A Rider's Dream - 10 Days Of Touring The Hebrides
Posted on 24th June 2022 at 15:24
Our senior cycling instructor, British Cycling training consultant and life long cycling nut Mark Grange is enjoying a 10-day cycling tour of the Hebrides islands in Scotland, including the 185-mile Hebridean Way. This is a bucket list route for many cyclists so we wanted to share Mark’s solo ride experience of the mountains, big skies, white beaches and views of the Atlantic Ocean. We caught up with Mark’s for a quick chat about the experience on his return home. His daily diary can be found below.
What did you notice first about cycling in the Hebrides?
A lot of the roads are single track with passing places so you don’t see that many people out. There’s a great community spirit there and you pick up on that. The people there are proud to be islanders. They are proud to face the weather.
You upgraded to a Trek Checkpoint shortly before the ride. How was it?
The Checkpoint was superb. I wanted a gravel bike to do the Hebrides because I wanted something a bit more robust, with wider tyres so I could go off road if I wanted to. I did leave the Hebridean Way sometimes and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s great to be able to improvise.
The trip had initially been planned as a cycling holiday for you and your wife Hazel who couldn’t go because of injury. Were you worried about being lonely or bored?
I had done Land’s End to John O’Groats on my own many years ago so I wasn’t concerned that I’d get lonely. You also meet people on the way and get chatting easily. It was a great trip. I had quite a leisurely ride as doing 185-miles in eight days is taking it quite easy. Then I had a shock to the system when I got to Ullapool and I had 160 miles to ride back to my van in two days.
What was your favourite part of the trip?
One day I stopped at a roadside van, right next to a lovely beach. I stopped there, had a crab sandwich, sat on this beautiful, sandy beach having my coffee and sandwich and I just thought it was amazing. Every now and again there’s a view that makes you stop and think “Wow, that’s amazing". It was a great experience and I would definitely do it again!
Mark's Daily Diary
Pre-ride and kit – Tuesday, June 21
Well tomorrow I make the car journey to Oban and Thursday I will be on the ferry across to Barra.
The Hebridean Way is 185 miles with two ferries and six causeways between the islands. I am cycling from south to north over eight days.
I am cycling between hotels and all my ferries and hotels were booked via Hebridean Hopscotch, a local travel agent in Stornoway. The final ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool puts me some way from my vehicle in Oban so I have decided to cycle down to Loch Ness then head across to Oban which is another 154 miles (over two days).
The photos above show some of what I’ll be carrying for 10 days and my Trek Checkpoint SL6, from Big Bear Bikes, of course.
Day 1 – Castlebay to Vatersay
The ferry from Oban was just under five hours to reach Castlebay on Barra. On arrival, I rode past the hotel just off the ferry ramp and took the short return leg to Vatersay to the official start of the Hebridean Way. Thankfully just one small hill on the 20 km ride with narrow roads and a collection of random houses with the smells of the sea and my first sight of one of the white sand beaches that the Outer Hebrides are renowned for. En route I passed the site of a RAF tragedy when a Catalina aircraft crashed in 1944.
Day 2 - Barra
A relatively short ride on Barra as I set off after breakfast to catch another ferry to Eriskay. A bright and warm start to the day which is a treat on the Outer Hebrides. I was ahead of schedule so took a detour to Barra Airport, the only beach runway for commercial flights in the world. No chance to see any flights this morning as the tide was in. I arrived early for the ferry but found an excellent cafe at the ferry ramp serving superb flat whites. The home baking looked a treat but I was still feeling the effects of the cooked breakfast. The 30-minute ferry trip across the Sound of Barra was calm and there were plenty of seals basking on the rocks. It was nice to chat with the locals and a couple of other cyclists on the ferry.
The 60 km ride to the next hotel went quickly with a following wind and relatively flat roads. I even sampled some off-road routes on the Trek Checkpoint and visited the Lady of the Isles statue. A superb day and I appreciated the vastness of the terrain... with high mountains as the backdrop.
The winds are notorious in the Outer Hebrides and today it was windy - around 28 to 35 mph. Luckily riding the route south to north meant I avoided some of these south-easterly winds, although when the road turned east I had to endure the slow pace of 8 mph and just grind through it. However, the backwinds pushed me along at some pace. The plus side of the day was sun and no rain so overall a great day in the saddle. Uist was not my favourite island – plenty of birds but a relatively flat landscape. Although the distant mountains backdrop and passing more white sandy beaches were wonderful sights from the road.
