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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26 March 2019 – Cycling in the Algarve

We were persuaded to take an extra cycling holiday this year (didn’t take much arm twisting) to try out a new location to us, the Algarve. We did try to visit last year, but our flight was cancelled amidst the Beast from the East, so I guess this is take 2. The Portugal exploration team comprised Colette and me, along with Alison, Janette, Fiona and Sheryl.

After one day of getting our bearings, day 2 was an assault on Foia, the highest point in the Algarve. We headed away from our hotel at Praia do Vau in the direction of Alvor, but as we reached the skydive centre, everything ground to a halt in a traffic jam. There were roadworks, which held us up for maybe 10 minutes. It might have been less, but the traffic from the other direction kept on coming when the light was green for us.

As we passed through the roadworks, Sheryl rode through a sharp hole in the road, and she was lucky not to come a cropper. Luckily she was riding a gravel bike with wide tyres to absorb the hit.

After the roadworks, the line of oncoming traffic was stationary for at least half a mile, explaining their impatience. On the narrow road, that made it impossible for the bolus of cars behind us to overtake, so we had to pull over and let them pass, which also gave a chance for a good check of Sheryl’s bike.

We then had to negotiate a triple roundabout to get us onto the N125, heading west. Although a busy road, there were wide verges on either side, which made for safe cycle lanes. At the first roundabout, we left the N125 and joined the EM532, heading north towards the hills.

This new road was quieter, allowing us to feel relaxed for the first time, although the odd car did have to squeeze past, and our experience already has shown us that the drivers in Portugal are not nearly as considerate as those in the Spanish places we’ve visited. In fact, they are no better than British drivers!

One of the potential drawbacks of the route I’d drawn up was that we didn’t pass through any towns or large villages, so we weren’t guaranteed a coffee stop until the cafe at the top of the mountain. So when we spotted a roadside cafe after only 9 miles in, we decided to stop, as we might regret it later.

The coffee was strong and bitter, needing extra sugar, but at only 70 cents a cup, it was hard to complain!

Suitably caffeinated, we got going again and took the left turn onto the CM1057 a bit further on. As we progressed, we got further and further from traffic and began to really enjoy the quiet country roads. We were passing through an area dotted with low, pyramid-shaped hills, the origin of which Fiona (our resident Geography teacher) was able to explain. But I’m glad there wasn’t a test!

Pretty flower – Cistus or rock rose

One striking thing about the hills was that they were carpeted in a type of shrub with large white flowers. Very pretty. The nature of the terrain meant the road became quite undulating here, but nothing particularly steep. It was all just the kind of thing I’d been hoping for. Slightly incongruously, we occasionally heard the noise of speeding motorbikes here, although we didn’t actually meet any on the road.

We rejoined the EM532 at Montes de Cima, where there was a decent-looking coffee shop, which we might have stopped at had we not gone for the previous one. Mental note made…

Everywhere there were reminders of recent forest fires in this region

This also marked the end of the low hills and an entry to the mountainous region. There was about a mile of quite tough climbing with gradients of 8-10% that slowed us down a bit. Not Janette though, who sailed off ahead, getting practice in for Mont Ventoux later in the year.

With the hard bit over, we regrouped then turned left at Casais, which put us onto another mile or so climb at a more enjoyable gradient. I was amused to see what looked like peas growing along the side of the road. I picked a pod as I was going and found little pea-like things inside, although I didn’t eat them, much to Sheryl’s relief. There were other wild flowers growing in abundance, including yellow lupins. It’s a botanist’s dream this place.

As we got higher and the view opened out, we could see a large race track down below, which explained the loud motorbike noises we heard earlier.

We regrouped again where a single track road led off to the right. It was marked Foia, and I had chosen to go this way up the mountain, as it was likely to be fairly free of traffic. It did look quite steep to start with, which I hoped was just some introductory steepness that would soon level off. Unfortunately, that was a vain hope. It was quite a struggle to get to the first easement of gradient, where we all gathered to get our breath back.

The real steepness begins

Hard going in places, but a lovely quiet road.

It was a lovely road, winding its way up the mountain through a forest of eucalyptus trees. But it did keep hitting us with these difficult ramps of 15%+ gradient. This section was less than 3 miles long but it seemed to take an age to complete, ending where we met the N266-3 road.

