just in case you fancy grabbing a guide to islay (other than the cycling bit) before you get here, you can download this pdf guide from islayinfo.com..........................................................................................................................................................................................................
somewhere or other, in a bookshop on this island, is a book about driving on jura. since there is really only one road on going from top to bottom and only vaguely fitting that description at the north end of the isle, i would be more than interested to read its contents. however, as a committed cyclist (and i probably should be) i cannot bring myself to read books or booklets relating to the motor vehicle (....well, in an ideal world).
it was the existence of this booklet that prompted the piece you are now reading. my earlier years roaming around islay were carried out on a muddy fox courier with skinny tyres and drop bars from which i discovered that travelling around islay was a darned sight more practical on two wheels than it will ever be on four. at least, if you actually want to be able to stop from time to time and see something of the surroundings.
many of the roads on the west coast of islay are single track and some (euphemism for 'none') are not in possession of a glass like surface. if ensconced in a motor car, it is somewhat impractical to simply stop to look at the scenery - this is an agricultural landscape and, while you might be on holiday, the guy thundering up behind your stopped vehicle in a tractor isn't (birdwatchers please take note). on a bike, you can stop anywhere you like. isn't the bicycle wonderful?
it may be a bit risky to mention this on an ostensibly international website (i hope it is) but islay is relatively secure as far as bicycles are concerned. be aware that if your bike gets nicked, it has to be removed from the island and there seems to be a low appreciation of the varying marques of bicycle and relative value. without wishing to appear snobbish, there is more chance of someone pinching a raleigh than a cannondale because the latter is a comparatively unknown make over here. suffice to say that bowmore post office has been renting bicycles for around the last fifteen years without supplying any locks of any description (though locks are now supplied if required) and not one has gone missing permanently at any time. be also aware that these were all brand new mountain bikes.
it is prudent to be careful, but this is not the mainland - crime is considerably less prevalent and cycle theft almost non-existent.
those first steps
i think it practical to point out a few home truths before you set off from home (whether you're coming to tour islay or anywhere else). i was, until recently the island's only cycle repair person so everybody who has had a problem while touring here, has had to come through me for spares and repairs (wait till the monopolies commission hears about this). i therefore write from a position of vague interest.
wheels: the most common repair to touring bicycles is repairing broken spokes, usually on the rear wheel on the drive side. this is because the cheaper mountain bikes - something under £400 would be regarded as 'cheap' i'm afraid - on which it has become common to tour the world (apparently) do not possess wheels ideally suited to the weights experienced when touring. most are machine built with so called rustless spokes (galvanised wire really) and are usually overloaded (an accordion, believe it or not). this causes breakages. in most cases it's unavoidable without purchasing an expensive set of handbuilt wheels with double butted stainless steel spokes which would probably put the cost out of reach for occasional touring.
however, i figure that you should always prepare for the worst. carry a few spare spokes (tape them to the left hand chainstay) the appropriate spoke key and a freewheel/cassette remover. i know that you're wondering why you should carry these bits but you can't fit spokes to the hub without removing either the freewheel or cassette. should you find yourself on jura (or colonsay on a wednesday) with broken spokes, a garage will be able to put the remover in a vice and remove the freewheel for you and you can fit one or two of your spare spokes to keep you going till you find a cycle repair shop. apart from me in bowmore (islay bike, stanalane, bowmore 01496 810653), and a chap in port ellen, the nearest repairers are in campbeltown, oban, crinan canal or arran if you're going that way. this limits your choices somewhat.
quite a number of aluminium frames - road, mountain and touring - have a replaceable dropout for the rear derailleur. it means that if this dropout breaks, the frame's not trashed (it's not really practical to weld an alu frame).
however, if this dropout breaks, and you're not carrying a spare, then you're stuffed. so if you own, or are buying an alu (or, perchance, a carbon) frame with one of those dropouts, buy a spare and make sure you take it with you. these bits are not only manufacturer specific but often bike specific. don't figure that the first bike shop you find will have one in stock - i know i haven't.
