Monday, 22 October 2012

Scotland - Day 4: Two Countries, One Day

Having stayed the night in Fort William, this was to be a proper driving day to cover off the rest of the Scottish climbs. With a little bit more time, I’m sure there would have been some lovely riding here, but as it was I had sadly reached a part of Scotland with mobile signal and 3G, meaning I was already fielding calls from work so the priority was getting the things done before reality came back to bite any harder…

First up after a few hours in the car (and some very slow driving around Loch Lomond), I arrived at the foot of a very rainy ‘Rest and be Thankful’. Surprisingly, I wasn’t too happy to be getting out of the warm enclave of the Audi
Not a happy bunny
The climb? Well, it was long, and not particularly hard. A bit like someone cranking up the gradient every 500m or so, and a surprisingly disappointing summit with views back down onto the highway road through the valley. Going down was interesting, given that the road had essentially turned into a river. That said, I’d love to go back to the Trossachs and do some proper riding – there looked to be lots of lovely tiny forested roads through the hills that I could happily spend all day wiling away on.
Cloudy, wet, unpleasant - Rest and be Thankful
Rivers of water on the descent

Next up on the list was Mennock’s Pass – another couple of hours away by car, and requiring a trip through the centre of Glasgow. Joy.

Putting your cold, wet kit on while parked up in a layby and busting for a pee should hopefully show to you all that I’m dedicated to getting this challenge done and dusted. Is there a worse feeling that dank wet socks? Fortunately things started to look up as soon as I got onto the Pass – a glorious vista opened up on a silky smooth road snaking its way through a valley. Not so much a climb as an experience, I would wholeheartedly encourage everyone to do this climb once in their lives. Perhaps it was the sunshine that had come out. Maybe the picture perfect U-shaped valley. The lack of traffic may have been a significant factor. Or maybe just the friendly cows grazing by the size of the road – I like cows. Annoyingly, there was a headwind. Something about this trip meant that wind seemed to be attracted to me. I can only hope that doesn’t extend to social situations and everyday life, otherwise that could be annoying/smelly.
Mennocks Pass - what a road!

The last bit out of the valley steepens up and finishes just past the highest village in Scotland,
Wanlockhead - just in case you didn't believe me
Descending was a joy – steadily getting faster and faster and taking the bends on the inside (risky, but no traffic and a certain sense of giddiness got the better of me) and left me on the last hill in Scotland only wanting more. I will definitely be back to explore the area.

With a bit of time before I had to be at my next stop, I decided to take a risk and try to ‘pop’ down to Northumberland to ride Winter’s Gibbet – a hill I’d neglected to ride the last time I was there, and one which is annoyingly far from anywhere convenient. Satnav said over two hours to destination, but then I laugh in the face of Satnav predicted times. Or at least I hope so, otherwise I’d be climbing in the dark…

Overtaking at a magnificent rate, the Audi was a joy to drive, aided by a drum ‘n’ bass soundtrack (usually reserved for hardcore sessions in the gym) and a lunch of chocolate raisins. I arrived in the tiny village of Elsdon just as the calm of the evening was settling in, and the light was fading – time to get riding. After a bit of high level orienteering, I promptly spied the road uphill and sped out the catch the last hill of the trip:
Blissful ignorance
Winter’s Gibbet is so-named due to the rather morbid gallows that marks the peak – complete with noose. What you may notice from those pictures is a lack of noose. Which is because my rather basic orienteering wasn’t great – in fact I had managed to ride in completely the wrong direction and up the wrong hill. Which is great because I’d spent a while at the top looking for the Gibbet, and taking pictures of the clouds, as the light faded away…
"Oh Look! A Bee!"
So as it turned out, I was to climb the spookiest climb of the book in the fading dusk – on my own. Not being one for horror movies, I’d be lying if I said that the hairs weren’t standing on end as I approached the completely silent and abandoned hilltop in view of the noose. So the only thing for it was to pull some stupid faces:
What an idiot
The hill itself was challenging without being leg-breaking. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled with great hills, but it wasn’t up there in the pantheon of the best.
Winter's Gibbet
 After that, it was time to pay penance for all that desparate light-chasing driving: I’d been so intent on overtaking and getting to Elsdon on time that I didn’t want to pull over and fill the petrol tank (why gain 5 minutes getting ahead of a slow moving tractor only to stop and end up back in the queue again). But now it was a game of “how far can you drive with the petrol warning indication flashing” vs “how far away is the nearest petrol station”. I didn’t fancy being stuck on the Northumberland tops in the pitch black and worsening weather. Fortunately, I’m here to tell the tale, which is another way of saying I didn’t spend the night in the car hiding from axe-wielding nutters (Rather, I was holed up at Grandma’s house, throwing a ball for a rather nutty highland terrier – quite the contrast)

