I’m still a newbie when it comes to bikepacking – let’s make that clear from the outset! Several group adventures yes, but solo? I have just the one outing so far and that regressed rapidly from being ‘slightly-too-wild’ to sneaking onto a desolate campsite with a portaloo. A story for another day perhaps. Hence another attempt to pop my cherry – this time north of the border, so there’s no way out…
After prolonged weeks of paper and screen planning, I’m finally in Glasgow late-Thursday afternoon. I’m relaxing in Mono having just bought some old skool vinyl and am sipping a welcome ‘March of the Penguins’ bottled beer – the essential calming-before-the-storming. Staying at a Campanile on the waterfront, I am in touching distance of the R7 start. Later that evening I load up on insalata Caprese and a chicken risotto before a fitful over-excited sleep.
A bold attempt at a pre-0600 start, skipping the delights of a breakfast buffet, had me lashing the Vagabond together in the grim Scottish mizzle. Pedalling at 0648, I was over the River Clyde in front of the BBC building and heading southwards towards Pollock County Park, across the frothing M77. The city instantly disappeared as I sauntered through the damp woodlands and made the turn westwards to the coast.
I had budgeted on 8mph to get me safely to Gourock for the pre-lunch break ferry, so needed to avoid distractions to cover the 30 miles or so. Needn’t have worried for the most part – good though Sustrans routes are, they do have a habit of insulating the rider from pretty much everything! A national-treasure for sure – the trails are often so ironed-out and usually in deep railway cuttings, they can be quite disorienting for long periods without a breath of civilisation.
With no hills to speak of, I am soon down by the Clyde’s edge again at Greenock. Good progress means treats – I luck on a good café on the quayside in the theatre. Curiously, there is a European Magician’s Conference in mid-flow. Not that I needed the welcome signage to tell me this – several deflating balloon-dogs were strewn on the tables along with curious items of make-up in the gentleman’s washroom… A hearty bacon and potato scone roll and strong coffee revive, then I’m wheeling along the esplanade to the jetty. I can see my ferry coming in, which has me hustling without decorum, as I realise there is quite a curve of promenade to negotiate before I can be considered safe aboard.
I am beckoned to the narrow and ribbed gangway by salty dogs and wheel the Vagabond over the awkward, swaying ramp. There are just two other passengers and a dark rain squall kicks in as the motor gurgles to life – it all seems portentous, as we motor away and into the Firth of Clyde. It’s less than 14 minutes before we’re at Kilcreggan – it’s rather cutesy wooden waiting rooms perched atop the high jetty – an epic lil jaunt for £2.50!
I make a clumsy spectacle of alighting as a few local commuters queue to make the return crossing. Now I am in a different geography – it has been raining hard here but the sun is out. The first snorter of a climb means di-robing layers as I go. The roads are very wet and quiet with lots of bends, but the occasional motorists drive very fast and seem surprised to come across a lone cyclist. It feels more dangerous than riding out of Glasgow that’s for sure.
As I ride up the eastside of the Rosneath peninsula I can see the brooding military presence over the flat waters of Gare Lock at Faslane. The Peace Camp was always an exotic totem during my YCND student days of the early Eighties and this was as close as I have come in all these years to paying my respect.
The route flattens and I decide on lunch at The Perch Café in Garelochead – what a find! Stornoway black pudding with all the trimmings and a cold tin of Irn Bru taste delicious sat in the sun-bathed café window. This was to prove a wise investment as the route and the weather get a tad more serious. Sneaking around Loch Long I make the turn up and over towards Glen Douglas – one long, long climb in torrents of rain.
The landscape has gone remote, proper remote. Turning eastwards there is more spooky military gubbins in the form of a huge armaments dump, wrapped in bristling barbed wire. Hundreds of tank-sized rabbit hole mouths dug into the banks suggest there’s an awful lot of explosive under the terrain I’m now cycling! I’m soon rolling down and down, picking up some speed, but the rain is stinging my eyes. On with glasses – but they’re of no use either. I have to reduce my speed and take the lashing until I reach lower ground at Inverbeg.
