Road Cycling Route in the Ayrshire Alps, Scotland – A testing 80-mile ride through Britain's first cycling park
Trevor Ward goes for a spin in the hilly region of southwest Scotland dubbed the ‘Ayrshire Alps’ to discover whether it’s worthy of such a famous name.
- Distance: 80 miles (129km)
- Grade: Difficult. There are almost 2000m of climbing, including a few sections with gradients in the double digits, plus the road surface often leaves a lot to be desired.
- Download the route here
Two of the three roads out of the pretty Ayrshire village of Barr tilt upwards at alarmingly steep angles. Situated on the bank of the river Stinchar, some big hills crowd around us.
In the community store and cafe where we’ve stopped for some tea and cake, I ask Libby behind the till if the village is ever cut off from the outside world. “It can be tricky getting out when it’s icy,” she replies.
Barr has definitely got a bit of The Land That Time Forgot vibe. There’s no mobile signal, the village pub is defunct, and among the reading material on offer is a leaflet entitled, Living With Pine Martens.
We are at the heart of the Ayrshire Alps, several hundred acres of rolling hills, valleys and moorland. Though the signs at every village are bookended with the slogan, “Rambling Territory” – which tempts me to caution our photographer at one point, “Don’t mess with them Andy, it’s not worth it, it’s their territory!” – it was actually a group of road cyclists who came up with the Ayrshire Alps name.
One of them, John-Paul Baxter, is riding with us, although I have suspicions he may be an imposter, seeing as he took us up the wrong hill earlier. The climb up Kilgrammie was remote and challenging enough, and offered spectacular views out to sea and the dome of rock that is Ailsa Craig, but it’s not officially part of the Ayrshire Alps ‘Road Cycling Park’. Maybe Cycling Plus could claim to have discovered a new Alp?
JP nods sheepishly. It’s not only his reputation as a cyclist and member of local club, the Ayrshire Burners – named after local hero Rabbie Burns – that is at stake, his professional, 24-year status as a courier van driver is also under threat. He changes the subject with a potted history of the Ayrshire Alps.
“The Burners ride these roads all the time,” he says. “There are great routes and fantastic scenery. The climbs may not be as big or long as in the Alps, but to us they are just as iconic, and that’s where the idea for a road cycling park came from.”There are ambitious plans to waymark routes with signs detailing distances and gradients, similar to those that adorn roads in the French Alps, but for now the Ayrshire Alps’ website (ayrshirealps.org) offers a ‘piste’ map, suggested itineraries and GPX files to download.
And so it begins…
We started today’s ride in the village of Straiton, a cluster of stonewalled, slate-tiled cottages nestled in the crevice of the northernmost Galloway Hills. Here, in the shadow of a hilltop obelisk erected to honour a local hero of the Crimean War, we start the longest grind of the day, a seven-mile drag to our first ‘Alp’, Tairlaw Summit.
This hugs the Water of Girvan before entering the ominously named Dark Sky Park, one of a handful of locations in the UK offering the best views of the night sky due to its lack of light pollution. During the day this is of little consequence other than to remind the unwary rider that they are entering one of the remotest stretches of road in the UK and shouldn’t expect to find either a phone signal or 24-hour garage for the next few hours.
The road eventually emerges from densely forested slopes on to empty and undulating moorland. The highest point is marked by the surreal sight of a six-foot high Christmas tree, decorated in tinsel and baubles, and planted amidst the grass and heather a few yards from the roadside. Every day is Christmas Day up here.
As the road begins its gradual, snaking descent, the views to
our left of the Merrick Hills – a panorama of bleak, barren peaks and slopes being harvested for their timber – live up to their Alpine comparisons. We’ve hardly descended at all when the road kicks up again. JP signals for us to pull in at a layby with a wooden sign announcing the Bell Memorial. A short walk up a grassy bank reveals a monument to a local cycling legend.
We often forget that in the days before carbon fibre frames, GPS computers and ‘Stravanoraks’, previous generations of cyclists have ridden the roads of the UK, often in greater numbers and usually with loftier goals than simply recording a new PB on a local segment.
More like this
Davie Bell was one such rider. He once memorably wrestled his bike – a heavy steel number with mudguards and saddlebag – to the top of the Merrick, the highestpeak overlooking us today. His monument features a bronze relief map of the landscape stretched out before us. Bell rode these roads every week, visiting favourite youth hostels and regularly stopping to “drum up” a mug of tea and some bacon and eggs. “He was a pioneer, an adventure cyclist ahead of his time,” says JP.
Bell described his exploits in a weekly newspaper column written under the byline of The Highway Man, and is credited with encouraging hundreds of readers to take up cycling during the 1930s and ’40s. Riding these roads nearly 80 years ago, he’d had “a horrible thought – some day trees are going to obscure those views of the mountains.” He can rest in peace – the views from his favourite place remain inspiring.
Following his death in 1965, donations for a memorial came from all over the world, and hundreds of people attended its unveiling in this remote spot the following year. The club he co-founded in 1930, Ayr Roads CC, started an annual race in his name, using the roads we’re riding. The Davie Bell Memorial was a classic on the Scottish race calendar, only folding in 2015 after its 50th edition because of lack of funding.
In the Nic of time
As JP and I remount our bikes and continue the climb to Alp No. 2, the Nic o'Balloch, I suspect The Highway Man will be haunting the rest of our ride.
The Nic o'Balloch pass, with its sinuous road, Armco barriers and sheer drop down one side, is probably the most Alpine-esque of today’s route even if, as JP points out, we are tackling it from its “easy” side. Competitors on the now defunct Girvan three-day road race – a British Cycling Premier Calendar event that attracted the likes of Mark Cavendish, Chris Boardman, Robert Millar and Sean Kelly during its 40-year history – would havehad to deal with the opposite, steeper side. As we coast down the narrow road towards the Stinchar valley, I can only imagine their suffering (and pity them for not having the extraordinary views JP and I are enjoying).
In the words of Bell, the descent is “one glorious mile of hairpin bends, ravines, potholes and majestic scenery.” Little has changed, including the potholes. The next Alp is Glenalla, where a succession of steeply-tilting zig-zags lead us to a plateau and a road that loops lazily between richly-forested and recently denuded slopes.
The next climb should have been Wallacetown, but due to a combination of a dodgy GPX upload and JP’s poor memory – “I very rarely ride this one, honest,” he pleads unconvincingly – we end up on the top of a parallel and previously unchartered Alp, the Kilgrammie. Our first views of the sea – with the uninhabited rock of Ailsa Craig, the saw-tooth profile of the Isle of Arran and the distant Kintyre peninsula all present and correct – are still spectacular, even if we should have been enjoying them from a different perch.
From here there’s only one way to our cafe stop in Barr, so even JP can’t get us lost. The road leads over Alp No. 5 – Blackies Brae – and along a ridge top corridor of humming wind turbines before plunging down from Alp No. 6 – The Screws – into the village.
After lunch and learning how to live with pine martens, we face another stiff climb, this one called Glengennet and graded black on the Ayrshire Alps piste map. Bell had a phrase for climbs like this – “a real foot-warmer” – and says they were ridden “at the president’s pace”.
I’m staying with JP’s pace until we hit a particularly steep bit that coincides with the road surface disintegrating beneath us. Now I know why JP turned up on a chunky-tyred ’cross bike. The state of the roads also explains why he’s been conspicuously quiet about the fact that John Macadam – he of tarmacadam fame – was born not far from here.
Off the beaten track
By the time we arrive back in Straiton we have 60 miles in our legs, but JP persuades me to go “off-piste” with a loop of an extra 20 miles that will include a couple of lesser-known Alps.
This takes us past the impressive grounds and russet turrets of Cloncaird Castle, owned by the splendidly-named Ephraim Belcher who, even more splendidly, is known as the “Sausage King of Scotland” because of his highly successful meat processing business in nearby Prestwick.
We arrive at yet another picture postcard village of centuries-old, low-roofed cottages – Kirkmichael – and take a sharp right in the direction of Patna. It’s not long before I’m cursing JP as the road bucks up in a seemingly never-ending succession of false flats. I’ve assumed that the six miles between Kirkmichael and Patna will be equally divided between climbing and descending and so am slightly disconcerted that after four miles we are still heading upwards. I wonder what Bell would have made of this – there aren’t even any views to take our minds off the pain – and then remember he only ever stopped to “drum up” or “cape up”. His excuse was: “If I rest, I rust.”
It’s only after five miles that we finally crest the hill and the road plunges vertiginously into Patna, a former mining community which, to be frank, doesn’t quite merit the “picture postcard” epithet.
From here there’s a fast, flat section on a good road that was used on the first stage of last year’s Tour of Britain before we turn right and start climbing again.
This takes us up to an exposed plateau, tinged purple by late-blooming heather. The familiar sentinels of wind turbines shadow our every pedal stroke along a road that eventually straightens out and arrows down towards Straiton.
The “Ayrshire Alps” have lived up to their evocative moniker, with the sense of beauty and remoteness – even though we were never more than 25 miles as the crow flies from the busy coastal town of Ayr – combining to make a memorable day in the saddle.
The nearest train station is Ayr, with regular, 50-minute ScotRail services to Glasgow Central. ScotRail also operates a Bike & Go scheme at 10 of its stations, allowing travellers to hire bikes at their destinations. As part of a bike-friendly initiative since being taken over by Dutch company Abellio in 2015, ScotRail has also provided 600 extra parking spaces for bikes at its stations. (scotrail.co.uk)
Where to stay
Smithston Farm B&B, on a working farm just outside Patna, is eight miles from Ayr and a mile from the route. It offers porridge and full Scottish breakfasts, with secure storage for bikes. (ayrshirebandb.com)
Food and drink
For evening meals, the Hollybush Inn, three miles along the A713 towards
Ayr from Patna, has an extensive menu. Highlights include the chicken and Stornaway black pudding wrapped in Parma ham, while the chocolate and salted caramel torte was king of the desserts. There’s also a selection of wines and real ales (hollybushinn-ayrshire.co.uk). For coffee and cake, try either the community shop and
cafe in Barr, or the The Buck in Straiton.
Pictures: Andy McCandlish
We've been seeking out the best places to ride your bike since 1992 – subscribe to find new places to explore every month!