You may also be wondering why I continue to torture myself with more cycling holidays. Since I don’t know the answer to that question myself, it’s sufficient to say that I do and spare you an explanation. And so, last month Edita and I found ourselves renting a pair of mountain bikes and setting off to cycle the Great Glen Way from Inverness to Fort William in Scotland.
As many of you will know, glen is the Scottish word for valley. This would suggest a journey on the flat. However, the people in the bike shop had also recommended that we hire mountain bikes. As many of you will know, mountain is the English word for big hill. This suggested that the journey would be far from flat.
Which was it to be? It didn’t take long for us to find out, and you can probably guess the answer.
The Great Glen Way isn’t really a cycling trail at all, but a hiking trail. Most people walk it in 5 or 6 days from south to north to keep the wind at their backs. We chose to cycle it in 3 days from north to south, into a headwind.
The trail started on the flat in some delightful parkland beside the river in Inverness. Here we whizzed past a chap in a red shirt with a medium-sized backpack and a couple of trekking poles, who was walking briskly.
We passed him so quickly that we didn’t even stop to say hello. Little did we suspect that we would be greeting him again a short while later… and several more times over the next couple of days.
Before we’d even left the outskirts of Inverness, the trail rose steeply through housing estates. My bike had a lot of gears, but not enough for my liking.
One of the purposes of a mountain bike (or so I’m led to believe) is to enable you to pedal furiously up a steep hill at a speed where the snails start overtaking. This appeared to be true, but I couldn’t quite see the point of exhausting myself to keep up with a snail when I could get off and push. So I got off and wheeled my bike up the hill instead. It was much easier.
At the top of the hill the official trail was diverted through a new development. The diversion didn’t match the route on our map, so we had to cycle up and down the road a couple of times before we found a signpost up into the forest.
It was here that the chap with a backpack caught us up. He was still walking briskly and seemed to be in good shape. By contrast, we were already exhausted.
He was using a GPS to navigate, and was able to direct us up the trail, where he said the diverted path intersected with the Great Glen Way again.
He was polite and respectful. I was grateful that he spared our blushes by resisting the temptation to make any jokes about catching us.
I remembered an incident when I walked the South Downs Way about 20 years ago. A mountain biker had the misfortune of catching me at the foot of a very long hill. Like this man, I was walking briskly with a backpack, and try as he might, the mountain biker couldn’t shake me off. Eventually he stopped trying and pedalled alongside me as I walked. Our conversation lasted for about a mile until the path flattened and he was able to ride ahead. I also resisted the temptation to laugh at him. In truth, I felt sorry for him. I knew he must be embarrassed.
Perhaps I was still carrying some good karma from that time, for I now found myself in the same situation, only this time I was the idiot on the bike. It would have been mortifying to engage this chap in conversation for a mile as I struggled up the hill. Luckily the hill thought so too. It was so steep that I didn’t stand a chance of keeping up with the man. Long before I decided to get off and push, he had disappeared into the distance.
By the time we reached the top of the hill I was sweating profusely and in need of a rest. The joyous feeling of looking down the hill and seeing the town of Inverness far below us was tempered by the knowledge that Inverness was only the start of our journey and already I was knackered.
Luckily there was now a long section of flat trail through the forest and we zoomed along for several miles. Several miles with no sign of the chap with the backpack.
When we finally caught up with him, he was still walking every bit as briskly as he had beside the river in Inverness.
“I thought you would be in Drumnadrochit by now,” I said jokingly as we sped past. Drumnadrochit was our destination for the night.
“Is that your destination for today? Me too. I’ll see you there,” he said.
“He’s walking the same distance as we’re cycling,” I said to Edita after we passed. “Remind me of the point of these bikes again.”
We stopped for lunch a few miles later when the forest opened out into open moorland. I had barely eaten a mouthful of sandwich when a flash of red shot past out of the corner of my eye, like a bullet from a gun. It was the same chap with the backpack, and he hadn’t even slowed down. OK, it’s maybe a tiny exaggeration to compare him to a flying bullet, but you get the idea – he was quick.
“See you in Drumnadrochit!” he said.
“That man’s a machine,” said Edita. “He hasn’t even stopped for a rest. He just keeps on going.”
But this was no super lean athlete in his 20s on an endurance challenge. With the greatest of respect, this man looked older then we did, with a bald head and glasses. I can vouch for the fact that a bald head doesn’t help you go any quicker. Was he really a machine or were we just hopeless wrecks? Is walking so much easier and enjoyable than cycling, that he could keep going and remain cheerful while I found myself swearing in frustration? I already knew the answer to that one.
By the time we finished our lunch, half an hour had passed. The next section was the best of the day, several miles on a good, flat trail across moorland with fine views, followed by several miles on a quiet tarmacked road. These are the sections when riding a bike has a point to it. We hurtled along, passing several hikers coming the other way. I was really enjoying it, but to a hiker this road section would be boring.
