Ayr Burners Cycling

Sportive, Cyclocross, Youth, Adventure

Ardnamurchan Gravel Ride

We’re going to run occasional write-ups of Burners rides away from the familiar roads of South Ayrshire.   Here’s the first about a scenic gravel ride in Ardnamurchan.   Please share your experiences, and we’ll publish them here too (no cash will change hands !!!).

This could actually be posted on Paisley Velo’s site, as I was the only Burner on this trip and was out-numbered 2:1 by the Paisley guys.   Donald and Mark from PVCC joined me on the trip north, and Mark kindly took us up in his camper van.

The journey to the start point took us up the side of Loch Lomond, across Rannoch Moor then past Glencoe to Corran Ferry.   The little ferry, which is constantly busy, shuttles back and forth across to Ardgour on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.  Currently, bikes and pedestrians travel for free, while cars cost £8.80 each way.

After a crossing that barely lasted 10 mins, we drove the 14 miles to our base in Strontian, which we would later also do on the bikes.  We were booked into the Ariundle Centre, which is split across 2 buildings.   The reception, bar and restaurant are all housed in the main building, while the bunk-house is 100 yards away down a track at the back.  It’s not the Ritz, but is perfect for a trip like this.

Accommodation and transport

After unpacking the bikes and all our kit, we got ready for our warm-up ride   This involved re-tracing our steps back towards the ferry, but turning south at Inversanda along the west side of Loch Linnhe.  The weather hadn’t improved, so pretty soon we were soaked through, but the roads and scenery took our minds off our wet kit.  There’s a long drag of a climb on this section, and when we reached the T-junction on the Lochaline – Strontian road, the rain stopped.  A long descent followed, punctuated by a close encounter with a pick-up, whose driver hadn’t expected / noticed bikes coming down the hill towards him at full speed as he pulled out without looking !!!   After that narrow escape, we had a flat and uneventful (though very scenic) run back to the bunkhouse.

As we were to find out the next day, shops and places to eat are not exactly 10-a-penny in this part of the world.   Rather than head down to the village, we ate at the Ariundle Centre – a good choice as the food was excellent.

After a big breakfast (but no Weetabix for some bizarre reason) in the same place the next morning, we were off for the much-anticipated gravel ride.   This is part of a 60 mile loop along Loch Shiel to Glenfinnan, then back south along the west side of Loch Linnhe, past Ardgour to Strontian.

We knew that there’s a big hill right at the start / end, depending on which way you go.   We chose clock-wise so we could do the hill and the gravel section first, and were glad we did.   Polloch Hill isn’t that high (1167 ft), but it is properly, properly steep.   Even with a couple of false flats, there are still extended ramps of 19%.   Just what you want after a big breakfast !!!!   Judging by the descent that followed, the other side is even steeper.   The 1 in 5 signs at the top should have given us a clue.

This is the less steep bit near the bottom

Pretty soon after that we reached the 16 mile gravel road along the side of Loch Shiel.  The surface ranged from hard-packed gravel to very rocky parts, with an extremely muddy section thrown in where the logging trucks had churned up the tracks.   

Donald and Mark from Paisley Velo

We did have a couple of pinch punctures along this section, but otherwise all went well.  It wouldn’t be a good idea to do this on a normal road bike, but a gravel bike with wider, chunkier and grippier tyres can handle it easily.  The mixture of surfaces and gradients (it’s not flat !!!) kept us on our toes, and the scenery was incredible.

Hills, loch and gravel track …

Glenfinnan appeared just over 20 miles in and suddenly there were people everywhere.    

Bonnie Prince Charlie Memorial, Glenfinnan. What a view ….

The popularity is something to do with a famous bridge nearby, apparently.  The Visitor Centre here is open Wed-Sun, but as this was a Tuesday we were going to have to look elsewhere for food – no open shops nearby.

A famous railway bridge ……

The remaining 40 miles were mainly on flat, smooth, traffic-free roads – apart from the occasional logging truck thundering past at crazy speeds.  Another couple of punctures (traced to a rough bit of rim showing through the rim tape) delayed us a little, but the quest for food was more problematic.  

Always choose a stunning location for your second puncture of the day

We reached the hotel at Ardgour at 3pm to find it didn’t open until 4pm.  We pooled together cereal bars, gels and jelly babies which were just about enough to get us back over the last remaining hill on the road to Strontian.   The village shop was a welcome sight, and we took full advantage !!!

It’s a valuable lesson for cycling in remote areas not to count on shops, hotels, etc to be open – especially in these Covid-impacted times.   In future, we’ll carry more than we expect to need, and probably eat it anyway.

Our over-riding memories of Ardnamurchan were –

  • Polloch Hill is a monster
  • the gravel section is tough but great fun
  • the scenery is spectacular
  • head-winds are no fun wherever you are
  • take lots of food

It’s a spectacular part of the country, and very quiet compared to many parts of the west coast.  The route was comparable in length and elevation to a lap of Arran but was considerably tougher, due to the wind, the gravel and the hill.   While I’d love to do it again, I’d never suggest doing it in an anti-clockwise direction, unless you’ve got a weird desire to ride up a 20% hill for a mile and a half after riding 55 miles !!!!

Heading towards Glenfinnan

An early-ish start the next morning saw us abandon the proposed Kinlochleven loop due to heavy rain, but that didn’t spoil our enjoyment of what was an excellent trip.

The Route
Route profile

Donald Laurie • September 11, 2020

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