Arran, Scotland in miniature. Unfortunately this does not mean that it rains any less that the west coast main land but it does mean that it is an excellent cycling destination. Everyone knows that cycling is always more epic if you have to take a ferry to get there.
Not long after I got back into road cycling I had a spare Saturday (very much a rarity nowadays with two kids) in Glasgow and decided to get on the first ferry and explore Arran by bike. I say explore but there is basically just three roads.
Ticket bought I waited for the ferry, seeking shelter in the terminal from the inevitable rain praying that the day would bring more sun. The great thing about taking a bike on the ferry is that you get to board before all the waiting cars and so by the time you secure your bike in the designated area you are among the first on board and can easily grab the best seats. For me the best seat was near the canteen as I need to fuel up for the day ahead.
With a decent breakfast in my belly I got off the ferry and then had to make my only navigation decision of the day; do I go left or do I go right? Clockwise or anti-clockwise? Based on nothing more than a predilection for order I decided to head clockwise.
My vague research of the route on the ferry across told me that I would be cycling for around 55 miles with around 2600ft of climbing. It doesn’t sound much but this was very much in my cycling infancy where I was still finding my legs.
There was no gentle warm-up to ease me into the day as I was immediately climbing out of Brodick towards Lamlash regretting eating a full-English breakfast on the ferry across. As you crest the rolling climb you can see Holy Isle just off Arran, a place that is now home to The Centre for World Peace and Health run by Tibetan Buddhists monks.
Continuing straight through Lamlash and on to Blackwaterfoot you have to contend with rolling hills of the sort that don’t allow you to get into any sort of pedaling rhythm. In an attempt to take my mind off the roads I looked across the water to Ailsa Craig, a tiny island jutting proudly out of the Firth of Clyde. This stump had been a feature of my childhood having spent many an hour on the beaches of Ayrshire as well as playing football in the area. For its small size (circumference of 4km) it has a very interesting history. It is also known locally as “Paddy’s Milestone” as it was a hideout for Catholics during the reformation. The headings for the island on Wikipedia alone give you a clue to its varied history; Spanish Invasion, Smuggling, Chapels, Railways, Curling Stones. It has more history and intrigue than some small countries!
Since the roads around Arran hug the shoreline, your day can be ruined by a strong headwind. Thankfully on this particular day I was blessed with calm conditions and could concentrate on enjoying the surroundings. At Blackwaterfoot you can continue on your way around the island or cut inland to tackle The String road which cuts across back to Brodick and straddles the mountainous middle of the island. On this day I ploughed on to Lochranza but I would be back again to tackle this road.
At the very north of the island I reached Lochranza which acted as a great place to grab a coffee and admire the view. As relaxing as the scene sounds, in the back of my mind I was just tossing over the fact that to get back to the ferry involved a long and steady climb. My energy reserves were running low and it was the last thing I wanted to do. In an effort to delay the inevitable I wheeled the bike over to check out Lochranza Castle which juts out into the sea. The castle dates back to the 13th century and it is even believed that Robert the Bruce landed here in 1306 on his way to back from Ireland to claim the Scottish throne.
I had my own conquering to do and there was no delaying it any longer. I downed the last of my energy gels and started to cycle out of Lochranza and back to Brodick to hopefully meet the last ferry.
It is not a particularly long climb or indeed a steep one but after a hard day of cycling it felt like a real test. The reward for getting to the top is a very fast and non-technical descent and I tried to use every last joule of the potential energy to get me back to Brodick and the prospect of a warm meal on the ferry.
Those last twenty kilometres back to the ferry terminal were among the worst of my cycling career as I was struck with a recurring knee injury that effectively meant that I was limited to one leg to get me to the ferry. I had a night out arranged that night in Glasgow with friends and nothing was going to stand in my way, not even a redundant leg. Along the way there is every chance that I let out a few shouts of random encouragement and even dabbled in some singing to take my mind off the pain.
My mind wandered back to a time with my Dad on Arran when we had scaled Goat Fell and realising at the bottom that we would not make the ferry we decided to try our luck at hitch-hiking. Remarkably it worked and a kind lady drove us to the ferry terminal. I was looking out for her all these years later and such was my discomfort I would have left my bike on the side of the road to get in her car.
The ferry was packed on the way back to the mainland with all the day trippers and I awkwardly sat around in my Lycra. It might look great and “pro” on the bike but in a public setting you are fair game for stares and derision. I found a quiet corner, lay down and my mind drifted to that first pint I would have in a few hours’ time.
A few years later I returned to Arran with my partner as part of her conversion to a road cyclist (a gently forced conversion). I was reminded of all its charms to a cyclist and the quiet island roads mean that we could cycle side-by-side and talk for most of the journey. I took a few side-trips by myself to test the String road climb but most of the time we were content to pootle and stop at the brewery for nice, cooling beers. It was cycling, but not as I knew it.
In fact the pootling was at times so slow that the midges could bite us and shamefully we got stalked by a sheep.
There are plenty of places to stay on Arran, from simple cottages and hostels to spa hotels if you do not feel like tackling it all in one day. There are even ferries outward to other beautiful parts of Scotland should you wish to make the cycling even more epic.