I had learnt my lesson from my DNF in 2012. This time I trained for the race, I wore the correct cycling kit and I had bought a new bike – a hybrid! It was a mix of a road and mountain bike. Surely that would be perfect for climbing hills on roads?
At registration I had to fill in a release form stating I absolved the organisers of any blame in the event of an accident. I assume this was due to Malcolm’s accident as I was not asked for this in 2012.
I lined up at the start. I felt confident. I tuned to Andrew and told him that “I thought it was going to be a great day.” I spoke too soon. It started raining.
This time the climb was much better. I made it half way up before I had to get off and push my bike. There was no camera crew at the top this year. There was no one at the top. The conditions were miserable – wet and windy. Nobody wanted to hang about in that type of weather.
I was pleased when I biked past Applecross. The climb was done. The rest of the course would be easy!
It wasn’t. The miles after Applecross are an endlessly undulating series of small hills. There is more climbing in this section than during the Bealach climb.
By the time I hit the umpteenth small hill I had to get off and push my bike. My legs had run out of puff.
Andrew was on a road bike. He felt fine. Maybe when Lance Armstrong was wrong when he wrote “Its not about the bike.” I felt it was definitely about the bike.
I made it to the second last village on the route – Shieldaig. It’s a small coastal town. The organisers had setup a feed stop here. They were packing it away into a van. They looked surprised to see us. A man approached us and said “I didn’t realise anyone was still biking”
I assume that means we are last. Very last. He opens the van and says “Help yourself to anything you want”
I take a packet of crisps, a can of coke and unusually I spot some cheese slices. I’d never seen cheese at a food stop before. I ask the man if I can have some of the slices. He says yes.
I try a bit. It is delicious. The best bit of cheese I have ever had. It was probably the cheapest cheese imaginable but after cycling 75 miles my taste buds must have craved the milk and salt goodness. I’ve never had cheese as good as that again!
To this day I still salivate at the tastiness of that cheese.
Powered up on the three C’s – cheese, coke and crisps we head off to tackle the last section of the course.
It was horrific. For the the last 12 miles we had to ride into a strong headwind. I had to stand up on my pedals to move my bike forwards. It was like biking through heavy mud.
At last we spot the finish. It’s getting dark. We’ve been riding for nearly nine hours.
I’m spent but elated. We are going to finish. We have done it together.
With 100m to go Andrew sprints off. He doesn’t believe in doing it together. He believes in winning. He is the only one at the finish line. We are so late. Everyone else has gone home.
We drive home. He spends the five hour journey telling me how he is the winner of the Bealach na Todd.
The Bealach na Ba, in the North West of Scotland, boasts the greatest ascent of any road in the UK. It begins at sea level and rises to a height of 626m. It takes six miles to get from sea-level to the top.
The name means ‘pass of the cattle.’ It was originally a gravel track used by crofters to move cattle between two parts of the Applecross peninsula. It’s now mostly used by tourists. The route is part of the famous North Coast 500 which has been named one of the top coastal road trips in the world.
It is 2012 and I am at the start line of my first ever bike sportive. I look at the other riders.
They are all using road bikes. I am on a mountain bike. I am the only one on a mountain bike. Why are they not on Mountain bikes? We are going to ride up a mountain. Surely a mountain bike is the most effective way to do that?
They are all wearing skin tight lycra. I have wearing a thick winter jacket and a pair of baggy shorts.
They are all clipped into their bike using proper bike shoes. I am wearing trainers.
They all have a bottle on their bike. I do not have a bottle on my bike. I have a backpack containing a sandwich, a two-litre bottle of water, and a map in case I get lost.
It is fair to say I do not know what I am doing.
Andrew is here but he is not on the start line. He has the flu. He has offered to drive a van around the course in case I need him. I spot my friend Malcolm who is also doing the race. I say to him “Good luck.” He says “You’ll need it more than me” and he then rides off. All the other bikes whizz past me.
I now realise why they are on road bikes. Honestly, up until this point, I thought there was no difference between a road bike and a mountain bike. I had assumed road bikes did not go up hills.
I honestly do not know what I am doing.
