Rugged Bike

Rugged Bike – How to do the Hebridean Way

Introduction

Barradise

“Do you sell bike tubes?”

I was in a bike shop in Oban. In ten minutes time, I was due to leave on a ferry to the Isle of Barra.

My wife and her family were going to cycle the Hebridean way – a 185 mike ride from the Isle of Barra to the Isle of Lewis via the Isles of Eriskay, South Uist,Benbecula, Berneray, Harris.

The route

My role for the trip was to drive a support car. It was a nice change not to have to be the one doing an event. My only responsibilities were to ensure they didn’t get lost, that I had carried their supplies and luggage in the car, and that I could fix their bikes if their was an issue.

There was only one problem. I forgot to bring any spare bike tubes. If any of them got a puncture they be walking rather than biking the route.

“What size do you need?” The bike shop worked asked.

“700×25 or 700×28” I replied. I was confident he’d have some. They are the most commonly used bike tube sizes.

“Sorry. I don’t stock those sizes!”

I was shocked but I didn’t wait around to debate the merit of a bike shop not stocking the one tube most cyclists need. I ran to the other side of Oban to see if the only other bike shop in town stocked them.

Thankfully they had some. I made it back to the car just in time to board the ferry.

I spotted a number of cyclists waiting to board. They were all female. The weather forecast for Barra was wet and wild. Does this mean male cyclists are wise or does it mean they are big girls blouses scared of a little rain?https://www.youtube.com/embed/x0nOhAmGt_Q?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&autohide=2&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent

Despite all the cyclists boarding the ferry, we didn’t see a single cyclists whilst doing the Heb way route.

The ferry was the one that used to do the Stornaway to Ullapool route. I’d taken it many times. It was looking a bit tatty compared to when I was last on it.

There wasn’t many passengers on board. I had the dinning room area entirely to myself. Mainly due to it being a rough crossing. Nobody wanted food, they were all lying down seasick.

What folk don’t realize is that the dining room is actually the best place to be. They were all in the observation lounge which is at the top and front of the ferry. The place which experiences the most ship movement.

If you want a smooth journey sit in the middle of the ferry on the lowest floor. Where the dining room was.

We arrived in Castlebay in time for dinner. My wife and her sister are both vegan. I looked at the menu. It was very meaty and fishy. There was only one vegetarian option and that had cheese in it.

I asked the waitress if they did any vegan options. “Yes – we do chips”

After dinner we checked into the bed and breakfast. I asked the owners what the vegan breakfast options were available? She replied “toast”

It’s fair to say the Hebrides has not yet embraced veganism.

Other vegan options we were offered on the trip were

Blue cheese and broccoli soup. Cheese isn’t vegan
Lentil and bacon soup. Yes – really. Bacon!
Smoked salmon. What do you mean fish isn’t vegan?

BARRA

Barra is so beautiful it has the nickname Barradise. Unfortunately, today the weather was much like a Remainer’s view of the UK’s economic prospects after Brexit – bleak. Rain was battering the window and the wind was gusting to 40mph.

This was not good news for the cyclists. My wife’s sister does not like to ride a bike if the wind is gusting stronger than 30mph. When I saw her, she asked how windy it was. I did what any caring support crewmember would do. I lied. I told her it was windy but only 10 mph. I then added – it looks nice outside. It did not. It looked like the scene in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s house was blown away.

Wild Weather


The start point of the Hebridean Way is in Vattersay. Which is six miles from Castlebay along a one way road. Traffic can go both ways but I call it one-way because the only way back is the one-way I came.

Thankfully, the rain had stopped by the time we gathered outside the B & B to start the adventure. I took some photos to mark the occasion. My wife and her sister started cycling. The rain immediately restarted. The first 10 minutes of riding was so wet Noah would have taken it as a sign to gather animals on to his boat two by two. I could have ridden with them but instead I choose the warmth and comfort of my car.

It took 45 minutes to bike to the start. Only 15 minutes by warm dry car. I thought it would be busy at the start considering all the cyclists we had seen on the boat but there was no one there, except for one German man. He was standing at the start looking a little lost. I said hello but he ran away.

