It struck me, as I followed a knight in shining armour (well, he was in fact in lycra, but on a quite shiny road bike) through Irvine late on Saturday afternoon, that this was quite the contrast from the way my day had started. I had risen before dawn to pedal 10 miles down a single-track road on Islay to catch the first of three ferries that would take me home from our island trip and now I was pulling into the right hand lane of a multi-lane junction, dodging buses, lorries and cars, in a last-ditch attempt to catch my train. Having missed a crucial sign on the NCN 73, which allows you to avoid all the multi-lane junction nonsense, but at a cost of extra miles, I had used up all my contingency time trying to find my way back to the path and was beginning to despair when a passing cyclist came to my rescue and led me expertly through some scary roads to deliver me back on the path past all the wiggles and a straight run to the station in Kilmarnock.
For all the contrast in our surroundings this act of kindness from a stranger seemed a fitting end to a few days on Islay, where the drivers are famously courteous – and, indeed, they need to be. There are many narrow single track roads on Islay, and (at least when we were there, just to the end of the high tourist season) just slightly too many vehicles on them for real comfort. The roads tend to be long and straight, and give you plenty of time to overthink your passing-place strategy as you contemplate yet another approaching vehicle (fore or aft), meaning either periods of interval training as you race to the next passing place to allow everyone to keep moving, or time spent cooling your heels as you wait for a truck, and its attendant procession of following cars, to pass you. On the two-lane roads almost all the passes by drivers were pretty impeccable – fully changing lanes, and waiting for a clear view and a gap in the traffic, but that did mean the occasional build up of queues of vehicles or us needing to pull in occasionally at a field gate or similar if we were conscious of a lorry grinding its gears patiently behind us.
There’s a persistent undercurrent of opinion among some cycle campaigners that if only drivers would learn to behave around cyclists, then all would be well and everyone could cycle in perfect harmony and we wouldn’t really need any of those pesky cycle paths that are such hard work to campaign for and are never going to go everywhere anyway. From my (admittedly limited) experience, Islay already is that mythical land and … it’s not enough. Cycling felt largely safe and I’m not going to diss the idea of people being polite to each other, because it’s so much better than the alternative, but these are not the conditions to tempt most people out of their cars.
It’s telling that we saw more bikes on cars on Islay than we saw bums on bikes, except at Port Ellen where the Three Distilleries path starts, and that was also the only place where we saw what I would call ‘civillian’ cyclists, in normal clothes and on ordinary bikes who looked like they were heading for the shops rather than the Tour de France. The Three Distilleries path was also the reason why I’d suggested visiting Islay, because it seems like a model for rural cycle tourism: a no-compromises path set aside from what would otherwise be a very scary coastal road, joining up a local town with three fine opportunities to part tourists from their money in the form of three famous distilleries (in contrast, you can ride 18 miles along the NCN 73 from Kilmarnock to Ardrossan before you come across a single opportunity to spend any of your cash on anything, which is no good for either the local economy or the hungry cyclist).
They’d even cut through rocks, incredibly, to make the path work, rather than just dumping the cyclists out onto the road and suggesting they get on with it, or wiggling so much under and over and round that a moderately stressed cyclist with a train to catch can easily lose her way (looking at you again, NCN 73).
This seems to have been so successful that they’ve just built another one, from Port Charlotte to Bruichladdich distillery, which was similarly wide and direct (although with some signs that, brand new as it was, there had already been some adjustment of the bollards to ensure accessibility). With enough distilleries, and enough time (and fortunately the distilleries are fairly evenly scattered across the island) Islay may soon end up with a cycling network, and all those bikes can be taken off the tops of all the cars and ridden around instead, which they’d much prefer.
Interestingly, the other two islands we visited on our trip had many more cyclists, but very little infrastructure. On Jura, there’s just the one road , and effectively only as much traffic as one busy little ferry can deliver across the strait from Port Askaig, which was not enough to be properly annoying. On the other hand, that road does go up and down and up and down, which has the benefit of delivering any cyclists to Craighouse, where all the money spending opportunities are, properly hungry.
In the few hours that we spent in the village I’m not ashamed to say that we went to the cafe twice and the pub once and even then we needed to stop at another pub after we’d got off the ferry back in Islay for a restorative cup of tea before tackling the climb out of Port Askaig. Seriously, if you want high spending visitors to keep your cafes, shops and pubs open, welcome in the cyclists.
Arran was another kettle of fish altogether. Objectively, it’s the least pleasant of the islands to cycle on, with no infrastructure, massive hills, plenty of traffic, and the sort of narrow two-lane roads that I go out of my way to avoid on the bike normally. It is also absolutely hoaching with cyclists, especially on a sunny Saturday in August (apparently there had been around 100 come in on a single ferry that morning). These were almost all, to a man (and they were about 90 percent male), whippet-like creatures in lycra on equally whippet-like bikes – I had time to observe them as they passed me one by one on the climb out of Lochranza, usually with an encouraging word to me as they zipped by. They too are undoubtedly keeping the local cake-based economy topped up nicely, and must be pure jam to the ferry company (or at least its catering division from the way they made a beeline for the cafe as soon as they got on board).
I joke, but it was just such a whippety cyclist who rescued me in Irvine, for which I will be eternally grateful. His kindness meant I got home in good time so I could be up early for yet another bike ride – this time helping to lead a mass ride organised by a local community trust who can not only organise a day of celebration but have also done 80% of the fund raising they need to build a cycle path joining two villages, having decided this would be easier than prodding the coonsil into action to do it for them. In the last couple of years there have been moves locally to promote our own area as a driving destination, hoping to replicate the success of the North Coast 500 (and by ‘success’ they apparently mean ‘having visitors pooing in their laybys‘). How much more amazing would it be to replicate some of those Islay paths along our own twisty and, sadly, lethal coastal roads? We may not have sufficient whisky distilleries to make the basis of a full rural tourism network, but we do have communities who understand that they would benefit from becoming part of the cake-powered economy … it’s just a question of making it happen.
Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?