the long and winding (gravel) road

the road to kilchoman distillery

seven of islay's nine distilleries sit comfortably on the island's shores, though technically, bruichladdich sits on the wrong side of the road to be strictly considered directly 'on the water', so to speak. when, eventually, diageo re-open port ellen distillery in the next couple of years, it will suffer from the same locational problem that afflicts 'bruthach a claddaich'. however, such matters are, in this contemporary age, of academic interest; the shoreside locations were purely for reasons of pragmatism, rather than aesthetics.

supplies for the distilleries were originally brought in by clyde puffers from glasgow, necessitating that each distillery possess a pier to which those puffers could not only tie-up, but offload the barley, yeast etc., that your average single-malt whisky requires as part of the ingredients. this was, perhaps quite obviously, a two-way street; after dropping off the supplies, the puffers would collect casks of whisky destined for elsewhere and head back to glasgow.

for those of you who might wish to explore this transportational paradigm a tad further, you could do worse than rent or purchase a film entitled the maggie, part of which was filmed on islay. arguably this film gave rise to the popular tv series 'para handy', following the exploits of the puffer the vital spark. those puffers no longer form part of the national distribution network, though there is an ageing example sitting at inverarary pier, and a group of islay enthusiasts are currently restoring another based near lochgilphead.

though both bruichladdich and kilchoman distilleries have encouraged the growing of barley locally for their respective brands, only the latter has malting floors that allows end to end production on the island. bruichladdich plan to build/restore the malt floors that were once the preserve of each and every distillery, but at present, they require to have their barley malted elsewhere. the remaining distilleries either bring malted barley from the mainland, or have it malted to their own specification at diageo's port ellen maltings. the barley for the latter is regularly delivered by grain boat at port ellen pier.

now that the puffers are no more (the wreck of one still sits beneath the surface at the entrance to lagavulin bay), any new distilleries no longer require to be built on the shore, nor require a pier. this state of affairs is specifically applicable to both kilchoman and ardnahoe; the latter has been built overlooking the sound of islay, the fast moving stretch of water separating islay from jura. kilchoman overlooks loch gorm on the island's west coast, at least a mile away from the atlantic coast and to which it would be very difficult/impossible to deliver anything by sea, let alone barley and yeast.

access to both these distilleries is by road, with the last few metres featuring gravelled paths. the one at ardnahoe is pretty short, while that at kilchoman is considerably longer (see photo at top). this means that, should you arrive riding state of the art carbon fibre, the bicycle might be less than impressed.

and then there is machrie hotel. situated a few miles from port ellen village, this is the largest hotel on the island (47 rooms), re-opened at the tail end of last year after having been totally refurbished to an impressive standard. it is accompanied by a world renowned, eighteen-hole links golf course. popularity guaranteed. however, it too suffers from the same blight visited upon ardnahoe and kilchoman; a seriously rough and ready gravel path that potholes remarkably easily each and every time it rains. and it rains quite a lot over here.

the owners spent a considerable sum of money upgrading the original track leading to this high -quality hotel and golf course, yet it's every bit as poor as it ever was. at last visit, i was able to traverse the several hundred metres far quicker by cyclocross bike, than the following motor cars. suffice it to say, on exiting the hotel after a more than adequate repast, there were five private helicopters parked on the front lawn, their occupants perhaps having already been made aware of the rough and ready access roadway.

why am i telling you all this? well, i think it less than likely that the average touring cyclist would be likely to spend the amount demanded for a room at the machrie, even were they inclined to attempt the rough cycle to the front door. however, many a touring or visiting cyclist will doubtless wish to visit either ardnahoe or kilchoman distillery, necessitating a gravel-based ride to either visitor centre (both feature recommended cafés). but, if ever you needed an excuse to purchase a new gravel bike, keen to fulfil the n + 1 order of business encouraged by velominati, might i suggest that you book a room at the machrie and arrange to visit both kilchoman and ardnahoe distilleries during a holiday on islay.

if it helps, you can call it the 'islay grinduro'.

