Cycling round Arran: hills and headwind

Seal, otter, sunset

There was a gasp. A seal coming up for air, a couple of metres from the shore where we sat. We were watching the sky go pink over Brodick bay, at the tail end of a long day’s cycle round Arran. It was the kind of rare winter sunset that sets everything alight in the sky, catching fire in the snow on the mountain tops, sending everything beneath them into a shadow of half-darkness. The sort of sunset where you’re compelled to stop and soak in the stillness of the twilight, watching huge swathes of pink and orange saturate the clouds.


The seal turned her head to get a better look at us. I smiled at her, she waited a moment, then slipped beneath the surface. Then we saw another. But it was moving differently – like a single wave through the flat sea, up and down, slick and strong and purposeful: an otter. We crouched, and waited for it to come ashore, but it kept moving, disappearing into the shadows and the rocks.

The cycle: hills, views, headwind

The weather was perfect: thick fog when Jen and I left Glasgow, and a forecast for bright sunshine and a clear day. We got the train through the fog to Ardrossan Harbour, and then the CalMac ferry to Arran.

Foggy morning

I get very excited on CalMac ferries: there’s the sense of seafaring adventure, the milky cups of tea, the stink of diesel and the froth and the clang of the car deck; the twenty panting dogs in the pet area, the way the wind whips at hair, the views, the sausage and egg roll.

I love calmac

Then there’s the rolling off and into the sunshine of an island adventure. There are two ways to cycle round Arran: go south and clockwise for the bunch of immediate hills, or go north and anticlockwise for a long stretch along the shore, then the monster hill over to Lochranza. We saved the monster hill for last, and went clockwise: up and down and up and down to Whiting Bay, and a view of Holy Isle in the late morning sun:

Holy Isle

Hills: where yoga comes in handy

We went on and over the short, sharp hills, and the long and sharp ones too. This is where the yoga bit comes in: and not because yoga gives you strong legs. Yoga helps on hills because it gives you a strong, focused mind. And kickass lungs. Use that focus on breathing to keep spinning the pedals. Head down, and look at those few feet of ground in front of the bike and get over that – don’t ever, ever look up to the top of the hill. Chances are it’s not the top, anyway, because it’ll turn a corner and kick up a steeper incline. So sharpen the focus, get your thighs on side, and push. Just a little and a little and a little. And then it’s done, and you can sit up and smile at the view.


Headwind: you bastard

I’d promised Jen a long flat stretch along the west coast, with huge views of the Mull of Kintyre and the sort of road where the bike does the peddling for you. That’s because I did it with the wind at my back.

We got to the flat bit, relieved that the hilly section was over and we had a bit of time before the Lochranza monster. Then we turned the corner and the wind slowed us to running pace. Seriously. We passed a runner in Machrie, cycled for an hour into the wind and stopped. The runner jogged past. What I’d billed as one of the easiest sections had turned into the worst. The lesson? Headwind, you bastard.

Peregrine falcon, the last hill, and the finest descent known to mankind

It swept down from the cliff on our right to the gorse bush by the road on our left. Compact, precise. Definitely not a pigeon. A flash of yellow at the beak, mottled breast, gun-metal grey back. And because we were silent on the bikes, it stayed there, two arms lengths away as I passed. I was so startled I pointed at it and yelled to Jen, which was obviously not the thing to do: quick as anything it was off, and sweeping back up the cliff. A beautiful distraction.

We got to Lochranza as the light was fading, so we pushed on up the monster hill. I don’t really go in for stats, but you start at sea level and climb to 200 metres over a couple of miles. It’s a long drag, made longer when you’re pushing at it with tired legs, but we got there:


It’s one of the most satisfying things to do: each turn of the pedals ratcheting up your potential energy, storing it in the hill for the way down. And the descent is a long curvaceous sweep with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and forests and nothing but you and the bike soaring along smooth tarmac.

Jen looking at road to come

‘It’s going to be a good sunset,’ said Jen, as we were cycling the last five flat miles back to Brodick. We stopped at the beach to get a better look at the light in the bay, sitting silently on the rocks.

Jen on the beach

We’d spent all day keeping an eye out for seals. I’m very bad at spotting seals. I stare intently at small black rocks poking up out of the sea, being absolutely sure that they’re going to move. But then when you do see a seal it’s so obvious – and there she was, right in front of us, all inquisitive.

I didn't have the right lens to get a picture of the seal, so here's the ship in the sunset instead.
I didn’t have the right lens to get a picture of the seal, so here’s the ship in the sunset instead.

And then otter. The perfect end to a dramatic day: the exhilaration of the hills, the tears of frustration and the thought that we might never make it through the headwind, the exhaustion of the cycle, and then the excitement of seeing an actual otter, an actual seal. That’s the happiness of a complete adventure.

Otter, with a sunset bay

So how could you possibly top such a day? With two fish suppers from Hooked and Cooked, of course. And a lie down.



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