Riding in the French Alps – Part deux

Riding in the mountains is addictive. The drug comes with its own highs and lows, pleasures and pains. Thankfully the former are great enough to help you forget the latter. Half way through my cycling holiday in the French Alps (part one here) and I was compelled not only to climb but to ride into oblivion.

Rested and bulging with carbohydrates thanks to a day trip to Italy, I was ready to pick up the pace. It was time to tackle the last of my famous French climbs with a little more gusto, or panache if you will. The twin wonders of the Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer waited. Oh and saving the worst for last, the vastly overrated Alpe d’Huez, the only mountain in the world without a summit. Never meet your heroes and all that.

Addiction is… a state characterised by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences.

Day 4 – Col du Glandon and Croix de Fer

Col du Glandon summit cycling

Glandon hairpins

The furnace began to cool as the French heatwave dissipated. The early morning chill called upon my goosebumps on the way to climb Col du Glandon. Brrrr.

With a short loop planned and my legs fresh from the rest day, this climb would be less tourist amble and more of a tempo ride. Within reason of course. The turbo was being saved for the final day ascent of Alpe d’Huez.

Col du Glandon is a beautiful but stiff challenge. Regularly hitting and holding 10% for 33 km to a summit that stands tall at 1,924 metres. Legs strong, I felt invincible demolishing the lower slopes with little effort. The road passed so quickly I seemed to be skipping every other kilometre marker, or bornes as they are called locally.

The pace soon took its toll. Seven kilometres remaining, my body pleaded for respite. Ha! Head down and face grimacing like a bulldog chewing toffee, I did my best to maintain my pace. Relief and bewilderment hit me as I rounded the famous winding hairpins near the summit whilst trying to enjoy the views behind me. Spectacular.

Three kilometres to go, two, yes, come on push, ignore the 11% grind, almost there and bang, done! My favourite climb of the Alps. Scenic, challenging and barely a soul or car on the way up.

Breath caught, I took the relatively short and sedate climb to the summit of the Croix de Fer. Here the scene impressed ever more with views to the valley below and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The ride back to base at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne was equally lovely with plenty of sweeping corners on a well paved road.

Route and GPX file on Strava: Col du Glandon

Day 4 – Alpe d’Huez

Mountain table mat for cycling

No escape from the mountains

So to the Alpe. Mythological in modern times thanks to a certain race and its crazy fans. Anyone who saw the pros cycle through the tunnel of noise that is Dutch Corner in this year’s race cannot but fail to be impressed.

Yet the non-Tour climb is a different beast entirely. Busy with cars rather than drunken fans, the mountain is a ghost of its race day self and a poor imitation of nearby climbs. The views meagre, Huez also has possibly the worst finish of any mountain climb anywhere in the world. In fact, Alpe d’Huez is possibly the only mountain in the world without a summit.

I arrived at Bourg d’Oisans after a stunning drive up and over the Col du Glandon. Warm up non-existent, I hit the lower slopes of the Alpe pushing my ridiculous lowest gear of 39*25 as hard as I dared (note to self, buy bigger rear gear). The opening few kilometres of this beast are unrelenting, pitched at 10%, sometimes 11%, ready to exploit any physical or mental weakness.

Not that I noticed. I was on a mission. On I pushed, past the stragglers, past the first timers, past the resters at hairpin #2, past the mountain bikers spinning gears granny would be ashamed of. The Alpe may be a crap climb but the mystique and lure of this famous ascent does get people on bikes and anything that gets people on bikes is a good thing.

On and up, I did my best to block out the heavy car traffic and the fact my heart rate was so high and my water supply so low. Push on! And so I did until… a red traffic light. On a mountain climb. One I was busting my balls on. Argh.

Tick, tock. Strava would not be happy. Light green, so too was I, my anger switching me into hulk mode. I quickly returned to my former pace. There was no way I was completing my alpine tour without leaving everything I had on the road. To hell with Strava, my legs shall know the truth!

Before I knew it the summit was approaching. But which summit? The official Tour de France summit of Alpe d’Huez requires the navigation of a couple of er, roundabouts, a strange requirement for a mountain climb. Fortunately I had the weird finish plotted into my Garmin GPS and so I followed the official route which took me up a closed road and er, through a bustling pedestrianised market. What a farce!

