The following traveler’s tail was first published at “thewashingmachinepost” . A site that Brian Palmer started some years ago and which we would perhaps now call a blog.It celebrates all things bicycle as observed from a small wet and windy island off the west of Scotland. Islay, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
With time on your hands after a ride you sit in front of the tv with a mug of tea and wearing as much compression kit as you have the energy to pull on. Now, if The Dave Harmon ( Eurosport ) show is not on then you may find yourself up amongst the dinosaur and shark channels and things that Nick Crane hosts that can fill in the gaps in your pub quiz education ( I know Nick now tries to come across as a benevolent Oxbridge Don but he was and perhaps still is a great cyclist who first taught us the concept of cutting our tooth brush in half to save weight and yes that umbrella has seen time on the hill as Nick’s only accommodation, trust me he is hard as nails). It is on these channels that Nick will tell just how the sea connects the west of Scotland and indeed Ireland. I know you may be thinking of the spread of Christianity and rather unseaworthy craft but last year I had this made outstandingly clear following a tour on my bike in the area. The following month a check of the itemized mobile bill for the that touring time showed calls made from Ireland, these are short straight line distances indeed.
Now is an appropriate moment to open an OS map and check out all the ferry routes that allow you to link together even a short bike ride ( my personal best is 5 ferry’s with just 65 miles of cycling). But just a note of caution, and here picture me tapping the side of my nose in the way that David Duffield would, because the map will not show all of the ferry routes and it is the tail of one such that I tell.
There is the standard way to Jura with a Cal Mac ferry, but as I discovered by chance last year going up a dead end road looking for somewhere to camp near Loch Gilphead there is the fast ferry way. The picture on the website is of a small rubber boat ( why do they call these things ribs? ) and yet it stated quite clearly that it took foot passengers and bikes . So I emailed them twice to make totally sure and even checked again when I made my reservation and yes they did take bikes. There was a circle to be closed.
Now when you do your booking for Branson’s space ship in a few years time you will not be surprised to see in amongst the terms and conditions a section about it not being advisable on account of the unavoidable multiple g’s that the trip involves to make a booking if you have a history of back problems ( there will almost certainly be a tortuously incomprehensible paragraph or two about the policy on the carriage of bikes as well ). The Tayvallich fast ferry you may be more surprised to learn also has such a note of concern about back problems. When we turned up it is the first ferry I have seen in which four point harness belts are standard on all seats and yes they do take bikes.
The plan is simple you can start at Tayvallich with this fast ferry, go to Jura and cycle up its one and only road ( stunning, and as ever on these occasions epic indeed ) and then turn back to the ferry terminal to Islay. So right there you have done almost 40 miles, you could have turned left and gone straight to the terminal at the cost to you of only 8 miles but you would have missed so much.
The ferry to Islay from here is very regular so you do not need to do much fretting about times and can just stand, watch and wait as it starts out pointing way off to the left or right to cope with the speed of the flow between the islands. It may be a short distance but his would be a challenging and perhaps suicidal swim. The person on the ferry at this point will assume that you are using the return part of a round trip ticket, so already in the confusion you have sort of made money. Onwards now up the hardest hill on Islay, a cat 2 out of the ferry terminal.
This is the point where we sort out the truly hard men. It should be possible in theory, if you work the timetables to your advantage, to ride across the island to Port Ellen and close that loop in one day. You may be the first ever to do this so it would command bragging rights and it is there for the taking ( a sort of cycling first ascent). We had the comfort of a night with the Hastings family and were going to take two days. Much talk that night was about bikes and the merit of light weight touring equipment and it was accompanied by a 30 year old malt and so it was agreed that front panniers only is always the way to go. We are big fans of Nick Sanders who rode around the world in 80 days averaging 170 miles a day some years ago yes that is what I said 170. He went with a race bike and front bags and we concur ( he must have been so upset when they changed the round the world rules ).
Making this a two day trip means that you can join up with the peloton from Debbie’s ( the mini mart tea room at Bruichladdich) on a Sunday morning for your ride. Dave ‘The mighty T’ legend of that club can be thought of as like riding alongside that Yorkshire cricket legend Geoff Boycot if he had ever had a dramatic change of sporting codes ” No lass you don’t have te point out them holes I know em all”. I had unnecessarily spent quite a while teaching my wife peloton etiquette for the day.
It was a poor morning of weather and the stress of making the distance for the ferry meant that the pace was high. Too high perhaps as we arrived 60 minutes early and sweating enough to require a change of base layers. The ferry to the mainland takes over 2 hours and is your main chance to refuel, rest and seize up. If you ever take the ferry from Bute to the mainland at the end of the 5 ferry loop then this is the point where you will be sitting in Lycra amongst drunk hen party girls, but the Islay ferry on a Sunday afternoon is a more sober setting and time to relax.
You have in front of you as you roll off the boat, the longest and hardest section of the loop as you hug the coast and then turn left to Kilberry. Make sure that you have food in your rear pockets as Port Ban caravan park is your only re stocking point if you do not count the Michelin stared restaurant in the village of Kilberry( I do not ). This section gives you fantastic views back over all of the route that you have cycled but there are some big hills in this 51 mile section back to Tayvallich. A trip along part of the Crinan Canal can be used for those sturdy of wheel as part of the route and is to be recommended.
Total bike millage could be as little as 80 or as much as 140 if you want to play around and add lib on Jura and Islay.There is good accommodation in Tayvallich to start and end your odyssey and a stay in our near Port Charlotte to make it a two day trip would also be a good idea. The Tayvallich fast ferry details can be found here.