Part Five: Boats, Bikes, and Automobiles

October 18, 2014

I could tell you about the few days that we spent in Islay, places we visited, meals we ate, whiskies we drank, and so on. This is, however, meant to be a cycling blog. And since this series of posts is meant to be a description of my first foray into cycle-touring, I think I should simply wrap up the account with a description of the journey back. It began at 5 a.m. on a fine clear summer’s morning. There were, by this stage, 4 of us. Organisational mastermind and veteran cyclotourist C, masterchef S, plant biologist J, and your correspondent. We loaded our bikes with all our stuff, of which there was significantly more than when we had set off. That always happens when you’re on holiday, right? We set off to ride the dozen or so miles to Port Charlotte [he means Port Ellen. Ed.] and the morning ferry. Not a long ride, then, but still for me one of the ones that reminds you why you took up cycling. Even at this early hour, in the summer in Scotland the sun is up, the air is as fresh and clean as you’ll ever breathe, it is not too cold but not yet exactly warm, birds are singing, there is greenery everywhere, and that little rush of wind generated by your own movement on the bike simply makes you feel happy to be alive. It was just as well for my good mood that we arrived in decent time to catch the ferry. The name of the boat amused me significantly, a reminder of a midge-infested night that will live on long in my memory: P1030426 Once on board and our bikes tied up with the bits of rope Caledonian MacBrayne forward-thinkingly provide, we had some breakfast, followed by some sleep. Arriving at Kennacraig, we set off for the ride back. A fixed point was J’s booked train from Glasgow in about 11 hours time. We were not expecting to ride the full 130 miles or so, but simply to get to Arrochar and Tarbet station, the nearest to us, but still a good sixty miles away. Off we set, retracing our journey of a week earlier, and making good progress though everyone was feeling the effects of a short night’s sleep after our celebratory bonfire of the night before. The weather clouded over a little and I settled in to the task of riding, without the enthusiasm of the last miles on Islay. In these circumstances it helps a lot to have a wheel to sit on. If there’s a rider in front of you keeping a regular pace and adapting speed to suit the terrain, then not only do you make less effort, you feel the effort less as well. We rode in a close group along the banks of Loch Fyne, through Lochgilphead, and then rejoining Loch Fyne for a time before the road diverts over some hills to come out back on the Loch at Inverary. These last few hills were a bit tough for me and I lost contact with the group, but to my delight we all rejoined each other to sit on the pavement outside David’s bakery and coffee shop. Now I spent quite enough time singing their praises in the account of the journey South from Inverary, so I won’t repeat myself here. I will mention that my tendonitis-affected ankle was giving me gyp on the last few descents into Inverary, as the slightly-too-low gear ratio I’d chosen once again forced me to pedal at cadences that the ankle just wasn’t happy about. J, too, explained that some of his haste to arrive was induced by the fact that some of his chronic joint conditions had been making themselves known to him. A restorative espresso and a sizeable lunch were therefore needed and it was early afternoon before we set off over the fierce humpbacked bridge out of Inverary towards the final cycling leg of the journey. The last but certainly not the easiest as our route took us back over the Rest and Be Thankful, still fresh in my memory as the place where my ankle’s problems had first started to really manifest themselves. I frankly crawled up this climb and arrived well after the others, but didn’t overdo it and felt all right on reaching the top. In the middle of the day, and approached from the South, the road didn’t quite have the same magnificence that it did in the evening when we first climbed it. Whereas then we had the barren scree-covered landscape almost to ourselves, during the day it is a trunk route heavily frequented by lorries, coaches, and cars, and in the constant traffic noise the long, straight run up the southern side is a bit of a headache. With reaching the top, however, came the satisfaction of knowing that it was the proverbial ‘downhill all the way’ to our destination. Another long descent’s worth of windmilling pedals and unsuccessful resistance of the fixed gear’s attempts to rotate at light speed were all that separated us, we hoped, from being able to relax on a train for the final stage of the trip. Reaching Arrochar and Tarbet train station, we parted company. S was to carry on Westwards with the intention of camping out on his way back to Dundee. The indefatigable C was going to complete the distance to Glasgow on his own and spend the night there. J and myself were taking the easy way out, our various injuries making this the only sensible option, and the fatigue of the trip only adding to its appeal. In the station tunnel I opened one of my souvenirs of Islay, a bottle of an 18-year-old sherry-cask-aged single malt, and we toasted the success of the holiday and promised to meet again. After some minutes wait for an expected train, me and J were brought to the realisation that we had misread the timetable, and that there was no train that was going to get us to Glasgow in time for our connection. What happened next, as they on buzzfeed, was astounding. If it were not for the fact that we had been hitchhiking around Islay for the past few days, I don’t think the idea would even have occurred to us. But there were no buses coming any time soon, and we were a bit dubious about whether they’d take our bikes anyway, so that left one possible means of transport. Borrowing a pen and paper from bar staff in the nearby hotel, I made a crude sign indicating that Glasgow was our destination of choice and we decided that since we had to wait for the train anyway sticking our thumbs out would be a good way to pass the time. I think hitchhiking is sort of normal in Islay, and in a large-ish island with a population of 3000 and a rural bus service that makes sense. In the UK in general I get the feeling it’s something of a dying art, and two fully-laden touring bikes are not the accessory you would pick to help you get a lift. It was therefore no surprise to me that our attempts to flag down passing vans and trucks were not well-received. Eventually, to our great surprise, a car stopped. Now we had to load our stuff with all deliberate speed, so I didn’t pay great attention, but I think it was a Ford Fusion. It might, on sober reflection, have been the slightly larger Focus C-Max, but even if it was, then I think the fact that we were able to fit ourselves and our bikes into the back of it was one of the great achievements of the entire trip. It had to be the back because the front of the car was occupied by two very kind and generous people who were quite happy to offer us a lift straight to Queen Street station. The journey was greatly enlivened on the way into Glasgow by the sight of C, sunglasses on, headphones on, nonchalantly riding down the dual carriageway at what I can only describe as donkey-transporting speed*. We reckoned it was an hour since we’d parted company, and we were twenty-five miles from Tarbet. That’s good going. It worked beautifully: we just had time to put the bikes more or less together and for me to get a ticket before jumping onto J’s booked train. I slept in my own bed that evening, having done in a single day the journey that had taken us four days to ride on the way out. As a first experience of cycle touring, the trip was as instructive as it was enjoyable. I am less than convinced by using a fixed gear for such an excursion. Many do: if you look at what the remarkable Emily O’Brien is capable of, for instance. But I’m not sure it’s for me. Whether my ambition to own a fully-formed ‘touring bike’ of the Dawes Galaxy school will ever be realised I can’t say. More likely I will find ways of attaching luggage to lightweight road bikes instead. Whatever bike I’m using, though, I am certain that I would enjoy doing a trip of about this length again, somewhere, some time about next summer.     *As in, he was hauling ass.


2 Responses to “Part Five: Boats, Bikes, and Automobiles”

  1. jude Says:

    Having just returned from Islay, I enjoyed your posts immensely. Just one small point: you didn’t catch the ferry from Pt Charlotte (it has no wharf), but probably Pt Ellen (or Askaig) 🙂

  2. selhurst Says:

    You’re right, of course, I never went to Port Charlotte. It was Port Ellen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: