"Forgive yourself for not being where you thought you would be by now.” Terri Cole
My fellow Transcontinetal ’14 rider Lee and I had discussed cycling together around Provence, perhaps taking in some of the trickiest part of this years Transcontinental Race route as preparation. Researching the weather showed Mont Ventoux to be an unlikely up and over, Strada Dell’assietta was even less likely to be open. I didn’t fancy flying out to a closed France and Italy over the Easter only to be met by skiers at the tops of mountains and closed shops.
I thought through alternates, cycle aimlessly around Belgium & France? What about tackling the ride to my parents again? I remembered watching the BBC documentary covering the x rated West Coast, Highlands and Inner Hebrides Audax, the sun, the midges, the views, all this could be mine? Hmm, maybe the West coast of Scotland will be kind and give me at least a few of these.
I read through the relevant thread on YACF, spoke to a few riders from 2014 and contacted Mark the owner of the route. After some pointers about ferries, camping and what was in store I booked the cheapest flights over the Easter break.
Easter came closer, Youth Hostels booked I started to fettle the ferry timing realising I had made a mistake with the flights, this put me on a very limited winter time table on day one, I managed to make it work but had to adjust my first flight from early morning to the evening before. More cost, well, it worked favourably the original plan was to leave my bike bag at Glasgow Airports left luggage facility for the duration. I was now looking at accommodation on the first and last nights. I checked Airbnb, a spare room at Joyce and Garys, 20 miles from the Airport, 6 miles from Ardrossan, the start/finish, perfect. A quick message, and it was agreed my bike bag could remain with them whilst I navigated my way back, the total cost was only a little more than it would have cost to store my bag at left luggage, bonus!
The flight from Bristol was easy enough, whilst at checking in, a family queuing behind me took turns to guess what was contained in my bag.
They seemed amazed that it was a complete fully functioning bike, I was amazed they hadn’t seen a packaged bike before.
The taxi ride to my home for the pre event night was comical, there was some confusion with the address and a shopping centre next to the airport, the panicked taxi driver delivered me to the correct address at around 22:00. Knowing I was flying from Bristol to go for a cycle over the weekend had led Joyce and Garry to Google me. They managed to stumble across some TCR ’14 references and were intrigued as to what it entailed. I built my bike up as I regaled tales of dog chases, sleeping in car washes, getting lost in the Alps and what I had planned for the weekend.
2nd April ’15 – Brodick to Oban, 140 miles, 9000ft, 15hours
After a bit of a lie in and easy breakfast I set off towards Ardrossan to catch the ferry to the start point of Broddick on Arran. I stopped off in Asda filling my pockets with pork pies and bottles with orange juice. I always find it exciting boarding ferries by bike, such a grand mode of transport operating on water carrying little me and my bike to lands anew. A breakfast roll of lorne sausage and black pudding was had whilst taking in the views across to Bute.
Arriving at Brodick, I had over an hour in hand before I planned to set off against my schedule due to the winter time table, I took a few photos, sat around looking at the time, then decided to set off at a very steady pace an hour ahead of plan, I could have a long lunch at the next ferry stop, take photos and enjoy the extra time, it was unlikely I’d be going for full value!
The 15 or so miles passed quickly, I took in the scenery and pondered on what led ahead, 800 odd miles, were they going to be easy, hard, would I make it, the fear of mechanicals and my new tubeless tyres staying inflated, thoughts rushed through my head, I could be at home with Lydia enjoying the weekend like normal people do, this is my normal, am I normal? On arrival at the much quainter port of Lochranza, a small building named The Sandwich Station invited me in for lunch, I was chilly, hoping to sit inside and while away the remaining time, I was disappointed to find the only seating was outside.
I enquired about the ferry and was surprised to find the summer time table had kicked in, I only had 30 minutes to wait for the ferry to Claonaig instead of the planned route to Tarbert, a 20 mile unnecessary detour knocked off and some time back. A quick coffee, soup, roll and a few cookies soon warmed me up. I was only one of two passengers on the ferry. Back on mainland Scotland, I headed south on what was a typical audax quality road, stunning scenery, potholes and lots of short sharp hills with a few twists and turns, the southerly wind wasn’t aiding me in making good time. I stopped off to water the hedge row at a picnic area, ate a few Babybells and made my way on to Campbeltown, the captain of the ferry had warned me, in all of his life he had only bothered to visit once.