I slowed to a crawl and rolled slowly past the local cheeses and honeys, my target time up Huez disappearing as fast as the dignity of this so-called great climb.

In cycling you can ride the roads of your heroes, a saying which is for the most part true. Not so on Alpe d’Huez. This is a very different climb to that which the pros tackle on the Tour. There’s no fans cheering you on, sure, this I can accept (just!), it’s the non-existent summit and the route there that disappoints and the er, roundabouts. On the plus side you can refuel at the busy market you need to pass through!

That said, Alpe d’Huez is still one of cycling’s icons. It is certainly a great challenge given its vertiginous slopes. Maybe if I had climbed Huez before the other, much superior local climbs then I would have enjoyed it more.

The red light? The market? Sure, the climb would have been better without them but I still left my legs on the road and enjoyed a reasonable time to the top. What’s more the descent into the valley behind the Alpe coupled with the climb of the Col du Sarenne make for a fabulous alpine cycle route.

My ride in the French Alps over, I wanted to start all over again. Simply magical. The views, the sense of achievement, the descents, the awesomeness of both the land, and of course, yourself. C’est magnifique.

Route and GPX file on Strava: Alpe d’Huez

Read part one of Cycling in the Alps or check out my advice for riding in the Alps below.

Cycling in the Alps - The views

Tips for cycling in the alps

Thinking about it? Don’t, just do it! It really is as good as your dreams. Here’s my advice:

  • Go slow on descents. There’s no prize for the most road rash.
  • Be mentally prepared. 90% of climbing these beasts is brain work. The rest is leg work.
  • How do you train for riding mountains?. Ride at tempo for an hour or two and you’ll be ready for the mountains. The hills of the UK are incomparable (too steep, too short) so you’re better off powering out high tempo rides on the flat than crunching out short hill reps.
  • Take water and look out for mountain juice a.k.a water stops. You’re looking for ‘eau potable’, usually a fountain of mountain water in pretty much every other village below 1,000 metres.
  • Ride Alpe d’Huez. Once. Ticked off, head to better climbs. Tackle the climb before other climbs too if you can, and then it may not seem so disappointing.
  • Stay in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. The perfect location for all of the big climbs above. I drove to Huez but you could ride there over Glandon or the Galibier as part of an epic day. Or skip it entirely, there’s much better climbs nearby.
  • Look up and enjoy the views. Reward for the pain.
  • Forget Col de l’Iseran. I had considered this climb as it is the highest pass in the region but was glad not to have endured the ride there which is awful (I drove it). There’s even road signs advising cyclists to get the train (or drive) further up the valley.
  • Mont Cenis is amazing. As above, the ride there goes up the base of Iseran and is pretty miserable. Again, I drove there.
  • Explore even when not cycling. A car is great and will get to the unbelievably turquoise waters of Lake Annecy. Brrr, icy mountain water. It really does have to be seen to be believed, a Mediterranean-like beach and ocean in the middle of the mountains.
  • Nothing is easy. Not the climbs nor getting to the Alps. The only easy way to get to the Alps is to live there. I drove 11 hours straight from London. Beats a plane, train and hitchhike.
  • Eat well, drink even better. Goes without saying but this is a struggle in St Jean, one of the few bad points about the village. Hard to believe you can’t find a decent restaurant without it costing the earth. This is France for christ sake, right? Not so, you’ll find lots of pizza or overpriced badly cooked food in restaurants more used to catering for the skiing crowd. Go freestyle at the large supermarket in town for all of your self-catered carb and protein needs.
  • Don’t over do it. I had originally planned some monster rides. Both in distance and height. Fortunately I saw sense. In the end I climbed over 12,500 metres in under 200 miles over 4 days. This was perfect and allowed me to cover all of the major climbs with relatively fresh legs. These climbs should be enjoyed not endured.
  • Go there now. With this excellent virtual tour of all the summits.

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Croix de fer summit cycling

Road cycling in the French Alps – Climbs, routes, pain and awe

Galibier The French Alps. A cyclist’s nirvana but with the addition of suffering, a strong sense of self and an even stronger desire to cycle forever. So nothing like nirvana then. Too much torture to be heaven too. A rapture then, for here you are transported from earth to heaven or your sins are punished accordingly. Will you be left behind?