It was just before the end of the road section when we caught up with the man again. He was still walking briskly and clearly hadn’t even stopped for a snack. It seemed impossible that he could get so far ahead. We had all the advantages now. He must have been flying.
“That was the easy bit!” I cried as we passed.
It was inevitable that we would see him again. An unlikely sign appeared in the forest directing us to a café that promised hot coffee and lemon cake. It seemed implausible, but I got off my bike to investigate. I walked up a winding path for about a hundred metres into a clearing where I found a disused wooden shack and a pig (yes, I’m not kidding, a live pig. It even snorted as I walked past.)
Another sign invited me to keep going to a farmhouse, but it didn’t tell me how far the farmhouse was, or how many more pigs I would pass on the way, so I turned around and returned to the main trail.
Back at the first sign, Edita and I were debating whether to ignore the pig and go in search of the café when the hiker caught us again. We invited him to join our existential discussion and he confirmed that the café was real.
“Yes, some people told me there was a café here,” he said. “But I think I’ll keep going and have a beer in Drumnadrochit instead.”
That made up our minds too. At this rate he would be in Drumnadrochit before us and would have drunk several pints before we arrived. If he wasn’t already, by then he would certainly be having more fun than we were. We kept going.
It was the last time we saw him that day. The path went steeply downhill into Drumnadrochit. To begin with, it was a broad vehicle track. My arms vibrated like a rattlesnake on the dance floor, but the way was manageable and even quite fun.
Then it turned into a steep hiking trail. Only parts of it were navigable on a bike and I was forced to improvise a new technique. This involved shuffling forward with my toes on the ground as I straddled the crossbar. This is only fun for those of you with strange fetishes.
There were also more gates than strictly necessary, gates whose main purpose seemed to be to deter cyclists from the stupidity of using this trail as a bike route. They all had fiddly latches that you had no prospect of securing while facing away from them the length of a bike wheel away with one hand on the brake to prevent yourself rolling down the hill. They should have gone the whole hog and given us stiles to climb over instead.
But we did get to Drumnadrochit before the chap with the red shirt.
We saw him only once more, in Invermoriston the following day. As we waited in the pub for the man from the bike shop to come and repair Edita’s chain (as described in a previous blog post), our friend the hiking machine came in for a rare pit stop. We were just leaving when he arrived. I realised I’d lost my gloves and when I returned to look for them I found him sitting at our table. I ended up doing a double take.
“Excuse me, have you seen a pair of gloves… Oh, it’s you again!”
In truth, cheerful and polite as he was, I wasn’t best pleased to see him. It was lunchtime on the second day, the halfway point for us, and a man on foot had kept up with us. While we had endured a frustrating time with steep trails and a broken bike chain, he had waltzed along and appeared to be having a whale of a time.
Embarrassing as it is for a cyclist to be overtaken by a man on foot, I had the consolation of knowing that we were perfect strangers. He didn’t know who I was, nor I him. The trail became flatter after Fort Augustus, and as long as we could keep ahead of him until then, our paths wouldn’t cross again.
Imagine my horror, when I was browsing my Twitter feed at our B&B in Fort Augustus the following morning, and my eyes brushed across the following tweet.
After a bit of a lay off from walking and writing I am inspired by the Highlands. Day 1 of the Great Glen Way: ‘Are you out there Nessie?’ dips my toe into another travel blog. Fingers are crossed….. https://t.co/MGYPAqsGrj
— Andy James (@8848andy) May 21, 2019
This time I did a triple take. It couldn’t be true, but it was. It was the same guy who had been overtaking us on the trail in a flash of red.
I knew him, but neither of us had recognised each other. It was Andy James, whom I’d bumped into at Sam’s Bar in Kathmandu in 2014. Andy had been climbing Everest, and Edita and I had been climbing Lhotse, but our respective expeditions had been cancelled due to the Sherpa strike that year. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Andy’s Sherpas probably had the additional grievance of being unable to keep up with him.
Andy was a reader of my books and he introduced himself. I don’t know where that puts our relationship now. Perhaps it’s like me helping out Bill Bryson with some Immodium.
I couldn’t help noticing that not only was Andy having a whale of a time on the Great Glen Way, but he was even finding time to write the odd blog post. I read his blog post and discovered from his descriptions of the wildlife and scenery that we raced (or more often laboured) past on a bike, that he was even finding time to enjoy the walk (though God knows how at the speed he was walking).
As he described in a subsequent post, Andy had also been able to take the high trail variations. These were sections where the route of the Great Glen Way split into two, offering higher and more strenuous alternatives for walkers who like a bit more exercise in return for a good view. On our mountain bikes, we had taken the low routes and found ourselves sharing broad forestry tracks with commercial vehicles (at one point we even met a bulldozer chugging past).
And these, in case you are wondering, are some of the many reasons why I will always prefer hiking to cycling. Thanks Andy for reminding me.
If you want to hear more about my cycling capers, my second full-length book, Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, is now available half price on pre-order.