Highland Trail 550: The Fellowship
A beautifully shot video that follows rider Joachim Rosenlund during last years Highland Trail 550 race. Watch it here and read his story, “The Fellowship of the Highlands”… plus, a Q&A about the ride and Joachim’s kit list.
The Highland Trail 550 is an 885km self-supported bikepacking race through the Scottish Highlands. There is no entry fee, no prize money, and no support. It is a self-timed race, but due to the harsh terrain and fickle weather, it’s better to divide the trail into sections of hours used, not kilometers. Joachim experienced all of this amongst Scotland’s beautiful mountain streams and lochs for almost six days. Here’s the film and continue below for his story, a Q&A, and Joachim’s kit list…
Film and photos by Chris Prescott (Dark Sky Media)
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” – John Muir
The fellowship of the Highlands
by Joachim Rosenlund
When I got asked to write about my Highland Trail 550 experience I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. I could write about how hard it is; how many hours of hike-a-bike and kilometres the trail has. How much climbing there is, the Scottish weather, the bog, the midges and the constant wet feet. All in trying to explain why it is such a challenge.
And it is hard, a real challenge. Physically and mentally. In the few years I have been riding, this is the hardest challenge I have ever done. Whenever you think you have conquered a certain part of the trail, it throws you a curveball, another surprise. The veterans of the race know well that you have to divide the trail in to sections of hours used, not kilometres. The terrain varies so heavily that the next 10 kilometres can take you anything between 20 minutes and 5 hours… Going up hills that in no way are intended for bicycles, is not only excruciatingly slow, it involves a lot of pushing and carrying of your bike, as well as swearing at God and the world (and Alan, the creator of the Highland Trail)…
But to me the most profound experience was the fellowship it creates.
The Highland Trail 550 is a race and the guys and girls up front are gunning it out. 60 riders racing along, but no one seems to be fighting. Fighting with themselves, with the other riders or with the trail. It’s the kind of trail you have to embrace. If you treat it like something you have to conquer, it will eat you. You have to work with it, whatever it throws at you. If you can do that, it feeds you and pushes you on. The pain might be real, but suffering is optional.
There is a serious competition going on, but even so, there is no bitterness, no hard rivalry, but support and respect. Nobody rides with their elbows out, which doesn’t make it feel like a race. It is an unsupported event, so no real support among each other is allowed of course. The support is rather verbal and through non-verbal communication. There is real heartfelt appreciation for anyone attempting to ride this madness of a race and there is a friendly nod or a smile from other riders whenever you cross paths with them. I arrived over two days behind the winner Neil (Beltchenko) and his first words to me were; “Strong riding man. Congrats!” I was surprised by that, because compared to his record breaking ride, mine was, well, mediocre to be honest. And it is then you realize that events like these form a community, a fellowship. You can see it in the way people look at each other, smiling at you in approval and shaking their heads in utter disbelief at what they have just accomplished themselves. These are people I don’t know, but there is a certain understanding and a deep feeling of knowledge of who they are. You look them in the eye and see a part of yourself.
When out on the trail it feels like there is a red string between the fastest and the slowest rider, connecting us all. When it gets hard, I try to think of all the other riders out there on the trail and know that others have gone before me and yet others will follow in my tracks. It carries me on and lifts me up as I imagine them coming through this particular stretch, knowing that it is possible to get through it.
My first words after the finish line was; “Never again!”, but as I sit at home writing this, I know I will be back. Not only to ride the trail with more grace, but to reunite with the fellowship.
Stay tuned for this full story in Broken & Coastal Vol 3 (coming tomorrow)…
Q&A With Joachim Rosenlund
Have you done the HT550 before?
Nope. But I will hopefully be be back in 2019. This was my first time and I did it in 5 days, 18 hours and 18 minutes…
And what exactly calls you back to do it again?
Hard question to answer. The trail took a lot out of me and my first words after finishing it was; “never again!”. In the months after, my appetite for cycling was low and I kept dreaming about sections of the trail at night. It’s not like it haunted me, more like I was making plans on how to attack it next time. Where to eat, where to stop and so on. Seconds are so different.
What’s the toughest part of the HT550?
When you ride it the first time you do not know what to expect. You do research and look at pictures, but that can never replace or prepare you for what the trail (i.e. Alan) has in store for you. So it is easy to make the mistake of thinking you can reach a certain point on the trail before you take your next nap. You say to yourself; “Ah, it’s only 50km to so and such, I’ll easily do that before I call it the day!” And then you end up walking with your bike over your shoulder the next 6km…
The first time around there is no way to know if the next 10km will take you 20 minutes or 4 hours. That can be very challenging.
Most folks ride ‘mountain bikes’ on this route… and many with suspension. Did you feel undergunned with a rigid drop-bar bike?
I’m quite new to the bicycle game and have never really ridden a full suspension bike. I would think that they would be a disadvantage on the long stretches of fairly smooth gravel. On those stretches the Hook EXT-C excels, as it is light and stiff. Get in to the drops and you can really put the power down — the bike flies! You also notice how light it is on the steep climbs, which makes it a real treat. But modern suspension mountain bikes are quite advanced, with lockup systems, dropper posts and so on, so maybe not. All I know is; it’s never the bike.
On some of the more technical descents (and very steep descents) a rigid drop-bar bike is certainly a disadvantage, you have to pick your line more carefully and it is a lot harder on your body (arms, hands, shoulders and neck in particularly) which can get very tiring on such long rides. For my next attempt, I think I would run a 29” hardtail.
Any must-have pieces of gear for the HT550?
Midge head netting! The amount of midges you have buzzing around your head (or rather in your ears and nostrils) is staggering, and can make you go insane! And, cycling shoes you can walk well in!
Joachim’s HT550 Kit
– Salewa Bivibag Strom I
– Exped UL 7 mat
– Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag
– 1 pair of wool socks
– 1 Stolen Goat waterproof bib shorts
– 1 Stolen Goat waterproof short armed jersey
– 1 PedalED merino long sleeve jersey
– 1 PedalED thin merino long sleeve base layer
– 1 pair of thin socks
– 1 pair of slightly thicker merino socks
– 1 PedalED rain jacket
– 1 pair Stolen Goat waterproof leg warmers
– 1 pair of thin gloves
– 1 pair of slightly ticker gloves
– 1 PedalED wind vest
– 2 x chain lock
– chain oil
– 1 set of spare brake pads
– 2 x inner tubes (had no flats)
– inner tube repair kit
– Etrex 30x
– Lupine Piko front light
– Moon Nebula rear light
– Anker Power bank (20.000)
– SPOT tracker
What are are a few of your other favorite bikepacking routes?
– The Torino-Nice Rally, a spectacular route through the French – Italian alps
– Rode from Georgia (the country) through Armenia to Teheran, Iran – absolute highlight!
– Anywhere in Norway – such spectacular nature and roads.
Any ‘must-ride’ routes you have on your bucket list?
– The Colorado Trail Race
– Silk Road Mountain Bike Race
– Tour Divide, just because it is a classic and the first route I heard about
About Joachim Rosenlund
At an early age Joachim Rosenlund spent hours exploring the forest trails of his native Oslo, Norway, with his red BMX bike. The thrill of riding unfamiliar paths never left him. Given his strong desire to see the world by bicycle, he loves the new approach and possibilities brought on by bikepacking. He prefers to travel light and fast with nothing but the necessities. Photography is his second patin and he never leaves home without his camera. See more of his work on Instagram @odinavatar.