in the sixties and seventies, many from glasgow’s environs would go ‘doon the watter’ to the clyde coast for their summer holidays. weeks spent in towns such as largs, troon, prestwick and ayr were easily catered for by many an hotel, donkey rides on the beaches, ice cream by the cone load, and endless supplies of rentable deckchairs. enhanced memories had these mid-year excursions take place under blue skies and perennial sun.
the 1950s had effectively seen the final demise of the bicycle as the more opportune mode of transport, replaced as the object of desire by the affordability of the mass-produced motor car. thus were one to have taken a walk along the promenade of any of the above mentioned towns, there would have been scarce visibilty of anything velocipedinal. it’s a state of affairs that persisted into the mid-seventies when the pervasive and ubiquitous ‘package holiday’ made it an altogether more affordable proposition to visit the iberian peninsula, the mediterranean or balearic islands.
throughout this period, there were always the more intrepid, unswayed by the promise of warmer climes or donkey rides on the beach, who preferred to load up the cycle tourer and head into the scottish hinterlands, more often than not encompassing scotland’s western islands, the most southerly of which would be that of islay.
governmental induced privations aside, the challenge of cycling to one’s holiday destination has grown on the back of a general increase in biking to work not only in the west of scotland. the emergence of ‘rondebike’ in edinburgh, ‘velocity love’ in inverness and most recently ‘siempre’ cycle cafe in glasgow’s west end, is surely testament to a popularity for two wheels not seen since the 1940s. and that joy and happiness is inexorably spreading west as well as north.
i arrived on islay in 1987, and save for one unidentified bloke that i regularly met in the island’s more obscure corners, i found myself to be the only cyclist for miles. thewashingmachinepost was originally born, in fact, in the pages of the local newspaper via a do-or-die attempt to interest the seemingly disinterested population to join me in my velocipedinal merriment. it may or may not surprise you to know that this failed miserably.
for islay is uniquely situated on the edge of the atlantic, with nothing whatsoever between saligo bay and the eastern seaboard of canada. since the atlantic is not party to a reputation for peace and tranquility, it is necessary to acquire the tenacity to ride in the wind, not just occasionally, but pretty much every day. as testified by the narration on the current bbc scotland series ‘hebrides-islands on the edge’, the winds can reach 100 kph even in summer. i am here to assure you that this is factually correct. it is also factually correct that they reach even higher velocities in winter.
feel free to join me on my annual rapha festive 500 any year you like, because a locally held, serious dislike for riding in the wind and rain is the oft tendered excuse for not cycling. sometimes i think they may have a point.
we have a pretend cycle club notionally based at the old kiln cafe in ardbeg distillery, having incessantly prodded their branding folks to produce an ardbeg distillery cycle jersey. i’d be less than surprised if you’d not heard of velo club d’ardbeg. there were numerically more cyclists partaking of a sunday ride in the mid-nineties, but with no disrespect, they were of a lower calibre than the currently constituted gathering, perambulatory though we may be. the nature of island life probably mitigates against the renewed interest in cycling as a sport or activity growing out of all proportion; it takes a special type of cyclist to encompass the incessant battering of an atlantic headwind.
incurable might be an apt description.
however, the previously referred to upsurge of interest in all matters cycling has led many of a more mainland persuasion to test their mettle this far west. the alps and pyrenees attract the would-be grimpeurs of the word, intent on discovering how they measure up to the kings of the mountains. it comes as no surprise to them that their days of cycling in such locations feature much a plenty gravitational aggression. perhaps in similar manner, islay appeals to those of a more flandrien persuasion.
the bumpy bits of the island are contained around the outside, meaning that, with three notable exceptions, the cycling is mostly flat. though such conditions could be seen as greatly appealing to those of a more relaxed nature and loaded bicycle, after an indefinite period of time, presumably shorter than that equal to my period of ensconcement (25 years, now that you ask), tedium would by now have entered the fray. the fact that it simply isn’t so is pretty much down to the variability of the weather. a road traversed into a headwind yesterday will doubtless feature a tailwind today.
it would be naive of me to consider that the delights of islay, aided and abetted as they are by the existence of eight single malt whisky distilleries within easy cycling distance of each other, would hold the more intrepid cyclist with its undoubted charms. there are a number of appealing islands further north; jura, colonsay, mull and skye before we even consider the outer hebrides, and islay is often the second port of call (after arran) on an island hopping ride via caledonian macbrayne’s ferry infrastructure.
if you doubt my testimony on behalf of islay’s cycling charms, consider that ardbeg, bowmore, bruichladdich and jura distilleries all offer appropriately decorated cycle jerseys. and their principal raisons d’etre has little to do with two wheels. and also that on the first sunday of every august, ‘the ride of the falling rain’ invites you to join velo club d’ardbeg on a 100 mile ride around the principality.
if you ever fancy taking a cycle ‘doon the watter’ we’d be more than happy to see you at debbie’s cafe for a soya cappuccino and a piece of carrot cake.
Brian Palmer is the man behind the washing machine post, a splendid cycling blog written from the whisky-soaked Scottish island of Islay. In reverence to Brian’s “continuing disagreement” with capital letters, we leave his poetic prose untouched. Why not follow him on Twitter.
If you liked this article, please subscribe to the &Bike newsletter – a weekly look at the world of cycling, delivered direct to your inbox. Also, please share using the widgets below. Finally, we’d love to hear your views, either through the comments section or via email.