With the garage doors shut behind us there is no turning back, we have no keys and no one will be around the house for the next three weeks. It’s a warm May morning and we set off to catch our Piotrkow-Warsaw train. The cycling route to Piotrkow I know quite well since many of my trips started with the exact same ride. Yet after all these times there is still open space for surprises. As we roll by a village near Piotrkow we notice a bunch of familiar wooden statues on someone’s front yard. We chat to and older man mowing grass next to the house and as it turns out the artist behind sculptures – Mister Grzegorz. A man fond of Polish history and national heroes. Before we plunge into a longer conversation I have to pass a test. “Do you recognize any of the four figures?” – he asks me. Before me are standing carved in wood: a general, knight in armor, a medical orderly and a Queen. I go for the easy one and looking at the general say “Pilsudski!”. “What about her? Do you recognize her?” – asks Mr. Grzegorz pointing at the blond queen figure. “That’s Queen Jadwiga” – I reply and with that I gain immediate respect at the same time flatter Mr. Grzegorz by showing that his art reassembles real personas. His fondness for Polish history runs deep in his veins and there is much to be learned from conversations with, weather we’d agree or disagree on our views. Yet we have a train to catch and politely move on, saying that we’ll be back on our return journey. We barely catch the train arriving just in time before the doors shut close. As Central Poland scrolls by we feel it’s almost a pity to be leaving in spring time. Late April to early June truly is the most amazing time to be riding in Poland with all nature exploding into colors and scents, blue skies and mild, fresh mornings.
Once in Warsaw we take our time to do some sightseeing around the old town, a first timer for Saska as we have only been here on short ride missions in the past. We meet with friends Piotrek and Mia, visit Grzegorz in his workshop for some last correction to the guitar rack and do some last minute shopping. Saska’s sleeping bag is a tight fit in the M-sized Revelate Sweetroll and stuffing it inside takes too much time. But it is only in Glasgow that we find a bag that is a perfect fit. An Exped 5 litre dry bag slides easily and adds additional waterproof protection to one of the most precious items in her kit, a 450 down Cumulus Panyam sleeping bag.
We stay at Krzysiek’s place and he provides great help by not only taking us in but also organizing cardboard boxes from a befriended bicycle shop and helping with stuffing the bikes inside. Our Kramps frames barely fit in the small boxes and we have to resort to taking off the forks on both of the bikes. In the end we are left with just a tiny hand luggage and boxes that weight exactly 32 kg each – just within the limits allowed by the airlines. We have no problems at the airport.
Glasgow welcomes us with 19 degrees Celsius and sunny skies – not something you would expect when arriving in Scotland, but we take this as a good omen. Straight after reclaiming our bikes we head into the arrival hall and start assembling our bikes, a job that takes most of the next 2.5 hours. Each of the boxes has its own “magic bean bag” containing all the loose parts we had to disassemble with Krzysiek back in Warsaw. We have some problems with keeping the tubeless tires airtight but I guess this should be that last thing to be done, just before rolling out. This would allow the sealant to plug eventual gaps created by partially deflating tires in transport. Once we inflate for the last time and start riding straight away any problems disappear. Lesson learned.
We ride out to meet Sylwia, a bike mechanic, bike polo fiend and an avid bikepacker. Friend of a friend, except of a few facebook exchanges we don’t really know eachother. A connection made by a mutual friend who knew we share the same interest in riding and sleeping outside. “I have a cycling buddy for you two!” he writes and puts Sylwia in copy. Just like us she plans to ride the West Highland Way to Fort William so it seems sensible to join forces. She just moved from Manchaster to Glasgow a few days back and we stay with her friend Colin for the night. Thanks for the warm welcome and comfy couches! Colin is a bike messenger and rides a rigid, singlespeed Jones. Stan’s Flow Ex rim in the back, Velocity Blunt35 in the front. Maxxis Ardent tires on both of them – I already like this guy. He’d love to join but after graduating from Mechanical Engineering he’s on a job hunt. Hope things went well for you buddy! He loans his bike to Sylwia for the trip as she had sold her Surly 1×1 a few weeks back and her Steamroller is not really up to the task. Although she did attempt to franken-bike the frame by putting an aggressive cross country tire in the back and a mastodonic 26+ Knard on a dually rim in the front. Jones will serve her better.
In the morning Sylwia prepares a hearty omelette breakfast accompanied by a “nuked” potato a’la Dimitri – that’s his way of referring to microwaved food. We set off at noon to grey skies and a generally chilly day, cycling across Glasgow’s busy street into the city center with the train station as our bearing. Our train takes as all the way to Balloch, close to Loch Lomond, where we begin our journey by bike via the West Highland Way trail. We opt for skipping the section running past east shores of Loch Lomond as it’s notorious for being a very tough hike-a-bike – something we don’t want to go through, especially at the beginning of our journey. The alternative is a busy road on the west side but with a bit of mapping studying, scouting and a ride past a golf course we manage to find a very nice and quiet road away from the traffic, one that grazes the Loch’s western bank.
We reach Drovers Inn Pub at the end of Loch Lomond just when the sun starts disappearing behind the horizon and decide to stop for a pint before heading out to the Rowchoish bothy on the other side of loch. Sylwia wasn’t sure what exactly the trail looked like, but it’s supposed to get better north of the bothy and we hope for and easy entry into our home for the night. The reality is far from this and the remaining 5km to the bothy we spend hiking and carrying bikes over stones and wide ditches meant to direct water of the trail. The night is clear and warm, and with no manmade lighting in the area, we can observe the starlit beauty unraveling above. A wild camp at the end of the Loch and some stargazing would be more welcome from today’s perspective, sitting on a plane bound for Iceland somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean.
