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"Wild about Argyll" by Steve Bate

It was quite a challenge to convince Ibrahim to head to the south west coast instead of the north west, like we usually do for adventures in Scotland. We’ve shared many outings, climbing and biking in the north west, as it offers endless possibilities for people in search of remote adventures. But heading towards the big city of Glasgow instead of away from it, ran against the grain of our long time adventure history. I’d come across the Bike Packing Scotland website, when they had just released a short film called Wild about Argyll. Apart from getting married on the banks of Loch Lomond six years ago, almost to the day, I hadn’t spent any time in the south west and this little video sparked my interest. But it was a tough sell to Ibrahim, my Rovaniemi bike packing partner in crime. October is a magical time of year in Scotland, but it is pretty hit and miss, if you’re lucky enough to get the weather, you are in for amazing views in crisp sunshine, colourful forests and midge free fun. However if not, you may as well head to the Arctic circle for a ride, because at least you’ll stay dry!

We started out in Arrochar, Ian McNab another friend (and bike packing legend) from my local bike shop, had joined us for 5 days riding the trail. We didn’t have time to ride the whole trail, so I’d put together a loop that would see us get the most out of what Argyll had to offer. The riding straight away took us off the quiet tarmac’d roads and into the forrest’s seemingly endless gravel paths. We rode along the trails, climbing and descending in that magical sunny weather, joking about how far we were from the chip shop. After the days last rays of sun dipped below the mountains we found a picnic table, just put there for us I’m sure, and camped for the night. The roar of our tiny gas stoves broke the still silence of the evening, as I removed the HUNT wheels from my bike to set up my tarp and bivvy for the night. 

We woke to a perfect autumnal day, frost on the ground with a clear blue sky painted above our heads. Any exposed skin was quickly chilled as we headed into Dunoon to find a cafe for breakfast, a brew and to restock with supplies. From Dunoon we headed north and rode along side the endless Loch Eck, crossing a couple of land slides. A quick reminder of how lucky we were to have this weather. Less than a week before, the coast was hit by a storm causing several major landslides in the area, but today it was hard to believe basking in the calm sunshine. At the top of the Loch, we climbed over the pass and headed back south down the Kyles of Bute. We left the gravel and had a fantastically fast descend on fresh tarmac down to Portavadie, where we couldn’t have timed the ferry any better. We arrived in Tarbert as the sun was setting, so we dove into the local Cafe Ca’Dora for a fresh slab of fish and chips, before making our way up the hill in the dark, passing the spooky old castle as we continued on to find a bivvy spot.

Day three had us tackling an 80km loop of the Kyntire peninsula, heading south towards the east coast, we had fantastic riding, all gravel with an interesting section of single track, a perfect challenge for our gravel bikes. The weather closed in as we hit the coast, we were battered by the southerly headwind as we rode towards Claonig, where you can catch the ferry to Arran. But it wasn’t inviting today, as the white horses ran wild across the bleak stretch of water, Arran’s mountains incased in thick heavy cloud. We pressed on into the winds, the rain drops felt like needles on exposed skin. We climbed and climbed and climbed, until the wind turbines greeted us on the summits. We stood there for a while watching these grand giants slicing gracefully through the ragging winds. Chilled to the bone, a quick descent on perfect gravel saw us on the west coast and heading north, with that southerly wind helping us along. A brief pit stop in Tarbert and we continued north to Inverneil, where we again climbed high to see more white giants. The wind had relaxed and the afternoon sun pierced through the cloud, as we rode the steepest gravel descent ever, a truely enguaging white knuckle ride. Heading west we were running out of precious daylight and we didn’t find a spot to pitch up until well after the torches were lit. As I lay inside my bivvy bag, the memorising pitter patter sound of rain on the tarp sent me into a deep sleep for the night.

We woke to a grey morning, but as we brewed up the cloud was breaking and it showed signs of another magical Scottish day. The wind turbines we had ridden past the afternoon before, stood high above the cloud inversion that was beginning to form, bathing in the sunshine we were waiting to warm our bodies. The morning was spent riding picturesque country roads north, with the only traffic being dare devil sheep or the rear sighting of a cheery farmer. We detoured to the small port of Crinan, and found a cafe, before following the Crinan Canal back to Bellanoch, leaving the still waters of the canal to follow our route north. At Ford, we started on our route back east, following Loch Awe‘s rolling banks, before another perfect long gravel section to Inveraray, where the smell of fish and chips lured us into one of the local establishments in the early evening. A quick loop round the top of Loch Fyne we found a quiet spot next to the river outside Strachur to set up camp for the night. Brewing up, we chatted about the last couple of days riding, the hot chocolate warming us through, before we snatched a well earned forty winks from the clear evening skys.

 

The final morning we were up and out, hunting for breakfast, but we had no luck. We were immersed in the forestry all morning, cool and damp with hanging cloud, a picture postcard with every view, sublime Scotland, dressed in her Autumns best. The perfect gravel continued only broke by tiny quiet roads. Before crossing the A83, we had a clear view from our high point of the land slide, that had closed the road west days earlier. The diggers and dump trucks looked like tiny toys next to the hillside, their yellow lights flashing in the distance as they tried to clear the road. A task that I’m sure would take days. Not long after this we came across a digger clearing yet another slide in our path. As we carried the bikes across the slip, much to the driver amusement, I sank up to my calfs in the slitty mud, as I pointlessly tried to tip toe through the jumbled mess. A final exciting switch back descent sore us roll back into Arrochar, in perfect time for lunch at a roadside wooden cafe.

After 450km around the coast and lochs of Argyll, Ibrahim had completely changed his opinion of the south west coast, and we had to agree. It was better than I’d imagined. In places you felt so remote, yet you must have only been less than 50 miles in a direct line to Glasgow. We hit a weather window perfectly, with very little rain and no biting insects which gives Scotland’s wilderness a bad rep. I’ll stand by the fact Scotland is still my favourite country in the world to ride a bike, it really has everything you could ever want, and the gravel riding has seemingly endless possibilities.


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