Cycling the Highlands

An 8-day solo adventure in Scotland through beautiful landscapes, over perfect roads, and around more sheep than I ever thought possible.


“I went whenever I could, and always my eyes lifted to the hills. I was to find a spiritual and physical satisfaction in climbing mountains and a tranquil mind upon reaching their summits, as though I had escaped from the disappointments and unkindness of life and emerged above them into a new world, a better world.”
— Alfred Wainwright, “A Coast to Coast Walk”

Mr. Wainwright’s guides to long distance hikes in the United Kingdom are wonderfully quirky and beautifully written. As I was reading the book quoted above with aspirations for a visit, I realized going “whenever I could” had not happened nearly often enough for me lately. My deep love for the outdoors was instilled by a father whose job gave him a standard two week vacation that American companies think is more than enough, much to the astonishment of the rest of the civilized world. He would pack us into a VW campervan and take us to the Sierra to climb on rocks, swim in creeks, and build campfires when the sun dipped behind the pines. So while I learned that the natural world is the quickest way to reset the anxiety of daily life, I also developed a work ethic that seldom afforded the opportunity to enjoy it.

Recently, I’d left the daily concerns of startup life to throw myself upon the gears of the corporate machine. Some things got easier, some very much harder. And it was those harder things that took their toll this past year. I’d been on a personal and professional roller coaster and I was exhausted. A good friend made a simple suggestion, and did it with perfect timing: “Take a break, you idiot,” he kindly advised. “I’m getting tired of picking you up every time you collapse.”

And so with a year-long project having just wrapped, I left work for a few weeks. But rather than hiking the hills Wainwright so loved, I decided to reacquaint myself with one of my own great passions: my bicycle. The following is a journal I kept during that time.

14 July 2014: San Francisco

My plan is to ride a loop around Scotland’s Upper Highlands with a side trip to the Outer Hebrides. The idea first came up while I was reading a cycling forum — a random post gushing about the roads on the Isle of Skye and the Northwest coast. “Really, a once in a lifetime sort of thing. Get over there if you can,” wrote the poster. With my kids in London with their mom for a few weeks in July, the logistics worked out perfectly. I’d visit them, then head up for a week or so of pure cycling. I cached a few dozen cycling journals into Evernote, dragged out a course on Google Maps, and downloaded the Lonely Planet Guide to the Kindle.

I leave a week from today for London and I’m nervous about the trip. I’ve been planning and thinking about this adventure for a number of months now, considering how to make it work, and all the other details. I’m organized, but still worried about how it will go. Am I riding too far each day? Will I have enough to eat? Where will I camp?

Actually, the mileage isn’t really a worry. I’ve been cycling often and feel very fit. I’m sure once I’m out there I’ll get into a rhythm and just pedal and pedal. If anything, I should be anxious about not stopping enough — that I’ll ride the big loop around the Highlands, suddenly finding myself at the end without having seen anything along the way. I get like that, I think, because I hate being a tourist, that insecure sense of wandering around not knowing where I am or what to do next. So in the past, I’ve just kept moving.

But not this time. Even writing about this just now has helped reassure me that this will be an amazing trip. In fact, I think I’ll go out for a training ride right now.

Getting used to the gear — and the extra weight— before the tour from the hills above my home in San Francisco.

16 July 2014: Half Moon Bay

Riding fixes everything. Today I’m at the campground at Half Moon Bay State Park, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. I wanted to be sure my gear was in order before flying to the UK. So far, things look good. The new tent is really sharp; a tiny one-person design that took a couple minutes to pitch. Surprisingly, my 6-foot-6-inch body fits in it considering it’s extremely light weight and slim proportions. All the other gear I’m pretty familiar with, having used it on previous backpacking trips. So I’m confident I’ve got this part of the logistics well sorted out. I plan to take 2–3 rides this weekend with the bags and gear on the bike to get my legs under me.

It’s beautiful here in Half Moon Bay. The sun is setting and lighting up the Santa Cruz Mountains in orange and purple. The sound of surf crashing just over the dunes and the smell of sea salt in the air. Even the ride down from the city was nice, along the speedway of Highway 1 through Pacifica. I’ve not been through Devil’s Slide in years—not since the tunnel opened. The old highway is now a park with a lovely bike path winding along the cliffs where the old road used to go. So peaceful and such a contrast from before, when the roaring traffic would pinch through the shoulderless, winding road. It always felt so treacherous; now it’s tranquil.

