After ruling women’s Cross country mountain biking in the UK, competing at the commonwealth games and the UCI XC world cup, Lee Craigie has turned to different challenges to reinvigorate her love for adventuring by bike. The latest in a series of challenges was a biggie, The Highland Trail 550. This self-supported individual mountain bike time trial around the Highlands of Scotland became a 550 mile (885 km) transformative journey for her and for many other riders too. This is her story.
It’s the day after the HT550 and I feel like I have just now woken from a dream. A four-day adventure of moving through the most elaborate of film sets, the most magical of dream worlds. While riding this trail that stretches the length of the Scottish Highlands, I feel like I’ve been flying with the birds who would call to me each morning or bounding like the deer that watched me quizzically from hilltops. I’ve been changed by this. Unquestionably, mind-alteringly changed. To live like this and to move like this, to manage my body and mind like this has taught me more about myself in four days than an entire career of elite level racing ever did. And the thing is, it was easy. Not the pushing of the pedals or the carrying of the fully loaded bike over col after col or the three hours of sleep a night or the managing of my food and equipment. Of course that felt hard. What was easy was the simplicity of the doing and being. Despite the discomfort, tiredness and hunger, the miles slipped effortlessly away. Hours disappeared in the changing of the light. At no point was I bored or desperate for it all to stop in the way I can be towards the end of a day ride. Because when the ride just becomes life and your only objective is to keep moving forwards through it then it becomes very simple. Nothing hurts. Not really. The painful points come and go like the weather and in the end, like the weather, are neither good or bad. Today I can’t walk easily but of course I can. The midges are unbearable but of course they’re not. I’m exhausted and I MUST sleep but I can stay awake if I have to. I’m very hungry but a few more moments of feeling this way won’t kill me. Everything feels possible and every feeling is a privilege. Nothing feels impossible, boring or unsatisfying unless I choose it to be. This was just a big bike ride but I find as a result of riding 550 miles in four days and six hours, I am quite changed.
Day 2: Contin to Kylesku – 120 km
Up at 3.30am and moving with a mouthful of oatcake, I felt energised and happy after a bout of intense sleep. I moved through the cool morning lightly and with ease. A herd of deer stood high on the ridge I had to gain straight above and ahead of me. One by one they dropped off the far side. All except the biggest one. He stood unfalteringly, majestically backlight by the rising sun, and drew me to him. He might have been an anchor point around which I had lassooed a rope. Traversing round to the dam and dropping down to Contin for 6.30am felt great until I realised there was no way Contin Village Stores were going to be open at this time on a Sunday morning. My heart sank as I stopped outside and pulled out my soggy, crumbling rye bread and paté, doing calorie calculations in my head. If I couldn’t resupply here I would have to rely on the generosity of the Oykel Bridge Hotel 50 miles away, as there would be no shops now before Lochinver. I calculated I could do it on the oatcakes, peanuts, peanut butter and chocolate I had in my frame bag but it would be stressful and tight. I got up to go from outside the closed store at 6.50am when the deer that had hauled me up the previous col presented itself as the Contin Stores shopkeeper, arriving for her unfeasibly early Sunday morning shift. I could have kissed her but I showed some self restraint and bought the contents of her store instead, something I am quite sure she would have felt more grateful for.
Day 3: Kylesku to Fisherfield – 112 km
I turned into the mass of mountains on a surprisingly rideable bit of trail and rode upwards into the sky. There are only a handful of times on this route it is necessary to shoulder your bike but the over Clach na Frithealaidh is one of them. It was almost a relief to take the pressure off my bum and hands and place it on my feet and shoulders for a while, and I found my climbing legs felt strong and rested. I topped out onto the barren, windswept plateau at about 10.30pm. The evening was quiet and calm and golden light was falling in corpuscular rays under the remaining clouds. I paused to breathe and listen to nothing, then caught motion out of the corner of my eye. I turned, and not more than ten metres away stood four young deer. They stared at me with enormous doleful eyes and sniffed the air. I spoke to them softly (something about how I must smell pretty bad if I recall), and they waggled their ears as if in amused reply. We stood smiling at each other and then the strangest thing happened. The deer with the slightly moulting coat stepped through the tiny herd and walked towards me. I can only assume they were curious about this calm, feral creature accompanied by her weird contraption, that had happened upon them just before their bedtime. I must have exuded the opposite of a threat. Maybe the grand master stag back in Corriehallie, who had drawn me up the hill on day two, had been in touch with them and they were keeping an eye out for me. I don’t know; I can only guess, but for me, standing there in that grand natural amphitheatre on top of the world, it felt like the most obvious and natural thing to spend a moment communing with these wild creatures. In the end it was I who turned and left them to sniff the air some more before padding off down our respective hillsides to sleep beside the water.
Day 4: Fisherfield to Glen Morrison – 96km
And so it was that I arrived in Dornie in quite a state. Dropping my bike on some grass and weaving into the tiny local shop, I stood swaying slightly while looking cross-eyed at all the things I could buy. Paralyzed by choice and indecision I made myself pick things up: some sandwiches, custard, cupcakes, milk, coke and sardines (sardines?) I then staggered outside, where I emptied my framebag onto the grass to find something (I can’t remember what) and buried myself in calories. When I emerged a few minutes later and stood up to survey the scene I was shocked at the carnage I had created. The quiet village green with its newly cut grass and neat rows of flowers was strewn with wrappers, tools, clothing and half-eaten cans of fish. I had grass in my teeth and hair and was giggling uncontrollably. A local man was standing outside his house, keeping a safe distance but obviously curious. I raised a hand in salutation and he turned quickly and went back inside. I returned to the shop in a slightly more composed state to buy food for my onward journey. The kind woman behind the counter pretended to ignore the grass and the memory of the wild beast that has visited her just moments before. I behaved impeccably this time, but still felt a bit like a drunk teenager who was trying to buy her second bottle of Thunderbird.
The Adventure Syndicate, an adventurous collection of amazing women, are producing a high-quality journal consisting of words and images that will inspire but also hopefully encourage and enable more people (but especially more women and girls) to adventure by bike. We are encouraging everyone to be part of the journal by making their own, personal adventurous pledges for 2017 that we can print alongside our story. Any profits from the Crowdfunded journal will go directly towards The Adventure Syndicate’s delivery of talks and workshops in schools and communities. Please help us by pre ordering your copy. Thank you. Lee Craigie (Co director of The Adventure Syndicate)
More Information: crowdfunder.co.uk
This article is sponsored by Scottish Cycling through Awards for All funding. We hope these articles, part of our Women on2 Wheels programme, help inspire more women to ride more often. Get out there!
In search of adventure and discovery? Take a look at the Highland 550 across the wilds of Scotland, it might help you find what you’re looking for.
Words: Lee Craigie Photos: James Robertson