I had a late ferry to cross the Sound of Harris to Harris. So lunch was extended with a helping of crab roll and lemon drizzle cake, all taken in some rocks on the beach away from the winds. I was slightly worried when the bike toppled over from a gust and landed heavily on the rear rack but thankfully there was no damage to the Tailfin carbon rack. The crossing of the Sound of Harris is no easy crossing for the ferry and the crew had to meander the sound between the buoys for the next 60 mins to make it to Leverburgh and the B&B.
Day 4 - Leverburgh to Tarbert
I had a great B&B just off the ferry at the end of Day 3. Taylorhill BB run by a local family, very helpful and on Sunday I was in no rush to leave. It was raining and forecast for rain all day. I had not only a short 20 mile ride to Tarbert but I knew there would be no shops, tea rooms or attractions open. In the Outer Hebrides, Sunday closing is strictly observed.
With so much time on my hands I opted for the east coast road up Harris, hilly but with a very lunar type landscape. The road sometimes called 'the Golden Road' after a newspaper, critical of the road costs, incorrectly over stated the actual costs to build it.
Thankfully although it was raining I again had a back wind to help me on my way. I made good time to Tarbert and the Harris hotel. Time for an early afternoon pint!
Well, a great night at the Harris Hotel. The establishment has a reputation for good food, and it certainly delivered with a superb evening meal and quality breakfast. After breakfast, it was the usual drill; check the bike, wipe down the chain and re-oil, pack, get my daytime running lights on, and off with a leisurely mid-morning start.
Day 5 was expected to be a good day on the trip. Not only a hilly route (I do like hills) with a big climb from the off, but later in the day a planned stop at the Callanish Standing Stones a mere 5000-year-old set of arranged stones on the Isle of Lewis. Again, mixed weather - sun, rain, sun, and rain. The roads throughout the trip have been quiet and a good surface. Today I was not expecting any cafe stops, but found a garage mid-ride. Then, a major IT issue - my mobile stopped working. This meant I could not take any pictures in the afternoon, and of course missed some pictures of the Callanish stones.
I arrived mid-afternoon at my next stop. Not the best hotel at Carloway and over-priced food. Day 5 was 44 miles and 2500ft in height.
In the bar, I met some Americans and a local B&B owner, who was travelling with friends from the UK and Germany. We had dinner together and a few pints.
A quick charge had resolved my locked phone, and I decided to revisit the Callanish Standing Stones on day 6.
Its great to see the differences in the landscape across the islands. These bike trips immerse you into the landscape, and life becomes so simple; pedal, think where to ride, what to see, what food to eat, and what the weather is going to do.
This was going to be the final day on the Hebridean Cycle Way, but my route would be to retrace 10 miles to revisit the Callanish Stones with my working phone for those pictures I missed yesterday. Then, to head North to the Butt of Lewis - the end of the Official Hebridean way. However, the adventure would continue as I still had to cycle to Stornoway and had a further 2 days to get back to Oban and my van.
I delayed my start as the rain was due to finish by 10am. When I hit the road, it was clearing up.
The Callanish stones are amazing to see set against the sky and the wide-open landscape. Access is free for visitors to walk around and admire. No one knows why they were placed there. I also met some fellow cyclists who I'd seen and passed over the last few days. They are also riding the same route back to Oban.
I headed back north after a quick flat white in the visitors centre - anyone who knows me will appreciate my need for regular caffeine!
A few nice added things to see on route; an example of a Croft and another at the Shawbost MIll (known as the Norse Mill and kiln). This was one of some 200 mills in Lewis and this milled grain into the 1930s.
Afternoon cafe was found, more caffeine and added cake this time.
I reached the Butt of Lewis by mid-afternoon and whilst it was good to know the official 185-mile route had been completed, its always slightly saddening to reach the end of any official route. Also, I still have some big days in the saddle to come with another 185 miles to ride to get back to Oban.
Tomorrow is the ride to Stornoway, with a ride across the remote Pentland Road.
Although the official Hebridean Way route was now behind me I still had some miles ahead to cover. Day 7 was another easy day with a route to Stornoway to catch the ferry on Thursday to Ullapool.
