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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day Two

In-depth
4 Nov 2020
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Strong winds, lashing rain… it must be Scotland in summer! Day Two of our ride across Britain winds around the Highlands coastline

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

There’s a storm coming. Any hope that the weather, and in particular the wind, would have changed overnight disappears as I step out of my motorhome into a brisk breeze that is, somewhat depressingly, coming from the direction of the only road out of Scourie. Setting off the sky is blue, but a few kilometres in and heavy clouds have gathered ominously overhead.

Almost immediately the road starts to climb for a short distance before dipping back down, only to rise again, stunting my speed and setting what will be the pattern for the whole morning.

Despite the adverse conditions and undulating terrain I ride with a sense of joy that takes me back to my childhood, an innocent freedom that comes from just being on my bike, wheels rolling and eyes feasting on the world around me.

The road cuts between great slabs of fractured rock before sweeping down to Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin, where I’m broadsided by crosswinds that threaten to force me off the road.

My presence startles a stag hiding in the dense heather that covers much of the land around me as once again the road rears upwards, revealing the sort of view I’d expect to see on a biscuit tin.

In the foreground is Kylesku Bridge curving gracefully across the loch, its concrete girders plunging down into the waters below.

The horizon is filled with mountains. They’re not the towering spires or jagged behemoths I’ve witnessed in the great ranges of the world; instead their appearance is softer and more rounded, but no less dramatic set among the waters of vast, mysterious lochs.

Once across the bridge my route hugs the water’s edge before abruptly turning right onto a road that appears on the map as little more than a trace.

Other than a sign warning that it’s unsuitable for caravans there’s little indication of what lies ahead, the single-lane quickly disappearing into the folds of the hills. It’s here that the storm hits, leaving me exposed and at the mercy of the elements.

Wet and wild

An unrelenting cascade of raindrops pricks my face, the pain intensifying to such an extent I’m forced to stop riding. I do so out of necessity rather than choice, self-preservation triumphing over my desire to push on and seek shelter from the tempest that has erupted above me.

Torrents of water run back down the road, reflecting a sky full of menacing black clouds. I fumble for my waterproof jacket – not that it will make much difference at this stage.

I’m annoyed I hadn’t stopped to put it on while it was still dry, but still the deluge has done little to dampen my spirits. I feel buoyed by a morning’s riding that has left me questioning why it has taken this long for me to explore Scotland on two wheels.

Great sheets of rain dance in the air, orchestrated by a swirling wind. I tentatively start pedalling again, reasoning that in such weather it’s better to be moving slowly than not at all for fear of a chill setting in.

A dense tunnel of lush foliage covers the road and but for the cool temperatures I could easily be riding somewhere far more tropical. Sporadic gaps in the vegetation provide windows out to sea, where patches of blue sky provide reason for optimism.

Then all of a sudden it stops. The storm and foliage clear in unison to reveal a remote coastline offering captivating views back over to Eddrachillis Bay and a smattering of rugged islands.

Inland the magnificence of Quinag mountain can finally be appreciated – that is when I’m not fighting up short, punchy climbs that regularly register in excess of 20% on my bike computer.

Small corners of sea lochs become visible as the road twists along, placid waters speckled with small wooden fishing boats, the shores tinged an earthy brown by a blanket of seaweed.

The beauty of the scene melts away the pain of riding through the storm and I drift through what increasingly feels like a different world. It’s hard to believe I’m still in the UK.

Lost in the moment, I realise I haven’t eaten since the start of the day. A combination of the storm, almost 1,500m of climbing in my legs and a lack of food have left me feeling weak and in serious need of sustenance.

I have a handful of gels in my back pocket but the very thought of them is enough to make me crave something more substantial.

It is in that moment that the cycling gods manifest themselves in the form of what has to be one of the most remote coffee and cake shops I’ve ever come across.

Rolling through the sparse coastal village of Clachtoll, with its scattering of simple houses, rundown vehicles and bedraggled-looking sheep, I stumble across a vibrant blue shack bearing the legend ‘Flossie’s Beach Store’ that serves as both coffee stop and local shop. Hot coffee and a selection of homemade cakes have never tasted so good.

For a cyclist there are few things more welcome than caffeine, sugar and a tailwind, but to be granted all three simultaneously is as rare as a Grand Tour winner from the nineties being clean.

