31 July 2020 – Kinloch Rannoch and Loch Tummel

Now we are on Phase 3 of lockdown lifting, it was high time that we did a proper away trip. I thought we should head up north and explore some more roads around Kinloch Rannoch. For that, I knocked up a route using Strava’s new updated route planner, seeing as I’m now paying for it in my Strava subscription. Some of the routing around Pitlochry seemed to use paths rather than roads, but I just had to trust that these would be cycleable.

So we set off bright and early with a fantastic weather forecast to look forward to. Arriving at House of Bruar about 8.15 am, we were too early to get a coffee at the shop, but Colette had planned ahead and packed a flask. We got set up, self caffeinated and departed in the direction of Calvine.

Being early, there was a bit of a chill in the air, so I wore arm warmers to begin with, and the road was still wet from yesterday’s rain. There wasn’t much risk of skidding on the wet road though, as they are built grippy up here.

After Calvine and Struan, we followed the road to Trinafour, which we have done a number of times before. The roads rapidly dried out in the morning sun and my arm warmers came off too. Six miles in, there was a hill waiting for us, but we were warmed up enough to take it in our stride. I stopped to wait for Colette at the first junction after the start of the hill, where the road to Tummel Bridge branches off left. I assumed that we would be taking the direct route to Kinloch Rannoch, which we have done previously, and was slightly disappointed that I hadn’t though to plan to take the other road, as last time we passed, I said that we really need to explore it. Well, as it turned out, Strava had created the route so that we actually took the left turn instead of the direct option and I never realised!

It was a lovely wee climb on a pretty decent road surface and didn’t actually take that long to complete. After that, it was a fast descent all the way down to the B846, where we turned right to head for Kinloch Rannoch. This part of the road had its undulations to slow us down, as well as fantastic views down to the white water of River Tummel on our left.

We reached Kinloch Rannoch shortly after 10am and kept our fingers crossed as we stopped at the cafe. Unfortunately it wasn’t open till 11am, so we were going to miss out on coffee unless we wanted to hang around for nearly an hour.

I remembered seeing a coffee machine in the mini market the last time we visited, so we headed there, donned face coverings and joined the queue to enter the store. Unfortunately, they had to shut down the self service coffee machine, as it posed a risk of Covid contamination apparently. So we made do with a bottle of water and a Lion bar for our morning break.

From Kinloch Rannoch, we headed southeast on the Schiehallion road. We hadn’t got far when I realised that Colette was no longer behind me. I stopped to see if there was a problem and then I understood… there was a big herd of red deer in the field to our right. Photo time for Colette, and also other passing motorists.

This stop also gave us our first glimpse of the triangular shape of Schiehallion mountain in the distance. Very soon, we were climbing; first through woodland, then open countryside. It was all very picturesque despite the sun occasionally being hidden behind high clouds. That might have been a blessing in disguise, as it was hot enough already to be climbing some steep gradients.

It was perfect highland cycling, with very little in the way of vehicular traffic to trouble us on the singletrack road. That was until we reached the Schiehallion car park, which was full to overflowing. Cars were trying to find places to park all along the verge, despite there being signs saying not to.

We left that behind and continued cycling till we had reached halfway through our route. That meant that we could now stop and have our picnic! We found the ideal place to stop at Loch Kinardochy. A short walk from the road took us to a shed belonging to the local angling club, with a couple of bright green fishing boats berthed alongside. We were out of the wind and the sun came back out in time for us to have a lovely restful lunch with a fantastic view across the water. It reminded us very much of our lunch stop last year on our cycle through Mull.

Soon after getting back on the road, we took a left turn and a short climb took us to the high point of the day (just under 1300 ft), before getting into another rip-roaring descent. I was enjoying it too much and missed the right turn to Foss. Luckily, my Wahoo started bleating at me to say I was off route and was able to turn around in time to prevent Colette from making the same mistake.

