Monday, July 28, 2008

Some thoughts on Scotland

It's been about 3 months since I got back from Scotland.

It hasn't stuck with me the way other trips have, and didn't really leave me wanting more. Only now am I starting to get the travel itch again and when I do it's mostly with memories of earlier trips. Perhaps it's because riding from home to a distant point feels like more of a journey, there's a feeling of achievement and adventure which isn't the same when your start point is also your finish line. Maybe it's that riding in the UK doesn't hold the same excitement as setting off across foreign lands and trying to get by in funny languages. (Gaelic doesn't really count) It's helped me figure out a little more about what I like in a tour, which is good.

There were some nice aspects to the tour. The campsites in Scotland are pretty good and it was great to get hot showers and not smell so bad. It's easier to get hold of books in my own language. The scenery was lovely and it was fun staying at hostels and meeting other cyclists. I was even fortunate enough not encounter any haggis, kilts or bagpipes. The weather sucked at times but I was blessed with a few lovely days too. The drivers acted like British drivers, there weren't too many of them but the single track roads make it more of a big deal when you do meet one.

The food situation left a lot to be desired. I really missed the little boulangeries and charcuteries of France, fresh bread, pastries, cheese, fruit & veg in every town, my morning pain au chocolats... In the remote Scottish islands, such shops are rare. Most are Co-ops and general grocery stores with very little in the way of good fresh produce. The only thing Scotland really had going for it foodwise was the excellent local smoked fish.

The Outer Hebrides are quite a popular cycle touring destination. They are very special with some beautiful spots and I'd recommend going just for the experience of going, but they're definitely not among my greatest cycling experiences, and I doubt that would be much different if the wind had been on my back. I'm quite glad I didn't end up cycling on Lewis as apparently there are many miles of boggy flatness.

Gearing down

Those of you who like to store useless information in your brains may remember that I changed my gearing before going on this trip. In my daily cycling at home I found that this really helped with getting up hills. Once fully loaded I found it helped a little but not enough. Unfortunately I would need to change quite a few more bits and pieces to get my gears any lower so it's not likely to happen soon.

Early return

There were a few reasons why I came back earlier than planned and one of them is also the reason that it's taken me so long to write up this trip... our new business.

Dgym and I started our web hosting business back in January and have been working hard at it ever since. There's been quite a lot to work on, while I was away dgym and I often found ourselves talking quite excitedly over the phone about new ideas, making me a little keener than usual to come back home.

So it's been busy and exciting and it's taken me longer than usual to get the travel itch back into my system, but now summer is here it's happening again and I'm hoping to get enough sorted with the business that I can get going again.

One difficult thing about running this kind of business is that once people have signed up they are paying for a constant service and you need to make sure that service is always there for them. The nice thing is that when the service is running, most people are generally happy and don't tend to bother you. With the right setup to alert you if anything goes wrong or anybody does need help, and the tools to put it right wherever you are, things can be pretty sweet. It somewhat messes with my ideal of riding off into the distance and getting away from technology for a few weeks, but if that's a sacrifice that will enable to me tour at all, it's one worth making.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wednesday May 7th - Back again

I woke up early again, disturbed by the breeze, which wasn't as strong as the winds of a few days ago but it doesn't take much to get the tent flapping around. I was away at 7:30 for the final day of riding.

I followed the alternative coastal route, a pleasant little single track lane which I think used to be the main Road to the Isles. It turned onto a cycle lane alongside the main road for the last stretch, and then I was in Mallaig. The ferry to Armadale was short and sweet, and then I was back on Skye, on the Sleat Peninsula which was luscious, green and smelled of wild garlic.

The road mostly followed the coast for a while, then turned inland towards Broadford. The sun was scorching by this point, it was July weather at the beginning of May (and I'm not talking about the previous year's July which was depressingly rainy). The roads were big, wide, straight, empty and fairly flat. I normally hate roads that big but occasionally it's nice to hunch down on a big stretch of tarmac, shift up to the big chainring and go for it.

The miles rolled by and soon I was back on the A87 road where I'd started out my journey, and turning towards Kyle of Lochalsh. It really isn't a great road. The surface is quite poor and it's full of fast lorries.

Grey Mouse and I stopped on Skye Bridge for a final holiday snap, and then arrived in Kyle with about four hours to spare before the train left. I went into the nearby pub for soup and chips. Some pubs like to proudly announce that their food is home cooked, that's great and all but some of them really shouldn't bother. My chips were actually potato wedges and impressively managed to be soggy on the outside and hard on the inside.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting around at the station, browsing the station museum and shop there and trainspotter spotting. I'm still not sure why Kyle of Lochalsh station is so important in trainspotter-land...

The train eventually left for Inverness. Unlike the outward journey ten days earlier, today was a clear and sunny day so it was a little easier to appreciate the scenery as we passed by mountains, lochs and moorland. I even saw a few deer.