The turn North couldn’t have come soon enough, I’d been on the road for 8 hours and only covered 50 miles, the ferries had taken some time, todays remaining distance became daunting, playing with the numbers in my head ‘another 90 miles to go, that’s another 14.5 hours at this speed’, it was 16:30, hmm, when am I going to sleep? I stopped to gather my thoughts and eat again, a pasty. As I headed along the A83, things improved, tail wind, fewer rises, and a road surface that meant I could hold a good 17mph for the next 30 miles, passing Tarbert gave some mental relief as it meant I was further north than the ferry. Darkness drew in along with rain, I was hungry again, so detoured off to Lochgilphead after being directed to the local chippy, I rested, this challenge so early in the season was already taking its toll, only 100 miles in and I was struggling mentally. Back on the bike, the rain really had set in, it was cold too, but the final 30 miles to Oban passed easier. Lydia contacted the Youth Hostel to let them know I was on my way, just that I’d be late. I was surprised to find I had booked a private room, bought a beer and retreated to my room. I forgot to hire a towel, so used the spare bed sheets (sorry), falling asleep at around 01:30.
Alarm set for 6am, I hit snooze a few times, tumbled out of bed and trundled the mile or so to the port to book my ferry ticket. The weather was grey, I didn’t hold up much hope for staying dry again today, rain legs on, I must have looked an odd site getting on the ferry, well, they sort of look like a kilt. The scenery had become more mountainous, snow capped peaks held the heavy clouds, waiting to burst as they scraped the jagged edges. I ate a full fried breakfast, I must have been hungry as didn’t take a photo.
The next ferry was Tobermory to Kilchoan, just 20 miles up the road, it was wet, but not unpleasant, the roads were excellent every turn in the road opened up to surprise after surprise.
I made it to the ferry terminal in good time, I sat inside had a brief chat with the harbour master, 10 minutes before the ferry was due I realised there was a cafe next door, so rushed a coffee to warm me through. I was kindly guided on to the ferry, conversation started,
“How many days will that take you?”
“I’ll be there tonight”
I found shelter in the ferry, topped my bottle up, took a sip, tastes odd. ‘Not drinking water’ said the sign, I could see a rusty brown tinge as I poured it away.
The next stage was a bit of a blur, the weather wasn’t favourable, I pushed on, only stopping a few times, just snatching one photo in between rain showers.
Realising I was pushing limits for the second day in a row, Lydia contacted the next youth hostel to notify of my expected late arrival whilst I concentrated my efforts on making the ferry across to Skye. I skidded up to the ticket office whilst the cars were being boarded, I made it on with just a few moments to spare. Dripping wet, I sat in my full cycling kit eating a sandwich in the Ferrys lounge whilst a puddle grew around my seat.
On to Skye, I looked forward to eating in Broadford, I tucked in to Fish and chips for the second night running, I was tired and fed up of being wet. I got my thoughts together and pushed on, vaguely familiar with the area, things were a little easier. I cruised over the bridge as light gave way to night and back in to mainland Scotland. Densely forested roads protected me from the wind, to an extent, as I cycled away, I had my own wind, with a little too much confidence (plus perhaps the excess saturated fat and rancid water) I regretted the passing, for it was not gaseous. Hmm. An hour or so later, I see the light on in a hotel, doors locked, movement, I catch her eye, she let’s me in for a drink. I pop to the loo, clean up, back to finish my drink and leave.
The climb up to Craig was particularly tough, I sat on a roadside bench in the dark, just my rear blinky flashing away, a car passed, stopped, reversed and checked to see if I was okay, I gave the driver the impression I was and off he went. I thought I best get going again before I get carted off. The road to Achnasheen was cold, sleet fell, I plodded on. A 4×4 with a directional spot lamp passed, lighting me up, words were shouted as they passed, I liked to think they were encouraging me along.
I made the Youth Hostel at around 02:30, it had been a long tough day. My tiredness made it difficult to find the entrance to the Youth Hostel, eventually I got in to the lobby where a pass code had been left for me to gain access to the main building, I had had thoughts of just rolling out my bivi and sleeping anywhere once in, but the lights were on, I found the drying room, hung my kit up, took a shower, got in my bunk and necked half a hip flask of whisky. A day of type 2 fun.
I had set my alarm for an ambitious 6am, today was a big day. So sleeping in until 9am wasn’t on plan. Ho hum. The youth hostel was alive with guests, I enquired as to whether there was some food available “Use what you can find”. I misread a Free Food sign and endured the glare of an elderly woman as I sat eating her bread and honey, once I realised my mistake I started to leave, she struck up friendly conversation, nothing was said about the theft. I left late but guilt free. A light second breakfast was had in the local Coop.
Today was to be the first ferry free day, a day of self destiny and just 145 miles, so the lie in didn’t play too hard on my mind. Thoughts of making it by 22.00, having a nice relaxing evening with a long sleep in preparation for tomorrows 205 miles passed through my mind. Hunger struck, the slice of scrumped toast and scotch egg and long been used. I felt the remoteness, a sign indicated a café up ahead that was open all year around. After removing my kit the door was locked, on I went, another 10 miles another café, this time it was open. Soup and sandwich, plus a good charge of all my electronics which I had missed out on doing the previous night. A full belly is a happy belly.
