• Riding the West Highland Way Double

  • Joe Whitaker took on the the West Highland Way Double and lived to tell the tale.

Words by Joe Whitaker - posted 08/12/2011

The Epic Ride - Riding the West Highland Way Double

I decided to do the West Highland Way double because I had heard of so many others trying it but ultimately not finishing and it was this that added to the interest. I never thought of it as an ‘attempt’, I had to finish this ride. It was my chance to show what I can achieve and to put into perspective all the other things I have done, things that others have not or could not do. Myself and four of my mates were first to do it one-way, non-stop, in one day, a few years ago, so it seemed only right that one of us did the double first.

How do you take on a ride that is around 200 miles long? It was suggested that the way to do it was on a 29er, but that would seem like cheating when others had attempted it on 26er full sus, so that was the way. A Santa Cruz Blur XC would be my weapon of choice, an even playing field if you like. It would be just another bike ride, just a really long one. How many times in life do you get a chance to just ride your bike for as long as you want anyway? Saying that, the pressure I put on myself to complete this ride was quite high, but it all disappeared as I started the challenge, I felt good as I set off from Milngavie early Saturday morning.

West Highland Way Double

I was continually telling myself to slow down and tried to find the correct pace. The going in the beginning is quite easy so I made good time to Balmaha, then the hard bit started around Loch Lomond. The first parts of which are very nice in places but it soon deteriorates into stop-starts, on and off of the bike, scrambling over rocks, you just can’t get a rhythm going. I did a few informative texts to tell my backup crew where I was and took some photos. I had a snack and moved on quickly before the midges bit too hard.

I found myself virtually skipping over rocks and trotting past hikers, but still had to calm myself down at times, one twisted ankle and it would have been over. I talked to fellow travellers along the way but tried to make good progress and kept feeding my face whether I liked it or not, that was the key, keep eating. Some hikers towards the end of that section told me of some other bikers just in front of me, my pace upped a little and I soon caught them. A quick chat revealed they were on their second day, I told them what I was doing and amongst much shaking of heads in disbelief, moved on swiftly to my rendezvous with the crew.

the combination of the technical trail before me and the fact that I was beginning to rush, meant it could have all come to an end too easily right there!

I made good progress through that section, but there were some bits that I perhaps should have walked looking back on it. I can easily do them on any normal days riding, but there is some risky riding in there given I was on a big ride like this! I am quite a competent rider even if I say so myself, but the combination of the technical trail before me and the fact that I was beginning to rush, meant it could have all come to an end too easily right there!

I met up with my wife Lynne, along with Steve and Craig (my crew) at Beinglass. They were sat eating chips and surprised to see me so quickly, they were caught on the hop but got me fed and watered in good time. With the bike washed, oiled and tweaked I was on my way within half an hour. A Banana and chocolate sandwich would be my snack for the next section, yummy!

West Highland Way Double

A few hours in, I stopped to take some pictures, and fire off a text. I took the opportunity to stuff my sandwich in my mouth and set off up the trail. Shortly after that stop I hit a storm drain and lost said sandwich from my mouth. Little things like this can be pretty upsetting given it was my only treat for the next few hours! I pressed towards Tyndrum where I eventually had a few hikers get in the way on this next section. It was bound to happen on such a busy trail, and somewhat typical given it was quite a good steady flowing section for a change. Then I nearly fell off in the river crossing just before the Green Welly Stop as well! A loose rock threw me sideways towards the river and I had to dab and hop sideways a few times while attached to the bike. We’ve all been there, wet feet, bloody spuds!

I was quite upset about my near miss because I manage to pull my groin a bit and it was threatening to end the whole thing. Craig could tell I was less than pleased and rode with me until the Bridge of Orchy. It was great to have a bit of company and we had a good laugh. He also calmed me down a bit and got me back on track.

away from them for good, I wouldn’t see them again...

I left Craig at the Railway Station at the Bridge of Orchy and crossed the road to chase the fell runners Lynne and Steve told me about. I rode up behind them and passed them pretty quickly. But we had a race to the top, them cutting the corners, me following the trail, but once I got to the upper sections I rode past them with ease. Up and over the top, away from them for good, I wouldn’t see them again. Going down the other side probably way too quickly and enjoying it way too much, I hooked up with my crew again, got changed, fed and watered quickly and moved on.

