The start of June brought an event I have been waiting a while to take part in. With life, COVID and scheduling conflicts having thwarted me before, this was to be the year I finally had a go at TransScotland! I pretty much plan a route through the checkpoints every year as part of my mapping obsession, so to do it with the knowledge I might actually be able to try and ride it was a real buzz! So, onto the train I climbed after work on Thursday, hoping my knees which had been aching for the last three weeks would survive the abuse I had planned.
As I hooked my bike onto the rack, I was mildly annoyed to note that there were at least 4 bicycle spaces on this service, which had shown up as having none the first few times I tried to book tickets! I got into Inverness at 2030 and checked in to the Premier Inn, hoping to squeeze as much sleep in as possible before my planned very early start. I opted for dinner at the hotel restaurant for the same reason, though the food seemed to take forever to arrive, negating any perceived time savings. After my massive burger-based meal, I went for a wee stretch of the legs to try and aid digestion before heading for bed.
No-one had batted an eyelid at me wheeling the bike into the hotel, which had two advantages: I could get everything packed in comfort to just roll out the next morning and I was on the top floor, which gave me a good bike carrying warm up for what was to come tomorrow! I struggled to sleep, partly in anticipation and partly due to the fact I was in bed way earlier than normal, but I didn’t feel too bad for my 0415 alarm call as I silently crept from the hotel and over the bridge to Inverness Castle.
My intricate route preparation had even gone so far as planning to pop up the back way into the castle and save myself a few yards before the start, but I was denied by the building works going on around the entire site. I circled round to the main entrance, took my start picture and then spent five minutes trying to work out how to get it onto Twitter properly, before rolling down to the river for my first leg. I’d cycled a fair bit of this during various iterations of Ride the North and cruised along in a daydream, until rudely awaken by two young guns, who gave a cheery hello as they passed. I had been a little worried I was the only person who had gone for an early start, so it was good to see someone else out and about, though I did worry I was going to spend most of the day being passed like this!
No doubt I added a little more effort to my morning cruise, as I kept them in view for a good while along the shore of Loch Ness, before eventually losing them just before the first substantial climb, where I was joined by another trio this time, who swept up behind me and kept a similar pace for a couple of hauls up before letting them go to keep to my easy-going plan. The first checkpoint was now approaching and the higher I got, the less clement the weather appeared, eventually depositing me in the clouds above the loch.
Finally, the last climb to the Suidhe Viewpoint checkpoint was reached and I stopped for a quick chat with the trio, before letting them head off whilst I soaked up the view and got my shot for Twitter.
Jacket on and away to Fort Augustus which promised to be practically all downhill from here and what a downhill it was! All that climbing lost in the blink of an eye, which was to be a recurring theme for the weekend. I didn’t take the obvious road before the village, but instead carried on down to the locks and made my way along the towpath towards Loch Oich. This way was a bit longer, but saved my knees 50m of climbing and is just a lovely bit of riding along the mostly smooth towpath, reliving my Highland Trail glory days without the pain!
As I rejoined the road, I was caught by yet another rider and kept up this time for a proper chat. Steve had left half an hour after me and was planning to stick to the road regardless of extra distance incurred, so I said we could race it out at the end of Loch Oich and see who had made the right call. Steve pulled ahead just before the end and I took my right turn onto the unclassified road at Laggan, which was a nice intro to my first offroad stretch of the day. I knew exactly where the road petered out and that it was rougher than the towpath, but if I wasn’t too gung ho I could get by perfectly well on 28mm slicks.
I made the mistake of having a quick check of my live tracking on the website and saw that it wasn’t showing anything, leaving me doing the usual dance of logging in to my SPOT and Spotwalla sites to try and sort the feed out, so family could see I was actually moving. Eventually I got annoyed and left it alone, figuring I’d have a chance whilst waiting for a ferry at some point! I also stopped for something to eat before I got hungry, whilst enjoying a view along Loch Long and to the snow-dappled mountains beyond.
