August saw three of the Fitzrovia team head off on a sleeper train to Scotland for a little touring adventure in the Highlands. Will, Chuck and Darrel packed up a full set of Ortliebs each and rode out from Fort William without any real plan and no return ticket, but two tents, a tarp, an armful of maps and a pessimistically empty bottle of sunscreen.
Fortified by their worst fried breakfast in living memory, they started northeast along the Great Glen Way, riding gravel tracks along the Caledonian canal and winding up and down alongside the hills of Lochs Lochy, Oich and Ness. Some of the route is pretty technical over rough and rocky footpaths, but the bikes stayed upright and all twelve panniers held fast. They then turned northwest and gradually climbed up over Highland glens, slowly weaving their way around the northwest coast, riding miles of mountain passes, camping wild on beaches and beside rivers and lochs, cooking over a fire (no mean feat when the landscape starts running out of trees), spending entire days only able to travel in the direction of a 40mph headwind, drinking many a single malt and, of course, being eaten alive by midges. They made it as far north as the remote fishing village of Lochinver, before the call of real-world obligations urged them south and Will and Darrel left Chuck to ride down solo from Inverness to Edinburgh to catch the last few days of the festival.
Darrel already had a tourer, but Chuck and Will felt it best to leave building up their bikes until the last possible moment. They just about scrambled together all of their various parts in the days before setting off and all of the bikes held up magnificently. Comfortable, super strong and even fast at times (Darrel clocked 45mph on his Garmin on more than one occasion), all three bikes share certain features – Tubus racks and Ortlieb panniers, Continental Top Contact tyres on Mavic A719 Rims, but each has its own distinct character.
The Beast Mode Beast’s Mode:
Will’s bike is built around a resprayed Omega (the company that went on to become Enigma) frameset built from Columbus tubing. It’s the lightest bike of the three, with slightly smaller tyre clearances – 32c with mudguards, rather than Chuck and Darrel’s 37c – and unusually for a tourer, will has opted for a compact double set-up, rather than a triple chainset. What allows him to do this (other than his impressive legs) is the enormous range of the cassette in his Ultegra 11-speed groupset. He’s the only of the three to use integrated shift/brake levers, as opposed to the more traditional (and supposedly more reliable) bar-end shifters, but Will’s Ultegra 6800 STIs look awesome on his old-school-shaped Nitto Randonneur bars. Finishing these and crowning his Thomson seatpost are Brooks leather bar tape and a Cambium C17 saddle.
The Lapsed Racer’s Stouter:
Chuck’s bike is a Brother Kepler, which is very much a do-anything frame. We’ve built quite a few of these up at the shop in all different guises (including for two other members of staff – not many other stock frames can boast that level of Fitz endorsement) but it was nice to see Chuck build this one up in a classic road-touring mold. Polished silver 9-speed Ultegra triple and XTR components with bar-end shifters and a gutted-out set of Campagnolo Record carbon brake levers roll on Hope Mono RS and SP dynamo hubs, with finishing kit from Ritchey’s polished silver Classic range. The result is functional and understated, though it’s the only bike of the three to have a freehub noisy enough to make itself known to other road users, both human and ovine. Lastly an all important “bike adventures forever” sticker from our good friends at SBC Cycles adorns his top tube.
The Kitchen Sink Weightloss Programme:
Darrel’s bike is the heaviest of the three. It’s a late 90’s Raleigh Special Products frame made from the rather rare Reynolds 708 tubeset. It’s been resprayed with matching Tubus racks and kitted out with Nitto Noodle bars and Technomic tall stem, SON Deluxe front and XT rear hubs. Darrel runs a retro 8 speed XT setup – for durability and ease of repair in far-flung lands – on a beautiful set of Middleburn custom cranks. He’s opted for a traditional square taper bottom bracket for reliability and wide range 24/36/48 chainrings. A couple of particularly cool features of this bike – it’s got a kickstand(!) – the Swiss-made Pletscher Twin Leg – and also a Busch and Muller e-werk – a device to turn that dynamo energy into charging power for a Garmin, phone, USB lights…pretty much anything. He’s ridden it around Ulster and England, to Stockholm and back, but the Highlands were definitely the most mountainous terrain the bike had been hauled across yet. Luckily his low end gears meant he could slowly plod his way up to the top of every climb to find Will and Chuck waiting, taking pictures of the endless good views and enjoying a wee dram.
Darrel says: It was undoubtedly some of the most spectacular scenery of anywhere in the UK and to be honest, it was a pretty gentle pace – there was a lot more camping than riding, but that was really a necessity given the intensive nature of our drinking schedule. Our late nights around the campfire meant late starts the next day and, somehow, no matter where we’d camped, each day seemed to start with an enormous climb before there’d been any chance to warm up. Accordingly, we weren’t accomplishing huge numbers of miles each day, it was nice to just take it easy and appreciate how beautiful it all was. I couldn’t recommend the northwest coast enough, some of the most amazing landscapes I’ve ever seen, let alone ridden. I think the highlight for all three of us was definitely Bealach na Bà (The Pass of the Cattle) over Sgurr a’Chaoracahin and the incredible descent down into Applecross. The pass winds its way slowly up from the coast for nearly 6 miles of gradients up to 20% (it’s the largest road ascent in the UK), each turned corner revealing yet another breathtaking view of the surrounding hills and mountains across the sea on Skye. After a few final agonising switchbacks up to the summit, you’re greeted with the full panorama and then by far and away the most fun descent I’ve ever ridden. I still remember hearing Will cackling with glee as he went down. It’s steep and twisting, but treeless, so you can see far enough down the mountain to be able to tuck into the drops and take it at full speed. So much fun on a fully loaded tourer, you gather incredible momentum but always feel rooted to the road.
Apart from the bikes, here are few bits of kit we wouldn’t want to be without (most of which we stock or can supply if you’re gearing up for a tour):
Hilleberg/Easton tents – super-strong/super-light
Merino baselayers and socks from Endura/Rapha – always keep you the right temperature and they stay amazingly fresh
Ortlieb panniers and Tubus racks – absolutely the best in the business – totally waterproof and amazingly strong. Tubus’ five year warranty includes a two year mobile replacement guarantee – if yours breaks out on the road, they will FedEx out a replacement to you immediately, anywhere in the world!
Tarpaulin – superb bit of weight to use-value kit for being able enjoy the outdoors around the fire in all weathers (we had a couple of lengths of lightweight rope and a number of bungees and carabiners with us too)
A newspaper – great for starting fires where we only had wet wood
Exped inflatable sleeping mats – luxuriously comfortable and warm, they pack down light and small
Optima heat exchange gas stove – boiled a lot more river water for tea than it got used for other cooking but still an essential item
Toe-straps/bungees – endlessly useful both on and off the bike
Shimano MT91 SPD touring boots – rugged, waterproof and comfortable for both riding and hiking. Mine are almost worn out after about 6 years and I’m going to get the same again to replace them
Ortlieb bar bags – Will didn’t have one but Chuck and I swear by ours for having everything that you might need ready to hand and including an attachable Ortlieb waterproof map case for easy navigation on the move
Hip-flasks/Sigg aluminium water-bottles – you can’t afford to carry the weight of all that glass up and down those steep climbs – decant your whiskey!