At 10.00am on May 24th, riders from both the UK and abroad will line up on a nondescript stretch of gravel road in the Scottish village of Tyndrum. Their goal is to return to the very same point as quickly as possible ... there's just the small issue of 560 miles of Scotland's most wild and remote terrain to deal with first.
We've asked three of this years riders a handful of questions, each one has a slightly different perspective on the race ... firstly there's Alan Goldsmith, racer and the man behind the HT550. Next, Steve Large, certainly no stranger to long days in the saddle but a rookie on the HT550 and lastly, Ian Barrington who came home in second place in last years event.
1/ How long did it take you to devise the route and was this years extension always planned?
I've been going to the Highlands for a week of mountain bike touring every year since 2004 so I guess the route had been eight years in the planning stage before I put some of the best bits together in 2012 for a pre CTR training ride. The idea of the Highland Trail didn't occur until after the success of the Cairngorms Loop that year and luckily I got two early adopters to come with me on a reconnaissance tour. They were very enthusiastic about the route which encouraged me to put it out as a group start in 2013. The northern extension was always planned to be part of it but I thought it might be a bit too far for the first year.
2/ There's over 60 names on the start list ... how many do you foresee making it to the start on May 24th?
I'm fairly sure that around 35% will drop out before the start so that would leave about 40 riders. I don't really want many more than this.
3/ SPOT trackers are mandatory, is that purely about safety or to keep the 'blue dot junkies' happy?
Both but primarily for safety. There was an accident last year involving one of only two riders that never carried a SPOT. Luckily he was near enough to civilization that he was able to get himself to help. Accidents can still happen of course but the SPOT will offer some peace of mind for me and I think most riders, their friends and family will appreciate this. If people don't want to use a SPOT and wish to ride it "pure" they can go at any other time.
4/ Were you surprised at the finish times of the front runners last year?
I seem to remember I thought somebody might get round in about three days but I was surprised that it was a singlespeeder that came closest and that there were three singlespeeders in the top four.
5/ You've raced both the CTR and the HT550, how do you think they compare?
If it were just based on the trails I think the Highland Trail would be tougher but when you factor in all the additional challenges I think the CTR is much harder. The major reason the CTR is so difficult is the altitude, it is often above 3000m for long stretches and tops out at around 4000m. Then there is the remoteness of it, in Colorado you can be over two days from any services, in the Highlands you are rarely much more than two hours away from safety. The CTR has the threat of violent lightning storms, usually they roll in just as you get to the start of a massive treeless ridge line! For me this is the worst thing about the route and it can be very stressful. Also water can be very scarce along some sections and it can get uncomfortably hot, these things are unlikely to be problems in Scotland!
1/ You're no stranger to long distance and endurance events but what makes the HT550 so appealing?
It's the multi day adventure aspect. I have wanted to do a multi day race for years (looked at the Transalp many times), but there have always been good reasons why it can't happen (have to be in a team - it's difficult to find people who I could train with, have similar outlook/attitude, and a good speed match; or they are 3000 miles away, or cost £1000 to enter). This event is low key (tick), cheap to enter (tick - although I will not disclose how much I have invested in bikes/kit!), relatively close (tick) and can be done solo (tick). Also, it is in the wilds of Scotland - a place I have ridden through once on the road, but never been really off the beaten track, so this is a massive tick. There is also the competitive element - which I enjoy (but I am under no illusion with this race that the competition is of a high standard (Hall, Headings, Sheldon, Barrington, Goldsmith etc etc make this a tough one).
2/ How light are you packing, just the absolute minimum are are you taking comfort into account given the distance and terrain involved?
This is an area I (and many others I am sure) will be thinking about a lot. My plan is that I have a light bike (9kg), plus light kit. But I need to take enough kit to be OK if the weather turns. I am thinking of the basic essentials (tools, 1st aid kit, food for 1 day plus a bit, GPS, lights, sleeping bag (my trusty Rab Top Bag), bivvy (Borah cuben that I haven't received yet), then there's the optional stuff - clothing, tarp, etc which is really weather dependant. Currently though I am going to err on the side of caution as it's easy to get caught out. Waterproof, insulated jacket, spare base layer, spare socks, buff and possibly overshoes is my list so far. I am planning on stopping only for food and sleep, so keeping warm is reliant on keeping eating and moving. Not sure if this strategy will work yet over a multi-dayer - I am putting it to the test in April!