Ann Tealloch was todays biggest climb, it also happened to be on a significant reverse turn, back up to Ullapool, I was finding the long cuts and doubling back quite torturous. I knew beyond Ullapool was yet another scenic detour, the temptation to cut it out played on my mind, but what was the point? I came to ride the route, I didn’t want to DNF just because I was feeling a little lazy. I stopped in Ullapool for a late lunch/early tea of black pudding and chips, the chippy touted being BBC 4’s chosen chippy in 1997 or something, Google didn’t confirm it.
It wasn’t long before the turn came, I thought back to the BBC show and the guys that missed it, perhaps I could plea ignorance, but having read Marcus J-B’s comments on YACF about it being some of the best cycling roads he’d ridden it was an easy choice.
It was obvious from the turn as to why, I had gone from the fast open A835 on to a single track along Loch Lurgainn, the sun was setting, the loch reflecting the clouds looked spectacular, motorcyclists with pinions passed.
The further along the track I went the more the scenery turned, this had been a theme since leaving Glasgow, but the change here was ever more apparent and dramatic, small lochs were cupped by jagged heather covered lunar rock. As light fell, I was making my way back out to the A835, I still had a long way to go, the sighting of deer buoyed my spirits.
I was glad to escape the detour before I lost day light, the sharp corners, steep climbs and descents coupled with a narrow strip of potholed tarmac would have been so much harder in the dark. It was somewhere around here that I repeated yesterdays bowel episode, it was like a descent into hell, the light went, rain and wind picked up, things became a whole lot tougher, I shed a tear.
Only 40 miles remained it was 21:00, I figured I’d make the hostel around midnight so gave Lydia the message to contact the Youth Hostel of my impeding late arrival. Lydia had a tough job of negotiating, the guy on the end of the phone suggested I wouldn’t make the distance and to find somewhere else, after some reasoning that this was the bleakest part of Scotland with very few Hiltons around, agreement was struck, he’d stay up beyond his 22:00 bedtime.
I used the elevation chart on the Garmin to count down the remaining peaks, my legs were feeling, it had been a massive day, yet the distance covered was the shortest so far. Making the cut across to Durness past Lairg, the Di2 junction box started to flash red. Oh shit! I’m going to run out of batteries. No! I had charged the battery completely before leaving, unplugged it for transport, I should have about 1400 miles, it cant be flat. I was economic with my gear changes, thinking through my options, there were very few. Stranded in the North of Scotland with quite a unique problem.
I rolled the final descent into Durness, cold and miserable. The thought of soiled shorts, a gearless bike, hungry, wet and cold had got to me. I followed signs to the Youth Hostel, it took me up a dead end road, I searched around a derelict building, is this it? I know its bleak here… but this bad? After 10 minutes of faffing around, I used my phone to locate my lodgings. Spud from Trainspotting greeted me, after the day I had had I feared this really was my mile end.
Spud found a torch, we crept around between the two Terrapin buildings hiding my bike away in a shed and locating my bunk. The time spent with Spud cheered me up, I was a transient fool who had chosen this situation. I let him get on, he was clucking. I found a towel in the cleaning cupboard, took a shower, relieved to find clean shorts. Jumped into bed warming myself through with the rest of my hipflask whilst researching how much battery I had left….. 50%! Yes, great.
Today was to be the longest day, 205 miles. I’ve ridden the short stretch from Inverness to Fort August in reverse on LEJOG and remember it being a quick road, so I had high hopes. These were knocked in to shape after another oversleeping of my alarm, in fact I was the last to leave the bunk room. I sat in the canteen with a can of cold rice pudding sold to me by my mate Spud. A Brummy on holiday had struck up conversation, we talked about cycle touring and walking for 30 minutes or so, I left at 09:25. Not the best start to a long day.
The weather had changed, blue, blue skies.
What a difference. I was happy as I plodded along the North coast of Scotland, up, down and around sea inlet after sea inlet. A few hours passes and as I descended in to Tongue a fellow cyclist returned my wave, I was emotional and that little gesture tipped me over the edge, I was ecstatic, I had made the leap through the hardship, I was on the other side, enjoying the feelings you get from endurance events. Its funny the things you find whilst cycling, I walked to the edge of an embankment to take a leak and found a car on its roof.
Tongue provided a welcome stop where I topped up my supplies, a large slab of Scottish Paradise Cake, a can of Coke, Pork Pie, Snickers, crisps and full bidons of water and OJ.
