I rose, quickly changed into 4 layers and headed downstairs for some tea, toast an three decades of the Rosary; I also read the day’s readings: Thomas of Canterbury. (I doubted I’d be shedding any blood).
Two ‘Science in Sport’ (SIS) water bottles sat filled with dissolved isotonic tablets of the same brand; two energy bars and one gel pouch. Two bananas completed the food manifest. I was more concerned about fluids.
Kevin was collecting me at 7am, and shortly after the necessary de-icing I joined him at the entrance to my road: he didn’t fancy the black ice/frost combination.
And we were heading out on bikes!?
We parked and began our dark climb up Devol Road, up past the Port Glasgow Golf Club and were very much on our way. The air was crisp (-0.5C) and the sky was clear:Jupiter was pinned just to our right on the west.
This was it. And it felt…good.
We headed past the water tower, and upon reaching the first gate I remarked upon the beautiful peach glow hanging above the horizon, sliced slowly by the wind turbine recently erected.
I had suggested that we would use our Strava-enabled phones in sequence, my companion going first: I was trialling my son’s Christmas iPod. However, by the time we had reached the entrance to Garshangan, the ‘No GPS Signal’ suggested to me that this little device would not be the basket into which any ‘milestone eggs’ should be placed and I – reluctantly, because woe betide me finding myself unable to rely upon my mobile phone facilitating a call in response to an emergency! – enabled Strava on my Nexus 4.
Battery Level 97%. I asked the lovely people at Strava to copy and paste the first 3-4K from Kevin’s ride data and append to mine – they could not. But I could, sitting New Years Eve and inserting the missing KML data using Notepad++ and GPS Editor. 88km became the actual 92.4km. VERY respectable.
Both reservoirs sat still, icy and glass-like in the dawn. I urge anyone out there to enter out at this time of day: the colours and ambience are breathtaking, leaving you with a sense of control, isolation, mastery…
We turned left upon reaching the Old Largs Road; I normally, and had planned to, turn right up to Whinhill, but Kevin’s Friday mud experience informed us that the better option would be reversing the original phase of this part of the route.
We headed up on to the Kelly Cut; Cornalees sat down to our right.
Kevin was utterly disappointed that not only had his ‘Go Pro’ failed to charge overnight, but that his phone was now haemorrhaging power. Still, at least the mud and bog had transmogrified into frozen Giger-esque snapshots of their former selves, and ensuring that the front suspension had not been locked out, the ride was much preferable.
Photo opportunities were not rare, and during one of our frequenct un-holsterings of our phones before the descent down towards the Weymss bay Caravan Park, I received a ‘Can you see OK?’ text from my wife. I could see perfectly well – the sun was bright in the cloudless sky. But below us there lay a bank fog to which we presumed she was referring. A let-them-think-we-are-suffering glance passed between us.
The main encampment of the caravan park – a lot roomier than I expected – lies quite a drive from the entrance; the road is a hodge-podge of tarmac and trail. We saw a little postal van doing its rounds and Kevin remarked as to its next destination, and we were now breaching the aforementioned fog as we descended, coming onto a major road and turning left into the-complicated-looking-housing-estate-up-from-the-train-station.
I have to admit: I was tiring and my left knee and thigh beginning to ache. Kevin was way out front.
After a couple of turns we arrived at the bridge we last crouched at, on the previous Saturday morning, attempting to fix Kevin’s broken chain. Ths time (and why!?) we didn’t take the lift.
Through the village, which had already woken and was setting about its daily, and some climbs only added to the misery that was the nagging left leg. Kevin was performing well on all climbs, and soon – after chuckling as we passed the spot where we both recently came off as a result of black ice – we had reached Coornalees Visitors Centre.
Ignoring – and quite rightly so – the sign about purchased food and on site consumption, I enjoyed a SIS banana-essence energy bar (yes, Kevin was not left out) before using the facilities. Bananas and isotonic fluid were enjoyed prior to resuming the pleasant ride around Loch Thom, confident that multiples of 10km had been bagged.
Soon we were turning right and up into Garshangan (a nice little technical trail now devoid of much forestry) and stopped at the junction leading to the B788.
Would Kevin join me for the duration? Would he be happy bowing out after kindly escorting me around a less-familiar stomping ground that he certainly ‘owned’?
Kevin was curious as to what lay ahead: he was sounding me out.
Without too much persuasion he agreed to continue with the ‘Slog’ and we headed up Auchenfolyle Road, right into the fog that we had been looking down upon for so many hours. A false right turn and we were heading – slowly – up towards the white house sitting down from Cairncurran Hill.
Kevin’s seat was clicking after having broken the saddle frame the previous Friday, and it became increasingly annoying to him. I joked that it was merely logging our mileage.
We reached the farm which was receiving some modern-looking extension work. The farmer (?) popped out to ‘greet’ us and then we led our selves down the steep drop and then onto the moorland that was ‘The Foot’.
And here the trouble began.
Stretch upon stretch of ice, horizontal mini waterfalls signalled the first sign that this was certainly to be a game of two halves. Occasionally one could pick their way down this little single track following Hansel and Gretel-like the little oasis of stones and grass tufts that would provide essential grip.
I greeted ‘Wee Furries’ with a “See you soon!” and we were soon heading up towards the Duchal and Hardridge Farm via Gateside Road, a cold fog enveloping us, the sun a silver orb in the pale sky.
The ever-present Highland cattle were..present, but our fatigue had shaved most of our nervousness and we simply acknowledged them. Climbing up, Kilmacolm Dam to our left, the air was filled with cracking and sploshing; hunks of ice inches thick were strewn across our path. But this was nothing.
