Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

NCN78 - The Caledonia Way - in a Day!

Although I didn't mention this at the time of my last-but-one blog entry, my little investigation into maintaining a 10mph average speed was a prelude to another ride I'd been thinking about for a year or so. National Cycle Network Route 78 - The Caledonia Way - was recently launched as a signed route between Campbeltown and Inverness. At just under 240 miles and with some significant hills en route it certainly makes for a bit of a challenge. I'd originally thought about riding it over two days, with a camp or B&B somewhere mid-way but the logistics of getting to (or from) Campbeltown made this somewhat impractical. Ferries from Ardrossan only make the direct crossing three times per week. The Sunday sailing is too early to catch by train from Aviemore and the Thursday/Friday night sailings arrive after 9pm, enforcing an extra night away.

The solution was simple - ride back in a single trip. That there were two other ferries required only complicated it slightly more....


Looking at weather patterns, working days, seasonal ferries and general fitness, it all came together on the first weekend in September. That would give me a decent amount of daylight (though sadly no moon). I changed the tyres on the Amazon from the GP4Seasons to the rather more robust Schwalbe Marathons, fitted a third water bottle (for the long night riding) and made sure the dynamo lighting was all OK. 

Stage one of the actual trip was to get to Ardrossan. That meant three trains and a pedal across Glasgow. In fact, I opted to drive to Inverness first as that left my van in the right place for the end of the cycle. Changing at Perth, I was sharing the cycle space with a Pole who was travelling through Britain. I had to ask why he'd come all this way and his answer was that he'd already cycled in every other European country (Iceland excepted). In fact he'd cycled to Beijing for the Olympics in 2008. And here was me thinking my ride was a bit of an adventure!

Some of my favourite cycle trips involve trains 

Glasgow itself was a bit of a shock. I guess I've been out of the city for too long as I found the noise, smells and general busy-ness of the place all a bit scary and unpleasant. I was very glad when my train to Ardrossan pulled out and then deposited me at the ferry terminal for a bit of a wait. The ferry was a bit bijou compared to those that sail to the Outer Hebrides and has seen better days. It was a calm sailing though and we were treated to a lovely sunset over Kintyre.

I'd be riding somewhere over there - once it was dark.

My original plan had been to depart at exactly midnight. This was just a bit of a whim, it appearing tidier in my mind that the whole route was done on the same day. However, at 9:30pm I'd already been awake for 14 hours, travelling for 13 and was just keen to get going. Add to that the need to be at the Camusnagaul ferry by a specific time, a forecasted dry weather window that was due to break down at midnight and the frankly depressing thought of finding somewhere quiet to relax in Campbeltown on a Friday night and it was better just to get on the move.


Desperate to get out of "Dodge"

It didn't take long to leave the lights of Campbeltown and a couple of outlying little hamlets. Then it was just settling into the rhythm of night riding. For those that haven't tried it, there are a few differences; fast descents are taken a lot slower to allow for unseen potholes and sharp corners that would be very visible in daylight, as a result, hills are often approached slower too (no fast run up). With not much to see, other senses have more opportunity to intrude - the smell of a beach as you suddenly come down to sea level, the rushing noise of a fast river, the chill of entering a small patch of trees. All of these seem sharper, keener than during daylight hours. Perspective also alters - a few times I was wondering what lights were off to my right before I figured out they were on Arran, they just seemed much too close.

Folk might also think there's very little else to see when night riding but more of the local wildlife is up and around. Toads and frogs pause crossing the road; voles, moles and mice scrurry back and forth in a panic; rabbits and badgers usually try to outrun you; after a while you begin to panic as every bit of brown bracken looks like yet another young deer ready to spring out across your path and bats swoop across the road caught momentarily in the headlamp. Owls are frequently heard and every flock of sheep you pass starts a chorus of baas. One thing I'd not experienced so much before was to see so much gossamer from spiders caught across the front of my bike and illuminated by the lights. At first I ignored it but after a while there was so much it was distracting and I'd sweep it off occasionally.

With nothing to stop for, I was nibbling some food and taking the occasional drink whilst just grinding away at the pedals. Of course, it's important to sometimes just stop and look around at the night sky, especially when there is so little light pollution. The stars are also a good omen - as long as you can see them the skies are clear and you're not going to get rained on.

The bright lights of Ardrishaig
The street lights of Ardrishaig and Lochgilphead came as something of a shock after so much time spent in the dark and I was treated to other little patches of light as I went along the Crinan Canal towpath before heading north again to Kilmartin. From there, the road along Loch Awe seemed to be one constant climb, one where I was having to play dynamo pothole chicken. This is when you climb slowly up a hill, with your dynamo light down to a mere dim glow, crest the summit, then you're flying down the other side before the dynamo has a chance to get the light back to full strength. Don't speed up so quickly and it stays dim longer, speed up quicker and risk hitting a pothole. It's a difficult game....

