by Brian Palmer
Cycling from Port Charlotte on the west shore of Islay's Loch Indaal towards Kilchiaran and the Atlantic is an athletic endeavour. Turning right up towards the old village hall that now exists as luxury flats, involves a sudden shock to the gear system, to say nothing of the cyclist making the changes. The road continues this upward trend up past the water station before offering at least partial relief with a brief burst of downhill before more of the former.
Shortly before reaching the round steading of Kilchiaran Farm, the singletrack and less than pristinely surfaced road succumbs to gravitational pull via a 14% descent, one best entered with temerity and a decent grasp of both brake levers. The word 'farm' ought to be treated with respect for, as is often the case in the Hebrides, livestock are no great respecters of walls or fences and are frequently to be found roaming eccentrically at the foot of what can be a very fast descent.
It might not be the ultimate pedalling thrill, but slow and steady can often be the safer option.
For those with mathematical or topographical brains, it will not have escaped the attention that 14% down is often resolved by 14% up. And paying attention to the average road surface might just have issued a warning as to the integrity of the impending climb. If it's happened once, it's happened a second time, that on the approach to the climbing portion, when a rolling momentum is something to be courted, I have met an itinerant bird watcher who has stepped out into the roadway for a closer look at something a lot smaller than either of us. Anticipation is an excellent skill to cultivate.
But as the climb is tackled, frequently in the biggest rear sprocket I own, the view to the right can only be described as dramatic. Round the coast a tad was once a slate quarry, while the cliffs are home to a screeching of flapping seabirds, all looking down on the Atlantic swell. As a cyclist, I am in a privileged position; I can stop and look from right where I am. Those traipsing the isle from within a motor car are considerably less well catered for. Aside from a lowered position behind the steering wheel, often not high enough to see over the dry stone wall, and thus oblivious of the scene in the first place, any view must be compromised by the need to find somewhere to park the car.
Sadly, this often results in motor cars stopped in locations chosen without any due care and attention. The Hebrides are still steadfastly agricultural. The aforementioned cattle or sheep meandering in the road at the foot of the Kilchiaran descent I might offer as evidence. Thus these single-track roads serve as the agricultural highway, and a large tractor with trailer will not take kindly to an errantly parked motor car. The cyclist keenly avoids this clash of cultures.
Offering solidarity with the 'Slow Food' movement, the act of cycling is rarely fast, though all speeds are relative, but it offers perhaps the ideal velocity at which to appreciate the distance the islands are separated from the rat race. Pedal around Islay's relatively flat roads (Kilchiaran notwithstanding), and you can learn to appreciate the minor infractions that velocipedinal circumambulation offers.
The wind more often than not arrives from the west, and with nothing between Saligo Bay and the eastern seaboard of Canada, it has to go somewhere. Islay is often the first port of call. Though cycling into a headwind over a distance of 18 miles may not be the first box the visiting cyclist had hoped to tick, there's no denying its rationale as part of the west coast island experience. And contrary to popular local lore, it does have to become a tailwind at some point in its life.
Life has always been or appeared slower at these outer edges of Scottish civilisation, the remnants of which are best appreciated at a similar pace. With technological advances in car technology intent on separating the contents from the environment through which they speed, what better way to appreciate the full force of the word 'pace' than from the saddle of a bicycle? It is manifestly what those thigh muscles are for.
And then you can always stand outside on the deck of the ferry on the way home.