Every few years myself and a few mates get together for an epic ride. As time passes the responsibilities of our daily lives increase and the gaps between these rides grow longer. It’s got to the point now that we’re looking for special occasions to even justify taking time away from our families to be as selfish as you have to be to ride long distances.
This year was Clive’s 50th birthday, an occasion worthy of 2 trips I’m sure and, as he’s always wanted to go there, we decided to embark on a trip across the Outer Hebrides. Now, the Outer Hebrides look incredible – wild, remote and barren with beaches that resemble exotic Indian Ocean scenes – but they don’t exactly have the greatest amount of trail fit for riding. So, to mix it up a little I decided that our route would include Skye and some mainland Scotland too. A proper epic then. Here’s my diary of the ride:
Day -1 (that’s negative 1) – the journey from North Wales to Skye.
I arrived at Cliff’s house (North Wales) to find him in the yard with his bike in a stand, swearing at it because he couldn’t get his new brake pads in. He had a large allen key between the brake pistons and was swinging off it. I suggested we release some brake fluid to aid piston movement, and eventually we had the pads fitted, bikes and kit packed, and so headed for a pint at the pub.
Drinking more than would be legally appropriate for driving I suggested we depart for Skye the following morning, and Cliff agreed, saying that we should probably be up by 6am though to miss the rush hour traffic. One last round then, and off to bed.
Day 0 – (the day before day 1) – I awoke the following morning, somewhat hungover to the sound of Cliff telling me to help myself to a shower. “What time is it?” I asked, assuming my watch had stopped. “A quarter to five” he replied, “I was too excited to sleep!”. Gotta love early starts.
After a 10 hour drive from North Wales we arrived into a damp and grey Kyle of Lochalsh to meet Clive and Ian, our riding buddies for the next week. It was here that we discovered that the phone I’d brought for the trip was no longer functioning, Cliff didn’t have Clive’s or Ian’s number, and we couldn’t remember the name of the B&B we were staying in. Cliff’s phone rang immediately. It was Ian. “Where are you?” Cliff asked. Ian and Clive were about 50 yards away, walking directly towards us. “The landlord said you were here. We don’t know how he knew what car you were in, he just said ‘Yer mates are here!'”. Mike, the landlord of the Old Bank House B&B and originally of Madchester, had special powers it seemed. “I’m sleeping in the lean-to tonight” he said, as we entered the vaults of the Old Bank, “I gave up my bed because I booked Barbera and Mrs Barber into the same room!”. Magic powers indeed.
Kyle-of-Lochalsh had a slightly weary feel to it, enhanced no doubt by a 10 hour drive spent listening to Cliff’s only CD – a collection of ska and reggae tracks – which had been left in the CD player when he’d bought it. Proof, if needed, that you can have too much of a good thing. On the corner outside the B&B a sign, which simply read “COMPUTER”, pointed lazily up the street and I wondered whether to go look for it. I pictured an Acorn Electron looking heavily abused atop an old desk somewhere. Instead we went to the Co-op, which was being rebuilt whilst open and so had the aftermathic feel of having been looted in a riot. Having procured lunch therein, we had dinner in the nearest hotel and then headed to bed.
Day 1 (finally). Kyle of Lochalsh to Sligachan. 52km – an easy start.
The ride started by crossing the Kyle of Lochalsh road bridge onto Skye. By the time we reached the top of the bridge I realised that my zero-ride training regime wasn’t working out as planned, so I reminded myself that there is in fact no way to properly train for a multi-day epic, you just get fit doing it. It was a (partial) lie of course, but it was only 9.44am and I was still too asleep to question it.
By 11:00am we’d turned off the main road at Broadford, headed a few miles along the B8083 towards Elgol, and arrived at the Blue Shed cafe at precisely the moment it began to rain. We decided to pretend we were “on holiday” for a bit, and went inside for excellent coffee and cake. When the sun came back out we emerged from the shed and wiped down our saddles, before heading south and to the only real climb of the day, over to the beach at Camasunary. Mostly rideable, it was a great way to start the off-roading, and walkers held gates open in a way that suggested our trip would be blessed. Cliff’s brake failed on the first descent however, in a way which suggested our trip might not be blessed at all. At the bottom we decided to stop for lunch near the bothy to assess our options.
