This isn’t going to be a story about some amazing accomplishment, a world first, a fastest this or furthest that. It’s just the story of two people who took their bikes to Scotland; an average bikepacking trip by any definition.
Words by me, photos by Liam ‘the gate butler’ Glen.
We didn’t have amazing weather.
We didn’t go that far.
We didn’t travel very fast.
We went to explore.
To push ourselves.
To push our bikes.
To push our personal limits.
Every now and again in our relationship we forget how unmatched we are as riders and head off on a cycling holiday together. This time we picked Scotland and the Wild About Argyll Trail, a 655km loop taking in gravel tracks, forest roads, quiet roads and cycle paths. A large circular route easily accessible by car or train via Helensburgh with plenty of options to make shortcuts, disappear to the islands or seek shelter in a distillery. Perfect.
Disclaimer: I’m not a skilled mountainbiker by any stretch of the imagination and have questionable bike handling skills on the best day. Liam on the other hand is pretty handy and used to guide MTB so he should be able to handle his noob girlfriend on a gravel bike. Ha!
We put knobbly tyres on our bikes, packed our waterproofs, but not the midge repellent, and hoped for the best.
I also hadn’t ridden much over winter. A result of having a bad time with my head, a bad time with the weather and just trying to get by at work without having any energy for extracurricular activities. I’d mostly ignored the elevation profile of the route because I knew I wasn’t physically prepared for the trail.
We’d spent a lot of time in the lead up to this trip discussing how social media and the bike industry fuel the idea of the bikepacking dream and how this differs from 8 out of 10 real life experiences. We joked about how many people must invest in all the gear, only to spend a couple of nights away from home in a constant state of cold, damp despair before listing it all on ebay (other online auction platforms are available), but only after they’ve managed to post a handful of photos on instagram #bikepacking #adventure. That inspired us to write up this trip. We wanted to write this trip up in a way that portrays an average bikepacking trip as just that, average. The reality of spending a week on your bike, the ups and downs of an adventure where you become content with the smell of your feet and the view from your handlebars.
Day 1. One person’s gravel trail is another’s MTB trail.
We left the car in Helensburgh and set off up the first hill. The route started in beautiful sunshine and we quickly left civilisation behind as we followed a path out of the woods and onto open grassland. Layers were stripped and stashed away until we cruising along in jerseys and shorts. Scotland, in April! While the weather was exceeding expectations, so was the technicality of the terrain. Looking back, if it hadn’t been so gloriously sunny we might well have packed up and gone for a different ride! The dirt road ended, to be replaced by a tussocky ribbon of singletrack winding its way in and out of the woods, and a vertical wall that had bikes being pushed above head height. It was my first offroad experience on a gravel bike and came as quite a shock. It was clear that my descending skills would need to make a sharp improvement if we were to get round this route.
Eventually we popped back out on tarmac and dropped down to the road to the shores of Loch Long for the first ice cream of many. The Ardgartan peninsula and some easier forestry road was next. We had thought about spending the first night at Mark’s Cottage (bothy), but we were making good progress, so pressed on toward Lochgoilhead. Just as we were starting to dismiss the earlier slog as a one-off, the road ended again and we were back onto proper singletrack. It was the sort of terrain that you dream about for mountain biking – a contouring tyre-width trail disappearing off into the distance – but it was tough going loaded down on a rigid frame with 35mm tyres. Luckily, the spectacular landscape was enveloped in such glorious early evening light that it didn’t matter at all.
Through Lochgoilhead, my request to stop for a shandy in Cwas rebuffed as Liam was keen to press on and find a bivvy spot while there was still some light. There was little flat land visible from where we were riding. Lots of large rocks and pebble beaches, but most flat land was in people’s gardens or being used for a wedding at Carrick Castle!
Just before the track disappeared upwards and back into the woods, we passed an empty lochside patch of grass with a conveniently collapsed fence and decided that this was as good a spot as we were going to get. I was keen for a swim but I was more keen for food, even it consisted of packaged dried risotto. With an unusual amount of forethought, we’d brought a block of parmesan to spruce things up a bit. Apart from nearly cutting my thumb off trying to grate it with the Leatherman, it was an uneventful night. We curled up in our bivvy bags to the soundtrack of the covers band playing at the wedding reception back at the castle.
Day 2. Sometimes its ok to take shortcuts
We woke up to our misty loch side camp spot and in the time it took me to poke my head out of my bivvy Liam had cooked and nearly devoured all of the porridge. He thrust a spoonfull of luke warm porridge into my face. Rain was threatening and despite my attempts to shake a leg the tarp was wet before we managed to pack it away. The day started with a struggle, slippery wet forest tracks lead to much pushing. When we finally made it to forestry paths the gravel was larger than a clenched fist. I just had to relax, trust my bike to roll over it and try not to rattle too much. The relief of the land was unrelenting, either I was gritting my teeth on a steep downhill or out of the saddle grinding away uphill. All the while water seeping in from outside my raincoat and sweat pooling under it! Misty forest tracks eventually gave way to a rugged downhill farm track and we were washed out onto sealed roads. At this point we decided to take a shortcut to enable us to catch a ferry later and make the most out of the holiday. After all, it was supposed to be a holiday and not a hikeabike slog fest (turns out those two don’t have to be mutually exclusive!).