I wasn't lucky enough to get a cabin on the sleeper train this time but the reclining seats were surprisingly comfortable. I was a little concerned at first that the seats all around me appeared to be reserved, and worried I might end up next to a drooling stranger all night, but as the evening drew on and the train left it became apparent that those seats were reserved for me, to allow a bit more space since there weren't many passengers. I spread out across two seats and slept very well.

Getting home was fun, I won't go into the boring details, suffice to say that if you book advance train tickets for a journey in the south of England while you're in the north of Scotland, make sure you leave a spare couple of hours to allow various different operating companies and call centres to get their act together so you can actually pick up a ticket.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Tuesday May 6th - Small Isles

EiggAfter all the cycling on Monday there remained only thirty miles and a short ferry trip to get back to Kyle, one day's worth of riding for two days. I was camped near Arisaig, from which day cruises leave for the Small Isles, and on that particular day the boat was visiting Eigg and Rum.

The boat called at Eigg and there was a choice of either getting off to spend the day there, or continuing for another hour to visit Rum. I decided to stay on and spent a baking hot couple of hours wandering around the small village of Kinloch which consists of a small port, a castle, general store, craft shop, tea room and post office. Supposedly Rum has some of the worst midges in Scotland but they weren't evident today.

I visited the craft shop, a small wooden hut containing a great variety of jewellery, crochet items, picture frames and other handmade crafts. The bloke behind the counter told me his wife made everything in there. He was a creative type too, a carpenter, working on anything from furniture to houses. They had lived on the island for thirteen years and only went over to the mainland about five times a year.

SeabirdWe got back on the boat and, after stopping off to pick up the Eigg daytrippers, we headed back for the mainland. It was a fun day out I suppose. On the boat, we saw a few seals and seabirds - although not having binoculars, I'm not sure I got the most out of it. One lady very kindly let me borrow hers to see distant golden eagles over the cliffs of Eigg, although you could still only make out a small dot.

Dinner was a classically horrible camping meal, an uninspired mess composed of all the leftover stuff in my panniers and a couple of tins from the local co-op. Yum.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Monday May 5th - Ardnamurchan

Monday was a long and wonderful day, the kind that makes it all worthwhile. The weather was sunny, there was very little wind, beautiful scenery and I had cool new sunglasses.

Little FerryI'd lost my sunglasses at some point over the past few days, hard to say when as I hadn't been needing them much until I got to Mull. Fortunately Tobermory is one of those towns that actually has shops (rare in the Scottish Isles) so the next morning I was able to buy some new ones, just in time for some sunshine to let me test them out properly.

One other good thing Tobermory had was a bakery/delicatessen, and although I think the lady in the bakery got a bit annoyed with all my umming and erring (being spoilt for choice after many days of nasty stale co-op bread and packaged cheddar), I ended up with four rather nice looking white rolls and a bit of Camembert.

The ferry to Kilchoan was tiny, with room for about three cars which had to reverse on board. It was lucky the weather was good as there was no indoor passenger deck.

ArdnamurchanArdnamurchan was wonderful, and gave me the kind of cycling I can really get into. In the first couple of miles the road had started to ascend and I passed a walker who announced "It's a long hill". It really was.

The road wrapped around the back of Ben Hiant and back down to the coast, where it stayed for the next fifteen miles, winding in and out of glittering bays, passing through forest, mountain and moorland.

I stopped at Salen for a drink and a topup of water then headed northwards, off the Ardnamurchan peninsula and past lochs and forests towards the Road to the Isles.

InvercaimbeThe Road to the Isles is not as great as you'd expect, well maybe as rail routes and big A-roads and rail routes go I suppose it's pretty scenic but after the little winding coastal and mountain routes I'd experienced in the past couple of days, it hardly compared. It wasn't busy but it was big, and they're making it bigger. The roadworks, huge dusty piles of rubble and the stench of fresh tarmac really didn't help matters.

I eventually reached Arisaig after about fifty miles and around 7pm. I found a beach campsite nearby and spent the evening paddling and eating sausage sandwiches.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sunday May 4th - Ferries

Sunday was a day of ferries, upon which I planned to reach the Isle of Mull via the mainland port of Oban. My legs were looking forward to a rest after the previous two days.

I left the hostel in time for the 9:20 ferry, saying my goodbyes and feeling slightly sorry for those who were cycling or walking into the still foul weather (Not too sorry though as most would be heading north with the wind on their backs).

I took Grey Mouse into my hand-luggage this time, having been a bit worried on the Eriskay crossing yesterday. If the sea got too rough and we had to abandon ship, how could I leave my mouse to drown? (He has no arms and it's hard to tread water with two stubby little legs and one ear). You have to consider these things. A lady at the ferry port waiting room caught sight of him in my handlebar bag and smiled. He'd have smiled back if he had a mouth.

