It’s just starting to sink in, three days later, that Rob n I managed to pull this off. Back in the early days of the Highland March, we generally knew eleven months in advance where we were going to be walking the next year, and even in the SPL, we knew with a month’s notice where we’d be going so the training was always in the bank. The Road To Hampden was different: we prepped this off the back of virtually no notice and had only Around The World In 800 Days on RGT Cycling as resilient training ahead of the off. This always had the potential to be a bridge too far, much like Inverness in tomorrow’s cup final against a rampant Celtic I guess.
This isn’t so much a coherent story as a brain dump of a bunch of thoughts that, if I don’t get them down on virtual paper, will fade into the mists of time. So this is a story that’s best told, and I’ll try and do it in some kind of chronological order, warts and all.
The initial idea came about when Inverness beat Kilmarnock and Celtic won at Hearts in the quarter final of this season’s Scottish Cup. I was so convinced that Inverness would get Celtic in the semis that I put the word out that it might be an opportunity to get the auld team back out and do a relay HM from Inverness to Hampden. No one was interested: too close and not enough time to train. Then we didn’t get Celtic: we got Falkirk on the Saturday while Celtic got Sevco on the Sunday. The same gig was still on the cards, but in effect it had been punted a couple of months further down the road into the long grass (Craig Levein would have been impressed by the length of the grass). However all that that did, given that the answer was still no from the Marchers, was buy me time to decide what I was prepared to do about it. Quite a lot was the answer.
The catalyst was heading off to Celtic Park at the beginning of May to see the Seville cyclists off the premises at the start of their epic journey to mark 20 years since the Hoops took over the Spanish city for the UEFA Cup Final. At Celtic Park that bright and breezy Saturday morning, I bumped into Jane Maguire. Jane and I go back a few years, primarily down to escapades on two wheels that I’ve done for Solving Kids Cancer, but with maybe a wee Celtic flavouring: however Jane would not have been expecting what was heading her way that morning. “Jane, I’m thinking of cycling from Inverness to Glasgow in a day ahead of the cup final”. She looked me in the eye and said “But you don’t really think that’s possible, do you?” “No”. “So that’s exactly why you’re going to try”.
It was a done deal. There was possibly no other person in the world at that moment who could have laid down the gauntlet so eloquently as Jane did with that one liner. The Road To Hampden was born.
But having an idea is one thing: delivering it is another thing altogether. There were only two people on the planet, no, make that three, who could have provided the time and the support that this thing was going to demand. One of them was big Paul, who drove for me across Australia on Ride To Cure, and he was actually in Scotland on holiday at the time. One was Caley Canary, who drove support for me on the 48 hour yomp from Inverness to Dunfermline on HM4: and the other one was Gringo Joonya, my Field Marshal mate of a dozen Highland Marches, who knew the route like the back of his hand, who has the customer service skills that go with the role, and perhaps most importantly, had as much passion as I did to get this thing over the line. It was a match absolutely made in heaven.
From committing to the deal, we had just over three weeks to pull everything together: get both clubs onboard and get two charities onboard, one in Glasgow and one in Inverness. The Celtic Foundation was a no brainer, and that worked out so well in terms of support and administration. In the Highlands, we went with Mikeysline because it’s a charity close to the hearts of the Highland Marchers, and because John Robertson, sporting director at ICT, is an ambassador for Mikeysline. Then we had to get Joe Public and the media onboard but that proved to be a tougher nut to crack that we initially thought.
The @Road2Hampden Twitter account proved to be our salvation, and while we were able to warm up by promoting previous escapades between Inverness and Celtic, the real fun started in the days leading up to the ride itself.
Having accepted the gig, my initial thought was to use the bike that I used for Ride2Cure across Australia: but a quick swatch by my trusted bike man, Neil, up at Fastrider Cycles in Stewarton quickly swatted that thought aside. That bike’s been on Around The World duty in the garden shed for the past eighteen months and I’m afraid toil and sweat, no matter how honest, have taken their toll. Neil reckoned that the front wheel would have collapsed on meeting the first pothole. So with two weeks to go, I needed new wheels, as in a different bike altogether. Neil spotted a carbon frame racing bike in my frame size in Kilmarnock so I duly paid the guy three hundred notes fifteen days before the off, then Neil and I poured over it the next day: new everything apart from the frame and the brakes. We ordered stuff from all over the country, occasionally having to pay top dollar for quick delivery, but by the Thursday, most of the bits were in. I picked the bike up on the Saturday and took it for a spin on the Sunday. I’d never been on anything like it in my puff. This was F1 on two wheels, powered by human energy. It gave me some amount of confidence that we actually had a chance of pulling this off.
