In December 2022 Steve Bate attempted to ride the Highland Trail 550 in some of the most challenging winter conditions we have seen in 13 years living in Scotland. In 2011 Steve was diagnosed with a condition that is slowly reducing his eyesight. He has now lost most of his vision. As the condition is degenerative, he will go blind. Due to frostbite on his toes he had to finish his ITT in Lochinver early. We spoke to Steve, who has also joined us at the Dorset and Dunoon Dirt Dash in recent years, about his ride, his kit choices and the lessons learnt from failure.
Looking at the Highland Trail 550 route – What was your rough plan for the ride, and how was the weather affecting that schedule?
My plan was to try and ride 100 miles (160 km) a day. However, the weather certainly played a big part in this. 100 miles a day doesn’t sound a great deal, however with a loaded fat bike in winter conditions, it was a massive challenge covering that amount of varied terrain. Any sections above the snow line were really slow going with the volume of pushing required. Lower down with everything frozen solid, I made good time, even with my 4” studded tyres.
Looking at your gear list – If you were to attempt another ride of this kind, what are three items you would swap, and why?
Obvious number one would be footwear. My boot choice cost me the ride. I rode 45NRTH Ragnarok tall shoes which are great, but I should have gone with my 45NRTH Wölvhammer, as they are insulated boots. I had no idea how much snow had fallen high up and how much I would have to push my bike, meaning my feet were in the snow a lot more than anticipated. I was worried about wet feet with the river crossings, but it turned out most of them were frozen! Isn’t hindsight great?
Secondly, I’d change out a water bottle for a flask as a water carrier. I rode with two insulated bottles and a flask for hot drinks or soup. But with the temperatures being below freezing, the bottles froze. Having an extra flask would have prevented this, especially on the long high sections of the ride, where all water courses were frozen. I’d still take one bottle, but with two flasks.
Thirdly, I probably wouldn’t run SRAM AXS wireless shifting again. The batteries are small and suffer in the cold. The other issue was recharging them. When they were cold, they wouldn’t draw enough current from a battery pack to recharge, so that was problematic. I’m a fan of the AXS system, but it has its limitations in subzero conditions.
Aside from the above, there wasn’t much else I’d change, I was pretty happy with my kit choice on the whole.
Reading through the lines of your very interesting blog, would riding with another rider made a difference to the ride, or possibly to the outcome?
It’s a good question. Yes in terms of: I could have shared the effort of breaking trail through the snow, and keeping morale high when it got super challenging. However, going into extreme conditions like that, I only know one or two people who could manage themselves, and continue to ride. Riding the HT550 in full winter conditions isn’t just about riding bikes. You have to have big mountain experience in winter conditions as well. I think this is the reason why we haven’t seen many winter attempts, and out of those only two have been successful. I’ve had lots of people say they want to join me for another go, which is nice, but there is a reality to that. When it’s 3am in the morning on day three, and you’re pushing through knee deep snow, in a blizzard high on a plateau going through the night, few people are really up for that intense level of adventure.
Finally, what is the most important lesson you have taken away from the ride?
I never thought frostbite would catch me out in Scotland. I think the biggest lesson is self care on a journey like this. I should have realised earlier on in the ride that my ambition of 100 miles a day wasn’t possible in those conditions. If I had let go of that earlier, I wouldn’t have pushed so hard, which was probably my downfall. In saying that, in pushing that hard, I found another gear, both mentally and physically, which I never knew I had. I’ve found those lessons are only learnt by going beyond yourself, walking the fine line of adventure versus misadventure. This time I got it wrong, but there is still value in that. I’ll be wiser and better prepared for round two.
Adventure Show presenter Amy Irons travels to the Scottish Borders, a part of Scotland often ignored by outdoor enthusiasts keen to get to the big mountains. She joins Bikepacking Scotland founder Markus Stitz on a two-day trip sampling part of the Capital Trail and discovers a landscape that is wild, remote and full of surprises.
You can watch the Adventure on Friday 21 Jan at 8pm and Sat 22 Jan at 7.30pm on BBC Scotland or shortly afterwards on iPlayer. More information can be found here.
With a new film Edinburgh-based Markus Stitz and Mark Beaumont encourage more people to enjoy winter cycling in the future. Filmed on a newly created gravel bike route, which follows the local authority boundary of the City of Edinburgh, and additional locations close to the Scottish Capital during January and February 2021, ‘Explore your Boundaries’ is a short documentary that highlights the beauty and challenges of exploring places on two wheels in snow and ice.
Markus Stitz, the first person to ride a single-speed bicycle around the world, and Mark Beaumont, the Guinness World Record holder for the fastest circumnavigation in 78 days and 14 hours, are both Edinburgh residents. Teaming up to film ‘Explore your Boundaries’ was inspired by encouraging people to see familiar and local areas in unfamiliar ways, showing how great adventures can happen from your own front door.