Scottish BreakfastThe crossing was rough to start with. I'd ordered a full Scottish breakfast at the ferry cafe and had trouble finishing it. Scottish breakfast is much like an English one but you get a square sausage (apparently very convenient in sandwiches made from square loaves) and a potato cake.

The boat reached Oban, the wind thankfully having died down a lot, and the sea become a lot calmer. I had business to attend on the mainland, with access to both a mobile phone signal and a railway station I was able to re-book the journey home. I'd hoped for a Friday night train, giving me five days to get back to Kyle of Lochalsh, but ended up with just three (apparently getting bicycle space at such short notice is rather hit and miss).

My second ferry of the day took me to Craignure. It was half past four when we arrived, and I'd usually be thinking about finishing up around the time, but once I hit the road it was hard to stop. It was so wonderful to be freewheeling, coasting, moving at speed again and, although it was raining a bit, the road was rather pretty, with fantastic views across to Ardnamurchan. The rain soon stopped, the sun came out and after about ten miles I started to look for wild camping spots. I'm not very good at that and have a bit of a hard time getting into the mentality of "Hey, I'll just stick my tent there!". Nothing good came up, everything looked too bumpy, slopey, squishy or fenced off and I eventually got to Tobermory.

Boats & sheepOn the way into town I caught up with three other cyclists, two men up front and a woman a couple of hundred yards behind. I pulled in behind the lady and started chatting about our respective travels. They were heading for a pre-booked B&B in Tobermory. I think she got a bit annoyed with me and invited me to overtake.

I found a hostel in Tobermory but it was full. According to the lady at the desk there were a lot of people looking for budget accommodation that night, and that's when I remembered it was a bank holiday weekend, which is always fun when you're touring. It probably didn't help that Tobermory is also known as Balamory, of kids' TV programme fame, which probably makes it a great spot for people to take their kids on bank holidays.

I headed back up the (rather big) hill and continued down the road until I found the local campsite, which was busy but not full. It was about half past eight by then so I covered up with midge-repellant and started simultaneously pitching the tent and boiling water for dinner.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Saturday May 3rd - South Uist and Barra

I hoped the wind might die down overnight but if anything it got stronger and again kept me up by constantly rippling through canvas. At least Friday had mostly been quite sunny but I got up at about six o'clock to find an overcast and rainy Saturday morning awaiting. After breakfast I packed up, hopped on the bike and rode on into the windy drizzle.

I took it a small bite at a time, allowing myself a stop after every mile and constantly counting down to the next junction or landmark. The day was grey and the landscape quite flat (which is why I don't have any pictures to post for that portion of the journey) The wind picked up an easterly component for a while as I neared Eriskay, which presented a new problem with sidewinds potentially blowing me into the path of other traffic on the single-track road. I would occasionally swerve intentionally as they approached, to alert them of the risk.

Eriskay came into sight, the connecting causeway a grey ribbon of stone and tarmac across the sea. For a moment the road looped northwards and I had a brief sweet reminder of what it was like to have the wind at your back. The causeway wasn't as bad as it could have been, the stone walls at the edge taking away some of the wind's impact. The road leading off it was a bland grey strip of uphill and headwind, and I got off to use my magic 24-inch gear. I caught sight of a fluorescent yellow dot ahead on the left side of the road and wondered whether it was another insane cyclist heading south, but when I caught up it turned out to be a man on foot.

Eriskay was both hilly and exposed to strong gusts of wind but I finally made it to the ferry port and spent a blissful wind-free hour in the waiting room chatting up two middle aged ladies on a walking trip, who were coming the other way and waiting for a bus.

The ferry ride was pretty extreme. We headed southwards to begin with, hitting huge west-bound waves at an angle, tossing the ship into the air and smashing it back down onto the sea's surface, triggering car alarms and sending spray high into the air. We passengers exchanged nervous looks while the crew strolled around without a care in the world, assuring us this was nothing unusual. They were probably right, the boat turned to the west and, with the sea on our side, we carried on more calmly to Barra.

The road around Barra is circular, and I had to get from the north to the south end, giving me a choice between the east or west coast. Apparently the west is a bit more scenic but on a day like Saturday I didn't think that would matter much - number one priority was to be more sheltered. I was advised that the east coast is more rocky and therefore a bit less exposed, and also a bit shorter, so decided on that. This partially worked, some bits were sheltered and others very exposed.

CastlebayTowards the end there was one more huge climb for which I got off and pushed, before an equally enormous descent took me down to Castlebay.

I stayed at the hostel, everything clean and quite modern. The hostel was quite busy and I shared a dorm with Maireadh, an Irish lady also cycling alone (again, northbound). She told me she was married with two kids, worked for the tax office in Dublin and liked to get away on her own on the bike a couple of weeks each year.

