This is the "internet-bob" version of my Scotland ride. Copyright 1995, Piaw Na. Freely redistributable provided this header remains intact. An abridged version of this document will appear on rec.bicycles.rides on USENET.
Piaw Na: Yours truly. 25 years old, Chinese, born in Singapore, moved to the USA for good in 1988, cycling since 1990, touring since 1993, with about 1000 miles of fully loaded solo touring experience.
Chris Prevost: 28 years, Caucasian, grew up in Seattle, cycling since 1994, about 1000 miles of riding. No touring experience.
Susan Lesh: Between 33 and 40 years, Caucasian, cycling since ????, no touring experience.
Scarlet Tang: 24 years, Chinese American, born in Mass, cycling since 1994, touring experience: 20 miles of loaded touring in 1994 before a crash ended the tour. I responded to Scarlet's post on the internet about touring in England and Wales, and persuaded her that riding with us in Scotland would not be a bad idea at all.
Susan and Chris both work at the same company as I do, and I'd planned this trip since October 1994. The two of them would start and end the tour with me. Scarlet was more of a wild card, since she would join us 4 or 5 days into the ride, and she did not plan to stay with us for very long. Being the most experienced bicycle tourist in the group, I was nominally the leader and organizer.
I am by no means a hard rider, a fast rider, or even an "endurance rider" by any means. But I like mountains, and enjoy climbing, and make it a point to ride hills and other pretty places rather than over flat terrain, which has given me a sort of reputation of conducting "death rides" at work. Hence, just before we left, Chris posted a message to his colleagues:
Gone on vacation
Piaw's Death Ride:
Highlander IV: The Bicycling
"There can be only one..."
The flight itself was long and uneventful, and I finished Ecstasia, by Francesca Lia Block, a fantasy about the city of Los Angeles. I tried to strike up a conversation with the German tourist across the aisle who was returning from a vacation in California, but we didn't have much in common, though I found out that he was planning to do the John Muir trail later on in the year. The in-flight movie, Legends of the Fall, was a boring and uninspired attempt at a tragedy without any tragically flawed persons. I quickly fell asleep after that one, and ignored Immortal Beloved, which Chris assured me was just as silly. I guess they pick these movies to help you sleep or something, because I'd never fallen asleep so easily on a plane before. There's not much to do on planes other than eat, sleep, and read in a tiny, cramped enclosed space.
Still, the flight exhausted me, and I was glad to get off the plane. Then through customs, and a British customs person working through my Carradice saddlebag (converted into a shoulder bag using a shoulder strap purchased from Custom Cycle Fitments), losing my plane ticket and recovering it, and more boring waits.
But then we were in Glasgow, and picking up the bike boxes, and the panniers. Loading them onto carts, we rolled out of the airport naively thinking that we could flag down cabs. (It was a Sunday, so the hotel courtesy van wasn't available) Outside, it was cold and cloudy, the kind of weather that looked like it could get bad quickly and without warning. It turns out that most cabs were charter-only, so you had to call in to book one. Well, Sue managed to get a hold of one and get him to call in for 2 big cabs while we moved the carts to the waiting area. Soon enough, a big station wagon turned cab showed up together with another, smaller taxi, and we had two big Scottish men helping us shove the bike cases into the taxis.
The trip to the hotel cost something like 15 pounds per cab. It wasn't that far, it turned out, and it just so happened that the guys driving the cabs had no idea what they were doing. I was much too sleepy to register that at that time, and it wasn't until the return trip that I realized what must have happened. But this was only the beginnings of our troubles. Upon arrival at the hotel, we looked for a place to assemble the bicycles, but the staff told us that they didn't realized that we'd intended to assemble the bicycles there. (Why we'd ask about a space for storing bicycle boxes and not be assembling bicycles on the spot was apparently not something that came to mind) We eventually were allowed to use their backyards, out in the wind, to assemble the bicycles.
It's bad enough to be assembling a bicycle after a 12 hour plane trip, but to do so exposed to the wind and with impending rain is not exactly the best way to encourage your peace of mind. Thus, the job was hurriedly and rather haphazardly done. My bicycle was easy, because I knew it well and the fender attachments were well tuned after 2 years of rain riding and touring. The other 2 were Trek 520s, one of which was complicated by fenders that were painful to adjust and was a poorly tuned bicycle in general, something that would come back to haunt us later. Fortunately, I still remembered to grease all threads, seat posts, and stems before replacing them.
It took us about 3 hours or so to get the bikes together. Not a speed record by any means, but we got done before it started drizzling. A shower, and then it was off to the local pub to get some dinner. That done, we collapsed onto our beds and I slept soundly. Unfortunately, when I'm this tired, I snore, and since I inherited my snore from my father, it's something like 5 or 10 times my size. Poor Chris had to put up with that, until I was awakened by rather loud celebrating outside the hotel. It turned out that Scotland had won a major Rugby match and all of Glasgow was up and about making it known. I went right back to sleep and unfortunately, Chris got the short end of the stick.
Wherein Susan and Chris learn the use of a Forester-style raincape, and the first ferry ride is encountered. Good luck in finding housing is encountered.
I woke up at 7 and called my mom for the first and last time throughout the trip. It was then that I found out that my youngest brother had gotten into the University of California at Berkeley, which I took immediately as a good omen.
I had somehow acquired some saddle-soreness during my last few days in California, and it hadn't completely gone away. I worried a bit about it getting worse during the ride, but as I rubbed Noxzema into the seat of my shorts, I was mostly happy to be out and about. Our first breakfast in the UK was characteristic of all our other breakfasts: eggs, toast, cereal, milk, orange juice, and fruit. With such a huge breakfast, it's not surprising that the morning started sluggishly. We packed our panniers, tweaked various things such as fenders and brakes, and mounted the panniers on our bikes and left.
The Carradice panniers were quite a bit of a pain to mount on Blackburn style racks. Mostly, this was because the metal clips that Grant Petersen (of Rivendell Bicycle Works) had supplied with the panniers interfered with proper mounting, especially when fenders were also mounted. Our solution: bend the fender spokes.
Some of you may recall that I've given up on using the pannier attachment system that comes by default on the Cannondale Overland panniers. I now use a bungee cord that wraps round the rack and the panniers instead. Embarrassingly enough, I had not gone 10 yards when I realized that I'd switched the left and right panniers, resulting in my heels contacting the panniers every pedal stroke. A stop, and a quick switch, and we were off again.
The hotel had given us directions which would take us to Stevenston, and then Adrossan, where the ferry terminal was. We started on Barrhead road and headed out of the city. Looking at the map now, I can see that we were on A736, a fairly busy motorway, before we turned off onto a few B roads. The ride itself was easy, with few short, steep hills, and a light head-wind most of the time. Riding out of town on the wrong side of the road and looking at the design of the houses around me finally hammered home to me the idea that I was actually in Scotland, in a country far away from what I was used to. Little towns, then empty country roads, then more little towns. Whenever we stopped to get our directions confirmed, it was always greeted with a smile and an attempt to help. We got about 10 miles before it started to rain on us. Then it was on with our raincapes, custom made for us by Dorris Taylor. I've had mine for about 2 years, and it's seen me through everything from Seattle rain rides, touring the Oregon Coast, and commuting in California rain (yes, it does rain in California). It's even been run over by a truck once when the cape fell off my rack one rainy day. Sue and Chris had new raincapes, and they thought it was amusing to be wearing bright yellow "chicken outfits" in the rain. You can see a picture of me next to Sue, with her smiling and looking amused, and me just looking plain sick of her and Chris' amusement.
Having spent a late spring coming down the Oregon Coast, I can attest that when it rains, the Oregon Coast looks dreary, miserable, and wet. This is absolutely untrue of any place in Scotland. The clouds might come thick and heavy, but the surrounds are always green, with a roadside waterfall or stream just around the corner, or the distant hills beckoning. So even riding in the rain is quite pleasant, provided that you are warm and have appropriate raingear on.
By and by, we got to Stevenston and took off our raingear just before we got on A78, a wide busy motorway for the last 5 miles into Adrossan on the ferry to Arran (pronounced Air-Ren, with a twinge of a Japanese 'R'). After asking for directions to the ferry, we found that we arrived just as the ferry was dumping out cars. We purchased tickets, and got lost for a bit, before rolling into the car-deck for the first of our seven ferry rides.
The ferry ride took an hour, which was spent eating lunch and looking out into the mist and rain. We met a couple of cycle-tourists who were planning to camp on Kintyre that evening. They suggested that going north on A841 would be prettier and more scenic than the alternative route. Thankfully, the rain had stopped by the time we got off the ferry onto Brodick. The Brodick tourist information center is just outside the terminal, so we stopped there and I went in to see what lodging I could find. It turns out that there were no more accommodations at Lochranza, where we had hoped to spend the night and catch the ferry the next day. The only bed & breakfast left was in Corrie, the Blackrock Guest House and I made a booking right then for that evening.
On route to Corrie, we went by the Brodick castle, an opportunity for a stop. The man at he guardhouse gladly promised to watch after our bikes while we were visiting. Brodick Castle is a big imposing structure, with correspondingly large grounds. Touring the inside certainly impressed us with the sheer amount of money the denizens of that castle commanded. For security reasons, we were not allowed to take photographs inside the castle, thus I have no pictures to jog my memory of what I saw there. I remember passing through a boudoir, a study, several passage ways, dining rooms, all filled with reminders of what they had done. I found the servants quarters the more interesting places to visit, filled with cooking implements, water-driven spits, and a better view of how the commoners lived. It was interesting for me to see what had changed and what had stayed the same.
Then we were out walking the gardens. I went around looking for a maze, until Chris kindly reminded me that those were English, and that I shouldn't think too loud, since the Scots hated being identified with the English and still hated the English with a passion. Then it started drizzling and we went back to our bikes and rode back out towards Corrie. On the way there we passed by a bike shop (being a Sunday, it was the only open bike shop we had seen all day) and I stopped, hoping that Sue could get her brakes adjusted better. But the person at the bike shop was of no help, and so we were forced to ride on to Corrie.
We found the Blackrock Guest House at the north end of Corrie, where we were greeted warmly by the proprietor, David and his wife Mary. We parked the bikes out back, brought up the panniers, and took our showers and changed. Putting on my T-shirt and jeans made me cringe a bit, as I'd slept in those on the plane. But I was glad to be on tour, and it didn't take long before we took a walk outside, and the coolness of the air, together with the beauty of the hills behind us and the sea ahead of us made me forget about everything.
A long walk and fruitless search for a restaurant later, we were back at the guest house, where we asked if it was too late to request dinner be made for us. "Usually," she said, "it would be. But since nobody else has asked for dinner today, if you'll just wait a bit, it will be ready." Apparently, everyone wanted to have dinner at the guest house yesterday, which was a big hassle, so we'd make do with a simple dinner today. We went up to the lounge, where I showed Chris and Sue how to play the game of 99, and before we knew it, dinner was ready.
The sea outside the guest house (which was right by the sea) was angry and stormy, portending the way things would be. Dinner was a lovely meal of lamb chops, with David making jokes with a straight face:
"Once we had a woman who seemed to have left her common sense behind when she went on vacation. She asked me what a good thing to do around here, and I told her that it was customary to drive around the island. 'Where do I start?' she asked. I told her that this place was the official starting point. 'But how do I know when I've gone all the way around the island?' I had no answer for that."
I remember a banana split for dessert. Ah, a good way to end the day. Then we played more cards, had scones and tea, and after moving the bikes into the foyer, went to bed.
I snored with less severity that night.
Wherein friends are made, recommendations accepted, and singletrack roads are first encountered.
The day started well enough, with sunshine over breakfast, but just as panniers were being mounted on the bicycles, it started raining. More ominously, a couple of cyclists passed us, saying, "don't bother." Sue had to get another picture of "us 3 chickens", and persuaded Mary to take a picture of us. I still fail to see what's so amusing about those raincapes, but I must not have much of a sense of humor or something.
Sue and Chris went up ahead while I messed around with my bike, my gloves, and various other sundries. Then I got on the bike and chased. The pass started right outside Corrie, and I was glad to go roll through various hills. Soon, the trees and houses gave away to a grand view of the mountains ahead of us. At a bend in the road, Sue and Chris had stopped to take photographs and it was there where I caught them. To the left of us. several streams had filled to the full, and we could see several falls. I'm sure we would have heard them too, if the storm had not drowned out the sound. Chris and I then pushed quickly up the hill. Climbing the pass in a raincape is an exercise in putting up being in tent that's slowly heating up. I can't imagine doing what we did in a rainsuit (rainpants + waterproof jacket). We had a moderate tailwind pushing us up the mountain. One thing to be thankful for was that with the storm, there wasn't much traffic in either direction, though when we encountered some, it was quite a nuisance.
We crested the pass in about 20 minutes or so, and began the frightening descent towards Lochranza. With completely wet rims, and strong sidewinds, I felt like I had no choice but to descend cautiously. I was probably being too cautious, but when you don't know what might hit you around the corner, I think it's better to play it safe. As it was, Sue finally caught us in the final stretch. We then rode together into Lochranza, where suddenly a bunch of cars passed us. It dawned on me that they must all have been heading for the ferry, just as we were. Rolling into town, we passed a little girl going in the same direction, and to the right of us, a small ferry braving the waters into the terminal.
