In August of 2012 I embarked with my partner, who had only taken up cycling at the beginning of April, on two wheels on a first pure cycling holiday with only the bicycle for transport. With only four months of dedicated preparation including many emotionally testing training rides, it was an ambitious, yet manageable itinerary covering 805km with 9200m of elevation gain over a period of 8 days (6 days cycling and two rest days).
Modelling the 2012 summer collection above Braemar while basking in the morning sun.
DAY 1: Troon – Lochranza (110km/1200m – 5h40m)
The tour commenced in Troon after a short ferry crossing from Larne. It was a sort leisurely hour north bound along the coast to Ardrossan where a ferry was boarded after a short lunch break to make the journey across to the Isle of Arran where the rest of the day’s cycling would take place. About an hour and a half into the ride out of Brodick, first along the east and then the south coast, a heavy downpour soaked us to the marrow on the southern end of the island as we made our way up toward The Ross. After seeking shelter in an near abandoned ruins of a cottage at the side of the road – there was a puppy in a cage inside who was only too delighted for company – we continued on up and over The Ross and back into our port of arrival, namely Brodick, by which time we had thoroughly dried out thanks to a light breeze and the returning sunshine. From here, we decided to split up and take separate ways to Lochranza where we would stay the night. I wanted to cycle over The String, a road link between the east and west coasts cutting the island in half north/south, while my partner took the “easier” way up along the east coast. The climb was tough, but the views rewardingly spectacular in both directions from the top. Once back down on the west coast it was a lovely cycle along the rough rugged unspoilt seafront with views across the Kilbrannan Sound to the Kintyre peninsula basking under the setting sun. The quaint village of Lochranza provided the end point for the first day, where the youth hostel provided a roof over our heads.
Sailing over to the Isle of Arran (in the background)
DAY 2: Lochranza – Oban (100km/990m – 4h40m)
It was an early morning start to catch the ferry across to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula. Once across, it was back on the bikes and the day’s journey commenced with a crossing up over the mid ridge and down to the western coast of the peninsula to West Loch Trabert where the road followed the loch shoreline as far as West Tarbert. Shortly after, the route once again rejoined the eastern coast which was followed as far as the little fishing village of Ardrishaig where a delicious lunch was had at the Slainte Bar. As much as was possible, the produce used to prepare the food served in this family run establishment was sourced locally with an emphasis on healthy eating. The service was also excellent and friendly. From here the route continued along the Crinan canal which joins Ardrishaig on the eastern coast and Crinan on the western coast of the Kintyre peninsula. The remainder of the day followed the coastal road, with some forays further inland along undulating terrain. Before reaching Oban during a short rest stop, we met another hardened cyclo-tourist who gave us a few tips about the route and with whom we also exchanged cycling adventure stories. In the late afternoon a nice downhill rolled us into Oban where we checked in to the youth hostel and went for a delicious seafood dinner on the north pier in Eeusk. An early night was had in preparation for the next day’s marathon distance.
The harbour at Ardrishaig.
DAY 3: Oban – Inverness (179km/1500m – 8h20m)
Up early to make the best of the full day ahead, it was an 8 o’clock rolling start north out of sleepy Oban. I had planned back roads whenever possible, but to my surprise after 3km we were greeted with an offroad track over the muir and through the woods for some 4km before rejoining tarmac again. I enjoyed it immensely having my roots firmly in mountain biking, but it was a little more challenging for my partner in crime. Nonetheless, we both survived unscathed and continued up along the coast road thereafter. After 29km we were greeted by the magnificent view across the bay to Castle Stalker perched neatly on it’s own island.
Castle Stalker perched on its own island in the bay.
It was a flat enough run into Fort William at 75km, where we convened for a delicious seafood lunch. Satisfactorily refuelled, it was onward bound as we joined the Caledonian Canal tow path for 11km, also part of the Great Glen Way before rejoining the asphalt at Gairlochy, all in an effort to avoid the main road. A short climb brought us up to the Commando Monument high on the plateau where the main road once again became our transit path. It wasn’t long before the eastern bank of Loch Lochy flanked us to our left providing more stunning views we were now beginning to get accustomed to. Another short section of the Caledonian Canal joined up with Loch Oich to the north where the road crossed over and continued this time on the western shore. At the northern tip of Loch Oich, it was renewed the Caledonian Canal tow path that took us away from the madding motorised crowd and delivered us into Fort Augustus at the southern end of Loch Ness after 128km. It was time to chow down to ready for the third and final leg of the day. Pizza dinner had to do, as time was not on our side and not long later it was back in the saddle.
