Trekking the West Highland Way has been on my to-do list for the last couple of years. It is one of the most beautiful and epic treks in Europe (if not the world!) and considering Scotland is only an hour by aeroplane from Amsterdam (my hometown) I really had no excuse. The problem was always that as a hike, it is quite long. People take out 6 – 10 days to complete the full 165 kilometres and while I like a good trek or hike, I usually get bored after about 5 days, regardless of the beautiful scenery. So when I read an article by Derek Shanks on doing it by mountain bike in 3 days, I was hooked. This was going to be epic. Looking back at it, with the bruises on my legs barely faded, it absolutely was. But it was also rough, tough, sweaty and terrible at times. So without any sugar-coating, here are the accounts of my trip through the Scottish Highlands.
Day 1: the train up North
We started out enthusiastically and with we, I mean me and three very good friends, Timo, Leon and Patrick. None of us is what you would call an ‘extreme athlete’ nor is anyone a particularly skilful cyclist, but we are all in decent shape and go out mountain biking about every other month. We had decided on doing the West Highland Way from North to South mainly for two reasons. One, this way you are descending more meters than your climbing. Two, almost all hikers walk the route from South to North meaning you approach them head-on which is both more enjoyable for the hikers as well as for you, cycling.
We initially had hired our bikes in Fort William (The Northen end of the route) but Offroad Bikes cancelled on us a few days before we were supposed to go because they could not arrange for a courier taking the bikes up North. This left us in a tricky situation considering we’d already booked all accommodation along the way. Big thumbs up for Billy Billsland’s Cycles in Glasgow who arranged awesome Whyte 901 MTB’s for us very last minute.
After picking up the bikes, we took the train up North and spend the 4-hour ride gazing out of the big train windows soaking up the incredible views and trying to spot the West Highland Way and enthusiastically exclaiming how extremely rideable those paths looked like. We had been warned by several experienced mountain bikers (including the guys at the bike shop) that our route was particularly rough. Lot’s of hike-a-bike pieces (where you have to carry your bike while climbing over rocks) and steep rocky climbs. But the weather forecast was good and the views great so except for a slight nervousness, we weren’t too worried.
We spent the evening playing cards in the Chase the Wild Goose Hostel (great pick! good beds, clean sheets, hot showers and free breakfast) and having a few beers. All stoked to get started the next day, but totally unprepared for what was to come.
Day 2: Fort William – Tyndrum, 14 hours of blood sweat and tears
We got up around 07:00 AM and were ready to depart about a quarter to eight. The first miles getting out of town were flat and the road was paved, perfect to test out our brakes, gears and the like. We were happily chatting, riding in pairs until we saw the starting point of the route, took the obligatory picture. GAME ON.
Climbing into the hills
Literally the second we got onto the West Highland Way the path started to lead us upwards. Steep and unpaved but cyclable. About 20 minutes in (still steadily climbing) we were all out of breath. We nervously joked that the whole way would be like this, secretly hoping it wouldn’t. Head down, light gear, keeping the talking to a minimum to maintain your breath. It took us about 45 minutes to get to the top, and the rush of achievement caused us to immediately spurt down the path that lay ahead. Mistake number one.
Because most hikers walk the route in the opposite direction, the marks and signs are faced in that direction as well. This had caused us to miss a mark, where the path went left instead of straight on, and thus we now had to climb the whole hill that we just raced down in twenty seconds back up. Joy.
Up in the highlands
When we found the missing marker it became obvious why we had missed it. The path was a tiny, foot-wide sand path, largely overgrown by ferns and other shrubs. True singletrack and totally awesome. The next couple of hours were a combination of climbing up and winding down narrow paths, awesome views and rock-climbing goats and sheep everywhere. This was the Scotland we had been hoping for. Around noon, about 4 hours in, we were exhausted but content. Even though we had only travelled about 25miles (and still had to do 40 that day) the trek was extremely rewarding. We munched away sandwiches and energy bars like we were a contestant on The Biggest Loser having a fallback, and were all cheerful and enthusiastic.