When I rejoined the road at Clunes, I was still fairly confident I’d be ahead of Steve, as he had a fair few extra km to go and sure enough, he eventually came round the corner behind me grinning – 1-0 to me! There followed a very pleasant ride along the banks of Loch Arkaig chatting about our plans and life in general, the good company keeping my pace up as I didn’t pay too much attention to the dips and rises.
Steve’s plan at the end of the loch was to turn round and go back to the Great Glen before taking the long way round to Glenfinnan and Checkpoint 4, Corryhully Bothy. My plan was to save myself an extra 60km of riding and take my bike for a walk over the pass for 11km. As we met groups of riders coming back along the loch after getting their checkpoint shot, I began to wonder if anyone had opted for the rough and ready option. I’d made up my mind anyway, it would give my dodgy cycling knees and rear end a break from the bike, as I knew it was far too rough to do any riding. I figured it would have taken me a pessimistic 3 hours to do the road option, so surely I could walk a pass in that? I said goodbye to Steve at the checkpoint, ready for our second on/off road race and moved along the estate track which should be fine until the turn off for the hill track proper.
As I reached the turn off in the forest, I finally met some other foolhardy souls who were taking on the pass. Calum and his crew had set out an hour before me, but had had been delayed by several punctures, I found out as we dropped down the muddy chute through the trees. There followed some slippy burn crossings and a gradual realisation that the ground was holding on to a lot more water than I had hoped. I opted for the path on the east side whilst they took the west, before they came together further up. One of my obscure talents is the ability to find firm dry spots to hop between when navigating bogs quickly. This ability totally escaped me as every tuft of grass or patch of gravel gave way to the sodden ground beneath, forcing me to accept my feet were not coming out of this without a proper soaking!
My fellow sufferers eventually let me pass as the ground opened up and I got back a bit of rhythm, hopping and veering about to find the firmest route, whilst acknowledging there looked to be a devilishly steep sting in the tail up ahead.
I’d been able to see a couple of colourful figures in the distance on that climb, and could see them surveying the view or taking on oxygen once they had topped out. It was really hard going, with various manipulations of the bike to keep it on the right side for the next bit of montane gymnastics. For all the cycling energy I had saved, I was deep into my walking bank, though my knees hadn’t hurt a bit once I’d left the saddle! When I looked back from the top I couldn’t see the boys any more, so on I went for a pleasant trudge along the bealach to see what the downhill would bring!
After a bit more slipping and sliding, the way down eventually firmed up and I even started to hop on the bike to roll sections very carefully. Once I reached the double track path, I was on all the time, annoyed not be on a mountain bike, but glad to be moving quicker than walking pace!
As the gradient eased, my speed increased and I was able to reach the surroundings of the bothy fairly quickly. I made one enforced stop at a beautiful ford next to a cascade, where I tramped about in the water for a couple of minutes to flush the mud out of my shoes and give my socks a ring out and dry on a rock.
When I finally reached Corryhully Bothy, a crowd was beginning to gather. First I met Ritchie and Lyndsey, who had been the figures on the horizon over the pass. As we chatted, various groups came in, including future friends Team Caroline who had taken the road option and expressed their horror/amusement/surprise to hear a gang of us had gone for the walk. It was universally agreed by all the sufferers that the pass was the wrong choice, though I secretly didn’t mind – I figured I’d lost half an hour at most with the 3 hours I’d spent in the hills, plus, what a stunning place to suffer! I got my picture and headed down the welcome tarmac towards the viaduct accompanied by Lyndsey, who whizzed ahead whilst I was faffing with my phone for pictures as always.
It was a long climb out of the glen heading towards Mallaig on the main road, which was dotted with discarded cars on the verges, as people tried to get a good vatage point for the Hogwarts Express, whose whistle I could hear in the distance. I kept an eye out, but never saw it somehow. I was moving along nicely, with the rest of the walking gang somewhere behind me, though momentum was seriously compromised by a series of temporary traffic lights, none of which I managed to hit on green. On the last and longest wait, a whole crowd of us regrouped for a natter and headed onwards for the junction that would take us to Moidart on a mercifully less busy road.
