Cycling The West Highland Way
The West Highland Way is a 154km trail that runs from the outskirts of the Scottish city of Glasgow to Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis mountain.
It’s well known as a walking path but you can also bike along the route, which is exactly what David Piper did in November. In this guest post, he tells us about the experience and gives some tips in case you want to cycle the same path.
I wiped another snotsicle from my nose and, through the mist of my breath, stood back to admire the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. I’d been following the West Highland Way northwards and was now about to ride the 24-mile eastern shore of Great Britain’s largest freshwater lake that makes up about a quarter of the West Highland Way. To describe the scenery I could write a book of clichés so bad you would want to poke out your mind’s eye, but clichés wouldn’t be clichés if they weren’t true, so I’ll let the pictures paint the words.
Swathed in layers of merino wool and lycra, I set out into sub-zero pine forests north of Glasgow feeling like Bibendum’s chubby cousin but I soon worked up a sweat. I’d found a perfect weather window as, travelling over frozen ground I’d stay dry and clean. With well over 100 inches of rain each year, the Western Highlands are one of the wettest places on earth, but the previous week had been dry so it looked like I might just be able to have my cake and eat it too. A sprinkling of snow could only add the frosting to my all-you-can-eat cake buffet. This is a popular route with walkers in summer but here, in the bleak mid-winter, barely a handful of hardy hikers were out. When a luminous yellow puffing apparition whizzed by they gave me the kind of quizzical look a dog gives a plastic bag caught in a fence on a windy day.
The surprisingly hilly gravel track gave way to a flowing single track which gave way to a boulder strewn footpath toward the northern reaches of the Loch and I had to resort to shouldering the bike for the last five miles, cursing as I scrambled up rocky banks, sliding down between roots and branches, hitting the ground harder than Humpty Dumpty and feeling the chills as darkness spread her cloak around me. Little wonder then, that the fugitive Rob Roy Macgregor hid out in these spooky ancient oak woods, and the thought flickered across my mind that a broken ankle out here could mean spending the night with his ghost. Whhooooooo…
Finally out of the woods (quite literally) I followed Glen Falloch between the towering peaks of the northern Trossachs to the little town of Crianlarich, that provided a welcome opportunity for some hot food, and then climbed steadily to Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy. The Way was out in the highlands proper now with the scenery becoming ever more dramatic at every turn. Frosty valleys between the snowy mountains and not a soul to be seen. Heaven had frozen over.
The track wound through pines about Loch Tulla and then picked up the old drover’s road. It climbed high on to the open wilderness of Rannoch Moor. Bleak and lonely. Wild and barren. It can be a dangerous place but deceptively benign today where, from the cairn at 350 meters, I could enjoy the earthen tones of the Grampian Mountains that surrounded me, and see distant herds of red deer grazing on the heather.
The Glen Coe Ski Centre has the most wonderful café where I packed in the calories and warmed my hands around a mug of steaming cocoa, marvelling at the view of the first of the Three Sisters through the glass wall and defrosting my feet before the roaring log fire. As much as I love biking, I really struggled to tear myself away from that place.
Satan himself must have been sniggering at my clumsy attempts to ride the Devil’s Staircase, and I’m sure I heard him laugh out loud every time my cleated cycling shoes failed to grip on rock or ice, but within a couple of hours I was heading steadily downhill where the lights of Kinlochleven were twinkling a welcome in the early twilight (although the romantic effect was somewhat spoiled by the floodlit astro-turf pitch!)
It was minus six degrees but I was soon shedding the layers on the short-sharp-shock climb up to the old military road that takes a magnificent high pass toward journey’s end at Fort William. A few inches of fresh snow took the pounding out of the rocky road but hid frozen puddles that had me slipping and sliding like a pole dancing pine marten. Into the last few miles and, as if to provide the perfect grand finale, I was rewarded with a vista of Ben Nevis, with only its 1334m peak (the highest in the UK) shrouded in thick grey snow clouds.
Top Ten Tips
1. There’s an ample choice of accommodation and camping all along the route, and no need to book ahead except in peak season (June, July & August).
2. Avoid the top half of the east bank of Loch Lomond. In summer you can get a ferry to the west bank from Rowardennan or (if you don’t mind a little pushing & technical single track) Inversnaid, but in winter consider taking the cycle route that follows the A82 from Balloch to Tarbet then either brave the main road for 10 miles or hop on the train for one stop.
3. Use a sturdy mountain bike (not a tourer) and have it serviced before you go.
4. Slightly over-inflate your rear tyre to reduce the risk of pinch flats.
5. Don’t expect to cover too many miles. The energy expenditure of this type of riding is roughly three times that of loaded touring, so divide your usual average daily mileage by three to give an idea of how far you’ll get.
6. Get in shape. You’ll enjoy it a whole lot more if you aren’t gasping for breath.
7. Brush up on your technical skills.
8. Pack light, but do take spare tubes, basic tools and wet weather gear. From May to September take midge repellent and October to April pack for the cold and take lights (mid-winter will only yield 7 hours of daylight). A phone, compass, maps and GPS aren’t essential but are safe precautions.
9. Don’t creep up on wildlife or the hikers.
10. Be prepared for one of the most amazing rides of your life!