Saturday, August 13, 2016

Highland Trail 550

Highland Trail 550 (My Birthday Present)

When I found out the 2016 Highland Trail 550 (HT) started on my 60th birthday and had scrutinized lots of the Scottish Highland pictures the die was cast, I was going.  Before I dive into my short, typically boring day-by-day account of my race let me detour and comment a bit on the HT verses some other multi-day races (CTR, AZT 300/750, Stagecoach 400 and TDR) I have had the pleasure of competing in.  The idea here is to encourage any US multi-day racers to add the HT to their bucket list!

Number one:
All told compared to the other major multi-day routes the HT probably has the most technical sections. Ha, I think it’s against Scottish nature to construct trails with mild grades, probably have to pay a tax or fine if a trail or old cart path has one to may switchbacks in it, straight up and straight down 'over the rocks we go' seems to be the required construction routine.  Actually I think Alan, the event organizer, simply went looking for fun, long descents and then figured a way to string them together regardless of required hike-a-bike in between. 
No this is not a technical section, just a pretty one.  Funny how the camera stayed tucked away when the pucker factor was in play...
Anyway all joking aside there are lots of hike-a-bike sections going both up, down and even flat plus many many rocky, semi-challenging descents, ie: lots of technical riding on this route.  But there are also miles and miles of mild Tour Divide type sections, paved sections and bike path cursing.  In the end, if you are inclined to some semi-‘enduro’ style sections the HT route will probably put the big smile on your face.  I should point out I am a technically modest rider at best and what is challenging for me will be much less so for many. Also you can look at pictures of my bike you will see that it is more of a TDR set up.  In retrospect I personally would have been a lot more confident on a light FS bike with larger tires and some of my gear carried in a backpack for a lighter front end, better balance and less seatbag sway in the back. 

Number two:
The Highlands are truly stunningly beautiful to this American bikepacker. 
The terrain and scenery was simply beyond expectations. I should point out that this was my first trip to Scotland and the weather was basically perfect.  Also what will be routine to many locals was utterly new and somewhat exotic to my eyes.  On the other hand backpackers and day walkers come from all over England and Europe to experience parts of the Highlands so it’s not just me being ‘new’ to the area.  You decide but just take a look at my typical tourist snapshots but also google up some better pictures and see for yourself.  If you have never been there and think you might want to do the HT, the scenery alone makes it worth the trip.

Number three:
The HT was easy for me to to finish compared to the say the AZT or CTR. 
Ha before all the HT naysayers jump in let me clarify.  The ‘2016’ HT was easy to finish because we had truly perfect conditions.  Just read the 2015 accounts to get a feel for how tough this exact same route is with more typical weather. Plus I rode a hard but not true 'race-pace' as I was simply not in shape to do so.

Anyway, every multi-day route has its challenges, from my mid-pack perspective:
The TDR is all easy resupply, non-technical but so so very long and so easy to go so very hard……beautiful in a different way from all the single track races………….
The AZT 300 has average to difficult resupply points, rocks, hike-a-bike, sometimes cold/snow and almost always sun/heat.  The 750 has the 300 plus 450 more miles of mostly high desert the dreaded Highline trail and for desert the Grand Canyon on foot.  All in all the 750 is probably the hardest route overall I have done.
The CTR single track is ‘mostly’ fast and flowy (Sergeants Mesa 2-track excepted) it has average resupply (with a one rather key ‘no-resupply’ section) and many times has afternoon lightning strikes and sometimes serious rain plus lots of high altitude climbing.  Rain and high altitude temps are one of my personal worry points.
The SC 400 has good re-supply, snow, sea, desert, wind, rain, sand plus interesting urban night life.  Such a unusual little fun route, I have done this one three years running……
The HT has plentiful resupply (at least during 9-5 hours), ridiculous easy easy easy water re-supply, lots of bothy’s to sleep in (if needed) and low elevation with mild temperatures overall.  If the rain is out of the picture like this year all that’s really left is how hard and fast you can push though the constant punchy steep climbs, the numerous hike-a-bike sections and how fast you can or are are willing to descend.  In short in 2016 with good weather the HT was all about pure/fun basic mountain bike skills and strength. Note: even with little to no rain there is still water everywhere by US standards, stream crossings, constant puddles, marshy areas etc so your feet could be wet much or most of the time.  And again least you think I don’t get-- it I did read the 2015 accounts—so if the HT route is on your radar screen-- for a more typical, 180 degree opposite, picture just read those 2015 accounts, anyone who finished in 2015 was hard core.
The upcoming Black HillsExpedition (a 430-mile Bikepacking Race through the Black Hills of South Dakota).  Check back—it’s on the list for Sept.  But I already know it’s likely to be a tough one, at least the Centennial trail single track section is hard from 1st hand experience—that trail put in the hospital with an IV drip due to mild heat exhaustion a few years back……

Number four:
The base speed and technical riding skill of the average HT racer is a notch above what you might see at the SC 400, AZT or CTR. 
Alan, the event organizer is limiting the participants to roughly 40. As this event gains in reputation he said he must pick between potential participants.  If I understand correctly he is picking mostly those who have some base level of racing and or bikepacking qualifications. 
So here is a call out to all the top CTR, AZT and TDR finishers (and/or the not so fast yet experienced multi-day racers like me)—take the HT challenge, get your name down on that start list.  Ha, in a wet year the HT will be one of the toughest, most challenging routes you can finish.  And in a picture perfect dry year its pure unadulterated mountain bike fun for hundreds of miles mixed in with plenty of friendly, skilled, fast competitors, from the front of the pack down to the not so back backmarkers.

Number five:
From the US perspective Scotland is a fantastically easy place to vacation for a multi-day.  Glasgow is easy to fly into from the US.  A mid-size airport with all the convenience needed but not the size/hassle of a huge airport.  English makes it easy to navigate, both from a verbal and written point of view.  So if you screw something up its easy to ask for forgiveness and get things right. For me this kept the stress down as I did not have to worry about or contend with any major or minor communication snafus.  The race itself is a loop vs a point to point so you start/finish at the same location.  You can arrange to store some stuff at a campground, hotel or bed & breakfast etc near the start/finish. Minus the plane ticket the overall cost is similar to doing a US event, ie: food, accommodations etc are similar to US costs.  Plus after the race you can play tourist as see castles and stone rings and and.....
You do have to drive and ride on the left side of the road.  And the back roads are truly one lane with motorized traffic taking turns. On the bike my rule was to simply keep my ‘left hand’ always on the left side of the road or trail.  I only messed up twice (once, because even knowing it was wrong, I followed a local who cheated a corner and the other time because I was tired and briefly forgot my rule)

I could go on but you get the idea.  The HT is a fun challenging event, ideal for the experienced US multi-day racer.  So go do it!!

On the flip side any UK or Europe HT racers looking to come to the US there is a whole list  of routes and races to pick from, including the ones above,
even the non technical routes can be hard sometimes...
all ‘hard’ yet appealing in their own way.

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