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UK ride: Quiet roads through rugged scenery on the Isle of Mull

Pete Muir
8 Jun 2017

For the perfect blend of quiet roads and rugged scenery, head for Scotland's west coast

For a country with so much to offer road cyclists, it can be surprisingly difficult to plan a ride in the wilds of Scotland. There’s no shortage of beautiful countryside and challenging climbs that beg to be ridden, but the problem is often the roads – they don’t go anywhere.

A glance at Google Street View will reveal quiet roads in remote parts of Scotland that wind their way through picturesque valleys and alongside lochs, but if you follow them as far as possible, they all too often come to a halt at a desolate farmhouse.

Either that or they arrive at junction with an A-road where lorries thunder along at the national speed limit. 

At Cyclist, we are a demanding bunch. We want a loop – a route of just the right length that circles back to its start point, passing through breathtaking scenery along the way, while never being overly troubled by traffic.

It’s not the easiest thing to find, but occasionally we strike gold. And that is certainly the case with this ride on the Isle of Mull, off Scotland’s west coast.

It’s got 140km of mountains, moors, coastline, crags and the occasional leg-shredding climb. All we need now is for the weather to be kind.

Five go mad on Mull

The forecast is for rain. But, then, the forecast is always for rain on Mull. It’s not raining right now, and I take that as a victory. 

Brian MacLeod, who runs holiday cottages on Mull and is a stalwart of the Mull Cycling Club, has kindly agreed to be my guide.

Word has gone out that Cyclist is on the island, and beneath grey skies we’re joined by local rider Alan, and Russell who grew up on the island but now lives in Glasgow. He’s brought along a friend from Glasgow, Jonathan, and so now we are five.

Our route is a carbon copy of the Isle of Mull Sportive – a near-140km loop from Tobermory, the island’s main town in the north, skirting the coast, with several hilly excursions inland.

Brian suggests we do it in reverse, starting out along Mull’s busiest road (which means it sees the occasional car but is still single-lane for much of its length) down to Craignure, ‘then the wind will blow us all the way home’.

The first stretch meanders southeast down the coast, where broken boats line the shore and small yachts totter precariously on their moorings while the tide is out.

Jonathan and Russell set a brisk pace – they need to be finished and fed before the last ferry to the mainland, so they’re in no mood to dawdle. I’m happy to tuck in and let them do the pulling. 

As we ride, there are intermittent shouts of ‘nose!’ that leave me bemused, until I hear a corresponding ‘tail!’ and realise to watch out for cars passing on the narrow road from ahead and behind.

On occasion I find myself shouting, ‘Car back! I mean, nose! Er, tail! Oh, never mind.’ It doesn’t really matter, as the traffic is light and the drivers are unusually considerate, often pulling into passing spaces to let us through.

After 34km we arrive at the ferry terminal at Craignure, so we stop to have a snack and watch the Mull ferry disgorge its passengers before we continue along the road as it swings westwards to head inland.

From here the scenery changes to become more mountainous, with forests of pines lining the hillsides.

The road starts to climb properly for the first time, although the gradient is gentle and we can happily tap along three-abreast and chat.

Better still, the clouds that seemed threatening earlier have given up and gone home, leaving us with the prospect of a rare sunny day in the Scottish islands. 

‘Welcome to Mullorca,’ says Alan, as blue skies open up above a perfect green landscape.

It’s not about the bike

Our route takes us around the base of Ben More, the island’s biggest mountain at 966m, and we skirt alongside the shoreline of Loch Scridain.

Other than a few lumps it’s reasonably flat so Brian and Alan tell me a bit about Mull, how it’s famed for its shellfish – lobster, crabs, mussels, oysters – and how the island has taken to cycling, now boasting a popular sportive and triathlon.

A glance upwards reveals dark shapes circling above us, prompting Brian to explain how Mull is one of the few homes to sea eagles, Britain’s biggest bird of prey, which were extinct in the UK for decades until being reintroduced in the 1970s.


Russell and Jonathan are both cycling junkies, and there’s only one thing they want to discuss.

‘So what’s the best bike you’ve ridden?’ asks Jonathan. It’s the question all cycling journalists dread, so I try to palm him off with some waffle about how it all depends on personal preference and individual riding styles, but he’s having none of it.

‘Have you ridden the Specialized Tarmac? What’s that like? What about the Giant TCR? Which is better?’ 

‘They’re both excellent bikes in their own ways,’ I mutter noncommittally, which plainly doesn’t satisfy Jonathan at all. 

‘OK, what about top five?’ He’s riding a Cannondale SuperSix Evo yet seems uncertain if he likes it. I suspect he may be looking for an excuse to get a new bike and is hoping I’ll provide the incentive.

When I say the SuperSix is very popular with Cyclist’s testers, he looks unsure. 


‘What about Canyon?’ he says. I reply that no one seems to have a bad word to say about the Ultimate CF SLX, and Jonathan immediately shouts to Russell, ‘See, the guy from Cyclist says you’ve already got the right bike.’

Russell is riding a Canyon Ultimate and confides that he’s just bought an Aeroad as well.

He’s plainly in the doghouse about it with his partner, and hints that he may have to get rid of the Ultimate, although something in his tone suggests he will find a way to keep them both.

Bonnie banks and braes

The route turns north and we climb over a finger of land. The greens of the hills turn into browns and purples as grass gives way to heather, and on the other side we’re treated to views over the island of Ulva, which now sits in a rich blue sea thanks to the ever-improving weather.

When the sun shines, there are few places on Earth as beautiful as the Scottish Highlands.

From here the road stays close to the shore, twisting in and out of bays and passing rocky beaches, while sheep and Highland cows look up from their grazing as we flit past fields.

