Riding the epic Highland Trail 550

Highland Trail 550 by Markus Spitz

A lonely spot – one of many – on the Highland Trail 550. Photographs: by Markus Stitz

Of 36 riders who started, only 13 finished. The Highland Trail 550 is gruelling by anyone’s standards.

At 9am on a vaguely summery Saturday, a group of intrepid mountain bikers set off to ride an ITT in north-west Scotland.

An ITT is an Individual Time Trial and the Highland Trail 550 is the only one of its type in Europe. Riders must validate their route and time with a GPS SPOT tracker.

Photograph: Markus Stitz

Pink in the sky, white on the hills

The statistics of this self-timed, unsupported ride will seem incredible to most people. In just eight days, the aim is to ride a 560-mile planned route, including 16,000m (52,500ft) of ascent, on very rough and rocky off-road terrain from Tyndrum and through some of the country’s most remote landscape.
The ride has taken its inspiration partly from the Colorado Trail Race, a notoriously tough ITT event at high altitude in the Rockies, in Colorado, US.

So on 24 May, the 36 mountain bikers who had signed up to take part in the HT550 were ready to ride and had their bikes packed with all they might need for the next week.

But the group element seems irrelevant. Within only a few hours, few of the riders were still pedalling together and, according to most, the following week was a case of solo survival, extreme physical endurance, hardships and clever tactics.

Some did also mention beautiful and wild landscapes, amazingly kind people, great hospitality and a few cases of good fortune.

Eight days later, 12 of the riders had made it to the finish line. Some 23 had “scratched”, that is, not finished. The only female – and the first ever – taking part in the ride, Iona Evans, had still to finish. She came in a day later.

Tales of the Highland Trail 550

According to Gary Tompsett, who was fifth home in five days, 13 hours and 10 minutes, the HT550 is brutal but also attractive. He said: “I was drawn to the ride because it offered an immense adventure in Scotland. The toughness appealed to me and also the chance to test my skills on a technically challenging endurance route.

“I am competitive, too, and I wanted to see if I could outwit the others and try to fare better on a difficult route and against the strict and tricky rules.”

Photograph: Markus Stitz

One of many uphill sections

The HT550 rules

  • Complete the entire route, under your own power and with no drafting
  • Totally self-supported
  • No gear sharing
  • No booking accommodation ahead and commercial services to be used only as and when you come across them
  • No private resupply and no private lodgings
  • If riders have to leave the route, they must re-join it at the exactly same spot
  • No caches of any kind
  • No travel by any motorised means during your ride
  • Gear: nothing required, nothing prohibited
  • Riders must be tracked by a GPS device, SPOT Tracker
Pic credit: Markus Stitz

Route sign among the roots

Beauty of the HT550

Despite its daunting rules and route, Gary, of Strathaven, South Lanarkshire, reckons the HT550 is still a fantastic ride. He said: “So many times I felt like I was buzzing. The route is also through some of Scotland’s most stunning landscape. I was on a high from start to finish and I think I am still.”

Other riders spent many days recovering after the HT550. Markus Stitz (see a recent Scotland Outdoors article Mountain Bike Adventure on the WHW) has less experience than Gary of week-long, off-road endurance rides.

It took Markus, of Edinburgh, close to the full eight days to finish the epic ITT. He said: “I entered more on a whim than anything else because I thought it would be an interesting ride to do. But I had no concept of how difficult it would be.

“It is the hardest thing I have ever done and the only reason that I finished inside the eight days is because I gave it my all on the final day by riding more than 100 miles. I have been exhausted since then. It will take me a while to recover I think.”

Yet Markus, who rode a single-speed bike, also talked about the beauty of the ride. He said: “The scenery was incredible. So often you were miles from anywhere and on your own but you were surrounded by amazing beauty. My head is full of all these memories.”

Both Gary and Markus made the best of a mix of overnight options, sleeping bivvy style, in hotels and even some smarter accommodation.

Gary Thompsett

Gary Tompsett takes a breather

Gary set himself a gruelling target of only one to five hours sleep each night. He slept rough and also admits he was lucky to come across a couple of hotels en route that allowed “a dirty mountain biker a hot meal and a room for the night”.

Markus knew he would be slower than other riders and slept for longer when he could, but still suffered seven nights of “rough-and-ready” sleep.

Gary explained: “You weren’t allowed to book any accommodation ahead and, in fact, you could not know how far you would ride each day. I was lucky to spot a hotel on the map and find that they had a room. I was expecting them to turn away a rider who was clearly very dirty and smelly. But I was lucky.”

Markus describes the HT550 as a true adventure. He said: “It was a hugely demanding trip, especially some of the steep hills when I had to push my bike. It was so hard.

Gary makes it to the finish.

Gary after making it to the finish

“But it was also a holiday for me so I made the most of it. I met new people and I enjoyed having a set course to follow. The experience was unforgettable. I am not sure if this is something I will do again but I am delighted to have completed it and within the eight days time limit. I know many others didn’t make it.”

Gary, an outdoor guide, consultant and mountain bike leader, said: “I feel privileged to have taken part and completed it. The route was amazing and well planned. Being in contact with the Highlands on a bike in such an event feels so graphic. This is exactly the sort of ride that I love.”

The fastest rider was Philip Simcock in four days, two hours and 22 minutes.

To find out more see Highland Trail 550

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