Scottish Highland cycling – the 5 ferries challenge part 1

Start as you mean to go on!

I arrived in Scotland with absolutely no idea of what I was letting myself in for. 5 ferries around a few islands – I’m sure I could do that bit I thought, with some cycling in between, what could be so difficult? I turned up at the bike shop in my tartan mini dress with my handbag and my novel. ‘Are you dressed for cycling yet?’ I was asked at the Bicycle Room in Troon who were lending the bikes to us for the trip. Well I was wearing tartan, what more was required? 

5 ferries fun!

The 5 ferry challenge is an exciting journey through some of Scotland’s most breathtaking scenery. It incorporates 4 cycle sections and 5 ferry crossings in and around North Kintyre and the Firth of Clyde. However, I had neglected to read the 5 ferries website which stated quite clearly:
“This is not for the starter/novice cyclist – stretching 52 miles with some extremely steep  and arduous climbs.”
On reflection, it was probably a good job I hadn’t read it as I may well have thought twice about setting off quite so blithely. Also I was somehow under the impression that my rucksack would be transported by some independent means but of course it wasn’t. If you’ve ever tried to cycle up a four mile 1 in 2 gradient with a rucksack on your back you will know where I’m coming from..

NOT cycling for softies

I had a  lovely bike from Alan, at the Bicycle Room – a sleek black model called a San Anselmo Marin which had lots and lots of gears, which I got the hang of eventually. There was a bit of reorganising of luggage which left the handbag and the novel at the bike shop. We had a few cycling snacks for energy which I had already consumed before we left the shop, and we took our bikes on the train from Troon to Androssan where the fun was about to begin. Trains in Scotland are quite cycle friendly and you can spot the little bike image on the carriage where you know there will be room for your wheels. The ferries are also cycle friendly with handy parking spots designated.

Cycle friendly trains

The 5 ferries challenge would see us cycle 52 miles in 4 stages through some of Scotland’s finest scenery, using 5 Calmac ferries along the way. We actually cycled a lot more than 52 miles as we managed to get lost and cycle up an extra gruelling hill we didn’t need to, and then we also did the coastal route when we got back to the mainland. We also missed a few of the ferries but luckily there was another one along before too long.The real challenge means you have to try and do it in one day but we did it in two which was still quite tough going in my view.

Scotland in September – I kid you not

The weather on day one was amazing. The fab Debbie at the St Rules super Scottish bed and breakfast said it looked we had the best day this year, and we were quite smug as we sailed across the Firth of Clyde in the beautiful sunshine from Androssan to Brodick on the isle of Arran.

Breakfast at St Rules

The first part of the route along the coast was stunning and flat. We stopped for picture opportunities and to chat to a few artists capturing the gorgeous palate of nature’s colours on canvas and the view could not have looked more like that mouth watering Visit Scotland advert if it tried.

Pretty as a picture

The first daunting hill then presented itself and we engaged our thigh muscles for the ascent. Descents were equally interesting as you go downhill very very quickly indeed and need to really have the brakes on all the time – otherwise you could go spinning off into the heather and the rocks if you lose control. I hung on for dear life, half exhilarated half apprehensive.

Going down!

One of our three bikes was an electric bike which was a life saver for us. the electric bike is exactly what you need if you have very large steep hills to climb. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a mobility scooter or a motorbike. You still have to pedal quite hard but it can take you up those hills in the style of Bradley Wiggins rather than the style of Wee Jimmy Krankie.

The trusty electric bike

We stopped at the Arran distillery in Lochranza and sampled a ten year old and a fourteen year old single malt plus some Arran Gold (a bit like Baileys) I’m not a big whisky fan but it tasted great to me. We had a lunch time snack and Maria sampled a cheese and haggis toastie before we set  off for the next ferry from Lochranza to Clonaig. 

A nice drop o’ whisky

The 5 Ferry Challenge is now in it’s 10th year. Dreamt up 10 years ago by Paul Grant (and a few pals over a few pints!), the challenge was originally conceived to see if you could cycle a circular route around the west coast of Scotland taking in as much sea and scenery as possible all within one day. The result was the Five Ferry Challenge. Check out the Ayrshire and Arran tourism site for more details about this amazing trip

A lovely day for dogs