I woke on race day with a head still fuzzy. I’d begun my pre race sabotage two days earlier in the company of Alex and Kate, a pair of unaffiliated Canadians. We had a lovely mince round Inverness followed by a lovely pint. It was a Guinness and it gave me the taste which invariably takes my gradually ageing body to “that” place. Matters were made worse upon the arrival of Lee Grieve who I’d met at TCRNo6, and in the company of Shit John of Restrap fame we proceeded to imbibe the Scottish “culture”. Saturday was a write off and Sunday was still slightly nauseous. Not the usual warm up but what could I expect? This was the inaugural Panceltic Race, a race organised by a Welshman and a man who sounds like a scouser but might not be a scouser. (Is he a scouser?) Getting shitfaced has an air of inevitability in such company. (Note: There are four organisers; I haven’t forgotten Pete and Rebecca but their subtler accents don’t allow for my hilarious stereotyping…..)
Moving away momentarily from my internal disarray, I should refer briefly to what it was I was about to take part in. This was the first year of the Panceltic Race. A 1500 mile endurance bike race through 3 Celtic Nations. I was one of around 90 people who’d answered the call of the clan leader. Nearly 100 people who believed in what Matt Ryan dreamt up and then quite audaciously brought to life. I wont bore you with the minutiae but the effort and commitment that was put into the execution of this first edition was beyond anything I’ve seen in the few years that I’ve been partaking in these silly events. Just getting that many people to the start line would be a feat alone. But to do so with such a sense of community and shared passion is testament to the efforts of the organisers. I really could wax lyrical all day about it, but Matt’s a fireman and would probably be alarmed by that volume of smoke being blown up his arse. So I’ll stop.
So here we stood outside our god awful hostel, 80 or 90 clan members amassed, the air filled with that excited nervous tension such adventures effortlessly invoke. The wonderful pre race atmosphere was enhanced by a small child playing bagpipes, giving us all that much yearned for Braveheart moment. It was a truly sterling effort and one that certainly convinced me of the pros of child labour.
The Welsh Embassy (Matt’s aged mobile home) sounded its many horns and we were off, escorted out of town and towards the first leg of our adventure.
Now pre race I’d had a personal goal of a top ten finish, but meeting the many talented riders on the piss I had somewhat downgraded my expectations over the weekend. This downgrading was cemented when a group of around 30 or so disappeared off up the road. I didn’t worry, I have learnt from past experience to go at my own pace. If people can smash away at that speed then fair play.
The Scottish leg started from Inverness and dragged us north through the Highlands towards Tongue. Now I say dragged and that is somewhat misleading. By early afternoon it was in fact the inverse of that, as a strong northerly wind made a less than welcome appearance. The ensuing long dragging inclines paired with the block headwind really sapped the energy and perhaps more worryingly the will to live. To add to this unpleasantness it transpired that the Scottish highlands are absolutely bare arse on a Sunday. Not a morsel to be had. Now I had had the foresight to raid the Inverness branch of Home Bargains prior to race start and had a plentiful supply of flapjacks to fuel the fire, the problem was of course was that they wouldn’t last forever. The two Spars I’d noted on the route prior to Tongue were shut. Nothing to do but crack on Lofty.
I think a lot of the racers will recognise the detour below. We all got Laid. Out of the wind but increasingly hungry I was delighted to happen across a small cafe in Laid, which by some miracle was still open. There was another rider in at the time (sorry chap it was a few sleeps ago) and by all accounts the old man behind the counter had been doing a roaring trade. He only had Tuna mayo left apparently, not a problem “pal” I fucking love a bit of Tuna Mayo. Hunger issues solved for now. On the way out I came across young Lee who looked even more relieved to get a feed than I did. I hadn’t looked at the tracker but he’s a strong fucker so I deduced I must be in a relatively respectable position within the field. So with the taste of fish in my mouth I left Laid and began the next phase of the very literal Hunger Games.
Woop Woop it’s the sound of the PO-LICE. Oh na its the Welsh Embassy. The Embassy rolled past at some point between Tuna and dusk and that was a nice morale boost. The next morale boost came as I entered the particularly unpleasant section of lumps and bumps south towards Ullapool. I could see a vision in Albion kit ahead of me which was a nice target. It turned out to be Joan Carillo who I would like to say is one of the nicest men I have ever met. Anyway we had a chat and acknowledged just how stunning Scotland was. We were approaching the famous sunset that lasted for several hours and proffered some of the most spectacular views my retinas have ever had the pleasure to welcome in. If you haven’t already, hit up the Panceltic Instagram to see what I mean. Unreal.
