Unlike that “Scotland Play” where disaster often strikes the players at the mere mention of its title, our particular Scotland play was great fun and quite possibly one of the best trips I’ve been on.
It started as a bit of an idle muse, as the best ideas often do, and grew into a full blown tour in a very short time. As soon as I floated the idea to some regular customers we were fully booked and we were committed. The plan was to meet in Oban, get the ferry to Barra, ride up through the Outer Hebrides, get the ferry to the mainland at Ullapool, travel south through the Highlands until we got back to Oban via Skye and Mull. In total 7 ferries, 660+km and around 10,000 mtrs of climbing.
The story continues......
Following on from part 1 (available to read on our website, peakcyclinguk.com/blog) the group have now crossed back from Lewis and are back on the mainland, in Ullapool.
The next day we had a big breakfast and a later start. Loosely following the coast today was a big day, with lots of climbing but no time pressures. We started down the wet, moderately busy, A835 along the shores of Loch Broom, until turning onto the much quieter A832, near the Falls of Measach, (which are worth a visit) towards Dundonnell.
Spectacular views and sunny weather were now the order of the day and we trucked on over the hill, passing Little Loch Broom towards Loch Ewe, and lunch at the fabulous Inverewe Gardens near Poolewe.
Loch Ewe was the gathering point for the Arctic convoys to Russia during the Second World War and there is still lots of evidence of that conflict in the landscape.
Suitably humbled we continued our up and down progress to Gairloch before heading for Loch Maree and our stop for the night at Kinlochewe. The views were amazing, the roads were quiet and the sun was out. Perfection was achieved when a pine martin amble across the road in front of me without a care in the world.
A good nights’ sleep at the wonderful (in a highland Hotel kind of way) Kinlochewe Hotel saw us ready for the biggest day of the trip. We were headed for Applecross and the (in) famous Bealach na Ba. A total of 126 km and 2500 mtrs of climbing.
What a day! Fantastic scenery right from the start as you ride over, into, and through Torridon. Taking it easy on the climb out of Torridon and the subsequent undulating road to Applecross will really help later in the day. Popular with campervans and motor cycles this single-track road is amazing but requires mutual respect and patience. A pit stop in Applecross village is definitely worth it, but don’t eat too much or you’ll regret it!
The climb of Bealach na Ba starts straight out from the Café, at sea level, and tops out 8.6 km and 645 mtrs of “up” later. Allegedly it averages 7% but don’t be fooled, there are some very steep sections. It’s very narrow in places, and can be quite busy, so be ready to make use of the passing places. Mostly the vehicle occupants are more than happy to give way and most give encouragement and cheers in respect of your upwards efforts. It took me just under an hour to reach the top. It’s a monster.
The descent down the other side to Loch Carron is amazing but needs concentration and a great deal of respect, not least because you will be looking at the views. It’s actually possible to completely miss the Applecross section out if you don’t feel up to such a big day, or if the weather is against you.
I refuelled in Lochcarron café with home-made apple pie and custard while waiting for Paul to catch me up. The others had pushed on heading for Plockton and the wonderful Haven Hotel. Plockton is a beautiful place and was the setting for the much loved TV series Hamish Macbeth.
It rained for the last hour of our ride. Paul and I arrived at the Hotel to be greeted by home-made biscuits, tea and a log fire. A proper warm welcome.
Today is an easier day. Short at about 77 km but with a ferry to catch in the afternoon. After a most amazing breakfast (seriously the best display of food I’ve ever seen) and a pleasant 10 km ride we crossed the Skye Bridge and spent a short time on the busy A861 before turning off onto the much quieter road to the ferry at Armadale. Another grippy EU funded new road followed until we met the support van for a refreshing cuppa (cheers Fred). With lots of time in hand we took the Ord loop. This is a scenic and very quiet single track road. The only hold up was a herd of cows lying in the road for their morning nap.
Up to the point I got to Ord I’d been enjoying my easy spinning “recovery” day but as soon as the route got to the coast it became very up and down. The hills were short, steep and in one case brutal. Rumour has it that Mr H (the hardest grinder in the group) got off and walked on this particular beast but he covered it up by whipping out his phone and taking a photo. I wasn’t there. I was up the road. I’ve heard both versions. Anyway what’s a few metres of 20% between friends when you’ve lots of fatigue already in the legs? I just took it as easy as possible and 35 minutes later I was chatting to Fred and John, enjoying a cup of fresh coffee while waiting for the ferry to Mallaig, where we had a very leisurely lunch.
A short spin to Arisaig saw an early finish and a much needed rest. Part of the coast line here is where the film Local Hero was filmed, and it’s lovely (the film is ok too).
The next day was our last. The sun was out and we followed the cycleway along the quiet A830 passing the Prince’s Cairn (marks the spot where Bonny Prince Charlie embarked for France in September 1746 following months on the run after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden), before turning right towards Strontian. A scenic but undulating ride to Moidart followed with beautiful views everywhere. We stopped at the nice café in Strontian for lunch before the long climb from the shores of Loch Sunart (where on a previous trip I watched sea otters playing by the shore) and the even longer (?) descent to Lochaline and the ferry to Mull. Feeling smug that you’re not going the other way it’s a truly magnificent finale. A short sunny sail over to Fishnish saw us ride as a group for the last few K’s to catch the ferry back to Oban and the finish.
What a trip! 662 km with 10,000 mtrs of climbing. Not bad for a week’s riding through some of the finest scenery this country has to offer.
For 2020 we’ll put in an extra day on the Isle of Lewis so there won’t be any time pressure to catch the ferry to Ullapool, so avoiding any “ferry anxiety”, and allow for an (optional) extra ride to see the Callanish stones, which are well worth a trip.
Other than that next year will be pretty similar. The fabulous Fred may not be manning the van due to a house move but the van will still be there complete with luggage carrying capacity and a kettle (and quite possibly a substantial quantity of cake). It’s like a cuddly comfort blanket. The weather will be what it will be. My advice is to invest in a proper waterproof jacket, fit 28mm tyres or wider, if you can, and mudguards are definitely worth it. I used my trusty steel Croix de Fer with mudguards and even though it’s heavy it was a better choice than my carbon summer bike. I also fitted new tyres shortly before the trip and only Paul, who forgot the new tyre advice in a classic schoolboy error moment, suffered punctures (right up until he fitted new ones in Stornaway).
It’s a great trip and we’ll run it again in early June 2020. The 2019 trip sold out within 4 hours of its launch, and you can book now and save £100 if you click through before 6th January. It’s a challenging ride and not for the unfit but it’s an absolute classic. If you like the sound of it book early as places are limited to 8 riders and will go fast.
Graham and Paul