Progress is not always what we think it is.

24 July 2014: London

Sitting in a Starbucks in London looking across Villers Street at the cafe I should have gone to. Though as much as I love seeking out local coffee roasters and would choose most anything over this very American export, caffeine is a drug and today the first priority was to have it administered in a timely and regular fashion.

I’ve been here three days now (London, not Starbucks) and I’ve had some great experiences already. I’m staying in a cheap AirBnB flat in a council estate. I did this to “meet others” based on what sounded like a direct order from Mindy at work. “Don’t just go stay in some boring old hotel. Get out there and live!” she said, and skeptically I agreed. I’ve been marginally successful at interacting with Londoners since I’ve been here; traveling alone is not my strong suit. The room I booked is in a shared flat, but the owners are away and the other couple staying there are from … San Francisco. So I’ve stayed out mostly, and last night I bought an impromptu ticket at the Old Vic Theater around the corner to see The Crucible. I haven’t seen the play since I was in school, and this was an exceptional and intimate performance staged in the round. I couldn’t help but draw connections between Miller’s portrayal of Salem’s unwinnable logic (prove your innocence by confessing your guilt) and some of my personal and professional challenges in this past year. And while the gallows haven’t exactly been waiting for me, it was still reassuring to see John Proctor ultimately find redemption in his choices.

I bought fuel for my camp stove this morning at an Army Surplus store on The Cut. I had to shoulder the door open; the shop was choked with piles of merchandise: duffel bags and backpacks and racks of olive green fatigues. The man behind the counter was talkative and I engaged in a way that is normally out of character. We talked for 20 minutes, with him going on at length about his trip to San Francisco and how lucky he and his wife were with the weather when they crossed the Golden Gate. He compared that to the holidays in Las Vegas (not to his liking) and New York (a bit better). When he handed me the wrong change, I asked him to correct it and noticed a strong smell of booze. It was just after 10 in the morning.

27 July 2014: London

The day is here. Yesterday, I moved over to a fancy hotel overlooking Parliament and woke to Big Ben marking the hour. I packed everything, then unpacked it all, then packed it all again. Nervous energy, but good practice and I’m starting to develop a system. I spent the afternoon with my energetic kids and said a heavy goodbye as I rode away from the house where they’re staying with their mother during her holiday.

Ready to ride: Heading to Euston Station to catch the train to Inverness.

So here I am. Just finished a nice Espresso at an ancient cafe as I wait for my train to Inverness. I woke this morning with my stomach in a knot, obsessing over everything that could go wrong: The rear tire bearing the gear’s weight would certainly split. What would I do with the bike’s travel bag? Do I have enough food? Too much? Could I really ride that far? Would I make it back to Inverness in time to catch my train back? And the weather — oh, the weather. So much rain in the forecast. I’ll be cold and shivering as I pedal up and down Scotland’s endless hills. Why am I doing this?

But that was hours ago, and I decided over breakfast to just give up on all that anxiety, get back to being present and in the moment, and to start to enjoy myself. The traveling bags are stored at the hotel. The gear is loaded on the bike. The train will calm me down further. And by this time tomorrow my first day will be behind me.

Just now, a man with a long white beard came in to the cafe and ordered tea with a shot of whiskey on the side. “Doesn’t matter if it’s on the left side or the right,” he said.

“Yup,” the woman behind the bar said, then forced a weary laugh, as if they’d been through this routine many times.

28 July 2014: Fort Augustus

I’m through my fist first 30 miles. I spent the morning under beautiful skies and unbelievable roads between Inverness and Fort Augustus. Now, I’m devouring a burger as I sit in the shade by the Caledonian Canal.

Along Loch Ness.

The countryside around the Inverness here is remarkably similar to Inverness back in California. I can see why the Scots who turned up there were inspired to give it the same name. I rode through long green valleys flanked by tall pines up to the ridges. All that was missing was the eucalyptus or I’d swear I just rode Highway 1 through Olema.

Climbing over to Fort Augustus.

