Wednesday 17 July 2019

Fort William 1000 aDvEnTuRe SqUaD style

On 3 July 2019, I kissed my wife and kids goodbye and headed to Birmingham. I was cycling with a loaded bike and heavy backpack as I had plans to complete the Fort William 1000 audax event. My plan was to meet my aDvEnTuRe SqUaD buddy Jamie (AKA Mac) in Blackpool and we would conquer this West Coast of Scotland adventure together, just like we cycled the West Coast of Ireland the previous year.
All packed and ready for adventure.

Goodbye my love...
Reached Birmingham in good time. From Birmingham, I boarded a train which took me to Preston (Lancashire) and after a train swap, reached Blackpool South. Wowser, had reached Blackpool super early, as the audax event did not start until the following day. Since I was at the seaside and had time to spare, I did the usual tourist type of stuff - checked out the beach, had an ice cream and of course, devoured fish and chips.
Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside.
Fish and chips. Mmm, delicious!
The audax event HQ was at a scout hut in Lytham. Decided to check this out early with a view to pitch my tent and chill out. I was so early, that I was the first cyclist there. I met the 'Scout Hut Leader man', he appeared super stressed and quite grumpy. He expressed his frustrations with Andy (Audax organiser) and said his communication was poor, he hadn't paid deposits and other trivial points of little interest. Scout Hut Leader man was trying to juggle all sorts of folk visiting this hut and was disappointing many. He wouldn't let the regular scouts use the field for archery (because the dog club was scheduled at same time) and he wouldn't let me camp (because of something to do with Andy). All the commotion was mildly amusing and with the passage of time, more and more (though not many) cyclists appeared and I engaged in audax and cycle chat.

Before nigh fall came, I had finally managed to pitch my tent. I was surprised that I was only 1 of 4 such people to pitch a tent. A friendly guy called Alex was camping next to me - it was good to chat with him and I was grateful for the beer he provided.

I slept ok in my little solo (Gelert Solo) tent and woke up early as usual. I crawled out of my tent and was expecting to see Jamie pitched in his new bivy, but no, Jamie was no-where to be seen. Jamie had stayed at his friend 'Zara's', who only lived about a mile away from the start. Packed my tent away (did not have to pay the £4 camping fee) and enjoyed some toast and Alpen at the event HQ before Jamie rocked up.

Very few cyclists were at the start. I was led to believe that 200 people had signed up for this event (it was a double event, people cycling the Fort William 1000 and the Inverness 1200) but there was only about 50 on the start line. At 8 a.m, we were off!

Stage 1 Lytham to Carnforth (aprox 56k)
At the start HQ, Lytham
This first stage, as expected, was filled with lots of cyclists. Cyclists in front and cyclist behind. This was a relatively fast stage, only taking a couple of hours to reach the control. The control was a garage forecourt, nothing fancy, and this appeared to be a theme throughout. I suffered a near-death experience during this first stage too - a taxi driver decided to cut me up and turned left right in front of me. Horrors!

Stage 2 Carnforth to Gretna Green (aprox 115k)
Summit of Shap Hill
Stage 2 was a nice stretch to cycle. It brought back fond memories of my 2 x LEJOG adventures where I met the likes of my buddy Chris Hodge, Guy and the Cross Brothers, as well as the legends Clive (the Dr), AndyTractor and Simon. Shap Hill was encountered here too (and I'm sure the summit is approximately half way between Land's End and John O'Groats). I bet Jamie £2 that he couldn't cycle to the top in his large chain ring - at the top I was £2 lighter, way to go Jamie! Much of this section was cycled with a random cyclist 'Johnny Walsh' who joined us for a spell. Johnny knew some folk from the Beacon Cycling club and had completed the same IronMan event as me.
This stage also saw us reach Scotland. Aces! We had to stop for an obligatory photo of course. Before reaching here we were racking our head space and trying to decide if Gretna Green was in England or Scotland. For sure, Gretna Green is in Scotland. The control here was local services (nothing fancy).
Our mate Toll, could not celebrate in the Old Toll Bar. We thought of you though blood...
Stage 3 Gretna Green to Abington (aprox 77k)

