22 January 2020: Gran Canaria – Santa Lucia loop

Our winter escape to the sun venue this year has been Gran Canaria. Colette and I were joined by Lynne and Keith, Susan and Alison, and we all stayed at the same hotel in Maspalomas on the southern tip of the island.

On day 2 of our holiday, we felt ready to explore the mountainous interior of the island. The chosen route involved first cycling east along the coast. We began by navigating the busy roads through Playa del Ingles, pausing to look at the views when we arrived at the seaside.

We cycled very carefully and slowly along the seaside promenade which was thronged with people, before making our way out onto the main road (GC-500). Apart from a couple of short climbs, this road was pretty flat and fast, but on the other hand, it was not very picturesque, and was busy with traffic.

When we arrived at El Doctoral, we started looking for a coffee stop before we headed into the mountains. After a bit of looking, we found a small bar on a street corner and decided to pop in for a quick caffeine hit.

Next, we took advantage of a cycle path for the next flat mile or so, before turning sharp left onto the GC-65, which heads into the interior of the island. The road immediately started to climb, but only very gently to begin with.

The scenery wasn’t much to write home about to begin with. “Fifty shades of brown” would sum it up quite nicely. It wasn’t helped by the drab light due to a covering of cloud at about mountain top height. However, the temperature was in the high teens, so we certainly couldn’t complain about the weather!

As we progressed, the climb began to get steeper and more winding, and the mountains began to open up before us, with their jagged, tree-lined ridges. Passing through Era del Cardon, we could see the road ahead running up the other side of the valley to a pass at the top.

It took a few twists and turns before we got onto that section, and as we were plodding our way up, we were passed by a Team Ineos rider, who shouted out a friendly “Hello” as he passed. The accent sounded like Michal Kwiatkowski to me, and Colette recognised the ears, as the former World Champion sailed past us at great speed.

At the top of this section, we regrouped on the far side of a channel cut out of the rock, after which the gradient was flatter for a while, although the road was full of twists and turns. The rock face made it hard to see round the corners, and there was a fair amount of traffic up here, so you had to stay well in on the right. The local drivers made good use of the horn to warn of their approach.

Nearing Santa Lucia de Tirajana, the road climbed again, meaning we were all getting weary by the time we reached the village. It was definitely time for lunch, so we stopped at the first place we could see: a bakery with tables outside. They did drinks, filled rolls and pastries. That sounded just perfect, so we made a good lunch out of that. Initially, we sat in the sunshine, but the cloud came over again and a bit of wind made us start to feel a chill, so arm warmers and jackets went on.

Our lunch stop in Santa Lucia

We needed the extra clothing to mitigate the cooling effect of the downhill section that followed. That descent just meant that we had more climbing to do (nearly 1000 ft) before we could reach the high point of our ride just beyond San Bartolome.

It was quite a lot of climbing for us, but we took it easy and got there in one piece. Alison had forged ahead and had quite a long wait at the San Bartolome junction before we all gathered together and headed up the final section to Alto de Fataga, our high point at approximately 3140 ft.

On the descent…

Any clothing that had been removed on the climb was replaced for the descent, which was getting on for 2000 ft, running through the village of Fataga. At one point, Susan and Keith went past me while I was stopped for a photo. I then rejoined them, and Susan gladly led us down, making a great job of finding the best lines through the corners.

Looking back on the impressive last bends before the final summit

Sadly, it wasn’t downhill all the way back to the hotel. I knew in advance that there was a little uphill blip in the profile to get over first. In reality, it was quite a major blip, with some steep gradients round a spectacular double hairpin to be negotiated into the bargain. After that, a short but fairly steep slope took us to the viewpoint Degollada de las Yeguas. There really was a spectacular view from there into the mountain range, especially as the sun was getting low and highlighting the cragginess of the terrain.

From there, another fast decent took us back to civilisation, busy traffic, and finally our hotel for a well-earned sangria.

After a week of riding in Gran Canaria, there was a general consensus was that this place wasn’t really for us. We’d had a good holiday, but speaking for Colette and myself, the overall package isn’t as good as elsewhere, such as our recent trip to Ibi. The mountain roads in Gran Canaria are phenomenal for sure, but we like to get away from it all, and it was difficult to get completely away from the traffic. Saturday seemed to be “relatively” quiet on the coast road, but beware Sunday in the mountains and the scores of motorbikes roaring around at high speed. We probably won’t be coming back, but if you are a strong cyclist looking for challenging mountain roads and don’t mind busy traffic, this place is definitely for you!

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27 November 2019 – Sierra Mariola and Alcoy

I have a vague memory of someone writing about cycling holidays based in Alcoy, and they mentioned that visiting the Sierra Mariola was a must. So that’s what we set out to do on this cycle.

Leaving Ibi to the north, we were straight into a climb. Ibi is lucky to have such a wonderful climb on its doorstep, rising up the hillside in myriad twists and turns, offering a superb view back down on the town, and to anyone further down the climb from you. It is only about 3 miles long at 4% average, but very enjoyable. Maybe because it isn’t so hard.

Here’s a thing… I always feel sad when I come across roadside shrines. I’ve spotted a few on this holiday, but on the climb from Ibi, there was something a little different. About halfway up, written on the road next to the crash barrier, is “Gracias 24-6-17”. Clearly this barrier (or more likely the previous incarnation) has saved a life. That was a nice thought, and put a wee smile on my face.

After topping out, we descended for a while before turning left at a T-junction, heading towards Banyeres. This involved a long, straight drudge of a climb before we got into descending again. Another short rise and a corner followed, after which Banyeres was revealed, with a prominent castle on top of a hill, like so many of the towns in the area.

It was time for a coffee, so we left the main road and started climbing steeply towards the town centre. However, we hadn’t gone far before we spotted a possible coffee stop, the Hotel Meson et Castillo. I poked my head round the door and asked “cafes?”. The answer I received was affirmative, so we quickly tied up the bikes and went in.

We took a seat with a view and soon had our Americanos. The waiter spoke English and asked if we wanted cakes. “Oh God yes!” was the approximate reply. One was a sort of creme caramel type pudding (similar to what the Spanish call “flan”) and the other was similar to a roulade. Both were delicious. I could hardly believe that the bill was just six euros!

Leaving the town, we picked up the Via Verde, or what is marked as such on my map. This is basically an ex-railway track converted into a walking / cycling path, I was a little nervous, as our previous experiences show that the surface can be quite rough in places, not unlike the National Cycling Network at home.

Well, to start off it was proper road, later turning into a well surfaced track, with plenty of people out walking. Then it got rough for a short while before we were deposited back on tarmac again. The decision was vindicated, as we would otherwise have had to ride on the fairly busy main road that we could see in the distance on our left.

We had got quite close to the town of Bocairent by this time, when we intercepted the CV-794, turning right and uphill away from civilisation into the Sierra Mariola. The ascent took us through a forest of what must have been some species of oak, judging by the acorns that were falling onto the road. It was another lovely climb, but slightly steeper than the one out of Ibi. The “official” climb (as marked by signposts) ended and the road flattened out before ascending once more, taking us to about 3000 ft elevation.

Sierra Mariola

It certainly was a lovely ride, with the narrow, quiet road and being surrounded by greenery giving a feeling of peace and tranquillity not dissimilar to riding in the Scottish highlands. After a while, the ride turned into a descent, but the scenery remained just as beautiful. I deliberately went slow just to make it last, as I knew we were heading to busy Alcoy.

When we joined the CV-795 for Alcoy, it did indeed get busy. It was also a little disconcerting to pass a no entry to bikes sign, but that referred to a tunnel ahead, and we took a right just before the tunnel opening, onto Carrer Salt.

This funny little road, only open to bikes and residential traffic, took us through what looked like some ancient, disused industrial buildings and afforded a great view over the valley below. We stopped for a good look, and while Colette looked for cats, I could make out the Via Verde below crossing a couple of impressive viaducts. There were a number of cyclists using the route, so based on our experience of the Via Verde earlier in the day, we made a decision there and then to return to Ibi via the Verde, so I stopped my pre-planned route on the Wahoo.

A very fast descent took us into Alcoy, where we were looking for somewhere resembling the city centre. Using my phone, I navigated us towards a large church, then we got off our bikes to have a good look around. Colette noticed some market stalls, and then we discovered we were beside a vast indoor market.