After two hours of cycling I have cycled further than I ever have. I realise it is two hours back to where I started so I will need to the do the same again to get home.
I stop and eat a sandwich. I wonder how the other cyclists are getting on. They must be starving. They don’t have any sandwiches.
I try phoning Andrew but I don’t get a signal. The race is too remote for mobiles to work correctly.
After another hour I reach the climb. The sign at the bottom says
Road to Applecross (Bealach Na BA) This rod rises to a height of 2053 ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. NOT ADVISED FOR LEARNER DRIVERS, VERY LARGE VEHICLES OR CARAVANS AFTER FIRST MILE
It does not mention bikes. That means I’ll have to do it.
I start the climb. Within 100m I have started to heat up. I start to sweat. I decide to take off my jacket. I put it in my backpack. I restart the climb. It doesn’t feel too tough yet.
The road gets steeper. I try to switch to a lower gear. I am already in my lowest gear. No wonder the start was easy.
The road climbs higher. I struggle to turn my pedals. I haven’t even done one mile of the climb. I’m still at the part safe for learner drivers, very large vehicles and caravans.
Maybe a bit of food will help. I stop and eat the rest of my sandwich.
I restart the climb. I feel heavy. The sandwich has not helped. I struggle onwards. I stand up on the pedals to make them turn. I stop and admire the view. I consider quitting. I don’t have to think twice. I decided to quit.
I wish I could say I have the stomach to battle it out when things get hard but I don’t. I try phoning Andrew again. He can come and rescue me. There is still no reception. Feck. I’ll have to keep going. Mainly because I assume I’ll get a phone reception at the top of the hill.
I push my bike all the way to the top of the hill. A film crew is waiting for me. Probably not me specifically but anyone doing the race. They are filming for BBC Two Scotland’s The Adventure Show. The reporter approaches me:
– I can’t believe you’re using a mountain bike!
– It’s my only bike
I take out my water bottle to have a swig.
– You carried that all the way up the mountain?
– Yes. I thought I’d get thirsty.
– You do know the organisers supply water and food at regular stops?
I thought I had to supply everything myself! DOH!! I try my mobile. It has a signal. I try Andrew but there is no answer. I send him a text saying. “I quit! Come and get me at the bottom of the hill in Applecross”
The descent of the other side is great fun. Six miles of fast downhill with treacherous corners. At one corner an ambulance is tending to a rider. I think to myself how glad I am that it is not me.
At the bottom of the hill I reach Andrew. There’s 40 miles to go but I’m not doing any more.
I’ve achieved my race by cycling further and higher than ever before.
We head to the finish to wait for Malcolm…and we wait…and we wait…and we….
As it gets dark there’s no sign of Malcolm. I approach the race organisers and ask if they have seen him. They go to check their list of riders. When they come back they have bad news – Malcolm was the man I passed on the mountain who was getting tended to by the ambulance.
The news got worse. He was taken to hospital. Great. He must be in Inverness as that was the closest one to us. We need to go that way to get home. We’ll pick him up on the way but the news got even worse. The hospital was not Inverness, which is close by and on our way home. He was sent to Broadfoot on the Isle of Skye which is miles away and nowhere near our route home.
We head to Skye to collect him. He is sitting on a chair with his arm in a sling. His brakes failed whilst taking a corner on the descent. The bad news was that he had broken his collarbone and will be off work for six weeks. The good news was that it coincided with the Edinburgh fringe. He spends the next six weeks partying.
Instead of taking the west coast route, I decided we‘d go along the eastern side of the island. The west coast has some great beaches but the landscape of the east looks like the moon. If the moon had brown heather.
The other reason for choosing this route is that Santa lives on the east side. He stays in a bus shelter near one of the small towns. Although I am worried about him. I think he might have lost his head
Thankfully he was still there when I biked past.
Unusually for the western isles the weather was amazing. The sun was out and there was absolutely no wind.
I managed a couple of hill reps of the highest hill in Harris – clisham. The north side was pretty straightforward but the west side was a 300m climb from sea level up a 12% slope!
As the weather was so good my wife decided to cycle for as long as possible. She managed 100K. She stopped near an an alpaca farm at the Callanish Stones.