Famous mountains open to all. Rider’s heads go down as the roads head up. A struggle ensues, the victor never certain until, yes, almost there, boom, the summit. As many emotions as heart beats.

The grind over, your legs stop spinning and are no longer uncertain of their purpose. Your eyes re-focus. The summit view only outdone by the sense of accomplishment. And the need for a lie down.

Day 1 – Galibier the Goliath

Up early to beat the heat, 37 degrees is not weather it’s cooking. The horizon a wall of mountains. You feel small, insignificant. Awestruck. It is inconceivable you will ride over such colossals.

The comfort of my hotel behind me, ahead, a car driving straight at me. I’m cycling on the wrong side of the road. The driver more surprised than me. Yet there is no beeping of horn, no angry gesture of hand. No swear words in a language I would not understand, no spittle from a rage I know all too well. Must remember. You’re in France you idiot! You drove the length of it yesterday. Oh, and drink more coffee at breakfast.

The short ride to the base of Col du Galibier awkward, my legs stiff after a week of idling. Roaring rivers of mountain water beside me, chalky, bluer than the late night movies your mom pretends you never watch.

I enjoy the scenery as much as the warmth. Seven a.m. Hotter than hell’s sauna. Already. Sweat forms whenever I slow, arms and legs glistening.

Col du Telegraph

Climb time. Up first the Col du Telegraph, 1,566 metres and 17 km in length (10.5 miles). The col begins like an algebra lesson, the immediacy of the 10% gradient difficult to understand. Heart pounding, my legs are too fresh to know any better. Muscles shocked, they shake. Ten percent turns to six, the gradient more manageable, my legs tricked into thinking I’ve hit a down hill. Almost.

Tall trees guard the road, their shadows my protectors, shelter from the fireball above. What the climb has in gradient it lacks in charm. The single meagre view near the summit is little comfort before a welcome descent guides you to the foot of the Col du Galibier. Entrée complete, I await the main course.

Col du Galibier

Col du Galibier summit cyclingThe Galibier contradicts for first you must descend before you can climb. Freewheeling to a minor recovery, it’s best to avert your eyes as you pass through yet another charmless ski resort. They must look better covered with snow.

The col touches the sky at 2,645 metres. You know you’re climbing into the clouds when you begin a climb when you’re already at 1,566 metres. High? Sure. Long? Oh yes. Including the Telegraph, the col is 48.9 km, making for over 30 miles of climbing.

My legs hit the snooze button on the descent perhaps thinking they are done. Sun beating down, my leg strength evaporates and I turn the pedals with the grace of a new born foal on ice.

The grinding soon begins. The luscious green valley beside me seems not to move, the horizon fixed. The smell of piss. Goats. Grazing in slow-motion beside the road, as oblivious to my struggles as they are to their stench.

Not so the swarms of flies. Buzzzzz, buzz. Kamikaze dive bombing, my ear canal the target. I don’t recall mention of such pests in the glossy tourist guides.

The kilometre markers tick by one by one, slower than the hands of the clock a child stares at on Christmas morning. The mountain ramps up to 8, 9, 10%, where it remains. My foe predictable now at least. My sweat thickens as the air thins and my breath shortens.

Hairpins allow respite. The shade long gone. Snow here and there, despite the furnace. On I push. Cyclists spinning backwards in my wake. The views ahead and behind amazing.

The final kilometre. A malfunctioning sprint finish empties what remains of my legs, the no-nonsense summit seemingly arriving from nowhere, the mountain top thankfully lacking the usual alpine restaurant and car park. The view to the west endless, stealing my last gasp. My first alpine climb done. Brilliant.

Route and GPX file on Strava: Col du Galibier and Telegraphe

Day 2 – Mighty Madeleine and Loopy Lacets de Montvernier

Col du la Madeleine summitDay one may have been the longest and highest climb of my alpine tour but I was under no illusion as to what would be the most challenging. Yet day two still surprised. Tip, never tackle an unknown climb in the French Alps willy-nilly.

First, my main climb of the day. The Col de la Madeleine is perhaps the steepest major climb in the Savoie region, not far short of a 10% gradient for the entirety of the 31 km climb, which tops out at 2,000 metres. Ouch.