Now I’m at Loch Lomond’s edge on the west side, looking for the old A82 as it skirts its way in and around the water’s edge. And I do mean edge – I can’t imagine what it must have been like when this was a vehicular road – so many cars must have been lost to the Loch over the years. It’s called the West Lomond Way these days, ending rather abruptly at Tarbet as I am flung out onto a lumpy footpath that almost requires suspension.
Fortunately this is where I will take my second ferry of the day. Coaches in the car park offloading legions of exotic-looking tourists make me worried I will get a ticket – this is the last ferry of the day and is essential to my plans of getting across Loch Lomond this evening. I skid to a halt at the ticket office and pay my £8 + £1 bike surcharge – looks like I’m in.
A long wait with tourists clotting on the jetty, then action-stations and a scrabble for the best seats. I am rejected – the narrow gate won’t take a bicycle (despite the surcharge) nor a 16 stone man I shouldn’t wonder and I am forced to take off all the frame bags and pass each items across to a crew member. My umbrage is tempered once I am aboard as below stairs there is a bar!
The boat is a cruiser and makes round trips in which no-one actually disembarks. After a most pleasant local ale, the tannoy announces there is one awkward passenger requiring such a rare service, as the craft reluctantly pulls alongside the Inversnaid jetty. I am deposited unceremoniously along with my bike and numerous bags on the damp wooden slats. Another 10 minutes of lashing up it is then.
Luckily the first landmark I can hear behind me – a grand waterfall, loaded with freshjuice, is foaming at the mouth, chucking all it has back into the Loch. Another stiff climb up at out to my hoped-for night lodgings. I’ve booked one of three tent minute pitches outside a remote bunkhouse, which I find as I crest Glen Arklet.
The bunkhouse was a chapel of sorts and still has some stained glass to show for it. I step inside to confirm my arrival and am shown my small, squelching pitch. It’s six o’clock and the sun is out, steam is rising from the ground – sadly this is a cue for the midge to make an appearance as I roll out the Nordisk and other accoutrements. A most uncomfortable 20 minutes erecting my temporary lodgings ensues. The midgies drove me to abandon idyllic thoughts of cooking and eating outdoors, watching the sun go gracefully down behind an epic horizon.
Inside a mix of German backpackers, a small but raucous mature ladies reunion and a sole Asian bookworm snaffled nachos from the open kitchen. I ordered a few local bottled beers, a large glass of red wine and a macaroni cheese, then set-to on the day’s note making.
Outside, rain had come and gone again, the ground couldn’t get any wetter and I was thankful I had brought my wet socks. Quickly darting in and out of the tent to avoid rogue midge entry, I finally disrobed, donned the 7-Eleven sleep beanie and attempted a first pass at sleep. Occasional rodent noises, mechanical pump drones, bursts of German lingo and impromptu showers did their best to disrupt, but my body was having none of it and I managed a pretty decent night’s kip. The Vango ¾ air mat was pretty crap though – I was sure it must have punctured but I was too tired to check, settling for adjusting position every now and then. On checking in the morning, the mat still had air – I must have put on some weight. Either way, it’s confined to the ever-increasing ‘kit-I-don’t trust’ pile when I get home.
In the morning the tent exterior was sopping – I, in my early morning stupor, sat upright, my head made the inner stick to the outer and a veritable open tap of water squirted in. Note to self – adjust guy tension before sleep! No matter – I was perfectly dry all night and not cold, which makes a change. The feeling of dampness though continued to eminate from the wet ground – once I was on my feet and the morning sun poked above the tree-line, Isoon had a feeling of optimism going. Morning midgies again spoilt what could have been a decent breakfast – I had invested in carrying bacon and a roll, but settled for the speed of instant porridge, weak coffee (from a Rombout dripper) and an energy gel. Packing wet clothes is always a dispiriting chore, but the presence of midge necessitated speed, not whinging. Soon the Vagabondas was loaded, albeit with an extra pound or two of moistness – that’s a downside of waterproof bagging, nothing is going to dry out as you move.
