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Lurching along the West Highland Way

Lurching along the West Highland Way

Fiona Russell's latest excursion on her On-One Lurcher has been a 27 mile ride along the West Highland Way. Here's Fiona's report from this iconic route:

I’m sure you must have heard about the West Highland Way? It’s Scotland’s original long-distance off-road trail that heads from just north of Glasgow at Milngavie to the Highlands town of Fort William.

That’s 96 miles of waymarked trail and almost 15,000ft of ascent. It’s an incredibly beautiful walk and these days many people choose to ride it by mountain bike. Some people ride the whole route in one or two days.

I am lucky. I live only a few miles from the start of the trail and it’s one of my most frequent riding spots on the On-One Lurcher 29er.

Most days, however, I ride only about five or six miles along the WHW before heading back for home. But I was becoming more and more curious about what lay ahead. In the back of my mind I was wondering if I might, one day, set out to ride the full length of the route to Fort William.

Only a few months ago I started out a novice mountain biker. Since then I have ridden a lot more off-road, learned some new skills during a MTB session at Glenmore Lodge, near Aviemore, and tried hard to be a little braver.

WHW start to Loch Lomond

From Milngavie to Rowardennan, on Loch Lomond, on the WHW is 27 miles. This includes the steep ascent and descent of Conic Hill that rises to some 1000ft. It’s a gorgeously scenic route that heads through woodland, over moors, alongside rivers and towards the fabulous and iconic Loch Lomond, where the mountain of Ben Lomond sits on its shores.

The trail also winds and undulates and seems to thoroughly enjoy testing riders with a wide variety of trail widths, types and terrain. On so many occasions my partner G and I laughed out loud as we swooped downhill and then huffed and puffed as we were suddenly forced to pedal hard uphill again.

And this section, from Milngavie to Rowardennan, does seem to take a very long time to mountain bike. Being road cyclists, we had worked out how long 27 miles might take on tarmac then added a bit and multiplied a little and come up with a figure of around three hours to mountain bike.

In the end it took closer to four-and-a-half hours. (It seems amazing that some riders go on to ride the entire 96 miles in much less than 12 hours.)

I confess that I did walk – and carry my bike – for long stretches on Conic Hill. The trail is steep and dotted with big rocky steps and then long flights of man-made steps. I could only watch in amazement as G cycled up and down some very tricky sets of steps. How did he get to be so much better on his 29er than me?!

We also bumped into several people that we knew who were running, walking and cycling, and spent some time chatting to them. So, we weren’t going as fast as other riders might, but then again we weren’t hanging about. But four hours to ride 27 miles seems very slow indeed!

The ride back included a puncture but it was actually faster. That’s because I chose to skirt around Conic Hill taking a lower level detour. This meant quite a few miles of road cycling but when you have been in the saddle for so long the tarmac smooth ride is bliss.

WHW to Rowardennan in more detail

If you want to plan this for yourself check out the West Highland Way website. It’s aimed at walkers but gives enough info for riders, too. Here’s a brief overview of the section that we rode.

Milngavie to Carbeth: The official start of the trail is a granite obelisk in Douglas Street, in Milngavie shopping centre. The path runs around a small car park to the rear of the shops, across a road and into a country park. The way runs alongside Allander Water, then uphill to Drumclog Moor and into Mugdock Wood. Once over a country road the trail passes Craigallian Loch down below on the right and then Carbeth Loch on the left.

Carbeth to Drymen: Footpaths, minor roads and a path on a dismantled railway take you speedily (well, fairly speedily) through flattish countryside.

Drymen to Balmaha: Riders are treated to more well-marked paths and then the climb over Conic Hill near Balmaha. The rewards for the effort are the fabulous views over Loch Lomond, the largest area of freshwater in the UK. I recommend a stop at the Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha to refuel.

Balmaha to Rowardennan: The views over the loch continue as the paths twist and wind an undulating route, mostly alongside the road and sometimes on it. This is not a busy road, however and at times I was tempted to stay on it rather than testing my leg muscles on the off-road trail.

Rowardennan also has a lovely pub and a nearby car park gives access to the climb to Ben Lomond summit if you have the strength to walk. We didn’t, so we cycled back the way we came.

One day, maybe, perhaps, I’ll take on the whole of the 96-mile West Highland Way by mountain bike.

26 June 2014