I traveled in style overnight on the Caledonia Sleeper. I’d booked a 1st-class on the cabin to start my adventure, and watched London fade away from the lounge car with a glass of wine and a hearty beef pie. I chatted with a Scottish man heading back from conducting an interview in London who felt good about the candidate, and a woman from Dubai on holiday from her exceptionally interesting job, in which she organizes road rallies for people with exotic sports cars. She planned to scout fun roads in the Highlands for a future rally. I asked her kindly to avoid the bike routes and she agreed.

I think I’ve sufficiently converted the burger I inhaled into energy for the last 10 miles I plan to ride today. I hope to camp in Invergarry tonight.

29 July 2014: The Isle of Skye

Sitting in a very warm and quiet pub, feeling well worn out after 60 miles in the rain, and thoroughly enjoying this Guinness.

The Caledonian Canal

Yesterday, I finished my day with 10 miles of gravel path along the Caledonian Canal. Beautiful, quiet, and free of traffic. The sun was out and I was deeply happy. I turned up in Invergarry and stopped at an inn for dinner — a heaping plate of venison with a nice port sauce. Then, from that fanciness, I peddled another couple miles to a rustic campground. I pitched my tent, had a scorching hot shower, and crawled into my sleeping bag. Asleep by 8:30.

I woke to the sound of rain on my tent and packed under ominous skies. Almost immediately the road climbed and up it went for a good hour. The rain started back up and I stayed in a great mood as I cranked my way over the pass. The weather lifted in time for me to race down the other side, along a loch and into a building headwind. I was twenty five miles into my day before I saw a building, but it was a building I was very glad to see. The Claunie Inn, established 1729, and offering me a hot lunch. I grabbed a table and ordered before even looking at the clock. It was only 10:30. Didn’t matter. I filled up, got warm, and layered on some extra clothes before pushing off.

Good thing I did. The wind and rain got crazy — needles-in-the-face hard as I followed a long, fast descent through a narrow canyon, the tall Munos reaching up into the mist, traced with impromptu waterfalls.

Eilean Donan Castle

It rained and I rode, past Eilean Donan Castle where I paused for a photo and a stretch, then on to Kyle of Lochlash. I’d planned to camp there but it was early and I felt good so I stopped for a coffee and danish, then peddled on.

The bridge to the Isle of Skye looked intimidating as it bows up tall over the white-capped sea. But it turned out to be nothing, really. There was a wide sidewalk and I oped to ride there, away from a steady stream of traffic. The view from the top of the arch was impressive — tiny islands dotting the shoreline just waiting for a kayak. But not today, not for me.

Past the bridge the road is unremarkable. It spitted rain a bit and the temperature dropped. I’d considered briefly going all the way to Sligachan on the advice from a guy I spoke with on the train. But 10 miles past the bridge I saw a nice hotel with a vacancy sign. I stopped, booked, and was in a rather large bathtub soaking away the miles in no time.

So back to this Guinness. My greatest challenge now is to finish this pint and get back to my room before my eyelids completely close. And its not yet 9pm. Bicycle touring is hard work, friends.

30 July 2014: Tarbert

An absolutely stunning day of cycling. I did 50 miles from Broadmore to Uig, then took the ferry over to Tarbert on the Isle of Lewis. Now, I’m lying in a bunkbed in a youth hostel filled with Germans. My plan had been to cycle out into the countryside and do some wild camping. But as I got off the ferry, I was assaulted with the hardest wind and rain yet — a soaking downpour. I looked up from the pier and saw the hostel and had booked within 10 minutes. After a hot shower and fresh clothes I walked outside into beautiful sunshine. But then it rained hard again and then the sun came out and dried everything and now it’s wet and grey. What can you do? Go with how you feel, I guess.

Endless green hills, mist, and sheep.

This morning I left the hotel with a belly full of black pudding, which I have decided is a cycling superfood. Considering how it’s made primarily of blood, I’d suspect it would make the list of banned substances on the pro cycling tour. It worked for me — the 23 miles to Portree flew by like my bike had a motor. There’s a long steady climb in the middle, but my first tailwind made gave me a deceptive strength. More rain as I climbed, but dried out on the descent under sunny skies.

The town of Portree on the Isle of Skye

Over croissants in a Portree cafe I considered my options. It was a short 13 miles to the ferry in Uig on the main highway. But I’d read in someone’s cycling journal that there was fast traffic and uneventful scenery. My phone told me I only had two and a half hours due to the summer ferry schedule. The route I’d planned took to the east coast then up and over the Cullin Mountains that run like a spine through the island. Vaguely anxious, I decided on the shorter route, paid my bill, and went out to my bike. There, I found myself surrounded by cyclists — a touring club out for a spin around the island. A guy came up to me, “Hey, wow, titanium. Very nice. Custom?”