Right next to the junction, there is a layby with picnic benches, and across the road is a font where fresh spring water issues from the mountainside. It tasted good, and nearly empty water bottles were replenished.

Next, we just had to ride another mile or so to the top of the mountain, which was a doddle since the gradient was now in single figures. As we completed the final part, the trees vanished, to be replaced by a rock garden of heather. The road corkscrewed round the top of the hill, coming out at a visitor centre and radar station.

I made my way to the viewpoint area just as a squall descended and the view disappeared. A chair flew across the road from in front of the cafe and didn’t stop till it hit a rock on the other side. It was hard to stand, and then the rain started!

As the others arrived, we had to take shelter from what felt like sleet but was more probably hail that was starting to melt. More chairs took off and smashed into the bike rack – luckily missing any bikes. Alison sensibly decided to hide hers round a corner out of the wind.

We then retreated into the cafe and had lunch. As we ate, the rain stopped and it started to clear a bit but the wind was still howling. I was the only one who didn’t bring any extra layers or even arm warmers, so I was feeling cold during lunch in my damp short sleeved jersey. It didn’t help remembering the fact that you always feel colder after lunch. So before we left the cafe, I grabbed a handful of paper towels from the toilet and stuffed them up my jersey.

Standing shivering outside, I couldn’t wait for the others to get ready and just launched straight into the descent. As the road unwound round the mountain, the wind went from behind me to a full on side wind. That was pretty scary, forcing me to slow right down. I was also shivering intensely with the cold. That had a strange effect on the steering, making it feel quite wobbly. Under normal circumstances, this should have been a great fun descent, but I was just keen to get it over with.

Once we reached the eucalyptus forest, there was a bit of shelter from the wind, and despite still feeling cold, I was now enjoying myself. The road was littered with debris blown from the trees but nothing dangerous. Soon, we had arrived in Monchique, where we paused at the side of the road.

Fiona arrived also shaking with the cold, in an almost hysterical state. Alison was also shivering, and had felt the same odd effect on the steering. She even stopped a couple of times on the descent, thinking there was something wrong with her wheels. Sheryl told us how to shake our arms to get the blood flowing again, which really made a difference. It was warm in Monchique, so we got back to normal quickly and were then ready to continue the descent on the N266.

Our Jet2 rep had recommended that we visit the village of Caldas de Monchique, so we detoured through there as we passed. It was akin to a small version of Port Meirion, except that the buildings were larger and not arranged quite as photogenically. I wasn’t happy with any of my photos anyway.

We didn’t stay long as we needed to get back on the road. I had originally planned to take the N266 all the way into Portimao, but cycling through the town was a bit of a nightmare the previous day and we were keen to avoid a repeat. So a few miles further down the road, we detoured right, using a smaller and quieter road heading towards Moinho da Rocha. Immediately, we were in peaceful cycling territory again. The fact that we had a few undulations to deal with was fine by us.

Finally, we reached the EM532 again, and reversed part of the road that we had taken in the morning. We again spent a short time on the N125 before approaching the area of the roadworks. In order to avoid that, I devised a cunning plan to negotiate a maze of back roads through the suburbs. Two small problems with that though: 1) some REALLY steep undulations were involved and 2) I kept getting lost! On top of that, the wee roads were so busy with people in a hurry that I began to wish I was waiting in a traffic jam instead!

Finally, we made our way to Avenue Henry Cotton, which took us past golf courses to a roundabout where we could see our hotel. Phew, we had made it back at last.

The day was a success in that we had made it to the top of the Algarve and back as planned and found some great roads worthy of repeating. Also, we had found some less good roads that we know to avoid in the future. The Algarve definitely has good potential for cycling: it’s all about choosing the right route…

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24 February 2019: Ettrick Valley

Having left the country last month for some warmer winter cycling, February sprung a welcome surprise in the form of a brief spell of mild, sunny and calm weather. We took advantage of this to venture for the first time to the dead end at the head of Ettrick Valley. With no cafe that we knew of out there in the wilderness, we set out prepared with a picnic to have at the halfway point. What a thought – it’s still only February and we’re planning a picnic! 

Our trip started out in Selkirk, aiming to pretty much follow the Ettrick Water upstream as far as the public road will allow, which was a full 25 miles. Despite the forecast showing warm, sunny weather for mid-day, it was quite chilly and overcast when we set off, so a full four layers were required.