kilchoman distillery | ardnahoe distillery | the machrie hotel

monday 12 august 2019

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the self sufficient cyclist - guy kesteven. illustrated by aikaterini paraskevopoulou. rapha editions/bluetrain publishing paperback. 144pp illus. £12

self sufficient cyclist - guy kesteven

i have a very nice italian bicycle on review at present. it's not brand new, having obviously been ridden before and probably by somebody a lot faster than me. in the majority of cases, review bicycles have been expertly setup at the warehouse or factory prior to despatch; it's pretty much always a simple case of straightening the handlebars, setting the seatpost to the correct height, screwing a pair of pedals into the cranks and riding off into the sunrise.

occasionally, however, there are minor adjustments to be made to brakes (less necessary on disc-equipped models) or gears. the latter occasionally refuse to shift smoothly up or down the block, mostly cured by altering the cable tension via the adjuster on the rear mech. i know this because, not only have i been reviewing bicycles for more than a decade, but i've been riding them for well over thirty years, since the pre-index days, when the levers were mounted on the downtube and brake cables exited the top of the levers. at that time, disc brakes were the preserve of sports cars and mountain bikes were scarcely a glimmer in the eyes of joe breeze and tom ritchey.

in short, i have acquired bike-related experience.

it's easy to forget that at one time i incorrectly dismantled a freewheel and spread a myriad of tiny ball-bearings all over the garage floor. a colleague of mine once removed all the spokes from a bicycle wheel in order to better clean the rim. we've all done stupid stuff, blissfully unaware, at the time, that it was stupid. mr benzie, who owned the bicycle shop in the town in which i grew up, could be disturbingly scathing towards those who knew not how to fix a puncture or adjust a sturmey-archer three-speed hub gear. and if your bike was dirty when you took it in for repair, he'd send you home to clean it first. we've all been newbies at one time or another; some still are, even after long years of cycling and it is those individuals at whom 'the self sufficient cyclist' is aimed.

self sufficient cyclist - guy kesteven

but before you can garner a wealth of experience that might aid your enjoyment of self-sufficient cycling, the bike needs to fit. i have witnessed oh so many riders with the saddle set too low, even on bicycles destined for hundreds of miles of riding across continents. step one, therefore, probably ought to be making sure the bicycle fits properly. there are specialists for this, but few of those about to enter the world of velocipedinal joy will necessarily be aware, or perhaps in a position to pay for such a service. mr kesteven thus ensures that the basics are covered, beginning with the saddle. he clearly advises on fore and aft positioning, as well as the all important setting of a practical height. the latter is a subject likely to incur as much discussion as a no-deal brexit.

"It still feels weird running the saddle a bit lower but I've had a really strong year on the bike since making the change."

for the practised or veteran cyclist, much of the information included within the pages of 'the self-sufficient cyclist' will be surplus to requirements. but then again, we're never too old to learn something new, or to discover that you've been doing something wrong all these years. for instance, though i'm an average climber, despite all those years of riding bicycles, i'm distinctly crap at descending. just ask the folks at the late-lamented rapha travel. bluetrain's guy andrews offers sidebar advice on how best to deal with the fear of descending, while joe rafferty points out the advantages of having your knees in the right places when cornering downhill.

but if you're truly going to be self-sufficient across all velocipedinal eventualities, you'll need to know a darned sight more than how to descend quickly and safely. this is not a handbook for racing cyclists, but for you and me in everyday situations. for instance, what kind of helmet do you need? what's the difference between road cleats and 'spuds'? do you really need disc brakes? if you have to eat on longer rides, what's the best stuff to have in a back pocket? and even though it's britain, do i need to wear suncream when it's sunny?

self sufficient cyclist - guy kesteven

all these questions, and a great deal more, are either answered, or mr kesteven and his accomplices provide the benefit of their expertise to help you make your own choice/decision/purchase.