We talked about the bike for a bit, then he asked me where I was heading. When I told him, he guessed, “Ah, up the main road, then? We’re going up and around the east. Some of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever ridden, and I’ve been at this a fair few years now.” We chatted for a while longer and in that time my anxiety fell away. I can make the ferry or I can miss the ferry, doesn’t really matter. I could stay a night in Uig, I could stay a night further on. I could do anything, really. But I’m here to cycle amazing roads and I’m not letting some damn boat decide where I go.

He was telling me about some other ride they’d all done together, while I resisted the urge to hug him for the kick he’d given me. Instead, we shook hands, I got on the bike, and headed away from the main highway and started off on what would be the best cycling of my trip thus far.

The road out of Portree to Staffin was single track. Literally, if two cars met, one would pull into one of the many Passing Places and wait. Sometimes the road was so narrow that I would pull my bike off to let cars by. But it was rare as the road was mostly empty.

The first 10 miles were a winding loch-side approach to the Old Man of Storr — a tall, pointed stack of rock visible from miles away. As it grew on the horizon, the land became more wild and the wind picked up at my back. I was tearing up hills in my big ring and sailing down the other sides. Soon, I was at Kilt Rock, sharp cliffs to the sea with a dramatic waterfall. I stopped for pictures and stretching then — mindful of the hour — rode on through Staffin. At this rate, I could just make the ferry, but the day’s big climb loomed ahead.

Kilt Rock

Just beyond Staffin I found the tiny road that cuts across the island. There were signs warning me off: Impassible under winter conditions. Trucks and caravans not advised. And then: “15%” printed on a steep angle against a picture of a mountain. I smiled and made the turn.

The road tilted up immediately and the whole story of what was to come laid out before me. I could see the narrow track roll up and around green hills. From there, the pavement appeared to shoot up vertically, switching back on itself as it rose to a small gap between to mountain peaks. Normally on such a climb I’d keep my head down and focus on my breathing and pedal stroke. But the scenery wouldn’t allow for that kind of work today: the hills, the mist, sun shining far out on the sea, mountaintops from the mainland on the horizon. Halfway up I weaved through a group of apathetic sheep in the road. Up I climbed. Waves and smiles from occasional passing cars. Around the hairpins standing on the pedals using my weight for each rotation. The gear on my rack felt like a cruel hand on my seat post, pulling me back down the incline. Finally I crested the summit amid crowds of tourists around their parked cars snapping photos and starting off on their hilkes.

From the top of the Quirang climb.

The descent was a blur — a long, gradual big-ring blast through an enormous empty valley, then through the tight huddle of houses around Uig, back and forth down hairpins into town, and to the ferry terminal. The man at the counter took my £6 and said, “She leaves in 20 minutes. Enjoy your holiday, sir.”

And then, on board and slumped in a seat with the the steady hum of the engines, I slipped away into a truly great nap.

1 Aug 2014: Stornoway

I’m back on a ferry, this time heading off the islands for Ullapool. I had an epic day of touring around the Isle of Lewis; by far my longest on the trip, and probably my longest in years since I seldom have the freedom to pedal for so many hours on end.

The Ullapool-Tarbert ferry.

I left early from the hostel in Tarbot after stuffing as much breakfast cereal into me as I could. I had at that point decided that the retired merchant marine who had been talking to me for an hour wasn’t actually suffering from any soft of affliction but rather had a different sense of cultural norms and social cues than I did and maybe I should relax and consider this an experience that comes from this sort of travel and enjoy it for what it was rather than staying protected within my typically American social cocoon. So I did and it was fine.

The road out of town to the north climbed sharply and I ground out the first few miles of the day into misty sullen hills. The rain came early and continued well into the morning. I was surprised to see I’d gone 20 miles in just 90 minutes, mostly due to a gradual and drawn-out descent after the morning’s steep elevation.