We’ve got the wind behind us now and we’re keeping up a decent pace. With each small hill, our group stretches apart and then comes back together on the descent.

With 100km ticked off, I’m beginning to feel it in the legs, but my spirits are still high thanks to the beauty of my surroundings. I can just turn the pedals and revel in the peace and solitude.

‘What’s that Argon 18 like?’ says Jonathan, breaking my reverie. ‘Is that what you usually ride? Is it true that you give the best reviews to the bikes you get to keep?’

I inform him that we don’t get to keep the bikes. He tells me he’s just taken possession of a titanium Lynskey, but still he’s keen to know what he should be getting next.

‘Have you tried the Trek Domane? What about the Madone? If I had the money I think I’d get the Madone.’

Brian intervenes to warn me that the final part of our ride is the hardest and that we are about to hit the biggest test of the day. 

‘Get your climbing legs on, Pete,’ he shouts as I slide round a bend to be confronted by a steep slab of tarmac rising into grey rock and brown bracken.

I immediately get out of the saddle to grind up the slope. It’s 3km long, and I’ve been warned not to underestimate the climb, so I try not to go into the red too early.

Jonathan, who’s built like a greyhound, has no such qualms – he’s chasing Strava points and heads off up the hill like a rocket. (As I write, he’s at number 10 on the KoM leaderboard for this climb.)

It turns out to be one of those devious climbs where every time I’m convinced I’ve arrived at the top, a hidden corner reveals another stretch of steep road.

I battle my way to the summit, where we regroup to catch our collective breath and hear about the disasters that have befallen those who have attempted the high-speed downhill KoM on this stretch of road. 

Thankfully the descent on the other side isn’t as steep, but it is flowing, and we soon find ourselves back beside the coast, where a flatter road twists and turns alongside a glistening sea. 

At the village of Calgary the road veers eastwards, and we’re on the final 20km stretch back to Tobermory.

I’m all for taking it easy on the last section, which includes a number of sharp climbs, but Russell and Jonathan have a date with a ferry so are keen to push on.

Heading across the north of the island the scenery becomes more barren, with expansive moors pockmarked with small lochs. It’s getting late and clouds are beginning to gather again, now tinged with pink.

As we roll along I think about the ride. It’s been a near-perfect day in the saddle, on a route that ticks all of Cyclist’s requirements – challenging, photogenic, peaceful, fun.

The weather has been warm and calm, and I consider for a moment how blessed we are to have such beautiful places in Britain to ride, and how the sport of cycling affords us the opportunity to see these places at their very best. 

Jonathan slips into position beside me. As the sun begins to dip behind us and our shadows lengthen on the road ahead, he turns to me and says, ‘What about a Cervélo?’

 

Mull it over


Follow Cyclist's route around the island

Click here to download this route. From Tobermory in the north of the island, head south alongside the coast on the A848 and A849 until you reach the ferry terminal at Craignure after 34km.

Continue on the A849 as it heads inland westwards for another 27km, until you see a road sign pointing right towards Gruline and ‘Scenic route to Salen’. Follow this on the B8035 as it winds around Ben More to Gruline (a few houses and a church).

Follow signs to Dervaig and Calgary on the B8073, which will take you up the west coast before heading east back to Tobermory.

 

The rider's ride


Argon 18 Krypton X-Road, £2,999, i-ride.co.uk

The first thing I noticed about the Krypton X-Road was all the writing. The frame is covered in enough of it to produce a novella, including such insights as ‘HDS Horizontal Dual System’, ‘Optimal Balance’, ‘Argon Fit System’ and so on.

It detracted from an otherwise elegant bike, with surprisingly refined-looking tubes considering it’s aimed at off-road adventures.

The X-Road version of the Krypton comes with disc brakes and extra clearance for tyres up to 32mm so that you can keep going when the tarmac runs out, although I’d hesitate to describe it as an ‘all-road’ bike.

Rather it’s a road bike that will cope with rougher stuff. The frame is quite stiff, which made for a crisp ride on Mull’s mostly smooth roads, but I never felt the urge to take it on gravel or rutted tracks.

Versatility at no cost to stiffness is achieved by the 3D System, a sort of head tube extension. It allows for a more upright riding position without the need for spacers.

The stiffness was handy when grinding up steeper inclines, and helped to offset the bike’s 8.5kg weight.

It’s fun to ride, but not light and racy enough to be a great road bike nor rugged and compliant enough to be a great gravel bike.

 

Do it yourself


Travel

Cyclist got to Mull via train, car and ferry. From Glasgow Central train station, car hire with Hertz (hertz.co.uk) cost £57 for two days, and the drive to Oban took about two and a half hours. Calmac Ferries (calmac.co.uk) cost around £40 return and took an hour to get to Craignure, from where it was another half-hour drive to Tobermory.

Accommodation

We stayed in one of Brian MacLeod’s self-catering cottages, which were comfortable, spacious, quiet and perfectly situated to explore Mull by day and Tobermory in the evening. Prices start from £350 a week (selfcatering-tobermory.co.uk).

Sportive

Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy cycling on Mull is to do the Isle of Mull Sportive, which this year took place on 4th June. The long route (140km) is an exact replica of Cyclist’s ride, but in reverse, and there’s also a 70km option (mullsportive.co.uk).

Thanks

Thanks to Brian MacLeod for his hospitality and for leading the ride; to Eoghann MacLean for driving our photographer around; to Alan Quinn, Russell MacKinnon and Jonathan Doherty for joining us on the ride; and to Ewan Baxter, organiser of the Mull Sportive, for the biscuits.

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