the next bit may be somewhat obvious but please carry at least one spare inner tube as well as a puncture repair kit. if it's wet, there's no way you're going to get a patch to stick. fit the spare tube and patch the other tube in the comfort of your accommodation of an evening. additionally, carry a spare rear brake cable (that'll fit front or rear brake if necessary) and a gear inner wire (or two). i would think that would about cover it as far as spares are concerned - there's a limit to how much stuff you can carry, but an adjustable spanner, 6mm & 5mm allen keys and a chain rivet tool wouldn't go amiss. please check the bike properly before you leave. we're not exactly in the middle of nowhere here but we're not a kick in the teeth off it and a great deal of the hassles people have had with their bikes have been due to an incredible lack of foresight.
for a good look at all that islay might provide, take a look at islayinfo.com
there are two entry points to islay by ferry. though a simplistic way of looking at it, the morning boat brings you to port ellen, while the lunchtime boat arrives in at port aksaig mid-afternoon. port askaig, if you look at your map - you do have a map don't you? - is at the north end of the island on the sound of islay opposite jura, while port ellen is around 21 miles to the south.
ferry timetables are available online at calmac.co.uk
if you have indeed looked at your map, you are correct in assuming that the road out of port askaig starts with a somewhat steep climb of around 1 in 7 (14%) or somesuch. start the holiday in the manner in which you intend to continue - stick the bike in the lowest gear you've got, grit your teeth and anything else that comes to mind and pedal like robert millar. no wimpish walking uphill will be tolerated.
while we are almost on the subject of hills, those of you without the mindset of michael rasmussen will be delighted to hear that the island is relatively flat. the only climbs of note, apart from the one just mentioned, are on the road into and out of kilchiaran on the rhinns (three miles west of port charlotte) and the climbs to storakaig and knocklearach on the glen road, but otherwise there should be little requirement for the granny gear. those of us in velo club d'ardbeg scoot around on 39 tooth inner chainrings and 25 tooth large sprockets and we survive just fine.
if you're travelling south from port askaig and, to be honest, you have little choice but so to do, there is only one road as far as ballygrant. here it is possible to carry on down the main road to bridgend where you have the choice of onward to bowmore and port ellen, or turning right and heading down the rhinns through bruichladdich, and on to port charlotte (the youth hostel is here). there is, however, a more picturesque route by taking the road for mulindry (turn left past the shop in ballygrant) and cycling down the glen road.
as mentioned above, there's a short, but fairly onerous climb up towards dunlossit estate's offices at knocklearach farm. this continues reasonably gently past the farmhouse, before it starts its descent. past the gate at storakaig on your left, the road offers a more than pleasant downhill towards barr farm. if luck is with you as well as a tail wind, there are often deer feeding at storakaig. apart from a brief ascent towards the latter, that's more or less your climbing over for the day.
this road eventually reaches a fork (cutlery at its best) adjacent to cluanach cottage on your right. take the turn to the right and you arrive at bridgend village where you can join up with the port charlotte road, or take the left to bring you out at what is locally called 'the high road'. left will take you to port ellen, right then left after a mile will take you to bowmore via the cruach road (three miles), arriving at the back of the round church. now, i realise that none of this makes much sense at present because you're sitting at your computer and not at your handlebars, but would i lie to you?
since we now have to choose a direction, we'll continue on to port ellen along the high road, but keep bridgend in mind because, at some time or another, we shall return there to carry on down the rhinns. admit it, you're curious.
anyway, assuming you've followed so far, take a left when reaching the end of the glen road to cycle to port ellen. the distance is around seven miles and this way to port ellen gives by far the better views in comparison to the low road. the principal disadvantage and one that is commented on by anyone on a bike on the island, is the wind factor. this part of the island is particularly exposed to the prevailing south westerlies blowing up the loch and, if you've been paying attention, there is an excellent chance that you are now experiencing a headwind. the views to the right are across to the previously mentioned rhinns of islay - the first, more northerly village you can see is that of bruichladdich and, a few miles further south is port charlotte. the loch is loch indaal but then you've already looked at your ordnance survey map and were well aware of this. if you haven't memorised this stuff, do so because there is no wi-fi along this particular stretch of road. there's always the data allowance on your mobile phone.
