“It rains, then it rains some more, then it really rains”
by Than Acuff
Gunnison Valley endurance rider and Griggs Orthopedics athlete Neil Beltchenko took his talents overseas and came back with a title and a new course record, winning the Highland Trail 550, a self-supported bike race covering more than 550 miles of rugged Scottish trails with 53,000 vertical feet of climbing.
Beltchenko has racked up several titles and records state-side, winning both the Colorado Trail Race and the Arizona Trail Race, setting the course record in both. Now he has a title and record in place overseas after his success in Scotland.
The race has been on Beltchenko’s radar for a while. It was first established as a training option for riders from the United Kingdom who are looking to try their hand at the Colorado Trail race and laid out with that in mind.
“That’s what intrigued me because the Colorado Trail Race is my favorite bike-packing race out there,” says Beltchenko.
Thanks to the internet and the close community of the bike-packing world, Beltchenko was able to get a glimpse into what was ahead of him in Scotland but had no opportunity to check out the course himself prior to saddling up.
“I talked to a few people and they said to be prepared for the wet and to hike your bike,” says Beltchenko. “I kind of went into it blind, which is better in some ways.”
One thing he did know was that no one had broken the four-day mark, and the current record time included more sleep than Beltchenko typically needs on races of this sort. As a result, he did have a loose plan in mind.
“I knew if I rode my race, I could go under four days so sleeping an hour a night was the plan,” explains Beltchenko.
What Beltchenko didn’t account for, it turned out, was how hard he was hit by jet lag. Jet lag can go one of two ways. Lots of sleep or complete sleeplessness. Beltchenko suffered the latter and after the first day of riding he tried to lie down for his planned hour, only to end up wide-awake.
The second night he looked to get his pre-planned hour but with the local sheep bleating and jet lag still setting in, sleep proved hopeless.
“The sleep situation really sucked,” admits Beltchenko.
Another downside to the race was the weather. Beltchenko was more than prepared for rain and had encountered epic storms on the Colorado Trail Race but those storms come and go. The rain during the Highland 550 came in on day one and never really let up the entire time.
“The rain was a big factor,” says Beltchenko. “It rains, then it rains some more, then it really rains. It rained 90 percent of the time.”
As a result, much of the trails were saturated and there were plenty of sections that were full-on bogs—peat bogs specifically.
“I went through a lot of bogs,” says Beltchenko. “You can’t ride through them—it was hard enough pushing my bike through them.”
And with the constant rain came constantly wet feet, which bothered him for most of the race.
“My shoes were wet the entire time, it was full on trench foot,” says Beltchenko. “Extremely painful. I took my shoes off and looked at my feet and they were messed up.”
In addition to the constant rain, temperatures hovered between the high 40s and mid-50s, making for some cold, damp riding. Still, Beltchenko is no stranger to suffering and a lack of sleep and he enjoys extended self-supported bike rides. And he found an advantage to the extended periods of light in Scotland this time of year.
“The big difference was the amount of daylight,” explains Beltchenko. “The sun wouldn’t set until 11 p.m. and was up around 4 a.m. so I didn’t have to use my lights as much and could run them brighter during night riding.”
Beltchenko found sustenance along the way at a variety of “petrol” stations in addition to his personal stash that he stocked up on, well aware of the nutritional situation in Scotland.
“It’s definitely a little different and I started with more food than I usually do,” says Beltchenko.
He did manage to find Red Bulls and a variety of Scottish convenient store foods such as raisin meat loafs and porkpies.
“I don’t know what kind of meat was in it but I ate it anyway,” says Beltchenko. “It really wasn’t that different. It tasted different but it did the same thing.”
It wasn’t until 500 miles into the race that he managed to sit down, albeit briefly, for a hot meal of fish and chips.
As usual, there were plenty of highlights along the way. Beltchenko added a dropper post to his ride and that made a huge improvement for the several sections of rugged but great downhills.
“I was able to use that on the super technical downhills and it was just a blast,” says Beltchenko. “I was grinning from ear to ear.”
While he did set a new course record of three days, 10 hours and 22 minutes, he did have one other rider close behind the entire time who came across the finish line four hours later.
“It was definitely a race,” says Beltchenko. “But I was really pleased with how it all went down.”
He may jump into a couple of local races throughout the summer but his only major plans involve his wedding in July. While he has no specific plans for a similar-type race in the fall, Beltchenko will return to Alaska this winter to ride in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.