illustrator aikaterini paraskevopoulou has possibly the longest and arguably unpronounceable name i've come across recently, but her colourful illustrations are a delightful augmentation to this most necessary of books. in fact, i'd be persuaded to refer to this as more of a manual; and though i'm aware of the archetypal manual being usually confined to the status of 'last resort', something to be investigated only if all else fails, if you're about to embark on the long, satisfying journey towards being 'a cyclist', this third in the series of rapha handbooks is as necessary as the first two.

between them, rapha and bluetrain are addressing a definitive, yet difficult to satisfy need. with the world's roads becoming ever more fraught with traffic, preparation is everything. of course, whether the apprentice cyclist is likely to start the journey at rapha, is something of a moot point, but i'd be very happy indeed to be proved wrong on that point.

the self-sufficient cyclist

sunday 11 august 2019

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magic spanner - the world of cycling according to carlton kirby. bloomsbury sport softback 228pp illus. £12.99

magic spanner - carlton kirby

"My gran says nothing cools you like a cup of tea. She was nuts."


how hard can it be? essentially, all you have to do is have a list in front of you with each rider's number, team and mini-biography, all of which can be researched prior to the race, then tell folks what's happening. perhaps, rather obviously, if that were all there was to commentating, then presumably a lot more of us would be doing it. eurosport and itv4 would have a queue of applicants leading from outside the door, round the corner and down the street.

if, in error, you believe it's as simple as i've said it isn't, why don't you give it a go from the safety of your own ipad? either clock into the itvhub or eurosport player, find a race with which you have some semblance of familiarity, turn the sound off and knock yourselves out. it is, in fact, a long way from being as simple as you thought it might be. i know, i've tried it.

i recall eurosport commentator/pundit, brian smith's first solo flight in front of the microphone. i couldn't say which year, but brian had been the pundit half of the mccrossan/smith partnership on cycling tv, but for a world championship road race, mr mccrossan had been missing in action, leaving mr smith to an unintended solo appearance. it would be hard to pretend that the opening laps were other than something of a work in progress, but by the time someone had crossed the line in first place, brian was pretty much into his stride. it's worth pointing out that brian smith was twice british road-race champion and arguably more conversant with the ways of professional cycling than most of us.

of course, being good at cycling commentary does not necessarily entail all round appreciation from the listening or watching audience. while i warmed to the meanderings and ramblings of the late david duffield, i have mostly found the current eurosport incumbent, carlton kirby, to be irritating to the point where i frequently turn the sound off. i think it's also worth making it clear that the latter action relates solely to the final 15 kilometres, when the pitch of his voice seems to ascend uncontrollably towards the finish line.

i have a sneaking suspicion that co-commentator on the grand tours, sean kelly, might sympathise just a tad. to quote from his foreword to 'magic spanner',
"As you all know he has a habit of going on a bit during commentary, and not just about the cycling ... wherever he goes there are donkeys missing their hind legs."

however, as carlton mentions almost midway through the book, all is not wall to wall action. the grand tour stages featuring a major show of climbing and those ending in a mountain top finish are as full of anticipation as they are of direct action. cycling's game of chess will offer the expectant commentator an endless series of opportunities to strut his/her stuff without recourse to that library of anecdotes and dining stories. a pan flat, sprinters' stage is a whole 'nuther bucket of magic spanners.

"The break will get caught at around 18km to go and a frantic finale will make the highlights show. So... what to do for the remaining four and a half hours?"

at the risk of creating a similar situation to that which once existed between the outspoken kirby and mark cavendish ("our relationship continued to decline when i criticised his team's sprint leadout train at the Tour of Qatar in 2013."), while i still find carlton's commentary to err somewhat on the irritating side, i do rather enjoy his writing style. magic spanner is quite (carlton kirby) conversational in style, through which the man's enthusiasm for the sport shines with every word. sean kelly avers that kirby treats life as an adventure, which is precisely the backdrop that pervades all 26 chapters.

but, far from being unaware of several amongst his audience that bear less than affection towards his commentary style, carlton kirby seems commendably comfortable in his own skin.