Away round the lochs to the cobbled climb towards Glen Coe I made very good time, It was one of those nirvana moments where although I was riding into the wind and uphill it seemed not to make any impression on me. Going down the other side into Glen Coe Ski Village with a load of enthusiasm I caught site of my crew and sped towards them. I got quite emotional each time we met up but thankfully the crew managed to bottle it up and get on with the job at hand. Another change of clothes was due as night was falling, out of a sweat soaked short sleeved shirt and into a jacket. Lights fitted and onwards to the Devils Staircase, and into a fantastic sunset too! Craig decided to ride with me to Kinlochleven, although I think this was more for his benefit than mine – can’t say I blame him though, it looked absolutely fantastic with that low sunset through clouds!

Heading up to the top and remembering how steep it was, I have to admit I did walk some of it – sometimes it’s all about self preservation over heroics. The roller coaster that greeted us at the other side was worth the pain of the climb. Flying down from the top of the Devils Staircase, it was only in the last few miles that I realised I was going to be trying to ride back up it soon. The buzzing noise my brakes were making confirmed the speed and inclination of the trail.

they saw my Exposure Six Pack wafting across the hill sides from absolutely miles away!

I changed my lights at the Loch side and headed out of town towards Fort William. It’s an eerie place and it follows a dark valley which leaves you more disorientated with every rise, dip, twist and turn. Finally I saw a small light in the distance, Steve had his head torch on and guided me in, apparently they saw my Exposure Six Pack wafting across the hill sides from absolutely miles away! Perhaps assuming I was a little close than I was, they’d gotten got out to greet me. That place is called Blar A'Charainn and is literally in the middle of nowhere in a this black valley, Steve called it the valley of the shadow of death, which sounded about right.

From there to Fort Bill it was just a few very enjoyable miles which I had ridden a few months ago (we’d come up to watch the downhill world cup). It looks a little different in the dark though, but I made short enough work of it. I rattled down the hill into the fort itself and felt relatively good, given I was half way and 100 miles (ish) in! An update of texts of support from my followers kept me focused and keen to get on. Although an overload of food was playing havoc with my stomach and my kidneys felt like they had been blended!

From Kinlochleven the rain had been hammering down, so at Fort William I had a break to change out of wet clothes and get fresh supplies. Lynne did not like going down the small dangerous road to Blar A'Charainn so she was going to drive back to Kinlochleven and get a little sleep before we met again. Steve rode with me out of Fort William and I was shaking uncontrollably for about 5 minutes until I warmed up again. All we had to do is get back to Kinlochleven and that’s as far as anyone had gone, easier said than done of course.

We were riding back along the valley of the shadow of death, through horizontal rain, that was flickering past me illuminated by the two joysticks on my helmet. I got to Kinlochleven quicker than I thought and rode round to where the truck was, the crew were resting when we got there so it took a while to get sorted and ready for the big climb. I was wet through so had to have a complete change of clothes again! Craig said “this is as far as anyone has got Joe, after this section you own it dude”. Words that echoed all the way up the hill to the top of the devils staircase.

I had a lot of encouragement along the way from people following via text and twitter, Dave Buchanan sent some encouragement which I thought of along the way, the best stuff came by text from Will Longden, Dickon at Santa Cruz, Dave Doig and Burg from Burgtec, all really encouraging and some hilarious. A short but sweet one from Steve Peat after Glen Coe which read “Bring it home fella” was priceless.

all I could do was watch him disappear up the staircase chuntering mindless dribble...

A dull morning rose and it was a tough wet climb to the top of the Devil’s Staircase, and just as I got to the top I saw the fell runners I saw the day before coming the other way. They were shocked to see I was still going and they congratulated me and carried on. The top of the Devil’s Staircase was a scene of great relief for me as it would be the highest point of the journey from here on. I kissed the bike’s top tube, held it aloft Rocky-style, and set off towards Glen Coe – a beautiful site indeed! On the way down I pulled over to let a grumpy hiker past only to stand in shock at what he had to say, what he had to say knocked the wind out of my sails for a while, and all I could do was watch him disappear up the staircase chuntering mindless dribble.

