I packed up my aired tent and put all my camping equipment into a tin trunk. The action seemed to conclude the 10-day cycletouring holiday even though I arrived back in London on Thursday morning, just over a week ago. It was a discomforting shift from wide open landscapes and swaying train to rush hour Euston Station. Back to reality.
I’m pretty new to cycletouring, only having done a week in mid/south Wales last year. I’m not the World’s Most Happy Camper either and there’s a great deal which is out of my comfort zone. I’ve been deliberately trying to push myself out of it on occasions, but it can be a struggle and there can be a tangeable shift in enjoyment levels.
I was anxious about my ability to do the distance on a heavy touring bike with rear and front panniers; I’m cycle-fit but I didn’t think I was cycletouring fit. My road bike I can lift with one finger. The loaded tourer I can only just lift at all – it was probably around 25-30kg with the four panniers, tent on the top of the rack, top tube bag, and full water bottles.
My friend Kat and I got the (surpisingly busy) sleeper up to Inverness on a mid-June Sunday evening. I slept rather fitfully, woken by the squeaking of the carriage, and the light. A cup of tea and some brioche brought from London helped get us moving. From the station it was straight up a hill to Velocity cafe/workshop for coffee and breakfast. Freshly-fuelled we headed out of Inverness following the Sustrans Route 7 but took a B and other quieter roads southeast towards the Cairngorms National Park. For much of the way the route follows the A9 but alongside – in some areas there are few other options. We were following the 7 map backwards – it reads from Glasgow to Inverness – and assessing the gradient diagrams. Some sections seemed particularly spiky but a closer look at the scale revealed there was nothing to be alarmed by, just parts that would require more effort. There was a headwind too, of course. The first stop I recall was at Tomatin. Home to a solid viaduct, village store (bought biscuits) and public loos (handy). The Stochd climb we had been slightly wary of transpired to be barely a climb at all, though for a time we found ourselves wondering whether it might appear around the next curve. There was a brief stop at Carrbridge to admire the Pack Horse Bridge before a lovely off-road trail through a tree-dotted heathland north of Aviemore. At least, I think it was Aviemore, it’s all rather blurred now. I remember we went under a bridge with a burn culverted alongisde the path. Then a slope to our lunch stop (we’d bought things at a local supermarket on the edge of a rather modern and soulless housing estate a short distance away). I think we sat near some visitor centre to eat. It was cloudy, generally, rather windy, with a few spots of rain. Not bad for Scotland.
Feshiebridge, Insh, and on. There was a community-owned bridge that we crossed somewhere around here. Quiet roads but we were occasionally overtaken by a car. They almost all overtook with care, plenty of room, and cars coming towards us on narrow lanes usually stopped and waited for us to pass. Heaven. One car stopped and the driver asked us whether we were heading towards Kingussie. We were. He told us the bridge was closed and advised us on an alternative route. We pressed on with his directions in mind pass the abandoned Ruthven Barracks. Shortly after we came across two cyclists paused by the side of the road. They’d come from Kingussie and we able to let us know that, in fact, the bridge was open. We reached the main road and took refuge from the wind in an audax hotel (a bus stop, for those not familiar with the parlance) whilst we perused accomodation options.
I admit, the prospect of not having accomodation booked in advance was something I found a little concerning though being in the company of a seasoned cycle-tourer put me at ease. Last year on my first ever cycle-tour, in Wales, I planned the route and booked some places ahead. I remember feeling anxiety about changes, or cancellations, or not doing the planned distance, and wanting every thing to go right. I’m not always great with sudden change – I get a bit stuck on the things that aren’t happening, my ability to see beyond them is lessened. On other occasions it’s not a problem. It frustrates me that my brain can be so fickle and inconstant. There are times I’d like to be able to rely on my own mind more.
We identified a bunkhouse 2-3 miles away in Newtonmore. It couldn’t have been smoother – we arrived, put our names on the list, and went on in as instructed. One of the owners appeared shortly after and welcomed us in. It was quiet – only one other person. We freshened up and went in search of beer. Then curry. Finding these were as straightforward as the bunkhouse.
I slept better that night.
The bunkhouse provided some breakfast things and we set off early into another cloudy, breezy, and fresh morning. Over the nine days we travelled from Newtonmore to Killin, Killin to Glasgow (where we were joined by Tal), Glasgow to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to St. Andrews, St. Andrews to Montrose, Montrose to (near) Aberdeen, (near) Aberdeen to Banff, Banff to Elgin, and then back to Inverness.