I plodded on into the night and eventually ran into David Sherrington who had apparently stopped for a lovely meal which I had clearly missed; BASTARD. Now side story time. Turns out me and David finished within a few hours of each other at TCRNO6 but have never met, how strange, especially considering, SPOILER ALERT, how this race ended….
Anyway I have really lost track of what else happened other than I inevitably ran out of food. I turned up to CP1 at Ullapool somewhere near or in the top ten. I had a quick chat with Matt Ryan, who confirmed I was a wanker and should have planned the whole eating thing a bit better. Lesson learnt. My initial plan had been to ride through the night, but everyone ahead of me had stopped and that was a good enough reason for me to collapse onto a spare sofa in the hostel. I didn’t sleep much which is often a problem I have. Fortunately, it’s a problem I overcame in the rest of this race and a skill I will take forwards with me.
Morning. Day 2. I am fucking famished. No seriously I’m fucking starving. People are leaving, I want to leave but am painfully aware that food is likely to be scarce for the next 50 or so miles, and I can’t get that far on empty. Tactical decision is to wait until something opens, even if i do lose a few places. I’d lose more starving myself to death somewhere in Scotland. Found a newsagents which opened very promptly at 0630 and I started the 6 day spending spree. Fully stocked it was onward and upwards.
This day is a bitch. The profile is deceptive. The gigantic Baleach Na Ba in the middle of the route has disguised the disgusting truth of the day. It’s incessant up and downs. Steep ups, where momentum from the last hill gets you no more than a few metres up the next double figure gradient. Plus its hot. Why is it so hot? It’s Scotland man. The final stretch to Applecross and the foot of the big boy is brutal and seemingly endless. When I finally spy Applecross across the bay I am one very relieved young man. I stop at the foot of the climb and have a cake. I also lose my brevet card here, but fortunately I have a South African saviour who will later collect it for me. Thanks handsome.
The climb up Baleach Na Ba is more my bag and I really enjoy it. Stunning scenery to boot, much happier boy. I see the very talented photographer Rupert at the top who is living the gypsy life and have a brief chat. Lovely bloke, again if you haven’t already head over to the Albion website to see his outstanding photos of the event. He really captured the feel of it, so well done that man.
The next thing I recall is my second run in with the Welsh embassy. I meet them somewhere in Scotland roughly an hour after Baleach Na Ba( I really have lost track of where anything occurred). I demonstrate my exceptional Kiwi eating skills, take a quick blast of JD and depart. I’m feeling good after the minging morning and want to push on into the night.
That afternoon into the evening towards Invergary is once again absolutely stunning, Scotland really did deliver. The climbs are also to my liking and I have a thoroughly enjoyable time. As I summit the last of the days climbs near Loch Loyne, the sun has set and the rain begins. Not an issue, I live in Northern Ireland and I’m used to it. Oh just you wait you smug fuck.
Somewhere near Invergarry I spot a great looking bivvy spot. But I tell myself to harden the fuck up and carry on aiming for Fort William. Error. I hadn’t inspected the route as closely as I might of and a few miles later I’m on an unexpected bike path. Except its not a path its a shitty muddy gravel rut ridden frog infested track of misery. Its pitch black and pissing down, I bounce and bump along to the squelch of the innocent frogs I unwittingly massacre in a 2 hour spell I’d sooner forget.
Upon reaching the end of this awfulness I’m ready for a kip so I begin the scout, eventually settling on a bus stop just outside Fort William. I have no problem sleeping despite my overall dampness and get a few hours shuteye.
Day 3 begins as it means to carry on. Its wet. Very wet. My clothes are damp. I think they are wet, but little do I know that in about 8 hours time I will know the true meaning of WET. These clothes are merely damp. Anyway I set off and have a bacon baguette in a crap garage. Now the rain really ups its game. Its raining so hard that when the rain hits the floor it then proceeds to bounce back to handlebar height. Its a deluge that overcomes my previously bombproof Castelli Idro. Unheard of. SCENES. Shivering I have no choice but to stop 40 miles in at Connel to try and reanimate. I have a coffee and toast in an empty hotel and do something awful in the toilet for which I still feel guilty. I was the only guest, it didn’t require Poirot.