I peeked in to see what it was like, but didn’t think bikes would be allowed. As if reading my mind, I was followed out by a chap saying something like “parking por bicyclettas”. He seemed to be the gaffer for the place, making sure that things were running smoothly.

Anyway, he ushered us to some fancy bicycle stands, where you turned your cranks horizontal and pushed them into a slot, which held the bike between the crank and pedal. It was a very stable arrangement, and Senor Gaffer was very proud of them, possibly because they were brand new, as he took a picture of the bikes once in place.

We then went to explore… The market had every type of stall: fruit, vegetables, meat, prepared meat products, fish, bread and cakes, sweets, perfumes and more besides. And if that wasn’t enough, there was a little supermarket for everything else. Oh, and what we were interested in most: it had several places to eat.

We sat down with a couple of beers and the best hot bocadillos we’ve ever had. Then espressos afterwards and another surprisingly cheap bill at the end of it. By the time we got up, everyone was packing away their stalls, so we had arrived just in time. If you are ever planning a visit, make sure you get to the market by 1pm.

Trying to find our way to intercept the Via Verde from the market proved quite tricky due to the one way system, but finally I got the hang of it and eventually we were on the cycle track, leaving town. It was paved with a kind of green asphalt and quite smooth rolling. The path took us over a couple of high bridges, which we had seen earlier from much higher up on Carrer Salt. The second bridge was particularly high, and as we crossed, we felt a very strong cross-wind, which was funnelling down the valley from our right. That wasn’t a combination that Colette was keen on!

The green road

After that, the path was very enjoyable, taking us gradually uphill through the trees, with occasional views over to the urban sprawl of Alcoy and Cocentaina in the valley to our left. We also started going through tunnels. They were short to start with, but grew longer as we progressed. Luckily, they had motion sensitive lighting, and lit up as we entered. However, on one of the tunnels, the lights went off well before we were through, leaving us in the dark. We were glad that we had our bike lights and had them switched on already, just in case of such an occurrence.

After the final tunnel, there was about two miles of Via Verde left before we reached proper road. However, the paved surface gave way here to gravel. There was a way of escaping onto the road earlier, but we thought we might as well complete the journey on the Via Verde as far as it would take us.

The gravel got coarser as we entered cuttings, where rain seemed to have washed the finer gravel away. Then it turned to a dirt singletrack, more suited to mountain bikes. I began to ponder the merits of gravel bike for cycling in this area. However we took it carefully and avoided any mishaps.

We had arrived at the service road alongside the A7, and were heading uphill, directly into the wind. That was a bit of a slog, but the road then turned downhill, making it a lot easier. After a roundabout, we had another mile or so till we reached Ibi, where we were greeted by the sight of a clear perspex-like statue of the three kings, backlit in spectacular fashion by the sinking sun. That was a nice welcome back.

This was probably the pick of our six cycles from Ibi, due to the variety of cycling, the scenery, the food, and the fun of the Via Verde. I would certainly jump at the chance to do it again.

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23 November 2019 – Xixona in a gale

We were so pleased to have booked a wee holiday to Spain at the end of November, given the awful weather at home and near absence of outside cycling this month. In fact, this was booked back in August, while we were watching the tour of Spain on telly. The cyclists were in the mountains north of Alicante, and I mentioned that Alcoy would make a good base. Then after a flurry of activity on Colette’s phone, she revealed she’d booked us a week self catering in Ibi at the end of November!

The day finally came when we arrived in Ibi (a few miles to the west of Alcoy) and it was raining, although it was dark by the time I made up the bikes, so we wouldn’t have managed a ride on day 1 anyway. The next day was forecast to be dry and sunny, but the wind was an issue, with a warning out for gusts up to 80 km/h!

We really didn’t want to cancel our first day’s cycling in Ibi if we could help it. So I decided it would be a good idea to cycle to Alcoy with the wind at our backs, then return via the wooded area in the hills above Alcoy, which might give us some shelter on the way back. Sounded like a plan, so off we went…

The wind helped us on the road out of Ibi, as far as a roundabout where we joined the service road alongside the A7 motorway. We fairly motored along there, but some sudden sideways eddies in the wind took us by surprise, so we had to knock off the speed a bit.

A few miles in, and we were at another roundabout, where we could take the road to Alcoy. There were a few spits of rain in the air and great dark clouds hovering over the hills to our left, where we were intending to go. However, to our right, all looked bright and sunny. So sudden change of plan… we headed south towards Xixona instead.

Heading to Xixona

Pretty much straight away, we came to a sign telling of a 5% climb ahead, lasting 5 km. It was a nice, steady climb, taking us though an area of scrub and low trees. The wind wasn’t a problem for most of the climb, but coming towards the top it got more blustery, and at the very top (the Puerto de la Carrasqueta) it was positively gale force.

View from the top

I went over to the “mirador” to look at the amazing view from 3500 ft up, all the way down to the Costa Blanca. Turning around, it was hard to cycle back to the car park. I took shelter behind a small building while waiting for Colette to catch up, and after a second look at the view, we started the descent.

We were now partially sheltered by a ridge in the mountain as we descended, but huge gusts still took us by surprise, so it was a very tentative descent, broken up by stops to look at the view. At one of those, I discovered I’d left my water bottle behind at the top, but we were a mile into the descent by this point, so I decided not to go back for it!

On the way down…

This near 2000 ft descent should have been great fun, but on this day it was just a case of getting down in one piece: a tense affair, punctuated by moments of extreme fear. But we made it all the way to the bottom and into the town of Xixona, where we were on the lookout for a cafe. After circling the town for about 10 minutes, we finally found an ice cream shop open and went in.

The place was quite busy, possibly due to it being apparently one of the few places open on the middle of a Saturday afternoon. We had a couple of coffees and just had to try some of the ice cream. It was great. So good in fact, that we came back another day for more.

Back on the road, we had to negotiate some steep switchbacks to get out of town, bringing us to the bottom of the Puerto de Tibi climb (4km at 5% average). The first km was the steepest, at around 10% for quite a while. Luckily, the wind was not a problem here, and maybe was helping somewhat. To the left was another great view down towards the sea, and to the right, impressive rocky outcrops at the top of the mountain were highlighted in the sun.

As the climb progressed, it became windier and windier, especially once we turned the last corner and caught sight of the top of the climb. In fact, the wind hit me like a wall, stopping me dead, alongside a plastic roadside marker / bollard. My bike got entangled in the thing and I stumbled into the ditch, breaking the bollard. Ooops.

It was all I could do to stand up after that. It wasn’t possible to remount, so Colette and I both had to push our bikes against the gale that was funnelled over the top of the pass. We seriously considered continuing to push downhill, but remounted and took it easy. The wind decreased in strength as we carefully descended towards the village of Tibi, where the road twisted and turned downwards, then steeply upwards as we reached the entrance.

Looking down on Tibi

We quickly found a bar where we had lunch. We valiantly tried to decipher the tapas menu before just saying “gambas por favor”. Cooked in garlic, the prawns were delicious. We also managed to secure for ourselves some bread and some patatas fritas, so we ate plenty to fuel us on our way.

The remainder of the ride was still mostly uphill to Ibi, but the gradient was kinder and the wind less brutal. There was a small hitch when we arrived at the outskirts of Ibi, as the road was closed for roadworks. Luckily the A7 service road came in handy for a wee diversion, and we made our way safely back to our accommodation.

It was a brutal day for sure, but we covered some great roads and saw some beautiful scenery to whet our appetite for the rest of the holiday.

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04 November 2019 – The power of Zwift

Here’s an image of me riding around wearing the Fuego Flats sprint jersey. But did I really earn it?

The days are getting shorter and the rain seems to be falling incessantly, meaning less time spent outside, and turning a cyclist’s mind to Zwift. Not that it’s all cyclists by any means, just a small subset, but I’m one of them, and for that reason, I like to write about it occasionally. So be warned: the following will only be of interest to those immersed in the minutiae of Zwift and turbo training.

It’s hard to believe that I’m now on my 5th winter of using Zwift, starting out using “zPower” with my simple Decathlon turbo trainer and speed sensor, before moving up a little to a Tacx Satori Smart, which has a built-in power meter. That was important, as I wanted to be more confident in my power output. The watts are what it’s all about in Watopia.