Friday, 19 October 2012

Scotland - Day 3: The big 'un

After two days of fairly sedate weather (for Scotland, in October), this was the really crucial one in terms of avoiding the wildest - nearly 2,000ft of climbing on a single remote road to an isolated coastal village. Heading out early to the West Coast, passing Inverness and then the length of Loch Ness (no sign of the monster sadly) the roads became smaller and smaller past the stunning Loch Maree before finally becoming a one-lane track heading South to Shieldaig. By the time I had finally arrived, the drizzle was just starting to set in, and I was busting for a toilet and cup of coffee in a town made up of a tiny shop, (closed) pub, B&B and a few houses. The shop proved negative for hot drinks or conveniences, but on recommendation I popped into the hotel and was motioned to a roaring fire and presented with a cafetiere of delicious fresh coffee- who says the West coast is remote and wild?! I was even given a local magazine to catch up all of the local news, where I learned about a minor scuffle in a pub on a Friday night, a spot of cattle rustling, and a potted history of Scotland’s innovative and "well-exported food" industry.

Thirst quenched, I prised myself away from the fire and back into the rain to go out and ride. Sluggish at first, the ride hugely picked up as I got a facefull of the incredible scenery en route – although anyone with a vague sense of direction could work out that mountains covered in clouds in the direction you’re about to start travelling isn’t great news
There's a road in them there hills
10 miles into the ride and I was greeted by these signs at the bottom of the Bealach-Na-Ba. Nothing like a warm Scottish welcome...

As I stopped to put my rain jacket back on, I could barely stand up in the wind blowing onshore, but fortunately appeared to be the only person to be foolish enough to try this road in this weather so I wasn’t too worried about falling over. On almost all of the climbs I’ve done so far, I’ve made myself ride them without stopping to get the full experience of the thing, before stopping to ponder what exactly it was or to take pictures. However for the Bealach I had been so primed by what I had been told or read that there was little chance of me doing it in one go and giving up the opportunity to get the camera out. So with the number of stops, I wasn’t exactly setting a world record time, but even in pretty atrocious weather it is an absolute blast of a climb which has to be ridden to be experienced, but which you can get a feel for with these pictures:

Even better, once you’ve descended off the tops and down to the tiny village, you will find the Applecross Inn – rated Scotland’s pub of the year in 2012. Not bad for a place that’s tucked well out of the way and with a population of only 238.
Who says taxidermy has to be anatomically correct?
Local pub dog - Irish wolfhounds aren't
the best for confined spaces
As I had arrived 20 minutes before service, the only decent thing to do was to sink a couple of swift halves of the local ale, and chat to the barkeep (who had to keep rushing off to answer the phone to make bookings for 3 months time – talk about popular). This did mean, however, that I wasn’t the best prepared for the ride back up the coast to the car. As it turns out, the coastal road is a brutal brutal one, with non-stop lumps and bumps to soften-up already soft legs, and a good dousing of wind and rain for measure. When you look at the profile of the ride, these barely register next to the 1,200 ft of the Bealach, but I can definitely tell you that I felt them in my legs. At least there was a rainbow with a pot of gold just around the next bend…although pity I didn’t bring the scuba gear

Oh so close to the pot of gold

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Scotland - Day 2: What a day!