After turn off, I got chatting to Lyndsey again and we made good speed along the coastline before realising we were pushing it a bit too fast, as always seems to happen when you ride along side by side with someone! The climbs and descents back down to sea level started to hit as we neared Ardnamurchan and we picked up Ritchie outside a shop in Glenuig. We had realised that making the 1645 ferry from Kilchoan to Tobermory wasn’t going to happen without a serious increase in pace, so we allowed ourselves an picnic bench ice cream stop at Acharacle. This was a lovely idea, right up until the only rain showers of the weekend passed overhead! The rain was short lived and we were soon riding along in the sun again, catching the groups who had passed through during our break.
The next stretch of coastal road through Ardnamurchan was why I had given up so easily on making the penultimate ferry to Mull, as it only goes up or down with nothing in between. I decided to pull away a little to avoid any inadvertent drafting in the gaggle of ferry chasers, by dive bombing the descents to gain a bit of extra free hill on the up. I was out on my own for a bit, until Calum winched his way up to me on the endless climb away from Ardslignish, where the road turns inwards to circumnavigate Ben Hiant. After a sociable ascent we reached the high point and it was downhill all the way to the ferry terminal, with time to spare before the 1820 ferry. We had a welcoming party of three there already and whiled away the time discussing the day so far and adding layers to combat the fresh sea breeze. By the time the ferry arrived, everyone was present and accounted for, so no last ferry dramas for this stage at least!
Once everyone had warmed up in the cosy cabin on board, talk turned to the prospect of getting round Mull in time to make the last ferry to Oban at 2245. This ferry would dock at 1915, giving 3 and a half hours to get to Caliach Point for CP4 and then back down to Craignure at the bottom of the island. This was a ride of about 75km, but with an unknown quantity of walking to get to the trig point for the photo. Team Caroline had made the decision that they would take it easy and aim for the first ferry in the morning. I was right on the fence, as my original aim had been to get off Mull tonight, but that had been predicated on me making the earlier ferry from Kilchoan. From fresh, I would have been confident, but with 200km in the legs and some steep climbs on the way to the point, I decided to stock up on overnight food at the Co-Op and then see how things were looking when I reached it. Calum, Lyndsey, Ritchie and Simon had decided to go for it and I followed them out of town a minute or so behind.
I made slow and laboured progress across the island in the evening light, with a wee lift as I waved to a couple of groups of riders I recognised on their way back from the checkpoint, who had obviously been on the earlier ferry. I passed through the farm at the end of the road and hopped off to navigate a bit of boggy ground, to be met by Simon, hurtling down the hill in his socks, which was more spirit than I could muster at this point!
I stuck to my recce plan of contouring round the hill and almost coming back to the trig point up shallower slopes as I waved to Calum, Ritchie and Lyndsey throwing themselves down the steeper side of the hill on their way back to their bikes. I wheeled mine all the way up for my checkpoint shot and then lingered, having made the decision I wasn’t getting to that ferry. The spot was too attractive to just run away from and what was the rush, now I’d accepted I was stuck on Mull until 0700 tomorrow? If I’d actually brought my bivy bag I would have got myself set up to sleep right here and just finished off Mull in the early morning.
I ate one of my last well-travelled sausage rolls as I lingered and decided I was done with them and pork pies for this ride. I headed down the hill, meeting Team Caroline on their way up and pointed them towards the easier ascent with a recommendation to set up camp there, which they smartly did!
Riding back the way I had come was surprisingly a lot easier than I had expected and I reached the turn off to cut across Mull without too much delay, which got me wondering if I should have gone all out for the ferry. I climbed gradually over the moors as the light faded, feeling like this was about as quick as my body wanted me to go and started thinking of where I was going to stop for the night. I had a hammock and no sleeping bag, as my plan had been to rest for a couple of hours somewhere beyond Oban and then continue once I got too cold to hang about. Now, however I was facing at least 6 hours in one spot, which seemed particularly uninviting in the wet mist on the hills.
