Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Isle of Skye - NW Scotland Tour Day 3

During my informative years I lived on the Isle of Wight next door to a celtic family called the 'McKays'. Geographically Donald and Adaire were as far removed from any tartan or blooming heather that you could possibly get, but you would never think so. 

Every Christmas Donald would loose his trousers, hastily replaced by a kilt. He would insist that anybody crossing his homely threshold would join him in the consumption of Mould wine or Whiskey. Every New Years Eve he would throw a lavish party and insist that there were no shirkers when it came to joining arms and singing 'Auld lang syne'. 

One particular year 'Mull of Kintyre' was topping the record charts which prompted multiple plays. As the whiskey bottles emptied there was an increased harmony between  Makay and Macartney until the pipers entered the song .............'as the mist rolled in from the sea'
By the time people came to leave Donald would sometimes have a tear in his eye, through happiness or sadness I never really knew, but I know he missed his homeland.

From that moment on, I felt that I had come under some strange celtic spell. I immersed myself in celtic music, literature and history. I even scoured my family tree to try and find some celtic connection - alas there were no McShrimptons. 

Back then I never owned a cycle and my numerous excursions across the border were always motorised.
When I eventually decided to undertake a cycling tour my first two days were always going to be about challenges but the third set aside. 
It was reserved, to satisfy some deep yearning inside me.

After having already explored the Cities, Borders and the Highlands, the Islands were always there in the background. Like a delicious desert shouting out from the menu at an upmarket restaurant. 

Where you tell the waiter that you 'need some time' before its delivered.
To separate it from the rest of the meal, yet still make it part of the experience if you know what I mean.

When it comes to choosing which Island the choice was obvious - The Isle of Skye

Skye is the fourth largest island of the British Isles and the largest Island in the Inner Hebrides archipelago. Famed for its rugged landscape, picturesque fishing villages and medieval castles.

I needed no ice-cream to enhance this particular treat.

Starting from Portree we headed north along the A855 coast road with almost a cloudless sky.
To the East 'The sound of Rassay' lay between us and the island itself, with Rona and the Applecross peninsula beyond.

The conditions were so calm that the mountains became inverted within the mirrored reflection.
Arm warmers and gilets were soon discarded as the temperature rocketed up to 20 degrees, nature seemingly forgetting that it was still May. 

Knowing that this data would be disputed in years, I decided that I must capture the evidence on film and laid on the cool grass of the cliff-top. Whilst I was there I spied a four leaf clover, a unicorn and saw Nessie playing with a discarded empty coke bottle. It was magical.

With rain on 223 days a year and an average temperature of 14 degrees we constantly  had to question our true location which took on a dreamlike quality.

 Our good fortune continued as the road was wide and fast, surprisingly devoid of vehicles, or potholes, but we were not complaining. Its undulating terrain provided fast descents and shallow climbs assisted by the inertia gained. Inland to the west are the mountains with the old Man of Storr and further north the Famous 'Quiraing' 

You approach The 'Quiraing' from the curiously named Brogaig with an unnecessary ramp that reminds you of your mortality. Leaving the semblance of civilisation behind you, you are greeted by an isolated graveyard.
By this time my eyesight had become compromised by sweat from the 'Heat of this spring day'
Instead of tombstones it appeared to me as if the graves were marked by half buried cycle wheels and bidons stood beside them containing wilting 'White Roses'. 

Was it a sign? I asked myself,  as this unique geological amphitheatre reared up in front of me. 

The Quiraing climb lasts about 4km and rises to 15% in gradient. It's not the toughest climb, nor the longest, but as far as grandeur is concerned there are few that compete with this.

It was already clear from the previous signs that day, that the climb would be fine, and so it was.

Despite the vertical challenge there would be no suffering this day. I soon reached the top singing to myself.................oh the summer time is coming, and the trees are sweetly blooming, and the wild mountain thyme grows around the blooming heather, will you go lassie go

By the time we set off back to Portree the wind had picked up............A tail wind of course - to push us home...........spooky.

The drive back from Portree to our hotel at Broadford was almost a solemn affair in the knowledge that we had just had just finished three incredible days of cycling.

We would be leaving the following day.

In 1947 Broadway hosted a new musical called 'Brigadoon'. Its was about a magical place  that rises out of the Scottish Mist every 100 years and becomes accessible to outsiders for just one day.

