Monday, July 05, 2004
It all began when two biking buddies laughed and joked over a coffee one cold November evening.
Between sips, Willie and Andy ranted excitedly to one another: "You keep an eye on the weather." "I'll organise the transport." "If we can get a clear sky we'll head north after work." "Will the night-light batteries have enough juice?"
Something exciting was brewing.
Another off-road nocturnal foray into Scotland's most magnificent mountain scenery - one of those 'glad we made it back alive epics' was about to spring forth from an otherwise extremely interesting night ride.
So where is all this life changing dialogue going? To Glencoe my friends, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands with Team Beige and The Happy Camper. For those who have yet to endure the ride of the Happy Camper, a 10-year old Ford van, converted into a 'mini-winabago' (minus bathroom), adorned in several shades of beige, then stay with me on this journey.
Arriving in Kinlochleven, amidst the ridges of Glencoe and the Mamores, the wind pushed silvered clouds across the blackened sky, whilst the moon drew our eyes towards the snow-capped mountains, Am Bodach and Na Gruagaichean. Their silhouttes towering above posed an intimidating invitation to the heart of the Glen.
We parked the Happy Camper and unloaded our bikes around 9:30 p.m. Operation 'Discretely Get Changed for a Night Mission' ensued. Drawing the van's velour blinds against night eyes, Andy 'crash, bash' McKenna and Willie 'tougher than he looks' Catchpool donned waterproof socks, balaclavas, bib tights and all manner of feeble protection to ward off freezing night air and imminent arial acrobatics.
We were out. Resembling a pair of rejects from the Navy Seals - it was time for business. Getting started, a mixture of labored breathing and adrenalised gibberish resisted the icy air, while the halogen light from our Cateyes attracted a few curious stares. Curtains twitched and heads were scratched as boys on bikes were seen, oddly avoiding the obvious warmth of the Tailrace Inn. Our attention, far more focused on collecting thoughts and stomach contents for the long climb into the Mamores mountain range 1200 meters above our helmet-clad heads.
Adrenal chatter subsided and subdued hysteria overtook us as we committed to the climb. Utterly insignificant as we entered the mountain territory, we exposed ourselves to that addictive sense of place in the grand scheme. Falling silent, we were momentarily lost in our own breathless worlds.
The eerie glow emanating from the snow-dusted mountains helped to light our path, our silent contemplation only interrupted occasionally by a gentle knocking on the brain: 'Is this such a good idea, tackling an uncharted ride like this in darkness?'. The seductive outline of the snow-capped mountains banished such momentary lapses and drew us onwards.
As the biting cold air burned my lungs my numbed brain began to wonder: "Why do I feel like I've just swallowed a packet of throat lozenges washed down with a pint of ice-cold milk?"
"I must focus."
"But I need a 28th gear. Where's that extra cubic foot of fully operational lung capacity?"
"FOCUS, stay focused."
"Maybe if I just stop for a while...just for a short while-that'll make everything ok. If I just lie down and have a rest."
Instead you concentrate. You know that the mental torture you will give yourself for giving in far outweighs this kind of temporary misery: "Repeat pain is good, lactic acid is my friend, the reward at the other end is?"
"Someone remind me why I'm doing this - Oh yea, Willie is still ahead and making this climb look like a breeze...Must catch Willie, must catch Willie!"
No sooner had I rationalised the complete sanity of just stopping and lying on the ground, when a breakthrough occurred. Without warning, the scoffed muesli bar and banana started to work their magic. The sirens of sleep were silenced by a mild euphoric acknowledgement that the long and rutted jeep track climb was an honourable rite of passage to nirvana, where the map's contours merged tightly, and the dotted singletrack switched back and forth across the mountainside.
Onwards to singletrack sanctuary with Team Beige.
Steep mountain climbs affect people differently. For some it provides the opportunity to work on Zen mind control. For others, the control of acid indigestion is a more burning issue. Of the mixed messages reaching my throbbing temples, the most demanding seemed to be:
"Why do I choose to cycle mountains that I can barely walk up?"
The massive blackness of the Highland glen helped re-focus my mind. Stopping to take in our journey so far, heart rates subsided, breathing became more regular. As wind-teared eyes absorbed the moonlit Loch Leven 600 metres below, two warriors of the glen stood side by side in silence, the bulk of the climb complete. Life made sense, Team Beige was happy.
Only the chill of the wind nudged us back into action - and the thought of those enticing contours.
The key to singletrack paradise, a vague path at the head of Loch Eilde Mor, proved more elusive than we had hoped. In hindsight, if we had really given this escapade some more thought we should have ridden it in daylight first, but in reality, all of these 'unknowns' added to the increasingly epic stature of the ride.
Willie scanned back down the trail for any tell tale signs of the meandering thread. Pulling my bike onto its back wheel, I swivelled the handlebars from left to right, scanning with night-lights blazing. After a few false starts we were off. The strand of singletrack would have been delicious in daylight, to find it in the dark was a real bonus. Even if we were heading in the wrong direction, the tight, bermed, bunnyhop-culvert singletrack had us well and truly gripped - we had no intention of slowing the charge until the adrenaline tanks ran out.
