Preview: Highland Trail 550

Author: Phoebe | 05/23/2014 | , , , , , , ,

The UK often gets overlooked when it comes to outdoor adventures. Being a tiny island with a temperate climate, we can’t really compete with the sheer scale of the Andes, for example, or the majesty of the Alaskan fjords. But we’re somewhat unfairly neglected – beyond having a reputation for hiking whatever the weather (and let’s face it, we have to), we boast fifteen national parks, and plenty of bikepacking territory.

A cursory glance at Self-supported UK reveals at least thirteen recognised bikepacking trails, including one trail that is being raced this Saturday.

On May 24th, riders will tackle the Highland Trail, taking them on a 558-mile journey with over 16,000 metres of climbing through the Scottish Highlands.

As with all self-supported races, the victory is purely for personal kudos: there is no entry fee and no prize money. The brainchild of Alan Goldsmith, the HT550 was inspired by his experiences on the Tour Divide, from Canada to the Mexican border, and the Colorado Trail Race through the Colorado Rocky Mountains between Denver and Durango.

Mike Toyn, from Staveley, Cumbria, took part in the 2013 shorter Highland Trail 400 and was highly impressed with the event:

“The route offers great variety in terms of the terrain that it covers, ranging from stretches of tarmac (the longest being 20 miles or so) through to treacherously steep rocky descents. There are smooth tracks passing through glens of enormous scale and sublime sections of single track that rival anything trail centres can offer. Each and every mile has something to commend it and justify its place in the route, although when pushing up the third climb of any day it can be hard to remember this. The most challenging sections are rewarded by the most spectacular views.”

Although a bikepacking novice, he was persuaded by Alan, a friend of his, and spent weeks carefully preparing himself. Toyn completed the trail in just over 4 days, with an impressive 57 hours of riding without punctures. More impressive still, he was one of only 15 riders who managed to finish the course, out of the 28 who started.

Given that the trail is considerably longer this year, we caught up with some participants to see what inspired them to take on the Scottish Highlands.

Gunther Desmedt, Oedelem, Belgium

Gunther is part of the team, a small group of Belgian mountain biking enthusiasts.

What inspired you to start bikepacking?

After racing a lot of one-day long-distance mountain biking events and a couple of multistage races, I wanted to challenge myself in a non-stop multi-day race.  So I went to Naturaid Morocco in 2008 – 700km of navigation in the Atlas Mountains with some obligatory checkpoints.  It gives a new dimension to off-road cycling.

We got to know a lot of people and so were invited to other races and challenges in Italy, Sardinia, and Greece. Last year, we did the Tour Divide, 4,400km through the USA, in 20 days.  That was an amazing experience. We are a close group of three to four friends who like this style of travelling, go abroad for races like Highland Trail and organize challenges ourselves in Belgium.

What attracted you to the HT550?

It will be totally different than Tour Divide, not only in distance (luckily) but also in the kind of tracks; it will more technical, and probably more demanding.

The country and the whisky attract me the most.  In fact, it’s not that far from Belgium and I’ve never been there. I think it’s really the best way to see the Highland area and explore that area, although it may require some suffering!

What are you most looking forward to about the HT550?

The mountains – they’re different from the ones we’re used to. 

Anything you’re not looking forward to?

Rain :-( 

Michael Cleveland, Riedering, Germany

Michael celebrated his 50th birthday by completing the Tour Divide in 2012, and last year he took on the Grenzstein Trophy along the old East/West German border.

What inspired you to start bikepacking?

As a long-time mountain biker (for 20 years), a former IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) rep for Western Missouri and, generally, just a mountain lover, it just seemed like a great big adventure. I get to see and experience amazing things, meet fantastic people, make new friends and learn about myself and the world.

What attracted you to the HT550?

It’s in Scotland, a place I’d visited before and wanted to see more of in the back country, and a Scottish friend suggested I do it knowing what I’d done before. 

What are you most looking forward to (or not) about the HT550?

Not looking forward to… rain and water crossings. 

Looking forward to…almost everything else!


Mike Toyn said of the HT400 that the event would become a classic, and the HT550 looks set to prove this. Follow all the riders this Saturday through the live tracker, and keep an eye on our Twitter and Facebook for updates.

But whatever you do, don’t miss out on the jaw-dropping scenery. All photos courtesy of Mike Toyn.