have been built into the path.  There were a lot of walkers on this part and they were all really nice, interested in our cycling choice vs walking and wished us luck!  When we reached the bottom we made a decision to push along the road to the Glencoe Mountain Resort.  We didn’t stick to the actual path on the way to Kingshouse but went along the road adjacent to it instead.  I still feel it was the best decision as it was extremely hot, nearing midday and we cut out a good hour of getting off and on the bike, as the path was narrow, gnarly and full of walkers.

The road was still hard though as it was full of fast moving traffic and wasn’t the sort of place you’d want to hang about!  I really pushed myself up the road, seeing the cold Cola I’d be sipping, the sooner we got there the better!  Glencoe Mountain Resort!  We reached it and rather than sit outside in the baking heat we sat in the cool café area inside.  It’s lovely in there, lots of windows and good wood furniture and really super friendly staff.  I was not hungry but wanted to drink a gallon of sugary juice!  Ferg reasoned with me and he ordered us two breakfasts.  By the time it came I was ravenous.  Great thing about a massive cycle, pretty much anything you eat is cancelled out!  After a few coffees, a tonne of sun cream application and the rest of our breakfast we filled up our water bottles at the campsite taps and started off again.  The plan was to cycle to Tyndrum where we could refuel and have a short rest again.

Rannoch Moore was pleasantly sloping and flat at parts.  The paths here were dry and easy to cycle on and we hardly saw anyone for a good few miles.  Again, the scenery was STUNNING.  There is a final climb before you reach Bridge of Orchy but there are lovely views and the downhill part is lovely, through a piney forest bit and finishing in the Bridge of Orchy car park.  From there we pushed ourselves on to the train station and onto another gravely, sloping up and down long path, a valley really as there were massive hills on either side.  We got quite a few miles under our belts after this and a bit more uphill into Tyndrum, still manageable and some nice views of the railway line, disused railway lines, some old walls, coaching roads and ruins, then down hill into Tyndrum.

Still smiling :)

Still smiling 🙂

We visited the Real Food Café and had a burger each and some more juice!  This is where we made the decision to get to Inverarnan before it got dark and hopefully get a room for the night somewhere nearby.  We had toyed with staying in Tyndrum but both decided there wasn’t too much to do there and more importantly the couple of places we called round had no rooms.  I called ahead to the Drovers Inn who had one room left, so we took it – non refundable, so we were now committed for another 12 miles before stopping for the night, so we packed up and headed out again.  The cycle from Tyndrum to Strathfillan is a mixed bag.  There are quite a few steep inclines which is mainly through forest but there are flattish open parts too.  Coming through one of the forest trails quite soon after leaving Tyndrum is where I had my first big fall.  Just a heads up – there are wooden, raised board walks along some of this path.  I found this out by smashing into one and falling onto the edge, wrist first, with all my weight, including the bike landing on my wrist.  The pain was instant, I couldn’t move at all and I was shocked yet again!  However, it wasn’t broken or even sprained.  It swelled slightly but was mainly deeply bruised.  Bless Ferg for jumping from his bike to ensure I was alright, which I fortunately was.  Continuing along we reached Strathfillan, past the Wigwams, which are amazing by the way.  We’ve stayed here before and I thoroughly recommend the campsite.  Great facilities, comfortable Wigwams and little BBQ areas too.  Lovely at night when you can see all the stars.  Moving away from the campsite, there are some fields but a bit further up there is an old graveyard and farm house, all in all very picturesque.  We continued to Crianlarich and didn’t stop in.  There a couple of stiles on this path which you have to hoof the bike over but then you’re on a military type road, so the going is good.  You have to pass under a railway bridge and its really low and narrow, so got off the bike and squeezed through.  A little way after this we came to a farm house and the road was blocked by……CATTLE! Lots and lots of different cows and even some young bullocks.  I can tell you, we got a bit of a shock.  It’s like they weren’t normal size, or maybe I’ve just never been than close to Cows before, but fact was they were massive and not moving.  I decided to carry my bike over the farm house gate and go around the lazy cattle (about a 40ft gap).  I was about half way across and one of the cows got up and moved away a little, meaning my jumping the gate the other side should have been easier.  I was keeping my eye on the young bullock, but it was all going fine.  I popped the bike over the gate at the other side but as soon as I had a leg over they all started getting up!  I jumped on the bike and started pedalling up the hill and that’s when the noise started! It was horrendous and I was convinced I was being chased!! Cow shit was EVERYWHERE and I got some on me via my own muckle wheels.  Fortunately, we weren’t being chased, but by that time we were a good way up the hill.  This part of the cycle was quite thrilling.  Quite a number of up and down parts but you’re never really climbing that much and the downhill was satisfyingly cooling in the heat.  It carried on this way until we closed in on Inverarnan, where it got a bit rockier on the down and paths narrowed, as it joined into a wood.   We crossed over a small bridge and Beinglas farm site just seemed to materialise and, man was I happy to see it!  We boosted just a wee bit further to the Drovers Inn, checked in and went to our room. 

