Aberdeen – Islay: parts One and Two

July 4, 2014

So here’s the thing; I’ve always wanted to go cycle touring. As soon as I knew I liked cycling I liked the idea of exploring, covering ground and visiting new places with the autonomy provided by the bicycle. Somehow, though, until a couple of weeks ago, it had never quite happened. I’ve done thousands of miles on all kinds of bikes, mass-participation events, road races, and time trials, but it was all supposed to be in aid of training and gaining experience to be able to go touring. So why haven’t I?

Well, I thought as I attempted to hammer two reluctant bits of metal together a couple of days before our scheduled start, there’s the sheer difficulty of putting together a bike that you feel confident will stick with you for a week or so. The bike I’ve been using for months without major incident chose the week before I finally grasped the nettle to develop some serious problems. Even if it weren’t for that, touring bikes, with their racks, mudguards, lighting, and luggage, are inherently more complicated, and getting everything to fit together harmoniously can be surprisingly difficult.

— Stage One: Aberdeen – Dundee —

Anyway, one clear Friday morning found me, headset and front wheel rebuilt, tent and panniers installed, suncream on, and setting off from Aberdeen without the intention to return for at least a week. My riding companion for this stage of the journey was C., a very experienced touring cyclist and expert in donkey transportation*:

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So we made good time on our first leg to Dundee.

— Stage Two: Dundee – Dunblane —

Accounts of bike tours are usually accompanied by precise distances, elevation profiles, maps, and sometimes even cardiograms. You’ll have noticed there’s none of that here. It’s not that I’m holding out on the data, I just don’t have them. I find cycle computers unreliable and distracting, and I haven’t yet got a mobile ‘phone capable of running one of the numerous GPS apps that will log all or most of the above-mentioned. So what we have here is a subjective account, a record of sensations, illustrated with what photos I was able to take while on the bike. Not necessarily ultra-precise, not really a guide to how to plan such a trip (I wouldn’t pretend to be ready to offer advice).

So, with that said, the group assembled moderately early in Dundee on a second consecutive fine morning, reason enough for enjoyment in a Scottish June.  We were five in all. We set off at a moderate pace, fine by me as I was still sore from yesterday’s ride, having basically no training in the legs this year but having tried to match C’s rhythm anyway.

We made a lunch stop at the Cairn O’Mohr winery a dew miles out of Dundee:

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Making wine in Scotland is a brave endeavour, but I’ve had the opportunity to sample a few of the ones from here before and they are, actually, excellent. On this day, we passed around a bottle of their Bramble-derived offering, accompanied by goat’s cheese and beetroot: delightful.

We carried on to Perth. Avoiding the main road, you come into town from the East over the beautiful, but very steep, Kinoull Hill. Having to get off and push on the way up was almost compensated for by the view over the city on the way back down:

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After a brief mechanical pause and a visit to the Art Gallery, we set off again and immediately got lost trying to navigate our way out of Perth. Having eventually found the right road, we started making decent time in the mild early evening. There was a noticeable change in scenery, rolling hills and woodlands replacing the coastal plains. It was calm, and quietly beautiful. We rolled on to the small village of Braco, where we stopped for dinner and our riding companion S decided to show us a trick or two. From the voluminous panniers on his bike (whose contents I had been wondering about all day) he produced a small gas stove and some cooking pots. To these he added water and dehydrated mushroom couscous from a sachet. The results, consumed after a day in the saddle, were delicious. In the time it took to cook this, C had built a fire. We made use of the adjacent river to have a much-needed wash, and then profited from the warmth of the wood fire to dry ourselves off in the cool of the evening. This, then, was cycle touring. Usually, when I get home after a day on the bike, I follow an elaborate pre-programmed ritual of washing and eating, which has only undergone minor evolutions in eight years of cycling. When you’re on the road, things like that go out of the window. You make the most of every opportunity you have to look after yourself, in the best way you can with the resources available. But washing in the cool but not unpleasantly cold water of a fast-flowing stream, and then drying off in the pleasant smell of wood smoke, was one of the most satisfying post-ride cooldowns that I’ve experienced.

Still, we resisted the temptation to pitch tents in Braco. We were very aware of the miles yet to be covered and the need to make progress, so we saddled up and made the next few miles into Dunblane. I don’t intend to report all our adventures there, but we eventually found a place to camp, on top of a hill in a public park, and fell gratefully asleep in our hastily-pitched tents. Day’s most useful piece of equipment: the headtorch.

*As in, he can haul ass.

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