After a winter of Zwift, once the weather improves and I get back on my bike more often in real life, I really miss seeing how many watts I’m pushing out. Forget speed – I’d much rather know the watts! The answer to that has been to buy a power meter. It’s a bit of an extravagance I know, but a left crank-based power meter, like the 4iiii Precision model I bought from Mantel.com, can be had for under £300 if you shop around and aren’t too worried about getting an exact match for your right crank. It has to be the same length though, obviously!

I fitted the power meter to my road bike at the end of June and have found it really valuable to know my power. It hasn’t been used for any specific training (I’m not that serious about it), but it helps me gauge my effort on hill climbs and the like, alongside my heart rate, and I’m sure it has helped me beat some PRs.

Soon after starting out with the 4iiii power meter, I did an FTP test, which came in at 250 W. Now, I would have been very happy with that, had I not got a FTP of 277 W when using Zwift with the Satori Smart. I began to wonder whether the Satori was making me seem more powerful on Zwift than I really was…

Recently, I decided to put this nagging doubt to bed, and temporarily set up my road bike on the turbo trainer (in place of the old flat bar bike that is usually set up there), to have a head-to-head test of the 4iiii and Satori Smart power meters. The 4iiii power meter has a claimed accuracy of +/- 1%, compared to +/- 10% for the Satori, so I was going to believe the former and was looking to see how close the latter came in the test.

To start with, I did a calibration of both. The 4iiii calibration involves simply turning the crank to 6 o’clock and pressing the calibrate button on my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. The Satori needs to have a spin-down calibration done from within the Tacx iPhone app. The tension of the roller is increased or decreased and the calibration repeated if it isn’t right first time.

Once that was done, I started Zwift and did a little ride at various power levels. I let Zwift use the Satori Smart output, and captured the 4iiii watts on my Wahoo. At the end, I imported both sets of data into Golden Cheetah then saved them as .csv files, so I could compare them in Excel.

Comparison of the power outputs from the 4iiii power meter (red) and Tacx Satori Smart (blue). Note how the real-life power spikes are visible in the 4iiii output, while the Tacx transmits a more smoothed power output.

The results were very revealing! It was disappointing, but not completely unexpected, to find that the Satori Smart overestimated my watts by around 20-25%. The higher my watts, the more out it was.

After a bit of reading around, I discovered that Zwift recommend doing a 10 minute warm-up before calibrating your turbo trainer. I tried to do this, but wasn’t able to get the roller tight enough to the tyre. The adjustment is carried out by unscrewing a bolt from a cylindrical captive nut, but the bolt isn’t long enough, and comes apart from the nut before the roller gets tight enough. This is infuriating, as I need to guddle around for ages to get it back on again.

The only way round it was to buy a fatter 25mm trainer tyre in place of the 23mm one I’d been using for the past years. That worked! I was now able to do a warm calibration. The resulting comparison showed that the two outputs were in close agreement at 100-150 watts, but the Satori began to drift ahead of the 4iiii readings as the watts (and presumably tyre temperature) increased. The discrepancy wasn’t as bad as before but isn’t ideal. However, there isn’t a lot I can do about it, short of using the 4iiii permanently on the turbo trainer or buying a better turbo, neither of which is an option at the moment.

Comparison of 4iiii (red this time) and Satori Smart (blue) after a warm calibration

The end result of all this, is I am now doing a warm calibration, accepting the Satori output for what it’s worth and getting on with enjoying my Zwifting. Having completed another FTP test today, I got 267 W. That’s about 7% more than I got on the road with my 4iiii earlier in the year. For me that’s close enough. Perhaps I would feel differently if the discrepancy were in the opposite direction!

Addendum:-

Sod’s Law… the day after proclaiming myself happy with the current Zwift setup, I jump on for a wee ride in Watopia and get about 3 miles in, when pssssst… I get a puncture! That was the last thing I wanted, as that 25mm tyre from Decathlon is really awkward to get on and off. I punctured two inner tubes trying to get it on in the first place. Taking the tyre off resulted in two broken tyre levers, so by this time I was ready to chuck the new tyre and put the old Vittoria one back on, as it had never caused me any hassles.

But that left me with the old problem of not getting the roller tight enough to the tyre. To solve this, I tried reattaching the roller unit in the position for 26″ tyres, then backing the roller away as much as possible by screwing the adjustment knob in. The roller was still marginally too close to the tyre after screwing it in as far as it would go, but there was another element of adjustment available by unscrewing the locking nut part way down the bolt (see diagram).

That way, I got the turbo trainer adjusted to allow for a warm calibration with the 23mm tyre. All worked fine on a test ride. Hopefully it will behave itself now…

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08 September 2019 – Kelso, Melrose and the Tour of Britain

Whenever a pro cycling race comes nearby, we like to go and cheer them on. This year, the Tour of Britain came to the Scottish Borders, starting and finishing in Kelso, so we came up with a plan… I originally hoped to see the race start, then ride out to a vantage point to intercept the race part way through, then ride back to Kelso to catch the finish. All with a sit-down lunch stop in the middle. After trying and failing to come up with a schedule that accommodated all those stipulations, I had finally to acknowledge that it was not really feasible. So it was decided that we should start in Kelso, but get going early and miss the start. 

Normally, I like to park in the wee riverside car park near the Klondike garden centre, but the traffic ground to a halt as we closed in on it. So we turned around and parked on the outskirts of town. Lynne and Keith came too, and once we had got our bikes ready, we headed into Kelso.

I had hoped to pick up my chosen route out of town, but some of the roads were closed and barriered off, so we had to push our bikes slowly along the narrow pavement. It was still an hour before the race was due to start but it was already quite busy. We walked past the start/finish point and finally found a crossing place, where we could get away from the race circus and get riding properly.

We headed northwest out of Kelso with the walls of Floors Castle estate on our left, then took the first left onto quiet side-roads. The sun was out but there was still a chill in the air, so I tried to ride out of the shade as much as possible.

Our route to Melrose was basically a reverse of the Four Abbeys route at this point, so the roads were familiar. One of the plus points of doing it this way round was that we got a great view of Smailholm Tower. What’s more, having taken the pressure off by not trying to see the race thrice, we could enjoy the ride and the views at a nice leisurely pace.

There were a few small ups and downs as we approached Newtown St. Boswells, passing by Dryborough Abbey and then crossing the Tweed, spying a variety of wildlife along the way. We then skirted Eildon Hill North, involving more of a focussed climb before descending into Melrose and starting to look for lunch.

It was a quarter to twelve, and the Ship Inn wasn’t open yet, so we had a wee look round alternative options. The Townhouse Hotel was advertising a soup and sandwich combo, so we enquired and they were ready to serve us a slightly early lunch. We all enjoyed our meal, and since we were making good time, we were able to have a leisurely coffee afterwards.

Next, we headed out of Melrose, past the Trimontium Roman encampment and over the Tweed once more, close to the iconic Leaderfoot Viaduct. After that, we were faced with a stiff climb towards Brotherstone. 

I had originally hoped to see the race go past at the village of Smailholm, which is at the top of a rise which would slow the riders down. You get longer to look when they are going slowly. However, if we were to wait there, we would be stuck on a closed road and unable to make a quick exit back to Kelso after they passed. The alternative was to wait at a crossroads just before Smailholm, which gave us a quick exit route.

We must have got there about 15-20 minutes before the riders were due to pass. A few other people were already waiting, and we found a good vantage point on the wide grass verge.

Also waiting on the verge was a sad looking bumblebee, sitting on a piece of discarded cardboard, and barely able to move. The poor thing was all out of energy, but we knew we could help. You’ve got to help bees: they’re having a hard time of it lately by all accounts. Colette chewed up a sweet and put some of her sugary spit down next to the bee. Luckily it wasn’t a fussy bee, so it started feeding and pretty soon it was buzzing with energy again.

This apoidean interlude kept us busy until we could hear the altogether louder buzzing of a small helicopter, signalling the arrival of the Tour of Britain. After numerous motorbike outriders, the breakaway group of three cyclists came into view.  In front was AG2R La Mondial rider, Gediminas Badgonas, who was smiling over at us as we cheered the riders on.

