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. It documents a tale of wind, rain, bitter cold, and all of the cycling glories that come with tackling one of western Europe’s most celebrated routes.
Adventure in one of its finest forms..
As it went, my first day of real cycling presented with a sequential barrage of tragic comedies that, if nothing else, would provide for some quality storytelling once safely back home amongst friends and family.
I’d headed on a northwesterly route out of the city center, through the trafficky sprawl of Clydebank and Dumbarton, on my way to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs — Scotland’s largest National Park.
Since the greater Glasgow area is more or less just an assortment of malls, fast food restaurants, and dangerous, congested roads, I’d decided to cheat and take the train from Queen Street Station all the way up to Balloch – a small tourist town just inside the park that serves as a gateway into the Trossachs. It wasn’t optimal (train hopping is generally considered a demerit among hardcore bicycle tourists), but I figured whatever – I hadn’t yet gotten fully accustomed to riding on the left hand side of the road, and I really didn’t feel like starting my trip off with a 20 mile jaunt down a treacherous urban highway. Let the purists judge me as they may.
Once I arrived into Balloch, I assumed I’d just hop on the A82 and head north, but fortunately I ran into a nice old lady inside the tourist office who insisted that I do otherwise: “Oh deary, don’t ya take the A82 … that’s the most dangerous motorway in Scotland..” She then told me about a cycle/pedestrian path just across the way, which followed the entire western shore of Loch Lomond all the way up to Inverarnan, some 27 miles to the north. I’d only be going up to Tarbet, which was about 17 miles up, before veering off to the west towards Oban. Either way, it was a blessing she told me about the path, because the A82 was a nasty, congested, trafficky mess indeed.
The trail was nothing too fantastic as far as cycling goes, as it ran pretty straight and flat the entire way. It was fair enough, though, given that I didn’t have to concern myself with the treachery and commotion of cars and traffic out on the busy motorway. However, it wouldn’t be long at all before I was presented with another, entirely different form of treachery altogether.
I’d glanced at the weather briefly that morning before heading out, and saw that the forecast included spots of rain, but I didn’t read too much into it — if you’re going cycling in Scotland, you’re gonna get wet. There’s just no two ways about it.
What ensued, however, was no typical British drizzle; about four or five miles in, the heavens opened up in their entirety and let loose a murderous display of soaking, driving rains and hellish winds. Fortunately, the wind gusts were some variant form of a tailwind as I headed due north, so they weren’t much of an issue for me. The rain, on the other hand, was another story.
Since the cycle path runs almost even with the level of the loch, and the A82 is built up a few meters higher off to the side, when it rains all the water from the road drains right down onto the trail, creating perilous spots of flooding. I’d splashed through several semi-deep spots almost up to my crankset, but had managed to keep my feet in the pedals for most of the way.
(On a sidenote, I really don’t mind riding in the rain … I would take getting drenched to the bone over battling a headwind any day of the week, as I’m sure most other cyclists would. Plus, there’s something about being out in the elements – especially a fierce storm like this one – that releases some primitive form of vivacity — a tangible feeling of ‘being alive’ that, more often than not, lies immured beneath the banalities of day-to-day life).
In any regard, as I was saying I’d managed to stay upright and keep my feet clipped in the pedals for quite some time, even through some pretty tricky areas of mud and trail washout.
Until, that is, I came up on a particularly nasty little pass which featured a quick descent down into a sharp left hand turn, with a treacherous spot of flooding at the bottom. I went into the turn pretty fast and a bit too confidently, and ended up hitting a mud slick that notched my front wheel 90-degrees and sent me flying Marcus Burghardt-style into the pool of muddy water below.
I hit the ground pretty hard on my shoulder, and I lay there in a pitiful heap for quite some time on the freezing, wet grass. Had there been anyone around to witness the wipeout, they probably would’ve ran over to make sure that I wasn’t dead. That is, if they weren’t too busy laughing their Scottish arses off at the hilarity of my graceless tumble.
In any way, I managed to drag myself up after a moment or two, and after ensuring that both me and the bike were free from any kind of serious damage, I continued warily on my way.
After passing through the Shire-esque village of Luss and the gorgeous lochside hamlet of Inverbeg, I finally rolled into Tarbet, surely looking for all the world like a drowned rat. I’d actually gotten a good deal the night before on a room at the hotel there in town, so regardless of my situation, my spirits were actually quite high given the thought that soon enough, I’d be enjoying a hot shower and a well-deserved couple of beers in the hotel lounge.
