5th July 2022
The Mason RAW, illness and sleep deprivation, my HT550 ride
Dom and Matt mentioned to me that they were working on a "fast-far" hardtail a few years back. With my growing interest in more remote races and the sport moving in that direction too I couldn't have been more excited. A year or so later I took the initial RAW prototype out for a spin from MASON HQ and was genuinely blown away by how much snappier and more lively it felt under power than other steel hardtails that I had ridden. There were some geo tweaks to be made but my excitement only grew from this moment.
Over the course of the next year or so, some shorter rides as well as a week in Scotland putting a pre-production bike through its paces, I was happy that from a rider's perspective there was nothing more that I could ask for from a MASON MTB.
The first real test for me was racing the Dales Divide. I loaded up the bike with all that I needed and set off on the 600km route. The thing that really stood out to me about the RAW was its ability to maintain predictably sharp handling even when loaded up with bikepacking gear. It's a tough balance to strike without making the bike feel too stiff and loaded but by carefully selecting each tube Dom somehow managed this.
With DD being a complete success I set my sights on my A-race for the year, the HT550. The Highland Trail 550 is often described as the jewel in the crown of British bikepacking and it was one of the first races to truly capture my imagination.
We’ve taken a snapshot of Angus’ HT550 experience, read his full blog post here.
The journey to the start had had its ups and downs, training this year had been inconsistent with illness and injury. I finally hit some flow post Dales Divide with a five-week block of 15-20 hour weeks, hitting some power PBs to boot. Yet two weeks before the start I started to feel super burned out. I made the call to reassess my goals and take two weeks completely off the bike and arrive at the start well-rested, even if not in 100% shape.
From a kit and equipment point of view, I felt as if I was well prepared. I was once again on my Mason RAW that had taken me to victory on the DD and the setup was near identical. I had made the addition of a hydration pack and some extra warm layers from dhb but other than that it was unchanged.
I slept like a log the night before and made my way to the unofficial race HQ of the Real Food Cafe for one last hearty meal before starting. I rode the first hour or so chatting with Simon who had come over to race from France. We then looked down at our Garmins and realise that we have been cycling off route for the last 3km so double back and chase back on.
I chased back to the front and slowly overtook people feeling the need to justify myself as to why I was behind them. Whilst passing a group of riders on the road I pulled up alongside Rich Rothwell and just about exchanged a nod before BAM! I was on the deck, I had clipped his handlebars, it was my fault I knew it. I then stayed with him for a few minutes without really knowing what to do other than make sure that he wouldn't come into any more danger. He sent me on my way and I found out later that he had scratched from the race. With all of the adrenaline I hadn’t really realised that I had actually cut up my knee and the right side of my body pretty badly.
As I crested the bealach I was greeted by Annie who told me that I'm only 10 mins off the lead. All of a sudden I was back and had the urge to push myself once more. I grabbed a basket and stocked up as I knew that it was around 24 hours until I would reach Drumbeg.
I loved this next section as it's on the GBDURO route so I knew it well. The Path of a Thousand Puddles lived up to its name and as I cruised past Orrin dam before I had to turn my lights on for the road section to Contin.
The next highlight of the route was Bealach Horn, the most Northerly point of the route. There was some savage hike-a-bike through a peat bog to make it up there and I underestimated it for sure. However, I did make it over without too much drama and rolled down to Achfary, the end of the first GPS section about an hour up on record pace. From there I expected a nice easy road section to drumbeg stores yet I was disappointed by how hilly the road turned out to be. It was from here that I started to notice that my cough was starting to get worse.
The next few hours were spent gearing myself up for the Ledmore traverse, a Hike-a-bike section that would complete the Northern loop. Soon Suilven loomed and the traverse started, the first few km were rideable in sections but soon it turned into a slog. I made it to Ullapool where I found shelter from the rain under a bridge and set up my bivvy for a night's sleep.
The alarm was set for 2 hours but after 45 mins I woke myself up coughing and realised that my mat had a puncture so figured that it would be best just to get going again. The next section was the infamous crossing of Fisherfield, one of the most remote sections of the route. To warm up we had the Coffin Road a 9km stretch that on a fast day takes 1.5 hours but as I was crossing it in the dark and the ground was wet, my front tyre lost traction in the muddy descent and I went over, and my tracker was busted, not sure when it happened but looking later I think it must have hit a rock or something during the hike-a-bike.
The crossing of Fisherfield itself was relatively straightforward, it was much boggier than the last time I had ridden it and the river crossing was up to my chest in places. The Tollie path was up next, mostly it was pushing my bike through a river bed. Eventually, however, I made it to the road and into Kinlochlewe where I grabbed a quick drink and then pressed on up towards Torridon.
Torridon completed, I then set my sights on making it to Dornie where I would get a couple of hours' kip. At Glen Ling I was expecting a nice gravel track but instead only found a horrible overgrown boggy singletrack, additionally, my lungs were so filled with gunk that I was struggling to maintain any sort of steady breathing.
At Dornie I found a bus shelter to stop and get into my bivvy bag. I had set my alarm for two hours but once again I woke up coughing after 90 mins. I then packed my bags and started the push-over towards Glen Affrick.
The next two climbs before FA went quickly and I was in a good mental state when I hit the Spar for a second time. A few Km down the great Glen way I meet Pete who was recording an audio log of the race, he rode with me for 10 mins or so and we talked through what was going through my mind.
I was left feeling motivated to push, so I stamped on the pedals to squeeze out some power. This was an unwise decision as over the next couple of hours my lungs fell apart. When I arrived in Fort William I was coughing more than not and unable to inhale deeply. Certainly suboptimal cycling performance. I took shelter from the rain under a bridge and thought through my options and figured that I had best carry on.
I don’t really remember much from the section along the West Highland Way past the initial gravel climb. When I arrived at Kinlochleven I was a mess and found refuge in the Trailracers Inn. I ordered a meal (or three) and called 111 as I was starting to worry about my long-term health. When describing the symptoms they said that it is very clearly Bronchitis and there is nothing I could do but rest. After a great degree of looking, I found a B&B for the night. The plan was to get a full night’s sleep and then roll into Tyndrum at a relaxed pace to claim the finish.
So that's what happened, I slept for 12 hours or so and woke up at 8 am to find the sheets covered in blood, whilst spooky at first it became clear that I had just had a colossal nose bleed and slept right through it. The coughing was still there but less frequent and there was less gunk coming out. I left the B&B around 10 and started the climb up to the Devils staircase, stopping periodically to try and stem the bleeding of my nose which had ruptured once again. The final 40km or so passed quickly, it's amazing how a full night's sleep can make everything better. There was one final sting in the tail but soon it was over and I arrived in Tyndrum. I looked later and my final time was 4 days 6 hours 13 mins.
At the time I didn’t really feel much of a sense of accomplishment. I wasn't convinced that I had achieved much by completing that last leg. My race ended in Kinlochleven and I was still down and kicking myself that I effectively pulled the plug there. I'm glad that I got to the end. A finish of the HT550 is nothing to be sniffed at.
Both the RAW and I will be back on the start line in May 2023!
Angus Young's full blog post is here.