Less than a minute later, the main group (peloton) arrived and shot past. It was hard to focus on individual riders to try and identify who was who, but luckily Colette and Lynne were taking photos so we could check later. The chase was on, and it would only be a matter of time before the leading three were caught up by the bunch.

As they passed, several riders jettisoned their bidons (drinks bottles) in our direction. They make a great souvenir of the day, but although we’ve been to quite a few races now, this is the first time we’ve been able to pick any up. And we got three! The Movistar one was filled with a super-sweet citrus mixture that packed quite a kick. That would have got our bee going in double quick time!

Once the short-lived excitement died down, we returned to our bikes and continued along a single track road which then led to the main road back into Kelso, a matter of 6 or 7 miles away. In the meantime, the race still had over 30 miles to go, including the long, steep climb out of Melrose.

That gave us enough time to arrive at the town centre, lock up our bikes and get ourselves to the finishing line. The crowds were huge, and we needed to walk to about 100 metres back from the finish line before we could even get a view. 

The announcer got us excited when he described a breakaway by British rider Alex Dowsett. We would have loved to see him get all the way to the finish and were ready to cheer him on. The crowd noise got louder and louder, then finally, I caught sight of a Katusha Alpecein jersey (that would be Alex) in the lead. But just as soon as I spotted him, a Mitchelton Scott rider shot past and I knew Alex had been caught.

That Mitchelton Scott rider was the Italian, Matteo Trentin, who won the sprint and went into the overall lead of the race. We stayed for the presentation afterwards before heading back to the car. It had been a great day out, mixing a gentle wee ride in with spectating on the race. The excitement of watching cycling live is very short-lived compared to seeing it on the telly, but it gives a whole extra dimension to the experience. 

Oh, then we went home and watched the whole race again, as we’d recorded it while we were out!

 

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25-26 June 2019 – Ardnamurchan Adventure

Day 1: Dunbeg to Salen

Last year, almost to the day, we were due to do this trip, but had to cancel due to Colette’s accident. This year, with a similar spell of good weather on the cards, we decided at short notice to try again. We couldn’t get any accommodation on Mull, so based the trip around an overnight stop at Salen (the Ardnamurchan Salen, that is).

We left home bright and early, arriving in the village of Dunbeg, just north of Oban, around 9am. The car was quickly unpacked, and off we went on a warm, sunny morning.

I was riding my old hybrid bike, loaded up with all the luggage in panniers, while Colette took her regular road bike. That was the deal if she was going to agree to do pannier touring, and I was totally fine with it.

We came to a stop after less than a mile, due to roadworks on the A85. Luckily there was a 10 mph speed limit on the affected part of the road, so we didn’t hold up the traffic too badly when we finally got moving. Soon, we had ridden through Connel, over the bridge and away from the traffic as we picked up the Caledonia Way cycle path.

The first part of the route we had done before, but between Barcaldine and Appin, it was new to us. The bridge over Loch Creagan narrows was spectacular, but for some reason, we didn’t stop for a photo.

After cycling for about an hour and a half, we were due a break. We stopped at a horseshoe-shaped stone structure with seating built in. It was designed as a snug windbreak for travellers to stop for a rest, and was the ideal spot to break out the flask of coffee.

Castle Stalker

Once we got going again, we passed the scenic Castle Stalker to our left, then began to feel the force of a brisk headwind for the first time. Luckily it didn’t slow us down too much, as we were fairly sheltered by trees around the cycle path.

There is a stretch of a mile or two where the path disappears and there is no choice other than to ride on the main road. Luckily the traffic was light, so it wasn’t a problem. The route then took us well away from the road through open country. The delight of this route is that it is so varied, not just mile after mile of straight, flat path with a wall of trees on either side, which some ex-railway cycle paths are like.

After Kentallen, there is a steep section leading past a viewpoint. I was concerned that it might be too much with all the luggage, but I had a good low gear and it was no trouble at all.

We then returned to the coast as we approached Ballachulish, before the path took us back to the main road. For some reason, I thought we needed to cross and cycle on the pavement on the other side of the road to cross the bridge. Crossing took an age, as we waited for a gap in the traffic.

The view from Ballachulish bridge

Once we were on the bridge, it was clear that I had got that wrong, and we should have stayed on the left. On the plus side though, we had a great vantage point for a photo looking up Loch Leven.

From this point to Corran, we were cycling on the pavement, designated as dual use. It wasn’t all that pleasant, having heavy traffic passing so close, but at least we weren’t on the road and suffering the ire of drivers trying to overtake us.

At this point, we were thinking about lunch options. We passed the Lodge on the Loch and noticed a sign for their cafe. We hadn’t set foot inside this hotel since our wedding night, so we thought, why not…?

The place was very quiet, but we sat down for lunch anyway, at a table with a great view across Loch Linnhe. Our steak and onion sandwiches didn’t disappoint, though the hotel itself was in need of some modernisation, particularly the toilets!

Soon, we arrived at Corran for the ferry. The north wind was blowing straight down the loch, making it feel a bit chilly by the water. We put on extra layers for the crossing, but after we disembarked at Ardgour, the wind was now at our backs, speeding us along the road towards Strontian.

Before reaching Strontian, there is a bit of a hill. The initial gradient was over 7%, which slowed us down to a crawl, on top of which, the wind had changed to a headwind again. OK, we were going slower, but we were still enjoying every minute! At the top, just past the cattle grid, we chatted to a local cyclist who was out for a quick spin. It was downhill all the way to Strontian from here, and she was going to try for a PR.

Downhill to Strontian and our first view of Loch Sunart

After she set off, Colette decided to try and follow, and so did I, until I was distracted by a photo opportunity. By the time we reached Strontian on the shores of Loch Sunart, Colette was feeling tired after the exertion of doing her best to keep the other cyclist in her sights. We needed a break, and luckily there is a cafe in the village. We ordered tea and cakes there, though Colette was close to hitting the wall, and found she couldn’t eat anything. She drank plenty of sweet tea instead then.

There were just 10 miles left to Salen, but this turned out to be very much up and down in nature, as we were warned by several people. It looked fairly flat on the profile from my route planner, but that was far from the case. The climbs were all very small, but the cumulative effect was quite wearing. On top of that, it was difficult to keep momentum going, as you continually had to pull in to let cars past on the single track road.

It was hard to complain when the lochside scenery was so breathtaking. We just plodded along and finally, Salen came into view, where the Salen Hotel, our overnight stop, was impossible to miss.

After dumping our stuff in the room, the next priority was cold beer, then showers. Our evening meal was great, which can’t really be said for our sleep. It was very warm in the room, but we were warned not too open the windows lest we be invaded by midges. 

 

Day 2: Salen to Dunbeg

Fuelled by a bumper Scottish breakfast, we got underway the next morning about 8.50am. After less than a mile, phones began to ping, signifying that we had left the dead zone that is Salen (the hotel did have WiFi but it had no discernible connection to the internet). We spent a few minutes in someone’s driveway uploading the previous day’s Strava and dealing with WhatsApps before getting going proper.

The theme of short, sharp undulations along the coast continued, as did the beautiful scenery. I cast my mind back to the last time I visited the area with Oliver on a fishing trip. We motored across the loch on that trip, past the island of Carna and through narrows to reach the isolated Loch Teacuis. It was an idyllic day, accompanied by dolphins and porpoises and the same glorious sunshine as our present trip.

After about 10 miles, the road started to climb more steadily. We paused at a viewpoint where the bay of Camas nan Geall came into view, before getting back onto the climb, which snaked its way inland.

Around a corner, about halfway into the climb, we got a view of the second half, rising fairly steeply to the top of the pass. It took what seemed an age to complete the climb, as we had to stop in every single passing place to let traffic past. That is the penance for cycling on these remote but scenic single track roads. You just need to be in the right mindset to accept it for what it is. I’m afraid I wasn’t quite there, and was heard to say “Oh no, not another blooming car!”, or words to that effect, with some regularity.

We passed Loch Mudle then the road turned to lead back towards the coast. There then followed a joyous descent all the way to Kilchoan, thankfully unencumbered by oncoming or overtaking traffic.

It would have been great to fit in the extra 12 miles or so to visit Ardnamurchan Point, but our timetable for the day didn’t allow it. Instead, we headed down to the jetty at Kilchoan for the ferry to Tobermory.

