Sat in my subterranean flat in Canada, I’m glued to my screen scouring the internet for articles, photographs, maps… My decision to embark on an off-road bikepacking trip through the UK has consumed me. I, like many expats I’ve met, left the UK in search of high peaks and good times, thinking it was a country devoid of wild places and adventure. But over the years, it’s become harder to ignore the whispers of this untruth. From beer-fuelled rants to magazine articles glorifying the British Isles, I’ve heard tales of world-class rock climbing and mountain biking, and remote rugged landscapes I knew little about. I’ve never cycle-toured in any sense. Never done an overnight bike trip. Hell, I’ve never cycled more than 60km. Two months and 2,500km through Scotland, England and Wales might prove a challenge.
As I prepare to go ‘home’, numerous questions crop up, both from friends and from within. Why do I feel the need to test myself? Am I running away from responsibilities? Is it just for the sake of adventure? What am I looking for? I’m not expecting an epiphany, but a line from the ultra runner Charlie Engle keeps coming to mind. “We risk our jobs, we risk our family, everything. And we have faith. That is faith. We have faith that when we finish, something important will happen.”
I’m due to set out on my trip from Dunnet Head, at the far northern tip of mainland Scotland, on the morning of the summer equinox. Finally the day dawns, accompanied by strong winds and pummelling rain. I’m filled with anticipation that even some last-minute preparations involving beer and Scottish folk music aren’t enough to overcome. Just 48 hours ago my GPS, and therefore my means of navigation, went kaput. Hours on the phone ensued trying to source a new one and, combined with the delays I’d had getting sleeping equipment and sourcing the right mech hanger for my bike, made me come to the realisation that nothing ever goes perfectly to plan. Once I’d accepted that, it eased my apprehension. And so, when I pedal out from Dunnet Head, with the whole of the UK before me, it’s with a smile on my face…
Highlight #1: The Coffin Road
It’s day three and the sight of Loch Broom fills me with joy. I’ve cycled from east to west across Scotland, through headwinds and deep bogs, up mountain passes and down trackless descents, already pushing myself physically and mentally harder than I knew I could. But while I sit enjoying a pint, unbeknown to me a beast lies in wait at the end of the loch. A beast that’s known to anyone who’s raced the Highland Trail 550 [a 550-mile bikepacking race] as the Coffin Road. It could be the beer, or maybe the ice cream I just received with a friendly “Welcome to the Highlands!” but my spirits are high leaving Ullapool that evening. A few more kilometres and I’ll make camp for the night, I think. But moments later my mood plummets when I turn off the road and realise I’m faced with the steepest climb so far. In the words of Highland 550 record holder Lee Craigie: “I was off and pushing from the first gate. Push a wheel length, brakes on, step one, step two, push a wheel length… I inched straight up the near-vertical hillside at a torturously slow speed.”
I begin my ascent in similar style and, as I do, the clouds thicken, the wind howls and the stormy night sky suddenly makes me feel frightfully alone. The push, brake, push rhythm continues for what feels like hours, punctuated by me slumping to the ground with my bike, all energy gone and debating just curling up to sleep right there in the mud. Eventually I reach the high point, but searching for a suitable spot to camp on a plateau of rock and bog is a cruel task. I finally find sanctuary on a rock, and crash out for a wet and windy night under canvas.
The next day I saddle up wearily and go to check my route for the day, but there’s no GPS on my handlebar. I look around for a few minutes but it’s nowhere to be seen. Too exhausted to care, I don my waterproofs and push on regardless. Five days in, one GPS broken and another lost, we’re off to a good start, I’d say!
Highlight #2: A wild ride
My heart pumps in my chest, my fingers grip the brakes and the ground drops away from my wheels. Even my breathing is focused, exhaling as I exit one technical section and inhaling before dropping in to the next steep slab. I’m in Torridon, descending from last night’s bothy towards Achnashellach. The pure beauty of this place, combined with the bone-rattling intensity of the riding, explains why this trail is one of the must-rides of British mountain biking.
