How far can you cycle on a single day?
The answer from my side is short and simple: Cycling from Edinburgh to the (almost) northernmost tip of the Isle of Skye is possible, without any public or other transport in between. And I even cycled without the help of any lights, the long days are just fantastic for endurance rides. Finishing on Saturday night between 10 and 11pm (I couldn’t be bothered to check my watch actually) I had a massive smile on my face, as the 424.83km, 27.6km/h average and 15:20:53 hrs do speak their very own language. I was still able to sit, walk and chat to people, even though I was some kind of tired after such a long day in the saddle, which was my longest so far. More or less I was surprised what a human body can cope with, if it operates in the right mindset, and mine had certainly been fine that day. Arriving in Dun Flodigarry Hostel, a place I had visited many times before and which is my favourite hostel in Scotland, was something to really look forward to, as the setting is superb, and much more importantly I knew there would be some great people waiting for me.
I wasn’t disappointed. I had spoken to Gavin on the phone from Kyle of Lochalsh, just to quickly confirm my bed for the night, as I wasn’t really sure that I can drag myself over such a distance. Maybe it was not just me who didn’t believe that such a distance is possible. but Gavin already sounded enthusiastic when I called at 7 to confirm that I only had 85km to go. When I finally arrived I was greeted by Gavin and Annabelle, the owners, with s big smile. Maybe I would have been as amazed as them, especially as Gavin has ridden many miles on bikes as well. I was awarded a free night (hooray), a beer and some proper food, it was yet another great example of Scottish friendliness and hospitality, and the reason why I am travelling so much in this wonderful country. In that very moment I couldn’t really believe what I had done. It were sheer satisfaction and happiness that overwhelmed me. I had just proven my biggest critic wrong yet another time, and that within only a weeks time.
After the 340km last weekend I was hungry for more, as I hadn’t fully exploited my potential. So the plan was set last Wednesday, when I booked my train back from Fort William. Anything else was up for negotiation, mainly with myself. The weather forecast looked shit, but the winds seemed to be good, and I was looking for a nice route that would be roughly about 400km long. As I was chucking the ideas around in my head, I decided to do it end to end in one day, not a round trip, and something that would have breathtaking scenery that would get me going once the going gets tough. I also had to choose a route that didn’t rely on ferries, as that would have made the timing pretty impossible. As Bryan, a good friend of mine, had been running Dun Flodigarry Hostel ever since we both returned from NZ in 2007, I had been there a few times, mainly on the bike. And with the distance just about 400km according to Google Maps, the route was set. I would set off in Edinburgh, head over the Forth Road Bridge to Fife, along the Firth of Forth to Bridge of Allan and Stirling, then over the A84 to Lix Toll, to Crianlarich, then over the A82 over Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe to Fort William, from there over a cruelling climb from Invergarry to Glen Shiel, on to Kyle of Lochalsh, over the Skye Bridge to Broadfoard, over the Cullin Hills to Portree and finally over a windy road to Staffin and Dun Floodigarry Hostel, only a few miles away from the northernmost point of the island. In terms of scenery that’s pretty much as diverse at Scotland itself is, with some riding in the Lowlands, the wide open spaces of the Highlands, some of the prettiest Glens in the world (Glen Shiel and Glen Coe) and finally along a breathtaking coast and over some cruel mountain passes. In terms of exploring, this is more than most tourists manage to do in a day, so the decision to tackle that route was a big one.
After a busy week I finally managed to be home on Friday night at 8pm, with the bike still standing around from the last trip. I would take me at least another 2hrs to service it properly, which I have learned to do myself now, and then get ready for the trip. I finally managed to hit the sheets at 11pm, feeling weirdly calm. Breakfast would be soggy buns and beans, this is as much as I could be bothered to eat at 3.30am in the morning. The alarm was set for that time, only to be ignored by me or my phone (still analysing who is to blame) a few hours later. There I was, waking up at 4.30am in the morning, already an hour behind schedule, a pretty mean start in a big day like this. I was more tempted calling the whole thing off, with 340km I had proven that I am pretty fit and there wasn’t really much else, or was there? Yes there was, there was the magic 4 in front of the three digits on the computer, and it was never that near as now. The only person standing in my way was I, nobody else. Neither was the weather, although the forecast was for rain, the winds were to be pretty light. The conditions were not perfect, but perfect enough not to bail. There was not really that much to think about any more, so after some horrible white soggy buns and baked beans I was ready to go, switching my brain off at 5.15am in the morning while hitting the empty roads of Edinburgh.
It was a calm morning, and surprisingly there were a few other cyclists on their ways as well, maybe not with the same distance in mind. By the time I was making my way over the bridge I was in the right mindset, there was no other option than to finish. With three days off the bike my legs were fresh, so I hammered down an 30.3 km/h average to Bridge of Allan, somehow ignoring that the ride would not stop there as usual. There were another 360km to go, but I decided not to think about them. The roads eventually got busier leaving Stirling and heading up Glen Ogle, after a very quick break at Callander. I was still going at an almost 30km/h average, which is pretty mean for long distances, but somehow I could sustain it. All the hard work and training the last weeks suddenly made the difference, and it should continue like this to the very end. The first big rest was Tyndrum, where I found a great flapjack in the little shop at the end of the village, in the company of many supporters of the West Highland Way race. There I was, unsupported, but with a good mojo to get me over the harder stages in front of me, Rannoch Moor. All of the sudden the wind had picked up, and for those who know that stretch of the A82, know that is bad news. Rannoch Moor is one of the remotest bits of Scotland, and the road over there can be an absolute nightmare with a head wind. It was hard to determine where the wind came from, all I knew that I had a good breeze all the way to Fort William. By then I was determined, and the rain came as a welcome addition to shoot straight through the conditions, the faster the better. There was great scenery, but I also knew that this was the ‘make or break’ section. Fuelling quickly up in still had an 29.3 km/h average on the computer, and almost 190km in my legs. By then I knew that I had a realistic chance to make it to Skye today, even with almost 1.5hrs lost in the morning. I also knew that I was pushing way above what I had done before, but somehow my body coped.