I was lightly chilled by the time I reached the coast at Aros, so I paused to start putting on some layers whilst the midges started to swarm in. I wanted to keep the heat I had left in me without building up another sweat and the easy road along the shore helped immensely with this. My extensive Street View reconnaissance had identified a decent forest for a hammock pitch near the Fishnish ferry road, but I started scoping earlier and found a path dropping from the road into a magical patch of wood near the airstrip that I didn’t realise was there till afterwards. I say magical, because it was both sheltered from the wind and almost completely midge free. I threw up the hammock and net over the mossy forest floor, had a late dinner and got into bed wearing every bit of clothing I had with me.
With my knee warmers slid down to meet my socks, I had full body coverage and was actually pretty comfortable to start with. I must have gone to sleep pretty quickly, as the next thing I knew it was at least an hour and a half later and I was shivering violently. I let the shivering go on to get me warmed up and started vigorously wriggling my feet and toes to try and get some heat into them. As the shivering subsided, I would nod off again, until my body woke me up for another bout. This went on for a few more hours, before I decided to start packing up around 0430 to do a slow ride to Craignure, to generate some heat and then hopefully laze around in the sun for the last hour before the ferry left. Once up and moving I didn’t feel half as bad, as I cruised the coast road again, luxuriating in the sunny patches like a bicycle-bound lizard. I also noticed that the forecast 13 degree temperatures overnight were way off, as it was currently only hitting 7!
There were a few cars already waiting for the ferry and I spotted at least one person bivied in the glass waiting shelter. I prowled around in the sun and ditched my highly unappetising pork pies with the promise of much more food choices on the mainland. Calum eventually emerged from the shelter and said he and Ritchie had gone for it in the night but had missed the ferry by less than 15 minutes. Lyndsey had called it early like me and bivied elsewhere on the way down. I boarded as soon as I was able and got myself a cup of tea and a comfy seat for the journey.
As I drank yet more tea and pastries, I caught up with Team Caroline who had enjoyed the lovely camp spot, but hardly managed any sleep thanks to a lack of darkness and distracting 4G reception! An hour later we docked in Oban and went our separate ways. Everyone was planning to take the cycle route over to Taynuilt, which was ideal, but I had decided to go around the coast route to save myself yet more climbing and get up more speed on the smoother road. I’d been expecting to do this bit in the night/early hours when it was quiet, but I hoped it would be too bad at 8 in the morning on a Saturday. After replenishing my food reserves at the excellently stocked garage just outside of town, I enjoyed some easy cycling and lovely views round the coast. The road got quieter after Connel and I was in Taynuilt without any delay.
After climbing out of Taynuilt, the road followed along the banks of Loch Awe, where I was continually distracted by the reflections of the hills in the still dark water, eventually stopping to take a few pictures before Cruachan power station. The day was shaping up to be a hot one, though the air was cool enough to feel comfortable as long as you were moving with a bit of pace. On reaching Lochawe, I was tempted in by a bench in a lovely spot outside the hotel and basked for a while, munching on my fresh chicken and sweetcorn baguette, whilst downing half my Irn Bru ration for the morning. I was surprised no-one had caught me during my little stops, so I began to wonder if they’d gone over the hill faster than I realised. As I pulled in yet again to take a picture of Castle Kilchurn on the other side of the loch, Team Caroline skidded to a halt behind me to do the same. I got moving a few seconds before them, but they soon caught me. After swapping postions a few times on the ups and downs I left them to pull away on the big climb from the loch, as I had knees to preserve, which were reaching peak pain levels.
Eventually the hill was conquered and I sped down towards Inveraray, planning for a Co-Op stop. Conveniently there was another shop just as I reached the village, with my other three ferry buddies outside enjoying a cuppa in the sun. I didn’t plan to dwell too long after my chilled out morning so far, so just topped up my drinks and waved farewell, figuring they’d catch me pretty soon along the way. I also gave Team Caroline a wave as I passed under the arch, where they were sunning themselves on the lochside grass.