During my planning I’d come across a list of the UK’s top trails. Torridon is the first I tick off, but not the last. Some blow me away, others are hell on earth, but the highlight has to be the hair-raising descent from the top of Snowdon that finishes off my ‘three peaks’. I’ve sat patiently for four days waiting for the customary Welsh rain to break. Finally a clear day dawns, but I can see the clouds drawing in as I hang around, waiting for the clock to strike five – the time when it’s permitted to ride the mountain in summer.
I set off up the Llanberis path with crossed fingers, surprised to find much of it ridable and only broken up with a few hike-a-bike sections. Reaching the summit as the light turns to gold, I take a minute to soak in the scene before pointing the bike downhill. The descent shatters all my expectations, with the steep technicality of the Ranger’s path being followed by an all-out speed-fest down Telegraph Valley – it’s easily one of the best trails I’ve ever ridden. I’ve included many well-known trails on my route, and don’t imagine for a second that I’ve found anything new, but every inch of this journey is new to me.
Highlight #3: Shelter from the storm
Although I’ve embarked on a solo journey, I’m not doing it alone. Many old, and new, friends selflessly welcome me into their homes, and I’m humbled by the cycling community I meet along the way. Strangers become friends and, whether they know it or not, they piece me back together when I’m close to packing it in. It sounds clichéd, but these are the memories I’ll hold on to. The ones that stop me in my tracks and remind me that even the smallest gesture of compassion can have a profound impact.
A forecast of 40mph winds and heavy rain isn’t what I want to hear rolling into the Brecon Beacons, but, as if sent by the adventure gods, a couple stop me, curious about my bike, and welcome me into their house. The maps come out, the coffee flows and I discover that Kim and Tracey are well-versed in the world of bikepacking. They offer me a hot meal and roof for the night, and point me in the direction of a bothy, which, although not completely water-tight, saves me from a ferocious storm the next night.
Earlier in the trip, on day seven, I’d turned up on the doorstep of my Warm Showers [a worldwide hospitality exchange for cyclists] host in Fort William with both knees strapped, popping painkillers like candy and so severely saddle sore that sitting was no longer an option. If it weren’t for the hospitality and generosity I received from Krista, I’m not sure I could have faced getting back on the bike to tackle the West Highland Way. Twelve days later, Cut Gate in the Peak District left me soaked to the bone, psychologically deflated and questioning what I was doing. I needed sanctuary, and walking into the home of Pete and Alice McNeil was a blessing. This pair celebrated their marriage with a two-year, two-wheeled journey across the globe, before returning to the UK to start a bikepacking tour business. Their insight into the struggles of the road and life afterwards was so enthusiastically shared, without feeling forced, that I left reinvigorated, not only for my next five weeks in the saddle but for what lay beyond.
A long way down
Hywel rode a total of 2,588km, from the northernmost tip of Scotland to the southernmost tip of England. His aim was to link up Britain’s best mountain bike trails, bikepacking routes and wild landscapes in one monster ride, and over the course of that he ascended and descended the equivalent of four-and-a-half Everests – nearly 40,000m.
His route started with a traverse across northern Scotland before taking on the mountain ranges of the west coast, including sections of the Highland Trail 550 route and epic descents in Torridon and Glen Coe. Once over the border, he took a meandering path through northern England, via the Lake District and the Peaks, ticking off more iconic descents.
A hard turn west into Wales and over the next 500km he pedalled through the Clwydian Range, up Snowdon, down through Coed-y-Brenin and zig-zagged across the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains. Back in England, the Quantocks and Exmoor proved you don’t need big mountains for great mountain biking, and any remaining energy in his legs was finished off by the steep hills of the West Country.
Who is Hywel Williams?
Originally from the South East of England, Hywel is a photographer who now resides in Revelstoke, British Columbia. It’s by no accident that this 29-year-old snowboarder has found himself living in a town renowned for deep powder and pillow lines. After stints in the French Alps, New Zealand and Japan, it was the next logical step, but little did Hywel know that he’d decided to live in a mountain biking gold mine. His newfound love for two wheels has already drawn him back to the UK to see the landscape with different eyes.
This article was originally published in MBUK 376 (December 2019)