i'll probably come back to this time and time again but remember that this is a single track road and while you're on holiday, many of the motorists and certainly tractor and truck drivers are not. since the scottish environmental protection agency (sepa) decided that it wasn't a good idea for the distilleries to pump the pot ale (distilling waste) into the sea - even though we know lobsters who would disagree - the pot ale has required to be collected by very large road-going tankers and transported to a holding tank at caol ila (about a mile outside port askaig). apart from the fact that these somewhat heavily laden vehicles are destroying the roads on which they travel, the drivers will not thank you for holding them up by continuing to cycle while they brake behind. and conversely, i would not wish to be passed by one travelling in the opposite direction along a single track road. be sensible and pull in to one of the many passing places. please don't hold them up by continuing to cycle where passing is awkward. generally i find local car and truck drivers to be more than understanding towards cyclists and, since i have to cycle here all year, please don't antagonise them for my sake. if you are one of the dreaded birdwatchers, please pull off the road before letting loose with the telephoto lens and/or binoculars.
about mid way along this road, there is a turn to your right known as the link road because it links the high road with the low road ( sorry to be so obvious) and leads down to islay international airport. you can always look at this on the way back (unless you're heading for the ferry in which case, if you've time, carry on down this road for a look see before turning south yet again and on towards port ellen - both the high road and low road end up at the same place).
now when we reach the end of the low road without any more incidents, we reach yet another dilemma. which way now? since i'm the one writing this and you're the one pedalling, we'll go my way, which is straight on into port ellen. (we could have turned right and gone to the oa, and in the true spirit of hypertextability, when this part of thewashingmachinepost is complete, you will have the opportunity to do just that by clicking on a link. for now, however, we shall have to make do with linearity because i haven't reached such an advanced state of preparedness as of yet.
the large industrial building on the right hand side just past the 30mph speed signs, is port ellen maltings as operated by diageo global supply (also owners of caol ila distillery and lagavulin distillery, of which more later). this hideous looking building with steam coming out the top, malts the vast majority of the barley required by the islands' distilleries who then pretend that they do it all by traditional methods in their malt barns. bummers, there goes another myth.
continue to the end of charlotte street, to the junction and on your right is the recently opened 'islay hotel' where not only can you grab a pleasant refreshment or two, or a bite to eat, but you can avail yourself of a decent designer coffee in the bar. from a cycling point of view and i mean this most sincerely folks, port ellen requires to be cycled through, turning left at macaulay and torrie's and heading out of the village. it's rather picturesque along this part of the island and, because it's on the south end of the place, you'll notice more in the way of trees along this route. you'll also notice more distilleries than you have passed so far. the first one to appear is laphroaig . laphroaig offers daily tours from its beautifully refurbished visitor centre, or at least it does through the sensible cycling season, but it's always a good idea to book ahead if you are really really keen to wander round their premises.
the field to the left of the distillery entrance is that reserved for the famous friends of laphroaig, a marketing device that provides you with a square foot of islay. in return, laphroaig will apparently pay their rent for use of your land by way of a dram when you visit their distillery. there are folks who claim to be landowners on islay purely on the basis of this square foot of boggy field. some have been married there and others had their ashes scattered.
whisky drinkers, huh?
the route from laphroaig to the next distillery at lagavulin is a real treat and was even more so before they felled the trees on the left just past laphroaig distillery. on your right is the recently completed footpath linking port ellen with all three distilleries, one which can be used by cyclists, but with caution. not all the pedestrians will have abstained from the complimentary dram (or three). before actually reaching lagavulin, there is a wonderful view over the bay and to dunyveg castle on the promontory. the distillery reception is on the right in what used to be the malt barns. lagavulin offer regular tours, but it does no harm to book in advance if possible. should you wish to visit the ruin of dunyveg castle, southern defence point for the lords of the isles, cycle past the distillery about quarter of a mile and turn to your right, through what appears to be a gap in the wall. this small road will take you round to willie currie's house where you can leave your bikes at the fence and walk down to the ruin. this also gives you a particularly fine aspect of the distillery and the bay. all along this part of the coast there are pockets of seals so, if this interests you, keep your eyes peeled.