I had met some cyclists two days ago who told me about the Pentland Road, a quiet road from Carloway in the west of Lewis to Stornoway in the east. The road is so called after Lord Pentland, who was a minister with official standing for roads in the early 1920s. So with time on my hands, I decided to head further south from the main road route to pick up this quieter bit of tarmac.
The north easterly wind speed was low and so it was a good day to cycle into a Hebrides head wind. Passing through Bragar, I stopped to see the whalebone arch. These were the jaw bones from a beached and harpooned blue whale found by locals in the 1920s. The harpoon head hangs from the arch and the bones have been covered in fibre glass to help their preservation.
The Pentland Road was quiet. The terrain is a barren moorland, an area where peat is cut, a practice to get this fuel source cut, dried and ready to be used for winter fuel.
As I approached Stornoway, the highest point above the town is dominated by a large tower which is a War Memorial. The islands of course lost islanders fighting afar in the world wars. But also in 1919 the island saw a huge loss of life in the entrance to the harbour. when HMY Iolaire, a yacht, was transporting local soldiers from the war back home. The ship sank in dificult waters with the loss of 201 men, almost all the young male population of Lewis.
A quick visit to pay my respects at the memorial and then into town for a coffee and book into my hotel. A nice day with 35 miles and 1500 feet of climbing completed today.
This was a rest day. My ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool was at 2pm, so I spent the morning visiting Lews Castle in the town. Lews is a country house built in Victorian times. The castle is also home to the Museum nan Eilean, which features stories of the islands and islanders.
The afternoon ferry crossing to Ullapool took 2.5 hours. A calm crossing, and the passengers were on their feet mid-crossing to see a shoal of around 30 porpoises making their way south.
On arrival at Ullapool, I booked into the hotel, then walked a few yards to check out the Ullapool bookshop - a rarity these days to find such a great bookshop. Then onto the Seafood Shack, serving local seafood with a small outdoor area overlooking the harbour.
Day 9 - Ullapool to Loch Ness 85 miles 4000ft of ascent
It was a relatively early start, leaving Ullapool at 7.30am. The sun was out as I pedalled, along the foreshore, and the harbour water was like glass mirroring the clouds above. I was expecting headwinds, but again the wind god was being kind with just a gentle wind.
There was chance for a morning coffee stop before deviating to see the Rogie Falls. The scenery today was no less dramatic than the Outer Hebrides, but higher mountains and hence more valleys. Oh...and more cars!
Nearing Inverness called for a long lunch stop and chance meeting of some cyclists I had met from the Outer Hebrides. I had made such good time, I made an extra loop through Strathglass before turning south to Loch Ness and the Lochside Hostel.
The Lochside Hostel is a superb independent hostel with views over the Loch and literally a stone's throw from the water's edge. With hostel stays, you are always guaranteed to meet a few characters. Also very reasonable prices, my breakfast was just £3.50.
I was early to bed and planned on a relatively early start to ride to Loch Ness.
Day 10 - The final day Loch Ness to Oban 87 miles 4000ft of ascent
I was on the road for 8.30am and heading down the Great Glen, the route involved some of the off-road tracks on the Great Glen Way.
I was soon cycling up some steep tracks from the road, and heading in the opposite direction were a few runners competing in The Great Glen Ultra Marathon, I met a few tired-looking and limping competitors. It looked tough!
Some of the route took me along the Caledonian Canal and was a chance to watch some boats coming through one of the many locks.
The off-road tracks were great to look down on the lochs and canals, but the cost was slower speed. There was no chance for a coffee stop today.
Mid-morning and the heavens opened, the worse rain I had so far, thankfully I was running daytime lights which came in handy in heavy traffic around Fort William.
This was turning into a tough day, added to a sore throat and had picked up some lurgy on the trip I just hoped this was not the start of a covid infection. 20 miles from the end...puncture and the tubeless rear tyre were leaking sealant and spraying it all over the bike. A stop and examination to find a shard of plastic had caused the leak. A quick repair with the Muc Off tubeless repair and I was off again.
I arrived in Oban around 5pm. It had been a tough day and the hardest overall. I was glad to get a coffee at last!
If you would like help planning a dream cycling trip, here or abroad, on road, mountain, gravel or electric bikes, please call into our Pickering sister store, Big Bear Bikes, and our experienced team will be happy to help with advice. Consultations with Mark are also available. What's on your bucket list?
Share this post: