Cycling – Loch Rannoch and Schiehallion

The evening of our Isle of Mull cycle we found two comfy chairs in a quiet corner of the hotel bar to polish off a lobster and huge pot of local mussels, together with a bottle of wine, before conversation ground to a halt, eyes were closing, and we collapsed into bed around 9.30pm.

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The next day, however, we were up bright and early to drive over to Iona, a tiny island on the south-west coast of Mull, famous for its ancient abbey and nunnery. It was also a summer holiday for my family going back through the generations and I remember one in particular, spending the days as a child cycling from one end of the island to another (it really is tiny) and running amok on the virtually car-free streets. My grandpa learnt to sail as a kid off the beach, building a sailboat out of oars and old sheets.

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He had once cycled from the ferry at Craignure all the way to the ferry port to Iona – a journey that takes over an hour by car today, but he cycled it 67 years ago when tarmac’ed roads were unheard of. A fantastic cycle it must have been – as we drove the roads we’d cycled yesterday I couldn’t keep the grin off my face, marvelling over how incredible the roads were, and as they extended past where we had turned off, the roads coiled through tiny fishing villages and harbours, soaring up and down undulations – now dead straight, now tightly curved. What a fantastic cycle it must have been.

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Iona is only a ten minute ferry away so we left the cars and bikes behind and crossed over, for an hour or so spent exploring and eating fish and chips for lunch before dashing back across and all the way back to Craignure for the ferry back to Oban and the mainland.

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Another fantastic drive, and a few hours later we were in Aberfeldy, where we were staying with my grandparents.

The next day dawned slightly cloudy and we felt our luck with the weather may have run out as we drove under grey skies through Aberfeldy and up and over Schiehallion, a munroe at over 1000 metres, the road becoming progressively more deserted and barren by the moment. However, as we drove down towards Loch Rannoch, the sun burst through the clouds to twinkle on the lake and smile at us once more.

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We drove round the tiny village of Kinloch Rannoch a few times, looking for somewhere to park – discovering later that there are several car parks on the south side of the loch which would have been much easier to find. However, we eventually found somewhere, unloaded the bikes, checked the tyres, and we were off!

The first ten miles were gently undulating along a quiet road just above the lake, views often obscured by trees growing between the lake and us. Occasionally the route took a little turn to the right and a little uphill to skirt fields filled with sheep (seriously, how many sheep are there in Scotland, they’re everywhere!) before coming back down to the lakeside. We passed a few others out for a leisurely cycle and saw no cars whatsoever. The first half an hour passed in a blaze of fast, enjoyable pedalling with me in James’ slipstream, rising and falling in the saddle as he did to crest the top of tiny uphills. It was great fun and we managed ten miles in half an hour! I was pretty pleased with that speed although it did turn out that we also had a tailwind pushing us along.

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After the first ten miles the road opened up to a stunning view of a low sandy beach, the sparkling loch, and the purple hills in the distance. We stopped for a photo and so I could remove the sleeves from my jacket – it was rapidly turning into a warm day. From there we meandered slightly more slowly past the western edge of the loch, pulling up slightly onto the hills, stopping for photos and a toilet break as we made our way along the south side of the loch.

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The circumference hadn’t taken very long so instead of heading back to the car we set out up the road to the Schiehallion, saying we would cycle for half an hour upwards and then return. It started so gently you barely noticed the incline as we left the side of the loch, but a few sharp hairpin bends put an end to that and all too soon we were exchanging trees for ferns and heather, popping out above the tree line for a majestic climb along a ridge between mountains. The climb was never too tough due to the shortness of its steepest sections (or maybe I’m just getting fitter?) and we had a great time cycling along in the middle of the road taking photos and enjoying the scenery.

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Almost fourty minutes later, as the road took a slight downhill, we decided to turn back, whooping our way along the first section of the road – a straight and relatively simple descent where James almost ran over a sheep – and then lost each other as the descent became more technical and I leaned heavily on my brakes for fear of meeting a car coming the other direction. I have got a LOT better (read: braver) at descending but there’s still a long way to go…..

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55.7 km at 23.4 kph average speed and a fantastic mix of fast flats, picture-taking and leisurely chatting, steep climbs and fast and technical descents. I can’t recommend this cycle more and am already planning a return to get right to the top of the Schiehallion road.

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