Approached from the east, Apigill Hill had never been quite as daunting as it had been when climbing from the Borgie River. However, this time, after a gorgeous ride from Kinbrace Station, I was floating upwards. On a loaded Thorn xTc, my progress was steady, to put it kindly, but entirely free from lactate. With no one able to accuse me of needing a rest, I had no qualms about stopping to take photos.
A realisation dawned. I was nearly 10kg lighter than I had been when living just a few miles from the big hill. There lies the beauty of retirement. Consistency is possible in a way that it never can be when work is exhausting and plagued by meetings which go on into the early evening.
My previous best at sticking to a training effort had been four weeks on the surprisingly excellent Lance Armstrong Performance Program. One retailer at Amazon UK currently has that book on sale for a penny, which suggests most people are unwilling to remember that Lance occasionally did good things. As far as my own programme of pre-breakfast physical jerks and a wholefood diet is concerned, I’ve managed almost a year so far and the consistency appears to be paying off.
Back to the riding. The weekend in Tongue was highly enjoyable but Monday morning meant battling into a stiff wind on the way back to the train at Lairg. I stopped too often for photos and then lost more time fighting the wind on the endless climb from Altnaharra to The Crask. Once over the top, I had to put the hammer down or miss the train. I arrived with 15 minutes to spare. Then the train was another 15 minutes late. And if I had been late, the train would have been on time!
All of the photos were taken with a 50mm lens. No wide angle shots. This is pretty much what Flow Country looks like.
Caithness is a wonderful place to cycle when the wind is not blowing. Dual suspension is overkill for forest roads but I can’t leave a bicycle as good as this one languishing in the shed. What a shame I failed to move the pedal around before clicking the shutter.
As for camera gear, this picture was taken with an iPhone 4S. Still a great little computer if somewhat overfaced by modern websites, which take ages to load largely because of all the advertising. I wish Apple had shown some love for the SE at their recent event. A phone of that size could be an ideal device for the outdoors enthusiast.
Between the ages of 77 and 95, Olga Kotelko set more than thirty world records for running and jumping. A book was written about her by Bruce Grierson, a man who had started feeling a bit frail after turning 47. Shortly after an article appeared on the BBC website about her, Olga died. Her death may have been delayed by exercising but that’s not the point. The reason for carrying out endurance and strength training after retiring is to stay as active as possible so that life is as fulfilling as possible for as long as possible. Olga certainly achieved that.
Is there anyone who wants to sit in a chair till the minibus comes to take them down to the Centre, where they can sit in another chair? Is there anyone who wants to face up to the statistics on the many old people who die within a year of falling and breaking a hip. Ageing can be grim if you do it sitting down. So, health permitting, get up and boogie.
Here are a few of the many articles on the internet about the effect of exercise on ageing. The first, from the Daily Mail, discusses telomeres. Let’s face it, no discussion of ageing would be complete without giving a mention to our cellular aglets.
Promoting independence by defeating chronic illness
Staying active is what it’s all about. Arthritis and diabetes brought on or aggravated by obesity is certain to put a damper on things. Here’s what the US Department of Health and Human Services has to say on the benefits of exercise for the elderly.
Sadly, Dr Charles Eugster, whose photograph begins the article, has also died but, as with Olga, he did not go gentle. I quite fancy being a wild man who caught and sang the sun in flight so it’s a good job I like backpacking.
The fight against muscle wastage
The next article, from the New Scientist, suggests that a pill may help those who cannot maintain muscle mass through weight training. It discusses sarcopenia and alleges the problem is the biggest killer you’ve never heard of. Free radicals are at the heart of it.
Remember that the brain is a physical structure which responds to the burdens you place on it. According to 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald, one of the reasons we tire when running is because the brain gets tired. Training strengthens the brain and so we are able to run further and more stylishly. Personally, I’d learn to paint, a language such as Italian and coding in Swift if I wanted to get smarter but the Independent has this article on how exercise can improve brain activity.
A demanding job can erode the willpower needed for making the best health decisions on arriving home from work. My fitness had certainly started to slide by the time I reached retirement age. Luckily, retirement is a wonderful opportunity and health became one of the projects I took on to occupy the time once spent earning a crust.
Apparently, serious illness is common in the first year of retirement. In my case it was shingles. Buying a house was the next distraction so only last Autumn, following weight gain during a visit to Paleo friends, did I finally get serious about my health and fitness project.
