Riding in a bad mood and turning yourself inside out on a local climb is often a good way to blow off some steam and reset, but despite the title, that’s not what this is about.
I’ve not been the most active in terms of updating things in the last year or so. Between COVID and not always feeling mentally there in terms of any type of creative endeavours I think I’ve updated twice in the last 12 months. Ball well and truly dropped. So it should also come as no surprise that whilst I am finally updating, that this post relates to an event that took place about 7 weeks ago.
Keep going North
With restrictions finally lifted enough that we could travel as a family, back in August we hijacked my dads VW Transporter and headed to Scotland.
The intent was to get to the North coast where we’d booked in to camp in Tongue. A spot I absolutely fell in love with during the Trans Alba Race back in 2019 and have not shut up about since.
Seriously, just look at it!
I promised to keep my riding to a minimum as this was a family trip. Aside from an early climb over the Corrieyairack Pass a few days earlier, my only planned ride was to reach, by bike, the most northwesterly point in Scotland, Cape Wrath. In doing so becoming eligible for membership of the Cape Wrath Fellowship.
I’d seen Cape Wrath on maps when researching the Trans Alba route and read up about the Cape Wrath Fellowship (currently administered by Sam Jones at Cycling U.K.) and it’s very hard to turn down the lure of venturing out to the iconic lighthouse which is exactly I found myself here…
Knowing the weather could kill my hopes of riding to Cape Wrath, we’d made an early start from Lairg and headed north to Keodale. Arriving quayside at 10am, just in time to meet the ferryman returning from his latest trip only to be told “next trip is at 12:30.”
C’est la vie! The weather was beautiful so we ducked into the artists village at Balnakiel and consumed more than one vegan croissant and coffee whilst wondering around the stores and talking to the owners. If you are ever in Durness, can’t recommend it enough!
12pm rolled around and we were back on the quayside, bike and cash in hand for me and just cash for the family who took the tour bus out instead.
It’s perhaps a ten minute trip on the ferry over to the road out to the lighthouse and from there a ride of just under 18km with about 300m of climbing. Nothing too severe.
There is a “road” out to Cape Wrath (hence the tour bus option for the less velo inclined) but it’s not exactly in great shape and even on a 29er there were plenty of bumps.
As soon as you leave the slipway where the ferry lands, you’re immediately into uninhabited lands. Oh, and a live firing range used by the Navy but the road is closed off when they are at work so check in advance if there’s any live firing happening!
The road winds through the headland and undulates fairly consistently throughout. Always slightly up or down but never painfully so. Never did it feel unobtainable like a lot of things have recently. I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see the mini bus bouncing along the trail but it never came.
18km doesn’t necessarily sound like a lot, but even after six or seven kilometres You can feel how remote and how untamed this area is. With a few MOD buildings marking the start and end of the range and only one or two hunting lodges (all empty as I passed) I encountered only one other rider on their return journey from their own pilgrimage to the lighthouse. Just the sound of the wind and the tyres rolling over the “road”.
It was only after the halfway mark that I noticed the weather worn stone mile markers counting down. Just after the final one and with the lighthouse in sight, I felt quite emotional riding towards it.
More than once in the last year, I have given up on what I felt were bigger goals and getting here meant a lot. The last update here was about how I’ve struggled with my mental health and that’s still very much a work in progress. There have been times in the last 18 months where I just gave up. For seemingly different reasons on different occasions, but a repetitive feeling of failure had been lingering for a while.
That kind of repeated setback had knocked my confidence and even my willingness to get out and ride at times. Losing enjoyment in something you love, it’s hard. I’d felt lost.
It was 18 km but I cheered myself as I came around the last corner and saw the lighthouse. There was no one else for kilometres and screaming at the top of my lungs felt good. All the set backs with my fitness, with plans falling through, with my motivation, they all vanished coming around that corner.
I’d made it! I’d made it all the way out to one of the most remote spots in Scotland.
Taking the mandatory photos to submit my membership application to the Cape Wrath Fellowship, I parked up my bike and wandered out the cliffs. Sitting with my back against the stone wall and staring out to sea, I remembered that there’s nothing between me and the North Pole from here! You can stand on the cliffs looking east and west and seeing nothing but perhaps the odd passing ship.
I spent a few minutes listening to the wind, quietly content with myself. After all those setbacks and perceived failures, I’d made it to Cape Wrath.
There’s never no coffee
Cape Wrath has another legend in store if you make it there. Its keeper, John Ure, operates the Ozone Cafe 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Today was no exception.
John walked out of the cafe just as I came back to my bike, not a single other person anywhere to be seen and greeted me warmly with “Hi there, you looking for some tea?”. I asked if he had any coffee and got a lilting “aye” in response as we entered the cafe.
Inside, I listened to the wind whipping around the open door as John brewed a very welcome cup of coffee and asked where I’d come from. Telling him I came from South Wales he noted there’d been an increase in how many Welsh folks had made the trip recently.
John was a genuinely warm and welcoming presence. You arrive at these remote buildings and I had expected someone hardened by a remote way of living in an exposed area where being cut off from the rest of the world due to extreme weather is a very real occurrence. We chatted away as I nursed a second cup of coffee whilst he talked about the local wildlife and how there were force 8 gales forecast that night and I tried in vain to explain how stunned I was by the coastline and where he lived.
Eventually, the tour bus arrived and John was hard at work making more tea and coffee. I wondered around the buildings trying to commit everything I could to memory.
The minibus waits for no man
Eventually it was time to head back. Wishing John well and signing the guestbook, I hit the road and was in turn hit by the increasing headwind.
Now, I don’t think I’d have been left on the quayside overnight if I didn’t make it back in time, but I also didn’t want to find out so I hammered it all the way back to the ferry just in time to see it depart on the first of its two trips back to carry everyone needed back to the “mainland”.
After the return trip, as the ferryman lifted my bike off for me he asked if I used Strava, I don’t (Can’t escape technology, even in Cape Wrath!), then he told me the record for the return is near 35 minutes. I guess I have something to aim for next time.
That one ride of 36 km left a mark on me. Struggling over the last 18 months, achieving something I set out to felt like a line in the sand. The goals don’t always need to be big but it has to matter to you.
It doesn’t always need to be a big challenge or a 300km day. Setting out to Cape Wrath and riding the 18km there and then back again felt like a reset. It could have been 18km or 1800km, but the passion was there. Riding for yourself and for something you feel deeply about, that’s the important part and I’d lost sight of that.
Cycling can be a game of ego at times. Trying to ride further and faster isn’t always important. Ride for yourself. Do what makes you happy and don’t worry about the rest.
The wind in Wales
It’s been eight weeks now, but when the weather kicks up back in South Wales, I often think of John. What the weather must be like up on Cape Wrath, how the shorter days impact his day to day.
It was midsummer when I got to visit and the noise of the wind whipping across the open door of the cafe still stays with me.
36km helped me find a little perspective. The perceived failures were just that, perceived. Deciding that I didn’t want to do something or feeing that I wasn’t really in the right headspace for a long ride aren’t failures. If it feels like an obligation and it’s optional, then it’s not a failure to walk away.
The ride wasn’t an a-ha moment, it was just a ride after all and it took me weeks to think back on it and pen something down. There’s been plenty of rides since then and there’ll be more to come.
Love what you do and do nothing half heartedly.