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The Pan Celtic Race 2019 - Scotland
Back in July, Active Root sponsored the inaugural Pan Celtic Race. Taking on some of Britains most scenic roads, the race route took on 1,476 miles and climbed 88,260ft. Below, Active Root Ambassador Toby Willis reflects upon part one of the route - Scotland.
It’s 11am Friday 5th July. Rebecca has just rang to say she’s on her way. I shove the final few pieces of kit in my bag, lace up my GT’s and head out of the door. My heart races with excitement and my palms sweat with anxiety. Matt and the rest of the team are already en route in the ‘Welsh Embassy’ team vehicle bound for Inverness.
Rebecca and I collect Tomás, one of our race Photographers, from the airport before hitting the road and everything begins to feel a little surreal. We’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this point and it’s finally happening.
The journey is long but we chat and we laugh. We peruse social media and find a true sense of Gathering. It feels like a movement. There’s a lot of talk about the race and a great feeling of excitement. Clan members are posting photos and videos and I feel as though the whole world is descending upon Inverness.
We arrive and immediately draw plans to meet with fellow Clan members. The excitement is too much to contain. It spills over and the night disappears into a blur of handshakes and hugs meeting old friends and new. Already stories are being written and tales of foolhardy acts are shared.
It’s now 10am Saturday 6th July. We have prepared the Spectrum Centre and a small queue has formed. Riders gather ready to sign on. Our Official Race Partners have provided a musette bag filled with ride essentials and we hand these out with paperwork and GPS trackers. The response is overwhelmingly positive. Seasoned pros sit relaxed and comfortable while first timers fidget nervously.
Our organising team relish putting faces to names we’ve come to know so well over the past 12 months. There are more handshakes and hugs accompanied by smiles and laughter and everyone feels welcome as we feel humbled by the kind words that are spoken. Rupert, Tomás and Jordi capture the moments for us to share and remember time and time again.
The day continues as the last of the Clan arrive. We have 100% attendance. Wow. A full house. The Clan. Friends and foes. Ready to tackle 3 Celtic Nations powered by only themselves aboard steeds that have been tried and tested in the months leading up to this point. Velocity Bicycle shop are helping those with last minute requirements before all are required to return for our safety brief, the final instalment before race day and the adventure that awaits.
8am Sunday 7th July. Race Day.
I’ve slipped into my Albion kit, I’ve pulled on my Quoc socks with my Official race number, 84 stitched beautifully onto the label. My Enigma Etape is shining like a titanium blade ready to cut through the elements and I make my way to the start line where the sound of bagpipes are playing and a huge crowd has gathered. The nerves are gone, my family are here and we wait patiently for Race Director Matt to signal the start.
The Shorter Route riders are started first and head off out of sight to cheers and clapping amid air horns and celebration.
Matt drives the Welsh Embassy out in front 10 minutes later and we begin to roll out behind neutralised for the time being. I ride at the back and high five my family who are cheering at the roadside. It’s an emotional encounter and one I try and draw strength from.
The roads ebb and flow as we leave civilisation behind. The vastness of Scotland is already apparent and the routes first big climb draws near. Cnoc Muigh-bhlàraidh stands tall and over I climb with the sea air filling my lungs. The landscape opens wide and swallows me whole as I descend toward Bonar Bridge. The road is fast and the pleasure of gaping corners engulfs my soul. I’m immersed within the ride now and beginning to feel some focus.
I head north through Lairg and out past Loch Shin. The roads are quiet and long and there is an unrelenting headwind. There is no place to hide as the sun moves shadows along the ground and over the green lands that encompass the few riders I come across. I pass the Crask Inn and am almost tempted to take some refuge but decide to continue as I am drawn into the absolute beauty of the highland emptiness.
Surrounded by mountains Ben Klibreck, Meall an Eoin, Meall an Fhuarain, and Creag Riabhach as I venture past Loch Naver and further north I find myself totally bewitched by the route and a complete sense of freedom. Even the wind cannot hold me back. I ride with fellow Clan members and we talk easily, passing the day with each pedal stroke. Again, I reach the coast and the narrow roads convolute and twist through stunning bays with white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and punchy climbs. The ride draws south at the peak of Loch Hope and descends through vast countryside littered with small houses that appear lost amongst sunbeams and mountain shadow.
Resupply is thin and water becomes priority. There is a small wooden sign signalling that there’s a cafe ahead. It’s Sunday and I worry that it won’t be open. Upon approach I see a collection of bikes parked outside and I feel relief. It’s a small cabin in Laid and a little old man is attempting to serve an unexpected number of guests. Sandwiches and soft drinks are consumed as talk of the routes already punishing temperament fill the air. I decide against the wait, fill up my water bottles, add some Active Root and head off.