I pulled over to make coffee on the roadside — there had not been a single business on the route since leaving town. Immediately I was swarmed by midges. I tried the insect repellant I had, but I was sweaty and wet from the rain. It made a mess, got in my eyes and on my clothes. The midges found this hilarious and called over their friends. A few minutes later, I was sipping coffee and eating an energy bar by quickly lifting the headnet I was wearing just to my nose, then dropping it down again. An old man pulled over his car, yelled something poetic in Galic while pointing to his head, then drove off laughing. A dozen dead midges circled in my coffee.

My goal for the morning was the Callanish Standing Stones. There are three separate circles about half a mile apart and I rode up to one of the smaller ones to the east. I parked the bike and crossed a field filled with grazing cattle, then climbed a hill to the stones. There were about a dozen, each as tall as me in an arc facing the sea (and, I’d guess, the setting sun on the equinox.)

The Callanish Standing Stones

I was unprepared for how intimate the site was. Back home in the US, things of this sort of historical relevance are roped off, your experience guided and programmed. But here, I walked amongst the stones, touched them, and then sat within the circle using one to lean against. I thought about something my brother Greg once said as we drove out of San Francisco for some weekend adventure. “You know, in 10,000 years when we’re all gone and our civilazation has collapsed, all that will remain are these enormous freeway overpasses all over the continent. Future archeologists will wonder what we did with them and invent some weird religon for us.”

The thought made me smile, and as I closed my eyes I pondered my own questions: Why are these stones here? A group of Neolithic people went to a great deal of effort to drag these great slabs up here and arrange them just so. What was their motivation? Why go to the trouble?

In the end, I decided it was for very human reasons. Life was tenuous for them, they were scared, and they were asking for help. Coming together here made them feel better and that’s enough.

I certainly felt better. The dull ache of three days touring drained from my legs as I rested among the stones. I rode over to the visitors center and had an enormous lunch, then wandered around the main circle. They were impressive, but I’d had my moment at the smaller group.

Garenin

On the road up the west coast of Lewis I gasped at the scenery. Lavishly green hills rolling down to white beaches. Ten miles on I detoured a couple miles off the main road to the village of Garenin — a tiny cluster of old restored stone houses with thatched roofs nestled in a cove by the ocean. These are called blackhouses and according to the display at the museum there, they’ve used the same basic design for 1,000 years. The long narrow buildings are divided into two rooms for the residents and a third for livestock. The last of these particular houses was inhabited as late as 1974 — the one open as a museum was preserved from 1955. Everything was tiny and functional — a small kitchen table, wooden sofa, and double bed in the first room. Two small children’s bunks in the second. A peat fire burning, the room filled with smoke from the hearth with no chimney. No running water, plumbing, or electricity. A hard life scraped from a too-small plot of land.

The sun was out now and I rode with a hint of tailwind. Fifteen miles from Stornoway I stopped for some chocolate and a stretch by a small loch. I laid in the grass and watched the light on the water and nodded off for a few minutes. I’m starting to remember what vacation is.

The last 10 miles through the Great Bog — endless tracts of emptiness. Nothing but ridges where peat had been harvested. Up and down low rises as if looping, but I moved across them with strong legs. At 70 miles in I could see Stornoway and the east coast stretching to the horizon. I’d crossed the island and a nice descent to the town where a room waited for me.

I was up early to catch the ferry back. When I mentioned that to my waiter, he looked concerned. “Oh no, sir. The ferry’s gone at 6 today. Different schedule on Friday.” I took the news in a relaxed sort of way and said, “There’s one in the afternoon?” He nodded. “Well, then. What’s nice to do in this town?”

I took a walk around the harbor to the castle, stopped in a book shop, took in an art exhibit. Now, I’m aboard the late ferry and plan to camp in Ullapool. A rest day!

3 August 2014: Durness & Lairg

Two days that could not have been more different. Yesterday, long and cold with wind in my face, endless climbing, soaking rain. Today, warm and bright sun, wind pushing me past sparkling lochs. Yet even in my darkest hours, I was nearly giddy with it all. I’m on a bike in the Scottish Highlands after all, and about 5,000 miles away from the big old webpage factory where I spend most of my time. At least that’s what I told myself as I sat shivering on the side of the road, munching an energy bar and wondering how I was going to make it 12 more miles.

The view from Ullapool.

Yesterday started sunny but windy in the campground in Ullapool, my tent waking me as it strained against the gusts. Even with the wind the midges were out in force. I cooked breakfast sitting in my tent, the door unzipped just enough for my arm to poke through and work the stove. I packed up with my mosquito headnet on and was on the road early.

