The ups and downs of cycling the Caledonia Way
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There it was staring at me, midnight on the eve of trip, like a mouthful of Shane MacGowan’s mangled teeth: the jagged profile of gradients along the final stretch of the Caledonia Way.
The stranger who had posted the GPS reading from the shores of Kintyre left just one ominous observation: "This is the worst cycling road in the UK."
While it was hardly the Alpe d'Huez, those waiting climbs along the last 28 miles of the B842 from Claonaig to Campbeltown would occasionally haunt my dreams over the next few days as hills – and legs – stiffened.
Even the first leafy stretch along Loch Ness seemed daunting enough having barely glanced at my bicycle for more than a year.
Lockdown had been languid. I’d heard of furloughed folk finding themselves in fitness, yoga and meditation. Through long hours of home-working, I’d found torpor and a penchant for cheese-related snacks.
In defiance of that, the plan was to blow away the cobwebs and cycle 212 miles in four days from Inverness to Campbeltown.
The Caledonia Way is a route where it is easy to run out of superlatives and easier still to run out of steam. Luckily for me, sunshine and clear blue skies would frame the natural beauty for three of the four days.
Officially launched by Sustrans in 2016, the mix of quiet road, loose and tarmacked path, and rough forestry track follows national cycle network (NCN) route 78 down that wondrous product of plate tectonics, the Great Glen fault line, before twisting south through Argyll.
Barring a couple of necessary diversions to fit my schedule, I was determined to remain as true as possible to the spirit of the route.
With overnight stays booked in Fort William, Oban and Tarbert, I tried and failed to keep my panniers lightly packed, but was soon puffing merrily towards Foyers, where I grew up.
Lockdown has deprived us of many things, not least the rich sensory stimulus of open countryside beyond our home areas. It was overwhelming to be back in the wilds, and there was a powerful endorphin hit from the fresh air and scenery as some old muscle memory kicked in.
By the time I had breakfasted above the Falls of Foyers and climbed past Whitebridge to the expansive, hazy views of the Suidh summit, contentment was fuelling a decent pace.
The five-mile descent to Fort Augustus cooled sweat to a sharp chill and a warming shot of caffeine was welcome outside the Caledonian Canal Centre café, as two kamikaze ducks ambled across the busy main road to check out my sandwich.
Next up was a pleasantly flat canal section to Loch Oich, where the track switched to the shore opposite Invergarry, along the abandoned Invergarry and Fort Augustus Railway, closed in 1946.
At Laggan Locks, I took a brief rest to contemplate a historic battlefield site where some of my rowdy Fraser ancestors had come off badly in an almighty scrap with the Camerons and Macdonalds.
It became known as The Battle of the Shirts as the heat in July 1544 was so intense that both sides threw off their chainmail hauberks.
With 44 miles done and 22 to go to Fort William, I had a battle of my own ahead. West of Loch Lochy, the route veered up forestry track unsuitable for road bikes. My hardy gravel hybrid could just about cope, but the wrists were soon ablaze with discomfort on rocky and rutted stretches.
Forestry works high in the hills had me sheepishly wheeling the bike for half a mile while staff radioed colleagues to cease operations.
Tarmac made a welcome return before Gairlochy and a final 10 miles of pleasant canal towpath took me to Corpach and Fort William, where a feverish sleep in a cheap Travelodge awaited.
The next day, one of my very favourite cycles in Scotland beckoned, the 49-mile Fort William to Oban route.
Loch Linnhe was still as glass as the tiny Camusnagaul passenger ferry took me, with bike strapped to the roof, across the water to Ardgour to avoid the treacherous A82.
Glorious woodland and coastal scenery before the car ferry at Corran was a prelude to much more of the same through Appin and Duror.
The viewpoint at Kentallen brought a particularly spectacular vista and brought me to an awed standstill for 20 minutes amid endless miles of wonderful smooth, traffic-free tarmac skirting the coast and dipping inland towards North Connel.
If you can manage only one section of the Caledonia Way, do this. It really is something to behold.
A once uncomfortable two-mile on-road stretch has also now been replaced by a first-class cycle track spiralling up through the wooded Highland Titles Nature Reserve, featuring a wildcat reserve and hedgehog hospital.
Descending again to the coast across from 15th-century Castle Stalker, my exuberance was suddenly shattered.
Just behind me, a loud crack like hard plastic striking tarmac brought me to a shuddering halt. Hearing laughter, I backtracked and saw two figures duck into the woods some distance away across the A828.
Someone had taken a potshot at me, but with what it was impossible to say.
Happily, the spike in adrenaline only anaesthetised aching limbs and the final miles into Oban, taking the alternative (flatter) coastal approach passed quickly.
Day three from Oban to Tarbert was one I tried – and failed – to shamelessly circumvent. I knew the western shore of Loch Awe was merciless and twice before down the years after cycling it I’d uttered the words ‘never again’.
A lack of Sunday train services killed the idea of taking the flatter eastern shore from Dalmally to Ford and launched me into an exhausting day of low spirits and sharp gradients. On the bicycle, you know it’s a tough day when even the gentle sound of a distant cuckoo somehow stirs annoyance.
After Ford, the route levelled towards Lochgilphead, where I took a necessary time-saving shortcut to Tarbert along 10 miles of A83, rather than the circuitous 28-mile 'Kilberry' loop around Knapdale.
Spotless and cheap accommodation at Starfish Rooms in Tarbert’s pretty horseshoe harbour brought a good night’s sleep, but it was with weary legs and aching bones that I set off for the final day’s pedalling.
Finally in virgin territory for me personally, after Claonaig, that eve of trip warning from the mystery pessimist proved misplaced. After the first grey drizzle of the trip, a first draught pint of 2021 at the friendly Glen bar-restaurant at Carradale replenished spirits before a succession of vertiginous climbs that nonetheless felt less punishing than those along Loch Awe.
It was a marvellous feeling to wearily roll down the final stretch of road to Campbeltown for two days spent soothing the limbs and strolling wonderful Machrihanish Beach.
In almost 20 hours on the road, I’d ascended 3830 metres – not far off three Ben Nevises.
The stats, though, were besides the point.
In past years, I’ve been lucky enough to cycle around Cyprus, from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, down France’s Atlantic coast and along the length of the Rhine river from Alpine source to sea.
None of it can touch the sheer natural beauty of our very own Caledonian Way.
Distance 212 miles / 341km (official NCN route 234 miles / 377km)
Terrain Quiet roads, loose and surfaced cycle path, forest tracks
Map OS Landranger 26, 34, 41, 49, 50, 55, 62 & 68; Sustrans Oban To Inverness cycle map
One of the newest long-distance cycle routes in Scotland lives up to expectations
More details of the route at: www.sustrans.org.uk/find-other-routes/the-caledonia-way