Monday, 13 August 2018

Needs Must When the Devil Drives, or Biting off More than You can Chew?

Needs Must When the Devil Drives, or Biting off More than You can Chew?
A tale of several parts, told in instalments

Part 1 - The Plan
The overall plan was to drive up to Cumbria where my parents live, leaving my car there and taking their campervan to Ardrossan, a ferry port just outside Glasgow.  They would then bum around for a couple of days while I island hop to Islay, spend a couple of days on Islay including an annual group ride and a distillery tasting session (Islay has 8 active distilleries and another being built right now), island hop back to the main land, take three days to ride back down to my parents and then drive back home in time for my wife to go on holiday the next day.
All this was to be fitted in from Thursday to Thursday, no extensions possible. The ride back from Islay to Cumbria was a total of 160km, 140km and 100km legs. Ideally I’d have wanted an extra day, but I wasn’t in charge of the timetable.  Let’s see how it all unfolded shall we?

Day 1 – Day 3 – Islay – Friday to Sunday
Thursday, absolutely uneventful, just the usual double and triple checking I’d packed everything, bike shoes being the nightmare to forget, but my checklists had done their trick. 

It fits – the value of a landrover

Up bright and early on Friday for the hop across the border to Scotland. Ardrossan is a long way from the main road, down small and quite frankly poorly maintained Scottish roads, through some towns that looked quite dismal in the drizzle – I wonder if they’d be any better in the sunshine?  With a bathroom stop and sat-nav faffage thrown in for good measure, the arrival at Ardrossan was pushing it for time, so while I dashed into the ticket office, my dad unloaded the bike and luggage. 
Friday was a day of three ferries, s the late Iain M Banks would say, the three return tickets, costing the princely sum of £27.00.  As a cyclist you pay the foot passenger price and the bike goes free.  Luggage was hastily thrown onto the bike as boarding was called – to be sorted out later, and that was it, I was off.  Time to relax, calm down and get into the ferry mindset, the timings for the ideal linkage of the three were pretty tight, but there were always contingency plans in reserve, let’s just see what happens?
So, to Friday’s rides, and the criticality of timings.   Plan A requiring me to get out of the ferry at Brodick, cycle 25km across Arran to Lochranza in under 1hr 15, and then from Clonaig 10km across the Mull of Kintyre to Kennacraig with comfort.  Plan B meant a nice easy connection at Lochranza, but only 45 minutes from there to make the next leg. 
Route profiles below – note the purple sections, purple = pain, and remember on Monday, I’m coming back this way in the opposite direction, so what I go down today, I’m coming up then. 
1 – Brodick to Lochranza, Isle of Arran

2 – Clonaig to Kennacraig, Mull of Kintyre

In the event the purple section on Arran defeated me, I was into the granny ring and spinning away, not by any means enjoying it, but making progress nonetheless, until I hit a lump that threw me off course, I lost traction in the purple section and that was it.  No chance of restarting uphill, so about 4-500m of  walking while I got to a lower gradient and climbed back on.  Even hitting 60km/h plus on the way down didn’t make up for that and I arrived at Lochranza just as the ferry pulled out. Fuckit, another hour to wait! 

Biding my time

Lochranza Castle

Here it comes

And just to prove it

Hustle off the next ferry, the 9-10km across the Mull of Kintyre hits 14% in places, despite the route profile above.  That hurt, and the hairpin in the middle on a damp track produced some unnerving front wheel slip, but disaster was averted and it was all ridden.  What hurt even more was arriving at Kennacraig just as the ferry shut its doors – 2 hours to wait for the next one.   Plan A was always quite ambitious, still at least I could eat and have a beer on the ferry with a two hour journey.
Out of the ferry port at Port Askaig, only another 16km to go to Bowmore and the hotel, only I hadn’t realised there was a 9% increasing to 14% ramp out of the port onto the main road.  And this is only the first 50km of the holiday.  Bowmore did indeed appear eventually, just as the sun was setting.  The Bowmore House B&B, I’ll come back to at the end, but I cannot fault the hospitality and greeting of Andrew, who turned out to be a Cumbrian expat. 

Weather was pleasingly overcast and cool compared with the raging heatwave in the east of the UK where I live, I was reminded what green looks like again.

Saturday was a day of very little planning.  I had a whisky tasting at Bunnahabhain in the afternoon, my favourite malt so that was always on the cards.  There were several warning from others at the B&B, also cyclists, about the quality of the final approach road to the distillery as very narrow, and windy with lots of tourists not used to those kind of roads. Otherwise it was going to be just a case of wander around Bowmore in the morning and perhaps head over to the other side of the island to an RSPB reserve to see if there was anything interesting happening. 

After a cracking breakfast of very well cooked scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, I wandered down the hill into Bowmore and back up the hill to their famous little round church, which didn’t open until 9am.  The sparrows were taking no notice of that and were making the graveyard their own, apart from one human visitor talking to his wife. Having been at my uncle’s funeral the previous Monday, that was quite touching.  A wander around the graveyard showed how hard Island life must have been, and to a degree still is, with lots of very short lives, and a reminder of the part played by the Islands in WWII with two sections of naval and air force war graves.  Most of the naval graves had no names, simply “A Seaman of the Merchant Navy” and a date they were found, or something similar.  The church was a church, interesting for being round, but that’s about it

Wooden gravemarkers

Early Sparrows

The rest of Bowmore didn’t take long to look around, it’s a one distillery town, although tagged as the main town of the Island, when there are only 3000 total native population, that doesn’t make for too big, but it does have a hospital and a leisure centre with a pool heated by the waste heat from the distillery.  A cup of coffee while looking out at the drizzle and my mind was made up, the RSPB reserve it would be, with enough time to then head over to the other side of the island to Bunnahabhain for the tasting in the afternoon. 

