A Hard Pass

cyclist riding along an empty rural road

We were once advised never to buy a house with ‘Mill’ in the name, advice which has stood us in good stead over the years, and a sound principle to live by. In recent weeks I’ve been wondering whether to add a codicil: never to plan a bike ride with ‘Pass’ in its name (especially if it tends to appear in lists of the ‘100 greatest climbs in Scotland’). Despite such wisdom, this morning saw me setting off, with some trepidation, on a ride that would take me over not one but two named passes: the Mennock, and the Dalveen.

Start of the climb to Wanlockhead

The reason is that as part of the Pedal on Parliament plans for COP26 we’re planning a two-day ride from Bigtown to Glasgow, and that involves going over one or other of these passes. It seemed sensible to both recce our chosen route and work out whether I personally had the legs for it before committing irrevocably to the venture. And so a 70-mile Sunday spin was planned with my riding companion to go out up the Mennock, and back down the Dalveen, and see how we fared.

In preparation, I made the mistake of googling the Mennock Pass, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, what this threw up was mainly discussion of gradients (and the terrifying fact that the climb was ‘longer than Alpe d’Huez’, although this turned out to be only if you head all the way up to the radar station at the top of the hill). It turns out that most descriptions of cycle climbs on the internet start and end with how steep and long they are, without any information about what they’re like to actually cycle on.

Looking back down the Mennock Pass

So here’s my attempt at a corrective: the Mennock Pass is bloody lovely. It’s a long old climb, true, but it’s not an impossible one. The road takes you up between soaring hills, but it follows the river valley for the most part and with the hills on either side to give perspective, it barely feels as if you’re climbing for most of it.* There are signs that it’s been infested with camper vans over the summer (from the number of bins supplied at every possible pull-off point) – not so much ‘wild camping’ as ‘fly camping’ as my pal calls it.

sunshine and looming clouds

The weather was Octoberish: we started in bright sunshine, watched the looming clouds gather, pedalled on through showery rain, braced ourselves against chilly winds, admired a sudden rainbow, and found ourselves back in the warmth of the sun again – and that was just the first five minutes (a pattern which repeated itself for the next eight hours).

Wanlockhead - Highest Village in Scotland sign

We had planned to stop at the pub in Wanlockhead, which very much wants you to know that it’s the highest village in Scotland, but by the time we arrived we had the bit between our teeth and paused only to eat an emergency pork pie (in possibly the least well chosen picnic spot imaginable) and enjoy our flasks of coffee before pressing up the final stretch of the climb. We were briefly tempted by the bar of the highest residential hotel in Scotland, in Leadhills (is there another kind?) but settled for raiding the shop for supplies and then turned right for an excellent descent down towards Elvanfoot, and back round to the Dalveen Pass for a descent into a headwind so brutal we were pedalling all the way down. The Dalveen road is bigger and (relatively speaking) busier, so we were relieved to get to the bottom and back onto the tiny empty back roads that make this part of the world so amazing to cycle on.

Descent from Leadhills to Elvanfoot

My legs now ache and I will no doubt be enjoying some tasty thigh cramps during the night (my quads have already given me some warning shots for attempting to move from the sofa during the evening). But the rest of me is feeling refreshed from spending a whole day off my phone and off the computer, with a pal to chat to and some wonderful scenery to take my mind off the tougher parts. Some parts of the ride were so glorious – like the descent from Leadhills – that it was hard not to laugh out loud. In fact maybe I did.

Quiet back road

Having spent a couple of days somewhat dreading this ride, and then ending up loving it it’s got me wondering. If that was one of the 100 greatest climbs in Scotland … what are the other 99 like?

Dalveen pass

Perhaps I might go and find out.

2 Responses to A Hard Pass

  1. Brenda says:

    We had a few days in Leadhills in August – on the only day it didn’t rain enthusiastically all day we did the only cycling loop we’d found in any of the ‘routes for cycling’ literature we’d dug out of the back of the cupboard. Leadhills, edge of Crawfordjohn, Sanquhar, Mennock Pass… If I’d known it was a Famous Scottish Climb I might have been too frightened to agree… We did have a stop part way up the last steep bit (to admire the heather, of course) and I had to have another stop a bit further up having got the chain jammed (bike maintenance, sigh). Great glow of triumph having pedalled all the way to the Wanlockhead sign, but I cracked at the final kick up after the turn-off and the final push was literal. Nothing like 70 miles though, gasp.
    Glorious cheese scone in Sanquhar.

  2. disgruntled says:

    yes, plenty of stops to admire the view – and I agree that final kick out of Wanlockhead is entirely uncalled for…

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