In the meantime, I’d plotted the route on Strava, and despite tinkering with it repeatedly over the next seven days, the top end remained pretty much unchanged so long as we could make an early start. There are several options for getting out of Inverness and up onto the Highland plain around Aviemore, but every one of them is painful. The three biggest climbs of the whole 185 mile trip were locked into the first ninety minutes: indeed the toughest climb was the first, coming after just two miles on the long haul away from Raigmore on the A9. The A9 is a contentious point. As a rule, you would never choose to take a bike on the A9 for fear of getting killed. But at 3am, when we were planning to leave Caley Stadium, there was hee haw on the road, and despite it being dark, the bike (et moi) was lit up like a Christmas tree, and with Rob driving shotgun behind me with the hazards on, it was relatively safe. The only time that I really felt vulnerable was when he shot off ahead to bag pole position to grab some photos, which we will come back to later. Yes, one or two big artics went flying by at 5am, but this was no more dangerous a situation than big Paul and I faced on the Newell Highway in New South Wales. It’s risky, but you plan to mitigate those risks, then get off the main highway as soon as is practically possible. And that’s precisely what we did.
Such was the preparation in the lead up to the Road To Hampden that I started purposefully waking earlier and earlier each day, and staying awake, in readiness for being on the road at 3am. Effectively I shifted my body clock by about four hours over the course of two weeks. I also made a virtual version of the route and loaded that up onto the Wahoo RGT platform. On two successive Saturdays, Saturday being a day off from Around The World, I rode the first two sixty mile legs to get a feel for the climbs and the schedule. Carrying that information in your back pocket on the day provides knowledge and supports optimism. The fact that I cycled both of those rides with my virtual pal Lynda in Sydney also gave a sixth sense of having some support on the event itself because she’s been there with me on the virtual version. You need that support when the going gets tough, as invariably it did on Tuesday.
So the scene was set. I drove up to Inverness on Monday, having added Rob onto my car insurance for Tuesday so that he could support me all the way down the road. I picked him up from his gaff then we headed down to Caledonian Stadium for a photoshoot. The place was eerily quiet just a few days before a cup final, but we got our photos then headed off to lay our plan for the following day.
But before I crack on and brain dump the day itself, it’s worth laying bare the data science that underpins being on a bike for hours on end. At 5ft 6in and eleven and a half stones, my personal maximum glycogen store is just over 1800 calories. That’s defined by the standard formula: weight in Kg x 25. No matter how much I ate before the event, 1800 calories was the capacity of my fuel tank. With Spag Bol the night before and porridge at half one in the morning, I think we can safely assume that my tank was full at the off. The trick, indeed the holy grail in endurance sports, is not to allow your glycogen stores to drop to a dangerous level, and for two reasons: (1) glycogen fuels your working muscles (2) glycogen fuels you brain, and that absolutely has to be razor sharp, especially when you’re physically tired. My metabolism gobbles up 72 calories an hour, every hour of the day. I need that just to exist. So I reckoned that if I was going to remain focused and energised, I’d need pit stops every couple of hours, during which time I’d have burnt up almost 150 calories metabolically and maybe another 900 on the road. Call it a thousand calories between pit stops. What was needed was to replace those thousand calories at every stop, topped up perhaps with high energy snacks on the road, and believe me, there are only so many pieces of malt loaf, and energy bars etc you can take before you crave something else. The filler of choice, as always on these occasions, was the sturdy corned beef sandwich, washed down with Relentless. However after a couple of stops, I changed tack and guzzled water in the pits and took the Relentless on the road in my water bottle: there for when I needed it (and as the day wore on, I did).
And so to Caley Stadium for quarter to three in the morning. I taped a fully charged double USB portable charger to the underside of the top bar of the frame and connected one USB port to the Hammerhead Karoo GPS kit and the other to my phone. The phone was on 4G, WiFi having been switched off for the day, and the phone was acting as a mobile hotspot for the Karoo to enable live tracking. I fired up the route on the Karoo, complete with turn by turn instructions and wee graphs of all of the hills, with segmented gradients, then started the live tracker. That sent me an email containing the url of the live feed, and Rob duly published that to the world on the @Road2Hampden Twitter stream. We were in business. After a couple of ceremonial photos in the dark, we were off: 3am on the button.