One good thing about a small island is the roads are quiet.  One not quite so good thing is as soon as you are off the main road, onto what used to be the main road, there is a distinct lack of resurfacing going on, which is a bit teeth-rattling on a non-suspended recumbent.  Single track roads with passing places are the norm, and I’m no stranger to those.   On this road, the few drivers I encountered seemed nicely patient to wait until I found a place to let them past, which was a bonus. 
All quiet at the reserve too, with some interesting dragonflies, but not much in the way of birding activity going on, so off to the distillery earlier than I had planned. 

At the nature reserve

The road warnings were warranted, that last 5km off the main road to the distillery were probably the most difficult I encountered on the island, very twisty with short sharp up and downs, single track with passing places, but full of tourists with no idea how to use them, necessitating one or two very rapid stops.   The final descent down to the distillery was precipitous indeed with a nice tight hairpin that was guaranteed fun on the way back up. 

The Paps of Jura, modesty maintained

From the jetty at Bunnahabhain you had a great view of Jura, but the Paps were still maintaining their modesty, with the peaks still cloud shrouded. To top it all, I got to watch seals in the harbour while I waited.   The whisky tasting itself is for another entry on its own, but I learned that al the product and raw materials go down the same unclassified road I arrived on.  The whisky tasting by the way was 5 whiskies from the higher end of the range, some bottled at 58% abv.  The ride back was interesting.

Bunnahabhain, note the ride out, on the right

An interesting tasting table

 Today’s ride , you can see the interesting elevation profile at the distillery.

Nice dinner at the Harbour Inn, good food, good wine but surly waiter, literally slammed my main course down in front of me between my hands as I was reading a book, without a word.  No tip obviously.

Distance today, 63km
Total so far 113km

Sunday – ROTFR
The day dawned nice and bright of course, if a little breezy, later clearing to very good t-shirt weather.  Apologies were received later for the lack of appropriate weather.  I’d decided just to do the half distance, easy conversational ride as I had 50km back to the mainland plus 110km on the mainland to look forward to on Monday.  

A nice steady ride over with the organiser and a couple of others to the start at Debbies Café, Bruchladdaich.  Good coffee, I passed on the cakes.  Seems as well as the two couples at the hotel, there were a hell of a lot of others either creeping out of the woodwork on the Island, or had made their way there just for this.  I’d conservatively count 100+ cyclists starting out, with a wide range of ages from 10 or 11 up to 70s/80s.  Mine was the only recumbent I spotted, but there were a few more funnies, with a crew of four chaps on Brommies.  One chap commented to me mid ride that if he’d know, he’d have bought his Metabike.  

Some well placed reminders from the organiser that this was not open roads and the rest of the islanders had to ride these roads all year, plus tourists, plus not a race, so take it easy. 

A common start out of the café towards Port Charlotte, with a 180 for the easy riders and back past the start to Bridgend and then onto a loop that I would describe as almost off road, the surface was that bad.  Chatting to one of the locals, apparently there is funding to repair it, but no activity yet.  So far, the Cruzbike was behaving very well in the bunch and not causing any difficulties in conversation either.  It was certainly keeping up well on both flat and hills.  The next section was the high road between Bowmore and Port Ellen, single lane with passing places and the old main road on the Island.  This was a bit more heavily trafficked and at one point I ended up split off the front of the bunch simply due to being at a passing place at the right time, and as we were heading uphill wanted to maintain momentum so pressed on.  I eased up and was caught up again in Port Ellen before the final drag along to the Ardbeg distillery, the lunch stop and halfway point.  The smoked haddock chowder was excellent, and went very well with the complimentary dram of Ardbeg whisky.

As I was getting back on the bike to leave, I was collared by a couple of visiting Aussies who took great interest in the bike, it’s performance, how it rode etc, overall I’d have to day it was very well received with lots of thumbs up from drivers, cyclists and mostly very good driver behaviour. 
On the way back I stopped at the Laphroaig distillery as well; I’m a registered Friend of Laphroaig, so I printed out my certificate with the location of my square foot of Islay, and picked up my annual ground rent in the form of a miniature bottle of 10yo.

My square foot is somewhere out there
Back along the low road this time, the new main road past the airport, a nice steady rolling road with a good surface.  I was back at Bowmore for mid afternoon, for a nice walk on the beach, a cup of coffee and repacking before my departure early on Monday.  

My thoughts started turning to next year, with my host at the B&B telling me that the Saturday would have the Islay Half Marathon followed by the ride on the Sunday, perhaps a double would be in order.  Perhaps not as a cycling tour though, maybe use the car for a bit more island hopping and day rides, to allow more luxury in the luggage department and the ability to carry a few bottles of samples back home.

Distance today, 78km
Total so far 191km

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