Smiles for Miles: Racing the Kintyre Way Ultra

As I proclaimed my intention to race the newly formed Kintyre Way ultra mountain bike race, my Dad’s immediate response was “You know it’ll take you days to get there?” Indeed, my laissez faire approach to the adventure hadn’t quite accounted for the many miles I’d need to travel to reach the Campbeltown start. Despite the distance, I had time to enjoy the near 200-mile route as I set off in the sultry heat of the holiday weekend. Excitement grew at every stretch of the road; a stunning coastal journey that revealed miles of splendid Scottish coastline.

Had it not been for that evening’s registration curfew, I was tempted at every bend in the road to make a pitstop. A mental note was made to revisit these sacred spots as soon as time would allow. 200 miles down and close to four hours from Edinburgh, I’d arrived.

Etched forever in the musical minds of my parents’ generation, the Mull of Kintyre is recognised as much for its cheese as well as for Mr McCartney. His hit song, who’s popular verse notes the romantic, rolling mist, was evidently absent due to record sunshine.

Campbeltown itself is a modest town. Most of the land is dedicated to dairy farming or golf as well as housing a close-knit community at the furthest point of the peninsula. Thankfully, locating race registration was a simple affair due to the single through road. As the inaugural year for the mountain bike race, organisers had sensitively capping numbers to gauge impact alongside runners. I noted the shiny, new cyclocross bikes on the trailers and for a moment, questioned my choice of hardtail.

Start of Ride

The Kintyre Way Ultra covers 120 kilometres, encompassing both road and trail. In fact, it’s a real quandary when it comes to bike selection! With a significant stretch of the course taking on tarmac, if you’re armed with a handy dose of CX skill, it’d be the model of choice. Without such bike or honed talent, I’d settle for the security of my trusty suspension forks.

Race day began at 6 am, a sharp wakeup call delivered by the full force of the Atlantic wind, which battered on the bedroom window. Riders ready, we set off at 8.30 am and arrived at the modest start line, an auspicious beginning as the sun shone and we chatted, waiting for the trailer of bikes to arrive. The only mild panic in the air arose as marshals got wind that our bikes had missed the turning and were heading north as the driver struggled to find a spot to turn on the one-way road.

Starting Line

The night before we’d selected our start times. Waves of five or so riders took to the humble start line, ready for countdown. I was 8.31 am, the second batch to be sent off on to the trail. Next to me stood a local rider, clearly set for a long and arduous day in the saddle. He gave ominous warnings of the ascent ahead.

Right off the line our pedals required ample power as we took off up the track that looped its way up to the first of many peaks. Given the sharkstooth profile, which covers close to 2500m of total ascent, there’s scarcely let-up for the entirety of the route. Having downloaded my Strava post-race, the aptly named “Stage 1 – Gravel Grinds and Sniper Bogs” is conclusive in its nomenclature; aptly summing up the first fifth of this monster day out.

Start Feed

On To Tayinloan

Contently, I weaved my way up the loose trail and then left turn onto a series of chunky, rutted bomb holes and partially dried bog – I  sighed with relief that I’d opted for suspension. Speedy racers came unstuck on such picky terrain and I shot past many of them initially, knowing they’d catch me up given the advantages of aero efficiency once we hit the road. I let rip on the downhills, wide-eyed and equally grinning as we met the coast road and saw the first of the sea at Skipness Bay.

My hesitation at the thought of riding on road during this event was quickly assuaged by sleek tarmac and seaside views. Leaving the East coast, the road was quick to bring us to the start of the next off-road section, which would lead us upwards once more, onto Loch Faroich, the Heather Loch. At moments, I was time travelling back in time to South Africa, as plumes of dry dust kicking up from underneath the tyres.

Road 2

A steady climb and descent was met this time on the West, hitting the A83 to cover a long stretch to the first of the feed stations. I’d been a little nonchalant regarding nutrition; my Miss Grape Node food bag was stuffed with energy bars, but hunger struck fast and furiously; more than I’d anticipated. A combination of heat, hills and a lengthy wait left my tummy and tired legs looking for a top up.

As the kilometres ticked towards 50, a moment’s rest was on offer at Tayinloan, where marshals ushered us into the chip timing point. Free thereafter to fill our faces fill of food, there was a homely spread of soup, biscuits and a quenching brew. If you’re expecting high performance fayre, you’d best bring your own. I’ll admit, I’ve been spoilt with the stage races of late and underestimated the level of ‘self-sufficiency’ as I pondered what was left in my top tube pouch.

Climbing out of the first feed point, there no abating the lengthy track road, at which time the fury of the wind equally crushed competitors’ efforts.

Lofty heights were gain as we rode 300 metres in less than 7 kilometres, an unduly tough start to the second leg for those who chose to study the profile. Various junctions keep me on my guard, the heat now starting to zap my brain from focus. Nearing the end, my mind momentarily waned and I carried on down the track, missing the turn guided by the blue breadcrumb trail of Kintyre sign posts. Cursing myself, I pedalled furiously back up hill, meeting another rider as we exchanged confused expressions.

Indeed, what I would have missed! This was my standout section from the entire trail. A steep kick led onto singletrack, away from the unyielding fire road. My mind switched on and I sat back off the saddle, keeping low to the bars and losing the riders behind me as I soaked up the section titled ‘sweetdown’ by Strava’s record. Out at Carradale, the most fervent greeting awaited and I smiled at shouts of ‘You’re first lady!’ by support crew. Bananas and flapjacks were swiftly passed my way, which I eager ate and carried on, keen to keep rhythm.

Carradale to Lussa Loch

From Carradale, the route follows the B842, a quiet country road that passed Torridale Castle and where we hit the final, gruelling ascent of the day. As the fire road dwindled to a lumpy and indistinct trail, I was met by supportive walkers who showed notable signs of surprise that I was in fact a woman. Followed by animated applause.

I decided at this point, studying the profile in greater detail might be a more appropriate plan. Luckily, the rest appeared as the track formed once again and steadied out. Nearing Lussa Loch, I met up with several ultra-runners, where mutual cheers of admiration ensued. Riders split from runners and we headed away from the official Kintyre Way to add distance and a series of grinding off-road miles to the final count.

Kildonald Bay to Campbeltown Finish

As the trail ended with a long descent a spectacular sea view came into sight across Kildonald Bay. Turning on to the tarmac, the closing stretch was an undulating series of small kicks through Peninver. I tucked and pedalled ferociously towards town. Arching the final corner, my boyfriend was there to cheer me to the final line where unusually, I was asked to dismount and shuffled my way across for the last few steps.

Finish

I was delighted to have made 1st lady back and the small gathering of riders, runners and supporters alike was just the cosy conclusion to the day that I’d hoped for. Catching my breath, I hurried down yet more homemade delights and congratulated fellow friends and riders I’d seen on the course, ready to enjoy the memories of the day with few beers, a barbeque and a stunning Scottish sunset to boot.

Sunset Westport

Thanks to Miss Grape and Endura for the kit provided. A full review soon to follow on Strongher.

Want to read more of my adventure stories? Here’s more!

 

 

 

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