As we unfurl our map of the Firth of Clyde, it quickly becomes clear that this will be a café ride unlike any other. The map is full of cracks, protuberances and long dangly bits – almost like it’s been hand-drawn by someone while actually on a bike. This is the profile of western Scotland – a mass of rivers, estuaries, lochs, peninsulas and islands. And that’s the problem. Our café of choice is only 34 miles away from Glasgow as the crow flies; by road, however, the ride will require a round trip of 180 miles.
Fortunately, help is at hand. The dotted lines that connect the dangly bits on our map denote the ferry services operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac to its friends), which connect the modern hurly burly of the mainland and the remote communities with unpronounceable Gaelic place names on the various headlands and archipelagos. According to the ferry and train timetables, we can make it to our café of choice – the Marina Restaurant in Portavadie – and still be home in time for tea by catching five ferries, traversing two islands and two peninsulas, and cycling 54 miles. What could possibly go wrong?
My co-rider is Doug Dewey, who quit a promising career as a semi-pro on the continent after he grew disillusioned with the racing scene. “When I was winning, it was great,” he tells me. “But a win was just one race out of hundreds of races, and after three seasons it got too much for me.”
He adds: “It was the mental side as much as the physical. I’d go out training and half an hour later I’d be sitting on a park bench, not knowing what to do with myself.
“I admire how pros like Fabian Cancellara can be so Zen-like when saying ‘I’ve done all the training, I can’t do any more’. I was always wanting the next thing, and in the end my body couldn’t take it.”
Having recently moved to Glasgow with his girlfriend, Doug is only now getting used to riding his bike again regularly. I’m disappointed to see that, despite his year-long hiatus from cycling, which he’s spent travelling around the US and the Caribbean, he retains his elite athlete’s lean, angular form. He will clearly be Boswell to my older, heavier (and wiser, of course) Dr Johnson as we set off on our modern-day reenactment of their Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.
AGAINST THE CLOCK
After disembarking our first ferry at Brodick on the Isle of Arran, we have an hour and 10 minutes to make the next one at Lochranza, some 15 miles away. We set a brisk pace along the coast road, knowing there is a stiff three-mile climb to be conquered before we reach our floating target. Making this first ferry connection is crucial, otherwise we’ll be racing contre la montre for the rest of the day. It’s a chilly, misty September morning, which I mention specifically because it’s the limited visibility I’m blaming for what happens shortly after leaving Brodick.
We are scanning the rocky foreshore for seals when, sure enough, we see one in repose on a boulder. “Is it a real one?” asks Doug. “Of course it is,” I say with the authority of a regular viewer of Animal Planet. “But it’s not moving,” says Doug. He’s right – it’s been locked into that graceful, arcing pose for a suspiciously long time by now. I then do what I imagine David Attenborough would do in the circumstances: I take one hand off my bars and give the seal a wave. The seal doesn’t wave back – it clearly doesn’t understand basic cycling etiquette.
By the time we crest the top of the Bogoullie climb, the sun is breaking through and we have worked up a good sweat. The silhouette of Goat Fell – the island’s highest peak at 874 metres – looms to our left as we begin the long and leisurely (we are ahead of schedule) descent into Lochranza.
In the queue for the ferry, the driver of the vehicle in front says something to the effect of “were you the idiots waving at that seal?” Er, that would be him, says Doug, pointing at me. “Did you wave at the sheep on the pier as well?” asks our friendly tormentor, a resident of the island. “They’re all wooden sculptures, they were made by a local man who used to be a banker. Realistic, aren’t they?”
Duly educated, we board our second ferry of the day, once again following the peculiar protocol of being a seaborne cyclist: we have to wait for all the motor vehicles to drive on first, then it’s our turn. But we’re not allowed to ride on, we must dismount. In CalMac’s Health and Safety Manual, walking over a slippery, smooth and occasionally wet surface in cleats is regarded as much safer than simply riding our bikes across it. I will grow increasingly irritated by the whole business as the day goes on and I’m made to wait and dismount 10 times in all, but Doug takes it all in his stride. Petty officialdom, usually from his own team managers about his fitness and diet, was something he got used to during his career in Belgium and France.
“If I was ill or injured, they’d just say to me ‘you’re fine, just keep riding’,” he says. “And they had strict ideas about food. We could eat all the cheese we wanted, but ice cream was completely banned.”
Another reason for his easy-going manner is the living arrangements he had to put up with. His stint living in a caravan was luxury compared with the one room and double bed he shared with two teammates during six weeks racing for a Belgian team. “We had to take turns sleeping on the floor. The toilet had no door, and our landlord slept with a chainsaw above his bed,” recalls Doug.
We are now on the Kintyre peninsula, the longest and dangliest bit on the map. Riding up a single-track lane takes us to the crest of a hill to give us glorious views of moorland, forests, lochs and distant peaks. At the bottom of the descent we join the A83, a busy main road that seems out of place surrounded by all this empty land and water. If we had travelled to this exact point by road from Glasgow, we would have 107 miles in our legs by now. As it is, we have cycled less than 20.