Mark Beaumont comments: ‘When you ride somewhere in perfect conditions, define that as the summer and the sun is shining, it’s a totally different thing than the grit and the resolve that it takes to then go there in the depth of winter. I often think as a cyclist that there are a number of motivations. People want to do exercise and want to feel healthy, but for me there’s also the other side, which is just the sheer experience of exploring places and those memories. And that’s not necessarily about wellbeing in terms of fitness. As much as I can sit indoors and do circuits or get your miles in on the turbo, I can’t feed the soul in the same way unless I actually get out and ride.’
When the second lockdown was announced in Scotland in the end of 2020 the two cyclists created a collection of routes, named ‘Explore your Boundaries’, ranging from 30 to 315 miles (48 to 505 km), using the boundaries of Scottish local authorities as guidance. The routes are free to download on this site and on Mark’s and Markus’ Komoot profiles. The idea for the film was born when both rode the Edinburgh city boundary on 2 January, completing 68 miles (110 km) in about 10 hours and documenting the journey with stills and video footage.
With Scotland’s Capital mostly covered in snow from Christmas until the mid of February, Markus used the opportunity to capture the winter landscapes: ‘The last time I remember experiencing that much snow in Edinburgh was in 2010, shortly before I rode from Edinburgh to Germany. That journey introduced me to the joys of cycling in winter. Since then I love going out there and enjoying the elements, and this winter proved to be a perfect opportunity for that, and sharing the elation in a new film.’
While cycling in winter can be at times challenging, for both it is highly rewarding. As Beaumont puts it: ‘There’s definitely a kid inside me that loves ending up in quite tricky places and just creating those memories through big night rides, or being out in the snow. It’s about having fun with that concept of a bike ride, not just thinking I’m going out to get fit or I’m going out to train. It’s about trying to explore familiar places which are quite close to home, but you’re joining them up. And that’s when the best adventures happen.’
Paths for All, the Cairngorms National Park, NatureScot and Perth & Kinross Council, together with the Cateran Ecomuseum’s own Directors have committed investment totalling £82,650 to develop a second stage of heritage-based walking and cycling itineraries across eastern Perthshire and western Angus.
Travel for All Our Tomorrows will grow the number of Regenerative Tourism experiences offered by the Cateran Ecomuseum and kickstart a campaign to position it as one of Scotland’s premier car-free holiday destinations.
Regenerative Tourism encourages people to rethink how they travel for leisure and how they enjoy the places they choose to travel to in ways that ‘leave things better’ and ensure those places are available for future generations to enjoy. Active Travel, which encompasses walking and cycling, is regenerative because it reduces carbon footprint, places less pressure on the environmental resources of host communities and replenishes and restores people’s physical and mental wellbeing.
The project will work with local communities and businesses in the Ecomuseum area during 2021, to co-design and promote nine new self-guided and guided cycling and walking itineraries for all abilities, one new family friendly cycling event and one new temporary outdoor arts installation. These, together with the Ecomuseum’s existing walking and cycling itineraries, will be further promoted via a campaign that will create new digital and printed information on how to get to and around the Ecomuseum car-free and three short films.
The cycling itineraries for Travel for All Our Tomorrows will be designed by Markus Stitz of Bikepacking Scotland, who has successfully worked with other destinations in Scotland to develop cycling routes, most recently in the neighbouring Highland Perthshire region. “I am looking forward to working with the Cateran Ecomuseum on this forward-thinking project. Cycling is a key driver to establish a more sustainable, regenerative approach to tourism in Scotland, driven by working actively with local stakeholders, can provide activities that have very low impact on the environment and add a long-term income stream to the local economy. Scotland is a land with incredible natural assets and a rich history, and Bikepacking Scotland’s vision is to provide people with ideas to harvest this potential.”
Graham McQueen, Smarter Choices Smarter Places Open-Fund Senior Development Officer, said “Paths for All have invested 50% of the cost of the Travel for All Our Tomorrows project and we are really excited to see how this innovative project progresses. Smarter Choices Smarter Places is all about creating a modal shift from cars to more sustainable forms of transport and it’s great to see such a sustainable, environmentally friendly approach to tourism contributing to this modal shift.”
Pete Crane, Head of Visitor Services for the Cairngorms National Park, said “The latest Cairngorms National Park visitor survey shows that 57% of our visitors – that’s 1.2 million people each year – want to enjoy a low level walk with great things to experience, with well over a quarter of a million enjoying a bike ride. This project offers so much for visitors; the chance to safely, responsibly and slowly enjoy the amazing culture of Cateran Country and the southern Cairngorms in a way that brings our heritage to life. A great way to explore one of the quieter parts of the Highlands, along with the chance to meet and chat with those of us who live here and want to share our love of this amazing place.”