Midges made their first appearance during this stage - as expected I guess, we were in Scotland after all. To be fair, despite seeing lots of midges and hearing reports such as 'midge report in Fort William is 5/5' they didn't bother us too much (ok, so Jamie got a swollen wrist towards then end but nothing more than that). Thing I remember most about this stage was stopping to help this young Syrian cyclist who had punctured on the side of the road. He was cycling the same event as us and was almost in tears as he had a tyre that was near impossible to get on and off his rims. It took us and an American tandem couple much time to finally help him with his tyre and get him back up and cycling. We saw lots of this Syrian cyclist throughout - he was travelling super light and for whatever reason was not collecting POP's at the controls. It was now dark when we reached this control at about 10 p.m. Local services was the control here again and we tucked into a nice Burger King meal.

Stage 4 Abington to Paisley (aprox 71k)

Leaving Abington, it was dark and also cold and wet. We were know donning our rain gear and starting to feel a little tired. The American tandem couple decided to ride alongside us and it was fun chatting with them throughout the most part of this stage. The wet weather was bringing out many slugs and frogs and it was quite a challenge to avoid squishing them. As we cycled through more populated areas we also saw many foxes and their silhouettes looked real pretty with their pointy ears and bushey tails. The night sky looked truly awesome too - it was as if the sky was painted with bright blues and pinks in front of us and moody, dark browns and blacks behind. About 8k from the control, the American couple wanted to stop as the fella wanted a hot cup of tea. We said our goodbye's and never saw them again (they had plans of abandoning and going to view some castles instead). We reached Paisley control at 3 a.m. and thank goodness this was a community centre and not services. The control was disappointing though - we were expecting beds (well a mattress anyway) but these were in limited supply and all occupied. Absolutely whacked, Jamie fell asleep on a chair and I fell asleep on a 2 seater sofa thing. How we slept with all the hustle and bustle, cyclists in and out, lights on, etc, I don't know but sleep we did, for a few hours at least.

Stage 5 Paisley to Inveraray (aprox 92k)
Erskine Bridge
Not long into this section and we found a McDonalds which served an awesome breakfast which was very much needed. The song 'Everybody want to be famous' was playing and this became an ear worm for me over the next hundred or so kilometres. This stage felt very long and we climbed some big hills here. It felt good to stop when we did as we were suitably tired and it was very hot.

Stage 6 Inveraray to Dunbeg (aprox 58k)
Jamie and I were both starting to feel a little deflated by now. We were tired. The Scottish roads were awful - lots of pot holes and not smooth, an almost constant buzzy feel in my handlebars and way too much busy A road for our liking. The controls were largely pants too and the fact we had to cycle many stretches of the same road 'out and back' style to reach a pathetic control was just crazy. Only 1 thing to change a mood and that was a sleep. Without really spotting a suitable place to sleep, we slept on the roadside itself and beat this, we both dropped off! A Carradice saddle bag makes a good pillow. Oh man, we felt so much better after this sleep (which might have been only 10 mins or so). The control was another 'nothing special' garage forecourt.

Stage 7 Dunbeg to Fort William (aprox 69k)
Oban - Connel
The cycle to Fort William was great in that it offered some stunning views. It was naff in that it followed way too much busy A road. Jamie and I decided we would not follow the audax route on these menace roads and decided to go off-track and cycle the bike paths instead. This was a good idea, the bike paths were smooth, away from traffic and a pleasure to cycle. Our time might have suffered a little, but this was a small price to pay to cycle better paths. We saw some lovely castles throughout our cycling adventure and there was a really special castle here. This castle was on a little island and how I wished I owned it. The last 10k of the stage seemed to last forever and it was great to finally finish this stage knowing that we would know be turning around and heading back to where came from. The McDonalds here made a suitable control.
Loch Creran
My castle in Appin
Appin - Duror (off the 'correct' path)
Appin - Kentallen
Loch Leven

Stage 8 Fort William to Crianlarich (aprox 85k)