The ferry from Lochranza to Claonig is a small, open air ferry. With a bit of rain, it would feel more than a little exposed, but fortunately, the rain had died down by the time we got into it, and midway through the 30 minute crossing, there was even a bit of sun. We doffed our raingear and put on our jackets. Chris found an engine port that was warm in the upper deck, and Sue and him spent sometime by it, trying to stay warm. I did not feel like braving the winds in the upper deck even for the warmth.
The crossing was fortunately over before we knew it. On the other side, we got out to our very first sight of a single-track road. At this time, I was so excited about finding one that I insisted on a photograph, but it would turn out that more than half of our riding would be on single-track roads. This particular one was under reconstruction, however, and was rocky and gravelly, with sections that where people were working on it as we rode by. The traffic wasn't too bad, but on a road that narrow, any traffic was bad. Cloanig itself was not in sight, and I don't think it must have been a town of any size at all.
We climbed up along B8001, heading towards Whitehead. At one point I turned around, and look. Patches of sunlight lit up the Kilbrannan Sound and pieces of the land behind us. All around us, hills undulated way into the distance, patches of green and gray. Wild and beautiful country indeed. We stopped a bit at the top to adjust various fenders. I got tired of opening up my saddlebag to get at the crescent wrench, and transferred it to one of my panniers. Then it was a long, fast, rolling descent towards Whiteshead. There, we turned right along A83, which is a narrow busy two-lane that got more busy after we passed the ferry terminal at Whiteshead. Lorry after lorry unloaded from the ferry and zipped past us, giving me some scary moments. I called a stop as soon as we found a driveway to turn off into to let the traffic by us.
Before the coast was clear, however, 2 helmetless cyclists on a mountain bike and a hybrid rolled past us. "Locals!" I thought to myself, and when a lull in the traffic came, I gave chase. That was how we made contact with David and Marna Howie. Rolling up to them I first spoke with Marna, then David, telling them that we were from the San Francisco area. "I worked in San Francisco for Pacific Rail for a few years," said David. We chatted about San Francisco, about the weather, and where they were from. It turned out that they were from Skelmorlie, cross the Firth of Clyde from the Isle of Butte, and they were heading towards Tarbert to get onto ferry on the way to that very island. This was a 3 day tour for them.
We pulled over at Tarbert, where I pulled out my map and they told us about the area. "See over here, that's Dunadd, which is where Scotland began. Over here is Crinan, where they have Canal locks, and it's fun to go by to see the yachts go by this time of year. You can also ride up the coast of Argyll into Inverary, where there's a youth hostel. Hostels are the best way to go. Lots of friendly people, 5 pound a night a person, and they're just about cycling distance apart. From Inverary you can ride on to Oban, or you can do that from Crinan. When you get to Oban, if you get a chance you should visit Lismore --- it's a limestone island." We asked them about lunch, and they pointed to a hotel. "Most hotels around here serve a bar lunch, which is usually cheap and a good way eat for cheap."
We invited them to join us for lunch, but they wanted to check the ferry, so we sauntered over there, and sat down for lunch, and were joined shortly by David and Marna, who found that they had time for lunch after all. We chatted and exchanged business cards in the smoky bar --- for some reason, I didn't feel like eating much. Even in Scotland, the Internet was an embarrassingly trendy thing to mention, so when I mentioned that we were to meet Scarlet in Mallaig, they oohed and ahhed. I encouraged them to send me e-mail if possible, but I think that it was still a bit of a myth for them. An hour later, it was time to ride on.
The road from Tarbert towards Cairnbaan went along the shores of Loch Fyne, a rolling 14 mile ride assisted by a tailwind. There was enough rain along the route that we had to put on and remove raingear several times. In Cairnbaan, Chris went off to look for a phone to call his parents, and I stood by and ate a powerbar, the one item Chris had brought way too much of. The banana powerbar tastes very much like a kind of sweet I once had as a kid. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my taste for that sweet.
When Chis returned, he had decided that Crinan would be a good destination. Chris wanted to se Dunadd the next day, history buff that he was. So it was Westward bound along narrow but smooth B841 along the Crinan canal. We climbed up a short steep climb, and found out from a local that there weren't any bed and breakfasts in the area, and the only feasible lodging was the Crinan hotel. Well, we were committed. A fast descent later, and we were in the porch of Crinan hotel watching our bikes get a wash from one of those periodic downpours. Chris got us the last 2 rooms in the hotel (yes, it was ridiculously expensive, but it included dinner and breakfast), and we unloaded the bikes and dropped them by a stairwell.
A shower, and a laundry call. I gave them my pair of jeans and T-shirt, as well as a couple of pairs of socks. Dinner at the Crinan hotel was delicious, and we would remember it as the best meal in the entire tour. All through this, the sun would on occasion peak out from behind the clouds, spotlighting Loch Chrinan, and the various islands and peninsulas that we could look out onto from where we were.
I was concerned with how much this trip was going to cost if we were going to persist on staying at luxurious hotels, and mentioned this to Chris. He agreed. I hoped that we would find lodging at more hostels and B&Bs from then on. "Dude," he said, "if I can afford this, you can. You don't even own a car!"
Wherein our troubles start. I break a deraileur. We finally find lodging at a hostel. Our first highland performance. The first distillery we see but are fated not to visit. Highlands.
One should never let a hotel laundry service get ones' socks, I reflected when the cleaners brought back 3 of my socks, clean if slightly damp jeans and my one T-shirt. Fortunately, socks were the one item that I had extra of. I left them my address in the USA, so they could mail the singleton sock back to me if they eventually found it.
For once it was not raining when we started. "I'm holding out for not putting on our raingear," said Sue. "I'm going for just once," I said, "but it'll stay on the whole day." I quickly put on my panniers and left quickly. B8025, a nice single lane country lane, greeted us. 5 miles later, we linked up with A83 again near Kilmartin, and a consultation of the map made us realized that we had overshot Dunadd. But the ride was so good I could not begrudge those miles.
A couple more wrong turns later, and I faced a gravel road leading down towards a non-descript hill. At the end of the road, I was greeted by Sue and Chris (who had gone ahead of me), with a couple of new friends, Scottish folk, though they had helmets. The hill where the fort used to stand was bathed in sunlight, while we had clouds al around us. Standing at the top gave one a combination of wind-burn as well as the glare of the sun. Photographs all around, and a look at where a boot was carved into the stone. Farms abound around us, right to the foot of the hill.
Getting back onto A83, I felt a finally snap on my shifter, and suddenly the pedaling became much easier. Looking down at the front deraileur, I noticed that it was on the granny gear. I shifted. Nothing happened. That's when I knew that the deraileur cable had broken. I pulled off to a sidestreet, and with Chris holding my bike, removed the front deraileur, duct-taped the cable-housing to the bike, and locked the bike into the middle chainring. No problem. Sue had gone up ahead, and Chris and I had to reel her in. Time for some quality pacelining lessons, I thought. I gave Chris some tips on pacelining, and soon we were working smoothly together, making good time, and quickly caught Susan.
Past Kilmartin, we started up the first of several climbs in the sun. Ah, finally, a use for my sunglasses. We were finally entering Argyll, and I could see hills left, right, and ahead of me, Loch Awe to the right, Loch Melfort in the distance. A descent, several bridges brought us into Glenmore. The sky started to cloud over. Up ahead, the road climbed beside a lake, and I could see an ominous sign read "1 in 8" up ahead. I did a quick computation in my head. About a 12% grade. Chris steadily pulled ahead of me in low gear, and I resigned myself to climbing the grade in my middle as far as possible. The pass of Melfort isn't easy, but I didn't have to stand up for more than a couple of stretches, so it wasn't too bad. I was happy to reach the top without having to stop or shift the chain with my forefinger as described in the Rivendell Reader #1.
We stopped at the top to wait for Sue, and as I munched into a Stoker bar, realized that we hadn't had lunch that day. Well, I just felt like pushing on to Oban. A couple of mountain bikers came up the pass. Then Sue, huffing and puffing. "Here," said Chris, "eat something and you'll feel better." "I'm so sorry for holding you guys up." "Oh, shut up and quit apologizing. We didn't wait all that long." Another mountain biker reached the top and we chatted. They were heading for Oban, just as we were.
We brought out the map, and looked. Yep, few Lochs, and maybe a few rolling hills, then right into Oban. Not bad. The mist was starting to form up. I took off my glasses, and started the fast rolling descent. Farms, lambs and sheep around me (oh boy, I was getting hungry), lochs, rivers, and I was going fast enough to be getting damp. A stop at the junction with B8003, waiting for the others to catch up, and then a push on. Oban was less than 10 miles away from here, so I turned on the power a bit and stomped up the hills as I came by them. Then before I knew it, it was up a long steep hill, that showed off the surrounding regions, the homes increasing in density. Getting closer. A descent, so fast and furious that my eyes teared up and forced me to stop at a bus-stop, where Chris caught me. I was hungry and tired and didn't want to bother waiting for Sue. Followed the "tourist information" signs into town. A couple of bad directions courtesy of the locals (the Scots are really bad at directions) and in spite of that we found it.
"Think Sue will know that we'll head straight for Tourist Information?" "I doubt it. I'll go back for her." "Well, if I'm not here, I must be at the bank or hunting for lodging. Just wait here." "Aye..."
Never ask, "where's the Youth Hostel" in Oban, because the inevitable question will come: "which one?" I was given directions to 3 of them, several banks and a bike shop. I headed for the closest hostel, which was right around the corner. Down came Jeremy, what a lot of energy this guy had. He stuck us into a room with 6 beds. Quite nice. It was the last room in the hostel. Showed me everything, gave me keys. Bikes in the open area where the garbage cans were. Well, for 7 quid a night I can't complain. He also gave me 2 coupons for McTavish's Kitchen, "the person who won the highlands singing awards last year will be singing tonight with us," he said, "it's 3 pound for the show, but if you eat at the restaurant, you can show them this and they'll let you stay for the show for free." Sounded like a deal to me. I was hungry, hungry, hungry.
Back to the tourist information, where Sue and Chris were waiting. Dumped the bags, took my bike out, and we went to the money exchange to change some money. Whatever it was they did, Sue and Chris cleaned out those guys, because by the time I got to them, they only had 40 pounds left to give me. Then I rode over to the bike shop, gave the guy my deraileur. "Come back in an hour, around 5." It was four o'clock. We went back to the hostel and hit the showers. Or rather, the baths, since that was all that was available. The water wasn't terribly clear, but enough to take a shower and wash my clothes in.
By the time we were all done, it was 5, and I could run over and grab my bike. Four pounds to install a deraileur and put in a new cable. Good price. Looking around the bike shop, I realized that mine was the only non-mountain bike in there. I guess the mountain bike revolution had taken over in the UK too. Parked the bike in the hostel (carefully covering up the leather saddle), and took a walk before the dinner would be available.
Oban's a pretty town, with a tiny downtown area. Walking around the shops, we spied a Kilt/Suit set in a window. Oh my goodness 300 pounds for a Kilt? I guess my brother's not getting one as a present. A walk by the docks. Some youth group is preparing to sail off for a few days among the islands. "The weather's not supposed to be bad at all, for the next few days," the leader told me. Good, I thought. I could do with some good weather for a change.
Back to McTavish's Kitchen, where they seated us near the window, looking out upon the islands. Not a busy port scene, but it was nice and peaceful. We all ate big dinners, with Chris starting off with a (brace yourselves) haggis. A taste of his was the only haggis I had all through the trip, though not because it tasted bad. They're actually quite good, but for some reason I always felt like eating something else.
Then the show began. The dancing is very stylized, very formal. The singer did have a beautiful voice. But I was pretty worn out that day. Bagpipes? Well, what can I say. They sound like the substitute for military drums that they are. Loud, shrill, and I'd be unhappy if I had to hear it too often. All of a sudden it was 10:20, I was tired, and headed back to the hostel alone to sleep.
Wherein 2 ferry crossings were made in a single day, and where Piaw almost went back to Glasgow. Sunshine and rain, and the best single 20 miles of my life.
We got up in the morning at 7, early enough to get everything ready and for me to get to the bank to get rid of the rest of my traveler's checks before getting to the ferry terminal. My Brooks B-17 had gotten completely soaked through the night before, despite the nylon saddle cover. The nice thing, though was that I'd found that all the saddle soreness I started the trip with was now all gone. Noxema really does work. I suspect that what had happened was that the chamois on my shorts had dried out and created friction between the seat of the shorts and my butt. What the skin cream actually did was to restore flexibility and smoothness to the chamois. The saddle cover thing really didn't provide anywhere close to enough protection without a layer of Scotch-guard or Tectron, and I'll have to remember to waterproof this item in the future.
It was misty and rainy at the ferry terminal, and a relief to get onto the ferry. Some time was spent going through a second round of munchies, and everyone felt better. Looking outside the windows provided some entertainment as we passed islands, saw gulls follow the ferry (people on ferries feed them, so that's not too surprising), and generally whiled the time away. When Duart Point Castle appeared on a land mass on the port side of the ferry, we knew that our destination was near.
We left the ferry into a darkened sky, with sunshine on the other side of the sound, on the mainland. I was very very tempted to take the ferry to Ardtornish. We spent some time chatting with other cyclists who were heading for Fort William while waiting for the cars to unload from the ferry. Sue, who's the most postcard-happy tourist I've ever met, went into the post office to get stamps.