Drovers Inn (c)

Drovers Inn (c)

We had hoped for a Bath but a shower was all there was.  We stayed in the outhouse part across the road from the Drover’s so after a cold shower, stretch and half change (remember we were travelling light!) we made our way over the road for some scran and beer.  There is nothing like a pint after doing something as big as this.  We tried to stay and watch the band but the were late in arriving and were still setting up half an hour later, so after some sparkling conversation, more ale and pudding, we wished the lovely waitress a good night and went back to the room.  We both weren’t as tired as we had thought so made some coffee and watched a ‘SALT’ with Angelina Jolie in it.  A bit of a restless night though.  Room was boiling (not helped by my clutching of the covers just in case there were ghosts, because we all know hiding under the duvet is the best defence) but we couldn’t open the windows for the midges.  I hadn’t known it was breath that attracts them (from up to a mile away…little bastards) but I’ve also seen Lilo and Stitch so know it’s the only reason the planet has never been blown up.  Anyway…. Day 3

Breakfast Room (c)

Breakfast Room (c)

Quite a good breakfast this morning and a shed load of coffee to wash it down but in a very surreal environment (see above).  I am aware this isn’t a diet of athletes but I love coffee in equal measure with Red Wine (although I drink more coffee than red wine…just about!).  I was not looking forward to getting back on the bike this morning.  We had over 40 miles left to go and my bum was killing me!  Although, after just 5 mins in the saddle again my body seemed to accept what was happening and we were on our way again.  We had been so lucky with the weather and another blisteringly sunny day was had.  I can see the pros and cons for cycling in the heat but it suited us down to a T. We were off to a great start, heading back to Beinglas Campsite to join back on to the path which was all right to start off with but then it started getting rootier and very up and down, with sleeper steps on a couple of down hills.  Eventually, upon getting to the edge of Loch Lomond, we had to do a lot of carrying!  It was a great workout, but a bit disheartening when we were making very slow progress, not covering much ground and feeling like my shoulders were on fire!  But, yet again, we got through this, hauled the bikes over Rob Roy’s Cave and a little further on we came to the Inversnaid Hotel  From here we were climbing a bit higher and were able to stay on the bike for longer periods but there are still some stop start sections.  Overall the path was really quite good here but can imagine I wouldn’t have liked it so much in the rain – they looked apt to get muddy pretty quickly.  For about another 6 or 7 miles the path starts to keep a steady up and slightly down motion, enough to completely tire me out.  I wasn’t doing so good at this point and we were forced to stop at the Rowardennan Hotel for some refueling.  I was really pale by this point and I think Fergus was once again really worried about me!  I forced down some fluids and waited for our curry to arrive.  As soon as we chowed down I started to feel immensely better, which was good news because we really did want to go all the Way…. Heading for Balmaha, we started off yet again feeling refreshed and determined.  This section was a mix of pretty good forest like track and a minor road, which was running alongside “The bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond!” (sorry – I couldn’t resist).  When we reached Balmaha things started to get interesting again.  I love forests and forest tracks (like Glentress) which almost certainly stems from my childhood instant love for Ewoks and the forest moon of Endor…off topic!  Basically we were in a beautiful forest, heading for Conic Hill and although it was pretty uphill the whole way it was enjoyable too.  Once we reached the ascent to Conic Hill we had to carry.  The way up is by a steep, massive stone staircase and even the best in the world would likely find it a challenge to get up.  After about a carry of 5 minutes or so, the uphill starts to slope off and became a little easier on the legs.  We still pushed up this bit but it is rideable if you were feeling fresh.  When we reached the top we stopped to take in the view which was absolutely stunning.  We really could not have picked a better weekend to take on this epic challenge and were extremely grateful to the weather for this.  The decent was amazing here too, as the steps down were the sloping long kind which were completely manageable and after a while the steps tapered off to a winding path into Garadhban Forest. 

