Saturday, September 7, 2013

Circuit of Arran on the bike

5 am on a Friday and I was up, cramming porridge down my gub and grabbing kit for my big cycling escapade. The dog looked up quizzically from his basket and then curled back to sleep. Far too early for him...
Circuit of Arran

At the start of Summer I got a PB in the Glasgow Men's Health 10k race. Unfortunately, any chance of road running stardom was curtailed by injuries that were still lingering a few weeks afterwards. So I hung up the trainers, dug my old mountain bike out the garage and  started cycling to and from work in a bid to keep the pies at bay. I soon fancied the target of cycling round Arran (55 miles)- once I was fit enough.

So this was the big day. I left the house in the pitch dark and cycled hard for the 20 miles from Kilbarchan to Ardrossan, aiming to catch the 7am ferry. I was aboard my latest acquisition- a second hand Specialized Allez roadbike. It really flew down the road compared to the old clunky mtb. Aye, the roadbike flies but Scotland's second National sport (after drinking) is smashing empty bottles. In the first few dark miles I heard a crunch as I ran over the remnants of somebody's cycle path bevvy session. Thankfully, the dreaded hiss never came and I managed to whip it to Kilbirnie, belt it over the hills of Dalry and got the ferry with just 10 minutes to spare. A puncture would have scuppered my plans.
Arran's Beinn Nuis in Winter
Arran is stunning. It has fantastic jagged granite peaks, rolling hills and beaches. As the old cliche goes, it really is 'Scotland in miniature'. The Cal Mac ferry crossing takes less than an hour. £11 gets you a return ticket with a bike- which is pretty good value.

The internet consensus says the best way is to go clockwise from the ferry and tackle the very hilly South end of the island first. After that, the prevailing South Westerly winds should help in the long flat haul up the West Coast to Lochranza where one final, killer hill is the last hurdle before success.

Profile of hills on circuit
I set off from the Co-Op in Brodick carrying 2 litres of juice in my drinks bladder thingy and a 5 pack of Chunky Kit Kats. The first hill starts immediately. It's a steady 1 miler on a good road surface leading up to a viewpoint, giving a brilliant panorama of the granite peaks North of Brodick.

Rosa Pinnacle of Cir Mhor
A flat out, careering descent then leads down the into the picture postcard village of Lamlash (with views to the Holy Isle just offshore). I was aiming to catch the 13.50 ferry back to Ardrossan so I was unable to stop to enjoy any of the sights.
I pushed on over the next roller coaster climb and flat out descent into Whiting Bay. After that the ups and downs of the South End get more difficult and the good road surfaces of the previous sections are notable by their absence. It seems like the roadworks dept ran out of dynamite after Whiting Bay. The road jinks about, up and down over every wee hummock and round some turns that are very tight- even on a bike...

After a series of tricky corners a sudden monsoon forced me to shelter under a tree at Lagg. I narrowly avoided crashing entering the difficult hairpins and waited 15 minutes or so for the downpour to cease. But it didnae. I boarded the bike and set off soaked and seething at the Met Office's incompetence. Up and down the road continued until I had a wee spill somewhere near Sliddery. This was quite appropriate, as the rain had made the road very sliddery. A warning sign of a tight left hander flashed past and I skidded straight on, my wet brakes no match for the job- luckily no buses were in the way. I was making a beeline for a dry stane dyke but stopped short up a wee grass bank. I couldn't clip out the SPDs and in classic style cowped back over onto the wet tarmac, grazing my elbow a bit. I didn't cry.

Approaching Blackwaterfoot
After that I continued on to Blackwaterfoot where I bought some more juice and ate a couple of Kit Kats. Then it was off up the flat haul of the West Coast. Ironically, this is quite an enjoyable section after the difficulties of the South End. With the tailwind it's possible to make fast progress, and soon I was heading into Lochranza where my puncture luck disappeared. A shard of sharp green glass did for my back tyre. It's a nice spot to get a flat though.

Puncture at Lochranza
Tyre eventually re-inflated, I checked the watch and realised I was going to have to boot it. Leaving Lochranza the challenge of the final ascent is obvious and daunting. It's the biggest hill in the circuit and the hardest. I ground away at my granny gear until the summit eventually came- with views to the mainland and the North- West view of Arran's granite peaks. I could see the ferry nearing the shore from up here. The descent from the summit to Sannox was fast and required concentration. After that it was head down and just grind it out past Corrie back to Brodick.

I reached the ferry with 10 minutes to spare. The circuit had taken 5 hours and 15 minutes. I'd cycled reasonably hard overall, but lost quite a lot of time with waiting on the rain to stop at Lagg, the fuelling up at Blackwaterfoot and a lengthy puncture mending session at Lochranza (tube trouble). Without those stops 4 and half would have been more like it. I've seen internet claims of 3 and a half which I'm sure are possible if you have the legs and are motivated.

It's a great circuit. Go do it!

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