We arrive in the picturesque harbour town of Tarbert so far ahead of schedule that we have the choice of either taking an earlier ferry over to Portavadie and having an early lunch there, or chilling out with a coffee in one of Tarbert’s inviting seafront cafés on this side of the water. I check the map again. The next leg will be the most challenging of the day, involving 560 metres of climbing in just 21 miles, so we decide to jump on the ferry that is just about to leave.
Portavadie is on the Cowal peninsula, where a sign welcomes us to ‘Argyll’s Secret Coast’. From the ferry, the coastline had looked rugged and inhospitable, but just up the hill from the dock is a modern marina and resort, featuring an outdoor heated infinity pool. Beyond the resort is the Marina Restaurant, our designated lunch stop.
The road from the marina is narrow and climbs relentlessly before sweeping back down towards another stretch of water: the Kyles of Bute, and the pretty village of Tighnabruaich, which (if you didn’t already know) is famous for the success of its shinty team.
THE SCENIC ROUTE
We ride along the seafront for a few hundred metres before the road turns left and heads uphill away from civilisation once again and into a craggy hinterland of forested slopes and rocky outcrops. The highest point overlooks all those dangly bits and protuberances we’d studied on the map that morning.
We can actually see our next destination, Colintraive, on the other side of the loch, but getting there involves cycling up the Cowal peninsula then back down again on the other side.
As we enjoy the view, Doug shares some more confessions from his days as a continental racing cyclist. “The most important thing you learn is about yourself, and just how much suffering you can take,” he tells me. “It’s not just physical, it’s mental too. The physical side is all the racing and training, and the mental side is coping with knowing you have to go back and do it again, day after day, week after week.
“The difficult times are when you are injured and can’t train. The pros just accept it and spend the time hanging out with their mates, but I couldn’t do that. I found injuries very tough to deal with mentally.”
We clip in and start a fast descent down towards the head of the loch. When it flattens out, I decide to keep the pace up and take a long pull at the front, expecting Doug to come through and take his turn at any minute. But he doesn’t. When we stop at the next T-junction, he admits with a laugh: “Sorry, but it made a nice change being behind a big unit. In France in the lead out for the sprint, I’d always be behind a climber, so it felt like I was doing two shifts in front.”
His justification is all very well, but I privately wonder if Boswell would have dared show Dr Johnson such scant respect.
The fourth ferry of the day is the shortest: it takes barely 10 minutes to cross the narrowest part of the Kyles of Bute sea channel. We disembark at Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute, from where it’s a fast and flat eight miles to the former Victorian seaside resort of Rothesay. Despite its spacious promenade and handsome stone terraces backed by wooded hills, the town has fallen out of favour in recent years. After being charged a hefty £4.30 for a bottle of water and two cans of soft drink in a grotty café opposite the dock, we can’t say we’re surprised.
As our fifth and final ferry takes us across the Firth of Clyde to Wemyss Bay for our train back to Glasgow, the sun is setting behind a series of promontories and islands. On paper, we’ve ridden a modest 54 miles with 1100 metres of climbing – but the added frisson of having a series of elimination times to beat means it feels like more.
Missing any of those ferries would have had a knock-on effect, putting us behind schedule for the rest of the day – or even worse: leaving us stranded overnight amongst all those protuberances and dangly bits.
Regular trains to and from Glasgow Central connect with ferries at Ardrossan Harbour (for Brodick) and Wemyss Bay (for Rothesay) – see scotrail.co.uk. A ‘Five Ferries Tour’ ticket covering our route and valid for three days costs £17.75 for a rider and bike. The first ferry to Brodick (with train connection from Glasgow) leaves at 9.45am in the winter, or 8.20am in the summer. with the last ferry from Rothesay with a train connection back to Glasgow leaves for Gourock at 7pm (the Wemyss Bay ferry port is closed until April). calmac.co.uk
FOOD AND DRINK
The best place for lunch is the Marina Restaurant in Portavadie which offers a good menu of local meat and seafood dishes, plus a great selection of desserts. There’s an outdoor terrace overlooking the marina. Should you be inclined, the new leisure centre next door boasts the largest outdoor (heated) infinity pool in Scotland. The snack bars on board the larger ferries (Ardrossan-Brodick, Tarbert-Portavadie and Rothesay-Wemyss Bay) are obvious places for coffees during the ride.
WHERE TO STAY
If you don’t fancy catching the stupid o’clock train from Glasgow, the Seamill Hydro is a good place to spend the night before. Just three miles up the coast road from Ardrossan Harbour, it has a spa including pool, sauna and steam room, secure bike storage and a good restaurant offering stunning views across to the Isle of Arran. seamillhydro.co.uk