I took some more photos to mark the occasion. As you can see from the picture. I wore a wetsuit for the occasion. Which meant I was the only one suitably attired for the Hebridean rain. 

They headed off whilst I drove to the ferry terminal that would take us to the next island – Eriskay.

I had an hour to kill once I got there so I was able to ride my bike until they turned up.

The ferry to Eriskay takes 40 minutes. There was a nice café in the ferry terminal. I had a fruit scone. A dog jumped up and tried to scoff it. I shouted “NO!” to try to deter the beast but it didn’t stop. The dog’s owner turned to me and said “The dog won’t hear you. He’s deaf”

“How do you know he’s deaf?” I replied.

“I sneak up behind him and shout but the dog doesn’t notice.”. Which seems a harsh test. Imagine sneaking up behind people and shouting loudly. Anyone not deaf will die of fright!

On the ferry journey we spotted some dolphins. Which made me think that if Africa has the big five then the Hebrides should too. My suggestion is

  1. Dolphins
  2. Golden Eagle
  3. Eriskay Ponies
  4. Otters
  5. Seals

You would think there is less chance of death from meeting them than meeting the African big five but you would be wrong.

My wife crashed her bike when she spotted what she thought was a Golden Eagle. It wasn’t. She spent the rest of that day muttering about her sore leg and the face that “it was only a buzzard!”

Golden eagles are hard to spot. I know this because I once visited a RSPB hut. (Yes – I realise that last sentence is not very rock and roll but I am cool. Honest!)

In the hut bird-spotter’s record, in a book, what they have seen. One person had written “Golden Eagle” but next to it, someone else had written, “No you fucking didn’t”

Which proves Golden Eagles are hard to spot.

ERISKAY

Eriskay is famous for three things – whisky, horses and football. Which sounds like the ingredients for a great night out.  

Whisky – In 1941 the SS Politician ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay whilst carrying a significant cargo of Scotch whisky. The incident inspired the film Whiskey Galore. One Christmas I bought my dad a £250 bottle of whisky. I thought he would save it for special occasions so he could savour the taste. Instead, he tanked the bottle in three days. At least he enjoyed it.

Horses – I have only ridden a horse once. It was in India. I sat on the horse. The horse bolted. I tried shouting “woaaaaah” to slow it down. It didn’t stop as it only understood Hindi. Since then I have never trusted horses. Eriskay is home to the Eriskay pony, an endangered breed of horse unique to the island. They roam free but they seemed to enjoy hanging out at the pub.

Football – Fifa recognised Eriskay football pitches as one of “eight remarkable places to play football in the world”. I used to play football in Lewis. It was remarkable any of our pitches could be used for football. One pitch was so slanted I needed climbing equipment to make it out of my own half.

The journey from Barra to Eriskay takes 40 minutes. Luckily some dolphins appeared and swam alongside the ferry

Eriskay is very small. It only took the cyclists 15 minutes to cycle through. They missed all three of the things Eriskay is famous for because they followed the official Hebridean way route exactly.

One of my complaints about the route is that it does not point out interesting diversions.  For example in South Uist the route passed a side road that lead up a small hill to a magnificent view of the whole island. It only takes a couple of minutes to cycle up but there is no indication on the road that it is a diversion worth taking.

View from the radar station

We stopped for lunch at the Borrodale hotel. A recent Tripadvisor review described it as “tired looking…like the rest of South Uist” That must have been written by a man from North Uist.

I thought the place was nice and the food was tasty. In fact, It was so good we went back in the evening.

The riding in South Uist was very easy. The only problem occurred when a funeral cortege approached us on a single-track road. We stopped to let them through but it took 15 minutes for everyone to get past.

We finished the day at a statue called “the lady of the isle.” It was commissioned when the Ministry of Defence was planning to build a missle testing range on the island. The statue is a reminder of the power of church and community. I’m sure its intentional that it looks a little bit like a rocket.

South Uist to Berneray

Day 1 started with torrential rain

Day 2 started with Torrential rain

Guess what day 3 started with….yup – torrential rain!

At least the days were consistent. Thankfully that was the last we saw of rain until we finished the Hebridean Way.