These lochside towns are beautiful and Ullapool is no exception. But the roads inevitably and immediately climb up into the surrounding hills. Head down, sun on my back, grind it out, then roar down the other side keeping pace with the occasional motorcycle. That is most of what I have to report from these two days. Enormous empty valleys with a thread of pavement winding through them. Tracts of land larger the the whole of San Francisco and me alone in the middle, just a speck of humanity silently turning over the pedals.

The hotel at Kylesku served me the best fish I’ve had on this trip and I chatted with a 75 year old man named Willie. He pointed his finger out the window and said, “There. I grew up in that glen just across the loch.” After lunch I crossed the nearby bridge, a graceful span that shares a designer with the Sydney Opera House. Soon, I was in Scourie and stopped for a coffee.

The weather had turned. The sky was low with heavy clouds. The wind was strong and raised violent whitecaps on the lochs. Later, I would find out the wind had topped 30 mph that afternoon and I had ridden straight into it. The final 21 miles from Scourie to Durness was some of the bleakest and loneliest riding I’ve ever done. I hardly saw a car as I rode to what felt like the end of the earth. Once, I watched as a pair of headlights slowly made it’s way for miles across the glen towards me. As the car approached, I waved and the driver waved back, then gave me a thumbs up. I was surprised at how easily that simple interaction boosted my spirits. A tiny connection in the harsh world I moved through.

The rain came and the temperature dropped further, but despite all this I made it into Durness. I cycled up to my planned campsite on the beach, a beautiful site from the websites I’d researched. But the wind was howling now and I watched as the tents already up lashed around noisily. Wanting nothing but a good night of sleep, I turned around and peddled back to a bunkhouse I’d seen on the way into town. I paid for my bed and was handed a warm, soft towel for my shower. I went in and made myself exceptionally comfortable.

I woke the next morning to the sound of roaring wind. And while I’m well aware that cyclists are apt to exaggerate — especially when it comes to headwinds and climbs — the sound of the gale outside was honestly troubling. I crept out of my bunk and to the common room and stood at the window. The view out to the North Sea stopped me — large trees being whipped around, rain driving in sideways and pelting the windows. All coming from the direction I’d be heading. My thoughts jumped to bus routes and timetables. Could I get a ride past this weather?

Mindful of getting ahead of myself, I took a couple slow, deep breaths and focused instead on a much more important issue — coffee. A few minutes later I relaxed on the big sofa and looked across at the thrashing ocean. So this is August in the Highlands, I laughed to myself. I took out my phone and consulted the weather. Remarkably, the forecast showed sun and calm winds from 10 am on. It was just past 7, so I decided to wait it out. If it turned, I’d ride; if not, the bus.

One by one the other bunkhouse guests left, each suggesting how pleased they were that they were not me, each with varying degrees of subtleness aligned with their cultural identity.

By 9:30 the wind was gone. It was still, with a dense fog settling in. With that, I jumped happily on my bike, blinking red light on for safety, and started my day not an hour behind the loose schedule I’d laid out.

My only real regret so far on this trip was missing out on the Durness beaches. From what I’d read and pictures I’d seen, I was looking forward to the white sand and lime green water. Instead, the 10 mile stretch across the very top of Scotland was completely fogged in — maybe 100 feet of visibility. I passed a few nice looking beaches that were rendered in shades of gray in the filtered light.

By the time I was at Loch Eriboll an hour later, the fog was gone and the sun was out. It stayed that way for the rest of the day. I thought back to earlier in the morning as I cheerfully pedaled through the remarkable scenery and laughed at the thought of seeing all this from the the window of a bus.

The vast and empty landscape of the Northwest.

I rolled into the small town of Tongue at noon exactly and ate a hearty lunch at the Ben Loyal Hotel. I stayed for over an hour, drinking and watching cycling from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow on the tiny TV above the bar. With a full belly, I started on the forty miles left for the day. The road was back to single track and I saw maybe five houses in the next two hours. Just so much dramatic, empty landscape.

A tailwind pushed me up and over the hills and after a quick coffee at the Inn in Altnaharra, I spent the afternoon cruising through the countryside. By 5pm I was in Lairg and checked into a nice little hotel for my last night on the road.

