There’s that feeling again. Pitter patter. Stomach giggling. A nervous schoolboy awaiting his first kiss. Scotland awaits. A cycle tour set in stone when two years earlier I drove though the magnificent Highland landscapes, jaw in my lap. I shall return, I proclaimed, avec une velo!
Preparation. I’d spent a month climbing the Surrey hills and the Chilterns and er, Epping. Legs ready, all that was left to do was watch the virtual skies for many a day in advance. A pointless activity given the forecast changed by the hour. From light rain to heavy rain and back again. For this is Scotland. Light rain is a blessing. Wet you will get. Weather warnings were issued the day before my tour. Wind. Lots of it. Gusts. Beware of fallen trees and crying cyclists.
Scotland cycle route
I reviewed my route again. Lots of climbing. Five days, 364 miles and over 7,000 metres (23,510 feet) of climbing. Inverness, a circumnavigation of the Isle of Skye before heading up the beast that is Bealach na Bà, the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK. At 626 metres, Bealach’s gradient touches 20 percent in places along the 5.7 mile climb. Quite the challenge with a pannier and a 53*39 lowest gearing. Would I make it?
The first two days would be into a headwind. And wet. I had joked with others how this trip would either be amazing or horrific depending on the will of the weather gods. At times I would be truly isolated, miles from anywhere, from anyone. There’s that feeling again. Pitter patter.
The short ride to the train station to catch my overnight sleeper train was too eventful for my liking. My bike was creaking, the noise that had appeared the week before but then disappeared was back and worse than ever. The crank? Bottom bracket? The noise got worse the harder I pedalled. Would the bike make it, I wondered, visions of my crank snapping off in the middle of nowhere. There’s that noise once again. Pitter patter. Clunck click. Clunck click.
The Sleeper Train: London – Inverness
Skirting the frost covered Cairngorms, I awoke after a broken night’s sleep. The Scottish scenery from the train delivered as advertised. Babbling brooks. A herd of wild stags romping through moorland. Munro after Munro the backdrop. Beautiful (although the views on the return are even better!). Stepping off the train to collect my well stored bike I was greeted with an icy blast. Brrr. Had I brought enough clothes?
Day 1: Inverness – Plockton
Breakfast done, I set off, my stomach heavy with porridge and a sausage sandwich. The added weight welcome given the wind did its best to steal my wheel as I crossed the Kessock Bridge out of Inverness. Very scary. High winds proclaimed the huge electronic sign to drivers ensconced within their car cocoons, none the wiser to the terror I was undergoing.
Sun shining, I rode beside the dark water of Beauly Firth, the city behind me, snow capped mountains ahead. Wonderful. Inner peace unlocked.
Clickety clack, my bike croaked with any sustained effort, the noise thankfully fading as I entered spinner’s paradise and whipped up a high cadence. The climb of Bealach na Bà was on my mind. Already. Spinning I reasoned, would save my legs and help keep my heart rate as low as possible. The monster climb was still four days away.
The rain gods were kind, treating me to a light dousing on a couple of occasions but nothing more. Not so the wind gods. Fierce, it was either a crosswind or a headwind. All day long. Legs sapped. The wind was so strong I was forced to pedal down hill.
Not that I cared. They say if you experience pain then you need distracting. The Scottish scenery duly obliged, putting on an age-old performance few can tire of. Mountains and valleys on all sides of the road, streams, rivers and lochs here, there and everywhere. More waterfalls than an Indiana Jones movie, the Highlands are a special place even when the wind howls.
The route was a steady climb until the very end when I welcomed the shelter of the steeper climbs, my legs cranking out slow revolutions so as not to raise my heart rate. I enjoyed the challenge of climbing 15% gradients as slow as possible without falling off, my legs strong, urging me to climb faster. Save yourselves boys, you’ve many a hill climb ahead.
Before I knew it my day was done, finishing in the picturesque village of Plockton, a special place overlooking Loch Carron, mountains all around. The view from my window amazing. The mountain in the distance? Bealach na Bá, teasing, lest I forget what lies ahead.
An idyllic day. Rain and the Isle of Skye await tomorrow.
The stats: 73 miles in five hours with 960 metres climbed. Oh and one dead rotting sheep carcass. Even the roadkill in Scotland is dramatic.
Route and GPX file on Strava
More from my cycle tour of Scotland
(links coming soon)
- Part 2: Isle of Skye circumnavigation including the Trotternish peninsula and Quiraing
- Part 3: The beast: Bealach na Bá plus the Applecross peninsula and the Torridon mountains
Lead image: Zyni Shah