The problem with modern off-the-shelf mountain bikes is that they’re invariably fitted with hydraulic disc brakes, which means that if a brake fails in a trail-side situation it can be very difficult to repair. The choice of brake on any particular bike usually comes down to what the frame manufacturer can get a good deal on. Between us (riding 2 Specializeds, and Orange 5, and a Santa Cruz) we had Avid Elixirs, Shimano XTs, Hope Tech 4s and Magura MTs. Of course we were all carrying spare pads, but to attempt to bleed all our brakes would require 3 different brake fluids, 4 syringes, and 5 hoses with connectors, none of which we’d managed to squeeze into our already crammed bikepacks.
Our situation provoked a fairly in-depth discussion about the relative merits of our brake systems, and for a ride such as this we agreed that the Hopes were as good as hydraulic brakes got. Firstly they used Dot fluid, a product readily available at all motor garages (the 2 different types of mineral oil required for the Magura and Shimano systems would be nearly impossible to source). Then they were easily bled via an open-bath reservoir in the lever, without the need for a syringe. They were also reversible, meaning that the levers could be switched to the other side easily, so you could almost guarantee to have a working back brake. Finally, they were British, which meant you’d be able to get spare parts easily and have them shipped to wherever you were in a couple of days.
Cliff, of course, was riding with Avid Elixirs. Not as bad as Avid Juicys, but not the easiest brake in the world to fix or bleed. Cliff suggested we use his blue cable liners to syphon brake fluid from cars by sucking it out. I suggested we find a bike shop.
The trail north from Camasunary to Sligachan passes between the stunning Black and Red Cuillin mountain ranges. The clouds lifted from their peaks as we rode rocky singletrack along the valley floor, and the sun fell slowly casting darks shadows towards the glowing red hills. It was an uplifting experience. A man walked passed us as we arrived in Sligachan, looking like he was hating every minute of it.
Seumas bar at the Sligachan hotel contains over 400 whiskeys and serves at least 10 different ales. I definitely remember that we told the local brewer, who appeared to be undertaking some on-site quality testing, that he was a genius.
My rucksack had begun to rub my back during the day’s ride, just as it had on its last outing across Scotland. By way of preventative medicine, Cliff suggested we patch my skin using Gaffer tape, which would be strong enough to withstand the friction from my pack. In the bar we decided to check the damage, which probably wouldn’t have been all that bad had Cliff not taken half of my skin with the tape as he ripped it from my back. Ouch.
Day 2 – Sligachan to Uig. 101km.
Clive and Ian were on time for breakfast. Clive had already eaten 3 bowls of porridge, 2 bowls of fruit, and was eyeing up the Frosties by the time Cliff and I arrived. After finishing our breakfasts we went outside to ready the bikes, and the midges ate their breakfasts whilst I fixed the first puncture of the trip.
An off-road climb/push led us back beneath the towers of Sgurr Nan Gilean and over a pass to the Fairy Pools. The following descent made up for the hard push up within a few metres. From the pools at Glenbrittle we followed forest track and minor road to Carbost and Coillore on the west coast, before heading east to Portree on the other side of the island.
Island Cycles is, as the name suggests, the only bike shop on the island. It also serves as the only fishing shop on the island too. Steve, the owner, salesman, fishing guru and bike mechanic (all good bike mechanics are called Steve) kindly lent us the use of his tools and we soon had Cliff with an avidly functioning brake again. (Thanks Steve!)
After the bike shop we hit the pie shop, stripping the bakery of all its late afternoon pastry provisions.
From Portree we headed north on the main road, past the Old Man of Storr and on to the southern slopes of the Quiraing. To our right, shadowy across the sea, lay tomorrow’s mountains.
Riding on main roads is hard work. You’re constantly moving for cars, being forced into single file. There’s little conversation as it becomes impossible for group discussion to take place without shouting. This, coupled with the need to cover lots of miles, means that the pace inevitably picks up, stronger riders (who eat all the breakfast) set the pace, and the less well-fed riders drop off the back, battling furiously against the wind in their faces, as well as the psychological wind between their ears.
The climb up the Quirang came as something of a relief, as it meant that I was able to stand out of the saddle and relieve the excrutiating chafing on my arse. Apparently Endura Hummvee shorts aren’t built for long distance multi-day rides.
After a beautiful, swooping descent towards the Atlantic Ocean we arrived into the little port of Uig with Woodbine B&B greeting us near the bottom. Vicky explained that her 70 year old father in law had ridden over the Quiraing today too. I asked if he’d mind swapping bums. We ate a hearty dinner at the Pier Restaurant, sampled some Uig ale, and then wandered lost for a while around Uig, trying to remember how to get back up the hill.