We continued a gentle descent to Foss and the south bank of Loch Tummel on a narrow singletrack road. I noticed a sign saying something to the effect of: “New gate across road – no parking beyond this point”. It did worry me slightly, but as it turned out, it was a complete fabrication, designed to persuade motorists to turn back. And by the time we’d reached the east end of the loch, we understood the motivation behind the sign…

There were cars parked on the grass verges all along the road next to every potential lochside wild camping spot. Families could be seen enjoying the fantastic weather, splashing in the water alongside their tents and BBQs. I’m fairly sure the locals weren’t enjoying the influx as much, and I’d be prepared to wager that there are far more lochside campers this year that any year before.

Soon, we came upon a tractor trying to cut the grass verges. It was having to leave large spaces uncut due to the cars parked there. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get past, but he pulled slightly to the left, leaving about 18 inches of road on the right. I decided to give it a go, but it wasn’t a very appealing prospect, as these were muddy inches of road, with a sharp drop from tarmac to grass at the side.

I got past the tractor and shouted thanks just as my rear wheel skidded on the mud, forcing me to correct, which took me right out in front of the tractor, almost under the front wheel. I was glad that I didn’t fall at that point, or else things could easily have ended badly! Colette had clearly seen this and was reluctant to follow. After a while, the tractor pulled a bit further over and she managed to get past as well. Phew!

Not enough room to pitch a tent here!

The lochside road was pleasant enough, but we had to keep our eye out for oncoming cars, which seemed to arrive in small convoys of about three. Sometimes the third car wasn’t really paying attention, and didn’t notice you till the last minute. Colette commented that while there were lots of oncoming cars, there weren’t any wanting to overtake us. I wondered whether that grass cutting tractor was causing mayhem on the singletrack road, with all the potential passing places full of parked cars…? Accidentally on purpose…?? The locals strike back!!!

The road strayed away from the side of Loch Tummel, and suddenly there were no more parked cars. We stopped at a large monumental arch, which marked the entrance to the Clunie dam and power station. There was a large car park here, which was predictably empty!

Soon, we arrived at Clunie foot bridge, which runs over River Tummel, wide and slow at this point, and dwarfed by the big concrete bridge alongside, which carries the A9 across the river. Strava had routed us across this bridge and some tracks beyond, which turned out to be almost non-existent in places.

We carried our bikes over a wall and up steps, which we might have found annoying, but it gave a bit of variety and it didn’t last all that long before we made our way back to tarmac just to the north of Pitlochry. On the other hand, it has made me wary of trusting Strava routes in future. Maybe I can do something in the settings to exclude off-road paths…???

We cycled along the B8019 towards Killiecrankie, where Colette suggested we stop at the visitor centre, since we still hadn’t found a coffee stop. Unfortunately, despite initial high hopes due to the car park being quite busy, the visitor centre and shop, and importantly, the toilets, were all closed.

Ah well, Blair Atholl wasn’t far away. We stopped at the Spar there, and Colette went in search of ice cream. She emerged triumphant, and we promptly adjourned to a bench in the small park alongside for sedentary enjoyment of those pots of sweet delight. We’re easily pleased, us.

The final leg to Bruar was flat, then false flat, so it should have been easy apart from a slight problem with one of my bottle cages. The bolts had come loose and I didn’t have the correct sized Allen key, so I had to keep stopping and doing my best to tighten them up by hand.

When we arrived at House of Bruar, Colette went in for takeaway coffee while I wheeled both bikes back to the car, wondering why on earth I decided to leave the car at the far end of the car park. After packing everything away, Colette arrived carrying coffee that was far superior to anything we’ve had out of Bruar for years. Maybe they’ve upped their game, or maybe we were just so glad to find coffee at last, any coffee, even though it was right at the very end of the ride.

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01 June 2020: Escape from lockdown, phase 1

After several weeks of coronavirus lockdown, Colette and I settled into sort of a routine. Of course we stayed home. Exceptions to that were the weekly shop (i.e. pickup of click & collect from the local Tesco) and near daily exercise, consisting of short local cycle rides in the uncannily good weather.

I made sure to follow the advice of the Scottish government. Professor Leitch repeated pretty much the same line as Michael Gove gave initially: up to one hour of walking, running or cycling per day was acceptable, starting from home. In England, the recommendation was later softened so that there was no time limit, but I saw no such proclamation for us north of the border. Eventually, we were told on 11 May that we could go out for exercise more than once, which was interpreted by most as go as long as you like, as long as you start and finish at home.

