The A82 – Glasgow to Inverness

Simon's brilliant article on the epic that was the A82: 170miles by bicycle.

1st July 2006


You’ll know the feeling. You pretend you didn’t hear what someone said just because what they said was absolutely not what you wanted to hear and you hope they said the wrong thing. Only Dave hadn’t.

It’s a bit nerve wracking to set up an adventure with a group of people you hardly know and some you’ve never met. Especially when the driver of the support vehicle for a 172-mile bike ride across Scotland has only ever been referred to as Car Crash Dave.

Being introduced to new faces at 3 o'clock in the morning is a bit tricky, and doubly so after only two hours sleep. Being barely conscious it was great to realise that Dave was actually the most organised and unflappable person I’d ever met.

Riding a bike through a big city still intent on enjoying the night before was bizarre. Even more bizarre, as we assembled at Glasgow Central Station, was a drunken Irishman regaling us with tales of his cyclocross career while rating our bikes and our chances of success.

After photographs and the (sort of) official start we headed away through the dawn and urban sprawl accompanied by blinking LEDs and quiet thoughts as to what lay ahead.

The plan had been hatched a couple of months before at a party thrown by a mutual friend. It was the sort of conversation you have when meeting people for the first time: vague questions as to what you get up to in your spare time and veiled answers you hope sit somewhere between modest and accurate. It transpired that Colin and I both rode bikes a bit. Col mentioned that riding the entire length of the A82 in day appealed to him because it started outside his house.

The four of us pedalled around roundabout after roundabout as the super quiet dual carriageway lead us under the glowering presence of Dumbarton Rock and on towards Loch Lomond. We devised a system to pass the early miles on the not particularly inspiring road by setting up a rotation which prompted a discussion on how much you envied whoever was sitting back left. Unless it was you, which meant you pedalled along smugly knowing you were sheltered from the wind and would still be next time we moved around.

With Loch Lomond draped in a blanket of low cloud we pulled into Tarbet for our first food stop. Dave, Doug and Eve had thoroughly organised fresh bottles and energy bars for each of us, which we attempted to shove onto bikes and into pockets whilst being mercilessly attacked by the scourge of the Scottish summer. This slightly unpleasant interlude was enlivened enormously by the first appearance of Ally’s dancing. I figured he was leaping about to confuse the insects. I was wrong.

One aspect of the ride we had all been looking forward to was pressing the ‘Cyclists press this button’ button as the road left Tarbet. We pushed the button. We took photographs of us pushing the button. Then we got back on our bikes. As we climbed away from the Loch the sun broke through leaving shreds of cloud tumbling down the surrounding hills; stunning. Riding up a significant hill for the first time saw our intricate choreography disintegrate as we all searched for a comfortable rhythm.

A bacon sandwich in Tyndrum seemed ideal preparation for the climb onto Rannoch Moor. Two minutes out of Tyndrum a bacon sandwich didn’t feel like ideal preparation for anything but it did push speeds up as we dropped down to the Bridge of Orgy, as Bob dubbed the next village. We’d all been quietly dreading the up hill section to the Rannoch Moor Summit but a lively tailwind was picking up and buoyed by memories of past canoe adventures we were soon descending through the fantastic scenery of Glencoe towards the King’s House.

Pausing for more supplies I began to realise that everything was not as it seemed with Ally’s midgie dance. I reckon that most people halfway through a big bike ride tend to stand still, or sit down, or collapse when not actually riding. Not Ally. I’m sure he burnt more calories when we were stopped than he did pedalling, utterly incapable of holding the same position for a second.

The atmosphere as we rode on through Glencoe was breathtaking. Not that we spent too long looking at it. It always amazes me how perfectly sensible and rational people are transformed into gregarious show-offs the moment you point a camera at them. Now, if you point a video camera at a bunch of cyclists they just won’t be able to help themselves. If you point a video camera at a group of cyclists from a car driving next to them you are really asking for trouble. At least the background will look good.

The moment I mentioned that we had just passed halfway I wished I hadn’t. We were all beginning to feel the effects of the early start and lack of sleep. Discussions began on what we would do when we arrived in Fort William. Bob had a train booked back to Glasgow but wasn’t sure whether to carry on. Ally had already broken his own distance record so was pushing into the unknown. Col and I were quietly wishing this hadn’t been our idea; somehow we just didn’t have an excuse to stop.

Fort William. One hundred miles from Glasgow. Bob and Colin decided to sprint for it. We ended up standing around in the station car park for three quarters of an hour. Bob got the train back to Glasgow, Ally decided to stop, then to carry on, then to stop.

Setting off again was hard; seventy miles now seemed like an awfully long way. As we rolled out of town the car overtook us. We were pretty used to this by now as we were leap-frogged on the road while Doug and Dave tidied up, letting us get a head start, then drove passed looking for a good spot for filming or the next arranged food stop. This time the car was different. Grinning, waving wildly and yelling encouragement from the back seat was Ally. Suddenly we felt better: someone understood what it meant to be doing this, knew how tired we were, how sore we were, but believed we would do it.

I’d been a bit apprehensive about the hill away from Spean Bridge and swung left through the village with gritted teeth. Taking turns to lead we focused alternately on the piece of tarmac directly in front, not wanting to lift our eyes and see just how far we had to ride to the top, and each others back wheels. We’d managed to convince ourselves that it was downhill all the way from the summit to Inverness so were relieved to pull into the car park at the Commando Memorial that marks the top. I’m never going to convince myself of anything again.

Suddenly the banter that had accompanied the ride disappeared. As the road rose and fell, criss-crossing the Caledonian Canal, it began to feel like we were riding through treacle. I found myself groping around in pockets searching for food I knew I’d already eaten. We’d arranged for a refuelling stop in Fort Augustus. The numbers on the road signs for Fort Augustus didn’t appear to be getting any lower. Again we crossed the canal, and again the road began to climb. Taking turns at leading, neither of us could maintain a regular pace. We were riding together, and then we weren’t, we couldn’t.

Fort Augustus signalled the beginning of Loch Ness. Inverness is at the other end, give or take. Fed and watered we discovered that our tail wind was now so strong that it took less energy to ride side by side rather than line astern. Our speed was measured against a yacht sailing down the Loch. We’d gain ground, then the road would turn in land and we’d lag behind.

With fifteen miles to go we were exhausted. Stopped in Drumnadrochit Colin had a bright idea. He disappeared into a café and re-emerged armed with two double espressos and a pair of doughnuts. The man is a genius. I certainly don’t advocate the use of banned substances to enhance athletic performance and I therefore applaud the IOC for removing caffeine from its banned list. Sugar is a wonder substance. I don’t remember much of the last fifteen miles suffice to say that my head was buzzing and my legs felt like someone else’s.

If the expressions on the faces of the good people of Inverness are to be believed then the appearance of two tired, dirty, and sweaty cyclists in their pedestrianised zone on a Saturday afternoon ranks alongside alien invasion. After asking for directions from some terrified locals we rolled onto the station forecourt. Photos. Handshakes. Job done. Bikes on the back of the car.

Bikes not on the back of the car. Dave hadn’t said the wrong thing. Without an awful lot of reorganisation there weren’t enough seats in the car. We had to ride to our accommodation. Up a hill steeper than any we’d encountered all day. It was only three miles and Colin and I ride bikes a bit.


Massive Thanks to:

Colin for the idea

Bob, Ally and Col for riding

Dave, Doug, Eve and Ally for car based support

Martin for his shower, space to pitch a tent and handing out cold beer at exactly the right moment.