DEPARTURE | Cycling the Hebrides Islands_Part 1

This volume of DEPARTURE chronicles a solo bicycling route from the city lights of Glasgow, Scotland, to the upper reaches of the country’s Western Isles – a tale of wind, rain, bitter cold, and all of the cycling glories that come with tackling one of western Europe’s most savage routes.

Adventure in one of its finest forms..

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[Part 1]

I’d never been to Glasgow before. The “dear green place”, as they call it, standing tall on the banks of the River Clyde. Dear green place? Maybe back in William Wallace’s day. From the airplane, at least, it kind of looked like a colder, shittier version of Pittsburgh.

I was led to a famous Billy Connolly joke on the once-prominent shipbuilding town while doing some pre-trip research: “The great thing about Glasgow is that if there’s [ever] a nuclear attack, it’ll look exactly the same afterwards.”

Lovely. At least I knew not to have high expectations coming in.

That being said, it would’ve been wise in hindsight to garner up some practical knowledge of the place before stepping off the plane from sunny Florida, USA. Like, for instance, knowing how to pronounce it correctly. Apparently most every American instinctively wants to pronounce it Glas-gow, emphasizing the ‘w’ as in cow, when in fact it’s pronounced Glas-go — as in, you should definitely go to Glasgow.

I was corrected (none too subtly) by Roger – my stubby, portly little cab driver who gave me a lift in his Vauxhall to my first night’s accommodation. I thought about rifling with him for a moment, wanting to suggest that they should have done without the ‘w’ if they expected visitors to say it correctly, but then I decided the last thing he probably cared to hear was another insolent American’s opinion on why they were right, and everyone else was wrong. So I let it go, and instead thanked him for rectifying my foolishness.

Alos, another thing I should have known (especially being a football [soccer] fan), was that Glasgow was home to both the Celtic and Rangers football clubs. I knew the two teams were vicious rivals – one of the most barbaric in all of world football – but I hadn’t a clue that the city was home to both.

During my three day stay there, Celtic actually had a home match (an early round fixture against Alloa F.C. in the Scottish Cup), and I’d gotten a ticket to go see it. By virtue of custom, I was getting good and tossed with a jolly old Scottish boy at one of the pubs before the game, and we’d gotten to talking about the political and religious history of the century-and-a-half old rivalry. He told me about how, for the vast majority of the 20th century, Rangers had refused to ‘knowingly’ sign any Roman Catholic players to their roster, and instead fielded a squad of Protestants.

Thus, the two clubs represented – among other things – the deeply-rooted religious divide among ethnic Scots: the Catholics supported Celtic, while the vast majority of Protestants were Rangers fans. Or, as my drinking buddy called them, filthy fucking huns.

My moment of stupidity came when I asked, “now I know Celtic is here in Glasgow, but what city are Rangers from? Aberdeen?”

The guy looked at me with an expression of genuine shock, and I can only imagine the profanity-laden diatribe he would’ve laid on me had he not been a more civil man.

All in all, though, he took the mistake as an honest one, and we went about our business at the pub before watching Celtic waltz to an easy victory over their inferior opposition.

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After the enjoyable evening at the football match, it was time to get serious about my real reason for being here in Scotland: cycling.

Fortunately, my bike and all its components had arrived intact and undamaged to the airport, even though I’d watched a blasé luggage handler drop the box I’d packed it in like a sack of potatoes onto the floor of the baggage claim area. No harm no foul, I suppose.

There’s a few people I know of (people more hardcore than I), that like to unbox and assemble all their gear right there at the airport, then ride right out the front doors and merge straightaway into the busy conglomeration of taxis, buses, and rental cars. As for myself, I prefer to go about things in a more gentlemanly fashion. I’ll usually grab a luggage cart, gather up all my shit, then take a cab to pre-arranged accommodation for a night or two. That way I can rest, get settled in, and tune everything up at my own leisure.

Regardless, even though it’s infinitely more comfortable than doing it at the airport, assembling and tuning a fully-loaded touring bicycle (with fenders, racks, etc) in a small room with portable tools is no cake walk — definitely not a task for the impatient, or the unskilled. Fortunately this wasn’t my first rodeo, and being that everything had arrived intact and undamaged on the journey over, the assembly process went relatively smoothly.

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Fork dropout plugs — an absolute must for airplane travel
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Tuning up in the mobile bike shop
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Welcome to the U.K.
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The cold steel lines of an early generation Surly Cross-Check … tuned up and (hopefully) ready for the long miles ahead

Once the machine was locked, loaded, and tuned to perfection for an 800+ mile journey, it was time to hit the streets of Glasgow and take in some big city sights and sounds before striking out into the rugged, desolate wilds of the Highlands and Western Isles.

2016-10-12-23-10-310923161658a~2I will say that as much as I love urban cycling and zipping through congested, downtown streets, Glasgow is far from a cycle-friendly town, as far as I could tell.

The roads are rough and difficult to navigate, there were hardly any bike lanes as far as I can recollect, and the motorists didn’t seem too used to or too keen on sharing the road with pedal-powered traffic.

Regardless, it was refreshing to feel the rush of icy Scottish air sting my cheeks and creep down into my puffer as I zipped by the kebab stands, taxis, and double-decker tourist buses – an appropriate European welcome, and a proper warm up for the coming trek northwards, into the desolate expanse of the Highlands and Hebrides.

[Continued in Part 2]

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