Rolling out of Blairgowrie at bleary-eyed o’clock, the drive up to the North highlands took a couple of hours so to be warmly greeted by the proprietors of the fantastic Kinross House in Granton-on-Spey was most welcome – as was the news that the morning’s mizzle was forecast to be replaced by glorious sunshine. In Scotland. In October. Who knew?! The ride planned for the day was the longest of the trip: a 90-odd mile leg stretcher across the Highland ski stations of Cairn Gorm and the Lecht. As I rolled out of the door the skies had cleared up, and the reason for this sea-change in the weather was the gale blowing in from the West. This is great news when it’s at your back and blowing you along (as it was for the first 20 miles), but less so as you turn the corner up the mountain, and find that there’s not only the gradient but also a block headwind to contend with.

The road up to the Cairn Gorm ski station is wide and gradually graded allowing large vehicles all the way to the top. So although an iconic climb, it’s not hugely challenging from a steepness perspective and on the day I went up it was more a case of trying to keep hold of the bike in the howling crosswinds on the hairpin turns more than anything else – bladed spokes are not your friends on days like that. Still, the views from the top are suitably spectacular, so long as you avoid turning round to look at the rest of the mountain which has been scarred by ski-lifts and machinery (which somehow only fit in when covered by 3 feet of snow…)
Top of Cairn Gorm

All smiles in the Highland sunshine
Deep blue skies - the view from Cairn Gorm
Loch Morlich
Back down the mountain there were the same crosswinds to contend with, which are even less fun at 35mph. But I made it down in one piece, and managed to meet up with another cyclist (Andy) heading the same way who fancied swapping turns and so we hared back while he shared his knowledge of the area. Apparently Bob Dylan and Billy Connolly both have houses around there, and the reason that drivers in the Scottish Highlands are so considerate to cyclists is that there is bugger all else to do so, they all spend way too much time on their bikes themselves. I didn’t hang around to see if I could hear the croaky strains of His Bob-ness “blowin’ in the wind”, but I’m sure if you had a pack of Marlboro and a bottle of whiskey on you then he’d be at your side in the blink of an eye. When we parted company, you might be able to tell that I got a bit bored and started experimenting with my camera
Wouldn't be Scotland without at least one picture of a thistle
Proof of sunshine


Arty bike shot #4
After stopping for a bite to eat – which barely touched the sides – I headed back out West towards the Lecht with my legs feeling pretty much ok. That said, I had been told by Andy that the climb over the Lecht was the hardest in the area, and knew that I had to go over it from one side to be able to climb in back in the direction specified in the Good Book. Not only that, but in between there was also a fantastically-Scottish-named climb called the ‘Bridge of Broooooon’ (translation: The Bridge of Brown) that I had been warned about (again I’d have to face on the way there, and back) - the predictability and result of an out-and-back route (must be what it feels like to be a time-trialist...except they like riding on dual carriageways at 5am on a Sunday morning wearing pointy helmets)

On my first approach to the Lecht, the climb was hidden around the corner of a valley until the very last minute, until I was suddenly presented with a long and steep climb up to a set of gondolas and chair lifts. Not to be deterred, I made it up, only to find an enormous descent on the other side – funnily enough this was the side I was to go down, pull a u-turn, and ride straight back up be to able to climb the mountain in the direction in the 100 Climbs book
Backside of the Lecht
Fantastic starting point in Cock Bridge - couldn't resist :)
The Lecht - final push
By the time I got to the top, I was definitely in a position to attest to the climb’s difficulty – a proper leg stinger which isn’t done justice by the pictures or the view from the top. Initially starting with a very steep section just out of Cock Bridge, the road levels out slightly before kicking around a corner to give you a view up to what looks like the summit (unless you know better having just come down the bloody thing). Finally reaching that false summit, you get a view of the hill which is in all the picture books: a series of steps up the side of the mountain, reaching a bleakly developed pinnacle topped by pylons and a ski centre. Despite the lacklustre view, it’s still a top, top climb and highly recommended.
Scottish pylons - how picturesque
After that, it was just a case of 'head down and pedal for home', all the way into the wind. Oh the wind. Not so much a feature of the weather, it felt more like riding with your brakes permanently half on. Joy. That said, pie, chips and a pint at the local was an absolute joy. Who says riding a bike is all about the pedalling?
Salt crystal residue - yum!

