A mile of climbing, a terrible view and Highland wildlife.
A year in the planning, this six day trip with a couple of friends was actually mooted over three years ago after we had all done the off-road coast to coast (C2C). Whilst on the whole enjoyable, the C2C was not what I would call much of a bike ride, nor was it particularly good mountain biking; it had an awful lot of pushing the bike through bogs and a fair amount of carrying the bike to traverse rock strewn summits but there was little in the way of actual enjoyable cycling. Bearing this in mind we had decided that the next big adventure (more than 48 hours) should be road based, and somewhere renowned for its bike friendly roads and cracking views.
I have spent very little time in Scotland which was part of my desire to visit it for a longer period, combined with the Highland’s notoriously quiet roads and stunning landscapes we thought a week here would be a great way to get some miles in and enjoy our time on the bike. It is often said that Cycling is the perfect pace for travelling through landscapes: walking is too slow and doesn’t allow you to see much, train or road travel too quick and things flash by, and the more time I spend exploring the lanes and by-roads of our fair isle the more I agree. On the bike you have time to appreciate the view from the top of a hill you’ve battled up (depending on the visibility, more on that later), you can slow down when you spot Highland cattle or Deer in the road, not spooking them, not causing them to disappear, and you can travel a decent enough distance in a day that you actually notice the landscape changing.
And so, the Caledonian Express sleeper trains were booked, kit lists were circulated and picked apart, routes were vaguely discussed and bikes were fettled, we departed a bustling, noisy and typically highly strung Euston station at 8pm and after being gently rocked to sleep by the train we awoke in another Country to some bad coffee and a light smattering of rain. Initially our intention was noble: head out from Inverness South West to the Coast and then North along it, returning back to Inverness in time for our return leg home, some research however suggested that the route out of Inverness may be the least pleasant part of the whole journey and another two hour train journey would take us a day’s ride away to Strathcarron. With 16 minutes between our Sleeper arriving and one of two trains for the whole day to Strathcarron departing we jumped off, picked up some tickets from the machine and found the right platform, at which point we had a conversation with a couple of other Cyclists hoping to take the same train who enquired whether we had booked (we had not) and informed us the train only took four bikes (of which three spaces they had taken, and we were a further three). We got on anyway, perhaps living in London for some years has had an effect after all and as getting this train was paramount to our new planned route we thought we’d risk it. As it turned out the train manager was a typically hospitable Scot who simply smiled and said she would make some room, and with that we were off!
Having completed our assisted leg of the journey in relative peace, watching the firs roll by and tickled by the funny sounding place names the train variously stopped, or did not stop at, we alighted at Strathcarron and set off on the open road. After barely four miles we stopped at a shop, breakfast was minimal and we had all managed to convince ourselves that we needed to buy provisions at every opportunity in case there were no more shops, we loaded up and set back out on the road with the prospect of the day’s biggest (and in fact the whole trip’s biggest) climb ahead of us – Bealach na Ba, a beast of a climb six miles long and one of the toughest in the UK. Given we were breaking ourselves in, and frankly rather typically of the way we start a days riding we thought it best to reward ourselves with coffee and cake at the excellent Bealach Cafe (the gluten free carrot cake was superb) at the foot of the climb, besides it had started to rain a little so maybe we could sit out the precipitation till it blew over.
It had not blown over when we remounted and the battle of man and machine versus massive hill began, this time the massive hill had an ally, blustery winds and rain. We knew it would take us over an hour to get to the top of the pass, and we also knew it was steep, but we were spurned on by reports from one of our party of the cosy, welcoming pub at Applecross which is all downhill from the summit and we had barely done any riding so far so I set off at a frankly blistering pace, stopping occasionally to take a picture of the view and my brothers-on-bikes gnashing their way up the ascent. This blistering pace was tempered at the point I ran out of easier gears and energy somewhere about the halfway mark, the road really kicks on this climb and my previous exertions and heavily laden bike worked against me, we all joined up and chatted through struggled breaths about just how much further it could possibly be. It was about this point that we lost all sight of the top, or frankly much at all as the mists set in, I’m still not sure whether it was raining or it was just a deeply wet kind of mist that soaks you through via osmosis, either way our hour of grunting and spinning was rewarded with about 10 feet of visibility and a biting wind, not the epic sweeping view of Scotland we had imagined and deserved. We didn’t linger at the top and a quick, moist and at times terrifying descent began, the first five minutes of which I spent trying to put my hood over my helmet while riding, the rest I spent in abject fear of falling off an unseen cliff edge after my heavy bike didn’t quite react the way I was expecting trying to get round one particularly steep, off-camber corner. With more trepidation than normal and tempered with a desire to get out of the now full-blown storm we were in we rolled into Applecross and the pub dumping our bikes outside and greedily eyeing up the Specials board.
After lunch the rain had still not subsided, coffees were ordered to give it further chance to leave us, but it had other ideas so we donned our already wet hats, gloves and shoes and set out along the coast to our evening’s target: Torridon. The roads flattened out and we wend our way North and into some clearing skies, and eventually sunlight. Between Fearnmore and Fearnbeg we came face to face with some adorable Highland cows: shaggy, ginger, enormously-horned and a lot smaller than you expect them to be, these docile creatures must see very little in the way of traffic using the road to walk between grazing spots, they were at best non-plussed by us and our bikes, thankfully. At Inverbain we are once again stopped in our tracks by Wildlife in the road, this time Roe Deer, more skittish and wary than their lumbering cattle cousins up the road we stop a hundred yards away to watch them. I spent a year or so living near Hebden Bridge, and I found nothing in all my time there more delightful than being able to walk out of my door and into the forest and be almost guaranteed a sighting of a Deer, they really are wonderful creatures and this sighting of five adults made me very pleased to have picked Scotland for this trip, despite my sopping wet shoes.
The back road joined an ‘A’ road just before Sheldaig and we took this in to Torridon, heading for a campsite half remembered. We eventually found the site, set up our tents and made some food, we had a chat with a couple of other Cycle-tourists, both on much bigger, International journeys who were independently spending a month or so in Scotland but happened to land here for the night together. Though the campsite was pleasant and had a shower block and toilets to hand the sheltered position meant it was a real haven for Scotland’s most prevalent Wildlife, the Midge, which is not a nice little fella at all, but an insistent nipping git of an animal. It was considered wise by one of our party to walk to the pub, as its tradition, after forty five minutes walk we arrived to be told they had just called last orders, we had a solitary pint whilst the Barman’s friends did shots and slugged our way back to camp, day one complete and though tired looking forward to another day on the road, preferably with less rain. And midges.