(This article is the first of a two-part tour of the Assynt region. Access part two here.)
Assynt: sounds an awful lot like ‘ascent’, doesn’t it?
Scotland is littered with landmarks with descriptive Gaelic terms in the name, such as ‘mór/mòr’ (great/big), and ben/beinn (hill/mountain). There are eleven natural landmarks in Scotland with mór in the title, according to Google Maps. You pick up quite a bit of Gaelic just from the road signs as you explore the north west of Scotland by bike. The Gaelic word for flat is còmhnard, did you know that? The word còmhnard is to be found precisely nowhere* on the map or road signs of Scotland; I had to look it up in our host’s Gaelic dictionary to find it out. Well, precisely nowhere is where I would be finding flat road on today’s route in the Highland civil parish of Assynt.
Our 50-mile route started from Lochinver; Hubs discovered it in an online article by hand-cyclist Karen Darke.
We took an early turn off the main road and onto a coastal scenic route. Quickly our senses were overwhelmed by the Highland autumn tartan: that immediately recognisable colour palette of yellow, green and brown. Detoured to the beach at Achmelvich – a lumpy affair but only 1.5 miles out and with little brown frogs, almost indistinguishable from wet autumn leaves, to dodge on the way – took our shoes off and sipped espresso from the coffee shack on a beach of perfect cool white sand. (Is it too early in the ride to get a peanut butter roll too?). The sun’s warmth fooled us into thinking the turquoise water looked enticing but a few minutes of it lapping against our ankles left us glad we’d left the doukers** at home.
Rejoining the loop, we immediately hit a short-but-sharp incline. The sharpness of the rise was a pity because it made me reluctant to stop to look around at the incredible vista opening up behind us – an endless expanse of light and ferns and hills and more hills and the odd mountain protruding so far into the sky that it punctured the clouds. (We also took too little time to appreciate the garden at the bottom of the hill, where the resident ducks and chickens had been gifted a trampoline to play on).
Then a beautiful descent diving into an expanse of heather and hills interrupted by lochans fed by babbling streams.
Another short detour at Stoer takes you north and west to the Stoer lighthouse and from here you can explore the coast and the Old Man of Stoer on foot. For us it was a diversion for another day – Karen Darke recommended completing the circular route in the clockwise direction to get all the tough miles out of the way first so we knew we had to keep our powder dry yet.
Around Drumbeg we stopped for a banana at a coastal viewpoint and spotted seals banana-ing on rocks below us. In the distance our road ahead twisted mockingly into savage shapes and gradients and it was difficult to take in the incredible light and colours of the marine panorama on our left while slogging it up these inclines, heaving the bike from side to side with every strained pedal stroke and praying that the campervan approaching would be kind enough to stop at the Passing Place so I didn’t have to break my painstaking stride.
The next ten miles continued in this vein. Tormented by the twin peaks of the Quinag – a dominant target evocative of the twin peaks of the Jean-Paul Gaultier bra corset worn famously by Madonna, and just as brash, yet never appearing to get any closer – my experience of the journey from Drumbeg to Unapool can only be described as Type B fun. There was even a point at which I GAVE UP and walked for a while, which is real throwing-toys-out-of-pram territory for me because my ego is large and I find walking uphill with a bicycle wholly unpleasant. But there you are.
Did I mention that Karen Darke is a Paralympic gold medallist in hand cycling? Hubs had overlooked this small-but-significant fact when he read her article.
Aside from leviathan effort, this stage of the route also calls for a modicum of concentration. The bends can be steep and blind, the traffic is moderate (it not being far from the North Coast 500 route, and with some stunning camping and caravanning sites along the way) and the sheep, which are gentle of face round here, are more unshakeable than your average and often found convalescing by the roadside, unphased by the vehicles passing close by. Much of the route was spent catching glances at breathtaking scenery revealed at the top of this rise or that before fixing my gaze firmly back on the weather-worn grey Highland tarmac, an eye on the next line to take to avoid being stuck on the inside of a hairpin bend or going arse-over-sheep into the traffic-light-coloured undergrowth.
At some point we reached the junction for Kylesku and Unapool. Hubs had suggested that we deviate from the loop to visit the nearby Kylesku road bridge. It’s a tiny detour on an Ordnance Survery Landranger map, barely longer than my thumb, and yet I spent the entirety of our descent towards the bridge debating whether ‘Oh F*ck’ or ‘For F*ck’s Sake’ more accurately described my disapproval at losing all that unnecessary elevation. My legs felt simultaneously hollow and like they were made of lead.
The bridge excursion was worth it though. Hubs’ ulterior motive for getting there, unrevealed to me until now (or maybe he did, and I wasn’t paying attention) was the full ascent of the Quinag climb in his Toughest Hill Climbs book.
A Toughest Hill Climb. Just what my morale needed.
Luckily the climb’s 5/10 difficulty rating was not an underestimation and I found my rhythm, spinning it out past fast-flowing mountain waterways lively and bubbling with peat-tinged white froth. We were encouraged by applauding caravanners who gave us a wide berth on tight bends. We saw a golden eagle soaring in the distance and for the first time had a view of the Quinag cast in sunlight rather than shade. Its’ colours were mesmerising. From the top (we chased a few false summits to get there) was an easy descent with clear views all the way to Loch Assynt. A tailwind scooped up my sorry behind and abetted us all the way back to Lochinver.
Karen Darke, Paralympic gold medal hand-cyclist and Adventure Syndicate Wonderwoman, you must be an absolute she-beast (in a nice way). Only after inhaling a whole grab-bag of Kettle Chips and a long soak in the bath, am I grateful to you for this exquisite journey on two pedals.
*Addendum: I used a little artistic license here; there is a Loch Còmhnard in Scotland, not far from Loch Ness. It’s very small and doesn’t even seem to have a road to take you to it
**Doukers/dookers (noun): Scottish speak for your swimming costume/trunks
7 September, 2020