The day was destined for wrong turns. The first took me to the foot of Les Lacets de Montvernier, a soon to be infamous climb when the Tour de France brings the crazy 18 loopy hairpins of this climb to the world. I had planned to tackle this rollercoaster at the end of my ride but finding myself so close, I reasoned an early morning twist and turn was better than a struggle beneath the midday sun with heavy legs. A wise choice with hindsight.

The Lacets de Montvernier is great fun. Looping up hairpin after hairpin on the narrow road, catapulting out of each dizzying turn, pace quickening each time. This climb should be ridden to the soundtrack of sirtáki, the Greek music that gets faster and faster as made famous by the Zorba the Greek film.

Cycling Lacets de Montvernier

The dizzying Lacets de Montvernier

I pushed hard near the summit. Well as hard has I dared with the knowledge of many a metre still to climb. Fun run done, I turned around and descended Les Lacets, a thrilling ride but not so when I returned at the end of my ride. More of which later.

Up next, the Col de la Madeleine. The climb kicked like a donkey right from the get go. The heat rising quicker than I. Grind, grind, grind. The distance between kilometre markers stretched and stretched with each sighting.

Fortunately the views up the climb are magnificent, the valley behind opening up with every metre gained. Before I could say ‘ouch’, I was inside the last 5 km and with 2 km to go, I held back my er, sprint, waiting for the final kilometre marker that I never did see. Still, I arrived at the top relatively fresh, the view to the east of Mont Blanc tremendous.

Big climb conquered, my day was done, or so I thought.

The descent from Madeleine was brilliant, slicing through the gentle curves down to what I thought was a short climb to the summit of the Col du Chaussy. If only. Never has a climb seemed so unending. My legs cold, they seized up after the descent of Madeleine, energy gone. Hungry, I did all I could to swallow malt loaf, barely chewing when the climb hit 11, 12%. Kill me now. The sun burnt through my thin skin, robbing me of water quicker than I could drink it.

Summit er, conquered, my battle had just begun. Ahead a winding narrow road, uneven gravel and melting tarmac on the steep descent. The road carved into the mountain, the views magnificent if you dared to look up from the terrible road surface.

Down I crept, hitting Les Lacets de Montvernier for a second time, my arms already hurting from braking so much. Twist after twist, my brakes squealed in the heat. At least I assumed it was my brakes making the noise. It could have been the tendons in my arms.

What a relief to finish. What a relief not to have to climb back up Les Lacets de Montvernier as originally planned. The heat by this time was hitting 39°C on my Garmin. I was thirsty. Tired. Yet somehow elated.

Route and GPX file on StravaLacets de Montvernier and Col de la Madeleine

Day 3 – Rest day

Mountain restaurant

Recovery food, mountain style (best lunch in France!)

Time to relax and rest my weary limbs. This was a holiday after all. Went out for a long lunch. In Italy. Well, it was carb loading day. Rested. No more Soreen. Or gels. Or warm water. Instead, a belly full of pasta and gnocchi and wine and good times. Bellissimo! Although as you can see from the image above, I enjoyed better lunches.

Rested and want more? Read part two of cycling in the French Alps.

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Cycling Bealach na Ba – Climbing to heaven

Cycling Bealach na baWant to climb one of the greatest cycling climbs in the UK? Head north, is usually the answer. Like, really north, all the way to Scottish Highlands, just north of the Isle of Skye. Bealach na Bá is unusual for a climb in Scotland in that it goes over the top of the pass rather than through the valley below like most climbs. Some claim it to be the toughest climb in the UK, which I doubt having climbed Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, but it is certainly the most dramatic in terms of length, scenery and remoteness.

Every cyclist should ride this climb. Hairpins, a 20 percent maximum gradient and 6 miles of climbing wonderment, or pain depending on your viewpoint! Bealach na Bá is Gaelic for ‘Pass of the cattle’, animals famous for having four stomachs*. Today, the road or is more like the Pass of the Lycra whippet, an animal who needs four lungs to haul themselves over the top.

*Myth alert. Cows don’t actually have four stomachs. It’s one stomach, comprising four separate compartments.

Day 4: Isle of Skye – Bealach na Bá – Shieldag

Isle of Skye, view from Applecross image: @glasgow_kat

Isle of Skye, view from Applecross image: @Glasgow_Kat

Beast day. Deep into my cycle tour of Scotland, I awoke early, tired. No matter, I set off, belly full of fried goods and the magical energy bean aka coffee. So excited was I that I continually expected Bealach na Bá to be waiting around every next corner.