A confession is needed. Thanks to cycle touring, backpacking, jogging and some kayaking, I’ve always been fitter than average. The job was demanding enough, though, in terms of time and energy, to ensure that I never reached my potential in any physical activity. Also, I didn’t enjoy gym work and never realised how important physical jerks are till being incapacitated by back trouble ten years ago. The pain was astonishing.
The doctor said the back problem was age related. In other words, I needed to get used to it because it was going to get worse. Luckily, he was wrong. I did what the physiotherapist said and was soon free of pain. But I was inconsistent, doing enough work on core stability to stave off back trouble but no more.
Last Autumn, that pattern changed. At least five days a week since then, I have exercised before breakfast and the consistency has paid off. I can run faster, jump higher and lift more than I could five years ago.
Obviously, I’ll never again achieve the athletic prowess enjoyed thirty years ago. I could run a half marathon then in the time I now need for ten miles, but improvements are still possible.
And that is the takeaway message. There is no need to cling to the shreds of what once was. We can improve on every physical measure by wise use of the opportunities provided by retirement. I’m not just talking about endurance. We can improve speed, strength, coordination, balance and flexibility after our sixtieth birthday. I’m even walking more fluidly than I used to.
The reason for starting with exercises for the torso is that good technique becomes easier for any other activity, meaning fewer injuries. Over Sixties are likely to be slow recovering from damage so injuries need avoiding. Many years ago, a brilliant rugby player told me that his secret was the strength in his abdominal muscles. I wish I had understood what he was telling me because a lot of running injuries and that back trouble could have been avoided.
Bones need help from muscles in keeping us upright. If the muscles of our torso are effective in rotating our pelvis, supporting our spine and in moving our shoulders, there is little we cannot achieve.
Riding along a coastline usually means crossing valleys. Between each valley is a climb, followed by a descent which gives away all of the altitude you’ve worked so hard to gain. On the north coast of Scotland, one of the toughest hills is Apigill. One hundred and fifty metres of ascent followed immediately by the same amount of descent. Before that struggle, however, was the gorgeous Skerray loop.
Although too late for well-lit photos, I was able to enjoy looking down on Coldbackie’s sandy beach and looking up to the impressive, conglomerate buttresses of Watch Hill. Jeremy Clarkson once parked a Landrover on its summit. The views from Ben Tongue and Watch Hill, out over the Rabbit Islands, are vast, which may be why these hills appealed to the Top Gear crew.
Past Coldbackie is the turn to Skullomie, where a short walk to the abandoned crofts at Sleiteil begins. Sleiteil is an island of green in a sea of heathery bog. It must stand out to migrating birds as I have seen whoopers and dotterel here. Sleiteil offers excellent, not so wild pitches. No access for sea kayaks though because of the beach’s rocky fangs.
The road to Skerray runs across moors with rocks, bogs and heather before becoming more enclosed at Modsary, as the sign spells it. Here, a small, excitable, beagle type of thing chased me with surprising speed. I stopped and the dog began looking sheepish. A no through road leads to Skerray Pier and a harbour sheltered by Neave Island. It’s a very beautiful spot and well worth deviating from the shortest route along the north coast. The ride back to the main road, past Torrisdale Beach, is arguably more scenic than the ride into Skerray.
The coastline from Coldbackie to Invernaver is an outstanding short expedition for any backpacker prepared to explore. Some bits need care but the whole coastline is stunning and the locals are friendly.
The Skerray Loop rejoins the main road near the western entrance to the Borgie Forest. A short way down the forest road, at the first car park, is a Millennium project consisting of a spiral path which passes through a Celtic alphabet of trees. I’ve never seen anyone else appreciating it but, in my opinion, it’s worth a look.
Enough prevarication. Apigill Hill. OK, I had been taking things easily. Nevertheless, I was astonished to reach the summit with barely a trace of lactate in my leg muscles. I’ve cycled this hill more than a dozen times since retirement and this was my easiest ever ascent. It seems that pre-brekky physical jerks have improved my fitness. I certainly can’t claim to have been getting the miles in on the bike.
The Bettyhill Store provided a pie and a pint of milk as well as a chat with a delivery driver who enjoyed cycling. After that, it was a question of covering the ground and deciding where to spend the night.
An undistinguished high point provided 360 degree views of the most northerly Corbetts and Ben Hope around to Morven and on to Dunnet Head and Hoy. I could see a huge cruise ship giving passengers a close up of the Old Man and St Johns Head. At Armadale is the winner of the 2015 Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year and, if you have the time, the lighthouse at Strathy Point is worth visiting.
Crossing the bridge over the river at Melvich, I noticed something fishing so I stopped. Two otters were diving repeatedly and having plenty of success. After five minutes they disappeared. Maybe they had become tired of my nosiness.
