Mulling it over
Dean Clementson recounts his 300km ride around the west coast of Scotland.
There's always a sense of achievement when you complete a challenge such as riding a 300km audax, but when the 300 km is a sun-sparkled affair around the west coast of Scotland, then it is something special indeed.
The ride was a loop around the Scottish west coast, hopping fron the Scottish mainland to the island of Mull and back. Martin, Alan and I, along with 57 other cyclists, boarded the 8am ferry from Oban across to the lovely island of Mull. I took advantage of the break, to chat to a few people and to scoff a second breakfast.
As we disembarked to start the ride, we were straight into a long climb. Since Alan was in plodding-along mode, we were soon at the back of the field. However, we were on Mull, in the sunshine, surrounded by glorious scenery, so we weren't especially bothered. We spoke about what an isolated place it would be to live, and daydreamed about moving up, opening a bike shop, or organising bike tours. And we chuckled at sign on the road which told us we were on the "Scenic" route around the island. How much more scenic could it get?
Well, a lot. After we'd ridden around the south of the island, the route took us north towards Fishnish, alongside the shimmering blue waters of Loch Na Keal. We negotiated the narrow strip of road, with a sheer cliff to our right, and to our left the Atlantic Ocean and no landfall until America. It was the centrepiece of the ride.
But it was soon over, and our thoughts turned to leaving Mull and covering the rest of the ride. After our slow start, we had to ride 220 kms in 15 hours. As the ferries from Mull to the mainland are quite infrequent, we couldn't afford to linger any longer. We picked up the pace down towards the ferry at Fishnish, and could see a line of cars coming in the other direction, obviously having coming off the ferry. We got there just in time; the ferry was still on the dock as we rolled down the hill onto the deck, and as soon as we embarked, up went the barriers and the ferry left Mull. We were greeted with a chorus of "You lucky gits" from our fellow riders, who'd been waiting half an hour or more.
Back on the mainland, as we re-fuelled with burgers at the dockside cafe, somebody pointed out the enormous sea eagle which soared over our heads, dwarfing around a seagull which it circled. It was the first wild eagle I’d seen in Scotland.
There was another long climb away from the ferry, and the day was getting hotter: Martin and I reached the top of the climb long ahead of Alan, who'd slowed in the heat and the hills. By now it was clear that Alan was not going to make it round in time, but we all plodded on a while longer, up some long and steady climbs. After a wonderful, sweeping descent down to the Strontian, we reached a fork in the road - to the left was the coastal road to Lochailort and Fort William, to the right was the road to Corran Ferry and the shortcut back to Oban. Alan took the right hand turn and bid farewell, leaving Martin and me at the back of the field. We picked up our pace and soon caught up with some riders.
At the back of the field on audaxes you find a heartwarming camaraderie and lack of ego. Nobody was bothered about being near the back or getting overtaken, and we paused to chat with them as we passed. Everyone was full of cheer, and who wouldn't be, on the Scottish west coast in early April and cycling in warm sunshine?
We zoomed alongside the West Highland Railway to Glenfinnan, where we were rewarded with a huge welcome from the ride organiser's family at the Prince's House Hotel. It was too early for the proffered beer, but the leek and potato soup was like rocket fuel to my legs. Leaving the hotel we sped past the '45 Monument at the head of Loch Shiel and down down along the flat road to Fort William, counting off the mile markers which were laid out for the next day's marathon.
It was approaching dusk as we swooped into Fort William, which meant one of the best bits about audaxing: night riding. We switched our lights on and rode off into the dark, leaving behind the lights and drunken revelries of Fort William. Night riding is special for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the emptiness of the roads meant we encountered only one other car between Ballachulish and Oban. Secondly, there's a sense that you're doing something slightly naughty, which adds to the atmosphere of adventure and silliness. We wandered into a pub just before kicking-out time and chatted with well-lubricated locals, screamed down descents into the little pool of brightness created by our lights and tried to make out the deeper shadows of the Glencoe mountains against the moody sky above us.
It soon became evident that we were approaching Oban. There were cars on the road again; boy racers thrashing their Corsas at midnight, and a stiff hill which I remembered from the drive in the day before. I'd decided before that this hill would sting after 290 kms, and I wasn’t wrong, but I still had the energy to rip away at the top of the hill to beat Martin to the finish, dodging a gaggle of drunken teenagers who lurched towards me as I rode along the sea front at Oban.
The organiser welcomed us back with rejuvenating soup, bread and beer. I wanted to stay up and chat a bit and see the other riders come in, but my eyes were getting heavy, and I went to find my bed. What a great adventure!