We left Selkirk on the A708, passing the Waterwheel Cafe before turning off left onto the B7039, crossing Yarrow Water. A couple of miles later, we joined the B7009 and met up with Ettrick Water again. 

As we closed in on Ettrickbridge, the route became a bit more undulating, at which point some de-layering was required. We stopped at the bridge, where Colette removed her top layer and squashed it into her saddlebag. By the time we’d reached the top of the climb through the village, Colette realised she’d left her camera on the ground next to the bridge and forgot to pick it up again after the luggage reorganisation. Luckily I was there to sail down and bring it back, while she waited.

A few more miles further up the valley, the view opened out and the cloud began to lift as the sun burned off the morning mist. We were on the lookout for one particular horse, which Colette always likes to stop for, to say hello. It’s a Clydesdale or similar type of heavy horse which you don’t tend to see very often, and a very impressive beast it is too.

Carrying on past the yurts, we arrived at a junction where we would normally go right, heading towards Innerleithen. Today we were going to head straight on for the first time, but before that, we paused for a quick cup of coffee from our flasks and a wee snackette to keep us going.

A bit further on, Colette called out from behind “Is that a pub?”. We had just gone past the Tushielaw Inn, but I had only just clocked a white building, no more. Rather than stop and go back, I suggested we investigate on the return leg.

Ignoring the next left turn, which would have taken us in the direction of Hawick, we carried on following the Ettrick Water. In places, the road had the feel of a proper highland glen, with damp, moss-covered ground between the trees, which were draped with lichen.

By this time the sun was shining warm and bright, illuminating us and the hills to our right in a golden light, while the mist hung on above the wooded hills to our left, making them look dark and cold.

We passed through Ettrick and quite a large caravan site with a shop (good to remember that), after which habitation became pretty sparse. The road was freshly resurfaced towards the head of the valley, which was a bonus. 

Towards the end of the road, the flat-floored valley became less wide until it formed a simple steep-sided V-shape with the river, now just a burn, running along the bottom. The public road then stopped at a turning place, though a gravel track continued beyond. I had read that there is a bothy maybe half a mile further on. I had imagined that we might continue that far and have our picnic there if the track seemed suitable and/or the bothy looked to be in a picturesque position. However, the bothy appeared to be situated next to a quarry, so we just stopped and broke out our sandwiches at the turning place. 

The sun was beating down surprisingly strongly, forcing me to strip down to two layers during our lunch stop. It was lovely and warm and peaceful, and the M&S best sarnies (that we picked up in Gala on our way to Selkirk) were pretty good too. After lunch, the layers went back on for the downhill, bringing us back to Ettrick in no time.

We paused for a look at Ettrick Kirk then pushed on as far as Tushielaw Inn once more. On close inspection, it turned out that the inn was open, so we popped in for a coffee. For a moment, I thought it might make a good lunch stop for our Monday rides, but sadly it is only open Thursday – Sunday, at this time of year anyway.

After that, we retraced our steps fairly uneventfully all the way back to Selkirk. The sun stayed out for the return trip but it was starting to get chilly again by the time we returned. We can’t really complain, as the weather was a real bonus and we were delighted at the day’s ride, discovering a lovely new road that we will surely revisit soon.


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23 January 2019: El Campello and Relleu

After last winter, we planned a getaway to the sun for this January, opting to visit the Costa Blanca again. Lynne and Keith were joining us this time, and they persuaded us to do an 11 day stay rather than a week, in case we lose any days to bad weather. The average temp for the time of year is 17 C, although last year it was mid-20s. That sounded just great. So good, that we were joined by another friend, Alison to take the numbers up to 5.

We were staying at Hotel Albir Plaza in L’Albir, about 4 or 5 miles up the coast from Benidorm. It’s a quiet resort compared to Benidorm, but that’s how we like it. We also chose this hotel partly because it has secure bike parking in the basement.

Our first ride to Guadalest was great, but on our second day we were faced with a forecast for a strong westerly wind. So we decided to take the tram west to El Campello, then ride back, hopefully with some wind assistance. That was the plan anyway.

The day started with us celebrating Lynne’s birthday with a restrained half glass of Cava, which the hotel lays on at breakfast time. Then it was off to Benidorm to catch the tram. We could have picked it up at Albir, but then we would need to change at Benidorm, so we just decided to cycle to the tram station in Benidorm and cut out the wait.

