Highlands, Glens and Fractal Landscapes

Prelimniaries

During LEL 2013 I heard about a big audax ride through Scotland in 2014. Scotland, yeah! I registered promptly via the Audax UK website as soon as the ride was announced and spent the following months wondering what it would be like and wondering whether I should have chosen another from the plentiful rides scheduled for July 2014 instead (short answer: no, this was the perfect choice). After the usual pre-ride hecticism, an uneventful Heathrow flight and an easy and cheap transfer from London to Ardrossan, I hoped was was ready for all this.

Talisker: a taste of what is to come

 Boarding the Arran ferry

Traffic and Roads

Riding across Scotland is mostly very easy, with some challenging sections where busy tourist traffic meets single track roads. However, on the few stretches of busy major roads the standard of driving displayed was simply appaling. I could not count the number of times where I heard screeching brakes behind me and turned around to find a fender right beside my rear wheel, not behind it. Side clearance during overtaking is overrated anyway. Simply said, the A82 and the A78 were outright dangerous. Road surfaces were mostly good, strangely enough the notable exceptions were mostly on major roads, where extremely coarse pebbles in the tarmac made for a prolongued cobblestone feeling and lots of holes in the patched up bits.

Reading the accounts of other riders it becomes obvious again that different riders see the route in different ways. That may be due to their personal likings, the time of day or night they pass each section, their personal fitness or just pure chance. Just see what I wrote about the A82 along Loch Ness and look that bit up on Google Streetview. So what I wrote about likeable and not so likeable bits of the route should be taken with a grain of salt.

Weather

The really good bit. Believe it or not, an entire week of clear blue skies, sunshine and daytime highs around 30 degrees. Even in the mornings, 20 degrees would be reached around 8am. Not a single drop of rain during my entire stay. Consequently, even though I carried 2 litre bottles, I ran dry twice during day 2.

The locals almost seemed to be in a state of shock (‘Heat wave!’, ‘Poor you, you have to go out riding in this heat!’). We didn’t complain. If only I had brought some of my summer gear, though.

Route

‘The Highlands, Glens and Western Isles’ actually was a bit of a misnomer. We traversed Arran, Mull and Skye, none of which rate as Western Isles. But never mind. The route generally would take us westwards from just South of Glasgow, then wind its ways up North along the coast, turn East along the Northern coast until just before Thurso, then South towards Inverness and along the Great Glen back towards Glasgow. A detailed breakdown of the route can be found here.

QlandkarteGT/OpenCycleMap CC-BY-SA

1300km and 14500 metres of climbing

Even though in the end the ride had less climbing than initially announced, with 1300k and more than 14k metres of climbing it still was not an easy one and about one third of the riders DNFed. Especially the first half along the Western coast was extremely challenging.

The Ride, Eat, Sleep bit

When this ride was announced it quickly became obvious that the ferry timetables would more or less dictate the arrangement of the first half of the ride. Also, with all the scenery waiting to be gaped at something like a ‘fast time’ would not be desirable and nighttime riding should be reduced to a minimum. As a result practically all riders adpoted some sort of a five day scheme although with widely differing sleeping arrangements. John and me had opted for proper prebooked beds for all nights, from independent hostels to real hotels.

The vast majority of this rides’ kilometres were covered in the company of London riders John, Martin and Rimas, all of them better climbers (and also faster descenders) than me, whom I’d like to thank for their company in general and waiting for me to catch up every now and then in particular.

Day 1. After a bit of brevet card confusion in Brodick the ride was started with a mad dash across Arran, totally in vain as we had misread the Lochranza ferry schedule. Once on Kintyre, a narrow, twisty, steep and exhausing rollercoaster bit to Campbeltown, followed by a drowsy midday trip back on the other side of Kintyre to Tarbert, an easy flat bit alongside Loch Fyne to Lochgilphead, and finally a rather lumpy bit to Oban, where we arrived at 21:25, just in time for a harbourside pasta and wine dinner. Only 211km, really weird for the first day of a big ride.