The ride there was up and down but dry. Rain was due said the men who watch the sky. Best be quick thought I. On beast approach I began unloading as much weight as possible like a low flying hot air balloonist desperately trying to fly over the approaching mountain. Bananas gobbled, drink drunk, any spare emptied. I’d have shaved my head if I could have just to have been a few grams lighter. Shame then, that I was humping a pannier over this mountain!

At Tornapress I turned to stare at the beast eye to eye. Here we go legs, another lump for you to conquer. If legs could sigh, mine surely would have.

Bealach na ba cycle route

Speed bump

Ahead three cyclists were riding away from their er, support car in what I assume was an organised cycle holiday. The climb began gently, a nice barely noticeable 3-4%. Legs spinning I chuckled at one point as I clicked down a couple of gears and picked up my pace. Easy tiger…

Slowly but surely the hill began to put the hurt on. I stayed seated and simply churned through the revolutions, not a thought in my head. This is bliss.

Ahead cycle tourist number one began holding up traffic on the single track road, ignoring the passing places. Cue the smell of burning clutches, as with all great UK climbs. I upped my pace to overtake the rider and avoid the traffic in his wake.

On I pushed, the road snaking slowly up at about 10%. Manageable, still seated. Before long I caught cycle tourist number two. She was spinning a good rhythm and we had a brief chat. I advised her to zig zag when the going got tough before wishing her good luck. More of cycle tourer number two later.

Cars continued stalking me as I crawled up, politely waiting until a passing space became available. One passed close, too impatient to wait for the passing place up ahead. Two thirds of the way up and the gradient ramped up to about 15% just as a large delivery truck chugged behind me. I let him past at the passing point, slowing as much as possible without putting my foot down. The truck passed slowly, too slowly and I was about to run out of road until he finally revved past me. Phew. All those track stands in London had finally paid off.

Ahead the final cyclist of the three tourers got caught by the truck and was forced to put a foot down and let the truck pass. I could see the fatigue in his gait. I caught him quickly and pulled alongside for a brief chat. His ego got the better of him and he upped his pace to stay with me. I remained seated and steady whilst wondering if it was my pannier that had spurred him on. His brave fight soon came to an end as he dropped back and we exchanged goodbyes.

Bealach na ba climb cycling

The view from Bealach na Bá

The road ahead empty. All that was left to stare at was the gradient increasing and the tarmac going up into the heavens. Behind, a view sculpted for angels, ahead a road to hell. Up, up and up. Four fifths of the climb behind me, the gradient hit 20% and stayed there. I continued zigzagging, not out of desperation but to make my life easier, more in control than I could quite believe.

At one point I actually looked back at the bike for the pannier. Sure, I could have stood up but I found myself enjoying the seated grind. Already I knew the hill was conquered. Heart rate rising, the struggle began, my stubbornness keeping me in the saddle, my mind wavering as my heart rate reached for the skies. Thankfully the long ramp of 20% came to an end, the wicked hairpins all that remained. I looked behind at the view, all of Scotland before me. I am William Wallace, conqueror of this land, I am… Well you get the picture, I’m excited yeah?

Pride fills my heart, a smile fills my face. Bang, I attack the hairpins like a national hill climb champion, only seated. Cresting the summit I punch the air. Done. Easier than I expected but no less beautiful for it. Did I mention I was seated all the way? Oh. And I had a pannier? Oh, right. How about my lowest gear of 39*25? I know, hero right?

Scotland cycling


Bealach na Bá may be no Hardknott Pass or Rossdale Chimney. It’s a unique climb for the UK, with only perhaps Great Dun Fell anything like it, the highest climb in England on a much smaller scale. Bealach is a mixture of an Alpine climb combined with the sharp nasty stuff UK hills are famous for. It is certainly a bucket list ride although not as difficult as the 11/10 score in Simon Warren’s 100 climbs book. An eight maybe, plus a point for the breathtaking scenery and probably plus 2 to 10 more points in bad weather.

No matter. A hill climb is a little like life. Pointless, you can make it as difficult or as easy as you wish. Either way, you may as well enjoy the ride and challenge yourself.