We started at the Lady of the Isles statue. My wife and her sister headed off following the Hebridean Way but I decided to take a different route. I’d spotted a road heading up a local hill to a radar station. It looked like a fun climb so I parked up and took my bike for a spin.

The view from the top was superb. I could see all across South Uist, Benbecula and onto North Uist.

After the ride I drove through Benbecula. It was very flat and surprisingly ugly. Sorry Benbecula but you are the elephant man of Hebridean islands. The only redeeming feature was the Co-op. They had amazing cinnamon donuts. They were so good I ate two even though it wasn’t yet 10am.

I sped through quickly and caught up with my wife in North Uist. The sun had come out and it was a very pleasant day. I would have offered her a cinnamon donut if I had any. I offered her an oat cake instead.

North Uist was very nice. Quite roads and nice scenery. We could even see St Kilda in the distance. The people of Uist thought folk in St Kilda were a bit dim. They say one St Kilda man came to the island and spotted a lighthouse. He ran towards it, flung open then door, ran up the stairs and looked at the big bright light and said “is that you God?”

I don’t know how true that is but it makes for a good story.

We finished cycling in Berneray and were treated to a glorious sunset –

– Which was nearly as good as the sunrise the next day.#

Harris

Instead of taking the west coast route, I decided we‘d go along the eastern side of the island. The west coast has some great beaches but the landscape of the east looks like the moon. If the moon had brown heather.

The other reason for choosing this route is that Santa lives on the east side. He stays in a bus shelter near one of the small towns. Although I am worried about him. I think he might have lost his head

Thankfully he was still there when I biked past.

Unusually for the western isles the weather was amazing. The sun was out and there was absolutely no wind.

I managed a couple of hill reps of the highest hill in Harris – clisham. The north side was pretty straightforward but the west side was a 300m climb from sea level up a 12% slope!

As the weather was so good my wife decided to cycle for as long as possible. She managed 100K. She stopped near an an alpaca farm at the Callanish Stones.

They claim they sell Fish and Chips but I bet its actually Alpaca and Chips.

Lewis

My name is Iain. I have a cousin called Iain. I have another cousin called Iain. I also have another cousin called Iain. Finally, I have a cousin called John. Which is the Gaelic version of Iain.

There was not much imagination in my family when naming children.

It’s common in the Western Isles for children to be named after a grandfather. Which is fine when if you are boy but annoying for a girl.

I once worked with a woman called Murdoina Donaldina Morrison. Her grandfather was Murdo Donald. Adding -ina onto the name supposedly made her name more feminine. I don’t think it works.

Whilst visiting a relatives grave in Lewis. I noticed the grave next to it had “Hugh Machonald and his wife Hughina” written on it. Shug is a common nickname in Scotland for people called Hugh. I wonder if they were Mr and Mrs Shug?

Check out the video to see the amazing view my relative has. Definitely a view to die for.

The last days cyling was a relatively short 28 miles. The weather was beautiful. The sun was shining and their was very little wind. The last section is mostly flat and boring so there isn’t much too say about it.

The route only get interesting once it reaches Ness. Ness has one of my favorite signposts. It’s always good for a childish laugh.

It also has an example of sign failure. The route of the Hebridean way is very simple to follow but there is one left turn just before the end of the route.

The left turn is hidden by other signs and is impossible to see on approach to it. I bet many people bike and only realize when the road runs out about one mile down the road.

The official route ends at a lighthouse. On a normal day there is a great view out to see.

But I enjoy going there on a bad day. Waves batter the cliffs as the full force of Atlantic storms reach land. The sign that marks the end of the route used to be in a much more open place. Watch it move back and forwards as the wind batters it.

It has now been moved to somewhere more sheltered.

There is one thing a cyclist does not want to hear when they complete a long distance cycle. My wife finised and asked “Where the car?” I replied “Two mile away!”

Its fair to say she looked at me in the same way a hungry lion looks at an antelope just before mauling it to death.

I was lucky to escape Ness unscathed.

We had lunch in Port of Ness. At a cafe with an amazing view but the slowest service. We had to with 45 minutes from ordering before the food arrived!

Considering how lucky we’d been every other day one late meal was a small price to pay for a great experience seeing the Islands.

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