We had heard that the lead-up to the ‘Devil’s Staircase’, a notoriously steep section of the West Highland Way, would be a strenuous 2-hour climb. Because we had been gradually gaining elevation for the most of the day one of my friends, Timo, thought that we might actually have already been doing part of that climb. I hoped he was right but knew he was wrong. But not in my wildest imaginations had I expected the climb that was yet to come.
The longest hike-a-bike in the world
When we got a few Coca Colas’ in the town called Kinlochleven our hopes were instantly smashed by the pub-owner who happily told us that the climb started immediately after this town. He was right. We got back on our bikes and the path just went skywards. A steep but wide sand path winded up high into the hills. Some sections were just barely cyclable but most of it was just pushing the bikes. Bits were simply stairs, meaning we had to carry the bikes on our shoulders. About an hour into the climb we were exhausted, drenched in our own sweat and demoralised as hell. Oncoming hikers tried their best to not show off their faces how sorry they felt for us but it was obvious that the end was still very far ahead indeed. There was nothing else to do that baring it. Step after step, climb after climb. Longingly gazing at the top that never seemed to get any closer. After every turn, a new higher hilltop appeared. The climb felt to be going on forever.
And then we were there! The top! Or so we thought. The path flattened out and we could cycle again. Immediately it felt like it was all worth it again. Except for some wide drenches every few hundred meters, we could continue on and life was good. We thought we had mastered the climb and were preparing ourselves for the Devil’s Staircase, which we would be doing as a decent. Awesome. And then… Patrick got a flat tire. Little did it to dampen our spirits though, as this was probably the most scenic tire-switch we had ever performed.
What did dampen our spirits was seeing the path going sharply upwards again 5 minutes later. The climb had only just begone. To make matters worse, this time the path was extremely rocky and the loose rocks made it impossible to cycle even the slightly less steep sections. At one point my front wheel got stuck between two rocks, and I fell in slow-motion over my bike. My leg hurt, my arm hurt, everything g*ddamn hurt. At this time it was around 5:30 PM, we were exhausted, our legs shaking and our seemingly endless supply of food almost depleted. We dug deeper than we ever imagined and then, after almost 3 hours in total we made it to the top.
We lowered our saddles for the descent (a tip we got from a someone we met on the road, yes were did not know that, yes we are that amateur) and cruised down. For most parts at least, some sections were simply too steep and rocky that, considering the condition we were in, we felt not brave enough to cycle down.
Calling it quits
After the adrenaline rush of the Devil’s Staircase had faded, the fatigue hit hard. We still had about 10 miles to go, it was around 7 PM and we had been on the bikes almost non-stop for almost 12 hours. Going on cycling simply felt irresponsible so we called it quits and decided to skip the last bit and cycle on the main road. Same amount of miles, but no rocks and an easy flat and paved road. About halfway there we found out this had been the right decision as one of my friends could simply not go any further. We had to pause for about 20 minutes before we cycled the last lap of the day. Arriving in Tyndrum, our destination for the night at 8:30 PM, we had dinner and a beer and felt proud, accomplished, excited but extremely tired. We were so happy that we had booked a proper hotel for the night (Muthu Ben Doran Hotel) and fell asleep almost instantly.
Day 3: Tyndrum – Balmaha, epic highs, epic lows
After raiding the breakfast buffet of all the buns and muffins we could find we started the day refreshed but still aching from the day before. For the most part, the paths between Tyndrum and Balmaha are both stunningly beautiful as well as awesome to ride.
Waterfalls and wildflower hills
Hills with cattle grazing, waterfalls along the way and a narrow but very rideable path meandered through the lush hills covered in wildflowers. We made good mileage, the sun was out and the cycling technical but great. On the way, we met a lady that had been mountain biking in the area before and told us that the Northern bit of Loch Lomond was simply unrideable. There was an alternative, doing a short road-section, taking a ferry and continue cycling from there. What? we could take a boat across Loch Lomond?! Awesome. As she was quoting Mountain Biking UK, an established magazine, we happily followed up on her advise.