Brodick: finally we're off

The first glimpse of Scotland proper: towards Lochranza

'You'll need a Hopscotch 5 and 7'

Lots of ferries cause lots of waiting

Few cars, many bikes

Narrow, twisty, up, down: Kintyre southwards

Campbeltown

Wide, straight and lot flatter: Kintyre northwards

Between Lochgilphead and Oban

Our next goal: Looking towards Mull in the dusk

Day 2. After a full English on the ferry the day started with a group ride to Tobermory. Then ferry to Kilchoan, a mad dash across Ardnamurchan, Moidart and Morar to Mallaig to catch the early Armadale ferry, a stretch of extreme heat to Broadford, a lot of steep up and down from Kyle of Lochalsh to Strathcarron, much easier going from there up and down valleys to Achnasheen and Kinlochewe, and a final climb to Gairloch. With all the to and fro I kept losing my sense of orientation a lot. It’s a good thing there are only so few roads to choose from. The day ended well with some pizza and a few pints.

Ferry transfer once more, the full English was quite good

Don't look at the camera, tell him the last stage was easy but you'll have to hurry on the next one

Kyle of Lochalsh towards Strathcarron, Isle of Skye to the left

Fast descent down to Kinlochewe

Day 3. Early morning saw our first midges and the replacement of a shifting cable at setout, again a lot up and down along the coast and over a high plain to Ullapool, a real roller coaster to Lochinver, and an extremely hot and brutal bit after that. A bit of a shock as Rimas crashed on a patch of gravel on a small bridge after a steep descent at Inverkirgaig a few kilometres before Lochinver. Lots of blood and torn clothes, many thanks to the TV crew who came by and had their first aid kit out in a second. And hats off to Rimas for just getting back on the bike straightaway, keeping riding was probably the best thing he could do. Even better there was a nurse available right at that time in Lochinver to patch him up properly. The Drumbeg loop, allegedly the scenic route in Scotland, was not part of the route, I don’t know whether this was good or bad, I hear we were spared quite a few steep climbs that way. At long last we climbed over the last hump to see the Northern coast in the distance, reached Durness in slightly cooler temperatures, went around Loch Eriboll towards Tongue, where we were treatred to food, ale and the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth games at the Ben Loyal Hotel, the last homely house before before setting out for our only night ride to Trantlebeg, briefly interrupted by my first ever cattle grid puncture. We arrived to the welcoming light of the Cornmill Bunkhouse just after midnight.

The next morning: getting ready to leave Gairloch

Heading towards Ullapool

 Ullapool to Lochinver: Loch Lurgainn and Stac Pollaidh

Tending to the wounded at Inverkirkaig

Approaching Durness at last: the Northern coast in the distance

Durness break

Durness beach

View from the Ben Loyal hotel over the Kyle of Tongue and Castle Varrich

Day 4. Once we cleared the swarms of midges surrounding the Cornmill Bunkhouse, we rode over Wide open land for a long while, no people, no houses, only sheep to chase over the road. The desolation was briefly interrupted by the Loch Naver caravan site at Grummore, providing coffee, chocolate bars and ice cream. As we headed south towards Lairg, road traffic gradually picked up. we had a nice stop at Lairg’s ‘The Pier’ cafe but had lo leave into another hot afternoon of slightly drowsy riding to Dingwall. Getting back to civilisation came as a bit of a shock, with busy roads and lots of cars on our hilly way to Drumnadrochit. There we hit the busy tourist Scotland for good and had a horrible stretch along Loch Ness with lots of extremely dangerous overtaking, which did not get any better until we reached Spean Bridge. As expected, the scenery around Ft. William was immensely beautiful, as we raced to our last overnight stop at Glencoe, arriving there slightly out of breath only to find out that every kitchen around had just closed.

Wide open land south of Trantlebeg

 Our sole company for a while: chasing sheep

Along the Great Glen: Loch Lochy southbound

Ben Nevis range, just before Spean Bridge

Day 5. Feeding on our very last reserves of bars and gels, we had a hungry but enormously scenic ride ride to Inveraray up Glencoe valley and across Rannoch moor. Road surfaces were challenging through Glen Orchy and around Dalmally, but then we reached Inveraray in clear blue morning skies and settled for a last breakfast on the road. A good bit around Loch Fyne and across the final hump to Loch Eck, some sort of condensed mini-Scotland on our way to the last ferry crossing at Dunoon. The very last section of the ride was then a bit of a let down, a horrible stretch of A road busy with weekend traffic, traffic jams and lack of side clearance as we headed from Gourock to the finish at Saltcoats. Everything over a few minutes before three in the afternoon.

Leaving Glencoe at six in the morning

Rannoch Moor

Our last breakfast on the road...