The first day was just getting the legs into gear. For me it was also about developing a sense of a relatively new bike and its handling (never having ridden with front panniers before). As the days went on the weather improved, the dramatic landscape and technical off-road gravel climbs of the Highlands (*sotto voce* Aberrr-foooyle! Dryyymennn!) gave way to seemingly benign canal paths, then to coastal paths and inland ‘undulating’ lanes. The timing of the food stops improved over the days – many picnics of oatcakes, houmous, veg and fruit, fresh bread, nuts, and crisps. So many pictures of wonderful lunch venues. In between there was always an emergency satsuma in the back pocket too.
Inverness to Glasgow was covered in three days – the second two each around 80 miles and the last few miles on those days were tough. One day was racing a forecast for rain, the next a canal and Clydeside route that seemed to keep on going. After that a new dynamic with three of us and shorter mileage at a different pace with stops for castles and distilleries. There was a mix of camping and hostels. It was only the last evening that finding accomodation was more of an issue but a place was eventually found.
The change of pace and landscape affected me greatly. The coast and the canals, the rolling countryside all provided wonderful views and a range of gradients, but there was something about the push of the long days and wilder landscape of the Highlands that I found particularly enriching. Some of it was in the way the landscape reminded me of mid-Wales, of which I am very fond – Cambrians, Elan Valley, and the Aberystwyth mountain road. Around the Loch Tay area, unexpectedly, pushing harder and with the slightly more changeable weather I felt more reward. The uphills always paid back with downhills (though it was often the other way around).
The Glasgow to Edinburgh canal section (Route 754), which shoud have been the most straightforward and a pleasant, flat recovery day ended up having the most drama for me. Shortly before the Falkirk Wheel a wasp flew behind my cycling glasses and I narrowly avoided going into the shallow ravine next to the canal. In trying to control the bike and in the panic to get it away from my face my front wheel slammed against a concrete kerb lining the edge of the path and the wheel buckled. The bike limped on the next 2-3 miles to the Wheel with lots of noise and rising panic for me. We lunched and I searched for bike shops. Borrowing the bike I’d lent to Tal (who had joined Kat and me in Glasgow), I rode the mile or so uphill with the front wheel strapped to my back. Thank heavens for Greenrig Cycles! One of the mechanics managed to make my wheel rideable enough for the next 30 miles to Edinburgh. Then, whilst riding back the bolt on the QR lever worked its way loose and I had no way of securing the wheel again. It this point I had a quiet meltdown. I had had the foresight to bring a small container of random bolts, spacers, and bolts. With an additional bolt from Kat I managed to fix the wheel on tight. The rest of journey the spent watching the wheel for movement and I winced at every section of cobbles we hit under bridges and particularly the long, barely lit section, we rode on the east side of Falkirk. I was not the best company that afternoon but as the miles went on the anger at the bike, myself, bad luck, or something I hadn’t prepared for slowly gave way to being pissed off, then a bit upset. Whilst at Falkirk I had identified an Edinburgh bike shop that was open until 8pm. They’d have a look at the wheel, and if nothing could be done sell me a new one. I imagined having to wait for a repair, of a new one being expensive, of having to post a wheel back to myself… all sorts of things. I wanted to ride faster. Then it seemed too late to find a station to get to Edinburgh sooner. I found myself wanting to plough on – less complicated than introducing a new plan at that stage with added variables. Just pedal on until Edinburgh. Get to the bike shop.
And thank you The Bicycle Works! We arrived with half and hour to spare. One of the guys there looked over the wheel, confirmed it was done for, hooked a new one down from the rafters, and transferred my disc brake, tyre, and tube. I winced again as my dynamo hub was cut out of the old wheel so I could take it with me. I felt palpable relief as we rode away towards our accomodation for the night. I’m not sure whether I managed better as I was with other people or whether I would have been more focused and practical and less bloody emotional about it if I had been on my own. I know I disappear inside myself at times. You can spend a lot of time in your head when cycle-touring. I think I’m too new to this to consider whether that’s good for me, bad, or just is. I suspect the latter. I feel I need a way to speed my way past the difficulties, not to linger on them and waste time wishing things were different or that plans have changed. MacGyvering the wheel to ride to Edinburgh was simple in comparison to levelling out my feelings about everything that day. I found anxiety hinders my ability to be practical. I end up dithering and indecisive, and I worry it looks like laziness from the outside when others are being dynamic.
I wonder whether the whole wheel issue threw me off a bit for the remaining days. I found a certain solice on the tougher uphill sections – forcing the Genesis forward with its load occupied my thoughts and body – most other considerations fell away. All this pushed the sporadic and violent waves of loneliness to one side and I felt part of something. I found something meditative and mutual in the rising gradient – us all breathing hard, the equality of the uphill push, the song of unseen meadow birds, the occasional glimpse of poppies, the fields of barley.