We set off early the next day again to warm sunshine and a cloudless sky.
As we crossed over the Skye Bridge to the mainland I could see the mist fill in behind me through my wing mirror. With in minutes the Island had disappeared.
'Wheres my coat' Matt I asked 'it's getting chilly'

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Bealach-na-Ba - Tour of NW Scotland Day 2

I have a good friend that I cycle with called Manuel. He is a GP and originally from Barcelona. 
Like his Faulty Towers namesake, Manuel sometimes struggles with certain English words. 
He actually speaks and understands English far better than most people I know, but is linguistically ambitious, always looking to enhance his vocabulary. 

One day we were out cycling when I became detached from the main group. We were climbing some lung busting accent that I had never encountered before. Manuel, sensing I was in trouble dropped back to join me and asked if I was ok. 
I told him not to worry that I was 'pacing' myself because I did not know what lay ahead of us.

'Peeeeeeecing' he said 'I like that idea'.

A few weeks later we were out again climbing out of one of the valleys in the East Yorkshire wolds. I had adopted my usual 'Lantern Rouge' position now joined by my new able domestique from Barcelona. As we rode, we were caught up by two female cyclists with whom we passed the time of day with.
Manuel urged them to pass, exclaiming that he and I, were currently engaged in the art of 'Peeeeeeecing'. Scornfully they accepted Manuel invitation and rode on - not daring to look back. Before they got out of sight I shouted 'Don't worry....he's from Barcelona'.

Whenever I encounter a new vertical challenge 'Peeeeecing' is always my default position, which was something that I had in mind when I looked at the second day of our Scottish Tour.

Starting from sea level at Tornapress, we headed along the northern shore of Loch Kishorn. The single track road ascended steadily, like a strand of Spaghetti randomly dropped from the plate of some Celtic deity - Epona perhaps who liked to protect her equine creatures.....especially Mules.

 Not unlike the previous day, the weather was perfect with warm spring sunshine and little wind. 
The visibility was clear.......Horribly so!
There was nothing hidden or masked in anyway, no subtlety at all - you could see everything.
To the south west over the shimmering waters of Loch Carron and into the inners seas. There was Scalpay, Raasay and the mountains on the Isle of Skye.

To the north west there was Bealach-na-Ba.

I have to point out that I am always a bit suspicious about the use of hypons.
People sometimes use them in their surnames to create an image of someone greater, more important or of a different class. 

Bealach-Na-Ba had two hypons, but needs no introduction. It's identity has been confirmed by many  a distressed cyclists over the years.

Everything around us was dwarfed by this huge cliff face.
I decided that this was definitely a climb for 'Peeeeecing'!!!!!!

Simon Warren who put together Britains 100 greatest climbs described it as:- 'The Holy Grail, the toughest and wildest climb in Britain'
He goes on to say 'Anything you have read or been told about this amazing road is likely to be true. For once you can believe the hype'.

Being in this isolated, barren landscape it is intimidating enough before you even  turn your pedals.
The nearest emergency Hospital is hours away and if the weather turns, the same could be said about the nearest shelter.

Unlike any other British climb that I have encountered the scale of this beast is in a different league.
It is the third highest road in Scotland, and its 9.27 km takes you way out of your comfort zone for what seems an eternity.
Although shorter than your average Alpine climbs, what is given up in length, is made up for in gradient. Climbing 626 meters (2,054ft) in one go, it has an average of 9.9% which tops out at 24.7%.

The narrow, twisty road is uncompromising. There is little room for cars to overtake and you have to negotiate the use the infrequent passing places to ensure progress. If you don't judge it right and have to unclip - you have got problems.

The road is far too narrow to traverse and mostly too steep to re-engage your pedals.
I thought that SPD cleats might be a good option for greater flexibility. I'll try and remember  for next time.

At one point I had three cars behind me. I felt anxious at their proximity, intimidated by their impatience and nauseous at their burning clutches.

Unable to slip in and out the short piece of tarmac before they had passed, I was forced to unclip.  The only way I got going again was to descend to the previous passing place, and execute a U turn.
With a rock face on one side and a 30 foot drop the other, it was a bit perilous.
A much better option than going back to the bottom, I recklessly thought.

The further up the climb, it became more demanding. 
The road narrowed, its surface became more weathered, and it ramped up. 
An unholy trinity of challenges, conspiring to maximise my suffering. 

Whoever I cycle with must be reassured to know they will always be able to get a rest at the top of every climb. I am always last up and have perfected the art of 'Peeeeecing' so much, that I no longer think - 'I won't make it' 
Usually I am more concerned about things like 'will all the cake have been eaten at the cafe' or 'will the pub be closed' - Things that I consider to be equally important on all cycling adventures. 
On this particular day I was rest assured that there was no pub or cafe at the summit so I was more concerned that my companions might have fallen asleep or got bored waiting.