My planned route into Benidorm worked OK until one of the roads turned out to be a no entry, so Alison took it on from there, as her Garmin could re-route us to pick up my route further on. The resort city was busy with traffic and wasn’t a lot of fun to cycle through. After a while, we picked up the cycle path I was aiming for, which took us along pavement busy with pedestrians as far as the tram station.

Although we had a good 15 minutes to spare, the queue for tickets was not moving very fast, with some complicated discussions going on at the front. Alison went off to buy our tickets from an automated machine, but it didn’t like her type of credit card. I was beginning to get tense but we got served at last and pushed the bikes onto the busy L1 tram with a couple of minutes to spare.

It was a squeeze getting the bikes on, splitting up between both ends of the tram. A guard came on just before we departed and told us that the maximum number of bikes is 4. He didn’t kick one of us off, but seemed keen that we didn’t do it again!

The trip lasted about 50 minutes, standing next to the bikes all the time, but after a few people left at various stops, there at least was enough room to get our bikes out of the way and into the bike spaces. We jumped off at El Campello, leaving the tram to continue all the way to Alicante.

From El Campello, I had let the online route planner decide the best way out of town. However, it was going to take us on the main road, so Lynne and Alison came up with a quieter alternative. We then used a couple of roundabouts to cross over the N-332 and AP-7 to get us onto the CV-775 road to Relleu. The blustery wind made its presence felt as we crossed the roundabouts, nearly blowing us off our bikes.

We then left the traffic behind as we began a gentle climb into the mountains. It was sunny but not exactly warm, so we had to stay fairly well wrapped up. Still, much better weather than virtually anywhere else in Europe, so we couldn’t complain.

By the time we reached the village of Aigues, we had done over 1000ft of climbing and it was definitely time for a coffee, so we stopped at a bakery / coffee shop. There were a number of interesting looking baked goods on offer, and I chose one to share with Colette as we drank our coffees. It looked like an apple turnover, but sadly it was just sugar coated puff pastry with a hollow centre. Bad choice! I wished I’d gone for a sausage roll or pastie instead. Next time…

After leaving Aigues, we had a bit of relief for the legs with some downhill. Soon, we were being passed by some very fast cyclists, whose colours we recognised at the CCC pro cycling team. They very quickly disappeared into the distance, but were visible for a while longer, rounding some of the bends up ahead.

We reached those switchbacks after a while, and what a joy they were, especially with the occasional bit of wind assistance to make them seem easier. The view of the surrounding jagged-topped mountains was spectacular.

I decided to stop at the top of the climb for regrouping, and there in the layby was the CCC team car. A young, tall and skinny rider was standing there, holding his bike minus its back wheel, looking very cheesed off. A mechanic was finishing pumping up his tyre, and I presume he had just finished repairing a puncture, as they were not carrying any spare wheels. I asked if Greg van Avermat (the Olympic road race champion and CCC rider) was training with them today, but was told he was in Belgium, and this was the youth development team. The mechanic fitted the wheel, put the bike on the roof rack and the boy in the back. Then they all raced off to catch up the main group.

It did cross my mind to ask if they had any spare bidons that I could have as a souvenir, but I chickened out. Coincidentally, a few days later while we were waiting for a tram at Calpe, an Astana mechanic arrived to catch the tram home and happened to be carrying a bag of bidons from that day’s training ride, from which he kindly offered us one each. Astana are now one of our fave teams!!!

Anyway, after regrouping, it was mostly downhill to Relleu. I let gravity take control and got up a good amount of speed at one point, when a sudden strong gust pushed me right across the white line onto the other side of the road. Needless to say, after that I kept the speed down to a manageable level.

We arrived at Relleu on the lookout for a lunch stop, gathering on the main street to discuss where we might go. The wind was funnelling between the buildings at great force. Alison’s weather forecast said to expect wind gusts to 76 kph, and it felt every bit of that. We went into the Balcon de Relleu and ordered simple bocadillos for lunch.

After Relleu, there was a lot of descending till we met the CV-770 at a right turn. We had to do that very carefully, as the swirling wind could catch you by surprise at any time. Though mostly, the sight of madly thrashing bushes just ahead was enough warning to kill the speed a little and be prepared.