Time passes and I reach Durness, the routes most northerly point. There’s a restaurant open and I dive inside. It’s now late evening and a few more riders arrive just in time to order food. Chips and big glasses of coke fill empty stomachs as plans are drawn for the night ahead.
I decide to put some more layers on as the air is crisp and cold. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do apart from ride and see where it takes me. My stomach has settled and suddenly my legs find new life. I feel invigorated as the sky changes colour all around me. Low lying clouds form atop mountain ranges and I see the flickering of lights on the road ahead.
The sun begins to set and with it the end to an incredible first day on the bike. The pinks and purples reflected by lochs and sea as the coastline fluctuates in and out of view. I am now completely in my element as the excitement of a wondrous night ride lie before me. I will continue to ride until I reach CP1 in Ullapool and the chance to grab a bed for a few hours.
The sun never truly sets though and the sky grips firmly the daylight that cannot escape. Silhouettes of Stags stand tall against the mesmerising backdrop and I feel as though I am part of something truly special. I talk out loud of my love for Scotland for the entire landscape to hear. I round a corner and startle a couple of Otters who make a dash for the water, my smile now uncontrollably wide. I eat and drink and feel enriched as I pass through Drumbeg, Clashnessie, Lochinver and finally reach Ullapool. I recount the ride to anyone who’ll listen as I attempt to calm my emotions and grab some sleep. My adrenaline is masking the aching of my limbs, which will soon catch up with me, but for now I’m happy.
I awake as riders come and go. My Brevet has been stamped and I am ready to leave. The sun is shining and the weather is kind. The winds have eased but the forecast ahead looks grim. I know where my goals lie and after a great nights riding I am feeling part of the game.
I ride along Loch Maree for what feels like eternity. The roads are slow and my legs feel weak. My saddle is feeling a little solid today but that’s to be expected. I find a small cafe called The Tipsy Laird and I'm just in time to order food. I sit and check MAProgress and the dots in motion with the knowledge my good friend Lee and fellow Hells500 member is hunting me down. I am ok with that and our friendly rivalry will keep me pushing on. A wry smile etched across my face as I drive forward once more. The narrow road that now passes Loch Clair twists and turns and the spectacle before me leaves my mouth wide open. Wester Ross is an area of outstanding natural beauty giving scenic splendour of mountains and coastline. It’s harsh, brutal and unforgiving and yet I can’t help but fall endlessly in love as my aching legs wrestle up climb after climb.
I pass through Annat and Shieldaig heading for Applecross. The road veers south and I am greeted with a headwind I’d been sheltered from for the previous 50 miles. It’s strong and has me cursing as the sight of the road heading into the distance is endless. I ride through herds of Highland Cattle and nod and say hi as I leave them behind. Finally, I am startled as Lee appears beside me having spent the day chasing me down. He’s looking strong and it’s great to have his company on this lonely stretch of road leading to the infamous Bealach na Bà.
We reach Applecross and find refuge in a small restaurant. There are other Clan members enjoying the riches on offer as the rain that was promised finally begins to fall outside. We eat, recharge, talk and share before committing to take on the high pass of the cattle before darkness sets in. The thought of a hostel on the other side drives us forward and we take on the roads steep inclines.
Draped in drizzle the climb begins immediately as the road disappears upwards and out of sight. Our cold limbs quickly warm as we lay siege upon the mountain. It steepens and then eases before steepening again. I unzip my jacket and try to take control of my breathing, working through all of my gears until there are non remaining. I sit and I stand and sit and then stand again, varying my position and working every muscle that I can find, it’s tough going but onwards I climb. I round a corner believing it to be the summit only to see that road snaking further up into the distance. What a climb. Finally reaching the top I am greeted with the most dramatic of cycling theatres I’ve ever been witness to. The descent before me spirals down to the coast with large hairpins hemmed in by giant rock faces. It’s a cold harsh place and the rain is falling hard being driven by the winds, I stand and admire for as long as I can before zipping my jacket back up, gripping my brakes tight and following the other flashing lights down the mountain side.
It’s now morning on day 3, I wake on a couch in a hostel after an interesting nights sleep. Snoring and vibrating alarms keeping me awake half of the night. The sky outside is heavy and the morning light has struggled to penetrate the blanket of cloud shrouding the tree line outside. I make a move and head out alone as Lee and Bryn ready themselves.