I wasn't thinking of much comfort - after reading Aidan's report from last year the comfort thing seems to be overrated!
3/ What are you riding ... something tried and tested or have you put something special together?
At the start of the year I built up a 29er carbon hardtail for racing - I will be using this as it is light, fast and fun. It has gears as well, which for me is a requirement. Just had a framebag made for it which might mean I don't need a seatpack (I don't mind having a seatpack but I find it gets covered in crap which means anything in it (typically sleeping gear) is at risk of getting wet. Which is bad. I will be using a bar bag (sleeping stuff and clothes), framebag (tools and food) and small camelback (valuables and water/odds and sods). A seatpack may be an overflow for extra clothing if the forecast is bad.
4/ I assume you've studied the route to some degree, so which section are you most looking forward to ... or dreading?
This might sound strange, but I try not to over-analyse the route/map. My studying so far has been to print the map off as A4 sheets, and mark all the bothy and food stops. Then I have been making sure I know where the real tough bits might be (a bit of a worry at the moment is the river crossing near Fisherfield - what do I do if I can't get through??). But the rest of it I can't change, and if I know it's coming I will only worry about it or dread it. It's almost a case of sorting it out when I get there (as most of the race is going to be a mental challenge, which physical fitness is just going to make a bit easier). I need to know how far it is to the next food stop or bothy so I can plan food and sleep, but apart from that memorising place names or how many hills is just going to add a load of stuff to my worry list. There are too many hills to remember (I am thinking that there is a shedload of hills - after the first 20 or so everyone's legs will be shot, so then it becomes a mental thing - why bother to remember where they all are and what they are called - it's going to be a case of "if the track goes up it, then go up it, if the track goes down it, then go down it". There's no shortcuts!
5/ Would you care to speculate on the time of the first finisher?
Yes - 1st rider home will be 3 days 5 hours. We will class him as a nutter.
Finishers 2, 3, 4 will be under 4 days. We will class them as "quite fast with nutterish tendencies"
Finishers 5-12 will be under 5 days. These are more normal people.
1/ How much (if any) of an advantage do you think last years finishers have over those lining up for the first time in May?
The first Highland Trail was a venture into the unknown for me. Long distance, multiple days of hard riding over severe terrain. It tested me a lot more than I thought it would, and I've obviously learnt a lot from the experience. I think knowledge of self rather than the specifics of the route will be an advantage.
2/ Have you done any 'specific' training based on your experiences from last year?
I've spent a lot of the winter either riding the Singular Puffin (fat bike), or the Singular Pegasus loaded to increase my strength and fitness. All my riding has been quite specific to the type I'd expect on the HTR, even down to deliberately planning routes with hike-a-bike in them, so I can build strength in that area too.
3/ You've got a bit of a reputation for not carrying very much ... will you be lighter this year than last?
A lot still depends on the weather closer to the race, but the main planned change in kit selection this year is to go with just a bivvy bag over a tarp/ bivvy combo last year. I've swapped one or two other bits too which should leave me about a pound lighter than last year. A lot of the other changes are refinements that aid speed and comfort, but not necessarily weight. I'll also be running a Wildcat Gear frame bag cut around two bottles this year so I don't need to stop so often for water.
4/ Have you planned any strategy for stopping / sleeping or is it just a case of riding for as long as you're able?
I do have a strategy, based a lot on how far I discovered I could push my body despite lack of sleep. The race is longer this year though, so it remains to be seen if my strategy works.
5/ Feel free to gloss over this one but ... you were in second place last year, do you intend to better that?
I was surprised to finish second last year, but who knows? There are a lot of good names on the list again this year, but as last year proved, getting to the finish with bike and body in one piece will be quite a challenge for everyone.