I was impatient to be off before the sky opened up on us, and once Sue got back, we started off right away, and I took off at full speed. Since we had a second ferry to catch, and miles to go, I wanted to catch the 1:30 ferry. It started drizzling, and then started really raining as we passed Fishnish Bay, where the ferry to Ardtornish was. But Chris insisted on going on to Tobermory, and it would turn out that I would be grateful for that decision. We stopped and put on rain capes and went on. I swept on ahead, and soon the rain slowed down a bit, and I saw a cyclist come up the other way. His name was Christopher (or Christophe, I never got it quite right), and he was heading for Oban from Tobermory. I asked him about the weather. "It's not bad, over after the next bit." Good. I doffed my raincape. Sue asked about hills. "There's a couple of small ones after the next town, but it's not bad at all."
With that bit of encouragement, we went on. I rode into Salen (not to be confused with Salen on the mainland), and encountered a bit of road construction. I was unwilling to put up with the delay and rode up to the construction vehicles and followed them as they went along. The smell of newly laid asphalt was quite awful, though. Fortunately, the weather looked like it was getting better. Sue and Chris caught up, and soon after that the construction trucks pulled over and let us through. With all those cars and impatient drivers stuck behind us, I wasn't willing to wait around to get run over, and once again took off until we hit the junctions with some unnumbered roads. Then the climbs started. Looking at the map, I don't think we ever exceeded 500' in elevation while we were on Mull, but given the rolling terrain and the steepness of the hills, it felt like we did something like 1500' of climbing. Chris caught up with me for a while, and we stopped to take pictures, but I was unwilling to wait because of the ferry. Besides, the sun had come out, and the climbing felt so good that I simply could not bear the idea of stopping.
"I don't think we're going to make the ferry, Piaw" said Chris. I was not willing to give up on that yet! I put the bike in the 38x34, and stomped up another hill, dropping Chris. (Yes, I was feeling really strong that day) The least 10 miles were gorgeous, since you could see all the way to the mainland across the sound, and there were enough clouds to create beautiful spotlight effects on the hills on the other side. The descents were fast, though I'll admit that I felt a sinking feeling in my heart when I saw a ferry come in from a distance. "Sheesh, I don't know if we'll make this." But there were lots of cars passing me, and I took that as a good sign that many people expected to make that ferry with reasonable time to spare. What would I have done if I caught the ferry and Sue and Chris didn't? I probably would have left some information on the other side to the effect that I was going to go look for accommodations and they'd just catch up with me in the evening and could take the day at leisure. This probably would not have been a good idea, given that I'd not told anybody of that plan, but I guess given enough adrenaline and endorphins in your bloodstream, any hare-brained scheme would look good.
I hammered and hammered, and then saw the "2 miles to Tobermory" sign. "Mostly downhill now," some passerby said to me. Good. But what a downhill. Steep and twisty, I did not feel like risking it or hanging it out enough to just let go and go all out. Then a series of rollers and a badly maintained road down to downtown Tobermory. I saw the ferry still in the dock, and sprinted for it, and got to it just as they were lifting the ramp to pull away. "No!!" I howled. I was so close! "Don't worry," said one of the crew, "we'll lay it down again for the garbage." "Oh." I felt a bit embarrassed about making such a fuss. "Hey, where're you going anyway?" "Kill-Chuan," I said, knowing that I was mangling the name. "Oh, the Kill-Hone ferry? You want that small one, over there. We're going to Glasgow." He pointed to a small open-air ferry sitting a couple of hundred yards away, making no signs of taking off. Well, if I was embarrassed before, I must have turned completely red then. "Ah. Thanks." I got back onto my bike and rolled to the other ferry.
It turned out that I had about half an hour to spare, so I spent some time talking to various other people at the terminal. There was a couple going towards Mallaig, and I asked them to take a message for me to the post office there. I had arranged to meet Scarlet at Mallaig on the 1st or 2nd of June, and I had told her to leave a message at the Post Office, then the ferry terminal. This, by the way, explains my impatience. I usually get this way when I commit to being at a certain place at a certain time.
Now that I was at the ferry terminal and no longer under time pressure, I could appreciate the ride I just did. "That was a pretty good ride," I thought. Nice and fast, and the weather was cool enough that the climbing was fun, and the water and hills made a pretty sight. Chris showed up 10 minutes later, and Sue about 5 minutes after him. "You were really cranking," he said. "Yep, almost caught the wrong ferry too!" And I told him what happened. "Well, I'm real glad you didn't, because I wouldn't have known what to do if you'd done that." "I would have just taken the train to Mallaig and met up with you guys there." "I wouldn't have known that." "Hm.." In retrospect, it would have been a pretty stupid idea.
The lone car at the dock started backing into the ferry, and we loaded the bikes, followed by the foot passengers. Ah, a warm day in a nice ferry crossing. We were all hungry, given there wasn't any time to grab lunch before the ferry crossing. But the ferry crossing was mercifully short, though the ferry was so low that the spray frequently got to our bikes. Lots of picture taking, and I spent some time talking to a couple on a Jack Taylor tandem.
Once in Kilchoan, we set out to look for lunch. The Jack Taylor couple told us about a hotel that might have a bar lunch, and we followed them out to the intersection with B8007 where they waved us in the right direction. I noticed that there was a Tourist Information center going the other way, and suggested that I visit it after lunch to make a reservation at a B&B. Lunch was good, and the hotel decor was interesting. It's about a hundred years old, and all around us we could see relics from its history. There were signs with rules like, "no boots allowed in bed."
I ate quickly, and rode on quickly to the tourist information center, which was a trailer set at the junction that we passed earlier. An old lady greeted me, and asked me if I needed help. I asked her about lodging, and she found space for us at the Salen hotel. With that behind us, I asked about places to visit, and she said, "not on the way to Salen --- this one's private. But tomorrow, you can visit the one at Cul Doirlnn. You can stop by for tea at Glenbeg." I bought a picture book. Sue and Chris showed up as I was stuffing it into my pannier.
We headed towards Salen. . Sue's bike was squeaking when she cranked on it hard, but we couldn't tell why, and it didn't seem to be doing anything bad, so we decided to let it go until we got to the hotel. This single-track road first curves to the north, climbing in a gentle undulating way around the thousand foot hill that blocked our view of the water. But upon turning the corner, you could see a long straight road with few curves leading into the distance. You'd then come up around Ben Hiant, a 1700' hill. Turning the corner past that, and you'd get your first sight of the Ocean, with a downhill ahead of you that would go on forever. The sky above us was cloudy, with few holes in it, but the light that did come through gave the place a beautiful gentle glow, unlike anything else I had ever seen --- I have no words for it. We stopped several times to take pictures, though Sue went on ahead, alone. "Oh, this is gorgeous."
And the downhill. Those of you in the Bay Area know about Canada road in Santa Clara county. If you traverse Canada road in the right direction, it is absolutely fantastic. Rolling descent that you can take at full speed, with the climbing part of the rolls so gentle you could stay in your big chainring, prolonging the downhill and making it last longer. Now imagine Canada road extended and with pretty valleys by the road side, with sheer drop-offs into the sea, and a romantic misty light.
Those 10 miles went by too quickly, and we ended up at the tea place, where we looked around. I bought a couple of good looking postcards, feeling extravagant. (This was my postcardless tour --- I just bought the postcards because they looked rather nice) Then, we sat down and had some hot chocolate, and pow-wowed with each other by how good the riding was today.
Then it was back on the bike again, with about 10 miles to Salen to go. Rolling terrain, past a private Castle. This is amazingly good cycling, especially if you were strong enough to use each downhill to propel you up the next hill, and then push hard a bit to crest it. The road weaves and turns inland a bit, and then trees and other shrubbery would interrupt your view of Loch Sunart, but then a swooping descent would suddenly bring you right by the banks, and you would be treated to a fresh view of the loch, different from every other view of it that you had seen already. I was happy to be just riding. That day, I wished the ride would go on forever.
But quickly, too quickly, we were in Salen, and riding through town to the top of the hill, where the road met A861, where the Salen hotel stood, overlooking the loch. We were greeted by nice friendly people, who quickly found room in a shed for our bicycles. I took the opportunity to examine all the bikes. I looked very carefully at Sue's bike, a Trek 520 with LX parts, and realized that the cause of the squeaking must have been the rubber gasket on the rear hub rubbing on the metal. A few drops of TriFlow into that and the problem was solved for the rest of the trip. This was definitely something that I would have overlooked, and it was definitely a tribute to the thoroughness of Cyclecraft, the bike shop that Chris went to on my recommendation, that his bike, also a Trek 520, did not exhibit the same problem. I checked my own bike and found a piece of glass lodged into my rear tire. I could remove it and risk causing a flat right then, or I could ignore it and wait for it to eventually blow. Given that I would probably have to change the tube in any case, I decided on the latter course of action.
A shower, and then we were having a nice big lunch right next to a couple who were visiting from the Isle of Skye. I quite forgot their names, but the man would greet us at the bar where we had lunch in Uig, when we eventually visited Skye.
Wherein we visit our first ruined castle, and meet a new friend along the way. Sue has a pacelining accident. We meet a French Canadian, and also, Scarlet Tang, completing our group of four.
It was a little cloudy as we started out that morning, but it was with high spirits that I greeted A861. After all, I was quite certain that we would make it to Mallaig that day, and the clouds seemed to be thinning out ahead of us. A short climb and a descent brought us to a junction before a bridge, where we headed left towards what was hopefully a castle. 10 minutes later, I asked a woman walking two dogs along the road whether this was the right road, and she shook her head. "You can see it from here, but you won't be able to get to it. You want to go back there, turn left, and turn left again after you cross the Bridge." Damn. Well, nothing to do but to ride back that way. It looked like it was clearing, though. I started humming a tune to myself, and then realized what it was, and I chuckled.
"All right, what is it, Piaw?"
"Oh, I just realized what I was humming..."
" `Where the Streets Have No Name', by U2. Kinda appropriate, isn't it?"
He couldn't resist, and started actually singing the words.
Back on A861, and halfway across the Bridge, I see a helmet and a Bianchi mountain bike. "Ah ha! A North American tourist," I thought to myself. I could not resist. I pulled up next to her, stopped, and asked, "Are you going to the castle?" "Yes," she said with a shy, winning smile. "Well, we were told that we're supposed to turn left over there," I pointed to the junction past the Bridge. Chris and Sue caught up and introduced themselves. "Well, you're welcome to join us for this bit if you like," I said, before rudely getting back on my bike and heading off along the road.
The road rolled along, and was level for a bit, and then started steeply climbing. Chris started explaining the strategic importance of castles, and where one would put one while I huffed and puffed up the hill. Quite a master strategist, that man. Soon, we crested the top of the hill, and I could see the castle, standing at what seemed like an Island off the shore. Were we fooled? The descent took us right into a parking lot, and from there we saw that the castle was built on a rocky foundation that was connected to the land only via a sandbank that could conceivably be underwater during the high tide. Definitely a good location for something impregnable. The only way out from the parking lot onto the sand bank was barred by a gate that said "private property", with space next to it that a bicycle could pass through. "Don't know about you guys, but I'm not concerned about breaking the law." I rode right in. Well, the trail soon ended in a mess of tree roots and sand, so I quickly lifted my bike and parked it behind some trees.
"By the way, what's your name?" Sue asked the lady on the Bianchi.
"Oh, my name is Nancy Hori."
"Are you Japanese?" asked Chris.
"Nihongo o hanasemasu ka?" I jumped in. Do you speak Japanese?
"Oh no, I don't speak Japanese at all," she said. Everyone laughed. "Lots of Japanese tourists often try to speak to me in Japanese and get extremely frustrated."
"To tell the truth, neither do I."
"Well, you were going quite well for a while there."
"I know just enough Japanese to get into trouble. I too get bothered by Japanese tourists, despite being Chinese and looking Chinese."
It turned out that Nancy was from Vancouver, British Columbia, and was on a 4 week tour of Scotland. "See? See? Everyone else takes longer vacations than we do." I felt like I had to rib Sue and Chris about not taking more time off, since I wanted to take 3 weeks off for Scotland. When Nancy took off her helmet, we could see that she had nice short hair. "It's just practical --- it's bad enough carrying tools on a tour." She was quite an experienced tourist, and suggested a couple of places in Nova Scotia that I should do when I get the chance. She had never toured with a group, always having gone solo. I made a mental note to invite her on my next trip.
We walked steadily towards the castle, occasionally slipping and sliding in the sand. Upon reaching the start of the rocky section, I took off and bounced and hopped up towards the castle, slipping on occasion. In my impatience I headed towards the left side of the castle, hoping to go around it to the entrance. Behind me I heard laughter, and Sue's voice: "Yes, Piaw has a lot of energy." Alas, that way into the castle was blocked.
Time to try the other way, and this time we could get in. The place was gutted. You know how they have all those building facades in Hollywood, where you could just film the outside but the buildings actually were literally just a front? Well, this castle was like that, except that you could tell there used to be an inside. There were stone patterns along the floor that told you what the floor plan used to be like. Maybe a bedroom here, a latrine there, staircases here, a fire place there. There were a few fire rings in the castle that told us that this place is indeed used as a campsite by various people.
