Scottish mountain bike chameleon Rab Wardell took on the challenge of beating the best known time, on one of Scotland’s infamous routes, the West Highland Way.
Pete caught up for a chat with Rab to find out about his preparation for riding the best part of ten hours through Scotland’s finest landscapes on one of the most famous long-distance routes.
Photos by Brodie Hood.
Why do you think the West Highland Way record appeals more than any other long distance Scottish route?
I think the real draw is the fact that it’s so well known and so many people come to walk it. Other than that, the fact it’s a point to point journey, links so many great sections of trail, and visits stunning locations makes it pretty special.
How far ahead did you start planning for this attempt?
I’ve been vaguely thinking about making an attempt for a while, but my fitness and weight was a long way off of where it needed to be. Then in April, when in lockdown, I kept myself busy training at home on my Kickr and started to get quite fit. I was fortunate to be in lockdown with my girlfriend Katie, who also happens to be a professional cyclist and Olympic champion, so I had the ultimate training buddy.
By June I knew I was on track to get fit enough and lose enough weight to have a crack at the record. That’s also when I secured the backing of Wahoo and Santa Cruz to make a film, and the planning really started.
How much did improvements in bikes affect how you could approach it compared to your original time?
Bike development made a significant difference. I last rode the WHW in 2012, on a 29er hardtail. This time I was on a 29er full suspension with a dropper post, which made a lot of sections which were previously unrideable possible. I ran CushCore in my tyres so I could run lower pressures and limit fatigue through trail vibration. And having wide ratio gearing through Sram Eagle was also a big improvement. The light lever action for shifting and dropper post reduced hand fatigue. All of these things made a difference and meant I could go significantly faster than 8 years ago.
How did you set your bike up differently to usual?
I had a completely new bike for the ride, so the set up was all pretty new. I actually only got the bike 3 days before making my attempt, but thankfully I was confident in the build I’d chosen. I was lucky that it all worked out.
How many times did you change D-Day because of the weather?
I had identified a 2-week window where I expected the weather to be good enough to make an attempt. The first two days of that window were out as my bike got delayed, but thankfully the weather was awful at that time with heavy rain. The following 3 days were reasonable weather wise, which I hoped was enough to dry out the muddy sections on the trail. The best days were probably going to be over the weekend, which was a no-go for an attempt as the route would be way too busy.
So we went with Friday the 18th of September, which was warm and dry, but I knew I was taking a gamble with the wind. Being totally honest, if I didn’t have so many people backing the ride I wouldn’t have gone on that day, as the conditions weren’t great and the days leading into the ride were super stressful.
Did that affect you at all?
Yeah it had a pretty big affect on me to be honest. In the days leading up to the attempt I wasn’t sleeping as I was so anxious. Had the weather looked good, as it usually does in September, I wouldn’t have felt so stressed about organising a team of 10 people to support the ride and document it all. We were under pressure to decide a day for the attempt as Cut Media needed to book staff for the shoot and organise logistics. It was really stressful getting everything organised under pressure.
Did you have a playlist, if so, what was on it?
I didn’t have a playlist on the day, but I train to music a lot of the time. I had been listening to Big Country a lot, who were pretty big in the 90s and are from Dunfermline, the same town as me. I liked listening to that as they have a country music vibe, and have an iconic Scottish sound. When listening to them while training it helped me to visualise the ride and also visualise the film. Other regulars for me are Metallica, and drum n bass playlists too. I listen to a pretty wide range of music to be honest.
Was it easy to pick the people to have around on the day?
Yeah it was. My mum and dad have always supported me and they are pretty dialled when it comes to support. They’ve helped me at races for 20 years, so they know what to do. James Wright and James McCallum are two of my best friends. I’ve known them both for years and I trust them.
What bit(s) were you dreading, and what were you really looking forward to?
I was stressing about Conic Hill and the Military Road from Kinlochleven to Fort William. They were both sections I’d punctured on during reccys and that was the main thing I was worried about.
How does your body react to riding off-road for almost ten hours?
If you learn how to pace and fuel it, it’s not too bad. I mean, you’re suffering, and it is hard, but it’s not as bad as it could be. If you get the pacing or fuelling wrong it will be absolute hell and you’ll hate it. I put a lot of thought into how I would pace the ride, and my nutrition came from Secret Training. They make the best nutrition products out there, in my opinion.
Did you have a celebratory kebab after finishing?
I didn’t. I couldn’t really face eating right away so I think I just drank a recovery drink and some fizzy drinks post ride. When I got home I ordered some takeaway food to be delivered. I can’t remember what, but it took forever to arrive. It was about an hour late and I was raging.
What did your recovery consist of?
The day after I literally did nothing. I just lay on the sofa. The day after that I had to get up at 5am to drive to Fort William for the first of two ‘pick-up’ days getting extra shots for the film, which was brutal. They were two super long days filming on the trails and I was really struggling by the end of them. Once we had wrapped that up I don’t think I touched my bike for a week.
It felt really weird to have ticked off the ride and not have anything planned for the future, and I was depressed for a few weeks after that. Post event blues, if you like. I was in this weird situation where I was in the best physical shape I’d been in years, but I had nothing to do. No races, no events. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I gradually got back to riding, but I don’t feel like I have the same purpose as I did while training for the West Highland Way. I have lots of ideas of what I’d like to do now but it’s tricky to try and make them happen.
What would be your top tips to people wanting to ride the WHW in one hit?
I guess the main tip is to be prepared for anything. Walking the route before riding certainly helped me, so either walk it or ride it over a couple of days.
If you go straight in to ride it in one go, then don’t take it for granted. Take lights and take supplies. Other than that, ride slower than you think you need to and eat way more carbs than you think you need to… I was taking in about 100g of carbohydrate every hour on my ride. That’s 400 calories an hour, for 9 hours, and over 3600 calories of carbs in total.
The inversion over Loch Lomond when I was on Conic Hill. Also, just having my parents and so many good friends all working together on the same day. That was cool.
Any disasters (other than the puncture)?
I had a brand new Crank Brothers pump mounted to the bottom of my bike frame and I broke it carrying my bike along Loch Lomond… I had to stuff the pump down the back of my skinsuit for the rest of the ride.
Anyone to thank?
So many people to thank.
Wahoo Fitness, Louis Quinton and Matt Porter in particular, have to be top of the list, as their support transformed my idea into a reality. I’ve daydreamed and thought up loads of things over the years, but always struggled to get the support to make it happen, so it was amazing to have the backing of Wahoo. Also, with their support, training became much easier and more convenient. This was great as I was setting up my new coaching business while training for the record attempt.
I’d like to thank all the brands which I’ve been supported by and worked with over the last few years – Santa Cruz Bikes, Endura, Juice Lubes, Continental Tyres and Oakley. It was also great to establish new partnerships with CushCore and Secret Training, as well as Crank Brothers and Fizik through Hannah at Extra during this project.
A big thank you to Stu and the whole team at Cut Media. Without Stu’s support there would have been no way I could have made a film like this happen. It felt like working with a whole group of friends before, during and after the shoot, and it was a privilege to be able to work with everyone to make this film happen
A special shout out to Tommy Wilkinson for handling all the PR, as well as Frazer Coupland at Outdoor Capital and Ross Barclay at Red Bull.
Finally, I want to thank my family and friends. My mum and dad of course, my girlfriend Katie, and Jimmy and Jambo.
The list could go on and on but I’m worried the website will run out of ink…
You can follow Rab’s adventures over on his Instagram page here.
Check out more cinematic gold from the guys at Cut Media on their Youtube channel here.