Finally, just at the maximum elevation of our journey, we crossed the stream and boarded the moor.
Now, this route is littered with troughs of standing water. I have seen this area completely free of puddle ONCE in my nigh on 4 years of mountain biking; festering pools of hidden insect life during the summer months; unapologetic baths of ice-cold water during October.
The route across the moor was pock-marked with frozen ponds, some of which stretch to 20 feet in length and were bordered by precarious gaps or boggy fern – strength-sapping and frustrating. ‘Are we there YET!?’ was our shared refrain. We battled; we slipped; we skidded; we plunged. Each advance was quickly punctuated with frosty breath exhaled in response to yet another obstacle.
Sandwiches. Curries. Our food-related thoughts hoped to placate our sodden feet. And we agreed that a foray into Lochwinnoch town was the order of play, even at the expense of doubling back to Boghead to gain entry onto Misty Law.
There was no respite, not even down the short stretch leading from Calder Dam to Clydemuirshiel HQ – closed and offering no sign of refreshment.
Kevin exhorted on the joys of tarmac, and I hoped that the simple equation, ‘tarmac + downhill x 3 miles’ would have assuaged any ill-will towards the ice-laden segments we had just left behind.
A double Nougat at 52p. A 4-pack of Warburton Teacakes. 2 bananas. A bottle of Lucozade incongruously named, ‘Caribbean Crush’. Al fresco, our ‘table’ was soon removed upon the arrival of a refuse collection van and a serious-natured worker removing said bin for emptying.
Reluctantly, and looking at our watches, we headed back to Boghead to ‘find’ the route that would lead us to Smaug – no, I mean Misty Law.
No, dear reader. What actually transpired was this. We had lost so much time – and energy – on the moor that the elephant in the room was this: how could we attempt Misty Law with draining batteries, an approaching dusk and cold wandering fog that once or twice we had avoided?
We couldn’t really. But how could we maintain our kilometres?
“The cycle path!” announced Kevin, and we promptly sought directions. The lady – thank you, mam – whom we chanced upon assured us that it was very cloe by, near the Castle Semple Visitors Centre. Hooray!
But wait! Mileage – K-age. We figured we’d come in about 90, and perhaps make up the last with a detour.
My companion and I set about heading home.
Now, travelling by oneself as I often am, the MP3 player is as much a balm to the over-active imagination as it is to the banal musings that may take hold. By this time, I could rarely fall in astride Kevin and engage in chit-chat due to his superior pace: I was bitterly cold, regretful at having taken the moor path to Clydemuirshiel; I ached, and had very little strength.
But most of all, I missed – dearly missed my family. My wife, at home with my son (who, apparently, spent much of the day looking out for his dad emerging from the fog), and who was most probably nursing our nine-week-old daughter.
Selflessly, I had committed a day to those less fortunate than myself. I was raising money for “Mary’s Meals’ and SCIAF.
Strange, in the throws of such ‘suffering’, I was vowing never to undertake such a long ride; I hated my bike – but not as much as my derrière was. I was vowing never again to be away from my family for such a long time again, and that any thoughts about undertaking Doctoral study or another Masters-level course of professional development were utterly selfish of me and nothing more than egotistical and self-centred.
Such musings and castigations whipped around in my mind as the approaching evening brought with it a night-time garment of hoar-frost. I had collapsed in on myself, gripped by self-loathing and utterly, utterly numb.
Ahead of me, Kevin was afigure in the gloom. To our left and right was a pure and featureless white; an unending stretch of tarmac unfurled pedal after pedal after pedal…
Johnstone. Normally, I head out of Lochwinnoch and wiggle past a sign for Howwood; then I draw near Barnbrock Farm, and then the little house at Pomillan, lying at the foot of South Newton. These are the markers with which I am familiar.
But Johnstone!? I felt that we had strayed too far east, and at the very point where we had little energy for such a deviation – flat tarmac or not.
“Kilbarchan” came the response from a obliging female dog walker, and soon the familiar sights of Bridge of Weir were upon us, their lights dazzling in the fast-approaching gloom.
We chatted, my companion and I, mainly about our distance – how much we’d have to make up. And more importantly: how?
Kilmacolm, and the ‘Pulllman’ was soon upon us. Kevin was concerned that I was going to head off up onto the B788, seek out ‘Wee Furries’ and ‘Devol Moor’ in an attempt to accrue some Ks; he reminded me – wisely – how little energy I had, and how difficult it was even experiencing the flat of the cycle path.
He managed to ‘talk me down’ and we headed up into ‘The Port’, which was embalmed in the fog we were later informed had gripped the region for most of the day and had lead our loved ones to assume that our journey struck parallels with scenes from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
I arrived home shortly after 5 pm. No banners. No fanfares. Just a roof, a hearth and a warm smile from my wife, joined by Penny’s crying. My son threw his hands around my waist. Warmth.
Minutes later, my son and I were standing in Tesco perusing the toy section: me in my onesie, and he with some of that Christmas-money-that-burns-a-hole-in-ones-pocket.
Misty Law? The bike has been washed and oiled – I’ll see you soon. I’ll drive to your feet and crawl upwards upon your frugal track. You owe me.
And to those of you who donated to this sponsored cycle, a huge Thank You on behalf of Mary’s Meals and SCIAF.
Would I do it again?
As my aching limbs felt the returning warmth, standing there with my son, I remembered why I had entered into the December dawn earlier that day.
Yes, I would.
But next time I will train beforehand.