For my own part, that wasn’t much help, since an essential ingredient of the longer ride is a cafe stop. OK, the cafes aren’t going to be open now, but we at least need to be allowed to stop and have a nice picnic. So in the interim, we just stuck to our short solo cycles, where I took the opportunity to go that bit faster and enjoy my new carbon road bike, and push a few PRs into the bargain.

Then everything started to change with Phase 1 of the easing of lockdown. We were now allowed to stop for a picnic and to drive a short distance to the start of our exercise activity. Nicola did suggest a 5 mile limit for the drive, but in the next breath said that it would not be policed. To me, that sounded like “use your judgement”. It didn’t take long for us to start hatching a plan for a picnic ride…

We had heard that the car parks at many of the beaches in East Lothian had been closed, leaving the beaches pretty much deserted. So if we arrived on bikes, we could have a safe, socially distanced beach picnic. One of our favourite beaches is at Seacliff, close to Tantallon Castle. While it was possible for us to reach that beach on a day trip from home, it would be a lot easier to drive to Longniddry to start instead.

So that is what we did. We got set up quickly in warm sunshine. I had taken my hybrid bike so that I could take all the picnic things in panniers, including the bulky but essential picnic rug.

We headed for the coast road and quickly found that it was getting much cooler, requiring a stop to put on arm warmers. A haar (mist) was hanging over the coastline, reducing the visibility and temperature, while a few hundred yards inland it was lovely and warm.

Once we reached Aberlady, we moved away from the coast using the “quiet road” to Fenton Barns. It was warmer again, so the arm warmers came back off.

We continued to Kingston, where we turned left and headed towards North Berwick, passing Berwick Law on our right. After turning right at the traffic lights, we could feel the cooling effect of the haar once more, so arm warmers went back on.

It was only a few miles to Seacliff from here, so I was concerned that we would find the beach enveloped in mist and not really the best place for a picnic. We were going to give it a go anyway, but I started thinking of alternative picnic locations, just in case.

We passed Tantallon Castle (closed, like everything else at the moment) and a couple of minutes later, we reached the start of the road leading to Seacliff. The carriageway was mostly blocked off, with a car park closed sign and a man on a chair policing access to the private road. Luckily, as we were on bikes, he waved us through.

We squeezed past the barrier where you would normally pay your £3 for access to the beach car park and continued down to the beach. We found the beautiful sandy beach to be completely deserted and bathed in warm sunshine, while a fog still persisted over the sea, completely blocking out the view of Bass Rock, or even the lighthouse at the south end of the beach.

I set up our picnic blanket on the sand, along with our sandwiches, crisps, fruit and flask of coffee. It was a little early in the day, but who cares! It was time to relax and enjoy our supremely socially distanced beach outing. The only sign of any other people was a 4×4 parked at a jaunty angle next to the tiny harbour hewn into the rocks at the far end of the beach to our left.

A short while later, three policemen also noticed the car and we saw them in the distance going off to have a word with the owner. In the meantime, I lay down on the blanket, while Colette went walkabout along the beach, looking for things to photograph. She was hoping to find gannets diving into the water, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen. However there were terns and nesting fulmars to watch.

All this time, the haar was gradually lifting, so that Bass Rock and the lighthouse finally came into view. We stayed until the guano-covered rock was bright with sunshine, then it was time to pack up and leave.

Once back up the steps to the road where we left the bikes, I removed my shoes and socks to shake out the surprisingly large amount of sand that had worked its way in. We got the bikes ready to leave, but as we were just about to go, the three policemen appeared to check us out.

They asked where we’d cycled from. Colette said Longniddry, which they appeared to find reasonable. “Are you going any further?” asked one. “No, we’re heading back,” I replied. “Good”. I was glad we didn’t mention having driven to Longniddry!