Photographs later, we were back to our bikes.
"Where are you headed today, Nancy?"
"Lochailort. But there's a Mission between here and Lochailort that I want to visit." She pointed to a spot on the map. Definitely someone who did her homework before touring. She had a detailed description of various spots held in paper inside her handlebar bag. If I was touring alone and with no obligations, I would probably have abandoned the day's ride and hung with her that day, since she certainly seemed like she knew what she was doing. But we were committed to getting to Mallaig. "Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep" and all that. Well, Nancy agreed to ride with us until her turnoff.
I took off at a good clip, and the others followed. With the sky clearing and the gentle rolling terrain we had, we had no problems going above 15 miles per hour. I felt good, and really enjoyed the ride, and the others didn't seem to have any trouble staying with me. It even got warm enough for us to remove our jackets, and for my sunglasses to come in handy again. The climb started in earnest, and too quickly, I came to a stop at a junction in the road, and waited for Nancy and Sue to catch up. "I guess this is where you leave us," I said to Nancy. "So quickly?" She looked to the right and looked at us. From her expression, I guessed that she was having second thoughts about leaving us. She checked her directions and map again, and said, "well, I don't want to risk missing anything..." Darn. Well, we had already exchanged addresses. "We'll send you photographs!" Sue said. Then all we could see was her helmet and her panniers, going down that hill. Nothing to do now but to keep going.
Up, up, and up. Then a quick fast descent that had Chris wishing for his glasses. I waited at the bottom for everyone. "Ok, let's shoot for Lochailort for lunch." There was a stiff headwind, and Chris and I started a paceline, with Sue tagging at the back. Speed's about 12mph, since any faster than that and we'd drop Sue. Rolling along quite nicely, and then while I was drafting Chris at some point, I felt something touch my rear wheel. OOPS! Sue had overlapped her front wheel with my rear and crashed. She was sprawled all over the road! Quickly picked up her bike. "Hey, you ok?" No answer. Oh my god, she's just lying there all over the road. Chris came over and tended to her. She's quite shaken, but still ok, nothing broken. Gave her some Advil, give her time to rest. No more pacelining today. "Ok, get on that bike. Otherwise, you're going to find it hard to ride again."
The road turned away from Loch Moidart, and started a climb, something that I was grateful for, since it shielded us from the wind. Then a descent into Glenuig, which I zipped through, and then stopped a couple of miles later, where I greeted a couple going the other way, asking me if Glenuig was near. I nodded. We chatted a bit, and then Sue and Chris came up. I then made the mistake of not eating lunch with the couple (it felt a bit early for lunch, but with the accident from before, it would have been a good rest break too), and made a decision to push on to Lochailort.
Rolling hills along the coast, but the Ardnish peninsula protected us from the worst of the wind, and I still felt good. Dark clouds were coming in, however, lending the day a depressing look. Looking out along Loch Ailort, we could see little islands in the middle of the loch, but soon our attention was taken up with the drizzle that was beginning to form on our faces. But Lochailort was near, and I hoped to be able to outwait the storm by having lunch there.
No luck. Lochailort, at the intersection of A830 and A861, was a ghost town, and the only hotel/pub/bar was deserted. "No food for at least 7 miles" I was told by someone. Onward and upward. Into the drizzle. Gravel and other construction abound through the road, as I climbed up. There's a view point marked on this road, but I think I must have missed it in all the drizzle. Chris was the first to catch up with me, and soon the drizzle stopped. But I could see someone up ahead, walking his bike. Well, if he's walking I'm going to catch him real soon, I thought. But then as soon as he turned his head and saw us, he got back onto his bike again and started pedaling. No matter. He was carrying enough that he wasn't going very fast. We caught him and said Hi.
His name was Jean, and he was a French Canadian. I was too hungry to ask him about much else and passed him in search of food, followed swiftly by Chris. Soon enough, we came up to a hotel that looked like it might serve food. Chris waited up there while I went down the gravel road to see if lunch was available. Too late, the posh-looking host told me. Back up there and Jean had caught us again. This time the three of us would ride together. The rain got heavier and heavier, until finally we were in Arisaig. A cafe! Park the bikes, then saunter in looking like something the cat brought in, and order food as nonchalantly as one can do while dripping all over the floor. Chris went back to fetch Sue in case she got lost. I was mostly through dinner by the time the others received their orders, and I found out that Jean was heading for a youth hostel between here and Mallaig. I wished I'd known about that hostel. Jean was also an experienced cycle-tourist, and cheered us with stories about how he had brought his tent (sure enough, his bike was loaded all the way down with this stuff) just in case the youth hostels turned him away because he was no longer a youth. (He was at least 30) His simulations of a teeth-chattering night spent in a tent was hilarious and sobering. So far, we've been extremely lucky with lodging, and I hoped that our luck would continue to hold up.
I still wanted to get to Mallaig before the post office closed, and so pushed on ahead while the others were still having lunch, promising to meet them at the post office. What do you know, the Sun was up, though the wind was strengthening, if anything. It was a frightful, horrible push, up steep roads with lots of loose gravel, along sandy beaches, and into the wind. For the first time on this trip, I slipped into a granny for a 1 in 8, because I had so little traction. I'd had my big crash in 1992 on a road like this, and did not feel like risking my life overly. After all, how hard could it be to find another Chinese person in a town as small as Mallaig?
But still, I was grateful when that "2 miles to Mallaig" sign came up, though I was still sorely irritated at having to pedal downhill and only achieving 15mph. A question at a gas station, and I was at the post office. Without a query, the person behind the counter handed me the note I wrote to Scarlet the day before. Damn! What a flake. She didn't even get here. This was the scenario I was afraid of. Well, down to the tourist information to look for a B&B that would take us. Nope, there was nothing available, but maybe the youth hostel across the street would take us. Ah, this was Sheena's Backpacker's Lodge. Park bike outside, walked in, rang the bell. The manager walked out, and again, without having to ask a question, she handed me a note labeled, "For Piaw Na":
1 June 1995
I hope you get this note and that you haven't decided to stay on Mull forever. I'm here in Mallaig. I'll check the ferry terminal every hour on the hour. If I don't meet up with you, I'll stay in Mallaig again tonight, then take the 900 ferry to the Isle of Skye, where I will ride to Pomfree (sp?). Hope to meet up with you and your friends!
Relief. The look on my face said, "Where is she?" "She's somewhere around town, probably shopping for something or looking for you," replied the manager. "Well, do you have room for 3 more of us?" "Sure. I'll put you in the same room as her." I took care of the details, walked out, and rolled my bike over to the fence to lock it up. Hm. Well, she's in town all right. Black Bridgestone MB-5 with a Brooks women's saddle with the word "presoftened" embossed in the leather. I pulled out my lock and looked up just in time to catch a Chinese girl with glasses walk out of the tourist information center. Our eyes met, and she smiled and said something I didn't quite catch. I unloaded my bike and she came up.
"You must be Piaw."
"Scarlet Tang, I presume?"
"Have you found a good place to eat around here?"
"Hm... that's quite a British turn of phrase, you know?"
We'd had an argument about whether I had a certain British phrasing in my e-mail. Well, it's her all right, and I was glad to have found her. I locked my bike and she helped me with my panniers. It turned out that she'd ignored my directions and only checked the ferry terminal for messages, rather than the post office first. When I saw her, she'd just bought a map at the tourist information center because she thought for sure we weren't going to show. "Oh ye of little faith," I castigated, handing her a bunch of Travelmaster maps and a Rivendell Reader. That's me, a traveling salesman/evangelist for Grant.
Soon we were chatting happily and walking up to the post office waiting for Chris and Sue to show up. Given how much time had been spent moving things around and getting acquainted and such, we didn't wait long before Chris showed up, and 10 minutes later, Sue showed up.
Scarlet's second generation Chinese American, about 5' 4", with a single blue eye that's disconcerting when you first look at her, but you do get used to it pretty quick. When asked why she was touring England and Scotland, she would reply that it's because that's where her literary roots were --- all the stories she read as a kid. She knew just enough Mandarin for me to teach her the fun stuff, like how to curse and swear, and what degradatory terms you could use for different situations. But we didn't get that far that day. That day, I just taught her terms that my brothers and I would sometimes use, like CGD, CWD, and CPL. We chatted about BOB stuff, and gear head stuff, and I told her a little of what had happened before we met up with her. She wasn't planning to stay with us the rest of Scotland, she was planning to leave us at Ullapool for England. I secretly hoped that she would change her mind when we got to Ullapool, for she seemed a pleasant sort.
Then time to bed. I got interrupted in my sleep by Scarlet returning from a ride. (Hey, it stays light till 11pm, so a ride after dinner gives you plenty of daylight) Hm. Despite having had 2 bicycle repair classes and hence knowing everything there is to know about bearings, overhauling hubs, bottom brackets, and replacing cables, she has interesting gaps in her knowledge, like how to use a chain tool, or to remove a stiff link using a Rivoli chaintool. I showed her how, gave her a spare patch-kit (she'd given away her vulcanizing fluid during a race she'd entered before joining us), and went back to sleep.
Wherein an easy day is declared, and turns out not to be the case. The Clan MacDonald center is visited as Chris seeks out his roots. I get the first flat of the trip.
It was a cold and rainy morning that greeted us when we woke up. Well, we had agreed for it to be a short day anyway, so it won't be bad. Scarlet bought a hopscotch ticket for Harris and Lewis as well as Skye. That wasn't in my plan, but going along with the flow, we followed suit.
A short ferry ride, but still enough time to have a quick hot breakfast. Scarlet stared at us, amazed that it was possible to eat so much even after a huge dinner. I smiled smugly. Having breakfast in me always made me feel like I could do anything. Off the ferry, and a rush to the Armadale Youth Hostel, where we checked in, dumped the gear, and immediately rode off to the Clan MacDonald center, despite a bunch of wrong turns caused through impatience by yours truly.
A tour, video show, and visits to a museum and a study center later, the weather was suddenly better, and we headed over to the Bayview Bistro by the ferry terminal for lunch. Chris wanted to ride over to Kylerhea, to ferry over to see the Brochs (round houses of apparent historical interest), but I didn't think there was enough time left in the day to do it. And it wouldn't be an easy day enough day for everyone involved, I felt (except Scarlet, who was well-rested from waiting for us). We decided on an easy 16-mile loop that would take us from one end of the peninsula to the other.
Well, off we went. At one point I stopped to take off my jacket, since the sun was out, and before I knew it, everyone else was out of sight. I chased and chased, and came to an intersection. I looked down to the left and it said 20% grade. Well, they're not going to do that, I reasoned, and kept going straight. Sure enough, I caught sight of a white T-shirt and pony tail, and when I got closer, identified them as belonging to Scarlet. "Where did the others go?" "I don't know." "Hm... Better not get too spread out, because I think that it was that turn back there." We rode on past Teangue, and then the second left turn that would complete the loop. "Well, this is the last place to turn, so I assume they must have gone that way, in spite of the 20% grade sign." We rolled along easily, passing really pretty scenery. Scotland is beautiful when you have that bit of sun around. Passed several ruined farmhouses, and soon enough were on the other coast. No sign of those castles that were on the map, but I couldn't care less.
"Well, Sue seems mellower today," said Scarlet.
"Yes. I hope she gets better."
Soon enough, we had that 1 in 4. Ouch. Definitely granny-gear time. I barely made it up that one, and Scarlet walked it, unembarrassed. A bunch of rollers, and people on rented mountain bikes told us that the worst was yet to come, in terms of grade. Yet I was more worried about the clouds coming at us from the West. We rode along, and upon cresting a hill, ran into Sue and Chris, coming the other way. "Where were you?" we shot at each other. Apparently, they'd gone up some blind alleys while we had passed them blithely along the main road.
"So, which way now?" Chris asked.
"I don't care which way you guys go, but I'm going to complete the loop."
Scarlet agreed with me, and Chris bowed under peer pressure. Sue wanted to see the castle but did not want to ride alone, so the four of us ended up heading towards Kilbeg. All along Chris and Sue kept talking about this incredible hill, but it seemed to take forever to get to it. We kept going and going and going. The climb didn't seem so bad at all. Then I spied a 14% grade. Well, Chris had been exaggerating all this time. "This is pretty short," said Chris. "Short enough to charge up it in Oxygen debt?" I asked. "Well, maybe." What the heck. I charged and charged and charged and ran out of breath, with no sign of the grade slowing. Damn. "Hm..." said Chris as he passed me, spinning in his granny, "it's longer than I remembered, coming down the other way." Sure, Chris, I muttered under my breath.
Soon enough we were at the top, and a drizzle started coming down at us, misting up my vision. Still, the place had a dark brooding beauty to it, kind of like Mordor in Lord of the Rings. A nice fast descent, and a final brake at the intersection and I heard a familiar loud hiss. Argh. Well, I had one of the others keep a watch on my rear tyre as I rode back towards the hostel. Good thing it held out till I got there. A quick inspection of the inner tube revealed that it was that glass piece, having finally worked its way into the tube. I replaced the tube and fixed the flat while the others showered and stuff.
Back at the BayView Bistro for dinner after a couple more wrong turns in an attempt to go to a different restaurant. After that, several games of 99 before bedtime.
