The dates for Trans Alba 2020 have been released, check it out here. I thought it was about time I shared my own journey of the race this year, finishing as first female and second overall. If you’re thinking of entering the race this should provide some insight.
The start line: 1st July 2019, 8.45am.
39 intrepid cyclists lined up at Cramond Beach for the inaugural edition of the Trans Alba Race, a 1700km race around Scotland. The race was the brainchild of 2018 Trans Am finisher Chris Greenan, who hosted the race alongside media director Jack Driver. A testament to the tough conditions; 22 riders finished giving just a 56% finish rate. Kudos to everyone who braved the start line, and congrats to those who battled through the wind, rain and relentless hills of Scotland to finish. Also, many thanks to Chris, Jack, the volunteers, the sponsors and the team behind the scenes who gave up their time and energy to ensure that it would be a safe and unforgettable race. From the start to the finish I found the organisation and coverage to be excellent, which made for an incredible experience on the whole.
In the few years that I’ve been progressing in ultra racing this was my best result to date, finishing second with a time of 5 days 7 hours and 33 minutes. My holistic race plan was to go into the race well prepared physically, mentally and practically. If I’ve learnt anything in the past few years it’s that these factors are the trinity of ultra racing success; like spinning plates, you have to give them equal attention. This approach paid off, but the beauty of ultra racing is that there is always scope for improvement; areas of weakness to analyse or a different approach to take next time.
For me, the race situation is the clearest way to identify areas of weakness; thus the race isn’t a means to an end but part of ongoing mental and physical development.
The concept of day and night went out of the window! I can comfortably ride all day and all night and did this on two occasions during the race – during the first and last night. I was able to get away with this approach over the given distance. Had the duration been closer to 6/7 days, a more structured approach would have been increasingly necessary due to the degeneration of my sleep deprived state. Structurally, my race was in four legs, with three rest points. For each leg I’ve summarised some of the highlights and lowlights as follows. If I were to give a detailed review of the whole race I think it would take me until #talbartwo were to start 🙂
Edinburgh to Scourie: 609km + 6836m ascent
Rolling out of Cramond we followed Chris through the neutralised zone to the Forth Bridge, where the metaphorical flag was dropped. After all the prep it was great to be finally rolling, a sense of anxious excitement shared by the collective as we crossed the magnificent Forth Bridge. A brisk tailwind helped establish an early lead, passing Chris and Jack in Kinross before the beautiful rolling roads around Loch Leven. At this point the sun was out, I kept moving and used my sun cream for the first and last time. Unfortunately it would be a dead weight for the rest of the race. On through the scenic towns of St Andrews and Dundee, places I have never visited on a bike despite living in Scotland for over three years.
As planned my first stop to refuel was at Braemar Co-op after 223km. Really, this ride would turn into the Scottish Co-op tour, buying more or less the same thing each time. It was great to see a collection of Trans Alba bikes outside Braemar Co-op, their respective riders busy eating drinking and stashing food for the night ahead. I saw Tom Duncan here who donated his surplus water to me before heading off into the night.
The climbs though the Cairngorms came thick and fast, a bit like how the weather can advance on you with little warning in Scotland. The Lecht from Cockbridge to Lecht ski village was a particular killer with headwinds and rain to contend with. The climb is 2.6 miles with ramps of up to 20%; upon reaching the summit at over 600m I was glad to be over ‘the worst’ of the Cairngorms despite the impending rain. I rolled into Inverness at 2.30am, 16 hours 30 mins after crossing the Forth Bridge. Wet and cold I took refuge in the 24 hour Tesco superstore for a while, enjoying having the shop to myself while I wandered the isles, refuelling, and looking for a warm and dry pair of gloves. No such luck. How an item of clothing could be seasonal in Scotland was beyond me. I made do with a pair of gardening gloves and delightful pink marigolds, a duo which I wore for most of the rest of the journey.