Anyway, it seemed like a nice way to spend the day as a copper, and preferable to policing an overcrowded Portobello beach, which they did at the weekend. We said cheerio and headed off, round the one way system and back to the barricade, where we waved to the deeply tanned man in the chair, before turning left onto the main road.

A short couple of miles took us to Whitekirk, where we turned off the main road and headed southwest. A left turn took us steeply downhill and past Binning Wood. This was a poignant moment for Colette, as one of her friends had been laid to rest there the week before, but due to social distancing rules, she was not able to attend the funeral.

We then rode through East Linton, looking lovely in the sunshine, then turned right to go uphill out of town. I paused just beyond the left turn at the top of the climb to keep clear of traffic. Colette was ready to continue onto the big downhill on the other side before she spotted me at the turnoff, in a mixture of disappointment for having that opportunity snatched away, and also relief in not doing it then having to come all the way back up!

Through Markle and Athelstaneford, we apparently made good time, most likely due to the modest easterly breeze at our backs. I did have a slight problem at that point though, as I was having difficulty uncleating with my left foot. It just wouldn’t come out until I started toppling to the left and all my weight went down on my left foot. That was a bit concerning, so Colette went ahead at junctions, stopping to look and giving me the all clear so that I didn’t need to risk stopping myself.

We were nearly all the way back in Longniddry before it occurred to me that I could uncleat the right foot instead! It’s amazing how set in your ways you can become. Once we were back at the car, I extricated my left shoe for the last time and found, as I suspected, that one of the cleat bolts had fallen out.

With our picnic urge satisfied, we headed home. When we turned on the TV, we discovered that Nicola Sturgeon was not impressed by the number of people flouting the rules of Phase 1 at the weekend, in particular the 5 mile limit for travel to exercise. She was even considering putting it into law. That made me feel uneasy about our trip today. I am certain that what we did was not risky in any way, but I’m not happy going against specific rules. So car-assisted cycles are out for the meantime, and longer, further-ranging cycles starting from home are in…

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18 April 2020: My virtual century ride

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on and we stay safely indoors, people have looked to home-based challenges to give themselves something to focus on. We have had 99 year-old Captain Tom doing laps of his garden, and also Geraint Thomas doing three 12-hour shifts on Zwift in his garage, to mimic an NHS working week. Both of them were fundraising for NHS charities.

I joined G on Zwift for a small part of his challenge and when I finished after 2 hours, I found that I was feeling tired but fine. And by “fine”, I mean that my bum wasn’t sore!

The dreaded sore bum is a common occurrence, and well known to anyone who has ever used a static bike indoors. However, since changing saddles a few months ago, I have chanced upon a combo that is really comfortable. (…and if I might digress for a bit, that is specifically the Vertu saddle, a dirt cheap knockoff of the Tioga Spyder. It is basically a plastic saddle with a web-like mesh of holes. This makes the saddle that bit more flexible and springy, and therefore comfortable. However, it is essential to have some good padding between the saddle and your buttocks, otherwise they will end up with a crazy-paving-like imprint. So for belt and braces, I have added a gel saddle cover on top, and always wear padded shorts, of course.)

OK, all this meant that I could think about doing my own Zwift challenge. Not for any particular cause, but just to see if I could do it. I don’t exactly have much else to do. So I decided to aim to ride 100 miles in the virtual world of Watopia, all from the comfort and safety of my own home.

It would take a certain amount of planning, although not as much as a real-world 100 mile ride. First and foremost, I wanted it to be as genuine an attempt as possible, so I transferred the power meter crank from the road bike to my turbo trainer bike, as it is far more accurate than the power meter built into my Satori Smart trainer. Then I went to bed the night before wondering whether 2 or 3 breaks would be best, and when to take them. It began to niggle during the night that I hadn’t done any build-up rides. After all, I wouldn’t dream of riding 100 miles in real life if I hadn’t done any rides of much more than 20 miles in the past couple of months. The caveat to that was that I wouldn’t actually be moving an inch, so I could abort any time I liked. That settled it, and I was able to get to sleep.