We turned left onto the CV-758 after a short while, taking us steeply down then steeply up before the slope moderated on the run-in to Finestrat. Another coffee stop was called for there, before the last proper climb of the day out of Finestrat. The wind might well have helped us here, as I remember feeling that it was quite easy.

Wanty-Groupe Gobert sped past as we were having coffee in Finestrat

After that, we descended safely to meet the busy CV-70 at a roundabout. Making use of a bit of cycle path then side roads, we managed to get back to Albir without coming across much traffic at all. The only traffic problem came as we tried to pass under a bridge in Albir, where the traffic goes from driving on the right to driving on the left as you pass under, then back to the right again. God only knows why they chose to do that, but it was the cause of much beeping of horns.

Soon after, we had parked the bikes safely in the underground car park and were planning our trip to an Indian restaurant for Lynne’s birthday. It had been a great sunny day of cycling that might have been perfect if it weren’t for the wind, and perhaps a slightly less stressful tram journey would have helped.

To give the tram its dues, we went the opposite direction to Calpe and found the L9 tram line a bit less busy and better suited to carrying bikes. With five of us, the tram was always going to be potentially problematic, but for a couple it would be ideal, as the tram opens up so much more area for cycling. Otherwise, you might run out of routes after a week.

With the 11 days in the sun over, we arrived back in Edinburgh to snow. It isn’t going to be easy to get motivated to cycle in the cold again…

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06 December 2018 – Turbo time again…

As winter bites and the chances to get out for a good bike ride are few and far between, a lot of us dust off the old turbo trainer again. To make it a bit more bearable, we have had the likes of Zwift to help keep us motivated as we pedal away in front of the telly. I’ve been using Zwift for a few years now (see December 2015) and still find it useful.

As described in the original post, I started off with a BTwin trainer and an old Macbook. I then progressed to a PC (bought a 2nd hand one which I dedicated to Zwift) and upgraded my trainer to Tacx Satori Smart. By the time the PC broke down, Zwift had become available on Apple TV, so I got one of those, as it was cheaper than buying a new computer. Now I am very happy with my Zwift experience, though I might yet be tempted to upgrade my monitor from 720p to full HD or even 4K.

While I’m a big Zwift fan, Colette finds it a bit too “cartoony” to hold her interest. Some of my friends have been looking into alternatives to Zwift recently (prompted mostly by the 60% price hike in subscription charge) so I decided to check them out too, in case Colette might prefer them to Zwift. In particular, I am looking at options that show real life videos of cycle routes where you can move along at a speed determined by your own power.

In total, I’ve compared 3 options: Fulgaz, Rouvy and BigRingVR. The former is on Apple TV, while the two others I got working on my PC (yes, I eventually got my PC working again after replacing the dying hard drive).

Rouvy (https://rouvy.com/en/)

Free trial: 14 days

Cost (monthly): $7.99 – $12 (standard vs premium)

Platform: PC, Android, iOS

Rouvy has lots of video rides available, and even more without video, but I’m not really interested in them. The routes are from all over, which is good, as I like to alternate between rides I know and those that are completely new to me, as well as ones that I would like to try in the future. The highest quality rides are HD, and include about a dozen or so Augmented Rides, with animated riders and features that pop up to give you extra info. A bit gimmicky maybe, and slightly reminiscent of 1980’s Doctor Who special effects. If you can ignore that, I found the video quality was excellent, and even when I was going slowly up a steep climb, the video stayed very smooth.

The Augmented Rides I tried were downloaded before riding, which is just as well, because my internet is not capable of streaming HD video. There are also 30-odd premium routes, including many classic climbs, but they are streaming only. Predictably, I wasn’t able to get any of these to work. Also, the premium rides are only available on the premium subscription.

The remainder of the videos are of variable quality, some of which were too wobbly for me to use at all without feeling seasick. The Trek Factory Racing ride from Lluc to Orient in Mallorca was not best quality, but I enjoyed it as I remembered the roads from my hols. Colette wasn’t quite so impressed.

At the end of a session, I like to save my workout, so that I can keep tabs on how much I’ve been doing. I prefer not to save turbo rides to Strava, keeping that just for real life rides, so I save to my MapMyRide account. Rouvy doesn’t do this automatically at the end of a ride, but does offer a 1 click upload. That seemed to transfer the route, distance and time OK, but somehow I ended up with a 55mph average speed! This may be more a problem with MMR than Rouvy.