The descent into Applecross was a pleasure. At the top of the climb I watched the road, waiting for descending traffic to get well clear. This allowed me to fly down, fingers on the brakes just in case. I imagine this descent is pretty darned scary in the wet despite the grippy, smooth road.

Cold, I stopped at Applecross for a coffee where I later overheard talk of an accident on the descent. A female cyclist, which could only have been cycle tourist number two I had passed on the ascent, who had crashed into the back of a car at speed. I don’t know the detail but there was talk of a head smashing through the car’s rear windshield and a badly cut leg. An ambulance was a while away so remote is the location. A sobering tale and hopefully a quick recovery.

Not done yet

The beast was behind me but there was still a lot of climbing ahead on the amazing coastal road around the peninsula to Shieldag. The day before I thought cycling the northern peninsula of Skye was the most stunning ride I’d enjoyed. Not any more. This is the road to ride. Be warned, there’s plenty of the steep lumpy stuff but the views of pristine beaches, crashing surf, green moorland and an ever changing landscape will distract you from your pains.

A brilliant day out. Dry too. Three out of four days in Scotland without rain (well substantial rain!)? Lucky indeed. Tomorrow there looked to be torrents of the stuff to make up for the arid spell. Oh and a headwind. Super.

The Stats: 70 miles and a mighty 2,000 metres climbing. No rain. A beast conquered.
Route and GPX on Strava

Day 5: Shieldag – Inverness

Torridon MountainsThis enchanted land was not done with dropping my jaw. A wind assisted ride weaving through the cloud covered Torridon mountains was amazing.

For once I’m glad the weather was bad, for these mountains look better shrouded in mist, the low hanging clouds adding to the drama.

What a finish to a great ride. The forecast rain never did arrive but for a brief shower early on and so I enjoyed the 67 mile cruise back to Inverness. What a difference it makes with a tailwind. The ride was so easy it felt like a recovery ride when only days earlier it had been a slog along much of the same roads.

At one point Mark Beaumont, he of cycling around the world in the fastest ever time fame, cycled past me. I felt in good company. Albeit a little slower! My ride may not make any record books but it shall live long as a memory. Thank you Scotland.

The stats: A final 67 miles, two tired legs, one big smile.
Route and GPX on Strava

More from my cycle tour of Scotland

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Watch this – Bealach na Bá video

This video of the climb says more than I ever could. And I say a lot!

Image: Lead = Stefan Krause. Applecross looking over Skye via @Glasgow_Kat – thank you!

Cycling around the Isle of Skye

Quiraing, Isle of Skye CyclingEverything you’ve ever heard about the Isle of Skye is true. It is beautiful. For a cyclist, it is paradise. Minus the sun perhaps. It is not called the Island of the Mist or the Isle of Cloud for nothing. Oh no. The romance of ‘cloud riding’ may die by the third hour of riding in the rain, but hey, you are waterproof, non? Besides, the scenery and roads are so amazing you’ll quickly forget about the weather.

Isle of Skye weather and when to go

OK, let’s get this out of the way. Yes it can be wet. Mostly wet. I had one dry day and one wet day on my circumnavigation of Skye. Showers, lots of showers, some light, some worthy of galoshes. Expect wind too, a south westerly with gusts that kick. Bring gritted teeth and a rain jacket basically. And many layers. You’ll be cold one minute, hot the next.

On average, the Isle of Sky has rain on 223 days a year. So 60%. This varies slightly by month. May and June are your best bets for a dry day, with rain on ‘just’ 13-14 days a month and temperatures peaking at a balmy 14°C. Scorchio! This is as good as it gets. You’ll also avoid the midges in May, the tourists too, who usually come a little later in the year. A good thing when you consider sharing a single track road with nervous drivers distracted by stunning views.

Day 2: Plockton – Isle of Skye

Scotland Cycle Tour day 2Day two of my Scotland cycling tour. Is a full English breakfast and a bowl of porridge and toast and yoghurt a good way to start the day? Why yes sir. How about a good way to fuel a day cycling around the Isle of Skye. Hmmm, you’ve not been reading all of those nutrition books have you sir?

