I saw this event on the audax calendar some time ago when I was planning the year’s rides (with LEL training lurking in my mind). It was both on my 40th birthday and visited Mull, where I had a fantastic holiday a couple of years ago, so I couldn’t resist. Clearly a long weekend would be required, and when I looked at train tickets an even longer one was needed to avoid the cyclists enemy, the rail replacement bus service. If my LEL preparation had gone to plan I would have completed one if not two 200 kms by now, but life being what it is I only had my disastrous painful slog to go on. But I had done one before, so I ‘knew’ I could do this.
Friday was spent travelling by train to Fort William. Not the best of beginnings, as I had mis-remembered the time of my train from Leeds by half an hour and had to make use of my ‘contingency’ time; thinking that getting up at 5.30 am would allow me a leisurely preparation it became a case of having to forget about that second cup of tea. It takes a long time in Leeds station to get up and down in the lifts so an early arrival is necessary. Train one, Leeds – Edinburgh, was an old Virgin with those doors that need to be opened from the inside via the window, which although rather nice are also rather deadly and I thought had been outlawed some time ago. Bikes in the ‘guard’s van’ which was also doing time as storage space for bottles of water, one of which was in the way of the bike rack and happily found its way into my thirsty pocket. No problems unloading in Edinburgh and I had intentionally booked trains to allow plenty of time to change. Then a short trip to Glasgow Queen Street for the connection to Fort William. There were a few other cyclists at Queen Street and I started to wonder how we’d all get on the train, but it turns out they have superior capacity with 6 bike spaces (per 2 carriages I think, certainly 6 to Fort William on this one). I had an advance ticket and hence a booked seat, so I didn’t see the other cyclists once I’d sat down. The journey north past Loch Lomond, on to Crianlarich and then across Ranoch Moor is splendid. It was pretty wet but I did much more window-gazing than book reading. There were lots of deer, mostly stags, not easy to spot as they are the same colour as the land.
Arriving in Fort William I did a decent amount of faffing but it still continued to rain as I left the station, which seemed rather a convoluted route through the nearby supermarket car park, and although I came straight out onto the A82 I was keen to make sure it was going in the right direction! Riding out of town I was amazed at all the B&B and Guest House signs displaying ‘No Vacancies’ (how many people are riding this audax?), it was only much later that it occurred to me that they were still closed for the winter. Not the nicest of roads as the traffic was quite fast, and it was raining quite a bit so just a case of head down and get on with it. About half way the rain stopped and by the time I got to Ballachulish the sun was out.
I spotted the turn-off that I’d need tomorrow to find the start, and the campsite I’d identified wasn’t much further on. Invercoe Campsite is open all year and the owners seemed very relaxed, I had to make a point of remembering to pay before I left. Beautiful location and nice facilities.
My parents were not letting me entirely ignore my birthday so had planned to come up from their home in Dumfries and Galloway in their camper van and visit. Usually anything involving timings goes to pot but they surprised me by driving past my campsite (they were staying at a different one) just as I had started putting up my tent. Once they’d installed themselves we had a few drinks in the Glencoe Gathering pub before a not-too-late night.
I was woken a few times in the night by rain, which was still falling on and off when I left for Ballachulish Village Hall. The campsite had a shelter, intended for barbecuing when the weather has other plans, but the owner recommended it as somewhere to keep bikes overnight and when I went in to get mine I found a couple of other randonneurs having a fight with a stove in an attempt to cook pre-ride porridge. I hadn’t brought any food or cooking stuff with me, and had spent the past three weeks mostly avoiding carbs, so this was to be a ride without relying on sugar and starch if all went to plan (although I had emergency jelly beans and gel in the rack bag). I was at the hall in plenty of time and had a couple of cups of tea, before heading off in the first batch of riders dismissed by organiser Graeme. This was a logistically complicated ride but it had been very well explained by Graeme, with ferry times for fast, medium and full value riders indicated, however we were all supposed to get the same first ferry, the 7.50 from Corran to Ardgour (mainland to mainland). When I heard that we’d all (about 70 riders) fit on the one crossing I was surprised, but there was plenty of room and the ferry staff, who had been well-informed of our arrival, were excellent all through the ride.
Somehow I managed to be first off the boat, but keeping out of the way to let the few motor vehicles off I ended up towards the back of the pack. And there I was to remain! Graeme had come over on the same ferry by car and passed us before heading to Lochaline to sign brevet cards at the first control. On leaving Ardour we had the option of following the routesheet, which directed us via the more scenic route towards Strontian before quite a climb, or taking a flatter coast road which we were warned was of very poor quality. I didn’t see anyone taking the second option.
Having been warned of a ‘bastard hill’ I thought the first one wasn’t too bad, but I was soon to realise which was being referred to. Once the road turned south-ish towards Lochaline it went up, and up, and up.