BigRingVR (https://www.bigringvr.com/)

Free trial: 7 days

Cost (monthly): $10

Platform: PC, Mac

I found this one not quite so intuitive to use at first, but soon got the hang of it. There are about 250 videos to choose from here, but the number of countries is more limited than Rouvy, with none from the UK for example. Lots of the classic rides from the Alps are available, along with some Mallorca and Costa Blanca routes that I am familiar with.

The makers of this package have made sure that only high quality videos are used, and these can be downloaded in advance if you have a less than perfect internet connection. Only 2 downloads are allowed at any one time during the free trial, so you need to plan ahead.

I tried out the Sa Calobra ride. This was the second time I’d done it; the first being a few years ago in real life. It was just as hard, and there were no stops for photos or at the cafe near the top either, unlike last time. On the plus side, I did complete it quicker. The video quality was great throughout, though by the tine I was halfway up I really couldn’t care any more! One weird thing: I didn’t see a single bike in the video. Maybe it was midsummer and far too hot, and could explain why the video was taken from a car.

I would have loved to show one of the screenshots from my workout, but for some reason they failed to show any of the video.

BigRing downloads a .TCX file containing your workout into a folder on your PC after every ride. It was easy to upload this to MapMyRide and it transferred all the info perfectly.

FulGaz (https://fulgaz.com/)

Free trial: 14 days

Cost (monthly): £7.49

Platform: Apple TV, iOS

This is the only competitor to Zwift on the Apple TV platform, focusing on high quality video rather than the multiplayer game-like experience that Zwift provides. After an initial test that seemed to go OK, I read in the FulGaz FAQ that the software doesn’t support my Satori Smart trainer. Well, after finding that out, I had a hell of a time trying to get it to connect again.

FulGaz on the road to Orient. Photo taken on a 26″, 720p TV

After a lot of trial and error, I think I might have found a method that works… Firstly I start up Zwift and make sure it recognises the trainer at the pairing screen, then I quit Zwift (or pull the plug and restart Apple TV), open up FulGaz and (sometimes) the trainer is recognised. After that, it’s all good. I think it’s all about getting the trainer in the right “mood” for pairing. Maybe this will improve with a future update to the app, but equally, it might stop working altogether.

There is a big range of videos to choose from, and like BigRingVR, only good quality ones have been selected. The usual suspects are here, including Mallorca rides, but not much from Costa Blanca. There are a good number of UK routes, which was very welcome. We found a ride up Glen Nevis (confusingly titled “Arbroath Smokie”). Colette loved riding up the glen that she knows so well from her early years, and it held her attention all the way to the end.

One plus point for having the app on Apple TV is that it handles 4K video. Many of the FulGaz videos are shot in 4K, so with a suitable telly you will get the best lifelike experience possible.

As for saving workouts to MapMyRide, that was possible using the .fit files that are emailed after every ride. You need to save the file then upload to MMR. I did this, but MMR didn’t recognise any of the route data, only the ride summary. I think this is a MMR problem, as I got the same .fit file to upload fine to Garmin Connect.

End of round 1

At this stage, we need to say goodbye to one of the contestants. All do a really good job, and they have their unique plus points. In the end, although I like lots of things about Rouvy, the fact that the number of high quality videos is limited and only available for streaming, means we can rule it out at this stage. Thanks Rouvy, great effort!

The grand finale

How to pick between FulGaz and BigRingVR??? A head to head was the only way to decide. For this, I downloaded the Cap Formentor ride on both platforms and asked Colette to test ride them one after the other. I also borrowed a full HD TV from the living room for the best experience.

BigRingVR looking great on a big TV, at the start of the climb from Puerto Pollensa.

We started with BigRingVR, running on the PC, which looked clear and smooth in HD. You almost felt like you were really there. So far, so good.

Then I tried to get FulGaz running on the Apple TV. I tried all of my tricks but to no avail: it wasn’t for starting this time. So Colette went back to BigRingVR on the PC, which allowed her to restart her ride from where she left off – a great feature.

So there you have it. After a technical KO, it looks like BigRingVR wins the day. We’re definitely going to sign up for the next few months at least, while we need the turbo the most. With so many routes to explore, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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