Apart from the occasional languid sheep, the road leading south is empty, giving rise to the feeling that I have this little corner of the world all to myself. I couldn’t be happier. 

Or perhaps I could

The west coast of Scotland, as I’m rapidly discovering, is a place where every curve in the road seems to reveal a landscape more dramatic and beguiling than the one before.

The waters of Loch Bad a’ Ghaill appear gradually at first until suddenly they flood my view, stretching for miles only to be stopped by two great tablets of rock that rise seemingly vertically out of the water. Above their peaks shafts of sunlight pierce through gunmetal-grey clouds, lending an air of ethereal beauty to the scene.

There are moments where it feels as if I’m floating, carried by favourable winds on immaculate roads, so much so I forget I’m even riding a bike, only to be brought to my senses by the need to pedal with purpose when the road inevitably tilts back upwards. Even these testing inclines can’t wipe the smile from my face.

The illusion that I am the only person privy to this magical landscape is broken by two old VW campervans trundling past me, followed by the emergence of Ullapool on the horizon.

When I arrive at the town, it feels alien to be among people again, although thankfully the detour back into reality doesn’t last long and soon the road tacks to the right, heading into a mass of great whale-backed mountains.

Gone are the short inclines and in their place is a long, gradual ascent into the bosom of mountains whose names and appearance would not be out of place in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It feels good to settle into a rhythm, methodically working my way higher with the omnipresent cry of the wind for company, safe in the knowledge that there will be a descent to match the climb. 

Sure enough the road eventually falls away, gradually at first and then more aggressively, sweeping through thickets of pine trees as it does so, the bike glued to the road through every turn.

I resist the urge to tap the brakes as my speed rises closer to three figures, the exhilaration of the descent a pure joy after so many kilometres ridden into headwinds. I feel alive, my mind totally free from all thought, my world containing little more than the space around me as I glide effortlessly through the air.

Free from the cover of the trees, the all-too-familiar battle with the wind resumes. Now though, fresh from descending, I feel strong knowing that whatever the last 20km brings the ride is almost done.

In keeping with the rest of the day the final hour involves further inclines better suited to riders half my size, forcing me to swerve my way up at a walking pace.

Two old men in bright yellow waterproofs collect mussels as I pass a small bay, the threat of rain brewing in the distance. I push harder in a bid to finish before I’m caught out but it’s no use, and fat drops of rain begin to splash on the road ahead.

Resigning myself to the fact that I’m going to get wet I slow my pace, embracing the weather for what it is and enjoying the freshness of the water as it washes away the salt and grime of a day that I don’t want to end.

The terrain has been equal parts brutal and bewildering, the elements unforgiving at times, but the memories and joy from riding through such landscapes bountiful.

It seems unbefitting that such a day should conclude on the side of a nondescript road on the outskirts of a remote fishing village, but such is the nature of a ride that covers thousands of kilometres. The end of each stage is based on practicality, and not what the day’s adventures actually deserves.

And so I climb off my bike, shoes soaked through and water running off my beard in rivulets. But I’m still smiling, safe in the knowledge there’s plenty more road ahead. 

Mapping powered by Komoot

Tips to stay on track

Whether you prefer road riding on fast-rolling tarmac, touring on scenic cycle paths or gravel riding on adventurous forest tracks, komoot’s algorithm can find and prioritise the roads – or trails – you want to ride.

Essential JOGLE kit

No2: Castelli cycle apparel, saddleback.co.uk

I have always opted for practicality above styling when it comes to my cycling kit, and knowing I would be in the saddle for seven hours a day meant that comfort had to be paramount. But when I have a photographer following my every move for two weeks I also have to consider the aesthetics.

Enter Castelli, a brand I’d seen more often than Pret A Manger shops while living in London, but never used.

After more than 100 hours of cycling I’m sold, both in terms of style and most importantly the comfort and quality of the kit. The Free Protect Race bibshorts (£190), complete with double-layer side panels for extra protection, are among the comfiest I’ve worn.

I wrongly thought there would be little to no rain during the trip, what with it being the middle of summer, and I assumed my Castelli Idro 2 jacket (£260) would barely get a look in. It turned out to be my most valuable item and I have never used a better waterproof.

The jacket lived up to its own marketing hype, folding down smaller than a banana and proving to be incredibly waterproof thanks to the Gore ShakeDry fabric.

Thanks

We couldn’t have done it alone

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.