The first couple of miles were a skoosh, but they were always going to be. Hee haw traffic and the bike flying along at 20mph in the darkness alongside the Moray Firth, it was finally Go Go Go: no turning back now: time to deliver this beast.
Within ten minutes, I realised my first mistake: I’d planned for 8 or 9 degrees Celsius from the off, but instead the Karoo was telling me that it was 1C. Ice was never a problem, but fingerless gloves were. I shot up the first – and biggest – climb of the day away from Raigmore, but by the time I’d descended down the other side past Daviot at 30mph, I couldn’t feel my fingers, and that made changing gear a real problem: effectively what I had were freezing cold stumps on the end of my hands. There was nothing I could do about it because I hadn’t even packed my winter gloves: I just got caught off guard and I was forced to pay the penalty for the next four hours.
Plan A had always been to hammer down the A9 just so long as it felt safe, and thankfully it did all the way to Aviemore, some thirty miles down the road. I’d clocked the next section past Kincraig on my way up and I was swithering whether to push the boat out for another ten miles but you know what, leaving aside the bendy bit around Loch Alvie, the old road that runs from Aviemore through Kincraig to Kingussie is every bit as appealing at that time of the morning, and it’s safer, so I went that way instead.
I was shivering bigtime at the Aviemore stop at 5:15am so I whacked on some more layers: indeed they stayed on over Drumochter and it wasn’t until Dalnacambush that I felt confident (and warm) enough to enable warm taps aff mode. A corned beef sarnie and a cup of coffee at Aviemore set me on my way before half five, and I remember thinking to myself “This cycling malarkey is soooo much faster than walking” as I shot through Kincraig and Kingussie. The Newtonmore truck stop at quarter past seven was beyond my wildest dreams and with the Karoo claiming an on the road average speed of fifteen miles an hour, I was starting to think daft numbers, but don’t worry a fierce headwind soon sorted that out.
Away from Newtonmore, I picked up the old A9 that runs alongside the current road past Ralia and onward to Dalwhinnie from Crubenmore. Rob had arranged to meet me at the Crubenmore junction but I think he went trainspotting and missed the rendezvous: tut tut. Twenty minutes later, he phoned me and was shocked to learn that I was the other side of Dalwhinnie. It was no big deal however and he gave me a wave as he drove past while I was trying to deal with the wind on the bike path. Actually, thinking back, that section where the cycle path runs alongside the A9 is/was a total pain in the arse for cyclists because every time an artic goes past heading north at 50mph, you nearly get blown off the bike. The cycle lane is way too close to the road: bet the planners never thought of that when they designed it.
Anyway, it was what it was, and the task was to keep turning those pedals into the wind in the full knowledge that eventually the road would start going downhill. One of the problems, and it is a problem on that section, is that the cycle path is narrow, twisty and undulating, with lots and lots of wee bridges where the path crosses over streams. Speed is impossible. Then when the path widens out to use bits of the old A9, the surface is so bad that you might as well be navigating a mountain bike trail. Much of that section leading to the Drumochter descent is not a lot of fun. But hey, I had time in my back pocket and I duly rolled into the next pit stop at Dalnacambush, scene of the greatest ambush in Highland March history, just before 8:30am. It was the usual routine: corned beef, cereal bars, Relentless and stuff the back pockets. A quick pee and I was back on my way.
The next bit down through Calvine is a road biker’s dream. The surface is good, it’s tree lined so you don’t feel the wind, and it’s downhill. I made some serious progress against the clock on the run down to the House of Bruar and when I shot past Rob, who was holed up in the car park, I was absolutely on a mission. Halfway between Bruar and Blair Atholl, there’s an S bend under the railway line and I had a motor up my arse heading into the bend. What I didn’t know, and it nearly cost me, was that there was a dirty great pothole in the road on the other side of the bridge, and in avoiding that, I had to put the bike onto the loose stuff at the side of the road: at 20mph, that was a close one because the car was right up my backside.
Blair Atholl came and went in the blink of an eye, and then it was on to Killicrankie, duly armed with its nasty little climbs. On the way into Killicrankie, I had to swerve to avoid a pothole that jumped out of the shadows, but in missing that, I managed to put the front wheel deep into an even bigger one a couple of yards further down the road: but there was no hiss, no puncture, and I managed to stay onboard.
