Cycling into 2023

Bealach na Bà: my Highland highlight

It’s traditional for me to mark the end of a year by reflecting on the year’s cycling achievements, and looking ahead to the following 12 months.

This year was a modest one in my cycling career. That was largely by choice. I was thrilled to complete over 6,250 miles in 2021, including at least 500 miles every month, but felt so relieved to step off the treadmill when the clock struck midnight heralding 2022. I no longer felt any pressure to go cycling, but could devote more time to other things, especially family. Inevitably the pendulum swung the other way and I leaned too heavily on my self-issued dispensation.

Yet if 2022 proved my most modest year for cycling since 2015, it included spectacular highlights that I will cherish for years. I wrote 12 months ago about my anticipation at returning to Scotland, one of my favourite cycling countries. That expectation was more than fulfilled. My Highland 500 tour with Peak Tours in May was a joy, testing and rewarding me in equal measure. The weather improved with every passing day, as the scenery grew ever more spectacular.

Loch Cùl Dromannan, north of Ullapool

I’ve posted a day-by-day account of my Highland adventure starting here, so won’t repeat the whole tale. That holiday included two of the most alluring roads I’ve ever pedalled: Ullapool to the Summer Isles, and from Hope on the far north coast of Scotland along Loch Hope and Strath More to Altnaharra. The first of these featured on an optional Peak Tours day ride; I was sorely tempted to take the rest day, pottering around Ullapool, but accepted the challenge to cycle. At first I cursed that decision as we endured hill after hill, but that changed in an instant as I glanced to my left and saw the breathtaking sight above: Loch Cùl Dromannan. Minutes later we turned off the main road onto a lonely lane, skirting lochs and mountain peaks towards the coast. We had lunch in the sunshine overlooking the Summer Isles.

Any cyclist who’s feeling jaded need only tour Scotland on two wheels to remember why they fell in love with cycling – and life itself.

OK Commuter

My Brompton at Fleet Place, City of London

My other cycling highlight of 2022 was more mundane, but arguably just as significant. This was the first year since March 2020 that I was able to return to the office after the pandemic. We opened a new City of London office at Fleet Place in September and I rediscovered the pleasure of using my Brompton Electric in combination with the train to commute there from Buckinghamshire. It saves me around £13 a time plus the joy of cycling across town, with the iconic view of St Paul’s and its younger cousin the Shard as I freewheel down from Farringdon towards Holborn Viaduct. The experience positively encouraged me to use Fleet Place as my London office rather than drive to lovely Richmond.

Electric dreams

My Brompton wasn’t my only electrifying ride in 2022. In February I bought a Trek Domane + electric road bike, and quickly fell in love with this special bike. That wasn’t a surprise: I found the electric Brompton a revelation three years earlier, so it was natural that I’d enjoy the road bike equivalent. On days when I couldn’t face jumping on the bike, I’d make an exception for the Domane +. I’d revel in that electric boost as I climbed away from our village. When I found I’d lost my way, and faced a steep climb to regain the route, I laughed rather than cursed. And forget those lazy cliches mocking e-bike riding as cheating: because the motor cuts out by law at 25kmh you still get a decent workout. (Especially as you’re pedalling a much heavier bike.)

But the Domane + had another special trick. You can remove the battery and motor to transform it into a regular sportive bike. On a Sunday ride before the Highlands tour I was jubilant as I beat my Strava times on a few Chilterns hills. It wasn’t quite as sprightly as my old Cannondale Synapse but as an e-bike it was a wonderful bonus to roam free.

Portugal calling

Porto. Image: Peak Tours

As 2023 dawns, I’m looking forward to my next cycling adventure. I’ve booked another Peak Tours holiday, pedalling the length of Portugal. It will be my first foreign cycling holiday since 2005. I’m hoping for sunshine although I know from my experience this year that it can rain in Porto in May. I’ll need to lose the Christmas pounds to make those Portuguese mountains a little less painful. (A lesson from Bealach na Bà and many other Scottish climbs this year…)

I can’t wait to experience spectacular Portugal – including a glass or two of vino tinto, and the temptation of the native pasteis de nata custard tarts….

The Brompton: engineering for change – for life

City cycling by Brompton: Holborn viaduct, London. October 2022

I love my Brompton Electric bike, as I explained in this blogpost in 2019. So I was delighted to receive as a birthday present The Brompton, a book by Brompton Bicycle chief executive Will Butler-Adams and journalist Dan Davies.

It’s not a typical book about bikes. It’s part history of Britain’s best-loved folding bike, part business biography and part call to arms in the battle for the future of our cities. Butler-Adams is an eloquent advocate for the role of the bike in transforming lives – but more of that later.