Eventually it must have started to go down but I don’t remember that quite so clearly. I’d passed a couple of riders (unusual for me) but coming over the top and feeling a bit of rain (and not being very warm) I stopped to put my waterproof back on and they went by. Sometime around here I started thinking about the next ferry; I’d thought that I’d make the 10.35 am from Lochaline to Fishnish (Mull) based on my usual speed, but I could see it would be tight. As it was the rear doors had just been raised and the boat started to move as I descended to the control…very frustrating. But Graeme was there to not only stamp my card but impart relaxing words, and I was soon joined by Marcus, another rider. It turned out that two people had made the early crossing, everyone else was on the one we’d just missed, and there would be two of us bringing up the rear for the remainder of the ride. The folk running the cafe at the Lochaline ferry terminal were just getting their breath back after the onslaught of most of the field so I think were quite pleased that it was just the two of us now, and we had plenty of time to wait for the next boat. I looked for a low carb something to eat so went for lentil soup, and a coffee, because I think I should need one at this point. I had a marmite cheese that I’d brought along with me too. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling sick, and there were moments when I thought I would suddenly reproduce the soup on the nice clean gravel outside the cafe, but it stayed down.
Once the 11.10 very arrived we were asked to board before the cars and put the bikes in a couple of wheel racks – goodness knows where everyone secured them on the previous boat. We’d been instructed to buy a ‘hopscotch’ ticket onboard which would get us back to Oban later, at £5.60 this is the same price as a foot passenger. Once on Mull I recognised the roads for a short time until we turned off for Salen. I’m not very good at riding with other people and found I was going very sightly faster than Marcus, although he would catch me on descents, but after a while I had lost sight of him so I waited at a junction so we could continue together. After Gruline the road clings to the coast and we were treated to some great clear views, although the wind was not exactly helping.
The Treshnish Isles were visible in the distance, some distinctive outlines which I recognised from my previous visit. The road then turned inland and we started playing hare and tortoise with a van full of birdwatchers for the next little while. I lost sight of Marcus again but decided to press on and wait at the next control. On the whole the descents on this ride were excellent, as the road ahead was in full view so no braking was required, but in this stretch a heavily pregnant cow and later some calves caused some cautious slowing down. The road meets the shore of Loch Scridain and then the main A road. Our control was at the Pennyghael Stores, and once again I recognise the road from my earlier bus journeys. The shop had a very friendly ginger cat, as well as stickers to mark our passage and tea/coffee plus a roll which was included in our entry fee. This is the sort of thing that I’d never ‘expect’ on a ride and is much appreciated. As it was I just had the tea, and feeling better had some nuts and a bit of cheese.
I had previously travelled the whole of the next section to Craignure by bus, during which gradients are of course less noticeable, but the climb up Glen More was a pleasant one in the continuing sun. I passed the lochs that I’d walked along on my previous visit and then Loch Spelve where I’d waited (quite happily) two hours for a bus. I arrived at Craignure a little before Marcus, we’d both realised at the previous control that there was no chance we’d make the previous ferry so it had been a fairly relaxed leg and we had a bit of time for a cup of tea from the shop. The ferry staff asked how many more of us were expected (none) and commented on how many riders had been on the last crossing. We were entertained by watching the ferry approach, trying to work out which end was going to open and being amused by the technique of making contact with the jetty and using it to pivot around to line up with the landing stage. There was a section for bikes in the centre of the vehicle deck, again I wondered where they had fitted everyone in on the previous crossing. Marcus and I went upstairs for a comfy seat and discussed how we’d got into Audax, followed by discovering we have a few colleagues in common.
Back on the mainland in Oban and we knew we had 60 km to do in x hours, which was achievable for us both although we couldn’t hang about. Out from Oban the route follows a road to a car park and then an odd section of cycle path to rejoin the A85. The cycle path had the most crazy steep sections, including the final bit where a boy who saw us struggling opened the gate to let us through. The final crossing of the day took us on Connel bridge over Loch Etive, then all the way along the side of Loch Creran to answer an info control.
Soon it began to get dark, and it was just a case of head down and keep riding. Sometimes I’d pass Marcus on a climb and then he’d catch me, eventually I pulled ahead but could see him not far off when the road allowed. At last I arrived at the road works outside Ballachulish centre, and I thought Marcus would catch up while I waited at the red light, it would have been nice to finish together, but I rolled into the hall complete with fairy lights at 9.xx pm. Marcus eventually arrived with literally minutes to spare, having had to stop for cramp near the end. Graeme and crew fed us, I had some soup but still felt nauseous so didn’t risk the cake. My parents who turned up to wish me happy birthday were generously looked after, and we celebrated properly the next day.
An early start on Monday morning to catch the first train back home and another fantastic journey for window-gazing. A different route home taking the Carlisle – Settle line which had just reopened a couple of days before.
200 km, 13 hrs 50 mins