Being an Ayrshire native, it came as a bit of a shock to my coworker, Colin that I hadn’t cycled the route of the Five Ferries Challenge. He was even more surprised, when I tentatively admitted I had never cycled on Arran, a paradise for cyclists with its figure of eight loop and towering climbs.
All judgement aside, the troops were rallied and a date was set. The Five Ferries Challenges is as it sounds, a trip around the islands and sea lochs of Scotlands stunning West Coast. It’s a unique challenge as it can be a long easy day, or a race to make the next ferry, resulting in a desire to dig deeper than one normally would on the bike.
After some meticulous planning on Colin’s part (thanks Colin, had I been in charge we’d have ended up in Millport), the four of us met at Ardrossan harbour bright and early on a overcast Saturday morning. Being a newbie to the group I was a little apprehensive, Stuart & David being friends of Colin. Nerves about the ride ahead were soon settled with a half bottle of the Williams Brothers finest Jarl ale, as we set off across the water towards Brodick, the first of the Five Ferries.
As we sat in the lounge, we pondered our first move. We would have less than an hour to make the next ferry at Lochranza. We initially decided to put the hammer down our first leg, but a spanner was thrown in the works with a wee bit of a delay disembarking the boat. We decided to take the longer route round, leaving time for some spectacular climbing and some lunch in Lochranza.
We set off from Brodick, turning right out of town and up the infamous String climb. Some minor derailleur issues and cold legs caused issues for myself and Stuart, Colin and David vanished into the distance. Me, being no mountain goat, began to get a little apprehensive again at the thought of the days climbs. These were soon settled, on the drops at forty miles per hour, as we hurtled down the other side. A few miles of gentle rolling roads took us to the coast on the other side of the island and we rolled into Lochranza, a tailwind making us feel on top of the world.
A lunch break ensued as we waited on the next departure from Lochranza and the Sandwich Station welcomed us in with open arms. Arran Blue Cheese and onion on sourdough topped up the energy levels and we were soon on the boat Claonig, for the short eleven mile second stint of our journey. We were met again with a climb straight out the gate. Not as steep as the first, but a climb nevertheless. Climbing order was as yo u were on the the previous, but once again we were rewarded with a helter skelter descent that was felt in the stomach as much as the wind was on the face. The only sour moment of the day reared its head, as an impatient van driver made his best efforts to wipe out Colin, as well as the group coming towards us. A right turn onto the main road had us on a short drag to Tarbert, where we regrouped with some great coffee, Clif bars and another sly beer, for morale.
On the short five minute ferry from Tarbert to Portavadie, the heavens opened, as if to remind us not to take the favourable weather we had so far for granted. A wee nip of Arran 10 warmed us and by the time the ferry came into the pier it we were stashing the waterproofs away again. In what was becoming a recurring theme, we hit a climb straight off the bat, a relatively short climb with a few kickers to keep us honest. Before long it was time to descend again, me being thankful for thirty two millimetre tyres keeping me cushioned on the unforgiving road surface thats all too common in Scotland.
We descended down through Kames into Tighnabruich just in time to catch thirty seconds or so of a local shinty game, locals lining the street on top of the small cliff, getting treated to a real birds eye view. A sharp left took us back onto the longest climb of the day. If you haven’t picked up already, I’m not the most enthusiastic when the road goes up, but my word. What a climb. Five miles through dense forest on a road as smooth as a pool table. At the top, the climb offered views right down Loch Riddon, towards the Firth of Clyde and Arran. My only regret of the day was not stopping here, I was simply too gassed from the climb. I’ve Colin to thank for the photo of the spectacular view.
We flew down off the climb and regrouped at the bottom, turning into a slight headwind as we raced towards Colintraive for the penultimate ferry of the day. This is where I found the hurt house. Legs heavy after the days climbing, the rolling terrain soon took its toll. On the last small, sharp climb of the day they went. Assisted by a helping hand from Colin, I had to dig deep into the reserves, legs searing as I crested the hill. As the rain started to come down we flew down into the village, arriving just in time, as passengers had just started to board the ferry. Some jelly babies and a Clif bar were much needed here.
The group took a small break on the other side, so I took off ahead, giving myself a buffer incase the legs had completely went. A favourable wind and relatively flat road saw me safely into Weymess bay, the group arriving a few minutes behind me. We had arrived at the end of the trip, with just the one ferry to take us home. A few minutes before boarding, the heavens opened, obviously upset with us that we had made it through most of the day in favourable conditions.
A warm seat with soup and maybe the best lager I’ve tasted welcomed us. The fifty minute journey giving us time to reflect on the day, photos we’d taken and things we’d seen. I’d like to make the Five Ferries a yearly trip, such is the quality of scenery and riding on offer, but for now, I can put a big check next to it on my list of places to ride.