There was some time to kill before the ferry, so we got out our flask of coffee, which we had refilled at breakfast in the hotel. The small ferry took us over the 5 miles to Mull at a sedate pace, giving plenty of time to admire the views from the open top deck.

We arrived at the bright and bustling port of Tobermory at 12.20pm. We had about 4 1/2 hours to spend on Mull, during which time we needed to find our way down to Craignure. The options were to have a nice long sit down lunch, then take the direct route, or to buy sandwiches and fit in a detour to see some more of the island. We decided on the latter.

Leaving Tobermory turned out to be more tricky than anticipated. My route planner had picked an apparently random zig-zag up steep roads through the houses. One of the roads wasn’t at all suitable, so I had to use my actual brain to get us on the right track, aiming for Dervaig.

After a few miles, we reached Loch Peallach and decided to stop for our picnic lunch on the grass next to the Tobermory Angling Club boathouse. It was a lovely restful place to eat our sandwiches in the warm sunshine.

Continuing west, we stopped close to Loch Torr to admire a golden eagle rising above us, using the updraft from a cliff, then continue its flight along the loch. Sadly, Colette wasn’t able to catch it on her camera.

Next, we approached a climb. I could hardly believe what my Wahoo was telling me. Lots of hairpin bends ahead! And it was right. What a beautiful climb, and just the kind that they build in Europe, while here, the roads usually just run straight and steep up the hill. Add to that, the fact that it was just wide enough for cars to squeeze past, plus the scenery of course, and I was in heaven.

The view down to Dervaig

An equally hairpinny descent took us back to sea level and the village of Dervaig. The road here continued to Calgary and beyond, but it would have taken too long to go via the west coast, so we turned left instead. This alternative minor road runs southeast along a valley that cuts through the middle of the island, and as I expected (and hoped) it was very quiet.

There were plenty of cattle and sheep to be seen, but not much in the way of wildlife. We made our way through gently rolling grazing land and forest, with the view to the right dominated by a mountain ridge line. Then, as we got nearer to the east coast, we rode alongside a river and met a few cars to remind us that we were approaching civilisation once more.

We reached the east coast of the island at Aros and joined the main road, though it was still single track at this point. Shortly we arrived at Salen (the Mull one of course) and stopped for a very tasty salted caramel ice cream.

South of Salen, the road became a proper two-way affair, so we didn’t have to stop every time a car caught us up. In fact, they had to wait to pass us. The boot was on the other foot! I made sure to wave a kind “thank you” to any cars that had to wait before they could overtake.

From this point, it was pretty uneventful as far as Craignure, where the ferry to Oban departs. We had arrived about an hour before our ferry was due, so had plenty of time to buy tickets. We were also on the lookout for a coffee shop, but it was 4pm and we could hear people grumbling that it was closed already. So we just got some goodies from the Co-op and joined the queue for the ferry with a bunch of other cyclists.

The ferry to Oban was a much bigger vessel than the Kilchoan ferry. It swallowed up an unbelievable number of cars and coaches, though the space for bikes was a lot more limited. We don’t pay for them though, so you can’t complain (unless you can’t get on, of course!). We went up to the cafe and watched the world go by with a cup of tea.

It was a very comfortable crossing, and the 10 miles went by fairly quickly. After disembarking in Oban, we took a short detour to Stevenson Street, where Colette’s Dad had an office (now a Ladbrokes) many years ago. Then we rode through the town centre and north along the coast using cycle route 78.

After reaching the car park at Ganavan, we just had a mile or so of cycle path left to take us back to Dunbeg. This also included the steepest little gradient of the whole two days, but our bikes had the low gears and our legs were still working (just), so we made it without pushing.

Soon, we got the car packed up and ready for the long drive home. We were feeling elated at having such a wonderful two days of cycling, but also pretty exhausted. Anticipating that, I had left a can of Red Bull in the car to drink on the way home to keep me alert. I was kind of dreading what that stuff would be like after two days in a hot car, but actually I can attest that hot Red Bull is surprisingly tasty!

 

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10 June 2019 – Loch Lomond Cruising

Another weather window appeared, and with the west looking best, we decided to try out a route idea that had been lying dormant for some time – a loop of Loch Lomond.

The route involves a boat crossing, so it was important to get the timing right. We needed to be in Tarbet for about 11am, so we made sure to arrive in Drymen for an 8am start. It was lovely and sunny when we set off, but still a little chilly, so I wore my waterproof to start with, to keep the cold out.

We headed south out of Drymen, taking main roads as far as Croftamie, where we turned right onto a cycle path (National Cycle route 7). In fact, we could have taken route 7 from the start in Drymen but it would have been less direct. In retrospect, the surface of the A811 was so awful that I would definitely stick to the cycle route next time.

The cycle path took us out onto a network of quiet country roads, where route 7 zig-zagged southwestward. It then took us through a country park before arriving in Balloch. The road was closed some distance ahead, so the traffic was virtually non-existent here, apart from bikes. We crossed River Leven, where the moorings were jam-packed with pleasure craft, then took a minor road that went past the Cameron House Hotel, currently still undergoing renovations following the devastating fire of a few years ago.

After a short while, we arrived at Duck Bay for our first clear view of Loch Lomond, looking lovely and still on a calm, sunny morning. Cycling further north, the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path took us away from the loch and alongside the busy A82. The pavement was lumpy and uncomfortable, and the proximity of noisy traffic, combined with the lack of view, made it a somewhat unfulfilling experience. I just kept saying to myself that it was a means to an end, and the good part was still to come.

The view at Aldlochy

It took a good few miles, but we finally parted company with the main road to follow a minor road to Aldlochy, where we met the shore of Loch Lomond again. Cue more photos of the picturesque scenery. Further north, we arrived at Luss, where we hoped to stop for a comfort break, but the queue for the loo was enormous, so we just carried on.

For the rest of our ride as far as Tarbet, the route took a mixture of old (disused) road and custom-made cycle path. The latter was much better than the pavement of the first half of the ride, despite being close to the road at times, as it was much better quality and besides, we had a great view of the loch. It was just the last half mile or so before Tarbet where we found the pavement got lumpy again, but our first destination was in sight, and we had plenty of time to spare.

We stopped at the Bonnie and Ben cafe, where we had a bacon roll and coffee, and bought our tickets for the boat to Inversnaid. Our safety margin allowed us time for a rest in the sun next to the pier, while we waited for our boat, Lomond Queen, to appear. Despite there being a large gathering of schoolkids at the pier on a summer outing, it turned out that they weren’t taking our boat, so it was far from crowded. Our bikes were left resting against railings at the stern and we sat on the open top deck.

The fare was a bit pricier than I’d anticipated, but this was a pleasure cruiser, not a subsidised ferry, and it was well worth it for the experience. We were treated to some informative banter and a really restful transfer to Inversnaid on the other side of the loch, where we saw loads of walkers on the West Highland Way that runs along the east side of the loch here.

At about noon, we disembarked next to Inversnaid Hotel and were faced with a steep hill as soon as we got back on our bikes. I had prepared mentally for this, but in fact it seemed a lot less fearsome than I expected. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that we just rode up Kenmore Hill a few days ago!

After a mile or so, the road levelled off and we reached Loch Arklet, which stayed on our right until we reached a turning that took us onto the now familiar road that leads down to Aberfoyle.

Although it had been sunny up to this point, we witnessed it cloud over, with some heavy rain clearly ahead of us somewhere in the Trossachs. Well, a trip to the Trossachs isn’t complete without a shower!

As we continued our descent, the road became wet, and we spent a few minutes in the rain. By the time we reached Aberfoyle, it was sunny and warm again, but I was a bit soggy, mostly due to spray from the road and fat drops from the trees overhead.

We had another cafe stop in Liz MacGregor’s coffee shop, then emerged into what had become a hot summer afternoon. Before we got started again, we had a chat to a cyclist who had ridden over from Dumbarton. He warned us of the steep hill lying in wait for us before we returned to Drymen. Ah great, just what we wanted to know!

Oh, that looks hard!