I was up nice and early next morning, aiming for an 8am start. I had a good breakfast and got set up on the bike with a bunch of snacks alongside and two water bottles. I set off along the “Tempus fugit” loop, which runs through the desert and is popular because it is just so flat. It should be the speediest way to reach 100 miles.

Additionally, I was careful not to go too fast at the start, in order to conserve energy. I planned to keep the heart rate below 130, but even so, I felt my legs weren’t happy, which was a worry.

After two and a half laps of Tempus fugit, I decided to have a change of scene and headed downtown. That involved the odd short incline, during which I pushed a little harder, to save me slowing down too much. The increased effort made my legs feel better, so I decided to stick with the slightly increased work rate.

I ended up at the volcano and found myself riding round the counter-clockwise volcano loop.  This turned out to be a good idea, as it involved a bit of downhill, where I could stop pedalling and stand up on the pedals for a stretch while my avatar freewheeled. At that moment, top AG2R rider Romain Bardet and some of his teammates swept past me. Always good to spot some pros when on Zwift, and most of them are doing it now, even Chris Froome.

At 40 miles in, I had decided to take a break, so I went upstairs and made myself a sugary espresso, refilled the water bottles and also put some potatoes in the oven for lunch. After I’d finished my coffee and a small snack, I went back to the “pain cave”, picked up towel number 2 and got back at it.

It seemed like a good idea to stick with the volcano loop. Each time you complete a lap, you pass a counter that increases by one. There is a special achievement for going 25 laps, so I thought I might as well aim for that.

By somewhere around 50 miles in, fellow Zwifter James O’Neill had spotted that I was up to something, and commented on our Zwifting WhatsApp group: “Alan P smashing in a big Zwift effort currently”. So the cat was out the bag and I had to fess up about going for the century.

I passed the metric century mark (100 km = 62.something miles) and was still feeling good, so it was full steam ahead (well, about 2/3 steam actually) for the 100 mile goal. Messages of encouragement came in, keeping me focused.

Colette had been out riding in the real world, then returned with an espresso in hand. The potatoes were nearly ready, so I decided to pause for lunch at 75 miles. I bounded upstairs, still feeling surprisingly sprightly. My baked potato was was lovely with cheese and coleslaw. I took time for a cuppa, then water bottles were refilled and towel number 3 taken.

I rode night and day…

When I got back on the bike however, my legs decided that they had other ideas. I was able to continue cycling, but at a lower intensity, which was steadily decreasing. Then at about the 90 mile mark, my bum finally started to feel uncomfortable too. The encouraging comments over WhatsApp were really helpful to keep me going.

It wasn’t until nearly 99 miles that I reached the goal of 25 volcano laps, and I was officially “On Fire”! You’re not kidding! After that, I just had to limp on slowly until I pedalled past the 100 mile goal, continuing for a little more till I got to the downhill section and stood up for the final time before dismounting.

So it was over, taking a total of 5 hours 25 minutes of cycling time, at an astonishing average of 18.5 miles per hour. There is no way in real life that I could complete the distance in that time, but I know my watts were as accurate as I could get, and not exactly stratospheric at that (126 W average)! It’s just the way Watopia works and it’s the same for everyone, so I’m not complaining. I’m certain that I couldn’t have kept going for another hour!!!

It was a good feeling to have achieved the challenge, so I put my feet up for a good long rest, only disturbed by a couple of bouts of cramp (ow ow ow!!!). Will I do another Zwift challenge? Well probably not this one again, but if the lockdown continues for the foreseeable future, I’m sure to find another…

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07 April 2020: Cycling in a lockdown

Coronavirus, social distancing, self isolation, unprecedented; just some of the candidates for word of the year 2020. It came out of the blue and turned our lives upside down, as we all stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. Some people have had it really hard, but as a retired couple whose main pastime is cycling, Colette and I have been less badly affected than most. On one hand, we’ve missed out on two big foreign cycling trips that we’ve been looking forward to for months, but at least we can still continue to cycle locally.

That’s because cycling is one of the permitted exercise activities (in addition to walking and running) during the lockdown that started on 23 March. The number of times a day you can exercise, and for how long is not specified in law, but in providing clarity, government minister Michael Gove stated that one session a day of duration 1 hour for a walk, 30 minutes for a run and between 30 mins and an hour for cycling would be appropriate. Though he did say that it depended on an individual’s fitness.

