Cycle touring the Hebrides – practicalities and gear thoughts

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.

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The Hebrides by Bike – Day 7 and 8, Climbing the Ardnamurchan and time to Mull before home

My departure from Resipole that Wednesday morning was tinged with a little sadness. This would be the last full day on the road. For just a short while, life had taken on such an agreeable tempo I didn’t want it to end.

It’s all too easy to become lost in romantic notions of living hand-to-mouth on the road. I hadn’t travelled that way and I had responsibilities waiting for me at home… but just another week wouldn’t have hurt, would it?

I rolled along Loch Sunart at a languid pace, savouring the peace of morning. I stopped soon after at a lay-by and gazed at its waters for a while. I’d been lucky enough to bag another perfect day to cycle what is, ultimately, the most westerly point of the mainland.

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The Hebrides by Bike – Day 6, Chris Young’s adventure, delays and a return to Loch Sunart

Someone staying at Camusdarach was having a great night’s sleep. I could tell, because this individual was in possession of a resonant, sonorous snore.

The proud owner of this weighty wheeze turned out to be Chris Young, a former social worker on an incredible journey by foot around the coast of Britain for charity. You can read more about Chris and his entertaining blog, while you can donate and gain an understanding of the important reasons behind his pilgrimage here.

One thing immediately struck me about Chris: he possessed a wonderful open personality and was keen to talk. This quality is no doubt coming in handy as he is conducting this journey without funds, relying on the generosity of others.

When I met him he was relatively ‘flush’, as the fine folk at the Applecross Inn had held a raffle on his behalf. In addition to encounters along the way, Chris’s other half joins him from time to time and they opt for the relative luxury of the BnB. Oh, and he said a documentary team visits him on occasion, too.

I caught up with him a wee bit later on the road, rucksack shouldered and handcart in motion. He cut a contented figure set against the beautiful beaches of Arisaig.

A few minutes talking to Chris and all was well with the world…

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The Hebrides by Bike – Day 5, Skye High and Magnificent Morar

Waiting for a ferry with a bike usually means you rub shoulders with other cyclists… a great way to meet like-minded folk. At Tarbert, it was not just cyclists as the wild camping kayaking duo – Simon and Carolyn -were waiting with their craft.

The paddlers were from the Lakes, and another ‘pedaller’ joined us, a Dutch cyclist (Koga Myata World Traveller with all the trimmings).

We struck up a conversation, which continued on the open deck. I was grateful for more engaging company after being eyed suspiciously during a rather uncomfortable breakfast at the BnB.

My two fellow guests were pleasant enough, but I felt like I was intruding on their breakfast routine (they’d been at the BnB for a couple of days). Conversation was stilted, and when one of the women began to eat her prunes with lip-smacking, unsavoury relish to break the silence, I was soon making my excuses and loading my bike.

We stood on the deck in the early morning light and the ferry slid out of Tarbert in a flat calm. The kayakers were a little disgruntled by the benign conditions, as the forecast had spelled a difficult easterly, hence them opting for the lift.

Their night on the green had not been without incident, either. Some ‘neds’ had threatened to jump on their tent – which was ‘never going to happen’ – but their drunken antics did not promote a restful night. The Dutch cyclist had opted for the bunkhouse and managed to bag a dorm all for himself.

Simon and Carolyn bracketed the description of their paddle from Skye with references to other adventures and it became clear, quickly, that they were well-seasoned outdoor folk. It later transpired that both are polar consultants and guides. ‘Beats the daily commute into London,’ Simon said. How true.

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The Hebrides by Bike – Day four: West is best on Harris?

My night on Berneray was characterised by snapping tent fabric and humming guy ropes. While dry, the keen wind kept the tent alive all night and sleep was fitful. Still, these are the fun nights under canvas aren’t they? Slumber where you are constantly aware of your surroundings and conditions.

I struck camp and stowed a bone dry tent – no problems with condensation in this spot. I chatted with other campers before throwing a leg over the bike and pedalling the short distance to the ferry terminal.

Here, I caught up with Alan and Mel again. They’d had a similarly excitable night in the conditions. We chatted about bikes (Alan on a rather splendid Thorn Nomad and Mel on a Dawes of the same name, with a Shimano Alfine 11 speed hub). For once, I was able to indulge my love of all things velo without the slightest bit of embarrassment.