It was this feeling I revisited on the final day of our tour and the run back to Inverness that seemed to last forever in the 30deg heat and exposed open countryside. Route 1 was amazing for most of the way but in the last 10-15 miles seemed to go unnecessarily off-piste and more inland and up than we liked after 10 days of riding. At one point we were riding in the opposite direction and that just seemed wrong. We slogged up a mean hillside in the blazing sun, stopping in a patch of treeshade at the top. A local chap commented on the hill, said we had the good bit to come. I thought he meant a downhill. I like downhills. But no, apparently there was more up and the up was harder than the up we’d already pushed. Time was creeping onwards and Inverness seemed to be a long way away. We double-backed to a B-road which wasn’t so bad traffic-wise. I slid into ‘get it done’ mode, as I had on the run into Killin and to Glasgow at the beginning of the tour (and in a way I found I couldn’t do into Edinburgh). I dropped down to a low gear and tapped out as constant a rhythm as I could up onto Culloden Moor, stopping at one point just so we had a chance to take on water in the shade of a tree. Once at the top of the Moor it was pretty much all downhill into Inverness and the views across Moray Firth were stunning, even in the heat haze.
I often wonder in regards to the ability to suffer. I can do it if needed, but does the tendency show itself when it isn’t necessary? I tend to see the ‘just keep going forward’ as a negative aspect in terms of depression – it’s the ability to run yourself into the ground, to keeping going until you simply can’t any longer. That doesn’t seem so healthy. Yet, within various cycling scenarios as elsewhere, the characteristic can be useful. Would I have pushed on with such gusto if we hadn’t had to get to Inverness for the sleeper? Probably. I tend to attack hills these days in a way I didn’t used to. I don’t even notice that change coming about. Maybe it’s just with my increasing fitness over the last year. What I do know is that I could have continued on. My legs felt strong. There were other parts, however, that were starting to grumble – wrists, heel, feet knees occasionally too.
No doubt part (most?) of the desire to keeping riding was precisely because it was the final day. Reality was looming. We coasted down into town and Kat led us to the Hootenanny where the celebratory End of Tour Pint was bought. Then over the road for pizza, another Black Isle pint and a spot of admiration at our ridiculous Scottish cycling tan lines. The station was a short roll away. The bikes were stored, bags went in berths. We freshened up, popped into the bar for a G&T (me and Tal) but I think we were all flagging a bit and bed was not slow to come after than. I watched as the train passed the places we ridden through a week or so before, and saw the Highlands seep into the distance. I slept so well.
Mixed feelings waking up the following morning as we were somewhere north of Milton Keynes. After Culloden Moor rush hour Euston Station was noisy, smelly, alarming, and fairly unwelcome. We parted ways here and I lost count of the close passes I had on my way to south London. I hadn’t expected the return to be *quite* so jarring. I haven’t been bouncing off the walls of the office at work this time though, as I did last year. It’s been more a ache and yearning, looking through photographs and nudging memories to the fore to savour them once again. I need to dial down Teh Wistful. Haven’t cracked open any of the whiskey I bought yet though…
Reading this back my writing seems to imply that the holiday was emotionally and mentally tough much of the time. Not so, and I’ve only written about a small portion ofthe experience here. The things that troubled me by no means lessened the amazing, positive memories. Loch Garry and nearby hillsides being revealed by the sun as the shadows retreated downwards, the heart-swelling sight of Loch Venachar with small exposed pebbly, wind-lapped beaches, discovering the village of Dull was twinned with Boring in Colorado, seeing the Falkirk Wheel, rolling up and down and round through Tentsmuir Forest, spotting red squirrels, the night the bunnies raided our food stores, the off-route episode over a golf course, all the marvellous bridges we crossed, Highland coos, chip shop chips, the late evening sunset on the beach at Banff, the 9.30am tour and tasting at one of the distilleries… all these shared and appreciated by my fellow wheelwomen. moments I will treasure even when new ones have been forged. Someone pay me to do this and I’d ride around the country for months.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for staying with me! I’ve restrained myself from going into each day in detail because, let’s face it, we’ve all got other stuff to do. For me it’s been a bit indulgent, and another chance to relive some of the experiences now that I’m back at work and the sense of freedom has dissipated. I hope that some of you found a little recognition in some of the things I experienced or, heck, find yourself tempted to do a bit of touring yourself if you haven’t before!
A few thank yous: to Kat, and to Tal, natch. To the random driver who gave us all the info about the Kingussie bridge even though it wasn’t necessary, to Greenrig Cycles for making my wheel true enough to get to Edinburgh, to Cycle Works in that city for sorting me out with a new wheel so close to closing, to Michael and Emma for the accomodation and chat near Edinburgh, to the patient drivers, and finally to the remarkable weather!
My hands and stomach look as though they come from two completely different people.
I leave you with a top tip: if you find yourself near Elgin do visit the Glen Moray distillery. Their Classic port-casked offering is quite lovely.