With no crowds of supporters handing out sheets of of L'Equipe to shove down my Jersey, I elected for a Gilet on the cool descent down into Applecross. There we found an oasis within a walled garden and some fine fare on offer.

Believing I had completed most of the hard work, I allowed myself a much larger than normal lunch, washed down with some local Skye Gold. The sun was now reaching its Zenith and providing some extra warmth within this enclosure. 
All was right with the world I thought as I tugged on my bottle of straw coloured ale.

On leaving the lunch stop we spied an old rickshaw discarded in the grass. 
I would have been happy to do the same if I had been allowed. 
Instead we pressed on staying close to the sea around the peninsular. 

It usually takes me about half an hour to get going again after a cafe/lunch stop but after 50 minutes I was somewhat perplexed. It suddenly dawned on me that my listless legs were not 'Cafe legs' but ones engaged in real industrial action. 

Our nominated navigator Tony reassured me that there was only 3 more climbs left at Camas-an-Eillean, Applecross Forrest and Loch Shielding.
I did not particularly enjoy the previous climb with the 'double hyphened' name, so I doubted that the next one would fill me with joy. 

By now I was struggling to keep up with my fellow adventurers who had not yet acquainted themselves with the joys of 'Peeeeeecing'. 

Although the surrounding countryside and coast were spectacular in every sense, my head was dropping and my focus was becoming increasingly one dimensional  - upon the road ahead.

Thankfully with my wits about me, I was still able to keep track of our progress.
After about another 10 weary miles, I worked out that I must have been summiting the final climb at Loch Shielding.

 I only spotted one of our group yawning as I stopped at the top to congratulate myself, at closing the ride out. I smiled and reached out my hand to the others.

Tony looked at me quizzically asking what I meant.
When he explained that we had not even done the first of the remaining climbs I was close to tears.....really I was. 
I was also way past any extreme form of turrets, with a tirade of expletives erupting from me

'What the xxxx have we been cycling on then for the past ten miles! They are hardly xxxxxxx speed bumps. If they are not xxxxxxx significant climbs what the xxxx are they going to be like when we xxxxxxx get to them.'

Tony tried to reassure me that the first climb was at the bottom of this next descent and that they pretty much followed one after another. 

'For  xxxx sake'  the turrets continued 

Suddenly I was no longer in the Scottish wilderness but with my head on a block during the French revolution. The executioner was telling me that I should not worry as they had just changed the blade  on the guillotine.
 'At least the pain will all come together' I thought.

The next hour was probably the hardest time I have ever had on a bike. I was in an acute state of melancholia. I kept on telling the guys to ride on and leave me, that I would either see them at the finish or that they could visit me in the morgue.

I asked them to each choose one of my bikes for themselves and to consider arranging a commemorative Sportive for over weight cyclists after my passing.
They laughed, not realising that I was being serious.

When the final summit did come there was a long shallow descent and a wind assisted flat for about 8 miles back to Tornapress. By the time we hit the flat, I was re-engaging with the surroundings again and smiling. It wasn't so bad after all. Is it ever?

That night we spoke of the days ride and of the following day on the Isle of Skye. We smiled heartily  and made various toasts as the Scotch ignited  our own spirits.
I raised my glass in special toast 'Let the Peeeeecers of the world unite'

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Assynt - Tour of NW Scotland Day 1

When I thought of Scotland I usually reached for my hat and scarf reminded of past Saturday afternoons on the West stand in Murrayfield or sat in a cosy nook, feeling the burn in my throat as I greedily consume its most lucrative export. 

What I didn't think about was cycling there.

I know that from Lands End to John O'Groats you have to go through this Celtic northland, but I viewed it as 'the grim bit at the end', where you might see the odd 'White walker'

About 5 years ago I was watching a Rapha Continental film called ASSYNT of which the title appeared to be scribed in some alien font. 

I was immediately mesmerised by the savage beauty of this location and shivered on watching the riders, riding through the rain and sleet. 
Clearly it was in Scotland but where I thought as I typed the letters A-S-S-Y-N-T. 

On viewing the map I soon realised that it's far north west position was a long way away. Almost as close to Iceland than it is to London.I soon worked out that in the time it would take me to drive there I could fly to Denver, read a Novel or watch a full box set of Games of Thrones.