Day 3. The Tarbert Loop. 52km.
It would appear that there are 3 Tarberts in Scotland. I know this because of a panicked email which landed in my inbox a few days prior to our departure. The message was from Ian, who had taken on the task of arranging accomodation, and it explained how he’d managed to book us into a B&B in the wrong Tarbert, 232 miles and 22 hours cycling away from the Tarbert we intended to stay in.
His next email went on to explain that he’d managed to cancel the aforementioned booking and had then booked us into another B&B in the same Tarbert, which he’d again had to cancel.
In the end he’d resorted to tweeting the Tourist Office on Harris and they’d managed to find us a room with Cathy, a 70-something year old lady who lived in a small bungalow just outside of the correct Tarbert. We hoped for the best.
We left Woodbine Cottage behind, and rolled back down into the town to collect ferry tickets, marvelling at our inability to find the way home the previous evening. The midges were biting, and the rain began spitting, as we followed a hearse into the bowels of the ferry. A good omen, surely. Cliff then mentioned that his brake had died again. Oil was leaking around the piston.
The weather was forecast to brighten during the day, but the weather obviously hadn’t been watching the forecast, and slowly worsened as we set off eastwards. By the time we’d reached Loch Mhiabaig, and were turning north towards Harris Eagle Observatory, it was pouring heavily and making a mockery of our waterproof clothing.
Rolling double track led us to the observatory – a simple shed with a grass roof, large windows, and larger information panels telling how best to observe the majestic Golden Eagle. Nowhere on any of the panels did it suggest that low cloud and heavy rain would be beneficial to twitchery.
At the northern end of the valley the track ended abruptly, and a steadily climbing single track led off to the west. We climbed it steadily. It kept on climbing steadily so we steadily climbed some more. The steadiness continued steadily, until we lost sight of the climb as it ventured with unerring steadiness into the clouds. There’s a simple truth that comes to all long-distance off-road cyclists, through their lonely meditation upon too many climbs, and it is this: you never reach the top. No matter how much like the top that peak in front of you may appear, there’s another one to be climbed just beyond it.
Coming down from the grey cloud into the green murk below we espied a river winding below with the track sweeping down to cross it before heading back up into the cloud on the other side of the valley. Cliff, obviously over-excited at actually be able to see again, forgot about his lack of back brake, and in attempting to stop on steep, wet grass, executed a perfect double flip over the bars before landing badly on his ankle. He pretended to be okay, took a couple of painkillers and we headed on.
We stumbled back and forth along the river bank, looking for the shallowest place to cross, despite the fact that our feet were aleady sodden. By the time we’d made it over the next hill and back to the road we were all cold and wet through, and opted for the more direct route home, over more vast climbs on tarmac. The final descent saw us reaching 49 mph, the rain from our wheels spraying high into the air behind us.
We were met at Langracleit Cottage by Cathy, who’d spent the day baking for our arrival. She was a little shocked by our dank appearances. “Look at me, taking in the likes of you!” she said, as she directed us to the garage to undress. We hung wet clothes anywhere we could, turning the bungalow into a stenchy sauna. Tea and cakes galore awaited us in the lounge, as did Cathy, who then proceeded to drill us on our marital statuses and gainful employment.
A quick phone call and Cathy’s friend Mary-Anne arrived to take us into the village for dinner at the Harris Inn. “She’s quite impatient” said Cathy, urging us out to Mary-Anne’s car. “I thought there were only 2 of you” said Mary-Anne whilst we waited for Clive to emerge from the bathroom.
At the Harris I managed to sample the last pint of Red Ness before it ran out. The IPA eloped with it, and I was left with Caledonian Best. Nice enough, but not the best Caledonia really has to offer.
Later, back at the bungalow, after Cathy had finished watching “that stupid Big Brother”, she wanted to know if we’d managed to find a nice Harris girl for Clive. “They’re all very capable, the Harris girls.” Cathy said. Now, I’m sure the Harris girls can shoot, fish, and make a fine breakfast, but I’m not sure if the definition of their capability would extend as far as handling Clive.
We finally made time to look at the map for Day 5, which was set to be the hardest leg of the trip. I watched as the colour drained from Ian’s face, being steadily replaced by an expression of horror. I assured him that it looked good from satellite, and we all went to bed in a state of trepidation.