During my glove search cap no.1 (Steve Abraham) had slipped through Inverness, pressing on into the night, taking the lead. I took pursuit 30 minutes later, with cap no.31 (Andrew Hutcheson) not far behind. Despite my efforts, Steve’s lead grew steadily; first and second place had been established. As the race progressed my aim became more about retaining second place and less about catching Steve, whose race was on another level.
I caught up with Chris and Jack again in Lairg, at approx 10am on day two. After having ridden through the first night I was in need of food; the wee service station would suffice, being the only place open. We expected to meet up again in Ullapool later in the race, but it turned out that I wouldn’t see them again until the finish. Pushing on due north I stopped in Tongue at approx 12.30pm for soup, my first warm food and a welcome treat considering the weather gods were still bearing down on us.
With a strong westerly wind the stretch across the northern tip of mainland Scotland was slow, to say the least. Forward progress became the priority; a constant battle against the block headwind. But with the magnificent scenery on offer my spirit could not be dampened. Vast and golden beaches, rarely occupied, beautifully untouched. Even the sky had cleared by this point; Scotland was looking on top form and I was happy to be closing in Scourie where I planned to stop and rest.
I discovered Croft 76 in Scourie, an idillic eco-glamping haven just off the main road which was run by Nick and Kirsten. With their standard Polypod booked up that night I made do with their crystal maze experience, minus the gold tickets. I arrived early evening and it was akin to sleeping in a greenhouse, but after 600km on the road I could have slept anywhere. Some minor knee issues and back pain were playing on my mind, there was still over 1000km to go. I lowered my saddle, did some self massage and slept with my legs elevated which helped matters.
Nick and Kirsten were brilliant hosts, they took to the race and I had converted them to full time dot-watchers by the time I was ready to leave! As planned I was set to leave at 10pm, after approximately 5 hours of stoppage time. Glued to the dots Nick had flagged down Andrew who was unfortunately suffering from the first signs of shermers neck. I bid my new friends farewell and pledged to return when I might be travelling at a more leisurely pace.
Scourie to Shieldaig: 258km + 3850m ascent
‘The Plan’ for the next leg was to target the Armadale – Mallaig ferry crossing. This meant another 391km, making it in time to catch the last ferry on Day 3 of the race before resting in Mallaig. I do like a challenge, but before too long it became evident that The Plan was overly ambitious. The going was tough, and given the amount of climbing on fatigued legs my average speed wasn’t enough to make it in time, not to mention the notorious Bealach na Bà climb I hadn’t really factored in.
I crossed the magnificent Kylesku Bridge during the last remnants of daylight on day 2. What followed was particularly memorable – smooth roads with the occasional glimpse of the Atlantic to my right, deserted save for the occasional silhouette of a stag against the moonlit sky. The deer became an increasingly common sight but no less magnificent with every sighting. In the dead of night I passed Clachtoll campsite and was grateful to find it’s shower block open. I had a short rest here in the warm glow of civilisation. Pushing on, more stunning scenery followed on undulating roads before eventually turning east to meet Loch Lurgainn, a very welcome tailwind and some respite. I passed through Ullapool during the early hours of the morning on day 3; with no sign of life I pushed on with the hope that a hearty breakfast wouldn’t be too far down the road, particularly as the first signs of daylight had brought with it more rain.
Eventually, later that day and increasingly weary from the dreich weather I conjured up Plan B. My hopes of catching the Armadale – Mallaig ferry had been relegated to day 4, which meant finding somewhere to rest that evening. I called it a day in Sheildaig as it was the last ‘major’ town before Applecross and the Bealach na Bà, which I wanted to climb after having a rest. I spent a good deal of time in Sheildaig sorting out food and negotiating rest requirements. Looking back at my route I had definitely made the most of my time in Sheildaig!..
I didn’t go for a swim, but did manage to bag a wee room in a B&B at budget price. The host kindly charged me half price after I explained the race predicament and my desire to leave at midnight which she thought was totally absurd.
