The Hebrides offers great potential for the bicycle tourist. The islands are accessible and yet feel very different in character to the mainland.
The roads are generally excellent and quiet. Make sure you let motorists by at the passing places and your days in the saddle will be relaxing… A marked contrast to the mayhem you can encounter elsewhere it the UK.
However, cycling these islands is not without its challenges, the biggest of which must be the weather. I had superb conditions for much of my trip this year, but my early pedaling on Barra and the south Uists gave a hint of jut how harsh conditions can be. Had I been cycling north to south into the wind, progress would have been slow and difficult. There are several accounts on the web of people riding these parts where trips have been abandoned due to frankly atrocious conditions, even in the summer.
The rule of thumb should be: always have a plan b. In my case, I had researched alternatives to camping had conditions been foul. This preparation extended to clothing. I washed and reproofed waterproofs, took a strong, weatherproof tent, had warm clothes for the evening while ensuring I had a dry alternative set of clothing at all times.
Simply put: prepare for the worst, but make sure you have some suncreen just in case you are lucky.
Getting to Oban
Oban is on the rail network and timings of the major ferry crossings are designed to mesh with the rail timetable – to a point. Different rail companies will have different policies on the carriage of cycles so it’s worth checking them well in advance of travel as it may be necessary to book. On some routes, you will need to avoid peak time services too.
If you decide to drive, there are a number of options for leaving your car while you tour. There are a (very) small number of parking spots at Lochavullin in Oban, near the Tesco, and a better bet at Longsdale.
Other options include Hazlebank Motors, again near Tesco, and, like I did, by parking at a campsite for a reasonable daily fee. These two options offer the most secure solution if you are bothered by such things. At the Oban Caravan and Camping Park, my car was left in a separate gated field and I had to leave my keys just in case they had to juggle vehicles.
If you don’t want to travel with your bike, then it is possible to rent a bike suitable for touring the islands from Oban.
The Calmac service to the islands is excellent for cyclists, and very good value for money. Bikes now travel for free and queuing positions are clearly marked for cyclists at every ferry terminus. Simply turn up with your ticket, buy beforehand or on the ferry depending on the service. There is no need to book.
The island hopscotch tickets make ferry travel even better value for money if you have an itinerary in mind. I chose Hopscotch No 23, which cost £34. This essentially got me from Oban through the Outer Hebrides back to Skye and the mainland at Mallaig. I supplemented these crossings with Kilchoan to Tobermory (£5 single) and Craignure back to Oban (also £5). Before leaving, I printed off the relevant timetables but it’s a much better idea to pick up the free and comprehensive ferry timetable booklet at any terminal before you sail. You then have all the information you need at your fingertips should your plan change.
There are a wide variety of options for the cycle tourist on the islands. Campsites are at worst, sufficient, at best, very comfortable in this area. Being Scotland, you can always wild camp, although I struggled to find spots on my laden bike (but that says more about me, no doubt.)
There a numerous options for hostels and bunkhouses for the solo traveller, but be aware of the potential costs of BnB and hotels. This type of accommodation is much better suited to couples and groups.
This posed no problems on my trip, with numerous excellent independent stores selling largely local goods as well as supermarkets in some of the larger settlements. It’s worth stopping at pubs and cafes along the route, too, if budget allows. Like me, you may well be in for a treat.
The only cautionary note I would add is that shops may be closed on the islands (particularly Harris) on Sundays. I didn’t encounter any problems (and the ferries run on the Sabbath) but it’s something to be aware of when buying supplies.
I took my usual touring kit on this trip and here are a few thoughts on some of the regular items and a few additions.
My trusty ‘Green Goddess’ performed brilliantly on this trip. The bike carried the camping gear effortlessly and felt balanced, even with a bottle of whisky stuffed in the front pannier. However, on returning home, I discovered that the bottom bracket had failed on the non-drive side. This was probably my fault, as I may have installed the crank arm too tightly. A replacement unit has now been installed and I’ll monitor its performance.
Another change to the touring rig following this journey will be the removal of the bar bag. As much as I like the convenience of a map, snacks, camera and valuables close to hand, it affects the handling too much, particularly in high winds. I am going to shift to a saddlebag along with a map holder on the front for future tours. Not as convenient, but a better riding experience.
My four pannier Caradice set up swallowed all my kit and food easily for this trip, with the Alpkit dry bag providing extra capacity if needed. It’s a minor point, perhaps, but the dark pannier bags provide the perfect haven for midges. As soon as I dropped them off the bike at a campsite, the wee beasties would make hay. Brightly coloured liners would not doubt help.
Tent – Vaude Hogan XT
No more to say on this tent… It was up to the weather, and that huge porch made for some luxurious camping and proved to be essential when I was sick at the start of the trip (use your imagination!).
I attached another set of guys to the main structural poles and these proved to be useful during windy nights on Barra and Berneray.
Quite a few people commented on the size of the tent, whether it was heavy, and whether it fit in my bike bags. Consequently, I attracted more than a few glances when packing up. I do pay for the weight on the road, I know, but it’s a price worth paying.
Another luxury, perhaps, but this proved to be an excellent addition to my usual cycle touring kit. Long days in the saddle can put pressure on your lower back, so it was welcome to be able to sit back and relax the muscles in the evening. I am now looking to buy the new version of this seat to fit my Neo-air, saving more weight and bulk from the cycle camping kit (I took my full size ProLite 4 on this trip).
The best £15 I’ve spent. A relatively light, but good quality radio, with excellent LW and FM reception throughout the Hebrides. For cricket fans, essential I’d say.
I took cycle-specific clothing on this trip due to the comfort it provides in the saddle, along with items from my backpacking wardrobe for evenings and rain.
Everything performed as well as expected. However, I won’t take the cycle-specific clothing in future as it ultimately limits options.
Given how good cycling under shorts are nowadays, in future I will take two pairs of these and ride with regular shorts. I’m trialing the set up commuting and on longer rides and it’s working well. It doesn’t match the form fit gear for on the bike performance, but is a much better compromise while on longer trips. The under shorts I use (Endura Mesh Boxer) dry far quicker than bib shorts, which is another bonus.