My usual slow-starting body wasn’t at all keen to be cycling again. My posterior was complaining and my legs had become disjointed overnight. I made a gentle climb up into the full sun and immediately was rewarded with stunning 360 degree views and not a sole in sight. A slight detour to take a look at Loch Katrine at Stronlochar revealed an end-of-the-line café that was already open. A superb menu was only topped by a water’s edge view – Stornoway Black Pudding (again), excellent coffee and orange juice were taken on board, fresh and clear water for the bidon loaded and we were set fair.
I had an option set aside should I have an abundance of energy – a 12 mile loop around the Northerly-edge of the Loch. This abundance was not in evidence so I took the more direct route to Aberfoyle, via Loch Chan and Loch Ard. A rolling terrain, probably descending more than ascending – but one of those sections were you really don’t feel the benefit. Occasionally my legs were irritated by the last of the morning midges, making me feel I wasn’t moving fast enough if they could catch me.
Down in Aberfoyle I rejoined Route 7, imagining that it would be a pleasant if a little dull ride down to Glasgow, much like the ride out to Gourock the previous day. This was not to be the case. A 700’ fireroad climb up to Bat a Charchel had me sweating – time for a another disrobe. Here I discovered that my Endura waterproof shorts had a small hole in the base of the crotch, no bigger that a finger nail. On inspection, a part of the taped seams had given up and instantly revealed the source of my damp-arsed discomfort of the morning so far – I vowed to add them to the failed kit list on return.
Remote scenery all around, punctured by Saturday scorchers on Specialized/Planet X’s, chasing me down and then feeling good about riding away up the climbs, no doubt. By now I had the Ipod and Logitech speaker on to take my mind of the toil – I don’t like headphones, so this extra weight is a compromise but works superbly in taking my mind off drawn-out climbs.
I overshot my intended link with the John Muir Way at Gartside and soon corrected. This is primarily a walkers trail, being pretty much straight single track on fairly spikey hard pack, with many a set of gates. I turned my speaker off and rode courteously into numerous walkers with sticks – to be fair, I heard no negative comments. At Dumgoyne I ran into a huge pub called The Beechouse that catered for the walker crowd and familes with its huge playgarden and a ‘feed the animals’ zone. The opportunity for a first beer of the day and a steak and ale pit was too good to miss – unlike the shrieking coming from the kids.
This was a fortunate stop because the trail then got wider, steeper and technical as it worked its way around a most odd geological mound called Dumgoyach – it could easily have been a setting for a low budget ‘Lost’. Now we were in slushy forest and the trail became really quite technical – I loved the changing conditions, making for a really absorbing ride around the east side of Craigallian Loch, into Mugdock Country Park on the river run into Milngavie.
Popping out at the start of the JMW in the middle of the precinct was a surreal moment – it felt like the ride was already over. Shoppers no doubt used to the occasional bedraggled walker/cyclist, moved aside, as I pushed my way through the throngs to connect back to the designated cycle path and descend with the traffic. It was not long before I was off the main road and onto the Kelvin Walkway for another great river run in the dappled afternoon sunlight.
A ‘happening’ at the Botannical Gardens and a diversion into the Saturday afternoon crowds meant a dismount or two, but no matter, the finish was in sight. I knew from previous visits to Glasgow that the Inn Deep with its prestigious River Kelvin view, would be a fitting end to the perambulations – and sure it was. The Balearic hipster vibe was in full flow. I got some sane looking revellers to mind my bike and hot footed it into the bar for overdue relief and a locally-produced cider, then basked in the early evening sunlight in that smug ‘aren’t I a clever boy’ way after a rather successful, confidence-boosting mini-McEpic 110 mile adventure.
Words and pictures – Neil Ruddock