Brompton’s progress

Butler-Adams is brutally open about the challenges of growing the Brompton business, and his relationship with the brilliant designer of the iconic bike, Andrew Ritchie. Will joined the company as a ‘young designer and dogsbody’, but after becoming CEO insisted that the founder stepped back from operational control. Ritchie found this painful – sometimes he’d only find out about his successor’s plans during a board meeting. Butler-Adams also felt the pressure, comparing it with the ordeal of an embattled leader facing prime minister’s questions.

I was intrigued to read about Brompton’s move to take its distribution network in-house, after years of working with distributors. Will poignantly describes the warm relationship the bike brand had with many of its former distributors, especially Simon Koorn of Fiets a Parts in the Netherlands. At one time Bromptons were sold with completely different names in the Benelux countries, such as Brompton-Ralph and Potter-Brompton. But as the world went online, people compared prices and specs between countries, and Adams-Butler concluded that the old ways would have to change. So Brompton bought out its distribution partners, a process he says was neither easy nor pleasant. He describes breaking the news to Simon Koom as one of the most agonising and emotional meetings he’s ever held.

This is just one example of the way that Adams-Butler took a far sighted, strategic approach to growing Brompton from a small scale manufacturer of a fairly niche bike to a business that can genuinely have an impact on how people move around our cities (and beyond). Leadership isn’t easy, and few companies thrive if leaders put off difficult decisions. Will recognised that Brompton had to increase dramatically the number of bikes Brompton can produce to meet actual and future demand.

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Highland 500 Day 7: Lairg to Inverness

This post recounts the seventh and final day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 6 Durness to Lairg

Ferry across Cromarty Firth to Black Isle

Our final day. The end of a 470 mile odyssey across the Scottish Highlands. And the sun was shining.

We continued to retrace in reverse part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2002 and 2019. It was an easy downhill to the Falls of Shin, along an eerily quiet road. Yet when I paused at the falls I was amazed to see a crowd of people. Then I spotted the tourist coach… I didn’t linger long, not expecting to repeat my 2019 success in videoing salmon leaping up the falls. I was sad to see the lovely cafe and visitor centre was boarded up, a victim of the pandemic.

I followed Rose to Bonar Bridge, seen above. She set a cracking pace, and my average speed to lunch was far higher than on any other day on the trip. Not far beyond Ardgay, where we had lunch on LEJOG19, I said goodbye to the LEJOG route, glancing up towards the Struie hill viewpoint where I’d taken photos in 2002 and 2019.

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Highland 500 Day 6: Durness to Lairg

This post recounts the sixth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 5 Ullapool to Durness

Group photo at The Crask Inn

Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.

Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag beach

The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.

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Highland 500 Day 5: Ullapool to Durness

This post recounts the fifth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 4 Ullapool to Summer Isles

Kylesku bridge

This was the hardest day of the tour. Harder than the Bealach na Bà day. And all because of that cyclist’s curse: a headwind.

Yet it started well. The 1,000 feet of climbing over the first nine miles from Ullapool that sapped my morale yesterday proved easier when repeated today. And I was looking forward to seeing Assynt and cycling over the stunning Kylesku bridge.

Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle (and picnic!) behind

We had a lovely stop by the shore of Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle in the distance. The sun was shining, it was warm and we had a stunningly scenic day ahead.

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Highland 500 Day 4: Ullapool to Summer Isles

This post recounts the fourth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 3 Gairloch to Ullapool

Images of heaven: Loch Cùl Dromannan

I was cursing my decision not to take a rest day in Ullapool. After nine miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I envied the wisdom of those taking a lazy, late breakfast, enjoying a good book or taking a boat trip. Then I glanced and saw the mountains, blue sky and brilliant clouds reflected in the still waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan. I gasped in wonder, and slowed the bike to a stop to drink in the vista and take the photo above.

It got better. I was soon following Peak Tours guide Simon down a heavenly lane, a tarmac thread along the lochs leading to the coast. After the slog up from Ullapool, we were now coasting along this gently undulating route. Before long we came to the morning’s brew stop overlooking the islands on Loch Lurgainn. I smiled as two recumbent trikes came past as I turned in for my morning coffee. It would be fun to lean back on the comfortable seat of a trike and drink in the view.

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Highland 500 Day 3: Gairloch to Ullapool

This post recounts the third day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 2, Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

Heading for Ullapool

I had a lie-in today, thanks to cycling an extra 17 miles to Gairloch last night. But while those staying in Kinlochewe had an easy warm up along Loch Maree (the route I took last night), I was straight into the hills today with a stiff climb out of Gairloch setting the tone for the morning.

Gairloch beach

It was worth it: at the top of the hill was this wonderful view of a beach with the mountains including Beinn Eighe behind. I didn’t feel guilty about stopping so soon to to savour a view like this. Why tour the highlands if you’re not inclined to pause and reflect on the extraordinary landscapes and seascapes?