View across Loch Lochy to the Great Glen Way.
The eastern route along Loch Ness would eventually bring us into Inverness, but not until we climbed the killer hill out of Fort Augustus. It was an 8km climb albeit split into three distinctive segments, the first section of 4km long sections of 12% gradient, followed by the first breather in the form of a short descent to a river crossing, before it ramped up once again for 1km with similar gradients. The third section was separated by a flat section along the shores of Loch Tariff, a small loch also serving as drinking water reservoir for Fort Augustus. Finally the last section challenged us with ramps of up to 15% gradient, before reaching a final elevation of 390m, the highest point of the day. It was downhill from there all the way to the eastern shore of Loch Ness at about the half way point. A mainly flat run in to Inverness under fading light concluded the epic 14hr door to door day. Greeted warmly by good friends in Inverness, the second dinner was devoured, before collapsing exhausted into bed.
Spectacular evening views south along Loch Ness.
DAY 4: Inverness – Rest day
A well deserved rest day was had in Inverness, with museum visits, a gentle cycle around the town and general relaxation with our friends who kindly hosted us, to make sure we were fresh again for the next leg of the trip up into the Cairngorm National Park.
Inverness Ness Suspension Footbridge
DAY 5: Inverness – Braemar (134km/2020m – 6h25m)
By 9 o’clock we had said goodbye to our kind hosts and where heading south in the direction of the Cairngorm National Park. Starting at sea level the climbing started after 5 km. We were quickly on higher ground and the elevation undulated between 200 and 400m for the rest of the morning until we pulled into Abernethy Golf club at Nethy Bridge for some lunch. Shortly after lunch my rear tyre split and thankfully I had packed a spare tyre in case of this eventuality. The tyre change was made and it was off again to hit the big hills.
At km 73 I had the best experience of the whole tour. I was chasing a car down a hill, when we approached a sharp left hand bend. As I was travelling at ca. 75km/h, I applied the brakes sharply, whereupon the trailer started to squirm and kick out due to the ripples that had formed in the road from cars braking into the approach to the corner. I needed to let go of the brakes to regain stability and realised then I would not be able to make the corner. Plan B kicked in without even having time to think about it. I headed straight for the guardrail brushing off as much speed as I could before riding straight into it, timing it so, that I would throw myself forward over the bike at impact to minimise any potential impact damage to the front wheel. It work a treat as my momentum was carried forward instead of being absorbed by the barrier and I sumersaulted through the air and landed in a large soft patch of nettles, my bike flying over my head and the trailer over the bike even further into the field.
Unhurt, I sat up to regain my bearings and was quickly on my feet again picking up my bike and trailer and lifting them back on the road side of the barrier. I was totally buzzing on adrenaline and coupled with the nettle stings, I experienced a wonderful tingling effect all over my skin that would last all the way to the end of the day’s ride. The driver of the car had parked down at the next bend and was walking up with his wife to help me, having witnessed the happenings. He wheeled my bike over to the other side of the road while I carried the trailer. It was then that my previously distanced partner came careening around the bend and nearly collided with the man helping me. It was a very very close miss, but luckily it stayed at that. I coupled the trailer up to the bike again and set off once more. What annoyed me most is the fact that I forgotten to switch on my GoPro and so have no footage of the excitement to show for it. Luckily I can replay it in my head whenever I feel the need.
The last metres of the killer climb up from Tomintoul to Lecht Ski Centre.
From here on, the real climbing commenced. A short transit through Tomintoul brought us up the military road that would lead over 3 peaks, or the “triple bypass” as I called them, the first one being the highest and steepest at 630m with gradients of up to 20%. Lecht Ski Centre was perched at the top with views over the highlands. Down the far side and at the bottom we passed the lovely stand alone Corgarff castle, before embarking on the next climb, slight lower at 545m, but nearly equally as steep with maximum gradients of 17%. Once over the top it was a rewarding descent before the ultimate climb of the day, also the lowest of the three at 460m with the gradients also being moderate in comparison to the previous two climbs, at no more than 13%. The views were incredible from the top.