The West Highland Way is by definition a hiking trail and the initial section make that evident. There’s lots of stiles and some steep and narrow section where the bikes have to be manhandled, and although still lighter than a traditional touring setup our bikes could use some weight tuning for this kind of terrain. Maybe it’s just us, fresh and untrained – we make it up with enthusiasm and strong will. Still, we see the initial sections past Loch Lomond as not really suited to long distance touring and not offering enough reward for the tolls of being off the bike, neither in riding nor in vision. The real fun begins for us just before Tyndrum and I wouldn’t consider joining the trail earlier than on the Derrydaroch-Crianlarich section. There is a tall gate and stiles just before the Crianlarich forest which shouldn’t be a problem with a light bike, I had to take of the guitar for mine to fit over the stiles. For here on the trail opens up, there are no gates or stiles that would pose a problem even for a more conventional setup. Riding in the forest past Crianlarich reminds us a lot of cycling in Slovenia, there is a wide forest track winding its way in between pine trees, now and then rising above the tree line uncovering the Breadalbane range melting into orange, brown and red in the evening sun.
Sylwia bunny hops her way through obstacles and Dimitri spins like wild on his gigantic mountain bike. Standing tall at more than 2 meters Dimitri is a man to be respected and I’m dwarfed by his handlebars that reach up to my chest, but inside there is a kind soul who will pick up other’s trash from around our campsite just behind the King’s House. He also makes the best nuked potatoes on the northern hemisphere. We share whisky and stories along the way, camping wild and taking our time on the trail.
Sylwia is a devil on the bike although riding the lightest bike spares us the fast and light mode and a chasing after her rear wheel, quite often we will find her waiting for us at the gates ready to give us a hand in case it’s needed. Evenings are spent on talks, some guitar playing and sharing food. Dimitri can do wonders with some garlic, cheddar and rice. We really enjoy traveling with this duo.
Being a hiking trail by definition it’s not long before we have to face a decision whether to continue along the track or look for more rideable alternatives. Just past King’s House there is the Devil’s Staircase, a steep climb of 350 meters over just over 1 kilometer that’s a drag with a loaded bike, even a light one. Sylwia and Dimitri have to make it to Fort William by the next day and depart early in the morning. Us we decide to skip the hike-a-bike and enjoy a long downhill riding the A82 road going down Glen Coe to North Ballachulish. It’s not really that busy and the views in the valley more than make up for a bit of traffic along the way. In Ballachulish we met Robert, a French cyclist touring Scotland and join forces on the road. Robert has travelled to many places including cacling on the Pamir Highway and places like Himalayas, North America, Mongolia. Everytime we meet someone who has traveled to either USA or Canada Saska will ask about travel through bear country and Robert has some good stories and tips to tell. Once in Fort William we escort Robert to his hostel and go ourselves to restock in the local market. I leave Saska with the bikes and enter Lidl for some good and cheap stuff. Once I come back and we start packing Saska suddenly stands up and shouts “Hey Slovenci!” at a pair just passing by. We start a friendly chat with Romana and Beno who came to Scotland from Maribor, Slovenia to celebrate their honeymoon. At some point Romana asks Saska where we are going to stay and doesn’t accept the word “tent” as an answer. “You will stay with us” – she replies. “We have one spare bedroom and it’s getting cold and dry, you’ll have a hot shower and a clean bed with us!”. We exchange numbers and cheer at the godsend.
We cycle into Glen Nevis with a sense of ease. Fort William was supposed to comfort us with a day of break, but instead of offering steady, warm weather we enjoyed for the past few days, it welcomed us with chills and incoming rain. It’s not long before we sit at the table together with Romana and Beno, our clothes tumbling in the washing machine and hair wet from the hot showers both of us enjoyed for a longer while. Romana prepared a delicious dish called makaronflajs, a one-pot wonder full of minced meat, pasta and tomato based sauce. I put some ale beers on the table, one of them called Trooper having Eddie the Head, the Iron Maiden mascot, on the label – a nod at metal t-shirt Benno’s wearing. For the past two years of traveling together me and Saska have been enjoying the wonders of Eastern European hospitality in places like Poland, Slovenia, Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. We didn’t really hope to find it riding in the UK, but it looks like it doesn’t know any borders.
The next day we leave Romana and Benno to enjoy their time alone on their honeymoon and look for a wildcamp around town as the weather hasn’t stabilized yet. After a night in the forest we roll into city and enjoy a morning coffee in one of the cafes. Sudden knocking on the cafe’s large display window disrupts our usual chores of recharging, updating with e-mails and weather forecast. It’s Dimitri carrying a wide grin on his face and something odd in his unnaturally big eyes, pupils all dilated in a thousand-yard stare. It’s not long until we discover his bleeding knee and overall scruffiness. After making the climb over Devil’s staircase and getting into Fort William he decided to try the local mountain biking trails and this decision has cost him his knee injury, ripped pants, snapped pedal and a completely annihilated crankset. Yet Dimitri is not someone easily discouraged and after getting his bike sorted at the local bike shop he did some more riding in rock gardens that chew pieces out of his new outer chain ring. After a rough day, and a wet and cold night, he’s just happy to see some familiar faces. For a longer while we roam Fort William’s high street talking and stuffing ourselves with steak pies and shortbread. Early afternoon, once all our supplies are replenished, we leave Dimitri waiting for the train to Glasgow and set off east out of town to find the Great Glen Way trail – our gate into the heart of Scottish Highland.