continuing back on the main road (turn right coming back from dunyveg) will bring you to ardbeg. the distillery here used to belong to laphroaig but was sold to glenmorangie (mid 1997) and in 2005, glenmorangie was bought by moet hennessy. as a result, the distillery (which has particularly neat pagoda towers visible from the road as you approach ardbeg) has a particularly fine visitor centre at the old kiln cafe and i would seriously urge you to visit whether you have any interest in whisky or not. the food in this place is utterly phenomenal (particularly the clootie dumpling) while jackie thomson and staff provide excellent service throughout the summer season, including weekends. it is also possible to avail yourself of one of the world famous ardbeg cycle jerseys. if you do so, be sure to send a photo of yourself in jersey and with bike to firstname.lastname@example.org
with ardbeg out of the way (so to speak), continue along the road and you will eventually enter ardtalla estate on which resides kildalton chapel and the kildalton high cross, the finest remaining example of a carved celtic cross in scotland. before reaching this far there is a particularly nasty short sharp climb just past the dower house but please remember not to let down the cycling classes by dismounting, heavy load or no heavy load. stick it in the easiest gear you've got, grit your teeth and pedal for all you're worth. please also note that while the estate discourages camping, one night in a tent at the side for the road is unlikely to incur unbridled wrath.
the historical site at kildalton is off the main road (and i use the term 'road' in its loosest sense) but you can cycle down to the chapel and cross. do not miss this opportunity. please also be aware that the track past the chapel is a private one and leads to a private residence. the owners will take a very dim view of anyone cycling into their backyard. admit it, so would you.
the 'main' road goes on to claggan bay round and through some wonderfully serene cycling with excellent views of the hills along islay's west coast. assuming you have the time and the inclination, keep going to the bay because the end result is more than worth it. the road effectively ends at claggan. though there is (if you look at your ordnance survey map) ostensibly a route from claggan to proaig and on to storakaig (remember that from earlier on the glen road?), it doesn't really exist as a track and is pretty heavy going even on an unloaded mountain bike. unless it's a lifetime ambition, be satisfied with the bay at claggan. the landowner isn't too enthusiastic about people trekking over his estate (right of way, or no right of way), though do remember that there is no law of trespass in scotland and it remains civil law and not criminal law. however, he has considerably more cash than we have and may think nothing of taking you to court. unless you've a point to prove, just enjoy your cycling holiday.
to vary your route slightly, you will have to return through port ellen. feel free to stop at a different distillery on the return journey but, once past port ellen maltings and out of the village, instead of carrying straight on along the high road, make a left and down on to the 'low road'. this is probably one of the straightest section of roads in existence in the highlands and islands but (there's always one of those, isn't there?) if you hit a headwind, it's about eight miles of unrelenting headwind until you reach bowmore. machrie golf links is on your left about two and a half miles out of port ellen. if you fancy a game of golf (?), follow the track up to the hotel (currently closed).
if not, keep pedalling. you will pass glenmachrie farmhouse just before the airport and glenegedale house opposite the airport. the farm you'll reach a few miles further on, on the right, is duich situated on duich moss, a site of special scientific interest due to its being the favoured overwintering spot for thousands of geese that 'live' here between october and may. the low road, on which you are now pedalling, and have been since you passed ballivicar before machrie, is built on peat bog and heaven knows how many layers of tarmac exist here since, common to most peat bogs, anything sitting on top tends to sink in over a period of time. there was a plan to build a railway on this part of the island at one time, hence the death defying straightness of this particular road.
the straightness of the road disappears as you reach island farm and the laggan bridge with a slight climb then the occasional twist before you pass bowmore distillery's bonded warehouses on the left and the round church hoves into view over the slight incline. welcome to bowmore
if you need any more information, feel free to e-mail before you come over to islay.......................................................................................................................................................................................................... ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................