Wherein Chris makes a date with 2 Austrian girls, and I find the most miserable miles of the trip. Much
time is spent sitting in a bar waiting for rain to abate in vain.
The day started off well enough, with a cold breakfast at the hostel where we were joined by 2 Austrian girls, Barbara and Ingrid, who were on a backpacking trip. "10 days on Skye," they said. I wondered if they were going to last that long, given how bad the weather was. We exchanged addresses, and plans, and were told that the Talisker distillery, which was one of Chris' goals, was not opened on Saturdays and Sundays, which meant that we were going to ride to Portree instead of riding all the way to Talisker that day in search of scotch.
I had lost my pair of clear lensed glasses (these are prescription glasses, not those techno Oakley things), and was feeling dejected over there, so left ahead of the gang. As I approached the Clan Macdonald center, however, I had a bit of inspiration and headed in towards the ticket counter. There, I asked if anyone had found a pair of eye glasses, and was told to check at the gift shop. I thought about going on ahead, instead of checking, but at that point saw the last of the gang go past the Clan Donald center. Well, I'm going to be behind them most of the time anyway, so what's a couple more minutes. I parked my bike and walked into the gift shop.
This time, I struck gold. The ladies behind the counter went off to some place and rummaged around for about 10 minutes or so, and came back with my glasses. Ah, I felt better already! Rain gear back on, I got on my bike and chased half-heartedly for a while before realizing that I wanted to be alone that day, and stopped chasing completely and just rode along enjoying the scenery. We had agreed to meet at Broadford, so I was not worried that they would keep chasing after me indefinitely. What the heck, Chris must have been chasing and chasing thinking I'm up ahead, so this would be good revenge for what he did to me yesterday. I'm not usually vengeful, but when it's this convenient, I yield to temptation.
The road, A851 winds around various hills, most of the time remaining pretty flat. The rain got pretty bad, though, and I soon regretted not having my spats on, as my shoes were getting extremely wet. Oh well. I started singing as I tooled along to keep my spirits up, and eventually passed Sue, told her to trim her rear deraileur, and then I caught and passed Scarlet. I didn't think I was going to catch Chris, so I didn't bother chasing too hard, taking this opportunity to rest. Then we were in Broadford looking for a dry place. A pastry shop looked good, and we stopped there, and went in to buy something to eat. And who did we run into but Ingrid and Barbara. They were on their way to Portree by bus, and Chris could not resist making arrangements to meet them there.
The rain was coming down pretty hard now, and I did not feel like going on. "This sucks. I'd rather just stay in Broadford." The others voted to send me to the tourist information center to check out accommodations. There, I found out that the rain was supposed to clear up later today. I went back to tell them the good news, and suggested that we hole up at the hotel next to the pastry shop and wait for the worst to get over.
3 hours in a hotel bar goes by pretty quick if you have lunch, play 99 and Spades, and mumble about how bad the weather is. Well, Chris still wanted to go to Portree by the end of those 3 hours, and I had no way of knowing how bad things were up the road, so I foolishly agreed instead of playing "dictator" and forcing everyone to stay put in Broadford. This is one of those times when I should have just put my foot down instead of letting myself go with some other person's wishes, but riding is riding and you take the bad with the good, just as with everything else.
I made reservations at a B&B in Portree, and we rolled on. I stopped at some point to put on some raingear, and let the others get ahead of me. Once again, I was all by myself, a good time to just pedal and hear myself think. The terrain is quite hilly, and though the rain wasn't as hard this time, but the wind wasn't good, and at some point my raincape tore at the seams. I've had this raincape for 2 years, and I can't say that this surprised me --- I've used the thing on backpacking trips as a poncho, as a container for random objects, and generally abused it. It's been snagged on bushes, run over by motor-vehicles, gotten caught in chainwheels and all sorts of other nastiness, and anything else would have given up by now.
Well, off with that raincape, and on with my semi-waterproof windbreaker. I rolled along, and whenever I spied the others, I'd stop and take a photo, or pee or do something until they were out of sight again. We passed by some gorgeous hillsides, with majestic waterfalls, lovely mountain roads, and little traffic. But the top of one of those passes, near Sconser, was thick with fog and dark with mist, and I could not see much. That was when I turned on the speed and descended as quickly as I possibly could, and finally passed Sue, then Scarlet, then Chris, who was putting on his raingear then. "Hm... another 12 miles to go." "Really," she said, "I think it's 9." "I could be wrong, and I hope I'm wrong and my computer could be screwed up..." "Well, I saw the sign." "Oh, good!" Chris caught up with me and confirmed her observations.
Onwards. I got fed up with the rain. Any time I slowed down, this bunch of water that had collected on the front of my windbreaker would roll down my chest, so I couldn't slow down. Well, given that situation, the only solution was to speed up, so I pushed hard. It's amazing. 8 miles is just my normal commute distance, and takes only half an hour, but on that day it seemed to take forever. I was cold, wet, and miserable, and couldn't get enough energy to even snarl or talk. Pretty soon I'd left Chris pretty far behind, though, and there was no one to snarl at or talk to, which was good.
I do not remember much of the rest of the ride except for sheets of water coming down at me, a demonstration forest, and arriving in Portree a wreck and looking for the B&B, leaving Chris to take care of the other two. I found the B&B, threw down my panniers and was about to roll out and look for them when our hostess looked out and saw them coming in. Nobody looked good. I missed Radek Aster, a friend of mine who'd be able to make a joke at this point that'd send everyone laughing and shake us all out of our misery, but looking at this sorry crowd left me with no inspiration.
Parked our bikes in the laundry room (and our hostess kindly put up with that, bless her soul!), showers, a change of clothing, and I found myself down in the TV room watching a silly British variety show. One segment of it that struck me as particularly silly was the "Roller Coaster Karaoke" section. They put 2 people with mikes on a roller coaster and had them sing while the roller coaster would put them through twists, rolls, loops and turns. There was this couple dressed with outrageous silver jumpsuits with blond wigs performing "The Dancing Queen". Halfway down the first loop and one of the wigs was off her head and around her neck, blocking her face and the mike. Pretty funny. Then there'd be this other really dumb contest that involves putting down the toilet seat on as many toilets as possible in a minute. Stuff like that.
Yes, we did find Ingrid and Barbara at the bar. We had dinner with them sitting by and watching at a local restaurant. A bunch of Scottish children were performing highland dances outside in the quadrangle while we were having dinner. I would find out later that they had been selected to go to Orlando and perform next year at some contest. I mused abit about how the highland dances evolved. Did it use to be a war dance? A courtship dance? Tired and sleepy, I left the others to spend all night at the pub while I made my way home and fell asleep.
Wherein we had sunshine and blue sky all day. The importance of "The Dancing Queen" becomes clear.
Sunshine and blue sky greeted us that day, though it started off somewhat ominously. I started the day with a bike inspection, and found rust on nearly everyone's bicycle. Out came that bottle of TriFlow, and I liberally applied it to chains and Chris' SPD pedals.
Then Scarlet claimed that her tire needed inflation. I loaned her my Silca pump with a Campagnolo valve head and she succeeded in blowing off the end plug by holding it wrong. In an attempt to show her how to do it right, I ruined the presta valve on that tube. (Well, the screw on the presta valve was already gone, so I should have said "I finished ruining it") Watching Scarlet change a tube was almost painful, as it became quite clear that she did not get much practice fixing flats, if any. I ended up loaning her first my Wheelsmith tyre levers. When it became clear that mounting a tyre was something she had not done before, I first loaned her my VAR lever tool. Well, this did not help, so I ended up giving a live demonstration of mounting a tyre, and how to use a VAR lever tool, and finally, how to hold a Silca pump and use it properly. Boy, that brought back memories of writing Smalltalk programs on a blackboard and explaining every little step.
Not to be outdone, Scarlet proceeded to mount her front wheel and demonstrate how one would true it after it's been knocked around by an airline. An educational morning! I called Scarlet "the wrench wench", because she was so good with a wrench and so bad with a tyre lever, and the name stuck.
Finally, we were off, heading towards Uig. What a pleasant change, to have sun on my arms, and no foreboding clouds nearby. Perhaps our luck had changed. Up that first climb, pictures, and then downhill. Images of that roller coaster came back to me, and I hummed the first few notes of "The Dancing Queen." Chris laughed, picking up on what we'd seen on TV yesterday evening, and from then on "The Dancing Queen" was definitely our downhill theme song. We were hysterical, and somehow the joke never wore off.
It was a beautiful day, and I wished we were starting from Broadford that day, because the mountains so dark and foreboding would have been completely different. But as it was, it was a pleasant day, meandering among hills, then the coast of Loch Snizort. It was only 16 miles that day, and we were all too tired from yesterday to complain about the short distance. We would have taken the ferry from Uig to Tarbert that day, but it was a Sunday and the ferry wasn't running.
Then it was up that last hill towards Uig, and at the crest we met 2 old ladies riding 3 speeds, heading towards Portree. We would find out that they had come all the way from the southernmost portion of the Island yesterday, smiling all the way, putting our efforts to shame. Up to the hostel, dumping all our gear, and then we walked to lunch after greeting a couple of Scarlet's acquaintances from Mallaig where she was waiting for us. Here, I should state the biggest difference between me and the others. I like to ride, and I'd rather ride anywhere than walk, as a matter of principle and convenience. The others seem to think nothing of walking around town and such, but I never walk when I can ride. For me, the magic never goes away, while for the others, it seems like the cycling is a bit of a chore, and once off the bike for the day, getting back on it is anathema. I guess our attitudes seem strange to each other.
Lunch at a local bar, one of those long relaxed lunches when one has nothing to do the rest of the day, interrupted by a greeting with the man we met at the Salen hotel, and then a return to the hostel after purchasing provisions for the night. The others wrote postcards while I chatted with the pair of cyclists we had met (they were Australians), and then cards, dinner, and to bed.
Wherein another day with 2 ferry trips is performed, and an recent acquaintance is renewed.
Anytime you have to get up at 4 in the morning, you know it's going to be a long day. It was surprisingly warm, however, as we rolled down to the ferry docks to catch the 5:15 ferry. We got on with plenty of time to spare and headed straight for the cafeteria. This is becoming a routine, and I was quite sick of ferry crossings.
When we arrived the sky was dark and it threatened to rain. A strong wind was blowing out of the south, portending an incoming storm. There was naught to do but to try to outrun it, so we headed North out of Tarbert, led by Scarlet. On with that raingear (I had duct-taped the torn portions of my raingear together with several layers of duct-tape --- you can fix anything temporarily with duct-tape), and then it was a long hot climb despite the cold. Once past a vile-smelling quarry the grade eased up and one could feel the south wind pushing a cyclist along, and once I got to the first of the mountain lakes I was quite delighted and took a couple of photographs. Quick, fast and furious descents followed, and I was quite happy. Chris quickly pointed out a good photospot under a bridge, and it was there where him and I got good photos of a fjord. Good stuff, though Chris unfortunately took a tumble and swelled up his middle finger, which would not heal completely until we got back to the states. By the time we got out of that back onto the road the others were far ahead of us, and I had nothing to do but to chase.
Sue was easy to catch, but then the asphalt faded, replaced by dirt and gravel and I was slowed down in my attempt to catch the mountain bike. By the time I did catch the MB-5 it was the end of a long downhill run and we were out of the mountains with a strong tailwind going. I stayed with Scarlet, chatting with her. Our conversation turned to Chris.
"Chris is right behind us," I told Scarlet, "so you better be aware of what you say about him."
She replied in Mandarin, just to throw Chris off. There's something unfair about Mandarin speakers in Scotland. Having a rich and complex prearranged secret language really lets you piss off everyone around you. They never quite know what you're saying, but they suspect that it might not be complimentary. And they're right some of the time.
We rolled along together happily, with the wind lending us strength and making us feel good. "This place really gives new meaning to the word `desolation'," said Chris, "it's my idea of hell. Cold, rainy, and nothing except sheep and peat." My idea of hell wouldn't have bikes in it, or a tailwind, though. Soon enough, we came to an uphill. I attacked, and Chris followed. Behind us, I could hear Scarlet saying in a drawn out fashion, "I H A T E H I L L S..." I cackled evily and pushed on.
Rolling hills are fun when you have a tailwind, because the preceding downhill gives you enough speed to roll up the next one quickly, and with a strong tailwind, your terminal velocity is really high, so you end up climbing hills at around 26mph with your panniers on. You should definitely try it sometime. Makes you feel like Superman. Chris and I did feel like that, trying to outsprint each other. I don't remember how those sprints turned out, but I remember Chris being pissed off a few times because I'd draft off him when he jumped and come round him at the top. Given that my high gear was a 42x12, this was probably the only way I could beat him in a sprint, and fortunately Chris did not have enough experience with sprinting tactics to know what to do in that situation.
We did get tired of sprinting eventually, and switched to singing. Chris liked "Princes of the Universe" from Queen's "A Kind of Magic". I knew the lyrics to that by heart and so performed it, and for an encore threw in the title track from that album. Singing at the top of your lungs while going uphill definitely takes the breath out of you, but I'm sure Chris suffered more, since he was within earshot! :-) Some lyrics from that song seemed appropriate, though:
One golden glance of what should be
It's a kind of magic
One shaft of light that shows the way
No mortal man, can win this day
The waiting seems eternity
The day will dawn on sanity...