The weather was still horrible when I went to sleep that night, but I was relieved to be indoors, having completed my southbound journey. I was leaving the Outer Hebrides the next morning, which meant a change of direction and hopefully a change of weather.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Friday May 2nd - The silly direction

The original journey plan involved travelling from south to north on the Outer Hebrides. This was a carefully researched decision based on prevailing winds, which can be pretty strong on these exposed islands. A wise decision, you might think...

Perhaps not such a wise decision to completely revise my journey plan a couple of days into the trip, and decide that I'd be going North to South instead, my only concession to the prevailing winds being "Oh well... how bad can a headwind be?"

The answer made itself clear over the next couple of days. There had been no wind on Harris, but during the night at Berneray my tent started flapping like crazy and I woke up every couple of hours thinking "I hope that's going in the right direction" and "I hope the tent pegs hold out". My position by the shore was fairly exposed.

Short-legged ponies Unfortunately, the wind was in pretty much exactly the wrong direction and Friday saw me struggle for fifty miles across mostly flat and exposed landscapes, directly into it. However, I did meet some nice little ponies.

My morale dropped to approximately zero at around 35-40 miles, especially when oncoming cars sped towards me along the single track road with very little consideration. It didn't help that the landscape was a bit flat, mostly on not particularly beautiful roads, and at those kind of speeds I get bored quite easily. That's why I'm a cyclist and not a walker.

The advantage of choosing a silly direction to cycle in is that you tend to meet slightly more sensible cyclists coming the other way (Or perhaps I'd rather meet the silly ones, I'm not sure). I met a group of ten or fifteen riders coming the other way on North Uist, out of whom two ladies stopped to chat, they turned out to be from the CTC sections of Aberdeen and Bristol.

Huge dark clouds threatened for a couple of hours on South Uist, but it never actually rained. I found a Co-op on Benbecula and stocked up on doughnuts and Snickers bars for sugary energy comforty snacky purposes.

Ruin at Howmore I finally made it to Howmore, another of the Gatliff hostels, absolutely knackered. The hostel consisted of a number of blackhouses, some containing the dorms and shared area, one in use as an impromptu bike shed, and several tents parked among the ruins of others. I found an empty spot (again, quite exposed), pitched up and dived into dinner, which was local flaky smoked salmon with broccoli and rice and was absolutely fantastic. The other campers all turned out to be cyclists and we sat around in the hostel chatting into the evening before I retired to my tent and checked the pegs were stuck firmly in the ground in readiness for another windy night.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thursday May 1st - South Harris and Berneray

It rained most of the night and early in the morning, and there had been a bit of sunshine since then, but the weather seemed a bit unsure about what it wanted to do. I chose a sunny moment to say my goodbyes to Laura and Jack, and head off through South Harris.

Luskentyre beachThe first six or seven miles were desolate, grassy and rocky. The map pointed out "South Harris Forest" to the north, but there wasn't a tree in sight.

The road looped inland and emerged on the coast again at Luskentyre Beach, a vast expanse of fine white sand and quite a jaw-dropping sight as it first came into view between the bare hillsides.

Beaches were the theme of the day after that, from the stunning clear turquoise sea at Seilebost through tiny rocky bays at Horgabost and Borve, to Scarista which is overlooked by a golf course. Thankfully the hills were a little kinder around there, although there was quite a big climb as the road changed direction south towards Leverburgh.

InletIt had turned into a sunny day and I rode north onto Berneray, which was so lovely and peaceful, the sun was out, nobody was around and seals were basking on the rocks.

I made my way to Baile for the Gatliff hostel, following the tiny "Hostel" signs until the road turned into a field of sheep and I wondered whether I'd come to the right place. Several stone buildings stood in various states of repair and disrepair, with builders working on some of them. The builders said I should just pitch up and wait for the warden to come round later.

I found a nice flat spot by the shore, full of sheep who soon scattered when it became apparent I was there to stay. The nearest building was a derelict stone cottage with a grass roof but no roof-goats.

It was a couple of miles ride back down the road to the nearest phone box as I couldn't get a mobile signal (Apparently not all networks are created equal, and on the Outer Hebrides most of them are greater than mine) I'd had quite a lovely day so for once was able to sound a bit more jolly on the phone to dgym.

But where are the roof goats? There were two others guests at the hostel. I was quite excited to see Mike's trike as it was exactly like dgym's and you don't see those too often. Mike was a Hebridean resident, living on Lewis and quite regularly cycling up and down the islands.

71-year-old Dave was not on a bike but a cycling enthusiast nonetheless. He had cycled in 84 out of the 86 counties, and firmly believed that riding a bicycle is the most fun that can possibly be had. He told us about a 1950's Claude Butler at home in need of repair. It sounded like a lovely bike and I told him he really should take it to a bike shop to get it fixed up.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Wednesday April 30th - Fairy Glen and the edge of the world.