Dejected I resigned myself that this was another location for my bucket list, a list that was already close to capacity.
For the next five years I continued to watch the video. 
Increasingly I felt like a vouyeur, too afraid to come out from behind the curtain.

This year, either by chance or fate, I was reading an article in The Daily Telegraph by Mark Beaumont. It was entitled 'The five places on earth every cyclist needs to visit'. 
'He should know' I thought as I read the short, but obviously considered list.

To my surprise this area of Scotland was featured and encouragingly it was much closer than Argentina or Iran.
Impulsively I decided that I would go. I had to.
I reckoned I would need 5 days, two travel days and three cycling days - and so the research began. 

It took little time at all to decide on three routes - They soon chose themselves with the Assynt, The Applecross Peninsula and The Isle of Skye.

Deciding when to go was the biggest dilemma.
With snow and winter storms still possible up until June, its unwise to go too early.
However with the midge season starting in late May, if you go too late you will provide an all you can eat buffet for 'Culicoides impunctatus'.

Being from Yorkshire Im used to weather and not blood letting.
I elected for the first week in May.

When it comes to trips away I could never be described as a light packer especially if I'm going to be cycling. I take a suitcase when I go away for the weekend, and regularly pay for extra baggage on holidays away. 

Packing for Cycling in Scotland was a new experience altogether.
I viewed the video again for clues.
Despite the gorse being still in full bloom, they all wore hats and coats and glamoured by a fire The weather outlook was Variable with a capital 'V': Rain, Sleet, Snow, Sun, Wind, Warm and Cold. The only theme that appeared missing was descending domestic pets.
I was just grateful that I had a van and made a note for myself to leave enough room for the bike.

As I passed north of Perth into the Scottish Highlands the spring sun came out reflecting off the snow capped peaks. With little in the way of wind there was some warmth in the air. 
I was a little concerned...... Had I driven into a black hole and emerged in southern Spain?
The sight of the Dalwhinnie Distilery soon eased my anxiety.

It took just over 3 hours to get to the Scottish border, but nearly 10 to arrive at Lochinver. Although I was technically in another country, it really felt very different, like a far flung territory. 
Three of my fellow club members had been brave enough to take a chance, and come with me We took diner, excitedly talking about the days ahead fuelled by Whiskey and Haggis. 
The sun remained out .............until well after we had retired.

Although there was no tour guide, the elements greeted us with a cheery smile.
The sort cyclists like.
You know......Sunshine, little wind, not too hot or cold.......just perfect, and so it was.

As you leave Lochinver you turn right and start climbing..........and climbing. Out of the valley towards Clachtoll. Once at the top you can see the Suilven to the South East with its distinctive domed appearance. As views go its up there with the best.

The terrain then becomes like a roller coaster for toddlers. Enough rise and fall to make them scream, but not enough to cause terror. Through Lochs, woodland, pretty coves and past idyllic unpopulated beaches your senses are overloaded. Before you get too complacent the kids section is replaced by the hard core one. The rollercoaster that you have to get cajoled to go on.
Steep up...................

Steep down and unrelenting.

The Chevrons warn you of whats ahead, but you have already worked it out. 
Like the blade of a guillotine, its whats above you that often concerns you on a bike. 
There was a disturbing familiarity that must have come from the numerous video viewings.
The recollection of the pained expressions, soon became familiar to me too.

Eventually we reached the A894 and started a long steady climb towards Loch na Gainmhich. After double digit purgatory, this imposing, endless climb was welcoming for me, even though the wind had now conspired to blow against us.
It was not lost on me that most of the tough climb was finished and that we would soon have a tail wind to finish.

The descent to Skiag Bridge was framed by the mountains and lit up by the shimmering Loch Assynt.
I had to pinch myself in the knowledge that like 'Brigadoon' this type of weather was something that might happen just once a year. Today was seemingly the day.

Onwards to Inchnadamph, a name that caresses the mouth, and invokes thoughts of begotten kings and mystic waters. Eagles soared and deer roamed - we shared the loch together.

Joining the A835 towards Ullapool we climbed through Elphin up to Knockan Crag before descending down to Drumrunie. If you want to descend fast this is the place - I bottled out at 45 mph as the now crosswind was caused me a few wobbles. 

The route then turns right towards Stac Pollaidh. With the shallowest of descents and a tailwind the nest ten miles were pure indulgence. When a gradient did occasionally appear from behind a bend or bush it was easy matched by the momentum banked.

Eventually we reached the Atlantic and had to follow the coast northwards back to Lochinver. This terrain was similar to the first part, the only difference being that we could smell the local beer, fine food and whiskey. 