It was route 7 all the way there, first taking us through Gartmore, then out onto open moorland. The steep climb arrived, and it was a good challenge, especially this close to the end. It certainly felt harder overall than the climb up from Inversnaid, taking us to our high point of the day, even if it was only just over 600 ft.

From there it was downhill all the way into Drymen, where we packed the bikes away into the baking car and headed back to the cooler east. We really enjoyed our day out and would certainly recommend it, despite the south part of the West Loch Lomond path being a bit tedious. It definitely is worth it for the rest of the ride.

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07 June 2019 – Dunkeld loop via Kenmore Hill

The last couple of weeks have been such a washout that when the forecast showed a dry day, we jumped at the chance to organise a trip away. According to the forecast, there was another low pressure area on the way from the south, so heading north made sense, to maximise our dry time before the rain arrived.

I planned a route from Dunkeld, heading to Kenmore then over a hill and back via Amulree. It all looked good with not a massive amount of climbing, but on further inspection, it transpired that most of the ascent would be crammed into a single whopper of a hill. Ah yes, Kenmore Hill, I remember reading about that in Simon Warren’s Cycling Climbs of Scotland book that I got for Christmas. Colette and I were going to be joined by Fiona and Alison, so I made sure that they were warned about the climb before hand. They were happy to give it a try, so the ride was on…!

Not being sure about the parking in the Dunkeld area, I suggested we meet at the Hermitage car park, off the A9 just past Dunkeld. Typically, Colette and I set off way too early, so we arrived with nearly an hour to spare. We went to fill up the car with petrol, find a loo (not easy before 9am!) and get some bits and pieces from the Co-op before parking up (£3 charge for the day). After having a drink of coffee from the flask that Colette had prepared, there was still 30 minutes to go before our allotted start time, so we got on our bikes and had a wee explore along the Hermitage trails.

We cycled as far as a funny circular building, which is known as Ossian’s Hall, overlooking an impressive waterfall and chasm through which runs River Braan. While we were admiring this, Fiona called to say that she had arrived at the car park, so we looped back to meet her. Alison then arrived (perfectly on time as usual) and we got ready for the off.

In order to avoid riding on the A9, we rode a short section of pavement before the path took us into the village of Inver, where we took another path that eventually led us under the main road and into Little Dunkeld. A grand bridge took us over the River Tay and through Dunkeld itself. At the far end of town, cycle route 77 runs off past Dunkeld House Hotel, but we avoided that, since the path would likely be very muddy after the recent rain. Instead, we stuck to route 83, which takes the minor road leading west then north from Dunkeld.

This took us uphill to start with, past Polney Loch, then it was easy going with a few miles of gradual downhill. After that, we came to the A9 and spent some miles either riding on a path parallel to the main road, or taking short offshoots on minor roads past wee villages like Dowally and Kindallachan. When we arrived at Ballinluig, we briefly joined the A827, taking us over the A9 and as far as Logierait, where we cycled over the private bridge and joined cycle route 7.

More easy riding continued, as we followed route 7 as far as Strathtay. At this point, we were ready for a cuppa, so we followed the advice of our cycling friend Lynne, who recommended visiting the chocolate shop in Grandtully. That was just a short way away, down the hill and over the bridge.

We stopped for a moment on the bridge over the Tay to admire the rapids. It brought back memories of the last time I set foot in Grandtully, the best part of 30 years ago, when taking part in a raft race with my work colleagues. Our raft got stuck on a rock in the middle of the rapids and we had to get rescued by men in wetsuits with ropes.

No such dramas today though, as we went for a coffee and scone in the chocolate shop. It was a lovely place and well worth a visit. We sat at a table outside, enjoying the novelty of some warm sunshine.

Dull…, moi?

Moving on, we crossed back over the bridge to Strathtay, and continued westwards along route 7. We caught sight of Aberfeldy as we passed at a distance on the other side of the river, then we came to the village of Dull. It was compulsory to stop for a photo. It was also appropriate that it was now clouding over, reminding us of the weather system heading our way.

It was the plan originally to stop in Kenmore for lunch, but a few miles short of that, we spotted signs for Karelia House, which serves light lunches. Sounded just what we needed, so we went to investigate. It turned out to be a cafe cum sewing/knitting shop. Colette and I were still a bit full after our previous stop, but we did need to refuel, so we went for some soup. It was good, but the cakes looked amazing. They will need to wait for a future visit with better timing.

After lunch, we continued to the lovely little town of Kenmore, where we paused for a short while to admire the view at the bottom end of Loch Tay. The climb of the day was waiting, so we got back on the bikes and rode onward to the junction where the Kenmore Hill climb started. It was a narrow road, running steeply upwards into woodland, so we couldn’t see all that far ahead. The only thing to do was get down into the lowest gear and do your best.

We all went at our own pace. My pace was going to be dictated by my heart rate monitor, where I was aiming to stay below 180 bpm. I had created a heart rate page for my Wahoo bike computer to give me something to focus on, and didn’t dare look at the climbing page, as it would have been demoralising to see such slow progress up the hill.

The slopes were very steep to start with, and even more so at the corners, then there was a long super steep stretch where it was difficult to keep the front wheel from rearing up from the tarmac. That sent my heart rate into the red for a few minutes.

We were thankful for this easy section halfway through to get some respite.

With trees on both sides obscuring the view, it was hard to judge exactly how far you’d gone, but at least they protected you from any wind. After what seemed like an age, a cattle grid sign came into view and the slope eased off. I eased off too, to bring the HR down a bit (AKA having a breather).

That easement didn’t last long though, and after reaching a house, the road turned right and a long 15% ramp began. Alison caught up with me about then and we continued together until a car came up from behind. I tried to keep to the left as much as possible, and as I did so, began to wobble off the tarmac. I put a foot down to steady myself and push off again, but it went down into a ditch. That brought me to an ungainly halt, jarring my left hip. It took a couple of attempts to get going again on the steep slope, feeling a bit stupid, but it didn’t slow me down too much.

The trees had mostly petered out and we were now riding through open countryside into a brisk headwind. Ahead, the road continued at a significant, if somewhat reduced gradient. Alison was pedalling along steadily, as if she could carry on all day. A daft grouse tried its best to stop her though, by throwing itself at her front wheel, whilst putting on a wounded decoy act. Luckily they both ended up unscathed, though it did cause some alarm and a momentary slowdown.

When we passed a small loch, I knew that we were nearing the end. From there, the road undulated across the moor, until we rounded a final corner and started going downhill, when we stopped and waited for the others to arrive.

After Fiona appeared, I backtracked a bit to take some photos and met Colette coming the other way. It took a while to get back with a convoy of 6 cars coming towards us, but once we reached Alison and Fiona, we certainly sped up on the descent. There were two lovely hairpins then a long, fast section where I was glad that no more cars were coming my way.

Alison taking on the beautiful descent to Glen Quaich

I waited at the bottom of the descent on a bridge, then we continued through Glen Quaich, past Loch Freuchie, where the choppy water was looking quite dark. We worked our way to Amulree, where we met the A822 and a bit more traffic, though it wasn’t exactly busy.

The road was mostly flat or slightly downhill, so we made good time as we returned to Dunkeld. A few miles short of the town, I sent us down a minor road to a bridge over River Braan, where we stopped to admire the waterfall.

A short distance uphill from that took us to the start of a path leading to the Hermitage. It was marked on the map as a cycle path and started out OK, but quickly became more like a narrow mountain bike track. I knew this wasn’t Alison’s type of thing, but she didn’t complain, and led the way. Fiona was at the back, and as I waited for her to come into view at a gate, heard the sound of her coming to grief. Colette and I went back to find her inserted into a bush, laughing and trying to get back up.

Fiona in a bush before we untangled her from her bike

Once we got Fiona back to her feet, we continued into the woods and followed a flowing track through the trees, which took us to the actual Hermitage – a very humble abode fashioned out of a small rock cave. From there, we continued on the lovely woodland path on our road bikes. Mine wasn’t the most suitable, as the pine needles kept clogging up the space between my tyres and the brakes.

However, the path took us onto a forestry track for the final descent back to the car park. A bit bumpy maybe but still OK for a 30+ mph flourish to the finish. All that remained was to pack away and say our goodbyes. I was so glad that everyone had a great day out, and despite the climb being so difficult, it was an experience that we all enjoyed.