My next stop and chat was at Reay Store. A young cycle tourist who had been on Orkney, a possible destination for me, praised Brown’s Hostel in Stromness but said he was holing up for two days in Tongue Youth Hostel because of forecasted 45 mph winds. Deciding home was best if the weather was going to get excessively boisterous, I headed south at Westfield past Lochs Calder, Scarmclate and Watten for a brief stop at Tesco before going home.
A 70 mile day with no trace of hunger knock, also known as hypoglycaemia. My fat metabolism must be improving. Cutting out sugary things and working out first thing in the morning is paying off. Highly recommended, as is the Skerray Loop.
Tens of thousands of midges exerted a noticeable pressure on exposed skin as I took the tent down. The couple of bites sustained were a testament to the power of Smidge. As soon as I reached the road, a headwind sprang up. Then it began to rain. Not an auspicious beginning to a day, which, amazingly, was brilliant.
The road to Syre shows Flow country at its best and the road onward to Altnaharra was even prettier, although the traffic was quite heavy. At Altnaharra, I could have gone directly to Tongue but the riding was so good, I decided to head on to Hope. More gorgeous riding and great views of Ben Hope.
At Syre I had had a good chat with a Lands End to John o’ Groats walker. Two oncoming cyclists didn’t stop to chat but, in fairness, they were going downhill with a following wind. On the Hope road I met two pairs of cyclists, the first fast day cyclists, who twice caught me snacking, and the second were fully loaded tourers heading I know not where.
The hill up from Hope was harder than I remembered but the descent was brilliant. I went along the coast lane and up through the woods to my friends’ croft. Great welcome and a nice way to end two fabulous days of cycling. The Watten, Westerdale, Altnabreac, Forsinain, Kinbrace, Syre, Altnaharra, Hope route offers a scenic tour of Britain’s remotest roads. Gorgeous.
Fabulous riding. Sunshine and a following wind. Not too much traffic on the back road to Loch Watten, where an encampment in the picnic area delayed my first snack. A big tent was being used as an awning extension for a gaudy camper van.
After a second snack stop at Westerdale Mill, I reached the dirt roads, which had many dragonflies. At lovely Loch Keise (third snack stop) was a fishing boat with oars labelled Wandsworth Youth River Club Putney. I photographed Aultnabreac railway station and then headed off across the nature reserve. The RSPB have a permanent warden with a caravan in a corner just off the main dirt road.
A bit of a headwind on the drag to Kinbrace became a tailwind on the Syre road as the landscape was reddened by the setting sun. I just got to a pitch behind Rimsdale croft before darkness fell.
Strabeg is one of those bothies with plumbing. Allegedly, indoor ablutions are possible with judicious application of a bucket of water. For this reason, the collection of drinking water from the river directly below the bothy is unwise. Personally, I much prefer simpler bothies. A table by a window is all the furniture needed.
Although the bog between the bothy and the road was fairly dry, I had been lucky to get my bike through without taking a dip in the nastiest bit so I made a wide loop on the way back to the stone-walled field where sheep graze. A little while later, I was pedalling the short distance to Tongue and a convivial evening with friends.
Next morning was wet but, crucially, for the first time, the wind was on my back so I set off for Wick and the end of my circuit of the Northern Highlands. In nice weather the loop through Skerray is gorgeous and unmissable. Today, though, I just wanted to finish off my tour. Instead, the hills on the road to Bettyhill nearly finished me off. They were demanding in the poor weather.
However, after Bettyhill the hills got gentler and the weather improved. Reaching Bettyhill had been tough but the tailwind and regular snack stops, the best on a fisherman’s seat above Loch Calder, saw me reaching Watten with gas in the tank. My Thorn xTc is a substantial piece of steel. Nevertheless, the last eight miles went by at a decent lick.
I had not gone to John o’Groats, preferring to get home and finish the tour instead, which doesn’t mean the North Coast 500 is a bad ride. Far from it. It’s possibly, with the modifications I rode, Britain’s best cycle tour. It’s just that I’m not Britain’s best cycle tourist. I hadn’t prepared properly and so the route took ages. The North Coast 500 is a route for riders with miles in the legs, the section from Applecross to Scourie being likely to hurt anyone who is out of shape thanks to a lengthy succession of steep hills. But prepare properly and a ride from Inverness, down the Great Glen, out to Ardnamurchan, joining the North Coast 500 after a visit to Skye, is as good as it gets. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful and the friendliness and courtesy of most of the drivers I met was a very pleasant surprise.
