The lanes of Perthshire offer the cyclist endless possibilities for exploration, exhilaration, and of course exercise! My usual cycle routes in and around Perth were put to one side on Saturday, I put the bike up on the car roof, and drove to Pitlochry - to attempt I ride I have wanted to do for many years. I am not a competitive 'event ' cyclist, but my friends of that ilk have enthused about the route of the Etape Caledonia for so long, that I thought I should explore some of that territory; albeit at my leisurely trundling pace.
I began at the Bridge of Garry car park, at the start of the B8019, which leaves the noise of the busy A9, and heads westwards into ever remoter landscapes. I followed this twisting, undulating road for almost 35m, past The Queen's View and Loch Tummel, through Kinoch Rannoch, along the length of the north shore of Loch Rannoch, and finally the last five miles of dead-end road which lead to the remote Rannoch Station. It's a wonderful road, which early on Saturday, was virtually traffic free. The road surface is pretty good for most of the long miles, and the views extravagantly wonderful, with sun glistening on the surface of the lochs, and mountains like Schiehallion and the far peaks of Glen Coe to savour on the journey.
Though cycling on my own, I actually laughed out loud as I turned the corner into the little village of Kinloch Rannoch and saw the post office on the left. In an instant, I remembered going in there to check my e-mail in the internet cafe (remember those?). I had my sons with me when they were about five and three years old. I can still remember looking up from my PC to see my then two-year old son standing in the doorway of the shop facing out towards the street. His trousers and pants were round his ankles and he was peeing voluminously out of the shop and onto the pavement! Happy Days...
There's now a great little cafe at Rannoch station, which seems to reliably open (not Fridays!). As the miles began to take their toll, I was lured by the thought of a good breakfast on the platform. The big bacon and egg roll didn't disappoint, although the coffee was rather weak.
I am caught between envy of people with fancy modern lightweight bikes, and loyalty to trusty old tourer. It was made by FW Evans, way back in the 1980s, and has served me well for many years and over thousands of miles. If my old bike had an anthem it might well be Saxon's seminal heavy rock anthem, "Wheels of Steel". With the additional weight of a front carrier (I needed a warm layer and lots of fluid), it really felt heavy and in need of an upgrade. On the other, it is a fabulously robust machine that doesn't go wrong, isn't too slow, and is as comfortable as an armchair. Sober reflection also reveals that trimming ounces from the weight of my bike is perhaps to miss the point when pounds could happily be trimmed from the rider...
I realised as I sat on the platform of the West Highland Railway, that I had started my ride right by the Perth-Inverness Highland Main Line, and had cycled to this other railway line. Is is strange that it is quicker to cycle between these two stations than take the train, which would take an enormous trip via Dunkeld, Perth, Strling, Glasgow, Loch Lomond, Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy! Since they were so unceremoniously 'Beeching-ed', half a century ago, the Scottish railway system has been not just hacked back, but completely divided too. There are no East-West connections North of the central belt (unless you count Perth-Dundee) at all.
Cycling away from the tranquillity of Rannoch Station, I noticed a cheery "Welcome to Perth and Kinross" signpost in the foreground; and the foreboding sight of Schiehallion in the distance. After fives miles, I turned right, and ran along the south side of Loch Rannoch, on a charming and barely used road. While there were very few cars driving around, there were a remarkable number of informal campsites springing up along the water's edge. Some of these looked very peaceful and orderly. On others, there were empty cans strewn everywhere, countless fires and barbecues, and in one case broken glass scattered around. One campsite even had a PA system with which the people blasted dubious old disco music at the great mountains, who in turn glowered back at them with curmudgeonly disapproval.
Cycling past the Carie Estate, before reaching Kinloch Rannoch, I spotted a holiday house we rented one summer, not long after our daughter had been born. It was entertaining to think of them back in those days, playing in the stream by the cottage, or playing cricket in the field. It was also slightly alarming to think how few hours seem to have passed since those long ago days; yet as I went past, my older son was out with his girlfriend, and the younger being pushed around Loch Leven (in Fife) in a wheelbarrow in a sponsored charity event! When we holidayed there, the owner seemed like a lovely lady. Her husband seemed like quite an eccentric fellow though. It was only when I got back and did some googling, that I realised that he was Lord Moncton of Brenchley - a character who could certainly strain any working definition of 'eccentricity' to its absolute limits. When we were there he was working on the sodoku puzzles he devised for the national press; and with which he had re-built his fortune. He's lost his first millions and mansion on a bet that,a puzzle he had invented was 'impossible to solve.'
After by-passing Kinloch Rannoch to the South, the only major climb of the day was undertaken; up the Schiehallion Road to Foss. By this stage I had managed to get myself embroiled in a cycling event, which may have been a triathalon. They hadn't closed the road for the event, so I didn't see why I shouldn't keep cycling, despite being the only rider without a number. With wearying legs, but a pack of cyclists on my tail, I attacked the big climb; getting to the top without any further sign of them. However, if they were also going to swim a couple of miles, and run a marathon, I think they can be excused their failure to catch me up. After the Schiehallion Road, I turned left (diverting from the Etape route which goes southwards towards Weem and on to Aberfeldy), and followed the scenic route along the South side Loch Tummel. This is a lovely little unclassified road, with great views, and virtally no traffic at all. After the Claunie Dam at the end of Loch Tummel, the road winds around Loch Faskally. The river is crossed at the south side of Pitlochry, and the main road joined opposite the town's distinctive distillery. A quick pedal through Pitlochry town centre on and on the last three miles to the Bridge of Garry car park completed a wonderful ride.
A good 80miles, with over 3,500 metres of ascent makes this a good challenge for a lardy middle aged rider like me! I am gradually extending my distances again, and this is the longest I've done for a couple of years.
The scenery, the wildlife, the open road, the speed, the challenge; what's not to like about cycling in Scotland?