But I had to pay the bill very soon. With struggling against a stiff head wind riding into Fort William almost broke me, suddenly my reserves were empty, and I felt pretty tired arriving in the town centre. I needed a big break, but I had no time for one. Chucking a whole packet of potato scones and two milkshakes gained the attention of fellow tourers resting as well in the same spot, with fewer miles in their legs I presume. 2 milkshakes and 6 potato scone for me were just a drop of energy rather than a whole meal. 15 minutes later I was back on the bike, with Kyle of Lochalsh another 74 miles away, and two major passes in between. The worst bit though, was to come after Fort William, a stretch of road I plainly hate to cycle, combined with head winds and rain. It couldn’t get any worse than that, and I was up for a slap in the face, and I needed it. It was around 2pm by then, I had been out for almost 9 hours, and under normal circumstances you would shed the bike by now, have a hot bath and rest. I had another 9 hrs to go. My body however, was tired, and this tiredness overwhelmed me. I felt dizzy, and while climbing up a smallish hill towards Invergarry all just blurred in front of me. I knew that I urgently needed a break, otherwise I would have fallen asleep while riding, with unpleasant consequences. It was another make or break, but this time I was broken already, tired, shagged, disillusioned. I was to call off the whole thing, find myself a nice bed and sleep. I pulled into the next hotel, where I was, unsurprisingly, the only guest. I tried an Americano first, and the nice girl on the bar kept wondering where I came from. ‘Edinburgh’ was the answer, and she felt rather surprised about that. The coffee did the trick, and after another muesli bar I was on the bike again, feeling fresher again. I wondered who I had just beaten, and decided it was myself rather than my tiredness. I had been pushing still way above the 28 km/h mark, and after the break I had woken up again, I felt ready for more. I still shook a wee bit when I got on the bike, as my body was still recovering, but I was in the zone again. And there was a huge hill to come.
Climbing out of Invergarry I was back on more quiet and pleasant roads. The next target was the Cluanie Inn, the famous climbers hotel on the top of Glen Shiel, where I camped last time I was up here. The wind had eased slightly, and the downhill from the top of the pass to the Cluanie Dam was great to recover again. Unfortunately, there was no food up here, and I was running low on bars as well. When I finally treated myself to a Mars bar at the Cluanie Bar, I was about to throw up. It was only then when I realised how quickly my body was eating up calories now, it felt like I had to eat at least twice as much as on other longer rides. I chucked my last muesli bar in my mouth, and hoped to get to Kyle as soon as possible. There were only 28 miles between us, and some nice downhills. I set myself 7pm as the latest arrival time, otherwise it would have been quite unrealistic to arrive in Flodigarry on time. I was there by 6.30pm, and in that very moment I was sure I would make it.
Finally, after tough years of training, all done because I simply enjoy riding bikes, I was doing more than 400km on a bike a day. Thinking about that was a strange feeling, but it felt remarkably good. It would have been a great pleasure riding those final 90km with some of my former PE teachers, who taught me to hate exercise rather than exciting me in any form for it. I was always the second-last at school. If there was one thing I hated, it was exercise. But I always loved riding bikes, even though the 15km that once proved a challenge are merely a warm-up now. Those are the thoughts that kept racing through my head, while I was munching some cookies, treated me to a can of coke and a half-price milkshake. I also discovered raisin bites for me, that kept me going for the rest. I called Gavin to confirm my bed at the hostel and to warn them of my late arrival. The cashier in the supermarket thought I was joking with answering his question where I had come from. It took me a while to convince him, and he wished me well. People smiled at me, the whole world did, even though it was still pissing with rain. Forgotten were the three I parked my bike against in February, forgotten the moments when I was trying to recover from it and couldn’t overcome my fear that my knees would strike me down. Forgotten the fear riding on roads after crashing into a car in Wellington and ruining a whole summer. All that was blurred in the past, now was the first time I had a reasonable chance to cycle all the way from Edinburgh to the northernmost tip of the Isle of Skye.
3.5 hours I was there, and had time for the first picture that day. I had seen that sign for the hostel (in-fact there are three different ones) a few times before, mostly dragging me up that last bit of road looking forward to a shower and a warm bed. This time I did the same, but I felt still reasonably fresh, as fresh as you can feel after a long day on the bike. I took a picture of the final number on my computer and walked through the door, to be greeted with great Scottish (and Canadian) hospitality. I got a free bed and I felt I had earned it. ‘You know something is not impossible once you’ve done it – so what’s stopping you?’ Thanks Graeme Obree for such inspiring words. They kept me going and finishing such a ride, there will be plenty more to come.
The next day was spent with cruising down to Armadale, taking the ferry to Mallaig, then the train to Lochailort and the on the bike to Fort William to catch the sleeper. I had time to take pictures again, and finished a great weekend with a great train journey. Check out the pictures here.