The day started out beautifully, a few dark clouds that soon faded away. I had several hours to kill until the 2pm ferry, so left the tent behind and headed for Fairy Glen.

Fairy GlenFairy Glen is one of those wonderful little secrets that you won't find signposted on marked on the map, I'd seen references to it on the internet with no real idea as to what was there, just talk of how magical it was.

It was a few miles away from the town and I had to ride all the way around the bay, up a fair bit and then up a fair bit more after I'd turned off the main road. It was worth the climb. I reached the top of the hill to find myself looking down into a valley full of little natural hill formations covered in sheep. It was pretty unique, not a soul in sight, interesting scenery, beautiful day, nice sheep... but I didn't see any fairies.

I returned to the campsite, showered (Scottish campsites are so much better than French ones when it comes to getting a decent hot shower and it's fair to say I probably smelled better on this trip than the last one) and packed away. I stopped at a cafe in town for all day breakfast (nothing special) and boarded the ferry.

Fairy Glen Sailing to the Outer Hebrides felt a bit like sailing to the edge of the world, or at least to a remote rocky outcrop on the edge of the Atlantic. As the bloke on the campsite had predicted the weather had cooled down and it was now becoming windy and overcast.

At Tarbert I found a mobile signal for the first time since I'd arrived, so stopped to call dgym. As we spoke, raindrops started to fall. By the time I got off the phone, it was pouring. I had planned on getting to a campsite a few miles down the road but, as the Rock View Bunkhouse conveniently appeared as I rode through the town, I suddenly failed to see the point.

I've never been convinced about hostels... well, I've only ever stayed in one and that was pretty awful but this one was OK. The kitchen facilites were a bit old and in some cases broken, and the decor a bit outdated, but didn't have bare electrical wires or things growing in the showers or even obnoxious Dutchmen making loud phonecalls at 2am.

There were only two other guests that night, Laura and Jack, two travellers who had met up a couple of days previously. Both were getting around by public transport. Laura was born in the USA but had been travelling for 20 years. From what she said, I concluded she was in her fifties, although she looked much younger. She was a Muslim (although not born so) and her hijab had attracted mockery almost as soon as she set foot in Oban. She was hoping to reach Edinburgh the next evening, and going to Doncaster after that. Jack, an Aussie who I estimated to be in his late sixties, wasn't sure where he was off to next.

I had sardines on toast for dinner, toast being a rare luxury for the regular camper. Somebody had left the toaster on one of the many "black" settings so I managed to smoke out the kitchen, conveniently not setting off the somewhat dubious smoke alarm.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Tuesday April 29th - Trotternish

In France it was easy to fall asleep and wake up with the sun. It was just the right time of year that the night hours made for convenient sleeping hours, and I rather liked it that way. It was a bit harder to do that in Scotland - the nights were already on the short side, about five or six hours, so I'd often fall asleep in light and the sun got up well before I did.

The night was quite chilly at Portree. I'd brought my light sleeping bag, which was fine but I had to wear warm stuff inside it too and make the most of the hood and drawstrings.

Old Man of Storr I woke at 7:30 and left at 9, pleased to find that at I hadn't got any slower at getting away in the morning. I was pleased to find that the BBC's "two raindrops" forecast for Tuesday was a pack of lies, and the day was pleasantly sunny, a blue sky with only a few puffy white clouds.

I carried on up the road and onto the Trotternish Peninsula, which is characterized by a huge ancient landslip running most of its length. The traffic and I parted ways at this point, and the road turned single track. Sheep wandered everywhere. As animals go, sheep are quite cyclist-friendly, despite being a bit annoying if you get stuck behind one. Unlike dogs, horses and cattle I've never had a sheep try to "take me on" by rearing up, chasing or charging. They seem to be universally terrified of the bicycle in a non-aggressive way, even if they will jog half a mile while frantically dashing themselves against the nearest fence in order to prove it.

Kilt Rock waterfallI passed the Old Man of Storr, a tall needle-like rock on the landslip, and Kilt Rock, a cliff with a tartan-like pattern marked out by rock strata, with its nearby waterfall. I don't think I'd ever seen a "proper" waterfall before.

The terrain was quite tough, a lot of ups and downs, and my legs were still getting used to carrying a full load again, but there were plenty of interesting, rocky and beautiful landscapes and things were made easier by the lovely weather.

I dropped down a series of sharp hairpin bends into Uig, having revised my original route quite considerably and planning on getting the ferry to Tarbert the next day. I spent the night on a mostly empty campsite with lovely views across the water, the rocky outline of the Outer Hebrides visible on the horizon.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Monday April 28th - Skye

I started out on the A87 from Kyle of Lochalsh, over the bridge to Skye and then along the eastern coast towards Portree, the island's capital. Huge logging trucks thundered past on the single carriageway and I managed to scare the occasional sheep into running away from me - unfortunately when sheep run away, they often do so quite slowly in a straight line directly ahead of you, and are happy to do so for a considerable distance.