View from the top of Conic Hill and my favourite photo of the whole trip!

View from the top of Conic Hill and my favourite photo of the whole trip!

Before we knew it we were coasting towards Drymen, passing Drymen, taking in the view of Dumgoyne and making great time, despite our stop in Rowardennan.  Now, I don’t mean to stop abruptly or have it appear I just can’t be bothered finishing but there isn’t really much more to say on the route from Drymen to Milngavie!  We were only 12 miles from the finish and the tracks here were completely rideable, enjoyable and not too strenuous.  There were a couple of smaller up and down sections through Mugdock Country Park but we were on a high because we could taste the finish.  As we were coasting through Mugdock Country Park we actually bumped into an old friend, who was heading to the loch for a party on his bike.  It was so random as we hadn’t seen Pete in years, but we didn’t hang about too long, as we still had to get to the end.

Winding through the park and then closing in on the centre of Milngavie my heart was beating faster and the smile was growing on my lips.  And there it was, the marker that signalled the ‘Start of the West Highland Way’ and our finishing point!  Everywhere was closed and the town pretty deserted, but there were a young couple from Italy who were beginning the journey on foot, so we took photos of each other and bid them good luck.  We got to the train station and started to make our way back home which took about an hour and a half by train!  I’m so proud of myself for seeing this through to the end, especially because there were several times I would have like nothing more than to give up, but we kept going and because of this I’ve been allowed to grow that little bit more as a cyclist and human being!


We did it! Finishing in Milgavnie.

We did it! Finishing in Milgavnie.

Cycling the WHW Backwards

Day 1:  A bit of a climb out of Fort William towards Kinlochleven.  For those used to riding uphill, no problems at all.  Paths are good and wide and almost completely ride-able (from what I remember I only got off once.)

Day 2: Kinlochleven to Glencoe a bit more of a mixed bag.  Quite a large uphill section out of Kinlochleven, but worth it when you start to get out of the cover of the trees and see the scenery.  Uphill a bit more till you reach the Devil’s Stair Case descent.  A mix of dirt, ride-able pebbly gravel, some grass and then the descent into Glencoe via the Devil’s Staircase.  Lots of horse fly’s here with the hot weather so you can’t stop unless you wanted nipped a lot!  

We rode the road to Glencoe mountain Resort, refuelled and headed through Rannoch Moore which was a really great section & stunning views with a ‘little’ hill before reaching  Bridge of Orchy.  Through a valley and along an old railway line you will see Tyndrum (Green Welly Stop) quite a bit before making the descent to the town.  Tyndrum to Strathfillan is a mixed bag.  There are quite a few steep inclines which is mainly through forest but there are flattish open parts too – watch out for the raised board walks which can sneak up on you if overgrown.  Strathfillan  to Crianlarich has manageable paths the whole way but a couple of stiles to cross over.  Pretty good until Inverarnan, where it got a bit rockier on the down and paths narrowed, as it joined into a woods.  We crossed a bridge and Beinglas Campsite (next to Drovers) seemed to appear from thin air.   Day 3: Beinglas Campsite to edge of loch Lomond starts to get steeper on the descents & rootier.  As a whole Loch Lomond Section to Inversnaid Hotel is pretty much a carrying bike job.   Inversnaid to Rowardennan Hotel good conditioned paths and wide in parts but very tiring for me due to lots of up and down sections.  On to Balmaha which is a great forest section which sticks to the banks of Loch Lomond until it heads away towards Conic Hill.  Conic Hill, unride-able on the up until it levels out and the stairs become smaller but decent into Garadhban Forest is amazing! Into Drymen the paths are brilliant, and there isn’t really much more to say on the route from Drymen to Milngavie!  The tracks here were completely ride-able, enjoyable and not too strenuous.  There were a couple of smaller up and down sections through Mugdock Country Park but we were on a high because we could taste the finish. Top Tips

  • If cycling ‘backwards’ (Fort William to Milgavnie) inform the train company you will be travelling with bikes to ensure a bike bracelet is sent with the tickets
  • Cycling backwards means you are hardly ever sneaking up on people.  They see you coming and were always pleasant to us.
  • Stop at campsites along the way to top up on fresh water – we always asked before if there was someone around.
  • Enjoy it!  Unless you have some deeply rooted goal of beasting the WHW as fast as you can for your own personal gain (or its raining!!) then try to take time to look at where you are and breathe in the fresh air.

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