"To my fans: 'Hi gang!'
To those who put up with me: 'Thank you.'
And to those who really don't like me much: 'Sorry.'

notwithstanding the fact that the latter group are highly unlikely to have purchased the book in the first place, it behoves him well to be so self-effacing in print. and that, ladies and gentlemen, is carlton kirby: full of life, apparently full of fun, a mine of irrelevant information and endlessly irritating into the bargain. but no matter your like or dislike of the fellow in the commentary box, i would urge you to get hold of a copy of 'magic spanner'. i'm pretty sure carlton's stories from the world of cycle commentary and associated travel will change your opinion of the man and you'll have a darned enjoyable time as it changes.

you should never judge a book by its cover.

"He flies up hills exactly as bricks don't"

saturday 10 august 2019

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the annual cycle to work rant

cycle to work day

according to 2017 government statistics, the uk population stands at marginally over 66 million individuals. of those, apparently just under half (32.5 million) are currently in work. staying with statistical information for a while, one of cyclescheme's leading providers, reckons that 6% of the working population use the bicycle to travel to and from their place of work. though i am mostly left trailing in the dark when it comes to numerical information, if i've typed the correct information into my calculator, the number of work-related cycling that takes place in britain equates to pretty darned close to two million cyclists.

it's very hard to find numbers that give any indication as to whether the numbers cycling to work have increased or decreased over the last decade or so; the majority of statistics relating to the cycling population tend to favour the entire population, rather than simply those currently employed. however, the 2017 figures displayed by cycling uk on their website would indicate that, of those aged over 18, 3% claim to ride every day (or nearly every day) summarised as a total of 1.7 million.

however, those riding between two and five days per week, which i would (not unnaturally) assume will include those cycling to work, reaches a stratospheric 5%, or 2.4 million. in which case, it appears that the numbers might just conceivably add up correctly in relation to the 6% of the working population cycling to work.

reasons for not swapping the car or public transport in favour of two wheels are likely varied and many, but over one-third say they would like to cycle, were it not for the distance, the amount of time it would take (presumably related to the latter) and fear of danger on the roads. oddly, there is no listing of weather as amongst the principal excuses. trying to numerically define the chances of getting wet while cycling anywhere, let alone work, is like trying to grab a goldfish with greasy hands, but allegedly you're likely to get wet only seven times per year, though i fear that figure might be seriously weighted towards the southern end of the country.

a dutch weather survey concluded there is a less than 3.5% chance of experiencing precipitation while riding your bicycle, but as many of us already know, rain is not the only weather component with which we may have to contend.

there have been numerous surveys designed to ascertain the reasons preventing the working population from riding to and from work. answers have included all of those listed above, but also a notable lack of changing and/or shower facilities at work. this is a hard one to pin down; though many employers will notionally accept that it is incumbent upon them to provide safe parking facilities for their employees, the idea that they ought also to provide for those who choose to ride to work, seems less well defined. this could possiby be as a result of budget or space constraints, but if an employer is keen that at least some of their employees ride, it is invoking a bit of a body swerve to rely solely on government or cycling organisation supported schemes to do the work for them.

there seems almost a culture of treating cyclists, or potential cyclists like little kids or pavlov's dogs to have them sign up for the annual cycle to work day (my emphasis). according to cyclescheme, cube, rapha, ribble, specialized and trek have pledged a grand total of £10,000 worth of incentives to encourage more to sign up. a reputed 25,000 signed on for cycle to work day last year, a very, very small percentage of those deigned to be in work. (the press release states only those who signed up, not necessarily the number that subsequently participated.)

the state of oregon is one highly regarded as being at the forefront of north america's cycling revival. during the month of may each year, the city of portland holds 'bike month' featuring many events hosted by the portland bureau of transportation, including a walk and bike to school challenge month (my emphasis) and a list of events for those attending, or employed by portland state university. it is a common myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit, a myth that i have erroneously repeated on previous occasions. however, common sense would suggest that, the longer you participate in an activity, the more likely you are to incorporate it into your life.