Loch Maree

Later, I stopped to admire this view of Loch Maree, the lake that I cycled along for miles last night. Here I was passing the head of the loch.

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Highland 500 Day 2: Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

This post recounts the second day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 1, Inverness to Lochcarron

Bealach na Bà. Not quite at the top!

This was the big one. If any day’s cycling merited nervous anticipation, it was this. Talk at breakfast was a little stilted as we all knew what was to come: Bealach na Bà (the pass of the cattle), the greatest climb in Britain. And many more hilly miles on top.

This is it…

We set off from Lochcarron and were climbing almost immediately away from the loch. This was merely a warm up. I enjoyed the swoop down to Loch Kishorn, followed by an easy stretch along the river Kishorn. A quick left turn and there it was: the famous sticker-strew sign marking the start of Bealach na Bà. Another sign warned learner drivers not to attempt this iconic route, which opened 200 years ago in 1822.

The road over Bealach na Bà climbs 2,053 feet (626 metres) in around six miles (9 kilometres), but the initial section is not difficult: barely 2% for the first mile. But don’t be fooled – it gets far harder. Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, rated the Bealach at 11 out of 10 for difficulty. It is the closest Britain has to an alpine, hairpinned ascent.

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Highland 500 Day 1: Inverness to Lochcarron

This post recounts the first day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022.

The adventure begins. Greig St bridge, Inverness

Why do I always feel a few butterflies at the start of a cycling adventure? It seemed unmerited ahead of today’s fairly easy first day of Peak Tours’ Highland 500 tour. Best of all, the first 13 miles from Inverness followed the same route as my 2019 Land’s End to John O’Groats ride, which I remembered as a really easy section.

As soon as we got going, the butterflies fluttered away. It was a grey morning, with showers, and the normal western cycle route over the Kessock Bridge over the firth was closed, requiring a diversion past Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s ground. We briefly joined the main carriageway to the bridge but quickly backtracked to the eastern cycle path. Once over the bridge, we had to wait for a gap in the traffic to cross the A9. Fortunately it wasn’t busy on this Sunday morning.

I was soon enjoying the familiar path along the Beauly Firth towards the intriguingly named Muir of Ord. An easy day was made rather harder by a brisk headwind, which became more noticeable as the day unfolded. As I always say, hills come to an end but headwinds don’t! We formed a modest peloton to take it in turns to ‘draft’ the other riders. I took my turn just before the morning ‘brew stop’ at Rogie Falls, where Peak Tours provided very welcome drinks and snacks to keep morale and energy high. I decided to up the pace a little, which was a mistake as the break was a mile later than expected and that extra mile was uphill! I was glad of the breather.

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Thank you, Dervla Murphy

I’m in Inverness, on the eve of my latest cycling adventure. I’ll be pedalling 500 miles in seven days around the spectacular Highlands.

How poignant that my trip begins just days after the death of Dervla Murphy, who inspired me to explore the world on two wheels. Back in 1996 I picked up a copy of Full Tilt, her account of her ride from Dunkirk to Delhi, which began in the arctic winter of 1963 – the year I was born. I was enthralled by Dervla’s description of her journey, especially her travels through Afghanistan, a country she clearly loved. How heartbreaking to reflect on its ordeal in the past 40 years.

I met Dervla at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in, I think, 1996. She signed my copy of one of her books, and I told her what an inspiration she was to me. While I loved Full Tilt, her autobiography Wheels Within Wheels was arguably even better. She explained that she was only able to make her long dreamed about ride to India after her mother died. I was captivated by her family story, including her parents’ background in the Irish republican movement.

Not long after reading Full Tilt, I set off from my childhood home in Cardiff for Ireland, Dervla’s homeland. I was to cycle solo from Dublin over the Wicklow mountains, bound for Rosslare and the ferry back to Wales. The weather, in August 1996, was glorious and I declared Ireland a perfect cycle touring country. I have never made it to Lismore, Dervla’s hometown, but one day I might just pay a visit to the place that one of the greatest cycling travellers called home.

Dervla Murphy in India, 1960s. Photo: Guardian

Another of her books, A Place Apart, gives a stark account of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Dervla found it hard to credit the attitudes and actions of her fellow inhabitants of the island of Ireland. Especially the hardened loyalist community and the followers of Ian Paisley. (It was impossible to imagine in 1976 that Paisley would one day join IRA man Martin McGuinness in government in Northern Ireland.) Dervla’s bafflement was shared with many people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

It’s hard to realise today how unusual Dervla was in the 1960s as a female solo traveller writing about her experiences. She practised firing a pistol in County Waterford in preparation for future ordeals, and used it to shoot wolves in Bulgaria, Later it helped fend off a threatening Kurd. She later said the whole trip cost just £64, 7s and 10d in old money. 1963 truly was a different world.

Rest in peace, Dervla. You are an inspiration.