Day 4. Tarbert to Stornaway. 70km.
A happy start to the morning as Ian entered our room and threw my dry shorts at me. Sweet relief. There’s not a worse feeling than stepping into cold, damp lycra at the start of a day’s ride. We packed the remains of our wet kit, donned dry Sealskinz and stepped into our sodden riding shoes. This is the only time waterproof socks are of any use – when it’s raining the water just pours down inside them, forming dank, swampy lakes around your feet, the waterproofing working perfectly to prevent any fluid from escaping.
The day was clear and dry, high clouds just brushing the tops of the mountains, and we set off east from Tarbert before heading north , off-road, past Lochannan Lacasdail to join the main A859 road to Stornaway (cycle route 780!). We climbed on steep double track past hikers, before climbing further on the road past 2 elderly cyclists on enviably slick tyres.
At the top of the climb I collapsed on a bench and Cliff threw his bike in a bin. It’s hard work racing the elderly. We were carrying rucksacks again (the day before we’d left them in Tarbert) and so the pain in my rear returned to, quite literally, bite me in the ass.
Back, gingerly, in the saddle we motored along the tarmac and by 2 pm had covered 70km and reached our destination, Stornaway. We found a delicatessen with a cake menu, and inside were invited to help ourselves to coffee and cakes as we’d arrived on charity day. I flinched as I visualised Clive clearing out the entire stock of cakes, but we managed to block his access to the cake trolley thereby ensuring the future well being of the town’s neediest.
Suitably energised, we then found the B&B, organised a quick dry clean of our smelly clothes, bought lunch for the following day, and went in search of the bike shop. I expected Alex Dan’s Cycle Centre to be run by a man called Alex. Or Dan. In fact it was run by a lovely fella called Mark who welcomed us into his shop of saddles and mudguards, and allowed us full reign of his workshop. We pulled Cliff’s brake caliper to pieces, and sighed as one of the pistons fell to pieces in Cliff’s hand. Cliff then admitted that he had heard a crack when he’d been swinging from the caliper on Day -1.
So, what does one do, on a remote Scottish island, with a broken piston and no hope of finding spares? Super glue it back together of course. None of were sure it would work, but desperation is the mother of invention, and it was our last hope. We cleaned the piston as best we could, glued as many pieces of it back together as possible, let it dry for a few minutes, reassembled the caliper, and then bled the brake with the dusty Avid bleed kit from the back of Mark’s workshop. Then, despite a lack of religion amongst the group, we prayed.
Dinner in Stornaway was the best of the trip. Locally caught Hake, battered and served with chips and mushy peas, on the harbour, in the sunshine. Divine. Post dinner refreshments were enjoyed in the Criterion pub – a small bar, frequented by very drunk men who, in between spilling glasses of whiskey on the bar, helped us to decipher the activities in the old photos along the back wall. Apparently, baby gannet intestines are still considered a delicacy in Lewis, and every year, for a single day, the locals are allowed to hunt them. Not pudding.
Day 5. Stornaway to Kinlochewe. The longest day.
This was the day we’d been dreading. An almost impossible distance to cover over some of the remotest Scottish wilderness. Lots of climbs and lots of potential pushing lay ahead of us, and this after a 5.00am start to catch the ferry to Ullapool.
Breakfast was a sombre continental affair, and we rolled down to the port with a mixture of fear and awe. My feeling of trepidation wasn’t helped by the fact that I’d filled in all the ferry passes whilst inebriated, writing all the names correctly apart from Ian’s, which I’d changed to Randy McTavert. I figured that as long as the ferry didn’t sink no-one would notice.
At Ullapool we decided to try and blag our way across the loch (Loch Broom) to the other side where a small port road would lead us directly over to An Teallach and save us some miles and some pushing. Unfortunately the ferry that ran this route had ceased operating several years earlier and so we’d have to resort to charming the locals into taking us across.
Now, Clive is a very nice man, but if you happened to work in a small hut by the quayside organising fishing trips and he rode directly into the hut wearing a full-face helmet and a full black lycra outfit you might be forgiven for thinking you were about to be robbed. Startled, the lady in the hut rebuffed his ‘charm offensive’ but directed us over to the ferry workers’ building, suggesting we might have more luck there.
Ian, a lovely native whose brother in law had just set off by bicycle to Africa, took pity on us, and raised our spirits high with a simple, yet beautiful question: “Are you ready now?”