After a couple of hours of weak sunshine, the weather took a turn for the greyer again. Curtains of white mist descended over the Cuillin hills, obscuring what would otherwise have been a wonderful view.

Grey skye

As first days go, it could have been better. There's often a morale drop near the beginning of a tour, you wonder why you're doing what you're doing, you miss the comforts of home, and the distance yet to be covered is vast and intimidating, but it doesn't normally kick in on the first day.

I reached Sligachan after 25 miles, damp and downhearted. There was a campsite by the loch, it was closed but there were four or five tents parked there anyway. I suppose with land access right being what they are in Scotland, a closed campsite just means closed facilities. I sat down in the doorway of the toilet block to shelter from the drizzle that had just started. The weather, the traffic and my own lack of fitness had been getting to me.

After about 15 minutes I decided I'd had enough for the day so started testing various areas of campground for squishiness (result: mostly quite squishy). I'd just picked a slightly less squishy spot when I glanced up at the horizon and noticed a promising white light and hint of blue in the general direction of Portree. Hooray! Exactly the morale boost I needed. I abandoned my camp plans and set off again. My legs were hurting but after a couple of miles it was downhill all the way to Portree, where I camped just beyond the town.

Dinner was buttered macaroni and local smoked mackerel fried with onions, which was surprisingly tasty.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sunday April 27th - Getting there

The journey started at Horsley station, with me plus half my body weight in bike and luggage on one side of the tracks, four minutes until my train was due, and my passage rudely interrupted by one of those pesky iron footbridges that is the scourge of train-travelling cyclists UK-wide. Had this been the end rather than the beginning of a tour and I was feeling a little fitter, I might just have been able to heave everything up one side and restrain it from crashing down the other, but I decided not to risk breaking my back.

I left the bike and handlebar bag on one side and raced (well, it felt like racing but probably looked more like waddling) over the bridge with all four panniers, then returned for the rest while several bystanders gazed on with amusement. It's not easy even getting an unladen bike over those things, and I only just made the train.

I was headed for the western islands of Scotland, a journey I'd had in mind ever since I'd got back from France, seen the vast empty mountainous landscapes of the Highlands on the telly a few times and imagined rolling up and down those long lonely roads on my bike.

I reached London and crossed from Waterloo to Euston without incident, apart from nearly wrenching my left hip out of its socket while stopped at traffic lights when my body forgot that a fully loaded touring bike is quite hard to hold upright.

The lights were off in the bike compartment and I spent several minutes struggling with a torch between my teeth while trying hang the bike up on the accursed hooks that train companies seem so keen on (those who care about their wheels slightly less so). Fortunately there was another cyclist to help, Harold, who was heading up the western and northern coasts over 5 days, riding 70 miles a day and staying in pre-booked B&Bs. We sat down in the lounge car later on, compared routes and chatted about cycling with a lady whose name I never found out, not a cyclist but a keen hill-walker. She worked in Scotland for the John Muir Trust, a charity which is not very well known but owns and protects various wild land in Scotland, including the peak of Ben Nevis which apparently cost about £400K a few years ago. She reassured me that, despite the miserable weather forecast over the next few days, I was bound to end up with at least some good weather over the next three weeks.

Being short on funds, I had booked a reclining seat on the sleeper but there was no power in the carriage I was supposed to be in so it was replaced with a berth carriage and I was fortunate enough to get a free bed for the night. Best of all, this included a toiletry kit with an awesome little collapsible toothbrush. I didn't sleep particularly well, mainly through excitement (about Scotland, not the toothbrush). Scotland isn't technically a different country but it has its own identity and is quite distinct in a lot of ways and I was really excited about seeing it for the first time. Every couple of hours, or every time the train stopped, I'd get up and peek through the window to see what station we'd stopped at, are we in Scotland yet, is it light yet...

Somewhere in Scotland
It was light, and turning out to be a grey and drizzly day, by the time we reached Inverness. Thankfully, Inverness station is easy to get around with a bike and has no nasty footbridges. I stopped off at the cash machine to get some funny money and then boarded the train to Kyle of Lochalsh. A little old man seated by the bike compartment, started talking to me in a strong regional accent, and I had very little idea of what he was actually saying. I had joked before I left, that I'd probably have a harder time understanding the locals in Scotland than I did in France, but this did make me a bit worried that it might actually be true.

Harold and I chatted some more on the train, then he got out at some intermediate station whose name I forget, to begin his journey north. I hope he enjoyed it...

