Biking to Ben Lomond

Waking to a silhouetted figure standing over me in the dark I leapt out of my sleeping bag with a start. I had forgotten there was a bronze statue at the end of my bed in the conference room of the Metal Bridge Inn. Leaving the shelter of the pub to step out into the rain I found a strange sense of Deja Vu. I was now starting a new stage of the trip, I was on my way to the mountains. For a second time I was sheltering under the bridge by the river esk in a drizzle. At least this time I had just thirty minutes to reach Gretna and a coffee.

Crossing the border to Scotland I stopped for a quick photograph at the Welcome to Scotland sign. It was greatly amusing to be forced to que for the moment, there were three separate groups (two going north, one going south) doing the Lands end John O’Groat ride already there. We had all arrived at the same time. There was a satisfaction despite the snobbish giggles from one of the road bikers that my bike was significantly more laden than any other. In the few minutes at the sign a steady stream of bikers arrived, posed and left.

IMG_2091Notice the steady stream of bikes arriving

Sheltering in a small cafe in Gretna for a morning coffee I lingered in the cafe. I didn’t mind waiting, a storm had started outside with the first real wintery rain and wind of the year. I watched behind a rain splattered window as the roads slowly turned into rivers and trees shed their leaves to the gales. I was looking forward to reaching Dumfries in the evening, I had been kindly offered a bed at my aunt and uncles house (Pippa & Allistair), still suffering a little with a cold I looked forward to a warm bed at the end of the day. I was also looking forward to meeting my godmother Marian somewhere on the road during the day.

Barely 10 minutes after leaving the cafe I was soaked to the core. No waterproof other than thick oilskins would have had a chance at keeping the driving wind from pushing water through to my skin. It was oddly liberating to be wet so soon, I no longer had to worry about being dry and found great enjoyment in racing through deep puddles along the roadside. I ducked to shelter behind the hedges as I went and prayed not to be blown into traffic by a sudden gust.

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I started to pass small yellow race signs as I travelled north. I soon discovered I had unwittingly chosen my route to follow a stage of the ‘Tour Of Britain’ bike race. At the moment I was leading the pack an hour ahead of some of my heros Mark Cavendish  & Bradley Wiggins. The two hour head-start certainly helped a bit.

The closer I rode to Dumfries the wetter the weather became. It was starting to be a struggle to simply stay on the bike in the howling wind and regular fords over floods in the road meant dipping my boots underwater as I pedalled. I wondered if the race would be cancelled.

Rain in the mirror

Rain in the mirror

I was approaching the final 10km. Marian had yet to find me and had gone on a long wild goose chase in search of my position, we agreed to meet in Dumfries centre later in the day. At every corner of the road crowds had gathered to cheer the real bikers on their way to the finish. I took devious amusement in riding along the roads to an increasing cheering clap followed by awkward mutter ‘ err he doesn’t look like he’s racing.’ The swearing paparazzi who immediately leapt into the road with a burst of blinding camera flash glared as I smiled and waved. Watching them hunch over their cameras to fervently delete the useless photos of a random biker was the cherry on top. 

The race was delayed by about an hour. I was still ahead of the group when I reached the summit of the last hill toward Dumfries. The rain had finally gone and sun started to steam dry the narrow roads. I took my time hoping to get passed by the excitement before I reached my destination. The crowds were gathering in terrific numbers, I wooped to loud applause as I whizzed into Dumfries and passed the finish line first place.

Pushing the bike to a bench by the riverside I joined the throng to wait and cheer. Marian arrived just in the nick of time with coffee in hand. Neither of us had known about the race until the morning and relished the eager cheer as Wiggins and Cavendish soared past in a blur of spokes and lycra. We set off into town to find somewhere to eat together. Marian bought me the biggest burger I think I have ever seen, with the justification that it was ‘energy for the pedals.’ 

Back on my own and so stuffed I was waddling I made my way to Pippa & Allistairs house. They were away on holiday but had left a key hidden nearby. Letting myself inside I collapsed into the shower and bed for some well needed rest.

