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Argyll & Bute : Big ride

Marc Abbott
27 Apr 2016

Cyclist samples the deserted climbs, picturesque lochs and precipitous descents of Argyll and Bute.

The top of the climb is just up there, about 200 metres away,’ encourages my riding partner, Campbell. But with visibility reduced to no more than 100m, I raise my head hopefully only to be met by a low cloud of Scottish mist obscuring the next turn and final kick to the summit. Hauling myself from the saddle, I struggle for traction on the damp forest road. Climbing with as much weight over the rear of the bike as possible, I grovel slowly towards this misty vista, turning a 34/28 gear that still makes every revolution an effort. 

I’m pedalling a combination of squares and vertical lines, as the rear tyre slips with every other turn of my grinding cranks. Rounding the sharp left-hand turn, hugging the outside of the bend to find an easier gradient, I power through the drizzle, only to spy another steep ramp ahead through the haze. ‘Almost there,’ Campbell reassures. ‘Just the other side of that cloud.’

Coastline cruising

Stepping from the warm and welcome environment of our B&B, the rain of last night has blown over, and we’re greeted this chilly Scottish morning by a sky of fast-moving clouds shot through with tantalising streaks of blue, revealed then re-covered in seconds as a stiff wind blows across the town of Dunoon and the straits before us. The tarmac is still damp and, faced with changeable conditions, I don a rain jacket before clipping in and rolling northwards. Clouds hug the high hills all around us.

We stay in single file through the morning rush-hour traffic, encountering more cars in the first 2km than we will over the next 143km combined. The sense of escape is always sharp when riding somewhere unknown, but as we pass the final building on the edge of town, we’re almost immediately on deserted, well-surfaced roads before rounding the head of Holy Loch and skirting its north-western coast. Within 10 minutes of starting out, the scenery has become picture-perfect as we reach the village of Kilmun, where we buy Mars bars from a corner shop. It’s all part of the planning by my companion, Campbell, a mainland native who knows these roads – and their topography – by heart.

Waves lap rocks to our right as we head northward, now along the western shore of Loch Long. That familiar ‘boil in the bag’ feeling takes hold so I stash my rain jacket in a jersey pocket. Our first climb of the day looms – if I’m overheating now, then mashing the pedals over the loch-side summits will blow my thermostat.

Turning off the main road at Ardentinny, Campbell warns me to pace myself. It’s a 3km climb and its lower slopes kid you into thinking the gradient is more than surmountable in the big ring. I’m grateful for his knowledge when the mist descends and we spy through forestry land a snaking road that jumps to 20% out of nowhere. As a Star Wars fan, I can’t help but think that this must be what Endor looks like first thing in the morning, before all the Ewoks have woken up. 

Hunched over our bikes, struggling against the glassy road surface and punishing gradient, we keep our spirits up with jokes about the distance to the top, the relative grip available from my clinchers and Campbell’s tubulars, and taking an alternative, gravelled route. Soon, though, concentrating on my breathing becomes more urgent than continuing a conversation. 

Sunglasses stowed, mist joining the sweat beading on my forehead and eyebrows, I’m only 20km into a full day on the bike, but already I can feel the heaviness creeping into my legs. The descent, too, requires every metre of visibility and every ounce of concentration we can muster. The steepness of the road means that whenever I let off the brakes I pick up speed at such an alarming rate that almost instantly I begin feathering them again. I yank hard on the levers before taking a sharp right-hand bend, and the road finally straightens, so I let off the anchors and punch out of the low cloud, squinting through streaming eyes. 

Loch and roll

The A815 hugging the coast of Loch Eck is typical of the region’s wider roads – smooth, quiet and perfect for ticking off the kilometres at a decent lick. We don’t see a single car travelling in either direction. Campbell tells me this is about as busy as the main roads get in the week. 

On reaching Strachur and turning left at the most northerly tip of our ride, his food stop planning once more proves itself peerless. We dismount at the Out Of The Blue Bistro, not to join the septuagenarian coach-party clientele, but to visit the adjacent corner shop, from which a four-pack of toffee cakes and a brace of Cokes are purchased and immediately inhaled. 

Diving off the A-road, we pick up a single-track lane that marks the beginning of a deserted passage southwards along the shore of Loch Fyne. We are riding at the water’s edge, the road dipping down, cutting back, ramping up, following the contours of the tree-filled shoreline’s inlets. A red squirrel scurries across our path. Occasional potholes and a multitude of broken twigs litter stretches of the road, but keeping my wits about me for these minor hazards is a small price to pay for the views, which open out across the loch as sunlight begins to show through lifting cloud cover. 

For 45 minutes we’re isolated from everything but the sounds of waves, birdsong, the click of shifters, and the clatter of two chains moving up and down their cassettes. 

We’re both entering the unknown as we reach Otter Ferry and head inland. Campbell has heard stories about the climb of Bealach an Drain, but this is his first ascent. We know it’s long, though, so click onto the little ring and start our war of attrition. The road rockets up and we both wonder out loud if this is our lot for the next 4km. Thankfully the tarmac levels off to present a stunning view of pine forest to our left, but our respite is short-lived as I see the road heading steadily skyward along the tree line. I introduce my chain to the 28-tooth sprocket and we ride slowly and easily, chatting, savouring the view of coniferous-coated hillside before us and shimmering loch to our left. 

Pacing myself up this gives me the energy required for a final dig to the top, aided by newly re-surfaced stretches of tarmac. Climbing this monster of Argyll would be a much more serious matter coming from the opposite direction, as we discover on the descent. 

The gradient is extremely steep, and when I meet a delivery truck coming the other way I have to somehow avoid it while not locking up my rear brakes. It’s in no position to stop for me – it would never start again on the slippy road. 

I squeeze past, a tang of adrenaline in my mouth, and focus my line around the ensuing tight bends, scanning the road for potholes. This is ear-popping territory, so quickly are we losing altitude, and I have to scrub off a good 15kmh for what is reputedly Scotland’s steepest hairpin. Just beyond it, Campbell is waiting by the side of the road. 

‘I’m going to ride up that, just to say I’ve done it,’ he says. And with that, he’s off, disappearing from view back up the bend. He reappears a few minutes later, hands on the drops, flashing by at escape velocity. I clip in and plummet after him. 

The Scottish Stelvio

Settling into a steady rhythm again, we slip down the A886 until we make it to the Colintraive Hotel for fish, chips, pies, fizzy pop and the obligatory slippery walk on cleats across wooden flooring. Lunch is followed by a 10-minute ferry crossing to the Isle of Bute, which gives us time to digest our food and plan our attack on Rothesay. 

Weeks previously, I’d spied Serpentine Road on the internet. An incongruously wiggly line on a map, I’d researched further and discovered this series of 13 switchbacks in the centre of Rothesay is the venue for Bute Wheelers’ annual hill climb. Riding this town planners’ oddity is the reason we’ve crossed Loch Striven and are now pedalling the coast of Bute like men possessed. We’re on a mission to reach Rothesay, tick a box, and time-trial back to catch the next ferry to Argyll. And the sun is beginning its inevitable descent.

On arrival in Rothesay, the Serpentine looms ominously before us as we begin our climb. The first section of hairpins is out-of-the-saddle fodder, the relatively flat sections between turns giving respite from the steep angles at either end. Avoiding occasional parked cars, but with a perfect view uphill, we use the full width of the road. A majestic view of the Firth of Clyde opens out to the north, its calm waters glittering in the late-afternoon sun. Halfway up, I realise I’ve allowed my eagerness to smash this climb to overcome me, and my breathing becomes more laboured as we round a garden wall at the top to discover there’s more to come. I sit down, soft-pedalling the final 100m, silently planning a return for the next hill climb event. 

Box ticked, we turn right at the top of the hill and loop back to the bottom of the climb again without turning a pedal. I know I could improve on my performance up it, but there’s no time for a second ascent – we have a boat to catch. I sit in behind Campbell as we begin the two-up time-trial back to the ferry terminal at Rhubodach. By the time we get there I’m spent, and as we near the mooring my heart sinks when I spy the ferry beginning its crossing back to Argyll. We could almost swim out to it, it’s that close. Instead, we take the opportunity to rest our legs for 20 minutes until the next crossing. I sit on a rock in the car park, squeezing the now-liquified contents of a Mars bar wrapper down my throat. 

Home in the gloam

Rolling off the boat, we retrace our route, before leaving the main road to follow the old coastal trail. This deserted B-road takes us along the shore again; small rises are taken on the drops, spirits are high as we near our final corner and head east to Dunoon. Conversation switches to the fading light, so we up the pace, taking our turn for home and climbing one final time.

The setting sun warms my back as we rise. With a second wind kicking in, we chat about the descent to come – smooth, quick, straight and with an opportunity to crack 60kmh. By the time we drop to Loch Striven 2km later, it’s hard to tell if my goosebumps are the result of early evening chills or the sheer exhilaration of speed. 

Campbell and I dodge the pheasants that litter the road, passing Loch Tarsan to our left under a flaming orange sky. Low sun combines with mist to make our flat-out, big-ring smash to Dunoon even more magical. With the light fading, we round a final turn off the A815 and pick up the coast road to Kirn. The challenge of the previous hours is forgotten as the town sign looms and I attempt a sprint finish. I’m turned over easily by Campbell, who looks fresh enough to go for a second lap. We’ve beaten the sun by minutes and now have an appointment with a well-earned beer, and the promise of a fish supper. 

It’s hard to think of a more perfect day of climbing or a more beautiful part of the UK to do it in. Argyll and Bute epitomise the undiscovered cycling roads of the UK: deserted, scenic, punishing and surprising for all the right reasons.

Do it yourself

Getting there

If you’re driving, pick up the M8 northbound from Paisley, then the coast road through Langbank and Port Glasgow to Gourock. It’s a £12 car ferry journey from McInroy’s Point to Hunter’s Quay in Kirn. A separate ferry runs from Gourock to Dunoon itself. Fares for the six-hour train journey from London Euston (with one change at Glasgow) to Gourock start from £138. From northern Scotland, take the A82 from the north coast of Loch Lomond, then the A83 to Cairndow. Take the A815 southbound to Dunoon.

Accommodation

The Douglas Park Guest House in Kirn provided a friendly welcome, en suite rooms and the best cooked breakfast I’ve eaten in years. It also has a big garage in which to store your bike. Prices for a night start at £55 for a single room with en suite.

With thanks

Vital help with planning and information was supplied by David Marshall of Cowal Marketing Group and Carron Toibin of the Argyll & The Isles Tourism Cooperative Ltd (exploreargyll.co.uk). The aid of Stevie from the Forestry Commission was invaluable, as was the local knowledge, unfailing friendliness and strong pedalling of Campbell Rae.

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