I was also chuffed to have made the best use of our small weather window, and true to the forecast, we met the heavy rain on its way north as we drove back home. Kudos to the Met Office for that one!

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06 May 2019 – Zante’s hilly north

Although we have only been taking cycling holidays for a few years, they have mostly been to Spain (mainland or islands). Looking for something a little different (but still good value), we set about investigating Jet2’s other European destinations for a trip for four (Colette and me, plus cycling buddies and holiday experts Lynne and Keith). We like Jet2 packages, because not only do they carry your bike for less than most competing companies, they also include ground transport for the bike to your chosen hotel at a small extra cost. To organise that yourself would be a lot of extra hassle and expense.

After a few maybes, Lynne came up with the idea of Zante (aka Zakynthos) – a small Greek island set in the Ionian sea close to mainland Greece. For comparison, Zante is slightly smaller than the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland. You can cycle round Arran in a (long) day, where the entirety of the roads can be summed up by the Greek letter theta θ, so you might not think there would be enough to keep you occupied for a week. However, the road network on Zante is MUCH more extensive.

Lynne identified the area around Alykes as an ideal base to access all parts of the island, and we booked Hotel Clio for the first week of the holiday season, which starts at the beginning of May. I have been interested by the idea of cycling in Greece since reading Edward Enfield’s “Greece on my wheels” a few years ago. Indeed, there is a ferry from the island to the mainland port of Killini, allowing the more adventurous cyclist the theoretical possibility of riding to Olympia and back in a day. Feeling less than Heraclean however, we decided to stay put and visit as much of the Zante as possible.

Arriving at the airport, we were greeted by a very enthusiastic Jet2 rep, who was excited to see our bike bags. “This is the first time we’ve had bikes on Zante” he told us. An equally warm welcome awaited us at the hotel, where they had a delicious dinner waiting, despite our very late arrival. That was such a great start and we went to bed full of excitement about exploring Zante.

The major topographical feature of Zante is the mountain range forming a spine running from north to south. To the west of this, the area is rugged and hilly, with high cliffs on the coast. To the east, the ground is mostly flat or gently undulating, with occasional isolated hills that can either be visited or skirted around.

We had several days where we stuck to the low ground, twisting and turning our way through picturesque olive groves and vineyards on mostly very quiet roads. However, on the day in question here, we were taking on the challenge of riding the hilly north.

The route began by riding west from Alykes to pick up the main road north. Within a minute or so, we hit a hill and were down to lowest gear. The gradient was very rude, forcing us to take a breather at the first junction. A woman with a heavy-looking hire bike was there too, doing the same thing. We said hello and discovered that she was heading for Shipwreck Cove. Ah, so are we, but she wanted to take the most direct route.

The five of us then crawled up more steepness till we reached the main road, where we turned north. We wished our friend good luck and went on ahead.

From that point, the road rose steadily, bringing us out alongside the east coast, with lovely views out to sea. We passed a junction with a road leading left over the spinal mountains where there was a sign for the shipwreck, so we felt confident that our friend, who lacked a map, would be able to find her way there… assuming she hadn’t been put off by the hills already.

Soon, the road north started to take on steep undulations with gradients in the high teens, meaning very slow ups and frighteningly fast downs. Luckily the road was wide at this point, so that it could accommodate trucks going to and from the nearby quarry. Having said that, the traffic was fairly light, being early season.

We paused at Makris Gialos, where we were impressed by the rock formations alongside the beach. The rocks had been eroded to form archways and small caves which looked irresistible for swinning and snorkelling. The Blue Caves are a larger version further to the north, to which boats take tourists. They must be amazing. But we were cycling, so onwards and upwards we went…

Keith and Lynne weren’t afraid of toppling back into the sea (I wouldn’t have sat there!!!)

A bit further north, we arrived at Agois Nikolaos, where the horseshoe shaped bay is protected by a small island at its mouth. The beach is a popular tourist location, with plenty of bars and cafes. We were ready for a coffee, so it was time to choose. Colette spotted La Storia, a place right on the beach, with seating precariously close to the water. It was a perfect location for a relaxing coffee in the sun, and it helped that on an island of very variable coffee quality, this was by far the best!

From sea level, we then started a steady climb that turned inland and got gradually more intense. I reached the village at the top and stopped by a junction with sweat dripping off me. When the others arrived, they were in two minds about what I had in store next. I had planned for us cycle to the northernmost part of the island, meaning going back down to sea level, turning around and going all the way back up again.

They followed me part of the way down before saying “Nah” and turning around. The road surface here was pretty poor, meaning the descent wasn’t as much fun as it might have been. I came to the Taverna Faros, which looked like it might otherwise have made a nice place for lunch, before carrying on downwards past the lighthouse to the end of the road. I left the bike and walked up to the rocky shoreline to the furthest north point of the island. It was surprisingly un-picturesque, compared to the rest of the island, but at least I’d ticked it off!

Going back up was a bit of a slog, but the gradient wasn’t as hard as we’d done on the other side. However, the state of the road made it just as hard. I got a thumbs up from a driver passing the other direction, which made me smile.

Colette was waiting for me under a tree near the top, after which we continued to the junction where we’d congregated previously. Lynne and Keith weren’t there, and I imagined they might have gone on ahead. Colette called them to find out that they were just round the corner, where they had discovered an interesting place full of arts and crafts.

Looking at the profile of the ride, we still had another 1000 ft to climb before we reached the top of the hill and found a lunch stop, so it was back on the bikes for us. After a while, I gazed down to the left and saw far below us, the island at Agios Nikolaos where we had our coffee stop seemingly hours ago. We weren’t making very fast progress!

The climb was sunny, quiet and peaceful, and I was happy to take it nice and steady in order to enjoy the surroundings. It helped that there were very few cars on the road. However, when I was approacing a blind corner, a van came up behind me. I assumed that he would wait till I’d got round before overtaking, but he just went for it at the same time that I caught sight of a white hire car coming the opposite direction. I held out my left arm, palm facing backwards to tell him the coast wasn’t clear, but he ignored that and carried on. The oncoming car had to brake suddenly and the van nearly hit me as he squeezed back onto the right side of the road. I could have, and maybe should have, banged on the side as he passed.

Look what Lynne found!

After that excitement, we congregated at a wee place called Elies, where there was an olive press. We went in to find out how the olives are processed to produce the olive oil. That small factory is used by all the surrounding producers to process their harvest, and after that we spotted quite a number of other such places across the island.

As the climb continued, it started to cloud over and we felt a cool wind from the west. By the time we reached the top of the climb, we needed to put on all our extra layers. There was a slight descent and some more undulations to come, taking us to Volimes where we were hoping to find somewhere for lunch. During one of the uphill sections, approaching a corner, I had a repeat scare, this time involving a blue jeep-like car instead of a van. The oncoming car had to do an emergency stop, and Colette, who was just behind me, said that the driver looked shocked and needed a minute to compose himself before starting off again. I guess that’s a downside of an island with very few cyclists – the drivers don’t know how to deal with them.

We arrived at Volimes to find it looking a bit run down and deserted. I was sure that I’d seen a few tavernas shown on Google Maps when I looked earlier, so we went in search and after a few closed down establishments, found a small, slightly scruffy, roadside taverna. Although devoid of customers, there was someone serving who brought us handwritten menus. It looked a bit more pricey than elsewhere we had eaten on the island, but not much more than most places back home, so we thought why not, and ordered our food.

We were brought a basket of bread and four forks, but no plates or knives or butter, so it went uneaten. The food when it arrived was ok, but then after asking for the bill, we were brought four strawberry and kiwi tarts. Ah, what a wonderful gesture we thought, and I was just about to devour mine when Lynne said to look closer. The strawberries were covered in mould! The guy should have gone to Specsavers, but that left us with a dilemma about what to do with our toxic freebies. We wrapped them up and chucked them in the bin. Then we paid the bill and got out of there as fast as possible.

I started to feel queasy, wondering what that said about the general hygeine in the place. So off I went, and just round the first corner were some really nice clean looking tavernas, with plenty of people eating there. Damn!

I was so concerned about getting out of Volimes that I didn’t notice I’d taken the wrong turn and that the others weren’t following. I phoned the others to find that they had stopped at a roadside stall selling sweet treats that they had sampled to settle their stomachs. That gave me time to work out a detour to get us back on track.

