I am a 50-year-old woman. For 30 years, my glamorous, sedentary daily working life has been spent swanning around a Bond Street boutique in heels, tights and a skirt suit, surrounded by the finest jewels and gems in the world and serving the world’s rich elite. So when I swapped all of this glam for a week of sweat, mud, rain and gut-busting mountain-biking endeavour to cycle off-road from the east to the west coast across the highest terrain of Scotland last month, eyebrows were raised. Am I mad? Am I having a bizarre inverted mid-life crisis? What on earth is going on?
Up until this point, my entire mountain biking (MTB) experience had consisted of a traverse of the South Downs Way in southern England the previous year with my boyfriend, a veteran MTB’er, keen to coax me into the sport with short, four-hour days in the saddle book-ended with cosy pubs, hot baths and enormous G&T’s. To sign me up to a six-day traverse of the entire landmass of the Grampians, with 50-mile, 10-hour days in the saddle was his dream, and for me, this is not so much a step up but a whole new world.
“To reach the end of the journey in blazing sunshine, to see the Small Isles bathed in endless blue was the proudest, most moving moment. The Coast to Coast mountain biking trip wasn’t so much an outdoor adventure as an inner journey.”
Practice (and Preparations) Makes Perfect, Right?
Biking on a narrow track on a beautiful coastal backdrop.
However, I’m (stubbornly) optimistic. Sure it’s just a bike ride, huh? I am Scottish and grew up in the country where in the 70’s there was nothing much else to do except mess about outside all day, and throughout my teens I did a lot ski racing, so I have a residue of outdoorsiness, and a deep love of Scotland. Since then, I’ve always kept fit enough to enjoy a ski holiday most years, so my fitness level isn’t abysmal. However, the days counted down, and there was just 6 weeks to go before the trip. With mounting panic and a morbid hatred of gyms, I threw every spare half-hour into HIIT sessions at home and runs round the park. Was it enough to avoid being consigned to the van of shame after lunch, though?
My kind cycling neighbour offered to lend me her home bike training set up – so for the final 2 weeks before the trip, I startled my sons with the smell of burning rubber from the kitchen whilst I sped up the mountains of Mallorca on YouTube. It was enough, and I was so relieved that my fitness and stamina just about coped with the trip, and the fact that the biggest hill climbs were always after lunch.
Biking through the tall grasses of a quiet field.
Being a total newbie and possessing nothing other than a jogging kit, I read the Wilderness kit list and invested in two sets of everything: one kit on, one kit washed and ready for the next day plus extra rain wear, dry tops and snoods. I bought everything in red or pink to keep my spirits up. I bought the widest, most springy, comfy sofa-type saddle I could find, and I bought 3 tubes of lube (not the stuff for bike chains), which I applied like butter at every opportunity along the trip.
A Mountain Biking Dream Come True
Even chilly wee streams don’t pose a problem!
Sadly, but as expected, there were no other women in our group of 7 cyclists plus 2 guides, although I’d hoped there would be at least one other woman so we could wince together at the endless mansplaining and bond over a white wine in the evening. But I’m okay with being in a male-dominated environment – I’ve always enjoyed the company of men. They are simple, uncomplicated creatures on the whole – I am mother to two grown up boys, and my favourite childhood companions were a family of three boys. I am used to not being able to keep up, so I wasn’t bothered about invariably being the last in the group, but I was well-advised to ensure I was the first to be ready to push off. And I wasn’t alone. My boyfriend was ready to praise and acclaim my efforts, which boosted my morale to no end.
For at least the first two days, I clung to the reins of my ‘real’ life – my two precious iPhones were to hand and I checked them whenever I could for urgent messages. But they soon started to loose signal strength, and along with this came a relaxation of worry. I neglected the phones, sometimes for a whole day, other than to take photos.
Sometimes it was easier to carry the bikes!
I found my brain emptied of chatter, and all I could sense was the wind, the sound of my wheels, or my breath, or the shifting of light through the landscape as it rolled past me. It took all my focus to just pedal, and to go on pedalling for mile after mile, and the absence of petty worry, my endless To-Do list as well as the mental exhaustion of being drained at the end of the day was profoundly life enhancing. When I fell into bed, I was tired physically of course, but mentally I was incredibly and lucidly rested.
The mounting comradeship and frequent hilarity of the company along with the superb guiding from Neil and Tomo amid the wild beauty of our surroundings was the best tonic to my normal daily life, despite its glamorous appeal. To reach the end of the journey in blazing sunshine, to see the Small Isles bathed in endless blue was the proudest, most moving moment. The Coast to Coast mountain biking trip wasn’t so much an outdoor adventure as an inner journey.
I truly found out what I am made of, what I am capable of, and what’s actually important at the end of the day – quite literally.