I redress in the one dry top I have as a base layer and put all the wet stuff on top. Once again I bump into David, who as usual drops me after a 15 minute or so chat. Far quicker than me that boy. The winding road just after Connel is lovely but the wet takes the shine off it a bit. It gets worse. I set Inverary as a target, which I make on the verge of hypothermia. David is here and we retreat into a pub for lunch and to take stock. I cant stop shivering, my body convulses every time the door opens. Everything is at 100% saturation. There is no hope of drying it out in half an hour. I have seen a corner shop next door to the pub and pray they sell tat. A tartan jumper perhaps? A Fat Bastard t-shirt? A copy of the Daily Mirror to shove down my jersey? Anything. That’s my plan and I exit the pub with purpose. As I follow the green cross code and check right, I notice something. Its something glorious. Its the Inverary Woollen Mill. Fuck me, what are the chances? I’m in and enquiring about the Merino. They have a merino mix if that would suit sir? But on second thoughts Sir looks like a tramp and smells worse, we have the normal wool in the back and its cheaper. You read my mind. I whip the wet stuff off. A mustard yellow jumper is on. It is so dry. Coarse and itchy. I will it to scratch me, to impose its dryness on my soggy crinkled skin. Then I spot the gilets. I go Maroon in the style of Titchmarsh and Dimmock. It goes well with the mustard and I pay up.
I catwalk back across the road to David who is readying himself to leave. Look at me. Dry. Mustard and Red. Wool. I’m a Panceltic Prince, ready my steed!
The rain eases but it needn’t have bothered, because I’m dry and toasty in my new threads. Couple of climbs later and it’s down by Loch Lomond onto a rubbish bike path where I get my only puncture of the race. I book a hotel in Kilmarnock. I can still make the second ferry the next day if I stop for a few hours in Kilmarnock and set off early. I stop at a Maccas north of Dumbarton to fuel for the final stretch.
The Dumbarton to Kilmarnock leg stood out for me due to the sense of deprivation I came across. These towns were quite clearly struggling, and the the atmosphere was certainly darker. I’ve no problem admitting I was glad to see the back of them and make it to my B&B in Kilmarnock, first bed of the race. Bloke was lovely, put my bike in the shed and squared me some weetabix for the morning. I ordered a dominoes, washed my filthy body, inhaled said Dominoes and slept for four hours.
Its Day four. Its early (I think like 4 or 5) and I have a ferry to make. Six or seven look likely to make the first ferry, including David the wiley fox. I aim for the second, Lee is behind me and he could make it too. I set off and its a bit of a lumpy one. Lots of ups and downs and I’m glad i kept a few slices of pizza back for the journey. Its a stressful affair with the clock very much ticking and I leave nothing to chance. I don’t stop, covering the 70 or so miles in a oner. The climb up through Galloway Forest is great. I rode this area last year as training and its well worth a visit if you’re local. Also a nice way to sign off Scotland which 100% delivered on what the race promised.
I make the ferry terminal with plenty of time, in about 7th or 8th place. The Welsh Embassy greets me and they’re a welcome sight. There’s a brief drama at the desk as the woman says my ticket change hasn’t gone through and there’s no room on the ferry for me. Fuck off mate. My face adequately portrays this sentiment and sure enough she finds space.
I get on the ferry and @arrieredupeloton makes me feel like a model snapping away. He gets some great ego boosting shots and as above, if you haven’t already go check out his stuff on instagram, he also did an incredible job of documenting the race (his shot of Aaron is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned). I have a massive burger and make friends with a nervous old Scottish lady who has never been on a ferry before. Another reality check on everything in life I take for granted. Sobered up from my time in front of the lens I find secluded space near the staff quarters. Its a few days before the glorious twelfth and the ferry is full of half cut Loyalists. No problem, I’m shattered and block out their guffaws.
I wont labour the point. Scotland was insane. It was also brutal. The coldest I’ve ever been on a bike, and most certainly the wettest. I’d never been to the Highlands and couldn’t ask for a better introduction. Despite the hardships it was an absolute blast. Your move Ireland.