I turned and concentrated on the task in hand, this is the furthest anyone had got I kept telling myself, I could not help but feel proud of myself. But it brought myself back to reality so I got with the task of getting to the ski village. The crew were half way through their breakfast in the cafe and weren’t expecting me. They ordered me a bacon and sausage sandwich and I waited for it in the wind and rain outside. I think if I’d gone and sat down in the café to eat the sandwich, it would have been all over there and then. It felt like the longest time I’ve ever had to wait for food, even longer than my local micky d’s drive through! And that is saying something. Shakes had set in again and I started to feel rough as a badgers bits.

The next bit was a short climb to a long easy downhill, so it was going to be easy I kept trying to tell myself. I kept passing people who I’d seen the previous day, a weird feeling for both parties, but an American couple with a dog heavily laden with a rucksack were funniest. They did not know the time, the day or the date as they had just set off to walk around Scotland without a time scale, sounded lovely!

their response was quite a special moment for me...

Getting down to the Bridge of Orchy was great; I was only about twenty minutes quicker on the way down than the way up on that section, a testament to how quickly I was going on the outward leg admittedly. I had a quick fill up and set off up to the Green Welly, the views were awesome, I love that part of the journey by car but by bike you feel so much more a part of it. The trail follows a railway to Tyndrum and dips up and down. In the distance I saw three MTBs coming towards me, they had stopped and we all recognised each other as if we were old friends. They were the guys I saw on the previous day and they were on their third day, we were pleased to see each other, I think they were shocked but I was happy to have got back so far, their response was quite a special moment for me.

The Green Welly arrived and I met one of the hikers again who I saw around Loch Lomond, we were chatting and Lynne asked me if I wanted anything from the shop, a perfect moment to use an old joke on a stranger, “Ice cream? What flavour? Doesn’t matter, it’s for my ass!”

We giggled like most men do at bad jokes and once again got back to the job at hand, packing the old camelback with food and water and heading off to Beinglass. I felt quite good but was travelling on a false high as the next section was quite easy, but was followed by a big climbing section that avoided Crainlairich over the hill. I was great to start with but once I started to really exert myself I started to wonder about my ability to actually finish this. I started to realise that the hardest part was just around the corner and perhaps the challenge had only really just begun. Bugger. I was stiffening up everywhere, well almost everywhere; my internal organs felt like mush! Then a hiss came from the front tyre. Wheel out, swizzed around for a bit, the Stan’s sealant doing its job. Not for long though, I hit rock after rock and picked up a small slash that only a tube could mend.

my mind was playing tricks on me...

I had to nurse myself along that section and all the way along it felt like I was going the wrong way. The only way I could convince myself I was going right was to keep stopping and looking back to familiarise myself with the trail again. Basically it didn’t matter how many places I got to and realised I was going the right way, my mind was playing tricks on me. I think it was a subconscious effort by my mind and body to avoid going into the hell of a section that was Loch Lomond.

Beinglass arrived and I was a little worried, I knew that if I stopped for long I may talk myself out of doing it. I was in quite a lot of pain by then, legs, stomach, back, neck, shoulders, kidneys, all playing their part in telling me to give in. Setting off from the crew then was a big ask, I may have seemed a bit subdued to them, but strangely after the first few hundred yards the doubts melted away. I became more confident as I made the progress into ‘hell’. There were only two ways out of there, on a bike or on a stretcher. And seeing as I hadn’t seen a stretcher with Santa Cruz written on it, it was going to have to be the bike, after all what would people say?

I had only been through this section the previous day and knew it was hard, but I forgot just exactly how hard! Maybe it was one of those trails that was harder one way than the other, but I am pretty sure it was exhaustion playing its part. Scrambling over rocks, up and down wooden ladders, through tight rock gaps near Rob Roy’s Cave, and awkward climbs through the forests. It became harder to navigate the way as it got to dusk. GPS would have been a good idea with hindsight!

A quick blink of the eyes one by one revealed a distinct loss of sight in my left eye!

I had two nasty falls over rocks around Loch Lomond, one where the bike flew off and nearly ended up in the Loch itself, and another where I slipped and ended up face down a slippery rocky bank trapped under the bike. It’s not easy to free yourself sometimes, especially when you’re that exhausted and stiff. Although I was never far from the water it was increasingly hard to see it, even with good lights, and I thought I was losing light from my left-side Exposure Joystick, so I switched it off using just the one.

