Looking back, but also looking forward. This tour is easily manageable for a reasonably fit rider.
Opportunity presented itself for brief Highland fling. I managed to purchase an inexpensive Caledonian sleeper ticket from Scotrail on 1st February for travel on 10th March. The thirty eight day wait was almost too much. Took the Salsa Vaya ‘2’ 2011 model equipped with small bar bag for valuables, and two Axiom 45l waterproof modular panniers.
After a mild, dry spell, the forecast for the trip was for freezing cold snow showers. The forecast was accurate. Monday 11th March 2013, was possibly the coldest conditions I have ever cycled in. The panniers coped well with the necessary extra clothing and kit.
A bitter Northeasterly swept in over the Moray Firth as I crossed the snow-bedecked Kessock bridge. The 800 ft climb to the Eagle telephone mast on the Black Isle did little to warm me up physically, but the panoramic views from the top of the ridge made the spirit glow.
Normally the route would include a crossing of the Firth on the quirky Nigg ferry, but it only runs from May until September. A traverse of the Cromarty road Bridge was necessary and then a bike-unfriendly mile along the A9 led to the turn-off for Evanton and quiet roads. Another snow shower just before the ascent to Ardross on the Struie road was a reminder that this was to be a long haul up the mountain road into the wind. And so it was.
The reward comes with a devastating 4 mile drop down to Edderton on one of the quietest, sweetest lanes on the East coast. A right turn at the bottom soon leads to wonderful Dornoch and Harry Gow’s cafe. Not at all trendy, but “Thoroughly Recommended” in my book for the tired cycle tourist.
Next morning, accompanied to Lairg into a strong headwind by Frank and Kate, I take the left and right turns towards Ledmore Junction and faraway Ullapool. It is a terrific road to cycle on, with views and vistas competing with each other for your attention. Passing Loch Craggie, the peaks of Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp and the mighty Ben More Assynt dominate the skyline. Nature is the greatest architect. A brief stop at the Alt motel on the banks of Loch Barralin help to refuel the tiring engine. (Sshh it has a piano!).
Turn left at Ledmore and a rollercoaster road sweeps you up and down towards Ullapool, gifting a fantastic aspect of quirky Stac Pollaidh surrounded by lochs and higher mountains. Finally the second night’s destination is reached from the North
But Ullapool is probably best seen from the Southeast as it protrudes into Loch Broom. Whitewashed and fragile in the lee of the mountains, it is the gateway to Stornaway and the Summer Isles. A smattering of ferry traffic deceives me into thinking that it will be a much busier road, but in truth after just a few miles I am alone again on the road. There’s a stiff climb at Braemar which leads to the plateau of the giants, Beinn Dearg, Sgurr Mor, An Teallach and Ben Wyviss with its vast white flank to the South resembling a sleeping polar bear.
By Garve in the twinkle of an eye, beset by a blizzard, lights on and extra clothing donned it’s not difficult to appreciate one’s mortality when the weather takes such a rapid turn for the worse in the company of these mountains. After twenty minutes it abates but it takes me longer to warm up. I am humbled by the magnificence of this scenery and even though the lowlands offer fine cycling, it is with some sadness that I return to Inverness.
The Salsa Vaya was extremely comfortable and coped admirably with the intermediate load.It has quite a long head tube which alleviated any shoulder/neck pains. I reached 40 miles an hour, the bike felt entirely predictable. I had read criticism of the BB5 brakes, but mine were just fine. I had switched the 700 * 40 tyres to 700 * 32s, for road specific use, but the 40s would have allowed me to explore some off-road tracks.
Into a headwind, one feels like the slowest, worst rider in the world and it’s easy to blame the bike. With a slight tailwind, this machine really took off. The 48/34 by 11/36 was OK on hills up to 10% gradient. With a full touring set-up I would use SRAM’s 40/27 at the front, though I did manage the 16% on Swain’s lane on the way back to Muswell Hill. The Axiom panniers performed well, they are quite lightweight with good room (45l) and seemingly good construction. I encountered plenty of snow showers and there was not a semblance of moisture ingress to their contents.
Route here: http://app.strava.com/activities/44363349