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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day Four

In-depth
11 Jan 2021
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Constant rain, unwelcome logging lorries and over 200km of riding make Day Four of Cyclist’s trek across Britain the kind of challenge that can only be resolved by a Big Mac and fries

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

The morning arrives with the ashen skies that are becoming a hallmark of my time in Scotland. At least today the air is calm so I shouldn’t have to deal with the headwinds that have punished me for the past three days.

An eerie silence fills the glen as I turn my back on Eilean Donan Castle and reluctantly begin pedalling, accepting that it isn’t a matter of if it will rain but when. The steely waters of Loch Duich are strangely still, disturbed only by the occasional breaching fish sending ripples dancing across the surface.

I notice a lone fishing boat anchored a little way from the shore, tired-looking with teal blue paint flaking from its hull and old tattered nets hanging over the side. Aside from the occasional car headlight shining through the gloaming, the morning is lifeless and grey as I skirt around the loch. A volley of rain does little to help the sombre mood, its intensity sending sheets of water cascading across the road. Not for the first time I regret not packing shoe covers.

It could be better, it could be worse.’ In my head I hear the words of my grandad, told to me a hundred times in the past, just as a haulage truck comes trundling past, forcing me to ride in the gutter.

In that moment I question whether it could get much worse, but then I notice a plaque commemorating those who died here in the Battle of Glenshiel of 1719, a reminder that, apart from sodden feet, my predicament isn’t so bad.

Indeed, if I had to list all the things I’d like to be doing right now, cycling through the Highlands on a journey from one end of Great Britain to the other would rank pretty highly.

Grin and bear it

With the figurative gloom lifted, my eyes are free to appreciate the simple, rugged beauty of the glen I find myself riding through. A few horses huddle together under the branches of a gnarled old oak, sheltering from rain that’s falling heavier than ever, splashing back up off the tarmac on impact. The road begins to rise, the start of a long drag up towards higher ground that gradually sucks the energy from my legs.

I struggle to eat in the rain. The effort required to wrestle my waterproof up over my jersey before delving into pockets with wet gloves and fumbling for a gel isn’t worth the reward, or the risk for that matter.

Instead I keep both hands on the bars and focus on staying upright. Finally the road plateaus to reveal a jumbled cluster of mountains and, in the distance, the silver waters of a prodigious loch. Great rocks mottled with lichen lay scattered all around, as if thrown down the mountainsides by the giants of Scottish mythology.

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My passage around Loch Cluaine is swift on a smooth flowing road, pushed on faster still by a prevailing wind that carries with it the hope of brighter skies.

They never materialise, although the rain does ease, then stop altogether for a short period before returning in a series of short bursts. A sharp right-hand turn at the end of a loch delivers me to the foot of the day’s only real climb, a deceptively hard 6km stretch through thick swathes of trees.

I can hear and feel the rumble of tyres long before I can actually see the juggernaut come hulking towards me, its presence a stark reminder that I no longer have the luxury of empty roads.

The first of these vast logging trucks startles me, but they pass with such regularity that they soon become as much a part of the day as the countless lochs I have passed.

The combination of rain and trucks makes the ride a messy business. Each time one comes lurching past I’m left riding through a grimy haze that coats me in a greasy film of dirt. I find myself pining for the desolate roads and salty sea air of yesterday.

It’s not that I was naive enough to think every day would be as grand as the previous two, rather I hadn’t anticipated such a contrast in a short space of time.

The air is thick with the smell of freshly cut Scots pine as I labour against the ever-steepening road, various sections of the forest reduced to little more than dirty brown patches strewn with bark.

The frequency of the logging trucks increases, plumes of dirty black smoke spluttering from upright exhausts as they slog their way upwards. On occasion the gaps in the forest reveal the menacing blades of wind turbines, only for them to be lost behind the wall of green again.

Finally at the pinnacle of the climb the trees give way for good, revealing a vista of sprawling peaks and black lochs. The view is spectacular, although I have been so spoilt for incredible scenery over the past few days it actually feels like a bit of an anti-climax despite all that lies before my eyes.

I remind myself to take each moment for what it is, savouring every day that I have the privilege of riding through such landscapes.

Go large

The following 30km fly by in a blur of greens and blues, the road descending through the woods past Loch Garry towards the rather unimaginatively named Loch Lochy. Pushed on by a stiffening wind I lower my position, eager to press on and stay ahead of the dark rain clouds gathering behind me. It’s a futile battle; a loud rumble of thunder precedes another flurry of rain.