The closer I got to Balmaha the easier it got, the relief was incredible as I reached the rendezvous at the dock and saw the crew. I got sat in the truck to have a rest but realised as I looked at my map that my light was dim in the left head torch again, I reached for it only to realise that I didn’t have my helmet on. A quick blink of the eyes one by one revealed a distinct loss of sight in my left eye! Should I say anything after getting so far? Lynne is a nurse and would have called it off right there. I’d come too far and convinced myself it would be temporary, so I stumbled out of the truck like a creaking old gate and got on the bike. I had the Exposure Six Pack light back on to make up for the lack of vision.

Just Conic Hill and a steady ride back to Milgavie to finish up, 20 miles give or take, no sweat! I hobbled most of it but got on to some easy homeward trails and started to feel better and better. I kept telling myself it’s all psychological this stuff, you just have to keep going. And I kept thinking about what Craig said, “it’s the furthest anyone has got, you own it Joe”. That did it for me, before long I was near the end, and the journey I could not wait to do was nearly over. With mixed feelings I rode round the corner to the obelisk at the end and beginning of the trail, strangely feeling as if I didn’t want it to end. I posed for a few photos at the end, popped a bottle of champers and necked it, it felt like a bottle of pop.

West Highland Way Double

We were all a bit shell-shocked at what had been achieved, and all of a sudden I felt very fresh as we packed the truck for Lynne to drive us back to home. We came back a lot lighter than we went as I had eaten a truck full of food, tens of thousands of calories worth, as well as loads of bottled water. As soon as my head hit the headrest I was out cold dribbling down my shirt, the truck wasn’t the most comfortable place to sleep but I still slept like a log. In fact they could have strapped me to a bike on the back and I would have slept just as soundly. We stopped somewhere on the way back for more food and had a sleep in the services, Lynne had done a fantastic drive and badly needed some shuteye as well.

The only people who truly understand a journey like this are those who have tried the same thing, as well as those who were there. It’s a very select group of people, but I hope the fact that it has now been done means as much to them as it does to me. The support I had was great and I would like to say that all four of us did this. Even though only my name will be put to it, they all played a crucial part and if either one of them chose not to be there to support me, I seriously doubt I could have completed it. So thanks guys, Steve Hollis, Craig Mckay who are both great guys and last but not least Lynne Whitaker my wife and one hell of a woman. Cheers!

RIDING TIME 35 HOURS

TOTAL TIME 41 HOURS 50 MINS

DISTANCE 195 MILES

I had great help for the West Highland Way Double, since I did it quite a few people have asked me how I did it. The only thing I can tell them is that I used only the best kit, the list is as follows:

  • SANTA CRUZ CARBON BLUR Supplied by Jungle, Cheers to Rob Roskopp and Dickon
  • ROCK SHOX SUSPENSION Ultra reliable, thanks to Tristan
  • SYNCROS Grips, Bars, Bottles and Stem via Jungle
  • SHIMANO Running gear from Stif Cycles
  • FIZIK SADDLE Happy posterior thanks to Stif Cycles
  • KS DROPPER SEATPOST With a remote lever from Stif Cycles
  • HOPE HUBS AND STANS RIMS Wheels built by Chris at Edison Cycles, bulletproof
  • EXPOSURE LIGHTS Cheers to John and Rory at USE Six Pack, Maxx D and Joysicks
  • NOMAD JET WASH Supplied by Gary at Nomad Direct and kept it and me clean
  • CONTINENTAL TYRES Filled With Stans No Tubes liquid
  • ROYAL CLOTHING From Royal Racing Thanks to Steve Peat
  • HOPE Bottom Bracket and Headset via Stif Cycles
  • LEZYNE Tools, very light and accurate

Then you have to get on it and ride it for nearly 200 miles, that’s the trick! That involved a certain amount of determination but also my most important piece of kit, my support crew: Lynne, Steve and Craig. I don't think I would be able to do it with any other collection of equipment, Thanks to all the companies and individuals that supplied me with the stuff to pull it off. Very special to me that people believed in me enough to help how they did, Cheers guys!

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