4 August 2014: Inverness

The sheer scope of a Scottish breakfast continues to overwhelm me. This morning I sat and stared at a plate piled high with ham and sausage and mushrooms and and fried eggs and two halves of a tomato. To top it all off, a healthy slab of haggis on the side. (I use the term “healthy” in a strictly metaphoric sense, of course.)

It seemed unreal that I’d be in Central London in 24 hours. This tiny village at the foot of a loch with its single track roads crowded with sheep felt a world away. But for now I’d be pedaling 60 miles before retiring to a sleeping berth on the overnight train back to the city.

I took my time packing. Last night, I’d spread my gear across the room to dry after the rains, even suspending my tent between the sofa and television. Bike clothes, laundered in the sink, were hanging from every available spot. A happy mess by a weary traveler.

Emptiness.

My plan was for lunch in Tain, a few miles shy of the halfway point to Inverness. But the route was a steady and gentle downhill. My legs felt strong after a week of hills and there was no wind. I was easily turning over the big ring, standing on the pedals over small rises in the road, keeping a beautiful 20 miles per hour. I arrived at lunch at 10am.

Rather than a full meal, I opted for coffee and a pastry, then spent some time wandering through the 14th century church in Tain. King James IV visited on pilgrimages over a dozen times during his reign. So often that I wondered if perhaps his motives reached beyond the spiritual.

From Tain I spent a couple miles on the dreadful A9 highway — just enough to confirm my decision to stay to the backroads. Cars and trucks flying by me at 60 miles an hour even for 10 minutes started to rattle me. I peeled off into the countryside until I ran out of road at the beach in Nigg, surrounded by massive buildings and even bigger oil platforms just off shore. Here, I waited by a beautiful beach for the twice-hourly ferry to arrive.

The ship is tiny — room for only 4 cars and bills itself as the smallest in all of Britain. As each car boards, a turntable spins it around so nobody need back off the boat at the other end. It was a pleasant break, gently bouncing over the waves to Comarty. Upon arriving and in no particular hurry, I stopped for a very nice pizza from a pub with a wood-fired oven.

For the next couple hours I pedaled across the Black Isle — a peninsula actually — that juts out from Inverness to the Northeast. The open land was carved into farms growing wheat here. The golden fields were a dramatic change from the days of green hills I’d been through.

Signposts counted down my imminent arrival in Inverness. The traffic picked up as I got closer and seemed to pass me with more urgency. Finally, the backroad I was on joined the A9 just a few miles from the city. A little sign with a bicycle pointed to a narrow paved path which I followed as it wound around and under the highway, eventually leading me to the Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth and into town. I crossed through some industrial roads and suddenly was in front of the rail station with nowhere else to ride.

Graffitti from supporters of Scottish independence

I was neither happy nor sad to have finished my loop — just a sense of deep satisfaction. That feeling grew through the evening — I showered at the station then relaxed in the pub at the Royal Highland Hotel next door, where I exchanged stories with two guys from Oxford. They’d just finished a tour as well, and we discussed gear and hills and headwinds, then laughed about the differences in our countries.

Then, with heavy eyes and heavier legs, I loaded my bike on the train and found my berth. As we headed south to London, I watched the sun set behind the Cairngorms and drifted off to the hypnotic sway of the carriage, the miles of Highlands road behind me.

My thanks to @mathowie for helping with this post.


Epilogue: The Data


After randomly finding an account of someone’s bike tour of the Highlands on a cycling forum, I started planning my own trip. I used Strava’s impressive Route Builder to find great side roads, measure distances, and plot elevation gains. I then used the Strava iOS app to guide me as I rode and track my progress. Here’s the final output:

Day 1: Inverness to Invergarry (40.6 miles)
Day 2: Invergarry to Broadford (59.3 miles)
Day 3: Broadford to Uig (52.8 miles)
Day 4: Tarbert to Stornoway (73.4 miles)
Day 5: Rest (0 miles)
Day 6: Ullapool to Durness (71.1 miles)
Day 7: Durness to Lairg (69.4 miles)
Day 8 Lairg to Inverness (61.1 miles)

There are more photos from the trip at Instagram: http://instagram.com/jeffveen


Appendix: The Gear


I tend towards minimalism when it comes to gear, mostly from my experience backpacking. A light pack makes for happier traveling, and I shave off grams anywhere I can.

Bike

Sleeping

Electronics

Kitchen

Personal