We left Fort William at around 10 p.m. and we were tired and cold once more. Once it had gotten dark, we decided somewhere to sleep might be a good idea. Jamie spotted a ferry terminal, which was a bit like a bus stop (i.e. semi-sheltered bench) and we decided to stop here. Jamie promptly fell asleep and snored like crazy. I wanted to sleep but just could not, I think I was too cold to get comfortable and the breeze was annoying too. After so long, Jamie gave me his emergency foil blanket which did warm me up a little and allowed me to get some broken sleep. Many other cyclists would stop at our spot and wake me by chatting and cussing to themselves that they wanted this bench that was occupied by us. When we finally left this spot, we could see cycles were parked next to ours and 2 others were bivvying just around the corner.
Ballachulish - Glencoe
Scotland was beautiful and it was great to see odd random folk in the early morning hours sat around camp fires or camping in the wild. We too, decided to wild camp here as we were so tired. I've wild camped several times, but rarely without even a sleeping bag.
Another Wild camp for Doo
And Mac likes a spot of Wild camping too
Before reaching Crianlarich, we spotted a hotel and decided we would stop for breakfast. This was a very welcome breakfast (although tiny and relatively expensive). The breakfast provided 'food for thought' and we hatched a new plan (and I spared a few mins sleeping on it). This new plan was to basically abandon this audax and head to Glasgow instead where we could potentially catch a train and return to Preston.
£9 and a tad small for my liking
We figured we would have cycled pretty much all the route (and saved the hardship of cycling 300k of the same road we had already cycled), finish a day early and avoid the busy, poor A roads that had annoyed us so much. We agreed this was a good plan and neither us were really that bothered we would have a DNF audax (both preferring audax routes that are not out and back, on quieter roads and that have lovely (and manned) controls. By the time we had reached Crianlarich, our plan was cement.

(Almost) Final Stage, aDvEnTuRe SqUaD style to Glasgow (aprox 60k)
Bridge of Orchy
Arrochar - Tarbet
This almost last stage was cycled with happy hearts and sore legs and bottoms. Our headspace was much improved and we were able to enjoy the great views, stunning scenery, cycle lanes and appreciate the glorious weather. We stopped for ice cream here and a doze there and we cycled largely care free.

We reached Glasgow or somewhere near Glasgow anyway. My whacked body made my thinking not so straight. I do remember we boarded a train which reached Glasgow central. I might have had a doze on the train...
Train journeys often make one tired...
In Glasgow itself, we celebrated our adventure. Pizza Hut proved an awesome place to eat and kindly allowed us to take our cycles inside. How wonderful.

What was no-so wonderful was the fact that train company had made errors with our tickets and we were unable to board a train to Preston at 6 p.m and had to wait a further couple of hours. Virgin allowed us to crash out in their first class lounge as way of apology where we were able to feed and water and use their charging ports. I had a quick doze and bummer, I left my phone behind when we did eventually board a train (I got my phone back about a week later via courier at a hefty cost of £35).
I honestly didn't sleep too much...
I might have had another doze on the train. Who knows? What I do know is, is the fact that we had to get off the train at Preston and had about 30k to cycle to reach the arrivee.

Final Stage, aDvEnTuRe SqUaD style to Lytham (aprox 30k)

Jamie and I cycled this large stage at night with 2 other chaps who had also DNA'd. Much of the cycle was spent chatting the usual audax nonsense and before you knew it we were back at the event HQ. We were able to sleep in one of the bunk beds (no cost) and finally had a decent sleep until the following morning came.
Fort William 1000 (690k)
On reflection, I thought this was a poor audax compared to previous events I have cycled. LEL, in my opinion, was a far better cycle and a better way of seeing wonderful Scotland. Jamie and I both preferred the West Coast of Ireland to the West Coast of Scotland and preferred cycling in our own time (as opposed to control time limits). I'd like my 'big adventure' next year to be more like the Transatlantic Way and less like the Fort William 1000. Guess what? - SJ has given me a pass for the Pan Celtic Race 2020. Now that'll be a good adventure for sure. Watch this space...

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