We were aboard Ian’s rib in moments, jetting beneath the bows of the ferry towards the far shore, feeling like we were in a scene from Miami Vice. The bright sun helped polish the vision.
Landing at a small jetty by the old hotel (now a fully self-sufficient home), we ascended by a steep track over into the Dundonnell valley where we dropped down through tree-lined avenues to meet the A832. The main road tooks us a quarter mile before we turned west and climbed past An Teallach then descended to Abhain Loch An Nid, the small river which flowed northwards from Allt Cul Doireachan. We stopped for lunch just before the track ran out, and then pushed up and over the pass, following the river past its source and into a clumpy, potholed peat bog from where the views south east were outstanding – Slioch, Beinn Eighe, and Liathach loomed dark against the bright sky ahead of us.
The sun was baking hot, and Lochan Fada below beckoned us with its cool, blue water, and mellow, pink beach. We stumbled through heather, Cliff attempting to ride, until we eventually clambered onto the stony shoreline, where much nudity and screaming prevailed.
An incredible singletrack descent led us down from Lochan Fada to Kinlochewe, below the might of Beinn Eighe, and our night’s accommodation at the Kinlochewe Inn (and its bunkhouse).
Day 6. Kinlochewe to Kyle of Lochalsh. The last day.
Breakfast was a strange affair, with Clive and Ian both dining in the hotel, and myself and Cliff riding to a nearby cafe to eat. We discovered, on starting the day proper, that we’d managed to find the wrong cafe, and not the one we’d been recommended the night before by our friendly dormsters. Still, it wasn’t a bad breakfast, and the cafe (which looking back upon I realise was actually a petrol station) sold postcards too.
A steady road ride led from Kinlochewe along the valley floor towards Torridon. Ben Eighe and Liathach monstered over us as we wandered lazily with the river towards the loch by the village. I thought it an opportune moment to mention that the day’s ride would be 70km, not 60km as I’d said the previous evening. We picked up a little speed.
At Annat, we left the road, climbing by a wall, before turning east along the northern slopes of Ben-na-h-Eaglais, creeping and hopping over rock slabs as we climbed, and pushed out of the valley to the lochs above. On the way up we picked up a raincoat, assuming that it would belong to one of the horseriders who were evidently (the evidence was lumped along the trail) ahead of us. We lunched at the top of the pass, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, not long after passing the most depressed man on the planet, who said only that he wasn’t the owner of the coat and that horses were indeed ahead.
The descent was twisty and technical – steep rocky sections, gulleys, and puddles all serving to make the riding hard but fun. We caught up with the 10 or so horse riders at a bothy and returned the coat to a very grateful lady who would be more grateful later when the rain started. The rest of the descent was marked by ironman runners in pairs, heading over the mountains to the finish of their race in Strathcarron. As we arrived at the event campsite the heavens opened, so we quickly filled our bottles with water and pressed on as far as the pub where I opted for the calorific benefits of ale instead of tea.
For the last stretch we followed the A road along Loch Arron and then over a vast climb past Lochalsh dam to Auchtertyre. “Auchter” is, I presume, a Scottish word which means many punctures from all directions, for as well as Ian and Cliff both having punctures within sight of the village, the midges finally decided to attack for the first time since we’d left Sligachan. Punctures galore.
Finally, we were in sight of the Kyle at last. As if to wish us a speedy return home the clouds opened and the rain poured like a river. By the time we reached the town we were soaked to the skin.
Mike greeted us heartily when we arrived at the Old Bank B&B, after we’d stopped for the obligatory photo by the water. He informed us that whilst we’d been away he’d won TripAdvisor’s Best B&B award! We weren’t surprised – Mike’s cheery demeanour was itself enough to win an award, and his charity work just put a cherry on his cheery cake. We were very glad to be back.
There’s not much that can better the freedom that cycling brings. There’s even less that can beat the feeling of riding day after day with your best mates. We’d completed an epic, created new memories, and had the time of our lives.
Here’s looking forward to the next trip!
All route planning for the trip was done using the excellent BikeHike website – a great resource that needs support and funding.
My Garmin 200 was the unlikely hero of the trip, constantly plotting the next 100m and meaning we didn’t have to carry any maps. We did carry a couple, but these were more for reference than anything.
If you’re planning a similar trip and would like .gpx files to peruse or follow then I have them all available. Drop me a line.