Talk turned to journeys. Alan was due to head to the Himalaya in November for a month and I envied the adventure. I’m now plotting one of my own.

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The Hebrides by Bike – Day three: the Uists, when the wind blows

I slept like the proverbial log at Borve. The sound of the sea lulled me to sleep and I didn’t stir… a rare decent night for me on the Thermarest. I awoke with ‘tent face’ – bucket-bags under my eyes. Bleary-eyed and not beautiful.

I chatted again to my new Reverend friend, broke camp in the rain and hit the road. I had a ferry to catch.

The roads of Barra were not appealing in the murk. Grey houses lined the tarmac and rusting bikes were left abandoned on verges or rested forlornly against wire boundary fences.

I passed a lonely lochan (Loch an Duin) and instinctively checked for rising trout. A stiff breeze combed the steely surface and fish spotting was impossible.

Continuing along the A888, I turned left heading towards the airport (landing strip on the sand) and then right to Aird Mhor Ferry terminal. This turned out to be a well-kept timber building with small garden containing a rather neat sculpture of a pair of otters chasing a salmon.

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The Hebrides by Bike – Day one and two, and a false start

In common with other Beta Males, I’m not very good at being sick. I mope around the house feeling sorry for myself and emitting pathetic whimpers while snotting into my soup.

Unsavoury as this image may be, my pallor and conduct were even worse while stuck at Oban campsite recovering from a debilitating sickness bug. Thank the lord for ‘Aggers and the gang and the ever-excellent Test Match Special. Without them, I would have been shaking a fist and shouting at the blackbirds.

Had my condition not improved by Sunday morning, then plans for a trip through the Western Isles by bike may have had to change. However, I managed to get through the first hour of the day without singing into the toilet bowl and, with a relatively light day cycling and five hours on a ferry, thought it was time to hit the road.

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Fully loaded

Thorn Club Tour loaded with Caradice panniersKit list… check; pre-trip pang of excitement… check; pre-trip doubts over a slightly sore knee… check; bike service… check; ferry timetables printed… check; Skin So Soft (for the wee beasties)… check; Long Wave radio for Test Match Special… check; carrying too much stuff… check; fears that bike is too heavy… check; leave some stuff at home… check; …and go.

Back in a week or so.

The Hebrides by bike – planning

Part of the immeasurable fun of going on a mini-adventure is the planning. Be it a dirty weekend in the Lakes or Peak or sorting logistics for fortnight on the trail or road, the sense of anticipation is keenly felt.

Cycle touring planningEach year – bad back permitting – I try to get away for a week or so on my tod. Due to the creaking spine, it has become increasingly difficult to spend that week on foot. I’m still working on it, but the demands of walking 15 miles a day for more than three days in succession is still proving to be one step too far.

The bike is an option, however, and this year will see me heading far north to take in the Western Isles… somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit.

I’m hopeful of some decent weather and, being an angler, I’m a firm believer in cultivating luck. Consequently, I’m steering clear of black cats, walking around ladders, avoiding women with a squint and taking solace in the thought that a wet April will be a sour precursor to balmy May.

Starting point for this diminutive Odyssey is the busy port of Oban. From here, I’ll get the ferry to Barra and the fun can commence. I’m delighted to report that Caledonian MacBrae make passage easy for the touring cyclist. Not only does CalMac offer a great value HopScotch ticket for my route – Number 23 coming in at a very reasonable £34 – it no longer charges for the carriage of bicycles.

Unencumbered by a motor vehicle, the HopScotch gives me the flexibility to travel pretty much as I please, albeit within the confines of the ferry timetable.

This quality is a vital for is trip, though. So much of life is governed by time and, for a week or so, I want schedules to take a back seat and let space rule. In a landscape of distant horizons largely devoid of urban geometry, I’m hoping this transition will be swift.

Sadly, I am not able to travel by train to Oban. As much I like to use public transport, costs and timetables have been a problematic. I have already found myself contorting my itinerary to fit the regimen of train availability and so I’ve opted for the car. A start date and a possible latest-end date are my only constraints. If I finish early, then I’ll go home early.

In some ways, this is fitting… This is likely to be my last big trip in a car that has served our Scotland adventures so well. A change of job will see me in London more and more and the motor will sit on the drive, gathering dust and rust and costing me money. I’m trading it in for a Brompton.

Anyway, I now have a rough idea of a route that will be more than manageable in a week. The diversions are where the real fun will lie, though…