The gradients on sealed tarmac weren’t any more forgiving but without wall to wall conifers and a break in the rain the views from the coast road were fantastic. We stopped at a pub for a cup of tea and some snacks, and some pocket rations that constituted lunch. Not far to the ferry now and time in hand, so when we saw a little track heading off towards the shore we decided to follow it. A lovely deserted beach. It would have been rude not to swim, after all, how else do you wash on a bikepacking holiday?! A quick dip in the freezing lake and much faffing getting dressed. I glanced at my watch, we had 10 minutes to make the ferry in Portavadie. Eeek. We sprinted off to the ferry terminal to see the boat pulling away from the shore. I waved at the captain and did my best damsel in distress act, sure enough the boat reversed and came back for us. The coastal town of Tarbet looked so beautiful as we approached from the Loch. The sun had dropped and there was time to pull on some more layers before the quick hop across to Kennacraig to catch the Islay ferry. We rewarded ourselves for not ballsing up day 2 with fish and chips washed down with ice cream and Fyne Ale. My stomach was still rumbling so I persuaded Liam that second dinner was happening. We landed on Islay to the smell of malting barley and the most ferocious wind, luckily for our journey it was a tail wind and we made it to the shelter of the Islay cottage in no time! Too tired to look for the stop cock to turn on the water we fell into bed opting to worry about food and water in the morning.
Day 3. Wild camping on pause but still room for riding in the rain
We woke up to beautiful Islay in the daylight. Liam assumed hunter gatherer mode and brought back food supplies from the village shop. We enjoyed a not porridge breakfast and went for a swim. The water and air temperature screamed Scotland in April. Tired and cold I was reluctnat to leave the comfort zone of the cottage, but we were on a cycling holiday and we weren’t going to let a day go past without riding our bikes! However, we retained some sense of our priorites and went via the Bruichladdich distillery to book onto one of the afternoon tours. After booking we loitered on the sea front and watched some amusing highland sheep run across the beach. Liam was bunny hopping up and down a kerb. I made some ‘skills to pay the bills’ throwaway comment. ‘No, its easy. You can do that, just lift your front wheel as your right foot comes down on the pedal.’ 20 seconds later I was on the floor nursing my bashed knee.
We rode across the island making a loop around Loch Gorm. My legs were tired and in full holiday mode, reluctant to put any power down despite the incoming bad weather. Sure enough, about 10k away from getting back into Bruchladdich the Scottish skies did what they do. We turned up to the distillery tour dripping wet. It was quite funny when after the tour we were approached by the man who forages for plants for the Botanist gin who was clearly a cycling fanatic and asked us all about our dynamos, lights and USB converters for his next bike build! Sadly we didn’t get a bottle of gin for our advice. We sipped a few more drams, topped up our hip flask and then it was time to head back to frantically dry our sodden clothes, make some sandwiches and pack up. One last night in warmth and comfort, had to bank the rest for my tired untrained legs.
Day 4. It isn’t an adventure without a low point.
The early bird catches the ferry without nearly missing it so at the crack of sparrows’ farts we were extracting ourselves from comfort, kicking our legs over the bikes and sailing the tailwind to the ferry. The early birds also caught a glorious morning with beautiful light over the Paps of Jura and scattering across the water. Combined with the full Scottish breakfast onboard and I was starting to feel glad that I’d left my comfort zone again.
Back on main land and we began the climb to the highest point of the trail, the Allt Dearg community wind farm at a little over 400m. This gravel climb was horrific. Everything was unrelenting; the gradient, the headwind, the rain. Less than half a day since leaving creature comforts and it was all falling apart. Determined not to get off and push I grinded the pedals to the top. Raging wind and rain (who would have thought it would be ruddy windy where you’d build a wind farm!) dictated that it wasn’t possible to stop at the summit and regain strength. We sheltered behind one of the windmills and I nibbled down some food for strength on the descent. The descent was just as nails and energy sapping as the climb. Once we got to the bottom I was at a real emotional low. I stopped and hung my the handlebars. Liam tried to tempt me on, saying we’d find somewhere sheltered to sit and eat our sandwiches. I got off my bike and sat down on the spot like a stubborn toddler refusing to go on (assisted in this act of protest by waterproof shorts!). Liam humored me, sat down next to me and opened up the sandwiches.