They claim they sell Fish and Chips but I bet its actually Alpaca and Chips.
I was in a bike shop in Oban. In ten minutes time, I was due to leave on a ferry to the Isle of Barra.
My wife and her family were going to cycle the Hebridean way – a 185 mike ride from the Isle of Barra to the Isle of Lewis via the Isles of Eriskay, South Uist,Benbecula, Berneray, Harris.
My role for the trip was to drive a support car. It was a nice change not to have to be the one doing an event. My only responsibilities were to ensure they didn’t get lost, that I had carried their supplies and luggage in the car, and that I could fix their bikes if their was an issue.
There was only one problem. I forgot to bring any spare bike tubes. If any of them got a puncture they be walking rather than biking the route.
“What size do you need?” The bike shop worked asked.
“700×25 or 700×28” I replied. I was confident he’d have some. They are the most commonly used bike tube sizes.
“Sorry. I don’t stock those sizes!”
I was shocked but I didn’t wait around to debate the merit of a bike shop not stocking the one tube most cyclists need. I ran to the other side of Oban to see if the only other bike shop in town stocked them.
Thankfully they had some. I made it back to the car just in time to board the ferry.
I spotted a number of cyclists waiting to board. They were all female. The weather forecast for Barra was wet and wild. Does this mean male cyclists are wise or does it mean they are big girls blouses scared of a little rain?
Despite all the cyclists boarding the ferry, we didn’t see a single cyclists whilst doing the Heb way route.
The ferry was the one that used to do the Stornaway to Ullapool route. I’d taken it many times. It was looking a bit tatty compared to when I was last on it.
There wasn’t many passengers on board. I had the dinning room area entirely to myself. Mainly due to it being a rough crossing. Nobody wanted food, they were all lying down seasick.
What folk don’t realize is that the dining room is actually the best place to be. They were all in the observation lounge which is at the top and front of the ferry. The place which experiences the most ship movement.
If you want a smooth journey sit in the middle of the ferry on the lowest floor. Where the dining room was.
We arrived in Castlebay in time for dinner. My wife and her sister are both vegan. I looked at the menu. It was very meaty and fishy. There was only one vegetarian option and that had cheese in it.
I asked the waitress if they did any vegan options. “Yes – we do chips”
After dinner we checked into the bed and breakfast. I asked the owners what the vegan breakfast options were available? She replied “toast”
It’s fair to say the Hebrides has not yet embraced veganism.
Other vegan options we were offered on the trip were
Blue cheese and broccoli soup. Cheese isn’t vegan Lentil and bacon soup. Yes – really. Bacon! Smoked salmon. What do you mean fish isn’t vegan?
Is the winner of a race the person who crosses the finish line first or the person with the fastest time?
You might think that these two statements are mutually
At the weekend, Andrew and I headed to the north west of Scotland
to take part in the Bealach Beag sportive – a 72km race that includes the UK’s
biggest road climb. An ascent of 626m from sea level in just 10km.
I’ve done the race four times. Andrew has done it three
times. He has beaten me every time.
Race 1 – I did it on a mountain bike. Not because I am an amazing biker but because I did not know any better. I quit half round because I was knackered.
Race 2 – The first year Andrew did it too. We both did the long version of the race. I had learnt my lesson from my experience with the mountain bike. I brought a hybrid bike instead. Andrew brought a road bike. He won.
Race 3 – We both used road bikes. The temperature was unseasonably warm. It was nearly 30C during the climb. Andrew was wearing shorts bib shorts and a light cycling top. I was wearing winter gear. I felt I was biking in a vertical sauna. He won.
Year 4 (this year) – I had been training for the last four weeks and I hoped that was enough to beat Andrew’s five months of Challenge Roth training. Just in case it was not enough, I had taken radical weight saving action to eek out the best performance from my bike. I removed the bell
I also had a cunning plan….
At the start of the race we were both given a time dibber. We
had to dib in at the start and dib in at the finish to record our time. At the
start line, I let Andrew dib in first. I then deliberately waited 10s before I
At the finish, we both raced for the line. Andrew thought he had just pipped me as he dibbed in first. What he didn’t realise was that I had a 10s buffer on him. We received the paper results and it shows quite clearly I’m the winner or am i?