The train passed green-brown mountains, lochs, pine trees and sheep-covered grasslands. Newborn lambs frolicked and played together, big hairy cows grazed.

The sun came out as we arrived in Kyle of Lochalsh, and the cycling began.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


As the bloke in the bike shop keeps telling me, touring really takes its toll on a bike, and this winter has been full of lessons in maintenance.

The dynohub needed sending off for repair.

I decided to swap out my chainrings, snapping both the chain and rear derailleur cable in the process.

Then there was the small matter of the front rack bolt being firmly stuck in the braze-on half way up the front fork, its head sheared off by my over-enthusiastic spanner work. Pliers wouldn't budge it. Dgym tried sawing a slot in the end and having a go with a flathead screwdriver. I finally took it into the bikeshop and got it drilled out, only breaking one drill bit in the process. Apparently it's a good idea to remove and re-attach these fixtures and fittings every year or so, just so the metals don't get too cosy with one another. My front racks are now re-attached and ready to go.

So shinyThe combination of new chain and old cassette caused a lot of chain slippage, a classic sign of it being time for a shiny new cassette.

I also have been riding on a Brooks B17 saddle since Christmas, and am pretty happy with how that's working out.

I'm still happy with the chainrings, now that I've taken on a couple of the bigger hills around here I am feeling more and more confident that it was the right choice.

It's not perfect, I could do with overhauling the rear hub and rewrapping the bar tape, but it's good enough for the next trip.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dropping gears

*** This little tale of bicycle butchery is dedicated to Sheldon Brown, who died earlier this month, and without whose articles I would be even more clueless about bike mechanics ***

Devon gave me new ideas about gearing. I had always been happy with the gear range on my Galaxy, throughout its life as a commuter, shopper and general workhorse, and for some time after I swapped commuting for touring. Like most other aspects of my bike, I didn't know too much about the gears and felt Dawes had made a reasonable choice on my behalf.

The 20% and above hills in the deepest depths of the South West caused me to think again. Chugging up 1:5 gradients with a full touring load, I was frequently running out of low gears and having to get off and push.

The Dawes Galaxy comes with a front chainset of 48/36/26 and 11-32 at the back, giving me a low gear of 21.9in. I noticed a few other touring cyclists mentioning lower gears, and wondered whether my setup was unusually high. A surprisingly controversial discussion on the CTC touring forum only concluded that everybody was different and, while some people had benefited hugely from lower gears, others were fine with much higher ranges. It just had to be tried really.


I learned a lot about cranks and chainrings through this process. When buying new chainrings for existing cranks, there are two things to consider:

1. the number of bolts around the crank spider
2. the bolt circle diameter (BCD).

Old and newThese dictate which chainrings will fit the cranks, and therefore what choices you have in terms of numbers of teeth. With a triple chainset there are two sets of bolts, one for the inner chainring and one for the middle and outer, and thus two different BCDs. My inner BCD is 64mm, and the minimum number of teeth available is 22, which would reduce my lowest gear by 3 inches. However, this would be a huge drop down from the middle ring's 36t so I decided to order a 32t middle ring to even out the spacing a little. It was still possible that 32 to 48 would be too big a gap and I might want to change the outer for a 44, but since bigger chainrings cost more I decided to wait and see about that.

My chainrings arrived and, utterly clueless as to how these things are done, I dived blindly out to the back yard, armed with various Allen keys and spanners.

You can just push the chain aside (some consider it a good idea to put it on the outer ring to protect your hands from the teeth) but I decided to remove it to get it right out of the way, and to give it a clean. Technically you are supposed to install a new chain when you replace chainrings, to minimize wear on everything, but for the same reasons you are also supposed to replace the cassette when you get a new chain... I'm not keen on the whole idea of discarding perfectly good stuff just because it's a little worn, so decided to leave that one alone for the moment.

I removed the outer chainring bolts with a 5mm allen key. They were quite stiff, having been undisturbed for about five years, but gave eventually and the outer chainring slid off over the crank. Only the outer ring can be removed in this manner, and the inner two cannot be taken off without removing the right crank.

Removing the crank

I removed the dust cap, underneath which was a 14mm bolt requiring a socket wrench. This was even harder to remove than the chainring bolts, and it didn't help that I could only find a socket wrench with a couple of inches leverage. I've had this bike for five years, ridden it thousands of miles and this was the first time I've worked on this part of it. No wonder things were a bit stiff.

I was naively hoping everything would come apart once the bolt was out, but after that I faced with a square hole embedded deep within the crank, and no amount of pulling would get the crank off. At this point, the sun was on its way out for the evening, my fingers were freezing cold and I got distracted for a while trying to photograph the fat robin that had taken a shy interest in the complete cock-up I was making of my bike mechanics, well it was either that or the robin-muesli I had scattered for him.

I retired to the warmth of the house to research the matter further, upon which I learned I would need a crank puller in order to remove the crank.