* * *

I took a couple of days lingering in Dumfries to tackle the last of my cold. When I set off again I was feeling much better and ready to get back to the tent. I was ready to leave but Dumfries wasn’t quite ready to let me go. It took two hours of dead end cul-de-sacs and industrial complexes before I found a way to get out of the urban sprawl and into the countryside.

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Rolling green fields lead the way north. Catching a small plaque on a dilapidated old building I discovered by chance the smithy used by Kirkpatrick Macmillan; the inventor of the pedal bike. It was amazing to find the origin of biking to be in such poor repair, an old car rusted outside, the windows were cobwebbed in frames which peeled their pain. Only the small plaque and an old rusting bike propped against the wall gave any sign of its important past.

IMG_2161The birth place of the bike 

I took great pleasure in slowly winding along undulating roads in the peace of the countryside. I past more cuckoos than cars as I rode along the hedge rows, distance seemed to slowly and steadily just disappear. Occasionally I would stop in little towns along the way for another cheap coffee or a pastry, I hoped to gain a little weight before the hills.

As the fields turned into small hills I found myself struggling to ride up steep roads which meandered between farms, fields and woodland. Occasionally stopping to rustle a few apples from roadside orchards I achieved my 5 a day. The rosy apples tasted all the more sweet knowing they were free.

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I arrived at the small town of Sanquhar on the edge of darkness. I rode through quickly scouting for a place to camp. I found nowhere so decided to push on in the night onto a steep pass through the mountains a little further north. I rode hard for an extra two hours with no luck finding anywhere to set a tent before finally finding a gate into a disused field. Pushing the bike to the edge of a river nearby I threw the tent up in the rain for a cold, wet night.

IMG_2191Sanguhar 

It wasn’t until morning that I had the chance to properly see where I had camped. It had been a great find and a very sheltered spot to ride out the rain and wind which had rolled across through the night. The close access to water was a welcome bonus for an extra morning cuppa.

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It was a long slow climb on stiff legs first thing in the morning. Meter by meter I rode in my lowest gears to reach the top of the hill. Once at the top I enjoyed a gentle freewheel to ride across the uplands which more than made up the speed lost in the gradual morning pace.

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The quiet road was clearly a popular camping spot from nearby Glasgow. It would have been a great place to pitch up for a night had it not been for the abhorrent amount of rubbish left in their wake. Every ditch, passing place and sheltered refuge was buried in bin bags full of Tenants cans, broken glass and crisp packets. It helped keep me moving as I didn’t want to pull onto the verge and risk a puncture on the glass. At least the scenery made up for the dirty foreground.

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The dull roar of the M74 Duel carriageway announced my arrival at the very top of the hill. I turned from the road onto the best cycle path I had been on so far. 5 miles of old tarmac road had been closed off for bikes only, it followed the same gradual climb of the M74. The only difference was that I had the entire road to myself.

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There was a start contrast in leaving the quiet personal road to pedal terrified a two kilometre along the duel carriage way. No matter where I looked I could find no alternative, for the first time on the bike two kilometres felt like a long, long way. Trucks roared past just inches from my side, cars beeped and screamed past over 60mph, I hugged into the pot-holed hard shoulder and focused on pedalling as furiously as possible.

It was a long 10 minutes before I reached the sanctuary of a single track road once more. It would add an extra 7km onto the journey but was a much more welcome alternative to another short stretch on the hard shoulder. I’d rather put in more effort and survive.

The narrow track wound upward at a gentle slope. Passing small towns and open fields filled with content looking cattle I rode onward in a fantastic mood. The sun was arriving in full glory and wind was warm against my face, my only risk was getting flies stuck in my broad smile. Occasional coal heaps rose in the fields, the man made mountains reminded me a lot of the little triangular hills I had passed in Iceland which fuelled happy memories as I rode.

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For the second night in a row I would avoid staying in a tent. I had arranged to lodge with a Tiff (A colleague of my dad’s) & her husband Richard. Reaching the top of a long freewheel into town I caught my first proper view of Glasgow, I was glad not to have to find somewhere safe to sleep on the streets of the city and looked forward to an evening in good company. The sun was sinking in the sky, I could afford a relaxed pace to finish the day and would arrive in perfect time for dinner.