If you look at our Strava times it clearly shows Andrew beat
me by 5 minutes because he did the climb 5 minutes faster than me and then
paused his Strava at the top until I appeared. He then restarted it and we
continued on the course.
So… is the winner of a race the person who crosses the finish line first or the person with the fastest time? All I’ll say is that on paper I’m the fastest Todd.
This time last year, I cycled the 2000m climb of Mount Tiede in Tenerife. It was 3 hours of climbing and afterwards I felt fit and strong.
Last weekend, I cycled the 300m climb of the Dukes Pass in Aberfoyle. It was 22 minutes of climbing and afterwards I felt so tired I called the Police to report my cycling fitness had gone missing.
The Police explained that they don’t investigate crimes against fitness but if they did they would have arrested me years ago – “ello, ello, what is going on here? Do you call that a front crawl? I’m taking you to the nick for G.B.S. Grevious Bodily Swimming!”
I graphed my performance on the Duke’s pass and it looks
like my latest result took a dive off a cliff of consistency.
Afterwards I put this onto Instagram
Thge key point is the “I wonder if my consumption of macaroni pies and bakewell tarts is anyway related to this? “
How can you tell a diet is unhealthy? When the dessert is larger than the main course. Check out the size of my bakewell tart.
On a positive note the dinner was vegetarian so there must be a slight bit of healthiness in it.
Afterwards my wife said to me “how can your time be that bad due to the food. Did you eat it before you went up the hill?”
No – I had it afterwards but I think it points to the conclusion that I’m not a clean living performance machine.
So from now on I have to eat a little bit healthier and try to get back to my previous times…or I do what any middle aged male cyclist does when faced with getting slower – spend lots of money to fix the problem.
I’ve often noted the more expensive the bike the wider the waist of the owner.
PS – I actually had two macaroni pies but I only took a pic of one so people wouldn’t think I’m a fat bstrd!
A few years ago I received a Christmas present – a voucher for a Trackman golf fit session. Trackman is a radar tracking system used by golf professionals to ensure they have a perfect swing.
The session was really interesting. For an hour I hit golf balls whilst a man analysed all the stats generated by the radar system. At the end he said to me “You have the swing of a professional….”
I interrupted him “YES!! I’ve always wanted to be a golf pro. Should I quit my job and concentrate on my game? Should I change my name to Tiger Todd? How many competitions will I need to play before I’m a millionaire?”
He didn’t answer me. He finished his sentence. “…a professional footballer!”
He went onto explain that he had many clients who were professional footballers and they all have the same fault. They balance their body weight on the front of the their feet rather than the back. A professional golfer always balances on the back…in fact most golfers do it except professional footballers and I.
I’d played golf for 30+ years but I didn’t know I was doing it incorrectly until then.
Last Christmas I received a bike fit voucher as a present. I’ve been slightly scared to use it because the only sport I’ve played longer than golf is biking. I didn’t fancy learning I’d been doing that wrong too.
I bit the bullet and went along last week to get tested. The fitter used the retul system which is an adjustable bike rig that setup to be an exact copy of my current bike setup. The advantage of using this rather than my bike is the rig can be endlessly adjusted whilst I’m sitting on it. A normal bike fit would require me to get off the bike to adjust it.
The first question he asked was what type of fit I was interested in. I choose comfort as 99% of my riding is for fun.
The next question he asked was about my injury history. He was surprised when I said “I rarely get injured.” He said that question normally takes at least 30 minutes to discuss. In my case it took 30 seconds.
We then did a series of physical tests. By the end of them he declared my legs were almost identical. Which explained my lack of injuries as most people have one side different to the other which leads to imbalances and injuries in the body when doing repetitious actions such as running and biking.
The only change he recommended after the physio exam is that my saddle is too small which I think is the polite way of telling me my ass is too wide
After that I had to sat on the bike as he attached monitoring points to various parts of my body, The points were mapped to the Retul system, so that all my stats could be accurately mapped.
As the system has done thousands of Retul fits a range of good stats has been set. His job as a fitter was to adjust my race position until my stats matched the good stats of a Retul rider.
After thirty minutes of riding as he made adjustments to the bike rig I went from mostly red numbered stats to mostly green.
He then took my bike and adjusted the setup to match what he’d changed the rig too.
I asked him if I’d been riding incorrectly all these years. He looked at me and said “not incorrectly just differently to everyone else!”
Andrew and I grew up on the Isle of Lewis. It’s the furthest north and west you can go in the UK before you get to Iceland. We moved away from Lewis to go to university but our parents still live there.
The Isle of Lewis is renowned for three things – Harris Tweed, Gaelic and having the oldest group of rocks in the UK. The rock is called Lewisian gneiss. The second oldest rock group in the UK is The Rolling Stones.
In Summer 2016 I met a cyclist at Stornoway ferry terminal. I asked him where he’d been cycling on the island. He said: “I did the Hebridean way. A 185 miles route from Barra to Lewis.” I asked if he’d enjoyed it. He said: “I’ve cycled in the arctic circle in Norway. I’ve biked the far north of Canada but I’ve never been as cold and miserable as cycling here!”
I gave gave him some words of encouragement “If you think this is cold you should try it in winter!”
The Hebrides is the best place in the world on a nice day but on a bad day….
After speaking to him I looked at the route of the Hebridean way. I was disappointed. It missed out lots of great places and bike routes. So here is my improved version of the parts I know well (Barra & Lewis/Harris).
The ferry from Oban arrives early evening into Castlebay. The official route recommends starting your trip the next day in Vatersay before heading north to catch a ferry to Uist.
DON’T DO THAT! Stay in Barra for two nights so you have a full day to explore the island before leaving.
Day 1: Head to Vatersay to see the official start. Make sure you have walking shoes with you as there’s a nice beach to explore here. From the start head clockwise around the island aiming to get to the airport for lunch time. They have a great onsite cafe. Check the plane timetable so you can watch the plane take off and land from the beach.
On the way to the airport stop at Barra golf club so you can see how a sheep field has been converted into a sports venue.
There’s only one hill of note which is towards the end of the route. Anyone of moderate fitness can bike up it. Park your bike at the top of the hill so you can walk up the hill to the statue overlooking Castlebay. Finish off the day with a fast downhill ride into Castlebay.
Day 2: Catch the ferry to Uist
My girlfriend’s sister is married to a man from the Western Isles (he’s from Uist.) Her other sister is married to a twin. I’m a twin from the Western Isles. I’m not sure if she was inspired by her sisters or whether she’s so competitive she’s just one up’ing them.
I’ve never been to Uist but her brother in law has a house there so hopefully I’ll visit one day. I therefore can’t comment on the route until it gets to…
Day 3: This is a controversial choice but I’d argue not to go the official way up the west coast but instead take the east coast. Heading south first means you can visit Rodel church. This is ancient church has one of earliest known representation of a man in kilt. Now a day there’s lots of men in kilts here. Its a very popular place to get married.
Next to the church is small pier which is the southernmost point you can cycle to on the Harris.
The west coast has some great beaches but the landscape of the east coast is unique to the island. A barren landscape of ancient rock and heather. The windy undulating single track road is great fun to ride.
Once you get off the east coast head for Luskentyre beach. The official route passes a bit of it but the best view can only be seen by heading along to it. If you want a challenge try running up the sand dunes. It’s hard work!
The island across from the beach is where the BBC filmed Castaway.
Finish the day by heading to Tarbert. There’s a long climb from the beach towards tarbert but once you get to the top its all downhill into the town.
Unfortunately Tarbert is at sea level and at the base of a hill, so today is going to be hilly no matter which way you go. I’ve added in some diversions off the official way.
Start by heading to Amhuinnsuidhe castle. At one point Madonna was going to purchase it, until she discovered the public are allowed to walk right by the windows. Robert Plant from Led Zepplin was also interested. He went for a pint in the local pub but the beer must have been bad as he never came back with a bid.