The detour took us down some really narrow lanes that had single white lines painted down either side and also the middle. That made the individual lanes comically narrow – like maybe about 2 or 3 feet wide! We decided that they were cycle lanes, as there weren’t any cars to be seen. The fact that bushes had grown halway across in some places must mean that cars almost never use these lanes. The upside was a perfect detour through lovely quiet countryside.

All too quickly we came back on course and reached the main west coast road, which after a mile or so, took us to the junction leading down to shipwreck bay. We paused here to contemplate what came next. It was a long way down just to come back up again, but we all decided to go for it.

It certainly didn’t take long to cover the 0.7 miles down to the end of the road, where we found a busy car park. There were steps down to the top of the cliff, where people were queueing to access a metal viewing platform. From there, you get a good view of the small cove, dominated by cliffs towering all around. The sea is a beautiful blue, and there in the centre of the sandy beach is the rusting hull of a ship. You need to hold your phone in your right hand and dangle it at arms length over the drop in order to get the best photo.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the sight, but it really did live up to the hype. Without the shipwreck, it would just be another pretty cove. Without the cove, the shipwreck would be an eyesore of scrap metal.

There are pictures of the cove everywhere on the island, with boat trips running there from every port and harbour. On this day it was quite windy, which probably explains why there were no boats in the bay and there were so many visitors at the cliff viewing point.

As we started the cycle back up, a bus rounded the final corner on its way down. Keith was forced off the road, but there was just enough space for me to stay on the tarmac as it squeezed past me. We carried on up the steep but well-surfaced road to the sound of horns blaring as the bus tried to negotiate its way into the car park. I certainly wouldn’t want to drive down that road in high season!

By the time we were close to the top of the climb, I was beginning to overheat in all my extra layers, but just decided to keep going. The top seemed to take a long time to appear and I was well steamed up by the time I arrived.

The road undulated at around the 1000 ft mark as far as Anafonitria, where we were tantalised by more nice looking places that we might have had lunch. My stomach was feeling fine now though, so we’d dodged a bullet with the Volimes lunch. More undulations followed in the coming few miles until we finally started going downhill proper.

It was a nice descent, not too fast and easy to enjoy. In fact, it would have been a lot easier to climb this way rather than the anticlockwise loop we took. The east side of the island was a lot warmer than the west, and as we descended it became quite pleasant. After reaching the main road, we were onto a swooping descent round wide bends decorated with tyre marks left over from a car rally the previous day.

Looking down to Alykes

Pretty soon we were back in Alykes, where we took a detour via a beach bar for some well-earned refreshments before heading back to the hotel. Well yes, we had only done 30-odd miles, but the climbing was challenging in places, and we had seen such wonderful scenery.

Our activity map from Veloviewer shows where we went

To sum up our Zante holiday, I’m certainly very glad we went. We managed to cover the majority of the island, although there were still a few mountain crossings left to explore. There is a great variety of roads: from challenging climbs to flat and gently undulating roads meandering through the countryside. There are even a few dead straight bits of road near the airport, although they are the least interesting to be honest.

There are some negative points, like the occasional overspilling rubbish bins (which I’m informed will be cleared away as holiday season gets into full swing) and quite a number of potholes around to keep a wary eye out for. In Zante, they are in the habit of digging little trenches a couple of inches wide to run services across the road. These are not always filled in, so you either need to perfect the bunny hop or get used to the thump-thump. I wouldn’t get too hung up about the roads though, because although doing about 1000 miles of riding between us, there was only one puncture all holiday. And that was the last day, about 4 miles from the end.

But the main thing that I will take away is the stunning scenery of the island. Pretty much everywhere you go, the views are gorgeous. If the rest of Greece is anything like this, we will be back for more…

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08 April 2019 – Spring comes to Oban

We were contemplating heading out into the cold east wind on this particular day, when we noticed that out in the west, the forecast was for 16 degrees C and sunshine all day. It wasn’t long before we said “what the heck” and got the car packed up. Off we went, in the general direction of Oban, making up a plan on the way.

After a nice drive, we arrived at the village of Taynuilt, about 10 miles short of Oban. We headed out SW from the village along National Cycle Route 78. The route took us uphill for a while before opening out onto rolling countryside with a backdrop of mountains. This was rugged hill farming country, with occasional Highland cattle to prove the point.

The road was not best quality though, with potholes and deposits of gravel keeping us constantly looking for the best line, a bit like mountain biking. After about 5 miles, the road improved a bit, allowing us to take in more of the beautiful countryside as we rode along. A few more short sharp climbs and one last fast downhill brought us out at the centre of Oban.

This was a bit of a culture shock, where we sat at a junction for several minutes before we could get out into the traffic on the main road through town. We had only gone about 10 miles, but due to starting out a bit late, it was already lunch time.

We investigated the harbour area. There were some tempting seafood shacks, but nowhere to sit down. We chose to patronise the cavernous Weatherspoons instead, where we had a tasty lunch at a very reasonable price.

At the dockside, we watched ferries coming and going and soaked up a few warming rays before getting back on the bikes. Route 78 took us north out of town, along the shoreline. There were some impressive houses there, with great views out to sea across Oban’s natural protected harbour.

Leaving the town behind, we were loving the scenery. This was the first time that either Colette or I had come this way. There was an impressive sea stack, followed by Dunollie Castle, with the sound of bagpipes drifting from the ramparts and out to sea.

A mile or two beyond, the road ended at a seaside car park. However, the cycle path continued across country, with signs warning of steep gradients ahead. Steep yes, but very short, so no real obstacle to progress.

We followed this wee path till it came out at Dunbeg, then it dumped us back out on the main A85, which we cycled along for a couple of miles. There is a small car park with a view of Connel bridge, so we stopped there for a view of the Falls of Lora. This is the narrow opening where Loch Etive opens out to the sea proper. It was about halfway through the ebb tide, so the water was running strongly, creating impressive eddies and whirlpools.

Our next objective was to cross this maelstrom via the Connel Bridge. The problem here is that the crossing is a single carriageway, controlled by traffic lights. Unfortunately, cycles inevitably cause a tailback in the traffic, so the bus behind us had to wait till we were fully over before it could get past.

We followed the bus as it turned off into North Connel, then continued northwards on the route 78 cycle path. This took us past Oban’s tiny airport, where we waved to our bus driver again, who had arrived at his next stop via the main road.

My map seems to be out of date, as I was expecting to have to do the next part on the main road, but the route 78 cycle path had been recently extended northwards from here. We gladly followed it north, passing through a large campsite and onward to Benderloch. Here, we went looking for a shop to replenish water and snack rations before continuing on route 78.

At times we were routed alongside the A828, but thankfully not along it. The route then crossed the main road to the east side towards the village of Barcaldine. Here, we parted company with route 78 and turned right, in the direction of Bonawe.

Straight away, we started a climb that went on for several miles through forest. We weren’t in any hurry though, so we had the odd stop on the way. At the top of the climb, we left the trees behind and the view opened up, revealing Loch Etive in all its glory below us.

There was then a fast downhill section, where I was glad not to meet any cars coming up the opposite direction! At the bottom, we came to a kind of T-junction, where the road continued either left to Bonawe or right to North Connel, and a crow would have the option of flying straight forward about a couple of miles to Taynuilt.

Originally, I had thought of cycling as far as the dead end at Bonawe, then turning back. However, that would have added at least 4 miles so we shelved it for another time, and turned right to cycle along the shore of Loch Etive.

This was by and large a flat ride along a quiet and scenic lochside road. There were a couple of undulations though, including the one bringing us back to the Connel bridge. Again, I had to wave apologetically to the oncoming traffic, who were waiting impatiently with their light at green. I wondered if we should have cycled along the footpath, but there was no indication that I saw of it being a shared use path.

After that, we had the least pleasant part of the day, which was the 7 miles or so that we had to cycle east along the A85 to close the loop in Taynuilt. The scenery was still nice and the traffic polite, but there was quite a bit of it and we were conscious of causing a bit of a tailback at times. Ah well, it had to be done, and the sun was still shining warmly as we rolled up to the car at the end of the ride.

It was a superb day out, and we can’t wait for the next opportunity to head west and explore more of route 78…

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