That’s me back from a brief tour of my highland estates in Bonnie Ecosse. Here’s my account of the two-wheeled odyssey:
On Saturday the 13th of June I arrive at my B&B in York (where my ride begins), to find the place empty. I ring the number and reach the owner – he’s up in the Pennines for the day, and has no record of my booking! I foam at the mouth and rain down curses upon the unborn children of the employees of the York Tourist Information Centre (who had “booked” my room for me). Happily the owner has a room available anyway, and is due back at about 7:00pm. I calm down and ride back into merrie olde York to kill some time by soaking up the charming medieval atmos to be found within it’s ancient city walls.
Later on, my hosts return and the Tourist Info Centre’s cock-up is eventually laughed off (once they agree to refund the booking fee they charged me). Come the morning, after a decent cooked breakfast, I set off at 8am bound for my first control stop at Ripon.
Before I go any further, I’d better explain “controls” for the uninitiated. An Audax ride is a long distance cycling event covering distances ranging from 50km to 6,800km. They aren’t races, but you do have to complete them within a time limit. For my ride (York-Oban-Tarbert, a 600km), the limit is 40 hours. During the course of the ride, you need to obtain proofs of passage at various control points, containing place, date and time (cashpoint slips, till receipts etc). On an organised Audax event, this is usually taken care of by the event organiser or one of their helpers stamping and initialling your card at each control. On a DIY event like this one, you’re expected to obtain your own evidence. OK, back to the ride…
The A59 out of York is fast and fairly flat, but quite busy even on a Sunday, so it’s a relief to turn off on a quieter B road through Boroughbridge to Ripon. I stop just long enough to get a balance printout from a cashpoint in the town square, then it’s off to the next control at Hawes, some 40 miles distant. The day is heating up nicely, and large numbers of bikers are in evidence – the A684 from Leyburn to Garsdale Head is very popular with speeding bikers, as a sign warning of the numbers of recent fatalities and serious accidents attests. The pretty village of Hawes is the centre of the Wensleydale Cheese industry, and also a mecca for ramblers (and bikers). I stop for a control and a feed of some rather nice homemade lasagne before pressing on to the next stop at Penrith. Once off the A684, I follow the Settle-Carlisle railway line across Mallerstang Moor, passing signs for interesting sounding places like Hell Gill. Along this road, I bid farewell to sunny Yorkshire and pass into Cumbria and the fringes of the Lake District. Perhaps fittingly, the skies darken, and it starts to rain. The section of road from Appleby to Penrith isn’t much fun on the wet and very busy A66,? but fortunately there are alternatives to the worst dualled stretches marked with NCN signs.
I stop in Penrith (and so does the rain) for fish and chips, before continuing up the A6 to Carlisle. From here, a very well surfaced minor road runs parallel with the M6 all the way to Gretna. All that separates you from the motorway is a tall slatted fence with gates at intervals to allow access for motorway works, police etc. Along this stretch, the West Coast mainline is visible to my left and the cries of seabirds from the Solway Firth mingles with the roar of traffic on the northbound M6. Before long i’m back in civilisation, after crossing the border into Scotland at Ye Olde Blacksmiths shop and marriage parlour.
I reach Dumfries at 9pm, and seek out a caff for some solid Scottish fare (Rolls and Sausage and Irn Bru). Revitalised, I don my longs and Hi-Viz for the night section up the A76 to Kilmarnock.? This road is a nightmare during the day, with 18-wheelers buzzing past your right ear at regular intervals,? but at night it’s more like a cyclepath. I met a few cars on the first stretch up to Sanquhar, and one or two hooted angrily at my incredibly bright front light (Busch and Muller Cyo Plus – highly recommended for night riding) which illuminates the road more than 100 yards ahead, like a car’s headlights. Darkness never fell properly all through the night – it may surprise anyone who’s never been North of the Border, but close to midsummer it doesn’t get completely dark, and the effect is more pronounced the further north you go – we call it “the gloaming”.
A vivid ice blue band hung in the eastern sky all through the night, and the nocturnal inhabitants of the woods hooted and shrieked, each according to their status as hunter or hunted.
I got to Kilmarnock at around 3am. All was quiet – any drunken? neds had gone to bed or a cosy police cell, so I grabbed a cashpoint slip and pressed on into daybreak and the 400km mark at Gourock on the Clyde coast. The maze of little B roads up across rural Renfrewshire included several meaty climbs, but I was rewarded with a screaming descent into Greenock that lasted more than 10 mins. I only had a few minutes wait at Gourock before the ferry to Dunoon – swine flu capital of the UK! The overnight section had left me quite depleted, so I had no choice but to stop and grab something to eat, though I barely managed to resist the urge to flee when a lady at the next table had a coughing fit! The next stage to Inveraray was a bit lumpy and I had an attack of the woozies, so I stopped to rest my eyes for 10 minutes by the side of Loch Eck.
The midges made sure that I didn’t get too comfortable, so after the briefest power nap I got back in the saddle and on up the road. Inveraray is a lovely place, if a little touristy, but it does a fine all day breakfast. Powered up by the saturated fats and sugary tea, I set off on the next and most scenic part of the ride up to Loch Awe and along the Pass of Brander to Connel and Oban. Sleepy Kilchurn Castle, scene of many a shortbread tin photoshoot, dozed on silently as I passed. The West Highland line weaved its picturesque way along the lochside, crisscrossing above and below the road on its way to Oban in the shadow of mighty Ben Cruachan.
I get to Oban at 4:30pm on Monday, and sit down for another mammoth feed (you’re probably detecting a pattern here by now…) at the famous MacTavish’s tearoom, now sadly no longer owned by the MacTavish family, and rebranded “MacT’s”.
I calculate that I should be able to do the last 50 miles in about 4 hours, but forget how lumpy (or “humply” as they say up there) the A816 to Lochgilphead is. On some stretches the road ascends at average 1:6 gradients for two or three miles. It’s only when you glance at your watch (or altimeter) and realise that you’ve covered two miles in half an hour, that you appreciate how “humply” these roads can be!? The scenery hereabouts is very Lord of the Rings-esque – you half expect dragons to emerge from some of the long silent volcanos that the road winds its way around.
On reaching Lochgilphead, I stop at a petrol station for a quick Mullerice (food of the Gods!) and a drink before tackling the final 16 miles down the A83 to Tarbert. This is a pleasure despite the poor condition of the road surface in some places, as it skirts the edge of Loch Fyne which is sparkling in the late evening sun.
Soon I’m descending sharply down to Tarbert and the end of the Audax part of my holiday. I reach the harbour at 9:55pm, just under 38 hours after leaving York, so the ride is in the bag. I find a room in the Tarbert Hotel, and seek out a curry from the takeaway along the road before sinking a quick one and retiring for a good night’s sleep.
I came prepared with tent and sleeping bag, so the rest of the week is spent tootling around my childhood haunts at a more leisurely pace. I even manage to fit in a sea swim in the Sound of Jura – about 3 degrees colder than Mounts Bay, I reckon.
Don “AikenDrum” H
p.s. If this has whetted anyones appetite for a spot of cyclo touring, get yer names down for our club jaunt to Brittany this September. The pace will be slower and the daily distances involved quite sensible – no sleeping in hedges guaranteed, and that’s…