Forests of beautiful pine stand eerie and still and waters flow mesmerisingly down the roads as my airways are filled with smells reminiscent of days spent mountain biking in North Wales. The rain is falling hard and there’s no sign it will ease. I circle another Loch before climbing out of its valley and over to the next, a pattern that has developed across the whole of Scotland. It’s peaceful in the early hours as I glide along open roads with only the sound of splashing water and my hissing freehub to keep me company. Huge mountain passes vanish into the sky between huge landscapes and thunderous waterfalls and still I ride on.
The road narrows past some houses and bed & breakfasts and I wonder if I’m passing other riders who’ve decided to shelter from the rain. The road ends and I find myself at the point where three great sea lochs meet. Across the water on a small island stands Eilean Donan Castle guarding the wondrous scenery stretching all around for centuries gone by. I am briefly taken back through time and I appreciate the extremely well thought out route before us. The day continues and the rain falls heavier and heavier. It’s treacherous at times and it’s taking its toll on the Clan brave enough to take it head on. The route takes a dramatic and fortunate twist as we’re forced onto a gravel section better suited to mountain bikes. It’s flooded in places and navigation becomes a little difficult. It’s a far cry from the main road but I’m glad to have escaped the buses and heavy loads that have waited so patiently behind me. I pray that my tyres hold firm as I struggle to enjoy the views.
Back on the main road and into Fort William, the rain is now biblical and I find shelter in a McDonalds. It’s packed and the windows are steamed up. I order more food than I’m capable of eating but I do not care as I try to eat as much as possible. It’s been a long morning of insane conditions and I don’t feel like stopping yet. I’m hoping to reach Glasgow before the day is finished. I’d caught Joan and Mark before stopping and now Lee has caught me. I feel embroiled in the race and it’s getting my blood pumping. The competitive edge I never really knew I had is showing it’s true self. I finish my food while Lee orders his, I know that gives me 30 minutes on him at least as I hunt down those ahead of me.
It seems almost crazy as I head off outside into the rain. It’s like nothing I’ve ever known before. Ben Nevis towers over me but I’m oblivious to its presence as the sky is dark and pummels all below. There doesn’t feel like much option but to ride and I’m grateful that it’s not cold. I navigate the busy roads and drivers are kind, up ahead a cycle lane provides me with great relief. I get my first puncture, change the tube quickly and continue. I pass other Clan members, some aren’t having a good day and others are scratching. Lee passes me and disappears out of sight. The race is heating up at least.
I reach Inveraray in the early evening and pull into a small garage. I fill my water bottles adding the necessary Active Root to wash down a share bag of After Eight mints. The loch is tranquil and pretty with the countryside luscious and green. The roads climb gently at first as they twist and turn before rounding a sweeping bend and disappearing into the sky once more. Rest and be Thankful divides Glen Kinglas from Glen Croe and provides stunning views even with the weather hanging so low. It’s dramatic and windy and at times I find myself pedalling downhill. I pass Loch Lomond as the sky darkens and my road ahead is illuminated by only my front light and the occasional passing wagon. Moths fly into my light frequently and I make haste. I pull through Dumbarton and begin to make plans to sleep. It’s been another long day and I’m aching to rest, a hot shower and a bed consume my thoughts as I spot a hotel just off the canal tow path I’ve been struggling to navigate for the past hour. Wet and tired I roll into bed.
A quieter day ahead on day 4 eases my mind. The ferry terminal is a relatively close 100 miles away. I make plans to catch the afternoon crossing and leave slightly later than I’d planned. It’s still pouring with rain but the warm bed and shower have helped me enormously. I catch breakfast at another petrol station forecourt and am back on my way. The route is slow as it leads through housing estates and cycle paths. I grab a second breakfast to quieten my rumbling stomach and climb up and out of Paisley into rolling countryside. The roads are punchy and hurt my legs as I struggle to find rhythm. Up and down the roads undulate and I battle on along the rough surfaces and down narrow lanes. It’s now clear I’ve been optimistic with the ferry crossing and I’m going to need to change my plans. Lee has pushed hard and will put hours into my ride today catching that afternoon ferry. The race for me is neutralised now as those behind me will join me on the later crossing. I take the opportunity to enjoy the views and take much needed rest stops for ice-cream in the rain as I approach the desolate Galloway Forest.
I find myself riding through an endless assortment of tranquil valleys encompassed by heather clad hills and rugged rock faces. The winds push me back and the rain soaks my face. Pinks and purples cascade across the areas ancient and unspoilt woodland - highlights on an otherwise grey backdrop. From mountaintop to seashore the road becomes convoluted and I am thankful to begin my descent toward the ferry. Another twist takes me down a gravel section and I’m kept company by the small Black Loch visible through the trees. It’s an unexpected but beautiful little trail and before long I am back on the highway and bound for the ferry terminal where I can catch some more much needed rest.