In hindsight, the toughest part of my race both mentally and physically was the approach to Sheildaig; Plan A had been cast aside and motivation was waning. Casting emotions aside I made a plan to rest well and press on through the night in order to catch the first ferry on the morning of day 4. After a 4 hour kip in the most wonderfully soft bed I was up and ready to leave at 11.30pm, noting on the tracker that some chasers had caught up and were also resting in Sheildaig! Cap no.7 (Tom Duncan) was among these but I don’t recall who else. Fingers crossed that my fellow Talbarians would rest until a sociable hour and allow me the chance to regain some ground.
Shieldaig to Oban: 285km + 4280m ascent
Leaving Sheildaig and it’s sleepy bay I was feeling strong and peaceful. Having crested the midway point of the race I was feeling good mentally (although saddlesore) and excited about a night time ascent of the third highest road in Scotland. Climbing mountains in the dead of night is something I seem to have done frequently over the past few years, rarely intentional but always beautiful. The Bealach na Bà from Applecross was no different – majestic in it’s own right and a beautiful experience. This was not due to the scenery (I should to return to witness the full extent), but the heightened sense of being at one on the mountain. It was dry but the fog was thick at the top; being able to freewheel again was the only sign that I had made the summit. Cattle, sheep and wild stag kept me company over the pass, which made for a particularly cautious decent due to the low visibility.
The rest of day 4 was quite an epic, a long day of headwinds and ferry chasing. I arrived at Armadale (on Skye) at 7.30am with a most leisurely wait until the first ferry of the day at 8.40am. Recovering after the night ride and exhilarated to have ticked off the highest point of the race, I eased off the gas. In Mallaig I had the most glorious breakfast – a tumeric latte alongside peanut butter & banana on sourdough toast: my ideal breakfast.
After a good feed I realised that I could complete the ferry hat trick that day, which was crucial to prevent enforced rest overnight waiting for the next crossing. So long as I didn’t hang around any longer I could easily make the next two crossings, including the last crossing from Craignure to Oban at 7.15pm that evening. On the other hand it would be a slim chance for my chasers. It wasn’t all smooth riding and plain sailing – the next 90km involved 1500m ascent, the road to Kilchoan was beautiful but undulating and incredibly energy sapping. I was aiming for the 16.30 ferry, which I had to catch in order to make the final crossing from Craignure. I eventually rolled into the dock at 16.35, expecting to see the place deserted and the rear end of the ferry steaming away, with a two hour wait ahead of me. But to my delight, the ferry was heading TOWARDS the dock! I had my timings wrong; it wasn’t due for departure until 16.45! I could have hugged the ferry conductor for those extra 15 minutes, who had been dot watching the race from his cabin and couldn’t do enough to help. To complete the ferry hat trick all that was left was a wee jaunt down the Isle of Mull: 35km between Tobermory and Craignure.
I had plenty of time, although the going became slower than anticipated with the rain and a block headwind. I was also dealing with some knee pain which forced me to take things steady. The closer I got to Craignure, the more I realised that I didn’t have quite as much time as I though, it was going to be touch and go. With 10km to go it turned into a full TT effort; push on through the pain or miss the final crossing and be stranded in Craignure for a whole 13 hours. I arrived at the dock on the dot of 19.15, exhausted and manic. The ferry was still there, but the dock was deserted. Everyone was on the damn boat! I could visualise the ferry pulling away any second, so fight or flight mode kicked in and I did what I could to fight my way on board. I’m not a shouter, but shouting was involved and I made a general scene to attract attention.
”IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT THAT I GET ON THAT BOAT!”
Thankfully, I found an attendant and pity was taken. He was on the radio and spent another 10 minutes returning the gangway so that I could board, wheeling my bike through the passenger lounge past the looks of disproval. I was wet and cold and couldn’t care less. I was just incredibly grateful to the ferry staff for not leaving me on the wet dockside. In term of the race it meant that I had a good buffer under my belt; anyone behind would have to wait until the following morning for the next crossing. Upon reaching Oban I found a hotel and made a plan to have a decent rest and reset before riding the final leg in one go.