How to interpret these guidelines is down to the individual, but as long as social distancing can be effectively observed during the exercise, I can’t see a problem with going out for more than an hour, especially for someone of above average fitness. For my own part, I have decided to plan rides that should take about an hour, but not beat myself up if it takes a little longer to complete.

In a way, we have gone back to the beginning of this blog, where we were cycling exclusively in Midlothian. Luckily, there are plenty of local roads to devise rides of 15-20 miles distance, and I can mix it up a bit so that we’re not doing the same routes all the time.

For some reason that we haven’t figured out yet, Colette and I prefer going out on our rides separately now. Maybe we just need some apart time, and it means that we can concentrate on going at our own pace, although strangely, Colette seems to be going faster on her own than she would with me!

Moving on to the day in question, Colette got out nice and early while I was still pondering whether to go at all, as I’d had a bad night’s sleep. The news that the prime minister had been taken into hospital the night before with worsening Covid19 symptoms was worrying. That, combined with a pulsing septic finger (the result of a chainring bolt tightening accident), made for a poor night’s rest.

However, the sun was shining, so I got my bike out and tried holding the bars and changing gear. The finger was fine, so I had no excuse – it was time to get off my backside.

I got ready and set off. It was quite a chilly morning, but the sun cut through that a little and the first hill, heading south from Middleton lime works warmed me up proper. Not that I was going hard at it, I had already decided to take it a little easier and enjoy the ride.

By the time I reached Esperston and turned left alongside the green conveyor belt, I was feeling great. You don’t need to cycle for long to appreciate the uplift to the spirit. Out in the countryside, all was carrying on as normal. The birds in the sky. the lambs scurrying back to mother when they noticed me getting close, and the sun warming my back. I was so glad that I decided to get out rather than sit on the couch and watch another hour of News24.

I turned right at the T-junction just before Yorkston. I often rush at the steep little hill that takes you there, but this time I approached at moderate speed. That soon became a crawl in bottom gear, but it didn’t bother me. Turning left at the houses took me through the farm and down to Rosebery Reservoir on the rapidly deteriorating single track road.

The reservoir was predictably quiet. The fishing season is now upon us, but nobody is allowed to go fishing. I carried on past the reservoir and turned right onto the B6372, followed soon after by a left turn onto the saw mill road. That road is really a rough track, with large patches of loose gravel. Gravel really is one of my least favourite surfaces to ride on, and my 25mm tyres didn’t really cope with it that well.

After the gate, it was more of a standard landrover track, with two parallel lanes of hard packed earth either side of grass. It was a brief but fun off-road interlude, ending in a steep descent to the bridge at Edgelaw Reservoir and a bumpy finish taking me back to tarmac.

A short climb to Edgelaw farm was followed by a long, straight and highly enjoyable downhill freewheeling opportunity, taking me out at Parduvine. I then headed to Carrington, and started to meet quite a few individual cyclists, out for their daily exercise quota. We kept well apart! In Carrington itself, there was a council team out filling potholes with the hose that blows hot tar in. That’s the type of temporary fix that doesn’t normally last long, but with the lack of vehicle traffic in the current lockdown, who knows, it may even still be there the next time I go past!

After Carrington, I headed for Birkenside, passing Arniston House. The wind was behind me, aiding my progress, as did the traffic light which turned green on my approach. I turned right there onto the A7, which has been noticeably less busy in recent weeks, but even so, I took a right turn at Fushiebridge to go up the hill on the minor road. I much prefer it to the A7, as it’s so much smoother. It’s also much prettier, with the double hedges at the bottom and the pond near the top, where it’s always nice to have a quick stop to see what kind of birdlife is currently in residence.

From there, it was a quick pedal home, where I arrived feeling recharged in body and spirit, and so glad that I’d made the effort. You certainly don’t need to ride far to feel the benefit. Let’s hope that outdoor cycling remains on the permitted list so that we can stay sane until life eventually returns to normal.

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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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