Once out of Killicrankie, it was only a hop skip and a jump to Pitlochry and rolling into there at half nine, and effectively halfway, was incredible. I parked up at the Tourist Information gaff and wandered in, in search of a proper pit stop. “Can I use your toilet?” “No” came the terse reply from a jobsworth. I won’t be going back there in a hurry, and if they’d asked, I’d have given them a one star rating.
The section between Pitlochry and Dunkeld had been bothering me ever since Lynda and I did it on the RGT recce. The Sustrans bike route hangs a right heading out of Pitlochry and winds its way over undulating terrain to Logierait where the road, which is not really a road anymore, crosses an old wooden bridge before hanging a left for Dalguise. The hills on that section, of which there are many, are stingers. But the sun was out, I was ahead of the game, and my head was in a good place. The demons fecked off and by half eleven, I found myself in the middle of Dunkeld taking onboard yet more juice, cake and cereal bars.
Out of Dunkeld, the Sustrans path crosses under the A9 but then I had to dismount and carry the bike up the steps to Dunkeld station. Right onto the Bankfoot road brought with it a (new) whole load of climbing, and by the time I scooted through Waterloo and Bankfoot in quick succession, it was almost lunchtime. I was feeling a subtle mixture of steady progress and elation, but that was soon to come back and bite me after the Methven pit stop at 1pm.
By now it was warm, or by Scottish standards, hot: taps aff weather. I suspect my problems were sourced in the fact that I couldn’t face more than three bites of a ham sandwich, and despite the ceremonial rocket fuel from a can, the miles after Methven were torture. I remember saying to Rob at the pitstop that I was fully expecting my legs to go on strike at some point, and it duly happened about four miles shy of Gleneagles. I remember big Mouldy having similar issues at roughly the same spot on the Eileidh bike ride in 2015, and I kept thinking about that as I thought “Shit, I’ve still got sixty miles to go”. An unscheduled roadside stop was called for, and I’ve since heard it said that folk who were following the tracker thought that it had gone offline because the green dot changed to orange. Nah, I was just knackered and having a wee moment.
My spirits picked up again at the scheduled stop close to the Gleneagles Hotel. That was where the Eileidh gig kicked off on the Monday morning back in 2015, and armed with the knowledge that we arrived at Celtic Park five hours later on that occasion, which included longish stops at Bannockborn, Bishopbriggs and The Forge, I reckoned that despite slowing down in the heat and the wind, we were still looking good for six o’clock.
The thing about getting tired, is that you need something to balance it against, and for me that was diminishing five mile segments on the distance remaining. Sixty miles, now it’s only fifty five. Forty miles, now it’s only thirty five, and that’s heading down towards a longish day on Around The World. When the going gets tough, and the demons are threatening to derail your mental stability, you need something to fall back on, and for me it was those five mile chunks coming off the clock.
Braco was a piece of piss, and then I had Kinbuck to look forward to, although it ended up feeling a wee bit further away than I remembered it the last time. Beyond Kinbuck, it was Dunblane, and that’s when I really started to think “I’ve got this. I may have slowed, but I’ve definitely got this.” I’m going to award Dunblane the Road To Hampden award for the worst maintained roads between Inverness and Glasgow. Dunblane may be a posh place to live, but if more of them rode about on two wheels, then they’d do something about the state of the tarmac: it’s a shambles. I bottled the big roundabout where the M9 becomes the A9 heading north, so I scooted the bike around the footpath then rejoined the old A9 down into Bridge Of Allan.
After a right at the Bridge Of Allan Hotel – which used to be owned by Terry Butcher no less, I piled on through Cornton, only to get caught first bike at the level crossing awaiting a train from the north: it was effectively an unscheduled fuel stop on an afternoon when I was literally cooking in the heat.
Stirling came and went although it probably wasn’t the best idea to hammer down the main A9 dual carriageway under the tunnel so I hung a right at the next roundabout and pottered along past the old Annfield football ground to St Ninians instead. By now, the battery pack had conked out, and although there was probably enough charge left in both devices to see the Karoo and the phone through to the end, I wasn’t in the mood for taking chances, so we swapped the power bank for another double USB job at Bannockburn. On reflection, twelve hours maintaining two devices on 100% charge was good going, and definitely a lesson learned for another time.
I took ages negotiating the big roundabout at Stirling Services. After waiting over sixty seconds looking right at a constant stream of traffic, I gave up the bold approach and decided instead to scoot around the footpath that crosses about four joining roads, each of which was mobbed with traffic trying to find a gap. Nightmare.