It certainly felt as though we'd been cycling in rain forever. And the day was certainly gloomy, though we hadn't had more than a misty drizzle here and there so far.
Yet 37 miles can go by pretty fast when you're riding around 20mph as an average, and before we knew it we were at Stornaway, and waited at a gas station for Scarlet and Sue, congratulating ourselves on how fast we had made it.
Scarlet and Sue rolled along about half an hour later, riding together. Since there was a bike shop just at the corner, we stopped by to get a new spare tube to replace the one whose valve I had finished destroying a couple of days before. A stop at the tourist information, where we were told that a ferry was to leave at 1:00pm, and it was to be the only ferry that day. That dashed Scarlet's hope that it would be possible to take a bus out to the standing stones and see them (we'd pass them in our hurry to outrun the storm). Then some time was spent at the bank getting cash. I had run out of traveler's checks and was forced to get a cash advance on my credit card, but looking at the credit card bill, I see that getting a cash advance on a credit card is the best way to go in general. Not only do you get a better exchange rate, but you also avoid the commission that is often charged to get foreign currency exchanged, as well as the traveler's checks charges, which are all significant. It is also more convenient, since you can go to any bank. From now on, I'm never carrying traveler's checks.
Then a hurried lunch and a dash to the ferry terminal, where we found out that since it was a Monday, the ferry schedule was different and the ferry would be there at 5:00pm. "See," chided Scarlet, "you should have trusted me and gone and taken the bus instead." Nothing to do but to go to a local bakery, eat, and hunt around for towels, since we were discovering that not all hostels had towels. We eventually found tea towels for 60 pence, and I used that for the rest of the trip to dry my body. A call to make a reservation at the Ullapool hostel, and then it was down to several card games while we waited for the ferry. "This is it, no more ferries. I refuse to go on any more ferry crossings!" I said.
It was our longest ferry ride, 4 hours with nothing to do but have dinner, play cards, and sleep. I was thoroughly bored by the time it was time to disembark when we ran into Christopher, whom we ran into on Mull some time back going the other way. He had apparently gone out to the outer Hebrides from Oban, and was on his way further North from Ullapool.
Chris was eager to make plans. "Look, we don't have to do Applecross road. We can ride over to Inverness, and then head down South, then take the train to Inverness. Scarlet can join us." "I thought she was going to leave us tomorrow?" "Well, there's no train out of here, so she'll have to get to Inverness." I put off making any decision until the next morning, but in my heart knew that he was right --- we did not really have time to do Applecross road, much as I would like to.
Then, on the way back from the pub next door, chatting with Christopher, I looked carefully at the youth hostel map pinned up against a posterboard while Scarlet was making a phone call to her parents. "Hey, guys," I said, "how about spending tomorrow night at a castle?" Needless to say, they were enthusiastic. Must be the idea of not having to climb Applecross road.
Wherein we cross the highlands and leave it. A fateful decision is made.
The day started with sunshine and for the first time I felt like I could just wear shorts. A wrong turn cost us 20 minutes but we were soon back on track and climbing out of Ullapool, heading North and away from the coast. A strong West wind was blowing that day, which made the climbs on A835 easy and the descents quick, though when the road turned and a strong sidewind was encountered, I felt more than a bit scared, as the gusts were unpredictable and the road loose. As usual, we rode in pairs, me and Chris together, and Scarlet and Sue following. Chris and I soon met up with another cyclist, Alan, who was near the end of his tour, which was around 80 miles a day, and who did every major pass in Scotland.
We stopped at the intersection of A837 to make sure the others wouldn't go wrong, though I think it was unnecessary. They soon joined us. This was desolate country, though not as bad as the Isle of Lewis. Rocky mountains make for poor land, and all we saw was grazing country for hardy sheep and maybe goats, though I do not recall ever spotting a goat while I was in Scotland. Past the intersection, we got to the Altnacealgach Hotel, where we had lunch. I had taken the precaution of asking about lunch spots while making reservations for Carbisdale that morning, and was told that this was the last lunch spot before Carbisdale.
Lunch was delicious, but the sun was quickly fading under the assault of numerous high clouds which did not look ominous, but were nevertheless making it necessary for us to use leg warmers or tights. Well, nothing to do but ride on. With the Cromalt Hills behind us, we were now riding along a river valley, and the land around us was beginning to look much better. Lakes abound, farm houses could be seen aplenty, and the we rode along without a care in the world, looking wide-eyed at the landscape unfolding ahead of us. We crossed the River Oykel on the Oykel bridge, and paused to take photographs and stare at the double bridges and the rock formations.
Riding East from the bridge, I spied a bright red BT telephone box on the left side of the road, out here in the middle of nowhere. An image came to my mind of a lone cyclist cycling in a storm looking for shelter, spying that telephone box, parking his bike, and jumping in, closing the door behind him. "Ah," that cyclist would say, "the people in the UK really know how to build telephone booths right!" I chuckled to myself and rode on.
We had been warned by a couple on a tandem at the lunch stop to look for another bridge across the River Oykel that would head West for a while and then take us on a beautiful rural ride to the castle, where they had come from. Unfortunately, the first bridge that we ran into was a footbridge. Unsure of whether this was the right one, Chris went on down the road to investigate, and came back quickly with a report that there was a car bridge further down the road.
Cross the bridge and fight the headwind for a short while before climbing. Oh, this is indeed a beautiful country lane, perfect for cycling. Chris and I quickly left the others behind, and started searching for songs both of us knew. Everything from Queen to the Eagles, (amazing how you can never remember "Hotel California" when you most need to) and we knew we were getting desperate when we started singing songs by Sarah McLachlan. I must say that performing Bohemian Rhapsody while climbing is certainly something that takes it out of you.
The road took us high up on a ridge, and we could see across the river valley, to the hills on the other side. Some parts of the landscape had been clear-cut, though there was apparently some quite massive reforestation project going on. Roadside falls and streams would catch our eye for a fleeting instance before we zipped past them, speeding downhill screaming what little we knew of The Dancing Queen.
And then there it was, looming above the trees, the Carbisdale castle, with towers so tall that we saw it a couple of miles before we got to the castle entrance. Turn right at the entrance, up that steep road, and before we knew it there we were!
It's definitely exciting being in a real castle, looking around at old paintings, sculptures, and the grand hallways. It's a little disappointing when there's little warm water, and even worse when you realize that the place is cold, and much much worse when you realized that you had foolishly agreed to stay an extra night because the others wanted to attend the highland festival take place the next night. In case you missed it, the word about castles is: never never stay more than a night at any given castle, unless you know for sure that it is adequately heated.
A little bicycle trip down to the nearest pub 4 miles away, where the others experimented with different kinds of alcohol and I indulged in ginger ale. Then a spaghetti dinner from our stores (bought in Uig), and I went to bed, leaving the others to stay up and chat after several rounds of card games. Tomorrow was a rest day, but sleep is sleep and the night before had not made up for getting up at 4:00am while on Skye.
Wherein we meet Jean, again, encounter a fellow Californian, and generally goof off. The highland festival.
We had to get up early to grab breakfast, and by the time I got there, the others were already seated and munching away. These hostel served meals are absolutely atrocious, and their prices make them a rip-off. Well, they have a captive audience. We were surrounded by kids from some UK school, and had fun speculating on where they came from.
Outside, the wind was howling. The others had stayed up till 2am talking and were tired, but somehow stayed awake through the morning for cards. Given the way the weather looked nobody wanted to go out for lunch, so when Scarlet suggested just buying prepackaged food from the hostel and cooking it her idea was greeted with enthusiasm.
Halfway through making lunch, we met an American from Santa Cruz, Lisa. We chatted with her over lunch, and she mentioned going to town to get some food. "It's 4 miles to town," said Scarlet. "Oh dear. That's a long walk, isn't it?" "You can borrow my bike." I looked at Lisa. "How tall are you?" "5 feet 9 inches." "Well, don't borrow Scarlet's bike, you're too big for it. You can borrow mine instead. It's closer to being right for you."
After lunch, I loaned her my bike, Scarlet loaned me wool socks, and then Chris, Sue and I took a walk on the castle grounds while Scarlet caught up on some sleep. The grounds are unmaintained for the most part, yet beautiful, with a river running through it, creating falls, rocks, and portions that could be mistaken for part of a Japanese garden, except that it was all too wild. We walked around for a couple of hours before impending rain made us head back for the castle rather than going on forward. Then Chris and I tried our hand at some video games in the game room before Lisa came back.
We had been told to get to dinner early, because otherwise, the kids would create such a long line that we would not be able to get at the food for a while. At the line, who did we run into but Jean, whom we last met on the way from Salen to Mallaig. He had come up from Inverness today, against the headwind, and when told that there were other cyclists here, asked if one of them was an Asian guy, and guessed that it had to be us. "The part about there being 4 of you confused me for a while..." he said.
After a dinner with not enough food, the highland shows start. The castle was so cold that we sat on a sofa with a comforter over us at the beginning. But then the participative dances start. I'm not a dancer, but anything to get warm and stay warm was welcome at this point, desperate as I was. Several rounds of whirling and twirling and spinning and getting run over by various children later my objective was met. By the time it was all over, it was 11:00pm, and I went to bed after telling everyone to be out at breakfast at 7:30. I finally had my question about how highland dancing evolved answered: it evolved so you could stay warm in Scotland. "We'll take the train if the weather's too bad." "What's bad?" "Today doesn't qualify. A thunderstorm would."
Wherein a serious car accident nearly befalls the party. Our last substantial loaded ride.
I woke up to sore calves, as did everyone else. Do not ever attempt a Highland dance sequence if you intend to ride for the next few days. "Well, you'll feel better once you get on the bike," I said told everyone.
We set off to gloomy skies along A836. There was a thin mist in the air, but not enough to make me feel uncomfortable, and soon enough it stopped. A right turn off onto B9176 was supposed to bring some relief from traffic, but the traffic was surprisingly heavy. The climb gave us a good view of Cambuscurrie Bay and the surrounding regions, however, and reminded us that we were technically not out of the highlands yet. Up that first climb, Sue had trouble shifting into her granny. I tried to help her by first suggesting that she turn around and roll down hill and shift, but she just took off like a rocket down hill rather than performing a controlled descent and shifting at the same time without the putting pressure on the pedals. That got me pretty pissed off. When I finally tried to lift her rear wheel so that I could try shifting and found that the panniers made the bike so heavy I couldn't lift it I got really really mad, pulled the chain off the middle, stuck it onto the third, shifted the deraileur so that it matched the chain, got on my bike and took off up that hill at top speed in spite of my aching calves.
I soon calmed down (nothing like being in oxygen debt to give you a fresh perspective), and started singing the theme from that Chinese TV series Legend of JiGong as I climbed. I was not done with the song when I passed Scarlet and Chris, who were waiting for us at a bridge. For a moment the clouds lifted and I could look out and really appreciate the part of Scotland we were in. I hope the gentle reader will pardon me here, for I have truly run out of words with which to describe Scotland. Suffice to say that it's been a welcome relief to leave the desolation of the last few days behind us at last, and travel through lush green valleys and climbing well wooded hills. It felt like a burden was lifted from my soul.
We took up our usual positions, me and Chris leading the way, giving no quarter and asking none, and Scarlet and Sue trailing. And then I launched into another rendition of The Dancing Queen and we were off. The drizzle got a bit wetter, but never enough to cause us to put our rain gear on. We sped along, blessed again with a tail wind. (Does it seem to you that we had a lot of those? Yes we did!)
The climbs were a blast and the descents even cooler, and Chris and I were neck and neck. Boy, he's really developed as a cyclist these past week or so. And then suddenly we were touching panniers at 30mph, and recovered from that without so much as looking at each other. We had arrived.
B9176 came to an end too soon, after a 14% grade sign that fooled me into shifting into my granny when I should have stood up for it. Ahead of us was Cromarty Firth, and we met up with A9, a busy freeway. In busy traffic like this I like to just take off and go as fast as I can, just so that it'll end sooner. Under those circumstances (when I'm actually motivated to go fast), I simply dropped the others and went. We crossed a Bridge on the sidewalk (yeah, I know, shouldn't do that, but there weren't any driveways or intersections on this sidewalk, so it felt safe) and started trying to find a way off A9. A stop at a farm for directions (wow, that was an accent that made mine sound like a BBC world service announcer's), and we made a turn on B9169 before heading down a narrow country lane towards Knockbain. We all visibly relaxed on this road, which was a mistake, since we turned a corner and this red import car hit its brakes and screeched past me.. We went on, a bit shaken and then I heard a voice call out, "Help me!" "Oh no, Sue's hit!" I shouted to the others, then spun around on my bike as quickly as I could and pedaled back. Chris had dumped his bike and ran back and had pulled her bike up from over her, and then helped her out. She was visibly shaken but looked unhurt. Her bike didn't look too bad, either. She had fallen into the widest, softest, muddiest portion of the ditch.
A blue "Roy's Construction" van came by and asked if he could help. "I saw that car go by and heard the screech and came to see if there was anything I could do. I've got a radio." He must have radio'ed the police, as well as the rest of the "Roy's Construction" van, for we saw two or three other vans pass by, all of which stopped to ask if they could help. Sue got out some dry clothes and changed at a nearby house-under-construction on invitation of a local. "Wow," said Scarlet, "we must have a whole fleet of blue vans out there searching for that offender." Chris and I looked at the tyre marks and concluded that the car must have hit her panniers, and caused her to lose control. Sue later confirmed those theories. I was just glad that no one was hurt.