i asked rapha what brought them to support the annual cyclescheme cycle to work day and they told me "For us, it's an opportunity to support a campaign that gets more people cycling, by encouraging them to participate with Rapha vouchers as prizes, and also to support our partner Cyclescheme (you can use your Cyclescheme voucher on Rapha apparel and accessories)." the existence of a comprehensive rapha commuter range would tend to make both pragmatic and commercial sense.

however, no matter that i'm sure cyclescheme, cycling uk, rapha et al have our very best velocipedinal interests at heart, i would still contend that holding a solitary cycle to work day, achieves and proves almost nothing. how many of the 25,000 who signed up last year are still riding to work this year? and how many of those 25,000 were already regular cycle commuters?

i'm very used to people not listening to me, but sometimes i really wish they would.

thursday 8 august 2019

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you have to be kidding me

zwift watopia

the idea behind the 'ride of the falling rain' is predicated on the assumption that, at some point of the ride, at least, the participants will get wet. the weather featured on scotland's west coast, however, is nothing if not unpredictable, and it would be foolish to deny that one or two past riders have suffered from a touch of sunburn. this year, we were considerably more fortunate, achieving precipitation pretty much the entire length of the road between bridgend and cluanach. what we also achieved, was getting in the way of several very large tractors towing silage trailers in both directions.

i cannot deny that this was something of a surprise, for in all the years that rotfr has been in existence, i have not previously found myself in this situation. on enquiring why the cutting of silage appeared to have begun earlier than expected, it was pointed out that this year's grass growth has been quite exceptional, necessitating an early first cut, perhaps allowing for a second later in the season. for those not inured to the vagaries of the farming season (and i would hesitate to class myself as anything approaching an expert), confrontation with such large, agricultural vehicles bearing down upon a few slivers of carbon fibre, came as something of a surprise.

it is probably convenient to put all such environmental oddities down to the onset of 'climate change', and if that is an allowable excess, then surely the hundreds, if not thousands, of butterflies encountered over by saligo bay, on the atlantic coast, are probably another visible result. even though we tried to maintain a trajectory along the slightly raised centre of the singletrack road (the bit with the grass growing through the tarmac), the fluttering little creatures seemed greatly disturbed by our presence.

zwift watopia

these, and other happenstances, are a delightful addendum to the already joyous activity of cycling in the great outdoors. yes, we may have been doused by a brief burst of rainfall, those tractors probably paid less attention to our welfare than we'd have liked, but there's probably nothing more eccentric than riding towards kilchoman distillery with two or three butterflies decorating the front of a cycle jersey. as has been frequently mentioned, "outside is free".

but while a goodly number of us enjoyed the great outdoors, mr min, ceo of zwift, seems to be in an altogether different, interior headspace; and there's every indication that he thinks that headspace to be quite real. and, not content with deluding himself, the marketing side of his brain seems intent on pulling the pixelated wool over his zwift adherents. according to the press release "Zwift has completed construction on Watopia's latest stretch of fresh tarmac." for those less than familar with zwift's imaginary world, watopia is the fictitious island on which fairytales unfold. were you less than previously convinced of my cynicism, note how the tarmac has not only been 'constructed', but that it is also described as 'fresh'.

mr min does realise this is all make believe, doesn't he?

well, i am beginning to wonder. he continues to describe these new, intangible pixels as "...maybe the most beautiful part of Watopia. I'm not normally one for pausing on a workout, but this area rewards the eyes as much as the legs. I think our community will love exploring and seeing what creatures they can spot along the way."

zwift watopia

in the foreseeable, but undetermined future, scientists expect humanity to reach the 'singularity', a hypothetical future point in time when the growth of technology becomes uncontrollable, resulting in humans transcending biology. you can view this as either an inbound, arguably unstoppable nightmare to be visited upon human society, or as the culmination of technological development to date. and when this happens, no doubt mr min and his acolytes will have become riders and bicycles indistinguishable from each other, confined to the kingdom of indoors, wearing oakley shades resembling two small, tinted iphones, ascending the true to scale pixelated roadway ascending mount everest.

