To be honest, I'm worried about my level of fitness. Tomorrow, I start a coast-to-coast mountain bike ride across Scotland, and the statistics are as weighty as the stout in my Glasgow pint glass. Nine days straight. Five hundred kilometres on back roads, dirt tracks and trails. A whopping 10,668 metres of hill climbing. My plans to be in game-day shape have fallen apart with the usual excuses, and my training rides - none longer than four hours - seem suddenly paltry. I turn to Kevin, one of five friends who will be joining me on the journey, and ask about his own preparation regime. He stares into the middle distance and solemnly shakes his head.
"You didn't train?"
"You didn't train at all?"
"I spent the last year drinking port and eating desserts," he says.
My friends and I get together every second year for a trip into the backcountry, which has always meant somewhere in Canada until circumstances this year made Europe the necessary base of operations. Europe, of course, is a tastefully appointed ecological wasteland, and finding a multiday excursion with some hint of the wild is far from easy. Then I struck on Scotland.
There is a pleasing, choose-your-own-adventure quality to the Scotland coast-to-coast ride. The route is an emerging classic, and yet there is not, in fact, an established route at all. The traditional approach is to traverse the Highlands, but the definition of the Highlands itself is fraught with ancient controversy. The crust of brown bumps stacked one against the other makes a good case for itself on any decent map, though, and our rough plan was to cross through the heart of those ranges. By day we'd enjoy what the cycling press has billed as some of the toughest off-road terrain in the world, and by night we'd recover in budget bunkhouses.
There seemed to be only one possible hitch, and here I quote from a cautionary pre-trip e-mail I'd sent to the whole gang: "Some gentlemen would need to put in some bike time to prepare."
Not to make too much of Canada's solitudes, but our group breaks down roughly into West and East. Dan, Kirk and I grew up in British Columbia, and all of us have had phases, at least, when mountain biking has been a major part of our lives. Nils, Kevin and Mark were raised mainly in urban Ontario; they know a lot about wine pairing. It seemed clear that for the Scotland coast-to-coast to be anything but a disaster, the three Easterners would have to get not only into cycling shape, but into mountain-biking shape, learning the tricks and techniques of riding through a landscape littered with rocks, creeks and sudden, belly-whooping drops.
I find a quiet moment to ask Mark, too, about his conditioning. Yes, he says, he did some training rides. Three of them, in fact. Two of four kilometres, and one of 20.
How much of that was off-road?
Mark laughs. "I've never even sat on a mountain bike," he says.
The last of the Easterners is Nils. What kind of skills is he bringing to the Highlands? Nils tells me that he and Kevin once heard about a mountain-bike trail in Toronto, but when they got there it was a stunt course, all jumps and seesaws and tricks for kids. They went for drinks instead. Their first real fat-tire ride will be Scotland coast-to-coast.
"I'm a cyclist," says Nils when he sees my facial expression. "I ride, like, five miles a day."
By noon on Day One, only the darkest soul could feel doomed. Golden sun ignites the green hills of the Isle of Skye, where, just as we'd heard, Scotland's prevailing winds are at our backs. Best of all, the whole scene is warmed by a wee cheeky dram of midmorning whisky. "Six kilometres to the first distillery," our outfitter, Pete Corson, had told us that morning as he handed out the day's maps. "Do you think you can manage that before breakfast?"
A number of companies offer coast-to-coast rides, but Pete was the first person we talked to who didn't laugh us off when we said we preferred to go without an on-trail guide. Trained as a zoologist, Pete worked to protect sea turtles in the Bahamas and coral reefs in Fiji before finding himself, much to his surprise, back in rural Scotland where he grew up. He saw an opening for a mountain-bike company that specialized in custom trips, and, three years ago, started Trailbrakes. We told him the general route we wanted to take and he took our plan, improved it and nailed down the details.
It's looking good for my friends and me too. From the moment we dipped our toes in the Sea of the Hebrides on Scotland's west coast, Nils and Kevin have been setting a pace that is downright off-leash, while Mark has revealed a cool-headed capacity to simply grind away. The mileage is ticking down so quickly on the tarmac back roads that there is little doubt we'll wrap up the ride in less than the six hours that Pete has predicted. So when we reach a right-hand turn onto the first off-road trail of the trip, we turn to the left instead - toward the entranceway of a fine-looking pub. By the time we wheel back across the road to the trailhead, the mood has turned downright cocky.
Within a minute, we're lost. Incipient paths wind through the heather, and our navigator, Kirk, insists that none of them appear on Pete's map. A half hour later, spread across the landscape in search-party formation, we finally find a path so clear that it should have been obvious. But the official route isn't much of an improvement. For every stretch of straight-ahead trail there is a double dose of boulder mazes and cobblestoned troughs. At any given time, more of us are pushing than pedalling.
"This is the most frustrating sport I've ever tried," says Kevin, soaked in sweat and already mouth-breathing when he gets the day's first flat tire after a single off-road kilometre. We manage one more gruelling kilometre, and then Nils strikes a boulder at full force and shears the rear derailleur off his bike.
We stand looking at the severed metal in awe. Losing a derailleur is like watching the transmission of your car spill out behind you on the highway - instant mechanical death, a once-in-a-cycling-career breakdown. It takes nearly an hour to jury-rig the repair, turning Nils's bike from a 27-speed into a one-speed - a wasted effort anyway, since a single-gear bike is hopeless on this already hopeless trail. Giving thanks that our slow progress hasn't taken us beyond cellphone reception, we call Pete. Five of us will carry on; Nils will retreat to the road and a merciful end to his day.
By the time we pull into Broadford, the endpoint for the day, we've been in the saddle for 10 and a half hours. The town's pub, just 15 minutes from closing its kitchen, is shocked by an epic order for chowders, steak pies, fish and chips, haggis, sticky toffee pudding. The team is bloodied, muddied and sunburned, and we've suffered one sheared derailleur, one broken chain and four flat tires.
"Remember what our goal was," Mark will later say to Kevin. "We wanted to get out of our comfort zone. Well, we're out of our comfort zone."
J.B. MacKinnon is a senior contributing editor for Explore magazine. To read more about his cross-Scotland journey, pick up a copy of Explore on newsstands now.