Sue returned, we put her bike back in order (fender adjustments again, will these things never end?), and went on, a bit more cautiously now, but I was cold and so set a strong pace. We had not gone more than a couple of miles when a police car passed by, then turned around to speak with us, then another police car joined us. Wow, that was fast. They showed concerned for Sue, questioned us all about the assault on us, and were distressed that we were shown anything less than the utmost courtesy on Scottish roads. I was quite impressed.
Still, there was nothing we could do but to go on. Scarlet mentioned hunger, and we stopped at Munlochy at a bar for a much needed lunch. Then it was an easy push into Inverness, a sizable city. Tourist information came through again for us on where the hostel was (again, I had made reservations in the morning), and there we were. Bikes in the shed and a shower later, we were ready to face the world again. Chris and I went to purchase train tickets to Edinburgh and book bicycle spots (when there are four of you, bookings are essential because there's no way they can squeeze 4 bikes in at a moments' notice), while Scarlet looked for long fingered gloves (yes, not bringing long fingered gloves on a tour in Scotland takes you out of the "minimalist" camp into the "foolhardy" camp), while Sue did laundry.
Dinner at some pizza place, then it was bar-hopping, card playing and general chatting. One of the men in my dormitory was also touring Scotland, and he mentioned some kind of Sustrans gathering tomorrow. On further inquiry, he revealed that it was a ride to generate funds for bike paths. "The UK is sadly lacking in bike/multi-use paths compared to other European countries, and even the US," he said. Strange that UK cyclists would feel an inferiority complex with regards to cycling facilities. The UK had more cycle-aware drivers, no mandatory side-of-the-road law (a bicycle is exactly like a car under the law there, unlike under US laws, which force bicycles to ride "as far to right of the road as practicable"), cyclist-friendly policemen (imagine if a close call like what we would have had happening in California --- the policeman would have rolled his eyes at the cyclists and asking what they were doing riding on a road without bike lanes, and tried to pin the blame on the cyclist instead), and a strong vehicular cycling tradition. I would instantly trade every bike path and bike lane in the US for those characteristics in a second if I could. I can only hope that UK cyclists do not end up playing into the hands of their motoring establishment and hence deny themselves the full and equal rights to the roads (rights that US cyclists have never fully recovered) they have traditionally enjoyed as a result of building "cycling-specific" facilities.
Again, I was early to bed, leaving the others to stay up and hold the fort.
Wherein the party engages in a day ride to a distillery, then to Loch Ness, and yet another castle ruin. Good luck most of the day, the scariest descent of the entire trip, and Scarlet learns how to sprint
Chris and I were awakened by random noise-making in the dorms at 7:30, and since we were up and too early to meet the others, walked to the riverside park for a stroll. Inverness is a beautiful place, and the morning was shaping up to be very pretty. Still, I was depressed, because this was the last cycling day of the trip.
Well, back to the fort, breakfast, and then on with the ride. We rode out of Inverness on A862, to get to the Glen Ord distillery, a whisky distillery open to touring and tasting. The ride along Beauly Firth was delightful, though the wind slowed us down to about 13mph. The sunshine and warmth, combined with that burning feeling in my calves made me averse to speeding, so I spent my energy towing the group instead. Then onto B9164, and before we knew it we were at the distillery. They weren't giving any actual distillery tours, but let us walk through the exhibits and do taste their whisky, which the others enjoyed so much that they were disappointed that the distillery would not ship to the states. Well, no matter, they'd just package it up and those who were interested could mail them at the post office. The salespersons assured us that we would not be able to purchase such whisky at the duty-free at the airport, which would turn out to be a false statement. Still, Sue bought a bottle, and Scarlet bought two. "Oh no, I've become a Whisky drinker," she said.
They mailed the whisky, lunch, and then a wind assisted ride down A833. Chris had picked the route this morning based on some bus tour, and I didn't object. My legs were dead that day, and I simply could not keep up with Chris when he was at full power, so I was forced to just slow down and smell the air. The sun was out in full shine, and we could shed our jackets and tights and enjoy the weather. Passed some hairy cows, and then some spots that I swear could be mistaken for the scene in the 1994 Bridgestone poster (sans the bike, of course). I felt obliged to take some rolling shots of the MB-5 there and Scarlet agreed to ride past and pose. A couple of wasted shots and I gave up and just took scenery pictures. Past Glen Convinth, the road rose steadily up, and at the top started a 1 in 7 descent. This descent was steep, twisty and gravelly, and once past the first corner I felt fear seize my heart. But I had Chris following me and so felt that I could not slam on the brakes, and so took each corner as quick as I could do it. Chris, of course, competitive guy that he was, took what I was doing for competitive behavior and hung it out too, getting pelted by gravel thrown up by my rear wheel as I leaned, straightened, and leaned through the curves, perhaps reaching 40mph, which was the top speed of the day. At the bottom we crossed the road (A831), shivered, and laughed. I told Chris that I couldn't slow because he was right behind me and I didn't want to cause a crash. "Oh man, I was staying behind you, and thinking, Piaw never descends this fast. Then I didn't want to let you out of sight..."
The women joined us a minute later, and we all shook and shivered some more before proceeding up the road. A couple of miles later, we discovered that we were going the wrong way, and turned around. Chris took off at 30mph, and the way I was feeling that day I knew I could not keep up, and so relaxed. But when I caught Scarlet trying to overtake me I could not help it and put a bit more power into my spin and stayed past her. "I've got to teach you how to sprint," I said. "Doesn't it have more to do with power and all that?" I told her about drafting and using the slingshot effect to propel one past one's opponent. "Come try it. I'm feeling so weak today you should be able to pass me." So we rolled together on this gentle descent, and pretty soon she shot past me at 30mph. "Oh wow, this is cool!" she yelled. A couple more tries and she had it down. Fast learner. "Get a road bike, Scarlet, you'll have a blast."
Then we were at the intersection with A82, with signs of the Loch Ness monster museum, and such. A couple of climbs, and suddenly the Urquhart Castle was within sight, and I pulled off the road to take a picture from high up before joining the others at the entrance proper. A ruin is a ruin is a ruin, except that this one was maintained for the benefit of tourists, so you could still climb to the towers and get a nice view of Loch Ness and the other side. But we arrived near the tail end up the visiting hours, and got lights cut off on us while we were in the cellar. A few more minutes and we got the message and left.
Now the tailwind we had since Muir of Ord was going to be a headwind, and we rode into Drumnadrochit for dinner. Dinner was a long slow affair, for no one really wanted to go out and ride against the wind. I had venison for the first time, and found it quite good. Everyone's calves still hurt, "Don't worry," I said, "you'll feel better once you get on your bike." "But that's what you say every time!" "Yeah, and I'm always right too, no?" "Well yeah..."
And truly, it seemed like once we got on the bikes, all the soreness faded away, as did the headwind. I could not believe our luck. Another hour or so and we were in Inverness again, trying to stuff our bikes into a bike shed so full of bikes we had to move them around before we could put our bikes in. I took the opportunity to educate Scarlet further on bikes.
On the way to the pubs, we encountered the Sustrans bunch. Scarlet's bike-transport advocacy instincts took over and she asked for details, hoping to join them some time. At one point, as she was talking to their organizer, she said, "could you move your butt so I can look at your saddle?" She was looking to see if he had a Brooks saddle. I hid my face behind my hands and walked off to hide behind Chris. No I don't know this woman. I remember what I was like when I was new to cycling and enthusiastic about everything. A couple of years later, and I still love bikes, especially Bridgestones and Rivendells, but I don't think I gush overly about anything except riding anymore. It was funny to see someone else go through that phase, and a bit sobering.
Back at the hostel, Sue went to bed, and Chris and Scarlet and I went off for a night walk, Chris and Scarlet holding hands as they walked by the river just behind me. We talked openly, freely, and I grew morose. It felt like the trip was over already, and I said my good-byes to Inverness then, silently under the stars, sitting on a spur into the middle of the river.
Wherein a train journey is made, new friends are made, and I ride alone while the others do the things tourists do.
We got up at 6, muddled through packing in a haze, and mounted our bikes and rolled down to the train station. The train was an express, which meant that it would not stop at every little hamlet, but would still make plenty of stops. We loaded our bikes into the luggage car (no need to remove panniers), and walked back to the train to look for seats. Many of the seats were reserved, so we were forced to split up, Chris and Scarlet in a pair, and Sue and I in one, with the convenience of a table and another pair of reserved seats facing us.
Moments later, an elderly couple carrying backpacks came on board and sat down right across the table from us. They would later introduced themselves as Alan and Margaret of Purley, Surrey, a retired couple, who had just spent some time backpacking on Skye. They had a grand time, and the weather was good, they said, unlike when we were there.
Alan and Margaret were a friendly couple, and they spent much time talking to me while Scarlet and Chris slept and Sue wrote postcards. They told me about the country, pointed out interesting features and told me little tidbits about towns as we went past them. Here was a town used in the Victorian area for recreation, later turned into a golfing resort, hey, is that deer over there? Oh yes, and look at that black rabbit, how peculiar. They had a wonderful sense of timing and good eyes for detail, built up over many years of walking, and were very vigorous. I could only hope that I would be as vigorous when I'm their age. We talked about Singapore, the privatization of government services going on in the UK and in the USA, and I made my usual pitch for California.
Outside the countryside rolled by. "Did you know," Alan expounded, "that this is the train that reaches the highest point in all of the UK?" I did not know that. The UK train system is wonderful, though apparently not as wonderful as it was in the past (another thing to blame on privatization). It's nicer than Amtrak, has more stops, goes faster than cars (something that never happens in the USA, in my experience), and is friendlier to bicycles.
Too soon, we stopped in Edinburgh and had to get off. I immediately went to book tickets to Glasgow, and found that it was not possible to get 4 of us and our bicycles on the same train, and so had to break us up, two and two (that's ok, I reflected, I wanted to talk to Sue alone anyway). Scarlet had decided to follow us to the bitter end. "I could help you guys take the bikes apart," she rationalized. We got out, found a tourist information center, and started heading for the hostel. It was here that I made 3 mistakes. First, I ignored my instincts when it came to directions and agreed with Chris at one point when he said that he thinks we should go left. Second, when we stopped to ask for directions from a passerby, I assumed that the only hostel in the vicinity was the one we were going to, the Eglinton youth hostel, and lastly, I made the mistake of assuming which that the direction I was facing was the right one, a bad assumption to make in a strange city when I couldn't see the sun. The result was that we got thoroughly lost, and when I recovered, had lost half an hour and everyone was tired, hungry and irritable. The last Scotsman to give us directions was absolutely the worst. He pointed, did not know street names, and did not understand that arterial streets are best for cyclists and tried to steer us on sidestreets. Never ever follow a Scotsman's directions, unless they're in the tourist information center or are showing the roads to you on a map. We did find the hostel at last, when I finally went with my instincts and took the arterial streets.
Unpacked, and changed, and then we were out looking for lunch. Over lunch, we talked about what we were going to do. Chris wanted to do "touristy stuff," and Scarlet and Sue wanted to find this sweater place that they had found out about in Ullapool, where they would make custom sweaters. I hate doing touristy stuff, and told them that I was going riding and it was too nice a day not to ride.
And so we broke up, agreeing to meet at the hostel at 8. Armed with my Bob Musette, my camera, a Bob No-Tech-Tool-Tote, an energy bar, my wallet, and no gloves, I was ready to face Edinburgh, alone. I first went to other Edinburgh train station, which was a lot closer than the one we got off at, to ask if our tickets were good for that station instead, and indeed it was. Then I headed for the center of Glasgow, the Edinburgh castle, and toured the castle, saw the crown jewels, took some photos and bought some chocolate. I felt as though a burden had been lifted from my shoulders, and it was a familiar feeling, being a lone tourist again.
From the castle, I could see this big mound rising off in the distance, and felt I had to climb that. That turned out to be Arthur's seat in Hollyrood park, near the palace. I ignored the palace and headed straight for the loop. I climbed as high the road would take me, at one point asking a local to take a picture of me. He told me that it's a nice walk up to Arthur's seat, and that it would be a good view there today, so when I got to the foot of the climb, locked my bike and climbed and climbed.
I hate walking, but the view at the top was so nice, it was worth the effort. I struck up a conversation with an Edinburgh native, David Wallace, a programmer for a health-service branch of the government ("soon to be privatized," he said, not without apprehension), and gave my chocolate to his daughters in exchange for a history and geological lesson. "This is an extinct volcano," said David, referring to Arthur's seat. Apparently, the castle too, was built on volcanic rock. He pointed out the universities, pointed out the radio tower in Glasgow (yes, you can see it from Edinburgh that day), showed me the bridge over to Fife, and talked about what the place was like 30, 50 years ago. His daughters would occasionally interrupt and correct him, having had their lessons a lot more recently. Then the history lesson. "This place was called `Edwin's Borough'," said Amy, "after the first chief of the Picts in this area." Apparently the name was eventually corrupted into Edinburgh. And so on. I must have spent 2 hours there just listening, and asking questions. One of David's children wanted to visit Shanghai. I asked her why, and she said, "it's because of this book I just read, and I'm now in love with Shanghai of the 1940s." I laughed. "Well, better visit it soon, because it's going to change completely in a few years." "Why?" "They're doing a lot of development, and they have no concept of environment impact." "I don't believe that," interjected David, "Edinburgh did a lot of development 50, 70 years ago, when they didn't know what environmental impact was, and look how well the city's doing." "Yes, father, but think, if this park here didn't used to be hunting grounds for the royalty, and that park over there wasn't owned by the lords, they wouldn't be here today. They were grazing sheep up here until recently!" I nodded. Edinburgh castle might the pride of the city, but it is here, in its parks, where you find the common people, that you find the soul and joy of the city.