...at the lovely Brambles cafe in even more lovely Inveraray

We made it! Back in Saltcoats

Some Scottish souvenir, though it didn't slow him down in the very least

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Eat and Sleep

Getting food on this ride was similar in difficulty to most other rides I have done. Some parts were quite easy with lots of cafes and even the ferries offering warm meals. As expected, the northernmost bit proved slightly more difficult in this respect and while in Durness we actually stocked up on food for the night (well, whatever was left in the Spar market by the legions of campers who had been there before us). In the end I used up every last the bars and gels I had brought along. As usual you spend a lot of time standing munching outside of Spar and co-operative food markets. Thanks to Mark Rigby for organsing porridge and tea at the Trantlebeg stop.

The high point was our harbourside dinner at Oban, where the tremendous haste we made after Lochgilphead was rewarded by arriving three minutes before the kitchen closed. The wine was good, too. The venison burger at the Ben Loyal hotel in Tongue was very good, too (and somwehat unexpected on this stretch of the route), as was the breakfast at the Brambles cafe in Inveraray.

Lucky us: Oban harbourside dinner

You have to be careful with your arrival times, though. Kitchen times appear to be very(!) strict and arriving either too early (say, before 18:30) or late (usually after 21:00) will leave you hungry and disppointed.

Look Ma, I’m on telly!

We were followed throughout the ride by a mixed team of BBC Scotland, Triple Echo productions and some freelancers doing a one-hour feature on us for their regional programme (hopefully to be aired before christmas 2014). They were really making a big effort, following the riders with four cameras and getting hardly any more sleep than we did. Though people were somewhat sceptical beforehand, the team quickly became part of our group and provided some pleasant company during the event. Every now and then their cars and campervans would pass us, honking and waving, often a welcome relief in the loneliness. Even more than that, apart from tending to Rimas’ wounds, organising a nurse in Lochinver and handing out water above Loch Assynt, they made me, too, feel like I was really part of the ride. A feeling that had been somewhat missing in some of my other big brevets.

BBC's Simon riding along for a while

I hope I can get a copy of the show once it is out.

Equipment

I rode my Canyon carbon brevet bike with a VauDe seatpost bag, 36 spokes rear and 32 spokes front. It worked. Battery lights were fine as we hardly did any night riding at all. Compact crank and 11-28 cassette did their job. I more or less carried my usual super brevet equipment (chain tool, spare spokes etc.), most of it remained unused. In this special case it might have been a good idea to bring my Camelbak. I’m glad I brought my sunscreen.

As far as clothing was concerned, I brought two sets for temperatures of around 18 degrees and left lots of Wonderful summer kit at home which might have been better suited to the conditions. But I was not really uncomfortable, it was just about OK.

Indigenous wildlife. Contrary to everything I had heard and read beforehand, the midges were not much of a problem, probably due to the heat. My DEET midge repellent spray helped where it was applied, however shorts and jersey parts were attacked. I had bought and carried a midge net around all of Scotland without ever needing it.

Comfort. The road surfaces being what they were, for a possible next time 28mm tyres would be an option worth investigating. Conti’s old 25mm were actually a lot more like 28mm, in the meanwhile they were downsized to proper 25mm and an extra 28mm version of the GP4000 was introduced. I might get myself one of these and see if they fit. Also, carbon handle bars as I use them on my ‘good’ bike seem to be a lot more effective cancelling out the heavy vibrations induced by the extremely rough road surfaces.

Possibly missing items. I always carry some cable ties for universal purposes but this time I realised that I should also bring some tool to shorten and cut them open again. Also, some lip balm with sunscreen would have helped. And, since the problem actually arose, some sort of cutting tool for shifting cables. And, seeing all the other riders I think I really have to consider buying one of those smart phone thingies.

Tunes of the ride

These would follow me around Scotland: “Mull of Kintyre” by the Wings (hardly surprising), “I’m gonna be” by the Proclaimers (inevitable) and “Into the great wide open” by Tom Petty (seemed fitting some of the times).

Conclusion

To sum it all up, it was a phantastic ride and many thanks to Mark Rigby for putting it on. In fact, this one rates among the top rides I ever did. Apparently this also was a once in a lifetime chance as he will most likely not do it again. July 2014 was a crowded month eventwise, instead of the HG&WI I could have done four or five other rides, but then I am happy I chose this one. It was a brilliant choice.

Lots of thanks also to John, Martin and Rimas for help with the travel arrangements and being good and tough company during the trip.

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