How do you imagine the life of a pro racer? It's just riding bikes, right? If you're looking in through the lens of social media those daily bike rides must look rather appealing, especially if you're looking in from wherever it is you pass the hours between Monday morning and Friday evening to pay the rent. But as we all know, social media isn't a true reflection of life, it's a snapshot, a carefully curated insight into just one part of a much larger picture. When you get down to the bottom line, racing bikes is a job, and not the kind of job where you punch your card at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon and forget about it until Monday morning. It is all-consuming. If you want to reach the highest levels of the sport, then you need to strip away almost everything that isn't helping make you faster. As you reach that rarefied air you can only find around the top step of the podium, the pressure mounts. After all, a racing career is a short, fragile thing, and another shot at cresting that summit is never promised.
The original plan was to spend a freewheeling week tooling around Skye with Greg Callaghan, searching for trails and routes across the island. Then the season happened. At the third round of the EWS, he took a storming victory in Madeira - his first away from home soil, a huge landmark in his career, cementing him as one of the guys to beat at any race. With that victory and another solid ride at home in Ireland, he went into the halfway point of the season with the ever-elusive number one plate strapped firmly to the front of his custom-painted Cube Stereo. Having a certain Sam Hill snapping at your heels would sharpen anybody's mind. So the plan changed. Between fitness tests, rest days and the ever-crucial interval sessions, a week became just two days. That is the reality of racing, even taking a couple of days free time is a risk, they are days when you could be training or recovering, getting fitter, getting faster. But, if you get your hustle on, you can get quite a bit done in that time...
With little time and little plan, we hit the road north from Edinburgh. The first thing the journey north teaches you is that there is a lot more of Scotland than most people living south of the border ever realise. It's not just the bit after Hadrian's Wall, and even with good traffic, it's a solid seven hours trucking through the Highlands. As night fell we pulled up to the Quiraing and made our camp for the night, right on the col as you climb up from the coast.
Coming from southern Europe, the 5am sunrise was something of a shock to the system, the rays rudely poking in through the curtains as the sheep brayed their morning chorus. Still, watching the morning sun hitting the Quiraing softens that blow and with the clock ticking an early start was just what was ordered. From the col, the access trail into the iconic spires offers a nice warm-up pedal before you get into the spires and chutes. It is here that you can see how someone like Greg is on another level to us mere humans. Hiking the bike up the steeps he started lining up gaps and transfers that most people wouldn't even consider rideable - awkward, sketchy hits with zero run-in and even less landing. Yet rather than holding on for grim death he was finding his element, grinning as he launched into a brutal crosswind and still landing smoothly. What is more impressive is realising that this was Greg not taking risks, he was comfortable here in these harsh, unforgiving conditions.
On the way back to the van we found something neither of us ever expected to find on a remote mountainside - a DH track. Some local riders had cut a fast, steep series of bends through the rocks with some sketchy senders and rubble-filled berms. To call it intimidating doesn't quite do it justice, certainly standing at the top on a short-travel bike it felt like a lot to be taking on. Aboard his race bike, Greg barely seemed to register all this and took to carving the corners and sending the gaps as he flowed down to the field below.
After a quick lunch in the van, it was time to pack up and search for our second spot of the day. After several false starts we pulled into the Glenbrittle campsite - the starting point to reach In Pin, the rock spire made famous by Danny Macaskill's short film, The Ridge. As the sun was starting to set there wasn't time for a big loop, but enough time to take in the first part of a loop above the campsite to stretch the legs and watch the sun dip down across the bay.
Next morning was another early start, although there were no sunbeams to gently rouse us from our sleep, the wind beat a tattoo against the sides of the van. It was the kind of day where it's hard to get yourself out of the warm and into the saddle. The storm meant that getting towards the higher peaks was far too risky a proposition. Battered by the wind and cloaked in cloud, there was no thought of pushing our luck. Once we headed up onto the lower slopes we were rewarded with a technical monster of a trail though, all awkward, loose rock. Amongst the boulders, Greg showed an all-new side of his riding. It is no secret that his life on two wheels began on a trials bike and the rocks that littered the trail and that mountainside gave him a blank canvas to play with the terrain in a way you would never see inside the tapes of an enduro race. Little trials moves to keep the momentum on the climb, or hopping onto a boulder and pivoting to a manual back off again. A huge grin on his face as he effortlessly picked a line across a stream on his back wheel, hopping from rock to rock.
All too soon we were back in the campsite, cold, wet and happy. We'd been on Skye for less than 48 hours, but had managed to drive almost the length of the island, see the iconic sights and take in 3 good rides. The break was over and it was time to head south once more, back to the training plan and the serious business of riding bikes...