Stunning views from the top of the last “triple bypass” climb before Balmoral.
It was one last descent which brought us to the famous Scottish royal residence of the the British monarchy, that of Balmoral Castle. As the royal family was in residence, we could go no further than the front entrance gate where the policeman on guard told us just about everything down to where the Queen was dining that evening in a local restaurant with her family. He obliged us with a photo in front of the gates and we set off again to our end of day destination of Braemar. Here we settled down for the night after the countless day’s adventures.
Invercauld Castle across the river Dee between Balmoral and Braemar.
DAY 6: Braemar – Stirling (142km/1620m – 6h25m)
After a hearty breakfast prepared by our lovely B&B landlady who was half Irish and half German, but had lived most of her life in Scotland, we climbed onto our two wheeled steeds and commenced the last day in the Highlands. It was climbing from the get go along the old military road that crossed over the Cairnwell pass at 670m, the highest main road in the UK and incidentally also the highest point in our tour. This is where Glenshee Ski Centre is located, Scotland’s oldest and largest ski centre. It also marks the boarder between Aberdeenshire to the north and Perth & Kinross to the south.
Entering Perth & Kinross
Next up was nearly 40km of descent to Blairgowrie. Here we convened for another delicious lunch overlooking the river Ericht at Cargills Bistro. Next point of interest was the picturesque village of Dunkeld on the river Tay. Nestled in the valley along the river, it was buzzing with activity as we passed through. We continued west and up the Braan river valley as the road wound uphill once again for about 20km and from there on, another welcome descent joining the banks of the river Almond in a stunningly beautiful valley with scenery to take your breath away, before finally arriving down into Creiff. We refilled our water bottles and had a quick snack, to ensure we made it comfortably through the last 30km that remained. We were now approaching my “home territory” as I had spent countless hours cycling on the roads and trails around the Ochils when I was studying in Stirling, meaning I knew the roads well. One last challenge remained in the form of a steep climb up to Sheriffmuir. Legs were tired, but the finish nearing helped us give one last push. Once on top of the muir, the low lying sun bathed us in comfortable warmth casting our long shadows in the process and it was a final descent we were rewarded with for our efforts on the day that took us into Bridge of Allan and our resting spot for the next two nights.
Last climb of the day up to Sheriffmuir.
DAY 7: Stirling – Rest day
A relaxing day of sight seeing was spent around Stirling, also known as the Gateway to the Highlands, taking in Stirling Castle, the Wallace Monument, the old Stirling Bridge and the University grounds on arguably the most beautiful campus in Europe containing its own loch, castle and mature parkland grounds, making it also one of the most beautiful in the world. That evening dinner was had up in the lovely rustic Sheriffmuir Inn.
Wall art at Stirling Castle
Wall art at Stirling Castle
The Wallace Monument
DAY 8: Stirling – Troon (140km/1600m – 6h10m)
The final day led us back across the lowlands first south as far as Lanark and then west back to our original starting point of Troon. With a ferry to catch, we left by 9 o’clock. As we departed Stirling, the road took us through Bannockburn, probably most famous for the Battle of Bannockburn where the Scots defeated the English army in 1314 during the first Scottish War of Independance. Shortly after Falkirk the road would begin to rise again for the next 25km to the highest point of the day at nearly 300m. Another 25km of gently undulating terrain brought us into Lanark where we paused for lunch at The Woodpecker Bar and Restaurant, sitting out in the glorious sun that had faithfully accompanied us this whole trip. Concious of time it was not long before we were making tracks again as the journey now led us straight over to the Firth of Clyde. The remainder of the day passed uneventful along quite country back roads which had been our staple diet for so much of the journey. At km 95 we joined the Roman Road for a short section, now paved with tarmac, but nonetheless an old Roman road. The journey continued along the plateau for another 10km before bringing us down to lower ground as we neared the coast one pedal stroke at a time. As we neared our destination, we had one last climb to summit, a short but steep affair, especially considering we already had 800km in our legs by that time, but once over the top the welcome view of the sea below was well worth it. We rolled into Troon exhausted, but with the real sense of achievement that accompanies the successful completion of an epic adventure we had just undertaken.
View over Troon on the Firth of Clyde from the top of the journey’s last hill.