The Rapha Continental: Assynt

The first Rapha Continental UK ride had its fair mix of weather – rain, then sun, then a bit of hail, then sun again – changing from one valley to the next, or as one storm cloud succeeded another in the wind. Luckily, the snow held off until we’d finished riding.

Well, the only way I see this happening is in an extended ride north. When I say that I mean a long, terrible, trying trip…
– The Idea of North, by Glenn Gould, 1967

We stayed on the shores of Loch Assynt, surrounded by hills made from some of the oldest rocks in the world and every morning when we woke, we checked them to see how their dusting of white had crept down closer overnight. The day we embarked upon the long journey down south, it snowed on the loch; the large, wet flakes hurled themselves towards the van and exploded on the windscreen.

The roads around this part of north-west Scotland dip and tumble over the hills, the rough tarmac made to absorb surface water and sluice it away. A disorienting topography incised by sea lochs, uniform in its small-scale chaos: too many bends, too much water, too many hills, too many kinks in the coastline. The west coast often seemed to be to our east thanks to the contortions the landscape imposes on the roads.

Riding in the area, we found ourselves on constant ups and downs, barely a climb a kilometre long; on tiny, one-track roads pelting around corners into 15% ramps, then corkscrewing down towards the sea through the ochres and browns of bracken and peat, the greens muted despite the rain. Lambs on the hillsides, still whiter, cleaner, than their mothers, and the bright yellow broom flowers punctuating the sombreness.

There weren’t many drivers around but ‘Passing Place’ was a sign we got to know well. The ones we did meet seemed well used to pulling in to let oncoming vehicles pass. With a cheery wave from inside the warm cocoons of their cars, they were somewhat bemused to see us, wrapped up in Winter Tights, Rain Jackets and Winter Hats in April, dodging the rain on our bikes.

… Ardnamurchan Point to Cape Wrath: north-east seven to severe gale nine; backing north; six or seven later…
The Shipping Forecast, April 25th 2012

The serpentine nature of the landscape might lead you to conclude there were no straight roads. There was one: it took us for almost 40 miles, remorselessly north into a force seven gale, from Inchnadamph up to Kinlochbervie. We broke into two groups, tilting at the blast, three of us in a huddle, to the best of our abilities inching forward. You could lean on the wind like a friend.

At Kinlochbervie we swapped tarmac for track, then track for path, and eventually path for bog, for three miles or more to Sandwood Bay. This majestic stretch of white sand and huge windblown dunes appeared out of nowhere, in the peat bogs just south of Cape Wrath. We shared it with two walkers, a solitary tent, some washed up rope and plastic barrels. The wind pushed the waves towards us, obliterating our footsteps in the sand as if willing us to get lost.

Back in Inchnadamph, we drank whisky and talked of the ghosts at Ardvreck castle, the ruins on the loch; of Eimhir, the daughter of the MacLeod clan, who was betrothed to the devil but, preferring death, jumped into the loch and was transformed into a mermaid. Auld Clootie, enraged, struck the earth and created the blasted landscape, it is said.

The highlight of the ride? Aside from the beach, perhaps the haggis and black pudding rolls at the Kinlochbervie Hotel, or the sausage and egg roll at the Stoer Head lighthouse, which guards the northern entrance to the Minches. Or, maybe, the Kylesku bridge, the beautiful Ove Arup-designed structure that replaced the old Kylesku ferry in 1984. The ferry used to operate in daylight hours only; miss it, and you’d have an 110-mile round trip, just to avoid the 130-metre stretch of water dividing the road.

It put me in mind of Jim Lotz, an anthropologist who took part in ‘The Idea of North’, one of three experimental radio documentaries made by the pianist and artist Glenn Gould. These ‘sound essays’ were later collected together as The Solitude Trilogy and in ‘The Idea of North’, Lotz says:

“I began to get the impression that the north is a land of very narrow, very thin margins. Man of course is a biological improbability at the best of times – if you wanted to design something that could live on this earth, you wouldn’t design a man. And in the north, in many respects we’re at our greatest and most grotesque…”

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