48km, av. 14.5, max 42.3, time on bike: 3hrs 18 mins
After last summer’s successful cycle/festival combo in Scotland, I decide to do the same again, but this time travel to the magical land of Eigg via Inverness, rather than Fort William. It turns out there’s a very simple reason more people don’t travel east to west across Scotland: head wind.
More on this in a bit.
Using Inverness as a base, my friend Tom (who’s on foot for the holiday) coaxes me into a 2-day hike along the Great Glen Way, despite my protestations that I’m not much of a walker, and haven’t done any long walks for, well, at least a decade.
Walking 18 miles in a day, while carrying a full pack (including tent), up small hills and across great glens is no mean feat, I discover. Walking is so much slower AND harder than cycling with panniers. My shoulders literally don’t know what have landed on them. I mean, look at me:
High Road or Low Road, it doesn’t matter; it turns out I’m not much of a walker. And by the time we get back to Inverness at the end of the second day, I can hardly move. I feel destroyed. There’s no way I’m cycling the width of Scotland tomorrow…
The next day is taken as rest, and I adjust my plans to take the bike on the train with Tom the following day instead. It’s a shame, as the road and the route looks pretty epic – there is literally nothing here apart from sheep and red deer. I’d also been looking forward to doing my first solo wild camping, but alas it isn’t to be, this time at least. There’s no point killing myself. Plus, it turns out the weather is pretty stormy on the day I was going to ride. No doubt that headwind would have been hard work.
The train journey instead is undeniably great, even if I do spend most of it looking to see where the road goes, how hilly it is, and where I might have set up camp for the night. When we get into Kyle of Lochalsh it’s absolutely pissing it down, and Tom has a coach to catch (to get him to Armadale in time for the ferry to Mallaig, in time for the train to Arisaig, in time for the boat to Eigg…) so he has to make a run for it. I wait it out, then get the bike ready for the short, easy (36km / 22 mile) ride to Armadale.
At least I think it’s going to be easy. It’s true it’s not that far, but it turns out to be one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. That headwind…!
The first stretch, over the mighty road bridge which now connects Skye to the mainland, is great fun, with the added bonus of a mildly-alarming crosswind.
On the main road running up the spine of the island (the A87), heading west, it’s not too bad, and my main concern is keeping clear of the moody storm-clouds gathering.
It’s when I take the turning south that life becomes tricky. The southerly wind is pushing me around like a toy. I can barely make 15km/hr. Going down hills, I find that unless I pedal furiously, I’m actually decreasing in speed, rather than zooming with reckless abandon. Going up them, I’m struggling to go forwards at all.
Luckily, I’m not under any time pressure to do this leg of the journey, so I am able to rest when I need to (often), and sit out a passing thunderstorm in a surprisingly hardy bus-shelter – I guess they need to be around these parts.
There are moments on this ride when I want to cry with despair. But, equally, there are moments when I am almost crying out with joy. THIS IS WHY WE CYCLE! An open road, clean air, spectacular views, a physical test, and a feeling of being utterly free and in complete control at the same time.
The ferry doesn’t leave until 4.50pm so I have ages, and in the end I spend a pleasant hour or so waiting at the sheltered dock, reading my book in the warm sunshine and drinking a still-cold beer.
The ferry across to Mallaig is stunning, with spectacular views of Eigg on one side, and the remote Knoydart Peninsular on the other. But it’s on the ferry that it dawns on me that the next leg – 12km / 8 miles to Arisaig to catch The Sheerwater boat to Eigg at 6.15pm – is going to be tight. Ridiculously tight. I’ll only have about 45 minutes to do it. Normally that would be perfectly do-able, but in this headwind I’m going to have to up my game.
Impatiently, I wait by my bike as the cars and coaches disembark; then as soon as I’m allowed, I grab Dave Dawes and ride off (there’s not even time to stop at the Coop to by some Buckfast), knowing I’m in a race against the clock. And the wind. The bloody wind!
After around a mile, I realise that in that leisurely hour spent reading and drinking beer, I failed to refill my water bottle and now it’s almost empty. This is not looking good. It’s looking hilly and thirsty is what it’s looking.
I’d forgotten just how up and down this stretch of road between Mallaig and Arisaig is. As I cycle up the next bump, my average speed falls and I think there’s no way I’ll make it. As I cycle down, I speed up and I think maybe I’ll just scrape it.
A mile to go, ten minutes until the ferry leaves… one final hill to get over. I’m literally screaming at the wind… STOP BEING SO FUCKING WINDY… but the wind just blows my useless words away. Stupid wind.
I crest the final hill, gasping for breathe and water, then roll down to Arisaig, hoping I can remember where to go when I get there. Fortunately, the boat isn’t hard to find… and there are people still clambering on. I’ve made it!
I pretty much collapse into the boat, gasping for water (my friends Donna & Tom help out here, thank god) and too tired to worry whether or not the skipper will be cool with stowing the bike without warning and so late in the day. Fortunately, all is good on that front and before we know it we’re sailing to Eigg on very choppy seas.
Again: stupid wind.
PS: While on Eigg, for the amazing Howlin Fling festival (lovely Guardian review here or my review here), I also find time for a quick ride north to Singing Sands. There’s a cute single-track road that goes up through the island, and Singing Sands, with its spectacular views onto Rum, is beautiful. The sun shone, providing an irresistible chance to swim too. A perfect half-day trip 😃