meanwhile, back in the real world...


wednesday 7 august 2019

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support group

ardnahoe distillery

if it were practical to provide a venn diagram describing the range of visitors to islay, the largest circle would undoubtedly contain those for whom the quest for the ultimate dram was uppermost on the bucket list. however, as i have discovered, there are possibly just as many for whom a distillery tour is an experience not to be missed, even if a glass of the amber nectar would not normally be their first choice after a fine meal. many of the island's distilleries were built a couple of centuries ago and form intriguing locations all of their very own.

mind you, you'd be hard-pressed to find a local resident who has toured any of the distilleries, though many will have dined at the restaurants/cafés in ardbeg, kilchoman and ardnahoe, the sort of thing that confers no particular affiliation or interest in any of the drams available.

this is a relatively small community, though undoubtedly a great deal larger than the 200 or so inhabitants on the neighbouring isle of jura. if, like me, you'd lived here for more than three decades, it would mostly seem unsurprising to know a large number of folks with interests or jobs in a wide range of activities. it's the very feature that tends to create the sense of community in the first place. and there's little doubt that it helps paint a fairly comprehensive picture of the island to any visitors inhabiting the venn diagram described above.

in the past few years, the number of taxi services on islay has mushroomed, predominantly as a result of the extended variety of distillery tours on offer. one of my annual design tasks is to prepare a small booklet, detailing the tour times on the menu at each of the island's nine distilleries. though the recent involvement of head-office marketing departments has necessitated lowering the typeface point-size and using every desktop publishing feature that allows the cramming of a quart into a pint pot, the would-be whisky aficionado has a substantial number of options from which to choose.

trying to fit all those options into the average period of stay, has allowed those taxi firms to expand their own services to offer bespoke tours of specific distilleries. it seems that the discriminating whisky drinker has his/her favourites which ought best be visited in order of preference. there are a number of taxi/tour purveyors who are willing and eager to cater to your every whim. and even if you could care less about islay's uisge beatha, there's a minibus nearby which can take you to the kildalton cross on the south coast, to loch finlaggan between ballygrant and keills, or to tea in the church at portnahaven on a wednesday morning.

however, in a world that is oh, so slowly, coming to terms with the realities of climate change, perhaps the need to be driven hither and thither is not the only game in town.

as i mentioned only a couple of days ago, over this past ride of the falling rain weekend, i have had the great good pleasure of guiding a visiting group of cyclists from middle englandshire, showing off the island, over days inflected with many hours of warm sunshine and only a matter of an hour or so of precipitation. on saturday, we cycled from bruichladdich all the way to the aforementioned kildalton cross and chapel (allegedly the finest example of a celtic high cross in original situ), stopping briefly at ardbeg's old kiln café for coffee, cake and one or two other victuals. it pains me to relate that i nabbed the last piece of cake from the honesty box at the chapel.

a grand day out.

on this side of the falling rain, we headed north to bunnahabhain distillery, via the glen road, stopping at ardnahoe on the return ride for very welcome sustenance and two brace of cycle jerseys. both the latter distilleries are situated overlooking the sound of islay (the fast-moving stretch of water that separates islay from jura). the three-mile road that leads to both is pretty much up and down all the way, offering stunning views north towards colonsay and the isle of mull and remarkable close-ups of the paps of jura, just across the water.

however, though i was essentially the guide for the weekend, it's the folk who really work in the service industry who sold islay far better than i ever could. the welcomes offered at ardbeg, ardnahoe and bunnahabhain, as well as at bruichladdich, bowmore, the celtic house, the gaelic college, spirited soaps, debbie's and port charlotte hotel, meant that i could operate merely as a finger pointing at the moon. in this, i'm parochial enough to contend that islay is somewhat unique.

but for the cycle guide still learning the velocipedinal ropes, so to speak, the rest of islay has made this past weekend a real pleasure to be a cyclist. whether you reside in middle england or not.

tuesday 6 august 2019

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