IMG_2236City and country aren’t far apart

I had forgotten the first rule of complacency. Just a kilometre into town I was riding on the edge of the road concentrating hard on avoiding busy traffic, BANG! BANG!.PSSShhhhh….

I immediately hammered on the brakes and pulled onto the kerb. The bang had been so loud I thought I had broken a spoke. I felt a slow sinking feeling under the saddle. On close inspection I found I had ridden over an upright screw and burst both tyres. I had hit it so hard the screw was stuck in the rim tape inside my wheel.

It was the first time I had ever replaced a tyre on my new bike, the change over was the exact opposite of an F1 Pit-stop. It was a slow, disorganised and messy affair. Taking a full half an hour to replace the front tube and patch the rear I rode on with glue sticking my fingers to the handlebars. I made a further 500m before a second Bang..Pshh. The presta valve had blown launching the little brass cap into the distance like a bullet. This posed a new problem, I had just used my spare tyre.

Patching the popped tyre I had just replaced took another thirty minutes. I was frustrated and annoyed that I would be late to arrive at Tiff’s I was just far enough away that pushing was an impractical option.

Arriving in the dark to the house my deteriorating mood was instantly lifted with a cup of tea and a colossal steak dinner. Chilling out with Tiff and Richard we chatted bikes (to which Richard has a minor obsession) long into the evening, a wonderful way to relax after a long day.

* * *

Four and a half months in wild and remote places left me feeling somewhat ferral as I rode through Glasgow centre. There were people everywhere, I weaved the heavy bike between them to a sea of bemused stares. I didn’t know where to look or who to look at, there was so much going on all at one, I gazed around fervently.

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I rode with my kayak whistle between my lips, a 120Db of improvised improvement to a bike bell. It certainly helped scare the taxies out of the way. I stopped for a brief coffee and catch up with friend Lauren who was living in Glasgow post degree. It was great to see another familiar face while letting the rush hour traffic subside.

Back on the road I dodged, weaved and blindly panicked my way toward the edge of town. I am terrible at navigating urban areas and was soon utterly lost on the hunt for a canal path.  “Heyyy Its a bikey man!” I turned around to find three students riding classic steel bikes wheeling up behind me. ‘Where are you going with that!!” One of the girls asked, explaining the group looked at each other ‘Can we come?’ And so out of nowhere I was escorted from Glasgow in the great company of three fellow student cyclists.

We laughed as we got lost in a park, and wound to and fro through the streets to find the illusive Cycle Route 7 which would take me north. Their hand panted bike frames and clickers on the spokes were wonderfully retro. As I reached the edge of town the rain arrived and my new friends turned back to go to lectures. I was sad to see them go but keen to leave the bustle of town.

The silence of the canal path was blissful after the frantic dodging of traffic all morning. I was still in the city but was surrounded by trees reflected in the still waters of the canal, it just showed how easy it is to find peace if you are willing to look for it.

Pedalling fast down the track I had my first spill on the bike. Riding at 25km/h a bee found its way into my t-shirt. Flailing like an idiot and forgetting I was on a moving bike I promptly had a spontaneous adventure into the bushes with a shriek and a cartwheel. The Bee survived. With a large sting on my chest, a grazed knee and a bruised ego I picked chunks of grass from my frame before riding on along the canal. 10 minutes later I found to my horror the banana I had kept in my pocket for lunch was now an effective sticky pocket liner instead.

In the wake of the independence debate graffiti adorning the tow path walls read funny slogans like ‘Go Home Inglish’, ‘Freeedom!’ and ‘Vote yes ya dobber!’  it didn’t help in persuading me toward the yes side of the argument what so ever. Remaining in a grey zone on which side I would choose I pedalled into Balloch.

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A short ride from town later I pulled into Portnellan Farm; the home of Chris who was one of the Outdoor Education troop at University. Greeted with a warm home and great dinner with good banter it was a wonderful third night away from the tent. The Scott-Park family are one of the most hospitable I know. One of the best things about being a farm is you worked for your dinner I would stay for a further day to catch up with Chris and help on the farm before tackling my first munro. Just across the loch Ben Lomond stood waiting to be climbed.

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