It was round here that some daylight started breaking through the clouds and I started to meet the occasional car. Taynuilt would have made a good place for a break if it hadn't still been too early so I was back into the hills for a seemingly crazy detour to Connel (the NCN78 spur to Oban breaks off along here now). 
The fascinating Falls of Lora on an incoming tide
Around this point, my chain started skipping in the smaller cogs. This was a fairly new chain and cassette so it I knew it shouldn't be wear so messed around with tightening the cable a little, but to no effect. Listening more closely, I worked out that I had a stiff link on the chain. I was approaching the half-way point and, as expected, the little shop at Benderloch was open for re-supply. I took that as an omen to grab breakfast (sausage roll, coffee, chocolate milk shake) top up my drinks bottles and fix the chain by using a Powerlink. It was a fair bit of time stopped but I was actually well ahead of schedule - not only by the two hours premature departure from Campbeltown, I'd actually made time up on the road too. In fact, I was now considering the Camasnagaul ferry. My original plan was to catch it at 16:30 - that being the last of the day. However, I was now over three hours ahead. That meant I could, if I pushed it, hope to make the 12:30 instead. 

With new purpose I set off on the excellent new cycleway that's been installed between Benderloch and Ballachullish. I'd had some reservations about this section after driving past it often. It just seemed to be forever crossing the main road. However, this impression is misleading as, at cycling speeds, the crossings are actually quiet intermittent and unobtrusive. From Onich, NCN78 makes use of the (sometimes widened) pavement. Less than ideal but better than the A82. I was lucky enough to make Corran just as the ferry was arriving and that there was a decent queue of cars ensuring a fast turnaround. I made a pleading phone call to Highland Ferries asking that they hang on a couple of minutes for my arrival and then pushed as hard as I could northwards. I could have taken it easier as the wee ferry hadn't even arrived when I did.

I wasn't the least bit worried.....

Stepping off the ferry in Fort William I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I was ahead of schedule, it was a lovely day and I could now finish the ride at any pace I wanted. What's more, I'd already ridden all of NCN78 north of here and knew exactly what was to come. McDonalds was my chosen spot to relax. Fast food, cold drinks and a place to keep an eye on my bike. I didn't even mind that it was so busy.

There's an easy canal and road section to the wee hamlet of Clunes but then it's a forest track for around 10km. This was the main reason I'd decided to fit the more robust tyres. They handled it OK.... ish. It was certainly a rough ride and I could have perhaps reduced tyre pressures a little but I sought out the smoothest sections and tried to unweight the bike as much as possible on the roughest. A bit more easy path, the lovely new cycletrack along Loch Oich and then more canal path took me quickly to Fort Augustus. This was its normal bustling self with lots of folk watching the canal locks in operation of just sitting out enjoying the evening sun. For me, it was a chance for another wee break - my third of the trip. The Londis store furnished me with another coffee and more juice for my bottles. I was caught between the desire to finish the trip as quickly as possible but also trying to steal myself for the final big challenge - The Struie.

This is a bit of a monster climb out of Fort Augustus. I've done it before, with fresher legs and on a much lighter bike, and knew it would be really hard this time. I wasn't wrong. Twice I just gave in and walked the bike for a while. Once I reached Loch Tarff, I knew the end of the climb was in sight and just ground it out to the top

All downhill from here. Sort of.
With that out of the way, I started to feel quite strong again and used the downhills to maximum advantage (actually creating a few Strava PBs on the way - a surprise given I'd now cycled 200 miles). As I sped along the shores of Loch Ness, the sun started to set again and I reflected that I'd seen the whole day go by from the saddle of a bike. Surprisingly, I didn't feel tired - at least not in the sleepy sense. I knew that some fatigue was there though as tight maneuvers past small bridges etc weren't quite as  sharp as they should have been.

NCN78 takes a final small detour when entering Inverness but gives a really fast descent, on a shared-use pavement, down to a roundabout. I was glad it was now quite late again as there were no pedestrians likely to be mown down in my haste. Past work and then the wee climb to "not quite" the castle and then it's the "End of NCN78" sign. It all seemed a bit of a low key ending.


It was much darker than it looks here!


The Numbers

Total distance was 372.5km (231.5 miles)
Total climb was 4,237m (13,900ft)
Total time was 22:39:14. Riding time was 19:24:42
Average speed was 16.5kph (10.25mph)

The Route

NCN78 makes a fabulous challenge or an enjoyable tour. I met a couple on the Camasnagaul ferry who'd taken two weeks to get there from Campbeltown, stopping at various places en route. The roads in Kintyre are undoubtedly hilly, though they'd be more flowing in daylight. The Loch Awe section suffers from being enclosed by trees for too much of the time. The new cycle tracks through the Appin section are absolutely splendid - a real credit to everyone involved and should be used as an example by councils everywhere. The section at Onich is, by comparison, a poor compromise. What's most needed though is a better surface on the 10km of forest track at Clunes. This just jars (literally) when the rest of the route is so well executed. 

The logistics of getting to/from Campbeltown will undoubtedly hinder greater use of this as an "end-to-end" route, which will be a real shame. Perhaps a marketing exercise as has been carried out for the North Coast 500 would start the ball rolling on increasing demand and it would be nice to see the public transport operators helping out by increasing ferry sailings and bike spaces on trains. While we don't yet have all of that, it shouldn't put anyone off.   





Postscript:

Despite feeling great at the end in Inverness with only some mild muscle tiredness to contend with, three hours later I was in absolute agony. My left Lateral Collateral Ligament was sending out massive waves of pain from my knee and no position could be found to alleviate it. For a while, I was seriously considering dialling 999 and demanding some serious painkillers. I eventually fell asleep by keeping it completely stationary and letting the previous 40 hours catch up with me. A day later, rested, with more painkillers and the application of ice, I was able to function again. Two days later it's like it never happened....

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