Sausage, bacon and eggs still settling in my stomach, I climbed on the bike and tried to pretend the wind wasn’t howling in my face. Again. The day’s route covered the ups and downs of the north-west peninsula of the isle towards Waternish and Duirinish. First, I crossed the hump-backed Skye Bridge to reach the island, my windswept wheels flipping left and right like the fin of a fish out of water. Damn you wind. Howls of laughter.

The isle awaited. The magnificent lumps and bumps of the Cuillin mountains (those of Danny Macaskill video fame – see end of blog) shrouded in clouds, the colour of the sky what Dulux might call ‘Ominous Onyx’. Cue the rain. Sheets of the stuff. Windswept and thoroughly soaked I cursed the heavens and wondered what the hell I was doing.

Feet wet, hands freezing, heart pounding, spirit broken. Get off the bike, reason shouted at me. I tried to imagine sitting at my desk at work. Warm. Or bored, refreshing my Twitter feed whilst drinking hot tea. Better to be alive and uncomfortable than comfortable and bored. I put my head down and carried on pedalling and cursing.

Damn you cycling. I looked up at the view and instantly fell back in love with my ride.

Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye

Old Man of Storr. Storm passing.

The suffering was, fortunately, temporary. The rain stopped at mile 30 and by mile 50 I finally turned out of the bloody headwind. Fist pump. Thankfully the scenery was more pleasant than the weather. Not that I saw much in the aero tuck! The Isle of Skye really does live up to the hype, even in miserable conditions.

Another soaking finished my day but my legs were strong as the roads climbed and climbed and climbed. Once again, I was cycling within the shadow of Bealach na Bá, my legs doing as little as possible, not easy in a headwind. This day would be remembered for the weather. Never a sign of a good day’s ride.

The stats: 76 miles in almost six long hours with 1,740 metres climbed. Gallons of rain water. Another dead rotting sheep carcass (of course!).
GPX file and route on Strava

Day 3: The Trotternish peninsula of Skye

Scotland Cycle Touring Day 3Wow. If there’s a better road cycling route in the UK I’m eager to hear about it. Skye’s northern Trotternish peninsula from Portree to Uig and back again. I rode clockwise, which avoids the tourists who generally tackle this loop anti-clockwise. Better to see nervous drivers approaching than have them behind you on single track roads.

Blue skies and a tailwind, I climbed out of Uig with a huge smile on my face. The single track road from Uig to Staffin is a dream ride along the coast, the island’s scenery constantly changing, always amazing.

Heading back south, I took a detour to climb the magical Quiraing. Just take a look at this Google Street view! A steep single track road, moorland, islands and mountains everywhere. After the hardship of yesterday this was a welcome trip to a lush green heaven on earth.

The Quiraing climb is a 15% challenge, the road cleaved into the rock. Think Winnats Pass in the Peak District but with much better views at the summit. Once again I remained seated, churning out a low cadence, low heart rate climb, legs taking all of the strain.

Quiraing, Isle of Skye

The Quiraing

Taking on a challenging hill climb is like sex. Ooh err, missus. You can splurge everything you’ve got in search of the prize or you can grind out a slow rhythm. Either way you’re f*cked when you summit. Job done, I enjoyed the view before a sudden storm of wind and rain drove me back down through the grass carpeted crevasse. My legs still yearn for this climb. I could ride it for all eternity.

A third of my ride done, I should have stopped here and finished on a high. Instead I continued south towards the Old Man of Storr, a rock that always greets me with a thunderous storm. So it was again, stinging rain driving so hard into my face I thought I’d taken a wrong turn into a jet wash. Next followed mile upon mile of a block 20 mph headwind, the gusts trying to lift me from my bike.

I decided early on not to fight the wind as I would on any other ride. I stayed low and did my best to spin my way to Portree. Eventually I made it and turned out of the wind, the silence jarring after a day of howling wind rasping though my (covered!) ears. What a ride.

Tomorrow, the beast of Bealach na Bá. Good bye luck legs.

The stats: 78 miles and 1,615 metres of up and up. A lot of wind of the in your face variety. Average heart rate down to 111. Almost asleep. Not forgetting the day’s roadkill, er, highlight. One dead ferret.
Route and GPX file on Strava

More from my cycle tour of Scotland


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And finally, Danny Macaskill, in THAT Isle of Skye video. Rider and land, amazing.

Images – Quairaing 1: Fred Adams, Quairaing 2: Rough Guide