Being that the little ‘town’ of Tarbet isn’t much more than the hotel itself – which sits overlooking Loch Lomond at the intersection of A82 and A83 – I didn’t think twice about leaving my bike unattended outside as I walked through the big glass doors to check in. Once inside, the receptionist – a nice older lady with a heavy highlander accent – must’ve taken pity on my dreadful appearance, because she immediately offered me a pastry and a piping hot cup of tea, and let me check into my room even though I was about an hour and a half early.
Pleased with the comfort and friendly nature of the place, I walked back outside to grab my bike and start hauling everything up to my room, entirely oblivious to the fact that disaster was about to strike again.
The bike was sitting there just where I left it, and I wheeled it around towards the main entrance, but stopped for a quick second to toss the receipt the lady had given me into one of my bags. However, I stopped dead in my tracks as I bent down to unzip one of the front panniers, and realized that, inexplicably, it wasn’t there.
My heart sank to the floor immediately and I stood there frozen for a moment, completely and utterly bewildered.
“What in the hell,” I thought. “Where are my panniers?”
I shot a nervous glance out to the road and empty sidewalks, half-expecting to see some prankster standing across the street holding the two bags, pointing at me and laughing as he carried out some childish joke. Of course, though, there was nothing and no one around.
I stood there longer still, speechless and entirely baffled as to why my two front panniers were not sitting there on my front rack, where they should be and where they’d been the entire time.
Did they get knicked back in Balloch, and I’d ridden the whole way up here without even noticing?
Did they fall off when I’d crashed earlier? Did I take them inside the hotel lobby with me just a moment ago? Was I losing my f*cking mind entirely?
After rationalizing that the only logical explanation was someone had knicked them while I walked inside to check into the room, I went back inside to the lady at the front desk and asked – surprisingly calmly – if there was a security camera out at the main entrance.
She was taken aback by the odd question and gave me quite a confused look, until I explained that I’d thought someone had just stolen two bags off of my bicycle outside.
“No, no we don’t have any security cameras here..” She frowned in utter disbelief, and it was obvious that she was just as baffled and bewildered as I was. I remembered that I had taken a couple of pictures back in Balloch before I’d set off on the ride up here, so I pulled out my phone – which fortunately was still there in the saddle bag on my bike – and found one showing my whole rig leaned up against a park bench outside the tourist office. Sure enough, there were the panniers, sitting right in place on the front rack.
The only explanation whatsoever, then, was that someone had indeed stolen them minutes ago when I’d walked inside the hotel. Which was incomprehensible given that there was hardly anyone around, and that Tarbet was a tiny little nothing town out in the middle of nowhere.
Once the reality of the situation began to fully set in, my initial confusion and disbelief began to transform into frustration, self-pity, and downright anger – about the most unproductive emotions one could have when traveling by themselves in a distant, unfamiliar land. I will say, though, that the receptionist was absolutely lovely – it was clear that she felt awful for me, and she kept mentioning that in her twenty-something years of working at the hotel, she’d never heard of any kind of theft or robbery in the area – ever. Just my luck, I suppose.
I ended up stashing my bike and the rest of my gear – I still had my tool bag, two large rear panniers, tent, and saddle bag – up in my room, and spent the rest of the afternoon/evening searching the area for the missing bags. It was a long shot, but I figured there was a chance that the thieves might’ve grabbed them, taken off, and then tossed them out a short distance down the road once they’d had a chance to rifle through them and grab whatever it was they wanted out of them. Fortunately, there really wasn’t much they would’ve been interested in – I keep all my super important stuff (phone, wallet, passport) inside my Brooks saddle bag, and I always take that with me whenever I leave the bike somewhere.
Alas, I searched the perimeter of the area for probably half a mile or so in every direction – in dumpsters, behind bushes, off the side of the road, etc – but had no luck.
Downtrodden, beat, tired and cold (and, to put it bluntly, pretty pissed off) I retreated back to the hotel in a stew of self-pity and commiseration. I moped over to the lounge/dining area and took a seat at the bar, figuring there wasn’t much else to do at that point other than spend the remainder of the night sulking by myself behind a pint glass, while the rest of the hotel guests schmoozed and chatted merrily over their evening meals.
Some day, and some introduction to Scottish cycling…
[Continued in Part 3]