Bike exploring: Help for Heroes
OS GetOutside Champion, Helen Pollard, takes us on a great Mountain Bike (MTB) route used as part of the delivery of MTB leadership training to Phoenix House staff in collaboration with Cycling UK.
The Hebridean Way, Sustrans route 280, isn't one I'd heard of until recently, but the exposure to brutal Atlantic winds and endless roads through breath-taking landscapes fuelled my urge to do it!
I had a week to do the trip - and this was to include travel from Lancashire. I considered all options of how to get back home after the ride (a 200 miles journey) - flights/trains/buses and even riding back down the route to catch the ferry to Oban. Even though they were all do-able, I couldn't quite manage this in a week.
I was cutting this fine with a week riding alone!
Cue the parents…. The Hebrides is somewhere they had talked about visiting for years and my Easter holiday snaps of white sandy beaches and mountains to hike was enough to convince them that they should make the journey North - oh and whilst you're there parents, if you could meet me in the evenings to fuel me up and then take me back to Oban for my car a week later that would be grand!
They bought it...The trip is a go!
Not including travel, I had 5 days to complete the ride. Looking back to our previous trip, I knew the first 2 days would be fairly flat, so I could average 18/19 mph, if the weather was in my favour, and hit the hills hard on day 3, then cruise to the lighthouse day 4!
My planned mileage per day wasn't going to be huge. As I’d blagged the parents to come along with me, I thought I'd best give them a chance to see the area rather than just playing chase all day. I planned daily rendez-vous points very carefully, either campsites or meeting points where I could pitch my tent, before they picked me up and I took them to my favourite places.
My plans also had to incorporate ferry times, day 1 and 2 had mid-way ferries, so the riding was not all plain sailing.I had to work out how long it was going to take me to get from A to B and be in time for a ferry! For the Route, all tickets were booked in one go with the Calmac Hopscotch 8. This covered all the ferries I would need for the route.
So, it was planned, 4 days of solo riding with a day off in the middle to walk with my parents...
Although my parents came along, I carried everything I needed myself, including clothes, food and sleeping bag and tent! I planned to meet up with my parents every night, but I was still having a solo adventure! And what if they didn’t make it to my rendez-vous point? Or I didn't?! I needed to be self-sufficient! I'm sure all parents love to hear these words?!? They do - but on our first and last night’s where we encountered those relentless Atlantic winds and they did not want to hear those words... I can remember the moment vividly, as I nearly took off, learning to fly with my Alpkit lightweight tent, Dad decided I'd be safer inside and he kindly offered me the dogs bed which I had to share with them of course (a mad springer and border collie) but, after a hard 90-hour week at work a good sleep would be a bonus before setting off.
The heavens opened just as I was about to set off, so I waited this out with a morning brew (crikey my parents can drink tea!) and minutes after finishing said brew, the rain stopped.
Yesss - Let's go!
Leg 1, across the small island of Barra to the ferry was only 13 miles but I gave myself 1 hr 45, in case of any bike issues. This was the first time I’d had all the bike packing kit with me, so a whole episode of dramas may have unfolded!
As soon as I set off, I felt the air of adventure; off on my own solo adventure, with a place to be at certain time on the quietest and most scenic roads I’d ever travelled.
No dramas encountered, I completed the first 13 miles in just under 45 minutes! Whoops, maybe set off a bit hot there? The weather was absolutely amazing though, so I sat by the ferry terminal in the sun, had a refuel and took in the scenery whilst I waited for the ferry.
Leg 2 was Eriskay to Bayhead. The Hebridean way, 280, cuts off the main roads so you're cycling on some quiet tracks, crossing over many causeways and running alongside white beaches for most of south Uist.
The Uist islands are very flat and the landscape is dotted with Lochs...
For the most part, I saw no-one, just the local wildlife.
I rode through herds of sheep just grazing casually by the side of the roads, highland cows looked over the fences at me and an eagle flew alongside me for a few hundred metres - I wasn’t sure if he thought I might be is dinner, we kept the same speed along a coastal stretch of road until he must have decided that I looked a little too chewy for his afternoon meal.
I met my parents at the rendezvous point, 35 miles in to the second leg and immediately said we should carry on whilst the weather was good.
I still felt so fresh, I’d covered just under 50 miles but being flat and with only a light breeze my legs just wanted to carry on…and more importantly I was on the hunt for a beautiful beach to go swimming!
I carried on another 20 miles and we stayed at Balranald campsite. A spectacular spot, with the white beach I was hoping for! After a quick, icy dip to refresh the legs (the Atlantic is pretty cold up there) I was ready refuel for day 2.
Another glorious day, with bright sunshine!
Day 2 would also incorporate a ferry, 20 miles in, so I had to plan my times carefully again. I planned for the 13:30 ferry, this way I could have a relaxing morning swim and walk with my parents, and leave at about 11:30, after all, I’m on holiday! On checking my ticket, I saw the time I had booked was completely different to those on my timetable, hmmm??
It must have been the big tide, as I remember looking up at the moon last night and thinking how big it was. My nautical background coming in here.
Now here’s a tip for you, BIG moon = BIG tide!
The ferry is occasionally restricted by the water depths and due to it being such a big tide, my ferry was restricted to either 08:50 or 15:20. With a mixed weather forecast for the morning, and high winds until lunchtime, I picked the latter, which meant I could set off with plenty of time, but also, I would not have to get up at the crack of dawn to get going. Like I said, I'm on holiday!