On the road south from Stirling, just before four o’clock near Dunipace, Kenny phoned me from the Celtic Foundation. “Wee man, what time are you expecting to be at Celtic Park?” “About six o’clock, mate.” “Everyone will have gone home by then, but if you give me a bell when you’re ten minutes away, I’ll come back and open up the stadium for you.” It was like someone had just refilled my legs with energy, except they hadn’t. Mental energy, yes, physical energy, no.
We got down onto the A803 from Bonnybridge and I’d already warned Rob that I was planning on taking an unscheduled detour onto the Forth Clyde Canal at Castlecary. I didn’t actually care at that point whether the towpath was gravel, I was ready to deal with that if that’s what lay in wait: what was doing my head in was the traffic: I needed a few miles away from it. As it turned out, the canal bank from Castlecary to the Stables Bar between Kirkintilloch and Bishopbriggs was not only flat, it was also directly into the sun, and by now I was desperately tired. I was struggling to maintain 12mph but fortunately Rob had poured half a packet of wine gums into one of my back pockets and they got me to the next scheduled rendezvous.
There were just eight miles to go to Celtic Park, and all of them were tortuous in the evening rush hour. By now I’d discounted the other three or four miles to Hampden: I was reckoning that if I got to Celtic Park, then at least I’d achieved something. The slog up the hill from the Stables Bar to the Torrance roundabout was tough: the road surface was dreadful, the traffic was incessant, and the fumes were stinking. But once over the roundabout, I thought “There’s only Bishopbriggs, Springburn and the east end to go. I’ve got this!”
Bishopbriggs was a bitch. So much traffic. So was Springburn. On more than one occasion, I ended up jumping up onto the pavement to avoid waiting a hundred yards in two lanes of standing traffic to the next set of lights. I can certainly see why Glasgow needs low emission zones: I could literally smell it.
But after almost thirteen hours actually on the road – as opposed to at the side of it – I arrived at the most scary moment of the whole trip. I knew it was coming, it wasn’t a chance thing, and so I’d had the chance to prepare myself for how I was going to make this happen. When you’re piling down the hill from Petershill past the old locomotive works, the A803 widens into three lanes, and I was on a bike. The two leftmost lanes are for Royston and the M8. The rightmost lane is for Cathedral Street past the Royal Infirmary. I was in the left lane for obvious reasons coming down past Petershill, but I needed the right lane two hundred metres further down the hill. I had a quick swatch over my shoulder and saw that the middle lane was clear and jumped across. Then I had another swatch and spotted Rob straddling the two outside lanes behind me. Job fucking done. In that moment, Rob was there for me when I needed him most.
The next ten minutes were a blur. Having hung a left at the Cathedral, I stopped at the Tennents brewery and let Kenny know that it was almost job done. And five minutes later, it was. I clocked our Joe roadside with his camera as I was cycling down the hill from The Forge with Celtic Park on my left, then as I turned onto the Celtic Way, where the statue of Billy McNeill holding aloft the European Cup adorns the London Road, there was big Mouldy, also camera in hand. I may have surprised him however, because we had to do a double take, back out and do it again, me going up the hill whereas the Seville guys an gals had been going down it four weeks earlier.
Celtic were so hospitable. They opened up the stadium at six o’clock for an auld Caley Thistle fan to ride around the pitch before taking a seat in the dugout for a much earned rest. A good few photos later, it was then time to bid Kenny and his photographer (who’s name I forget) farewell and take on those last three miles to the National Stadium at Hampden Park. On arrival, I duly carried the bike up the steps then wandered into the foyer where I engaged the chap on reception “I’ve just cycled down from Inverness. Is there any chance of a photo pitchside?” “They’ve all gone home.” And that was it. No fanfare, no celebration, just a limp “Yes! Done it” and we packed the bike back in the car. A weak ending? Yes, perhaps, but the arrival at Celtic Park more than made up for it.
I’ve been knackered ever since, and this is three days on, but you know what, miracles do happen sometimes.
Rob was fantastic throughout. Not only did he serve up the food, and prepare the roadside bevvy, he also managed to capture over 400 photos, starting at Caley Stadium on Monday afternoon and he was still clicking away at Hampden at seven o’clock on Tuesday night. Mate, that was a fantastic job you did, and without you, there wouldn’t have been a Road To Hampden. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.