Crank puller

My crank puller showed up a couple of days later. It was a very cold day so I kicked dgym's trike out of the shed to make some work space.

I wasn't sure at first that I'd got the right tool, the thin round bit didn't look as if it would fit into the even thinner square hole in the crank. A little online research reassured me that it wasn't supposed to, rather it pushes against that bit while the wider bolt pulls the crank away.

I removed the tool's outer bolt from inner, and screwed it as far as I could into crank, into the threads the dust cap had been covering. I then inserted inner bolt and screwed it in as far as I could. This evidently wasn't far enough as the crank didn't come off. I pushed and pushed, but nothing was happening. At this point, the bike had to come down off the workstand, as it couldn't stand up under this kind of force. I put my whole bodyweight onto it, leaning the bike against the workbench, one foot on the pedal, the other on the crank puller handle, keeping stability by leaning into the bench, and it finally gave way.

spindleFinally, my crank was free. I removed the inner and middle chainrings, the inner chainring bolts requiring more force than the outer ones had (perhaps I was not feeling so strong that day?) and gave everything a good wash.

I fitted the new rings, the notches facing the crank. It didn't matter this time due to the tiny diameter of the inner ring, but on some setups the outer chainring nuts need to go in before the inner chainring is screwed in place. I greased the chainring and crank bolts before putting them in, but did not grease the axle as this can result in the crank going on too far and damaging the axle.

While I was at it, I gave the chain and rear mechs a thorough clean too, and put the chain back in place.

spot the n00b errorIt was only when it came to turning the pedals and testing out the whole system that I noticed the rotation was somewhat uneven - puzzled as to what I'd done wrong, I eventually noticed I'd reinstalled the right crank at 90 degrees to the left one. Doh! It was much easier to remove the crank the second time round, and I set the crank correctly.

After some testing and tweaking of the system, I became slightly concerned that I wasn't able to get a good derailleur setup - the shifting seemed slightly awkward, having to overshoot to shift up, and then move the derailleur back to avoid chain rub. More research told me that derailleurs have a capacity, the difference between inner and outer teeth, and mine was most likely 22t - with a range of 26t I was now exceeding my capacity. This is not necessarily a problem, the capacities are normally set fairly conservatively and if the gearing system is not abused, i.e. smallest with smallest, I should be able to get away with it.

However, I eventually decided that on a touring bike it is always better to have the most standard and common setup you can - so 44/32/22 would make sense. I wasn't desperate to hang onto the 48t. Realising that my almost unused mountainbike had an almost new 44t chainring, it was easy and free to give it a try.

After much faffing around with both front and rear derailleur adjustment (during which I managed to snap my rear gear cable) I finally got things shifting reasonably well.


On my first trip into town, the chain snapped dramatically outside the supermarket. The break occurred a couple of links away from the Powerlink, and I managed to find a small fragment with one half of the powerlink but couldn't find the other. I freewheeled / pushed down the road to the bikeshop, which unfortunately was closed due to Christmas holidays. I went back and had one final hunt for the other bit of the powerlink, but no such luck.

Fortunately I had a chain tool on me so propped the bike up against the wall and knelt down to rejoin my chain. It would be a few links short but with careful pedalling and shifting, should get me home, which was only a mile or two away. Joining a chain is quite a fiddly task, especially when you have less chain to work with than you should. Since I normally use Powerlinks I'm not that experienced with the chain tool so it took a while, especially the final join, trying to keep the chain correctly routed and push the jockey wheels in to give me as much slack as possible (I eventually tied them to a spoke with a spare leg band). A couple of folk approached me while I was kneeling in the street, agonizing, swearing and bleeding (I must have snagged a knuckle on on of the teeth). One chap just wanted to check that I was OK and had everything I needed to fix it. The other advised me that braided fuse wire was useful as an emergency chain fix. Sounds like a good candidate for the generic repair kit.

I eventually got the hang of it. When joining, rather than just slipping the inner plates between the outer plates and trying to hold it all together whilst pushing in the rivet, it is much easier to push the rivet in by about a millimetre, part the outer plates slightly so that the inner can be pushed in and latch onto that millimetre of rivet - then use the tool and it'll stay in place.

It got me home, but I needed a new chain now that the old one had lost links. I learned how to check for chain stretch, measured the old chain and found that it would have needed replacing anyway before it started to damage the cassette. On visual examination of the cassette, it doesn't seem worn enough to warrant a replacement. If the chain slips a lot, I will take that as advice that I am wrong.


With the new chain installed and adjusted, things started to get better. I think that the new gears are an improvement, and I seem to be making more even use of the outer and inner rings, although living in the gentle valleys of North Dorset, I have yet to try it out on any really steep hills. It feels like I have made the right choice in reducing my gears, but time and touring will tell.