Blood sugar hanger recovering I got back on the bike and we carried on. Explored a cave and then started climbing again. It got steep quickly and it didn’t take much to convince me to get off and push. An appropriately located bench provided the perfect perch for another sit down. This one looked over the loch and up towards the windfarm climb. I ifelt a combination of accomplishment and astonishment at where we had been! I think Liam had to feed me more food to get me moving again. We were starting to run out of flapjacks et al and route research suggested that there may not be many resupply points on this next stretch. We passed an ancient church with some interesting stone carvings and failed to get on to the most beautiful beach for a swim. The weather quickly moved in and it felt like minutes that seperated us from bimbling bicycle tourists to determined to avoid hypothermia steely eyed explorers running on empty. Just when I was starting to break we came across an honesty cake shop in a shed at the side of the road! Yes, a mail order cake company that had a hot drinks machine and box upon box of cake sheltered away in a bright blue wendy house! I couldn’t get off my bike fast enough and we both emptied the change out of our pockets and worked out how we could get the most chocolatey calories for our pennies. The day got better from here helped by sugar and better weather we reached the canal and a pub with the best fish and chips ever. Lots of fish and chips have been described as the best ever, and its easy to say that when they have been consumed by a weary traveller in dire need of fish and chips. But trust me, these were truly the best fish and chips ever. No doubt. After dinner we rode about an hour to make the most of daylight and ended up bivvying in the shelter of an abandoned chapel. Obviously coming round to approach Glasgow now as towns got bigger and the number of fancy boats on the waterways had increased exponentially.
Day 5. Go to Scotland they said. Stay in a bothy they said.
It isn’t a proper adventure if you don’t redefine your concept of your lowest point at least twice. It was hard to get moving on Day 5. I’d had to dig deep to make it over the climbs of Day 4 and running from empty for a portion of the day had taken its toll on my legs and my enthusiasm. I had to drag myself through and by midday it was looking like I might be at an end. Despite the weather opening up and chunks of road in the route improving progress I just couldn’t put my head into a positive place. Everything felt 10 times harder than it needed to be because of my own dark fog clouding my vision. We stopped in a little cafe for lunch and all I wanted to do was nap. Goodness knows what Liam thought he might do with me if I gave up. Several cups of tea and sympathy ice cream later and while mentally given up I physically got my body back turning the cranks. Off up another forestry climb we went but this time there was the promise of a bothy to stay the night. I’ve never stayed in a bothy before and allowed myself to daydream about what this one might have in store for us. I let myself fantasise about lighting a fire and drying my soggy feet.
We climbed up out of the treeline and out onto the top of the hills, snaked along past bird hides and logging machinery. Aware that the turn off to the bothy was approaching we kept an eye out to our left. I thought I spotted a track, but after 30 mins of hike a bike we decided I was probably wrong. We hiked back to the main track and rode along, next left turn we were met with the optimism of a sign declaring that the track had been eroded beyond a certain point, Liam was confident that said grid ref was below the bothy and therefore nothing to worry about we carried on. Now. do describe this as a path would be lying. It was a river, occasionally interrupted by a bog. After 10 minutes I asked if this was a good idea. Yes yes of course it is. On we go paddling our bikes down the river, feet and ankles totally soaking wet. Really is this a good idea? What’s the point of warming up overnight if we just start tomorrow with wet feet? No still a good idea on we go. After about an hour of not finding the bothy and just finding more stream Liam conceded that perhaps starting the day with a 1 hour riverwalk wouldn’t be the best idea. Back we went.
Somehow after that everything was easier. As if I needed something really crap to make me feel better and recover my sense of humour. I was laughing again, at us and at our situation. In the end we went over the top of the hill and descended the gravel down to the edges of Loch Fyne, where thanks to the freezing temperatures of April enjoyed a midge free lakeside view. We got some easy cook rice going on the stove and removed our sodden kit. I realised that getting out of the sleeping bag in the night for a wee would be hard without getting into muddy spds. Then I realised that empty bikepacking bags doubled up into a rather fetching pair of waterproof camp slippers. This filled me with no end of joy and pride at my ingenious ingenuity! I went to sleep that night feeling rather pleased with myself and relieved that I’d started seeing the funny side of things again.
Day 6. Just when you think you can’t get any wetter, you remember you’re in Scotland in April
We made a few road based shortcuts back to base in Helensburgh. Torrential rain confirmed that this was the right decision. I felt like I was absorbing water by osmosis and a conveniently placed garden centre at the edge of Loch Fyne provided appropriate shelter and cake. A day of two halves when the rain finally dried up we had glorious sunshine around Loch Lomond. More ice cream was consumed and before we knew it we were making the final descent into Helensburgh. I was ready for this trip to be over. Yes, it had been an adventure but I was exhausted and soggy to my core. That’s the reality of a trip that offers respite and perspective from our 9-5 lives. I enjoyed having dry feet again.