Cycle touring in north west Scotland – how to have a birthday micro-adventure
Cicerone's Joe Williams spent the bank holiday weekend cycle touring in Wester Ross with his girlfriend Caroline. They endured vicious midges and sore bums, but the scenery and hospitality certainly made up for it!
Caroline's birthday coincided with a bank holiday weekend. So what could be better than celebrating with a two-day 160 mile cycle through north west Scotland? I began to hatch a plan...
Joe: "Do you want to go cycle touring in Scotland for your birthday?"
Caroline: "Ummm, ok! How far?"
Joe: "What about 80 miles on the first day, then on day two we can do 100 miles to celebrate your birthday? We'll pack super lightweight and stay in a B&B overnight. I know neither of us has been on a bike for about a month and this will be the longest ride we've ever done, but I'm sure it will be fine. We can even do the Bealach na Ba!"
Caroline (With fear/excitement in her eyes after googling this most famous of cycling cols): "Awesome!"
You don't need to train for cycle touring, right?
The plan was set. Drive north from the Lake District on Friday night. Start riding from Achnasheen on the Saturday, going via Garve, Dundonnell and Poolewe. Spend Saturday night at a B&B in Gairloch. Day two we'd ride to Kinlochewe, through Glen Torridon to Sheildaig, round the coast to Applecross, over the Bealach na Ba and back up Glen Carron to Achnasheen. We'd finish on Sunday night for a slap up birthday dinner in Inverness. Easy, right?
Our ride would take us through the spectacular scenery of the north west Highlands
Day one: Achnasheen to Gairloch (the long way)
The temperature was a wonderful 26 degrees C when we started the ride, and we easily clocked off the miles, sharing the odd cereal bar for sustenance. Loch Glascarnoch shimmered as we gazed up to the vast mountains of the Fannichs to the south. At Corrieshalloch Gorge we stopped for a lunch of panini, cake and cola, now surrounded by big bearded men on motorbikes who were riding the North Coast 500 (NC500).
With the glorious peak of An Teallach now in sight, we were met by a heavy deluge of rain moving up the valley towards us. Fortunately the soaking didn't last long and we were soon enjoying the descent down to the coast at Dundonnell. The smell of fresh rain after weeks of dryness mixed with the salty sea air and rhododendron flowers. The coast looked beautiful and we were now over halfway. The route over to Poolewe was punctuated by short climbs, misty moorland and beautiful bays like Second Coast. We helped each other on the climbs and raced each other on the descents. On the final climb before Gairloch I got a flat. Sensing it was just a slow puncture, I gave it a quick pump, knowing we'd be in Gairloch in half an hour.
The coast roads of Wester Ross have plenty of short climbs to test the legs
Overnight in Gairloch
We freewheeled along the waterfront keeping an eye out for the Croit mo Sheanair B&B. We found it easily and our host Lynn gave us a warm welcome, access to plentiful tea and warm radiators to dry our kit. I tipped the contents of my under-seat bag out onto the bed: there wasn't much. My years of alpine climbing have taught me to take only the bare minimum so there wasn't much more than a sawn-off toothbrush, a skeleton first aid kit, inner tubes, a credit card and a t-shirt and shorts. I don't know much about cycle touring, but this seemed enough for me. After a good dinner at a local bistro we retired for an early night.
Day two: Midges, Torridon and seafood
Day two began with a hearty breakfast from Lynn – a good way to start Caroline's birthday. Mounting our bikes I realised my rear tyre had gone totally flat overnight. I set about changing it but realised after a few seconds that the dreaded midge had found us. I battled with the replacement tube, sadly discovering it was already damaged while pumping it up. I desperately grabbed another spare tube and furiously pumped it up as the midges swarmed and bit. With great relief we hit the road.
For some reason I'd forgotten that Scotland has midges - I got hideously attacked!
Speed and motivation were as low as the clouds that shrouded the mountains. The prospect of 100 miles wasn't appealing at all so we backed down to the 80 mile route option (map below). The highlight of the tour was the ride through Glen Torridon, underneath the giants of Beinn Eighe, Liathach and Ben Alligin. We freewheeled along, gazing in awe at the steepness of the peaks, their summits hidden by cloud.
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Ninety-nine percent of the vehicles we met were extremely courteous and gave us priority – thank you! Stomachs were beginning to rumble so we stopped at Sheildaig for lunch. The Bar and Coastal Kitchen was the only thing open, but boy was it good: freshly baked bread, seafood chowder and langoustine and new potato bisque were all washed down by litres of tea. Definitely the most extravagant lunch I've ever had on a bike ride!
The Coastal Kitchen at Sheildaig produces a cracking seafood stew. A bit extravagant for a mid-bike ride meal though!
The best way to learn about cycle touring mistakes is to make some...
The fresh seafood fuelled our muscles for the two climbs and descents that lead to the pretty village of Lochcarron. It was on the second descent that Caroline's under-seat bag (simply a waterproof stuffsack strapped to the saddle) decided to make a break for freedom. As she hit 45mph, the bag came loose and clattered along the tarmac. Fortunately it wasn't torn to shreds, just a few holes here and there. I was having my own under-seat bag issues, never quite getting it strapped on right, meaning that some item or other was usually jabbing into my leg as I pedalled. Note to self: buy a proper under-seat bag!
The final 20 miles back to the car were picturesque, but the steady climb, combined with extreme saddle soreness slowed our pace. OCD behaviour meant that we did a short 5 miles out-and-back to make the day a round 80 miles.
Post-cycle tour in Inverness
After an enormous dinner and plenty of 'rehydrating' drinks we collapsed into a comfortable hotel in Inverness. Tired and achy on Monday morning we went dolphin watching at Chanonry Point – well worth the detour!
Our cycle touring route through the north west highlands. Some roads were quite busy, but drivers were so courteous it didn't matter
Where were you this weekend? Did you do a cycle tour, a scramble, a trail run or a great walk? If you had an adventure in your local hills, why don't you tell us about it – you might make our featured blog for the week!
Joe Williams is Cicerone's Business Development Manager. After many years climbing and running on the roads, he realised he wasn't actually any good at either of those things. He has since turned to mountain ultra running, which he's better at. Joe also enjoys playing the classical guitar, and has an unnatural aversion to swimming.View Articles by Joe Williams