On I went, reviewing the route I could see yet another detour. There was quite an easy short cut that could have been made. I resisted temptation and carried on through to Betty Hill rewarding my decision with an ice cream, things had warmed up so much I stripped down to the 3/4 lengths that I had on under my full lengths.
It wasn’t too long before I was heading south, this was a mental success. I had made it to the fourth day just tomorrow to go and I was now going in the heading in the opposite direction from the previous days. The scenery made another distinct change, flat open moor land.
I was running short on water, the train station at Forsinard had proven fruitless so I sipped carefully. Reviewing the map, Lairg was a long way away… and it was Easter Sunday… in Scotland. I held little hope for a top up soon. Rounding a corner and oasis appeared, nothing for miles and then a Caravan Club Site with an open shop! Topped up with snacks and drink I made my way to the Crask Inn. The woman at the campsite had said it would be an experience.
I arrived in the dark, it was more of a house than a pub. The living room had a bar with a hand written menu. It was very much League of Gentlemen local. The Landlord seemed disappointed, I asked for food, he was almost embarrassed. A group of 14 had arrived unannounced, he had just served the whole leg of lamb along with all the vegetables to them.
He did well, three quarters of a 12″ homemade quiche was delivered after a bowl of hearty home made soup. This was followed up with a good helping of apple crumble and custard. It turns out that The Crask is used for a local 400km audax during the summer, tales of knackered cyclists sleeping in odd places were exchanged before I paid a meagre number he seemed to pluck out of thin air.
Getting back on the bike with such a full belly was tough going. The temperature had dropped, my belly was busy digesting and I had a good 8 mile descent in front of me to Lairg. By the time I got to Bona Bridge I was out of water (again!) and feeling the -2C. Ah ha! A public toilet.
I hadn’t planned on stopping to sleep, just to top my bottles up with water. The warmth and shelter proved too much, I set up my mattress and down jacket, set an alarm for 02:00 and dozed, listening to the urinal flushing for a few minutes every twenty. The drains gurgled and burped out noxious smells.
Another day starting out bad, I managed to get packed and leave the lavatory at 06:00, it was still cold out. The mileage deficit was whirring around my head, I ticked through the maths in my head. I still had enough time, but I was on the limit, practically no stoppage time allowed, no tea breaks, no photos, just tap out an average of 15mph and Id make it with a little time to spare.
The reality of it wasn’t too daunting, I stopped off at a Coop, ran around like I was on Supermarket Sweep picking up a few items and getting on my bike as if it was a Le Mans changeover. The roads were fast, weather was good,I was in the zone, I hadn’t ridden like this since last years TCR. Racing, really racing.
Martian Cioana, a fellow Transcontinental Racer was also in Scotland, he had ridden up from London, we had made loose arrangements to meet up around Loch Ness. Pulling up at Fort Augustus at midday bang on schedule, I saw Martian, we had a quick chat he was suffering with a bad knee.
The final leg loomed. I panicked. There’s another ferry! I sent out a message to my mum, who checked and confirmed that the last ferry was at 22:00. The maths didn’t work out, 15mph would see me arrive at around 22:30 and that was with no contingency. I cracked on, no time to lose. It was really a TT now. Attacking head wind up the side of Loch Linnhe I was maintaining a good rhythm, I can do this. I turn in to a cross wind my pace rises, I check the route profile. Ah, a hill. Stood at the bottom of Glen Coe I had a moment. I feared that it was some Alpine pass that was going to take hours to ascend. No sooner had I started, I was on top of Ranoch Moor, enjoying the views, my average speed showing around 16mph allowing for a quick photo.
I had conquered the hill, I had conquered the majority of the route, now to catch the alternate ferry a few miles off course at 23:10. Head down, I tapped out mile after mile, constantly checking my schedule, it was mentally draining.
Some faffing around with the Garmin to reroute me to Dunoon passed the time and took my mind off of the deadline, as I got closer, it became more apparent that it was in the bag.
The ferry port was vacant, I opened a door and shouted. Out popped a seaman, he confirmed I had 20 minutes and that I could get a pizza up the road.
Just 30 miles to knock out on the other side and I was done, I managed to make one last error. I forgot to fill my bottles, again, but managed to find an open kebab shop.
I arrived in Salt Coats at 01:50 with 40 minutes of the allowed time left! It wasn’t a race, but it sure had felt like one. I got lost, and managed to escape the clutches of the town, slowly ascending out towards Dalry a car crept behind me eventually pulling alongside. I could hear shouting over the top of the radio documentary, I removed my earphones.
“Its me, Garry, do you want a lift home?”
“No, its ok, what’s another 5 miles?”
“I’ll get the kettle on”
Im cycling with my work colleagues 250miles, raising money for Childrens Hospice South West – Donations welcome!
Children’s Hospice South West (CHSW) helps and supports children and their families who are living with life-limiting conditions.