Part Three: A non-trivial task

July 12, 2014

When I left off, we were camping in Dunblane. We could say that we were the victims of our success here. Beforehand, it had been said that you are usually so uncomfortable where you sleep that getting up in the morning and riding on towards your destination seems the more appealing option. Well, not here. It was comfortable, it wasn’t cold, we had an awesome slide to play with (yes), a river, plenty of food for breakfast – and so we didn’t leave until about 11 in the morning. Given that our objective for the evening was Glen Croe, about 60-70 miles away, this seemed alright. However, we needed to make rendez-vous with other riders further up the road, and this meant time needed to be made. A joint decision was reached that B and D, the two less experienced riders in the group, would take a train part of the way, while the intrepid S, the vastly experienced C and the foolhardy yours truly would make the first leg of the journey to Balloch at donkey-transporting pace*.

In retrospect, I should never have thrown myself into this with the enthusiasm with which I did. We made Dunblane-Balloch in about two and a half hours, if memory serves (no, I don’t know how far. Have a look at a map.) On getting there, however, I was exhausted. Also, on arrival in Balloch something seemed to happen. We started by mistaking a park and ride sign for a station sign and setting off in the wrong direction for about a mile and a half before we realised that we were getting further away from our rendezvous at the train station, rather than the more conventional closer. When we finally got to the centre of Balloch, which is picturesquely situated at the Southern tip of Loch Lomond, we  discovered that the town was something of a cluster. That’s a North American euphemism, which omits the key terminal syllable. Balloch did not impress me. It was full to capacity with what I can only describe as “holidaymakers”, and manouvering a group which now comprised six cyclists through it was not particularly easy. Furthermore, aims of finding a nice table outside a café for lunch were well and truly scuppered by the throng. We got our own back by finding a seat on the canal bank, and practising yoga to the bemusement of passers-by. All in all, however, I was keen to leave Balloch as soon as possible. The town, however, had other ideas. There is a cycle route along the shore of Loch Lomond, but finding it as it insinuates its way out of town calls for perseverance. Furthermore, when we did eventually get going, it was on the most desolate stretch of the entire trip. The cycle path is no more than a footway at the side of the main road along the loch. There was constant gridlocked traffic in the opposite direction for at least five miles out of town. You can’t actually see the water because fancy hotels have occupied all of the shore. You just have to breathe in petrol, dodge pedestrians and get out of the way of oncoming cyclists. It was no fun.

Fortunately, about half-way up the Loch the path finds the old road, which twists along the shoreline in a way that makes you see why they built a new one. It was almost tranquil, and refreshingly scenic:



This part of the journey was enlivened, as all subsequent parts would be, by the addition to the group of our friend J, a recently-qualified and very enthusiastic plant biologist. I have never heard latin names recited with such frequency, nor have I ever learned so much about flora. Thanks, J.

We reached the nothern end of Loch Lomond in the early evening, making good time, and found a convenient pub to sit outside and wait for the arrival of the final member of the group, who was on a train from Edinburgh. I expressed scepticism as to how the staff of what was really more of a restaurant would feel about us setting up a camp stove and making dinner, but acquiesced to C’s reassurances, which turned out to be well-founded. A more scenic and pleasant spot for an outdoor picnic supper I can hardly imagine:



While eating, we had a look at the map. It was Sunday evening. The whole plan was dependent upon catching a ferry in about twenty-four hours time. The distance looked intimidating for a single day, based on our speed so far. We were feeling reasonably happy and relaxed, and thanks to S’ culinary skills, well-fed. We decided to press on to Inverary, the thick end of twenty miles away.

When I agreed to this, I certainly had no idea that what followed would probably be the most varied and emotionally intense evening’s cycle I’ve ever been on. Shortly after setting off, my right ankle, which had been complaining a little before dinner, started to become acutely painful. I made a small adjustment to my saddle height, which made it possible to ride with the soreness from the right ankle, but caused the left one to start hurting as well. The road, along the banks of Loch Long, was glorious in the evening light. We soon turned away from the water, however, and it began to go gently, yet determinedly, uphill. Of the seven we now were, I think only C knew what was coming. Named mountain passes are fairly rare in the British Isles and I was only vaguely aware we were on one. The Rest and Be Thankful is aptly named and a proper climb in anyone’s road book:


My enjoyment of the whole business was definitely tempered by the incipient tendonitis in my right ankle which was giving me quite some trouble on the ride up the hill. On the other hand, this was the perfect time to be here: we had the A-road almost to ourselves, the clouds blowing around and the fading light dramatised the already sufficiently dramatic scenery and the sense of achievement when you reach a summit like this never fails to satisfy. Feeling good, we attempted a group photo, admittedly with questionable success:


Now if the climb had been a bit painful, it didn’t prepare for what happened next. You see, I was using my fixed-gear bike for this trip. It has a carefully-selected low gear ratio because usually I prefer spinning the pedals quickly to generate speed, rather than mashing a big gear. Usually, though, I’m not descending mountain passes with sixty-odd miles in the legs and tendonitis. The steeper it went downhill, the faster I had to pedal. The faster I had to pedal, the more my right achilles tendon did everything it could to tell me that this was a silly idea and I should desist immediately. By the time we reached the bottom, at the head of Loch Fyne, continuing to ride a bike was not my idea of fun. Yet there were no convenient camping spots, and we had little choice but to press on to Inverary, where a hump-backed bridge on the way into town nearly finished me off.  I took ibuprofen for the first time in my life, followed by a whisky and then a ginger beer in the George Hotel in Inverary, miraculously open and serving at 11 o’clock on a Sunday evening, before falling soundly asleep in the miraculous bed provided by the miraculous Inverary Hostel. Kennacraig and the ferry were just about fifty miles away, and we needed to catch the 6:30 boat the following evening.




* That’s as in, ass would be hauled.


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