The road was busy out of Inveraray, though I timed my arrival at the bridge traffic lights to keep my momentum up and follow over behind the queue, so that was some energy saved! Next was a frustrating ride towards Dalmally, before turning off the main road at the head of Loch Fyne to come back down the other side, looking across at where I’d just been. Team Caroline cruised past at some point before I turned inland, but I didn’t even attempt to go with them and just kept nursing my knee along. Leaving Loch Fyne, I was forced to pull over on the first steep pitch and take some Ibuprofen to try and dull the pain in my knee, as well as raise my saddle the slightest bit. After a bit of a climb I reached the shore of Loch Eck which was lovely and inviting in the afternoon sun, though I resisted temptation to jump in and vowed to take the kids here instead in the near future. It was a pleasant stretch, but the loch seemed endless and I couldn’t get it out of my head that there must be some monster climbs coming if my elevation gained so far was accurate. It turned out there wasn’t and before I knew it I was in striking distance of Dunoon, with just a brisk headwind to worry about.
I had a note of the ferry timetables and knew the Hunter’s Quay ferry was running every 15 minutes at this time of day, rolling up just as it docked. I congratulated myself on my perfect timing, only to be outdone by Calum, Lyndsey and Ritchie, who rocked up a few seconds before departure! We had our usual ferry catch up on the short stint to Gourock and all rolled out together with me at the head of the gang. The road was busy and I checked over my shoulder to see I wasn’t holding anyone up behind me with my steady pace, only to realise they had all disappeared! Calum had said he had a plan for getting through to the next checkpoint, but it obviously didn’t match with mine! As usual mine involved keeping things as flat as possible on a mix of bike paths and roads along the coast line through Greenock, before one big climb up from Port Glasgow towards CP5. This last climb wasn’t bad at all, possibly thanks to the adjustment of expectations over the last day or so! I got my photo and Tweet, then moved along the road a little to eat, in case the inhabitants of the Happy Hound Hotel were getting fed up of sweaty cyclists turning up outside their house all weekend.
It felt good to know I was going to make it to the finish, as I expected a pretty easy run into Glasgow. I set off on the undulating country road and dived down one of the dips, only to clatter through a ruined section of road that was hidden by the tree shade. I winced along listening for something to be wrong – the tubeless tyres had survived again but I could detect a slight clinking of the spokes which got me paranoid about a breakage. Rather than do the sensible thing and check, I couldn’t bear to find out the bad news and just carried on a bit more carefully than before. I had intricately plotted the final kilometres and it all went smoothly, apart from one stretch of bike path being under reconstruction. Soon enough, I was in Glasgow itself, using my slightly dated local knowledge to get me to George Square as simply as possible. After a stop-starting through a stubborn batch of traffic lights, I finally rolled onto the square with delight and took a few pictures for posterity and Twitter. 470 km in 36 hours, which was a nice round day and a half. No-one else was here yet, so I decided to hang around for the pint we had been mentioning on and off over the weekend. As I waited, a friend of Ritchie and Lyndsey rode up to wait for them with a backpack full of Fab ice lollies which she was happy to share – bonus!
Calum and his posse turned up shortly afterwards, with tales of horrendously steep bike routes above Gourock, which I was relieved to have dodged! The celebrations eventually retired to a bar at the side of the square for a few pints, where we were eventually joined by Team Caroline, who had caught the other ferry and lost a bit of time waiting on it, as well as a fried egg roll of dubious quality. I resisted getting food, as I thought there may be a dinner awaiting me at the grandparent’s house, who were looking after the kids for the weekend. Little did I know they were away to the beach for the day and there was no-one even in yet! I was having too much fun getting to know people better, with everyone geeking out about kit and future ride plans. This is one of the best things about rides like this – you get a chance to socialise with people who totally “get” what you’re on about when you mention events or experiences.
After more drinks than I had intended, I finally peeled myself away from George Square and said goodbye to my new friends, hoping to see them at some other ride in future. I meandered my way to Bishopbriggs, finding this 7 km harder to navigate than the entire 470 that had proceeded it. If real life allows, I’ll do the TransScotland every year, so roll on 2023!