Scotland, a year ago today:
Michael and I had left the Isle of Arran the previous morning, waving goodbye to Dave and Kris and Stew after a week riding bikes, eating fish & chips and drinking whisky in Lamlash. We ferried from Lochranza to Claonaig, then headed north to Lochgilphead where we had a fastfood dinner. A few more miles up the road was Lochgair, where we stayed for the night in the AirBNB guest bedroom of Ian, a garrulous and amicable fellow who kept the wine flowing along with the stories of his life. I could have listened for hours, really, but I wanted to sleep. We’d ridden 58 miles that day, and knew we still had a long way to go.
We had no idea.
The next morning began with breakfast laid out on the kitchen table with a note from Ian to help ourselves. So we did.
Mike and I then packed up, left a thank you, and double-checked our bags and bikes before locking Ian’s door. We were expecting about 70 miles, mostly around Loch Fyne, up and over the Rest & Be Thankful Pass, and down to Loch Lomond, which we would follow into the northern suburbs of Glasgow. We mounted up, rode about fifty meters up the A83, and then I heard it. Some kind of weird clicking in my pedal. “Hold on” I called up to Mike. “Something’s weird.” I pulled over onto the side of the road, still within easy view of Ian’s house, and pulled my foot off the pedal. In doing so, I also pulled the pedal off the bike. Even if you don’t ride bikes much, you probably know that this isn’t what is supposed to happen. The bearings that keep the pedal spinning on the spindle had completely disintegrated. These are Crank Brothers pedals, and I’ve been riding them for years, so I’m no stranger to pedal issues. This has happened to me and others on rides, but always within a few miles of the trailhead, to the point that one could stuff the pedal back on the spindle and awkwardly make it back to the starting point. But in this case, the starting point was 60 miles behind us.
It’s amazing how quickly one’s brain starts listing The Problems at hand, and possible Solutions. Obviously, I wasn’t going to be able to just deal and suffer on, like I might on a ride back home. Nor could I walk out of the woods, call for a lift, or do a quick roadside repair. Mike and I both knew what was at stake. We’d been looking forward to this day for a long time. However, if I’m gonna be stuck on the side of the road in a foreign country in the middle of a long-planned vacation that could now be ruined with a broken bike, Mike would be the guy with whom I’d want to be stuck with. It’s an inside joke, but I’m pretty certain I asked Mike if he could wander up and down the A83 for a few minutes, looking in people’s trash cans to see if anyone happened to throw away a perfectly good bike pedal. The chances would be better than you think that he’d find one.
Mike knows the old trope that the destination isn’t really the destination. The journey is the destination. And at that point, right then, that morning a year ago today, it was pretty much looking like our destination might change, and whatever the journey was to be, was different from what we thought. But it’s a lovely morning, we’re in Scotland, and worst case scenario Ian would be back from work in eight hours and the old hotel bar across the street had a good selection of Islay whiskys. Being stuck in Lochgair for a day or two wouldn’t be a terrible worst case scenario.
However, we still wanted to get where we were going, so Mike and I split duties. He looked at the bus routes, and I searched for the nearest bike shop. We weren’t far from one of the national bike routes that criss-cross Scotland (and I suppose the UK), so I figured some little town somewhere around must have something. The largest nearby town was Lochgilphead, where we’d had dinner the night before, and was eight miles behind us. I found the bike shop’s website (which seems to no longer exist), and while they didn’t list their inventory, the picture on the site showed a selection of Shimano things hanging on the wall, some of which were recognizable as pedals. At that point, I figured even plastic flat pedals for a kid’s bike would be good enough to get us through the next two days, wherein we’d be in Glasgow, where I could certainly find some proper clipless versions. I checked their hours — 9:00 am opening time. What time was it? 9:05.
Mike and I decided on a plan: I’d ride back to the shop and get pedals, he’d ride on ahead to the town of Inveraray, 17 miles north, where we’d meet, probably around lunchtime. I could get back to Lochgilphead faster on my own and then make up time chasing him. What happens if I get to the bike shop and no pedals? Or worse, I don’t actually get to the bike shop? A year later, I don’t recall if we’d considered either of those options. I suppose I would have messaged him to ask what he’d learned about bus schedules. And he would have had a nice solo ride to Inveraray to remember years from now. Again, there really weren’t any terrible options. That was important to remember. The trip wasn’t going to be ruined. It was just going to be… different.
Let’s cut to the chase, literally. I arrived at the shop in the rain and found that somewhere along the way I’d lost the shell of the pedal completely and its was my shoe on the spindle at this point. Yes, the bike shop was open. Yes, the owner of the bike shop suggested that maybe I don’t ride Crank Brothers pedals any more. Yes, he sold me a pair of Shimano Deore pedals that felt like little anchors on my feet. I hate Shimano pedals, but I’ve never been happier to install a pair. I thanked the owner, noted the for sale sign on his shop window, and headed out of town, intending to make up time to the extent that maybe I could even catch Mike before Inveraray.
No such luck. I was several miles out when he messaged me that he’d found a cafe with a view and would wait. With this news, I peeled off the A83 at the town of Furnace, and took a gravel side road along the Loch and around Dun Leachainn. It was alternately sunny and rainy, and I was rapturous with joy and relief as I blasted through to Inveraray.
Mike and I had a delightful lunch in town, and met a pair of bikepackers from Finland who were wandering their way across Europe.
They asked about our route, and suggests some changes. Mainly, take the small roads, stay off the big road. The plan for the afternoon was to head up to the top of Glen Croe where there is a lovely viewing area and a stone placed there in 1750 to commemorate the completion of the first road through this part of Scotland. We had some pretty serious climbing to do to get there, and taking the scenic route made this much more interesting. The steepest grade we saw was 19%, but it was so quiet and so beautiful that neither of us complained.
We arrived with great fanfare at the top and we were rewarded for our work with a view down the Glen that pictures don’t do justice. For various reasons, Mike had mentally pinned the idea of this place into his brain, and arriving there with him was like accompanying a kid on Christmas morning. It marked 2/3 of our journey for the day, and it was literally downhill from here to the suburb of Balloch where we’d be staying that night.
Mike and I took turns heading down the old military road through the valley. The highway above us on the hillside was dense with cars and trucks, and in fact has since been closed for repairs, again, after a landslide in January. Aware that this descent was probably a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, I filmed it with the phone and GoPro.
It wasn’t lost on us that we still had 30 miles to go, even though it was mostly flat and mostly scenic along Loch Lomond.
The stupid silly grins stayed on our faces throughout the afternoon and into the evening, until we finally arrived in Balloch at 8:30pm (still in bright sunlight), got dinner at a Fish & Chips joint called Yummy, and watched the Women’s World Cup match on the tv.
The next morning we escaped Balloch with much less drama than it took to get there, taking the train into Glasgow and touring the city before Mike and I went separate ways.
He was leaving the next morning to return home to Philadelphia, and I was heading back to Arran, where I’d be joined by my wife, Sacha, and our friends Rob and Kevin for ten more days in Scotland before racing Grinduro on July 13 and heading home a few days later.
A year later I’m still processing what that trip, that ride, and particular that day meant to me. 2020 has been a different kind of year and has forced thoughts inward rather than outward. I look forward to a little more outward soon.
Here’s the ride on Strava. Cheers.