Fort William marks the halfway point of the day, and a welcome chance to escape the elements and refuel after a soggy morning in the saddle. After the best part of three and a half days in some of the remotest enclaves of Scotland it’s odd to ride into a bustling town.

Social distancing is very much in force, so I’m keen to avoid people and not stray too far from my route. I eschew the high street, leaving me little option but to head for the ‘golden arches’.

Clacking across the tiled floor in my cleats, my entrance raises a few eyebrows. Evidently not many cyclists come in for a burger and chips at lunchtime on a Monday. Or anyone else, for that matter – the Fort William McDonald’s is mostly deserted.

As welcome as the sustenance is, it’s not long before my core temperature drops, leaving me shivering and lacking in motivation to brave the chill afternoon air. It’s a struggle to break the inertia but eventually I muster the mental resolve to haul myself back onto the bike and continue the steady march south.

A constant stream of traffic with a distinct lack of awareness for cyclists does little to endear this stretch of road to me, and it’s with some relief I reach the turning for the detour up and around Loch Leven.

Released from the stress of traffic and away from the main road I’m able to relax and enjoy the meandering ride up the northern edge of the loch to Kinlochleven, where the road abruptly cuts back on itself and continues back along the southern edge. 

The sedate nature of the past 17km, with its views of still waters and secluded bays, has lulled me into a false sense of security, and I’m not prepared for the short, steep pitches that litter the route back towards Glencoe. From a higher vantage point I’m able to see the ragged, rocky ridges that circle the glen, in doing so obscuring far greater peaks behind them.

On reflection it would have been easier to simply cross Ballachulish Bridge at the mouth of the loch, thereby cutting out the 31km detour I’ve just taken. It’s a point my aching legs agree with, but it would have gone against the very nature of riding the scenic route. I imagine this won’t be the last time I chastise myself for adding seemingly unnecessary distance to the route. 

Panic stations

There’s still another 40km to go when I receive the worrying news that, due to a mix-up with the campsite booking, we don’t actually have a place to stay for the night. The thought of not being able to luxuriate in a hot shower and wash away the grime that coats every exposed bit of skin is enough to send me into a mild panic.

My wife, still catching up in the motorhome, begins calling every site she can find within a 20-mile radius of the finish. Only one has space but they won’t reserve it for us, and so begins an unexpected, and unwanted, 40km time-trial.

I’m spurred on by the threat of not having a campsite heading into the first of our rest days, finding myself absorbed in an imaginary race, commentating on my own suffering, harnessing all my powers of positive self-talk. Anything to take my mind off the pain of riding at my limit after almost 800km in the past four days.

I slow momentarily to savour the view across to the precariously perched Castle Stalker before once again ratcheting up the pace and pain as I count down kilometre after kilometre while dreaming of a hot shower and cold beer.

My suffering is brought to a marginally premature end in the closing few hundred metres of the day’s planned route, when a call from my wife confirms she has managed to drive ahead of me and has reached the campsite in time to secure the final available place.

I pull to the side of the road, barely able to hold myself up, my body wracked with pain, and yet I can’t help but smile. I hadn’t for one moment thought it would be an easy day, but equally I’d never imagined it would be so hard.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

Mapping powered by komoot

Komoot tips to stay on track

No4: Be ready for the climbs

Most of us like a climb, especially one without any nasty surprises. The colour-coded elevation profile on komoot shows you exactly where the climbs will get super-steep (the red bits) and you can zoom in for even more detail. 

Essential JOGLE kit

No4: Wahoo Roam bike computer, £299.99, wahoofitness.com

It took me some time to adjust to the switch from Garmin to Wahoo, but when I did I was left wondering why I hadn’t made the change sooner. The Roam is hands down the best bike computer I’ve used. The level of functionality on it is brilliant, the mapping top notch and it has a plethora of data fields available at the tap of a button on the companion app.

I particularly like that I can change any data screen and field in the app, even while still recording a ride, and it will automatically reflect those changes. For example, if on your map screen you decide you want to see your three-second average power or the distance still to ride on a preset route, you simply select that in the app and it will instantly change on the head unit.

The re-routing function on the maps was also very handy for when I encountered unexpected road closures on certain days (more on those in upcoming issues). I’ve yet to test its full battery life, which is claimed to be 17 hours, but it certainly lasted longer than I did on each of my JOGLE rides.

Thanks

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.