Oban to Edinburgh: 574km + 7065m ascent
If you’ve had the endurance to read this far, well done. We’re nearly home!
I’ve many memories from this final stretch but I will account some particular highlights. One of these was the jaunt around Loch Awe – spectacular and serene. Civilisation was sparse between Oban and Inveraray, but in Dalavich on the western side of Loch Awe I came across the village shop/cafe which was the local’s joint and a real find. I indulged in delicious homemade vegan flapjack, ice cream and coffee. I also met fellow cyclist Bob who was out for a day ride around Loch Awe and it was good to have some company for a while. We shared tales from the road and I (unknowingly) converted Bob into a dot watcher… maybe he caught the ultra cycling bug and will be at the start line in 2020..
The Rest and Be Thankful wasn’t particularly pleasant due to roadworks and traffic congestion. After miles of blissful solitude I had to reacquaint myself with suburban riding as I headed towards east towards Glasgow. By this time the chasing group were on the case, particularly cap no.7 (Tom Duncan) who was approx 80 km behind. Tom was strong and riding a great race, but with around 400km left to ride I was going to push through to the finish. It was to my advantage that I’d had a good rest in Oban including 6 hours of sleep. Having been in second place since Inverness I wasn’t willing to give it up without a fight.
Heading north towards Aberfoyle it was great to come across Claire Davis and her friend Sarah. Claire had also paid a visit to the crystal maze experience in Scourie and unfortunately had to scratch at that point. I was please to see her looking well after having a rough time on the race. Onwards towards Dukes Pass and the midge fest. Dukes Pass is one of my all time favourite climbs in the UK, it’s a fast climb and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re riding a col in Majorca at some points. The midges quickly give this illusion away, waiting to ascend on you in cloud formation if you stop for more than 15 seconds. This is provided good motivation to keep moving, but I would have been dead meat had I suffered a puncture. I was lucky to have had no mechanical issues during the course of the race.
One of my most memorable night time highlights from the race was the dark climb between Fintry and Lennoxtown, up and over the Crow Road. My main light (an exposure strada 800) had become so saturated during the course of the race it was now operating on erratic flash mode. My backup Lezyne was working overtime and thankfully it managed to hold out through the last night. It had been a long night, the climb was gradual, unrelenting with no reference point to remind me where I was. Then I reached the sharp left hand turn near Campsie Glen, rounding Leckett Hill to start the descent into Lennoxtown. It was the most magnificent view – a carpet of light in all directions, stretching towards Glasgow to the south. Up there on the lonely Crow Road I had the best view of Glasgow I have ever experienced, I felt at home and forgot my coldness at once.
The rolling roads of the Scottish Borders territory were blissful, a welcome respite and fitting end to a hard race. But of course we weren’t quite done with the climbing. I took my last chance to refuel in Selkirk, with 120km to go and Tom closing in on me all the time. At this point the gap was 30km, he was a man on a mission. The climb from Duns followed by the barren pass along Gifford road was a shock to the system to say the least. I didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of this last section, keen to be on the home straight and working hard to retain that 30km buffer. Cresting the last climb, I could relax with just 40km to the finish and mainly downhill. My stress, pain and fatigue dissipated and there was only enjoyment left to be had.
Negotiating my way through Edinburgh I eventually made it to the finish outside the Scottish Parliament to be greeted by the race team, some fellow Talbarians and Tom’s mum(!). A really joyful moment and a fitting end to an unforgettable experience.
Cap 01 – Steve Abraham – 4 days, 22 hours, 6 minutes
Cap 04 – Nicky Shaw – 5 days, 7 hours, 33 minutes
Cap 07 – Tom Duncan – 5 days, 8 hours, 9 minutes