The road out to the castle packs in allot of interesting sights. There’s the ruins of an old whaling station, there’s stunning views of the harris hills and there’s the world’s most useless tennis court! It’s exposed to the wind and wild weather of the Atlantic.
From the castle you can walk up to one of the UK’s biggest cliff faces. The 600-foot cliff face of Sron Ulladale,
Head to Rèinigeadal next. Rèinigeadal had no road access until 1990; the only route in was along a hill path, or by boat. There’s a postman’s marked path from the village back to Tarbert. Imagine doing it carrying a load of Amazon parcels. It’s worth walking a bit of it as it has some spectacular views.
The main difference is I suggest not going to the official end of the route. The road to Ness is one of the most boring drives on the island. Vast empty moor as far as the eye can see. Instead head to Stornoway as there’s much better routes that you can do from there.
If you do want to know what the end of the route looks like then check this out. I was there on a very stormy day.
Give yourself at least a couple of days in Stornoway. From here you can do some great routes.
A flat out and back route to a lighthouse. From here you can watch whales pass by. On the way back a small detour will take you to a 15% hill climb! It’s short but hard. I needed a quick rest at the top!
If you tire of road biking then a recently completed mountain bike trial has been constructed in the Castle Grounds. An area of forestry next to Stornoway. I hadn’t tried it before and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. There’s no major hills but lots of undulating tracks. It was a great way to pass a few hours.
Tour De Tolsta: If you only do one route from Stornoway then do this one! The beaches along here are some of the best on the island. One of them even has its own waterfall
Originally the road to Tolsta was supposed to go all the way to Ness but it was never completed. Supposedly a local sightseer had predicted that if the road was complete then the “The day will come when the Isle of Lewis will sink beneath the waves.”
Which seems unlikely as how can a whole island sink? But, in 1995, the ferry to Ullapool was named the “Isle of Lewis”… There was no calls to complete the road whilst that ferry was operational!
There’s some great swimming spots along the route. Coll beach is very popular with the Hebrides open water swimmers.
There comes a time in your life when you have to confess something to your partner. You’ll have struggled with the confession for weeks in advance. You’ll spend ages trying to get the correct phrasing. In the weeks leading up to ityou’ll use bribery and flattery to get your partner in the right frame of mind to hear it.
But… eventually… you’ll have to confess – “I’m going on a biking holiday!”
You’ll then try to explain to your partner how your week long “training” trip to Mallorca or the Canary islands wont be fun. You’ll claim – nobody will be drinking! You’ll say – we’re not going anywhere near Shagaluf…sorry Magaluf. You’ll state – it’s all about the hills and the weather
So, to avoid all that worry, book a trip to the Western Isles. There’s amazing hills, amazing weather (on a good day) and if your partner asks about the pubs then you can says that the island’s have the highest rate of abstinence in the UK – just don’t mention that its also got the highest rate of drinking too!
I have wee’d in Harry Potter’s author J K Rowling’s driveway. It is not my proudest moment…
Even worse than that – I met her at an event and, instead of saying, “Hi there, I really enjoy your books,” I said “Hi there, I pished on your gate.”
I told her she could use it in a book – Harry Potter and the Search for a Toilet. A book where Harry Potter has one too many Butter Beers and then tries to make it home. She’s not written it… yet…
Triathlete’s claim an IronMan is the hardest event on earth. It’s not. The hardest event on earth is trying to unlock a door, hopping from one foot to the other, whilst desperate for the loo.
Rowling owns a country house in Perthshire. The house is peaceful and quiet but a b-road passes by her front gate. Every May the Caledonia Etape Cycling Sportive uses the road. 5,000 cyclists pass the entrance to her house but one year instead of wiz’ing by I wiz’ed in a different manner.
I was desperate for the loo and I saw her path was conveniently located close to the road. A bush next to the gate hid me from the view of other cyclists. I knew it was her house but resisted the urge to shout, whilst gripping my wand, “Expelliarmus!!!!”.
I’ve started planning my 2018 “season” hopefully I’ll avoid any incidents with beloved children’s authors! I’m picking races based on the closeness to my house and ones I’ve done before and enjoyed.