Mark Beaumont was right - this location was exceptional. 
The ride had everything, Climbing - Oh Yeah. 
Descending - of course. 
But what defined it was exactly what I first saw in the video - Savage beauty.

If this was the taste of what was ahead of us I had some good reasons to toast that night.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Col du Tourmalet

Col du Tourmalet Part 1

As we approached the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur the mountains are angry.  
They snarled at us. 
Conspiring with nature - Misty clouds appeared, surrounding us, and taking on a variety of ghoulish forms.
Their disapproval thundered down the valley as they raged and shouted. - showering us with their spittle.
Their imposing stature illuminated by bolts of lightening, sithing through the Pyrenean air.

'How dare these Yorkshire men try and tame us!' - they whispered to each other.

Le col de Tourmoulet has no friends - we as not welcome here.
The promise of warm sun kissed mountain meadows, of cow bells clanking in time with bovine mastication seem momentarily frozen within the pages of the cycling magazines. 

With further heavy rain forecast and 6 degrees being recorded at the summit there is genuine apprehension, even fear for want of a better word.

Fear is right 
Fear works.
Fear clarifies 
It cuts through and captures................. the essence ...............of the evolutionary spirit.
Fear in all its forms.
It aids preparation, provides resolve and ensures determination - especially for us Yorkshire Folk.

We rallied and reminded ourselves that we were not Celts but descendants of Viking invaders where the fight was as good as the victory.
"White rose..... white rose, White rose .......white rose...................Is that how it goes ?

Col du Tourmalet Part 2  

I could have been mistaken that our 'petit dejeuner' was being served in a library, although the absence of books reminded me otherwise. There was a morbid tranquility about the place with the only sound coming from the kissing of crockery. Although the rain had stopped the road was wet and the clouds low. Lower than the 2115 meters that would be the summit and shrouding our departure point. Defiantly we set off with each kilometre point signposted. These 'helpful' markers showed the altitude, distance to summit, and the average gradient - the third bit of information I struggled to digest, as it mostly hovered between 8 and 10%.

The first few kilometres were relatively easy, mentally assisted by my restricted view.
As I entered the village of Bareges the cloud and the gradient lifted in unison.
I was immediately forced into my bottom gear as the mountain threw off its cloak revealing its rugged majesty.

I was now caught in the moment. Riding the mighty Tourmalet used over 80 times in the Tour de France, the highest pass in the Pyrenees.

The names of Pinot, Bardot, Froome et al - were daubed in assorted colours across the tarmac reminding me that it was not just a road but a battlefield - A battlefield for two wheeled warriors - blood, sweat and tears in the Pyrenean amphitheater 

Some bathed in glory and others riddled in pain haunted by demons of past failures. 
At 13 km away the very top of the summit was out of sight, only providing me with a hint of my endeavours ahead .
The route  marked out by almost stationary vehicles tracing a seemingly impossible course through double digit switchbacks and then out of sight.

As I slowly moved up the Mountain, the longer ramps were replaced by shorter ones. 
Punctuated with tights bends, the outside line gave you some momentary relief from the constant tension.
You could breath deeply and look back in constrained admiration at your progress.

With 6 km to go I was in my own private world of pain with no exit doors in sight. 
Failure appeared through my emotional letterbox like an unexpected tax bill when I was already overdrawn. 
The desire to stop was agonisingly extreme.

As I was twisting my right foot to unclip  I was passed by two Spanish cyclists who shouted out  at me.
'Animal' 'Animal' they laughed.
I was in no mood to trade insults, but this was unnecessary.
Before a had found a suitable Anglo Saxon response and found enough oxygen to delver it I paused.
I the remembered that in Spain to call a fellow rider an 'Animal'  is a compliment.
 It infers that you ride on guts and instinct.

I puffed out my chest and enthusiastically shouted 'Hola'
I suspected that they must have been eminent physicists.
I reckoned that they would have looked at my 'waif' like physique and then, with great deliberation applied Newtons second law of motion.
Good for them I thought doing advanced mathematics on the Tourmalet is no mean feat.

For the first time in my life I liked being thought of as 'an animal'
I fancied that I would be a Bull.
I re-cleated and with new found gusto spiritually rejoined the arena.

Stomping on the pedals  kilometres slowly reduced and although the gradient increased, I knew at the 2 kilometre mark, that I would make it.
With Spanish intervention there was to be no 'Death in the afternoon' Mr Hemingway - today the bull would return.

Tired, emotionally drained - but all conquering