The road and the boat
We cycled on the road from Inverarnan to Inveruglas, waited for the ferry for about an hour and a halve (finally some rest!) which took us to Inversnaid from where we continued the cycling again.
The East banks of Loch Lomond, where Patrick almost died
The first bit from Inversnaid on the East banks of Loch Lomond was probably the most technical of the whole route. A very rocky narrow path which mostly resembles a rollercoaster track takes you up and down and around the lake. On your left, you have the hill, on your right a 15-meter straight drop onto the cliffs of the Loch. As it was already around 4:30 PM we were starting to feel fatigued again making us less careful and less dexterous. After having been waiting on a small hill for Patrick for a few minutes we started to wonder why he was taking so long. At that moment he came walking up the hill, with his hand and knee bloody. A small rock had come loose under his wheel, which made him topple over and almost fall onto the cliffs below. Luckily he didn’t get injured. But I feel this might have been a closer call than we realised at the moment.
Rowardennan to Balmaha, cruising and climbing
The road from Rowardennan to Balmaha was cruising up and down on sand paths, road sections and rocky paths. Cruising down felt awesome and light, climbing up was rough and dreadful. Epic highs and epic lows followed each other up in rapid succession making us feel both bipolar and manically depressed. The whole West Highland Way was both a physical as well as an emotional rollercoaster and this section was the perfect testament.
We arrived around 7 PM in way better spirits than the day before and had a few beers at the best pub in town, the Oak Tree Inn (which also has beds!) before going to bed. As we had only planned a short section for the last day, we all felt accomplished and quite sure we were going to finish the whole route.
Day 4: Balmaha – Milgavnie, riding home with broken gears
The last day was 25 miles and could be divided into two sections. The first was climbing the Conic Hill, and a slow easy decent all the way to Milgavnie.
Conquering Conic Hill
Conic Hill was rough. Steep stairs cut out of rocks, and a total elevation gain of almost 800 meters in a few kilometres. But considering we were almost done we could simply not mind. Without complaining we carried our bikes up the stairs, enjoyed the views and took the time to take pictures. The view from the top overlooking the Loch is simply stunning. When we reached the top an awesome decent followed. Not as steep as the climb up, and perfectly rideable. Adrenaline kicked in again and the swoop down was exhilarating.
And then my bike failed on me. We had just finished the descent as my gears all cramped up and I almost crashed my bike. I’ve had some problems with my gears during the whole trip but luckily Leon knows a thing or two about bikes, so we had been able to quickly re-adjust and re-align the gear blades. This time something had snapped. It became obvious that it was a problem that couldn’t be fixed on the road. We were in Drymen, about 10 miles from the finish and I started to worry that I might not be able to make it purely because of material failure.
Drymen to Milgavnie, the last miles
After tingling around with the gears for a while we Macgyvered a solution which disabled most of my gears but was workable for the last few miles. Relieved we cycled down the last 10 miles into Milgavnie, loudly singing ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond‘. The sun was out again, we passed by many hikers that had just started their weeklong hike and the gravel path took us through farmlands all the way to the finish.
Seeing the sign of the West Highland Way was golden. We had made it! It was only around 2 PM but we didn’t even think about cycling the last 15 road-miles from Milgavnie to Glasgow (where we had hired the bikes). We loaded up the bikes on the train, and took off for a final night in Glasgow, celebrating our accomplishment.
Looking back at the trip I feel proud and accomplished. The trip was awesome, adventurous, the views great and I can only recommend everybody to do the same. However, as you can clearly read, it was also very very tough. I would not recommend doing the West Highland Way by bike if you don’t have the proper gear and are in more than decent shape. In all honesty, this was also kind off out of our leagues. Taking four instead of three days would help a tremendous amount, but it would still not fix the large hike-a-bike sections that the West Highland Way, as a single MTB track, has.
Did the same route, got any other tips, comments, questions or anything? Or simply found the article useful or enjoyable? Leave a comment below!