Over and over in my head the chant echoed: "Can you believe this track? There is a God and he loves mountain bikers!"
Flowing through one more sumptuous section we were sped along by the moon's reflection upon Loch Eilde Mor. A quick map check permitted us the best view of the night, the moonlight gave us the first glimpse of our enticing path, meandering dramatically below Meal na Duibhe. Fuelled by these simple pleasures, we didn't hang around in the frosty air.
Big gear riding, we were making good pace when we turned a bend and met a very precarious 'bridge' - a sheet of plate metal spanning a chasm of unknown depth. Upon closer inspection, I shivered at the prospect of riding over the heavily rusted construction. Slightly built, Willie was undaunted by the precarious arrangement. I was 20kg heavier, and not all muscle. Hesitating to consider the lack of alternatives, with a hint of Indiana Jones, I delicately performed the cleated-shoe-shuffle across the fragile bridge.
"The sirens of sleep were silenced by a mild euphoric acknowledgement that the long and rutted jeep track climb was an honourable rite of passage to nirvana..."
Disaster avoided, we kept the pace quick ensuring plenty of light for the descent. What would be the point of all that climbing to have to pussy foot on the way down? Descending quickly, Willie was in his element with a new bike loaded with disk brakes and full suspension. I, on the other hand, was feeling under-armed with my standard issued mountain bike. So, if I could not climb as fast as Willie, I had clad my steed with large capacity 'Fear Master' tires, in a bid to take advantage of my extra bulk on the way down. If ever a misnomer existed, I was subjected to its fury in the first vertically steep switchback singletrack section. Although intended for downhill use, the tires gave no traction, and could more accurately be renamed 'Fear Factor'! I attempted every conceivable manoeuvre to avoid a face-plant: "Brake on grass verge, nope, try on dirt, rock, nope, going over bars, can't see ground, try and relax...oomph!!!".
Falling in the pitch black from an incline steep enough to inflict permanent damage to my undercarriage, I had the fleeting expectation that I would meet with the teeth of a jagged rock and ragdoll on down the mountainside. Instead, I landed on soft wet mud with an acrobatic thud, where I lay reflecting on my demise:
1. Zero traction, picking up speed, evasive manoeuvres futile
2. Cannot locate bailout zone - this one may hurt
3. Lean bike over - minimise distance to crash zone
4. Unexpected boulder - airborne forward roll
5. Crunch - no pain - odd!
6. Trapped - lying with head downhill, arms trapped under chest
7. Large grin!
Scraping off the mud and stamping my dead leg into action, I saw Willie's lights below cast eerie twisting shadows on the hillside - he was obviously flying. Adrenaline still pumping, I jumped back on and tried to regain momentum. Cursing my tire choice after a few more aerial excursions I thought I was surely going to become one of the mountains' statistics. Drastic measures were required. Deflating my tires as low as possible, traction dramatically improved and I could feel the old downhill demon returning at last. There was far too much good stuff ahead to hang around worrying about skinned knees and bruised shins.
After shaking off my sketchy start, everything came together. Through the super steep switchback on open mountain, the gradient eased enough to shake out pumped up fingers as we dropped into a spindly forest section. Knuckles took a beating as we negotiated tight trees and tried to float over the rivulet forming in the singletrack groove. Keeping front ends light we were feeling absurdly gung-ho, leaping off rocks, carving sliding turns into right hand hairpins. The crescendo of the tumbling waterfall, its spray on our right arms, provided a chilling reminder not too stray too close to the trail's edge.
We were treated to 30 minutes of scintillating singletrack, a complete grin-fest that let up only when the trail spat us out without warning on the streets of Kinlochleven. We freewheeled in the late night quiet, intact after the nerve jangling descent. Calm descended after the thunder of the glen, the scraping of brakes and bikes on boulders replaced by the hum of knobbly tires on asphalt. Team Beige was happy.
Back in the land of the curtain twitchers, the locals really had something to look at now. The Navy Seals had swapped their black skin suits for natures' best camouflage. Two mud-dripping bikers climbed into the van. Two bikes, too much adrenaline, four elbows, lots of wet lycra and stupidly tight waterproof socks - a black eye in the making.
In celebration of our epic night ride we charged across to The Tailrace Inn to be confronted by stunned silence. When we asked for a couple of beers, all stares turned to the clock. It suddenly dawned on us both - it was almost one am - the pub was closed and we had been out on the mountain for almost three hours.
Returning to the van we drove to the mouth of Glencoe to reflect on the ride. Parking for the night, we celebrated with a bottle of champagne, a remnant from my recent wedding, and as exhaustion overtook us we dreamt of singletrack, a heater and an inside bathroom! The following morning, the velour curtains gave way to a stunning view of the Buachaille Etive Mor mountain range - a glorious start to any day. To top that off Willie had kept secret his stash of bacon rashers. Hot bacon rolls and fresh coffee. Life made sense - Team Beige was truly happy.