Janet Hunter, Director of the Cateran Ecomuseum, said “We’re very pleased to have been able to put together such a sizeable budget for Active Travel in the Ecomuseum and very grateful to our funders, especially given the very difficult context of the Pandemic. This investment builds on what we have already achieved during our launch phase and gives us an opportunity to grow our innovative Regenerative Tourism approach. We want people to explore the Cateran Ecomuseum on foot and by bike, travelling slowly so that they can take in the amazing landscape and discover the extraordinary heritage and stories along the way, and we want them to really get to know our host communities and all they have to offer. We’re also looking forward to building relationships with public and private transport providers to enable people to travel to the Ecomuseum car free much more easily. We are delighted that our community ambition to promote healthy, climate conscious experiences for everyone is being recognised and I’m looking forward to trying out all the new routes.”
In our latest film ‘Unhurried’Bikepacking Scotland founder and filmmaker Markus Stitz documents his trip on the John Muir Way, one of Scotland’s Great Trails. The film reveals a unique coast to coast journey through Scotland’s varied landscapes, history and heritage, during which Markus reflects on one of the great advantages of travelling by bike: being able to slow down and connect more fully with your surroundings.
The John Muir Way links Helensburgh in the west with Dunbar, the birthplace of John Muir, in the east. Using a combination of the waymarked walking and cycling routes, we have produced a recommended bikepacking version, which you can download as GPX on our website here. The route passes through Scotland’s first national park, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, and provides a journey of contrasts and the chance to connect with nature, taking advantage of the green spaces that link coasts, villages, towns and the capital city, Edinburgh.
We have already developed a number of long-distance cycling routes through Bikepacking Scotland, including the Wild About Argyll Trail and the Go East Lothian Trail, which both use sections of the John Muir Way. The new film has been created in cooperation with the Green Action Trust, a charity focused on environmental and regeneration outcomes for Scotland, which manages the route.
Here are some of our highlights from the route, which is also fabulous for day trips and microadventures.
Wild About Argyll has teamed up with Bikepacking Scotland and Calmac Ferries to promote a series of car-free walking and cycling adventures for various abilities, starting at Dunoon Pier and Benmore Botanic Gardens.
Dunoon is the jewel in the Firth of Clyde, very close to Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow. Situated on the Cowal Peninsula, the seaside resort is a gateway to the great outdoors, with an abundance of walking and cycling adventures accessible easily by public transport from the ferry pier.
Local businesses are embracing the opportunities the great outdoors offer, like Jon Smith from the St Ives Guesthouse explains: ‘Ìf you love the great outdoors, if you love friendly people, this is a place to come. We have got everything: Forests, mountain bike trails, boating, fishing, botanical gardens; nature at its finest.’
Bikes at Puck’s Rest, a Dunoon Guesthouse which caters to bikepackers.
The Rail and Sail Ticket, a joint offer from CalMac Ferries and ScotRail, makes travelling on public transport simple and encourages people to leave their car at home. With a combined ticket for train and ferry travel, which can be bought at staffed stations, online or on the train, it is the perfect opportunity for a spontaneous escape to Scotland’s Adventure Coast and the opportunity to get #wildaboutargyll without a car.
Jenny Tough, an Edinburgh-based adventure traveller and endurance challenger, who has recently taken part in the Dunoon Dirt Dash, is excited about the potential of Rail and Sail: ‘I am very passionate about human-powered endurance challenges and encouraging others to explore this beautiful planet. At the same time I feel strongly about protecting our wild places. Offering people good alternatives to ditch the car and spontaneously have an adventure to explore their own limits is a great idea.’
The stunning scenery around Dunoon.
Steve Bate MBE, adventurer and double Paralympic Champion, has been to Argyll twice in a year and loves the opportunities Dunoon offers for cycling: ‘Argyll is a fantastic part of Scotland to be explored. I have enjoyed cycling the Dunoon Dirt Dash recently after finishing this year’s road race season, which allows me a week or two of downtime. I love going on adventures when most pro riders put their bikes down. It’s great to encourage people to have an adventure close or far away from home. Dunoon’s setting and the easy access by ferry and train makes it even more tempting to return soon.’
The campaign features a short film showcasing the area and the opportunities Dunoon offers. Joanne Craven, an Edinburgh-based game designer, enjoyed working with FoSho Video from Glasgow on the film to promote the Rail and Sail offering: ‘The best thing about Dunoon is the ferry. Because even though you’re not going very far, it’s actually very easy. You feel like you’ve properly gone on holiday.’
Riders enjoying the inaugural Surly Dunoon Dirt Dash, a two-day bikepacking event taking place in and around Dunoon. Image: Neil Hanna
After a short or long day in the outdoors, Dunoon has plenty on offer to relax and great choices to stay overnight. A stroll down the promenade and the Victorian pier is highly recommended, or a visit to the historic Castle Mound and the museum. Browsing the local shops and galleries can be great fun, and local cafes and restaurants offer plenty of opportunities for lunch and dinner.
Six walking and cycling adventures are currently featured on the Wild About Argyll website. They include a walk through Puck’s Glen, a walk from Dunoon to Bishop’s Glen reservoir and a walk up Beinn Mhor. The cycling routes include the Dunoon Dirt Dashbikepacking route, a road bike loop around the Cowal Peninsula and a mountain bike ride around Loch Eck.