I told David and his daughters about the San Francisco Bay Area, gave them my card, and invited them to drop by if they ever visited. They invited me to stay with them if I ever visited Edinburgh again.
Back down to the city, where I rode around some cobblestones (my respect for Paris Roubaix racers increased several notches that day), ate some baked potato off a tiny shop, visited the gardens around the castle, and then headed back to the hostel. To my chagrin, I learnt that one should never ride over cobbles at full speed with anything in his stomach. I felt real queasy after that. A shower and some rest, however, and I was ready to go for dinner.
Dinner was Indian, and I got my dish nice and spicy, and we struck up a conversation with the person next to me (who was staying in the same dormitory as Chris and I), a doctor (whose specialty was venerealology) on a year off, touring Europe with a backpack. Nice guy, lots of good stories to tell, bed bugs in London, disgust with Spain, his house on the beach in Australia near Sydney. Makes you want to take a year off too.
Then the others headed for a bar with Steve while I went back to the hostel to bed.
A return to the starting place, and the bikes are taken apart.
I got up early enough, feeling refreshed and ready for another day of riding, until I realized that this wasn't going to be another day of riding and became mildly depressed. I went to breakfast with a sour mood, alone, and then sat down by a table. But this Chinese guy at the next table down waved to me, and I relented and went over to join him. It turned out that he was a student from Hong Kong doing some training in London and taking the opportunity to tour a bit before returning to Hong Kong. He was a medical student, and spoke in partially halting English, but impressively good Mandarin. This is certainly a change from a few years back, when nobody from Hong Kong could be counted on to condescend to speaking Mandarin. The preparation for 1997 is taking hold.
We talked about this and that, and then Sue and Chris joined me and I introduced him to the others. He was done with his food just as Scarlet showed up, and then left at an embarrassingly convenient time. I gave him my card and asked him to write. "His Mandarin was pretty good," I told Scarlet (in Mandarin), "especially considering that he's from Hong Kong." "Meaning my Mandarin is no good...?" "I didn't say that."
Back upstairs to pack, brush my teeth, and head down again to meet Sue. I dragged the bikes out and mounted my panniers. Upon checking out, I noticed that there were other Chinese from Singapore. But they were from a completely different generation, and I had nothing in common with them. It did not take long before we were on the road, riding the two blocks or so to the train station. It took a while to get Sue's bike down, since no one person could lift the bike with the panniers mounted, and with some carelessness on my part, a strap was caught in the rear cogs and broken. Never ever leave a loose strap on a bike. It will get caught in some part of the drive-train, and before you know it, no more strap. Fortunately, I had extra bungee cords.
The train arrived, and we put the bikes onto the train and found seats. It was an easy ride back to the Ewington Hotel from the Glasgow train station after we found a tourist information center that gave us directions. We quickly dropped the panniers, moved the bikes to the rear of the hotel, and started dismantling the bikes. This time, I did not touch Susan's bike except for parts she absolutely could not do and gave her directions on dismantling the bike rather than doing it for her. On dismantling my bike, I was impressed when I inverted the frame and saw water droplets drip out of the seat tube. Yep, this has been one wet ride. This went well, and we were almost done packing our bikes into their respective boxes when Scarlet and Chris showed up.
"Ok, wrench wench," I said, "here's a test." I pointed to Chris' bike. "You're going to pack that bike into the box. What do you remove first?" "I don't know for sure, but I usually go for the pedals first." "Excellent! See guys?" I had given the test to both Chris and Sue separately before, and both of them failed, "Here's someone who knows what she's doing. You remove the pedals first because once you remove the wheels, it's quite a bit of a pain to remove the pedals. Besides, if you remove the pedals first, you get to use your full body weight to help with pedal removal, if that's what it takes to remove them."
Chris removed the pedals and I went away to cinch down the straps on my bike box, then turned around to find Scarlet with a wrench attacking Chris' fender spokes. "Wait, wait. What are you doing?" "Don't you need to remove this to dismantle the fenders?" "You really are a wrench wench. Look at the thing. Where are the attachment points of the fender to the frame? You don't ever touch the fender spokes if can." After that things went smoothly.
Lunch, then a stroll in Queen's park. Lovely, sunny day, with clouds occasionally blocking the sun. Kids playing cricket, soccer. A couple flies a kite in a nearby field. Scarlet and Chris lie down on the grass, sleeping... Children on the swings, birds around us chirping...
Sue had booked some fancy restaurant for dinner, and it wasn't long before we had to go there. I'm too much of a barbarian to really enjoy fancy Western restaurants. Roadside cafes and bar lunches are more my style, really. But since I wasn't all that hungry anyway, the meal went fine, and it tasted good. (But I would much rather be chowing down at some roadside cafe, after a long hard ride than eat at a restaurant after a day of taking a bike apart) The others had champagne, celebrating the end of a trip. I silently mourned it.
After dinner, Queen's park again to get pictures of the sunset, the only sunset we saw in Scotland. The colors were pretty, and we knew, somehow, that the weather was going to be perfect from then on.
Boring plane trip. Stupid plane movies.
Sunny skies greeted us at the airport that morning. We checked our bikes in, and I saw a lady with a bike, taking, and could not resist talking to her. She had ridden bicycles all her life, and was going south to England on a plane, and was bringing her bike with her, just one of many routine trips in her life.
I was delighted to shake her hand before joining the others.
We bought souvenirs, and I bought British bike magazines (definitely a must see, if you've never seen one before --- the depth of knowledge and the raw honesty of the reviews are worth it), and soon enough we were on our way.
I could not sleep at all on the way home.
June 22nd, 1995, Saratoga, California
What would I have done different? I would have brought an extra T-shirt. I would have passed on at least 1 tube of sunscreen, maybe both. I would not have brought any powerbars and stoker bars, since Chris brought more than a dozen, a ridiculous number. We were all sick of those bars by the time. I would have brought some beeswax, because several bolts worked their way loose during the trip, and the beeswax would have prevented that. Ironically, on my tour last year I brought along a hunk of beeswax and didn't need it, and this year needed beeswax but didn't bring it.
Requirements: 1 pack of cards, including 2 jokers.
Rules: The game starts with a score of 0. Every player starts with 4 cards, with the remaining cards in a deck. The player to the left of the dealer starts the game, and play starts going clockwise. Each turn, a player must play a card, and announces the new total after the card has been played, then draws a new card from the deck. Each card played is placed in the pile, and adds the face value of the card to the current score except for the following cards:
The current score may not exceed 99. If a player has no cards that may be played, she is eliminated from her game. Should the deck run out of cards the previously played cards are reshuffled and play resumes, except that jokers may only be played once per joker per game. The game ends when all but one player is eliminated, and that player is the winner.
We had a good time in spite of the weather, and had been extremely lucky in terms of lodging, always getting the last few rooms or the last room in places where lodging was difficult to find. When I started the tour, I thought that there would be at least one day when we would have to ride an extra 20 miles to get to the next accommodations, and we never had to do that. So relying on your luck if you go early enough in the season is not a bad thing at all.
It is as hard (or harder) to tour with other people as to tour alone, especially in the case when cycle-camping is not the method of touring, and travel is performed from hostel to hostel or from hotel to hotel. This is because no load-sharing occurs (except with regards to heavy tools), and the party is restricted to the speed of the slowest member. This occurs anyway, but in a lightly loaded group the effect is most pronounced.
I would have done a very different ride if I had gone alone. Certainly, going with others took away some of the flexibility I would have had to change direction midway --- I would have spent more time in the highlands, given a choice.
An interesting thing about touring with others --- I tend to ride faster when I'm with others. Maybe it's because my competitive instinct rises when I have someone strong with me to push me hard. The net result is that I've come back from this tour stronger than I've ever been. Definitely an unanticipated side-effect.
In summary, when visiting heavily populated (and popular cycle-touring spots) places like England or Scotland, going alone is preferred. Even if you are a man, you will certainly meet others who will be willing to ride with you en-route, and you can link up and break up as your riding desires and riding directions change. You won't get much of a chance to get to know each other (and you risk meeting people as a series of one-night stands), but the flexibility more than makes up for such considerations. American touring is far different, with large distances point-to-point, and the chances of meeting other cycle-tourists going in the same direction, even in a popular cycling spot like the Oregon Coast, is much lower, and hence going with a prearranged companion is more desirable. Furthermore, when cycle-camping, much more load sharing is performed, and again, a larger party that sticks together is commensurably also more desirable.
Despite what others might tell you or wish to have you believe, the Scots are an incredibly friendly people, and I don't think I had a single bad meal while I was in Scotland. I loved every meal, and found everyone very willing to help. Now, I would not follow a Scotsman's directions if my life depended on it, but that is a completely different matter entirely. The weather might suck, so plan a trip longer than 2 weeks if you have a choice. 3 weeks would be my minimum recommendation, and 4 weeks ideal. This gives you the chance to see Scotland under different conditions.
In any case, no matter how things turn out, you will have a good time if you have the right mindset. We certainly had a wonderful time.
I hope the others forgive my statements here. I made many mistakes on this tour that I think others (and myself) can learn from. I've been a very poor leader on this tour, and have concluded that I should never be in another tour as a leader and organizer. I certainly will not do so again without getting paid for it. While I managed to get everything organized early, and managed to set goals, gather a diverse group of people together, and help with several mechanicals, there were many days when I would just go off and hammer, alone or with Chris. A more experienced trip leader would probably have spent more time hanging back and helping with stragglers, and would have forced certain trip members to ship certain excessive gear home, rather than keeping quiet and waiting for them to take the initiative to do so. In many cases, I did not assert myself when I should have, and went with "the flow" (in this case peer pressure) rather than taking responsibility of my position as the ride leader and making tough decisions. Perhaps I was far too worried about my "popularity" with the crew and not worried enough about making the ride as best as it could be.
My first and biggest mistake was going on a tour in which the "expert" was outnumbered by the novices. I will never put myself in that situation again. First of all, the stress is high. Secondly, you get alienated from the rest of the group because you end up being the person nagging everyone else to get their act together, cajoling them when they're tired, and putting on a smiling face even when you're miserable. It's bad enough being all that, in addition to being the guy who tells them when they have to get up the next morning. I'm surprise that they're still talking to me.
In many ways, I was fortunate. Chris took over the overall day-to-day trip planning early on, which took a big burden off my shoulders, leaving me only with decisions like where and when to have lunch, and when to leave the hostel. Sue took over the plane-ticket negotiation and hotel reservation at the beginning, allowing me to keep my mind on selecting a general route and setting a vision of where we were going to be, as well as familiarizing myself with UK regulations on cycling, and train bike policy, etc. And Scarlet helped nag everyone else about the junk they were carrying and led in being an example of minmalistic touring that they could aspire to.
If you can, hold an equipment inspection before setting off. This will ensure that nobody brings unnecessary items like microwave ovens, televisions, hair dryers, curling irons, or boxes of powerbars. It will help to make sure that everyone has an Allen wrench set, a spare tube, patch-kit and tyre irons, things one should never leave the house without.
Know your companions before starting out. Unfortunately, many personality flaws do not show up unless you take your companions on multi-day trips, and you will see the worst of people when they are put under stress, like during a long and rainy bicycle tour. In this case, it turns out that the actual cycling preparation was more than enough, and everyone was strong enough to ride the distance everyday with enough left over to enjoy the evening, cycling is actually the easiest part of the journey. Everything else, coping with frequent rains, cycling in strange and unfamiliar territory, and not panicking when things go wrong is something that nobody can teach, and no one can train you for. One just has to adopt an attitude that no matter what happens, be it rain or shine, even if everything goes wrong, you will have a good time.
And ultimately, that's what's important. I had a great time in Scotland, and trust me on this, I will be back there, with or without a group.
As usual, the Reynolds Oven Cooking bags win the award for the most practical touring aid ever invented. They're waterproof, lightweight, and sized just right for whatever you might need to carry. The Ritchey CPR-14 comes second, with the adjustable crescent wrench a close third. The Carradice panniers held up well, and the others seemed to like them. As usual, the only pump I'll trust is the Silca pump with the Campagnolo plastic head.
In the lousy equipment category: my Cannondale panniers came in tops, in conjunction with PUAS. (Piaw's Unpatented Attachment System) This is my last tour on the Bianchi, using this set of panniers. I'm going to put together a Rivendell All-Rounder for touring for next year, and now that I know I really like touring, will not skimp on the equipment.
I must say, though, that I've now seen lots of people tour using the most unlikely gear and most unlikely bikes, that my conclusion is that it's the personality on the bike that's important, not the bike.
As an experiment this time, I took no notes, and only started making them on the plane back. So yes, all this was from memory.