Leg 1, I set off at midday, after my morning swim in the sea, a walk with my parents and a light lunch. The strong Northerly wind seemed to have dropped off little too, or so I thought... I was wrong, what a battle Day 2 was.
After an average of 17mph on day one I was well and truly shot down with the wind on day 2. I kept looking down to see my speed, 8 mph, YES EIGHT miles per hour! And I was pedalling HARD…. pedalling hard and seemingly moving at a snail’s pace! The North-East wind was Brutal, I kept working out in my head that with 20 miles I'd only just make my ferry at this rate, I pushed harder, yikes I’ve got an average of 10 now! 10 miles an hour, 20 miles, that’s two hours!
I daren’t look at the map as I didn’t want to upset myself on my lack of progress. I did remember seeing a forest on the map which stuck out like a sore thumb as there aren't many of these on the islands (the weather is too harsh) and as I reached the forest and looked at the time, panic set in again, I really wasn’t making much progress.
When ferry signs started popping up I thought I was nearing the terminal; I wasn’t, but these sort of put my mind at ease! I pushed as hard as I could and didn’t stop for any photos, I took in the scenery as I huffed and puffed into the wild wind and yes, I made it, I made it with 45 minutes to spare! Phew! Now time for a catch up with the rents again, a refuel and a brew before the ferry arrived.
Leg 2. On reaching Leverburgh, I got straight off into the saddle. With it already being 16:30 I knew I had a hilly 25 miles ahead. Another superbly beautiful 25 miles too, 15 miles right on the edge of the island, with white sandy beaches to my left all the way, followed by 12 miles of hills through raw rugged boulder fields which felt like I was riding on the moon. Again, I was battling a headwind all the way and my gear cable (unbeknownst to me until I stopped and checked at Tarbert) had become trapped under my bar mounted tent making gear changing near impossible. 20 miles in I called the support van and told them I would meet them at the Gin distillery. It had been a difficult day, it was touching 18:30 and I would cover those extra 3 miles on my next day of riding.
I knew the perfect spot to camp for the night and this was 45 minutes drive down a road to nowhere and again. I needed to get my swim in!
On my day off we went hiking.
I wanted to show my parents the stunning views that we had experienced back in April, a short hike up and over a hill to a secluded white beach and we were lucky enough to be able to see the isle of St Kilda in the distance.
Smaller miles today to allow the parents to walk to Eilean Glas lighthouse before catching me up. Today’s miles were the ones I had most been looking forward to, for the hills! Descending with all the kit on my bike was so much fun, and the climbing wasn’t so bad either. The weather, again was spot on with a light tail wind.
The views were just as spectacular as the days before. Last time I was on Harris I tackled a few of the surrounding hills on my mountain bike, it was a great feeling to be back again, this time on a road bike, which was just as much fun and both so rewarding.
I stopped off at an eagle reserve for my lunch as I was in no particular rush today and my corned beef sandwiches were calling - no eagles spotted here but a nice peaceful stop.
I stopped again just a few miles up the road when I saw a couple with cameras and binoculars out… what are they looking at?
Aha! There are my eagles...!
Back on the road again I passed a couple on bikes also doing the Hebridean way, both were in there 70’s and had been on the road for a week already, they had planned 20 miles per day, so just another 3 days ahead of them! I stopped to chat and ride with them for a few miles and then off at my pace again. I arrived at the Callanish stones a lot earlier than expected so I sat outside at the visitor centre café and after copious amounts of tea and scones in the sunshine, I met up again with my parents and off we went to another beautiful beach! Yes, you guessed it, more swimming! Well... more of a dip as the weather came in and the wind was bitter.
I woke to very strong winds and sideways rain, just as it was forecast. Wow, when the weather comes in there it is unforgiving!
My support team drove me to the stones to start the route again - blimey, we nearly got blown over in the my parent's motorhome! They thought I should abandon the mission I was on, but when I set out to do something, there is no stopping me (and they know this)!
I donned my full winter kit, thermals/fleece leggings/overshoes and 2 coats, with another 2 ready to grab if I needed to mid-way. What an exhilarating ride this was! Maybe a little silly, but like I said… I'd set out to do something so I had to do it!
I had a cross wind all the way except a 2-mile segment where I had it behind me and I felt like I was flying along! The rest of the way I was literally flying my bike to a side wind, I ditched the tent off my bars into the motorhome for this stretch, in order to make my bike a little safer to handle. Still…. I got blown off the road twice by strong gusts on the open moorland. The last day showed just how exposed to the elements the islands are, how brutal the weather can be and how little shelter there is on these islands (also how lucky I had been to get the weather I had been blessed with for the previous 4 days!).
Knowing the forecast, I should have carried on from the stones to the Butt of Lewis the previous day- I had plenty of energy left – but I just wanted my support crew to see the wonderful beaches near Uig.
As I arrived at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse, perched 80ft up on the cliffs with the sea crashing beneath it, right on the outer edge of Europe, I was now in 3 coats and quickly found another; the wind was biting.
The Butt of Lewis is in the Guinness book of records for being the windiest place in the UK…
The sense of achievement from battling the wild Atlantic winds and sideways rain for the last leg was awesome, but I felt a little down that my first long distance bike-packing adventure was over already!
What a great time though, and this has just fired me up for finding more island routes to take on, there’s just something so exciting about biking on the Scottish Isles, and I can say without a doubt that I'll be doing it again!
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