Pie, pint and chips - don't forget the lashings of vinegar. Lush

Scotland - Day 1: Not so many miles by bike...

Travelling by train and bike means that you have to travel light – however packing for 5 days of riding in Scotland in October means quite the opposite: layers, waterproofs, spare kit etc. After some fraught last minute packing in between fielding conference calls on Friday, I eventually rolled out of the door in the early hours of Saturday morning with what I considered to be the bare minimum (how these round-the-world tourers do it, I do not know – except I imagine the smell of their kit is enough to kill flies at 50 paces):

Packed and ready to go
Fortunately the train guard remembered 5 minutes before setting off that he might have passengers with bicycles, and kindly unlocked the door after a nerve-jangling few walks up and down the length of the train – getting sweaty and anxious is exactly the kind of thing before settling into a long 4 hour journey North. Thanks pal! Fortunately by the time I had gotten up to Edinburgh, things had brightened up as the forecasted rain had not yet hit, and the helpful chaps at Avis had happily upgraded my rental car from a "standard 5-door" to an Audi A3…much better than the last hire car I drove, (a spluttering Fiat Panda full to the brim with passengers and luggage):
Must have been the winning smile
A quick trip to Tesco (home sweet home) later and fully stocked up with food, I was back on the road and on my way to the Highlands. This is where the standard ‘BBC Weathermap’ view of the world starts getting a bit misleading, and as many John O Groats – Lands End cyclists will tell you: by the time you’ve got out of Scotland then you’re only halfway. That is to say, Scotland is a very large place and it takes a deceptively long time to get around by car.

Destination 1 was the small town of Fettercain, and more specifically the climb of Cairn O’Mount: the highest mountain pass in Aberdeenshire. Satnav told me that this would take 2.5 hours in the car, but I have a heavy foot and an eye for speed cameras (or at least I think so – nothing has come through the post from the DVLA just yet…)

Funnily enough, over 6 hours of travelling isn’t the best preparation for riding uphill. After unpacking the bike at the foot of the climb, I felt like I was pedalling squares from the very start (and still suffering from a sore throat it also felt like I was breathing triangles at the same time). The Cairn O’Mount is a long climb which softens up the rider with some steep early slopes before relenting for the middle few kms, and kicking up again towards the end, so it was very much appreciated to have a few truckers from the army cheering me on past the halfway point. If you’ve not been to the Highlands before, the bleakness and remoteness of the Scottish hills is quite breathtaking – something evident in the abandoned, crumbling house on the side of the road up the hill:
Bleak House
The Cairn at the top of Cairn O'Mount
Being so high up, it was incredibly windy at the top – so much so that the young family who had pulled over at the summit were forced to dip down into a foxhole and shelter their toddler son from the gale with their coats, while he crouched for a pee. Pretty sure I would have joined them if that wasn't massively inappropriate. Something for his 18-th birthday photo montage though, I’m sure.

Up next was the Cairnwell, and another hour of driving to it’s base. Starting in the fabulously named “Spit of Glenshee”, as I parked up the light was starting to fade so I was pushing a brisk pace on the lower approach slopes. The Cairnwell is a 10k climb and as you round the valley base the road stretches out way ahead in front of you, climbing very gradually at 1-2% before reaching the foot of the climb proper:
Stunning: The Cairnwell
As much as this was a beautiful sight, it did mean heading out full gas to make sure I wasn’t going up or down in the darkness which wouldn’t have been a whole lot of fun. Still, heading up a magnificent valley road in the falling dusk was a stunning experience. There's a peace that settles in to a Highland evening that rivals anything I've experienced - although living and working in Central London probably doesn't make be the best arbiter...
Not so stunning: the bicycle salute