My next task, one I suspect I’ll enjoy, is completing the tour properly by following the NCN Route 1 variant to John o’Groats via Orkney. At my current rate of progress, I’ll be getting back to you on that subject maybe in October.
Alarm went off at 6am and I was away within two hours. There were hints of wind but the early start paid off. Two hours with very little traffic and great views of Ben More Coigach and Stac Pollaidh. I caught up with another cycle tourer and turned west, down wind, a little later. It was a lovely ride along below Stac Pollaidh.
A fairly lengthy climb led up from the junction for Lochinver. At the top I saw the boulder I had used previously for foreground for a shot of Suilven. Then I lost all the height I had gained on the way to the foot of the next climb. That’s how the ride continued to Lochinver and beyond. The scenery was sensational. Knolls, lochans and crystal clear rivers. Not a whole lot in Lochinver. I asked about camping at the Tourist Information and then headed on, over two more fairly big hills, to Clachtoll. The campsite turned out to be pretty good and had wifi. I downloaded some podcasts and streamed some jazz.
Friday 13 May
The dreaded Drumbeg road! It was gorgeous if tough, with the climbs starting right from the campsite. Up through Stoer, down to Clashnessie beach and then back up and down to Drumbeg. After Drumbeg, which had three cafés I didn’t need, the serious climbs started. Only one made me walk. I had to stop near the bottom of a long hill to let a campervan go by and the handle bar jabbed into my nipple, which illustrated the road’s steepness. I wasn’t going to get riding again so I pushed. The land north of Quinag was sensational. Green birches in a drift across brown heather. Wood sorrel under the birches.
The main road arrived unexpectedly. I had ridden the Drumbeg road. It was lunchtime so first item on the agenda was finding a quiet spot. However, I was feeling tired and the big, sweeping, curved climbs weren’t what I needed, particularly with the headwind. Scourie took a while to come.
I wasn’t feeling great. Not eating well enough so I went to the campsite cafeteria for haddock and chips. Excellent and a good night’s sleep followed
Saturday 14 May
Despite the improved recovery regime, the day’s first climb felt hard. After that, life improved. The road seemed mostly downhill to Laxford Bridge. On the way, I cycled by a man who was walking along the road with a rucksack on his back. Don’t know why. The scenery, particularly the view of Ben Stack, is fab but there are better places to walk. The next climb went more easily than the first despite a headwind and Rhiconich arrived sooner than expected. Two men were doing up the information board, now known as a Geopod. We got talking about the area. One of the men, Murdo, had a great knowledge and really liked to talk. Probably another retired teacher. Each story we told reminded the other of another. It was quite hard to get away, as much my fault as Murdo’s. Still, I was in no rush. The climb out of Rhiconich is big but fair. The top soon arrived. On the way, I went by a man and two small children loading peats into bags. The kids had their own mini overalls, just like dad’s. A long descent past a travellers’ well brought me to a bridge and a real fight along the Kyle, into the wind. Durness took its time arriving.
In Durness I bought food for the bothy and ate a baked potato with tuna mayo. Vegetables! Oh how I missed them! The sunshine turned the sea bright blue for the ride to the head of Loch Eriboll. White waves and golden sand made the Sango beaches as glorious as ever. The hoped for tailwind didn’t materialise but the road along Loch Eriboll is mostly downhill. On the way I encountered the North Coast 500 Independence Rally. A mere 200 cars with flags coming the other way along a single track road. Luckily, they were friendly. The track to the bothy was unrideable and half of it was bog. Last year, it would have been awful but this year it was fairly dry. Nevertheless, I was pooped when I finally reached the bothy.
I’ve been a very silly boy. My screen looked so good after cleaning that I sprayed the same cleaner on to my keyboard. The keyboard now looks wonderful but crucial keys no longer work. Firing a spray containing water and solutes at an unsealed keyboard is very silly. I should have known. Please learn from my mistake.
Then my old keyboard and newer iMac refused to pair. Today, they changed their Bluetooth mind. I don’t know why but I’m glad that I will not have to buy a new keyboard after all.
The second confession concerns my ride around the North Coast 500. I should have restarted from the train station at Kyle of Lochalsh. However, I was unsure whether I was fit enough for the climb up Bealach na Ba, Britain’s highest road pass. Also, traffic had been unpleasantly heavy between the Kyle and Plockton before my half time break. To the north of Plockton is a spectacular lane high above the sea and beneath an impressive cliff but I had ridden from Plockton to Lochcarron two years ago and decided that compromising the ride up Bealach na Ba with a second viewing was not worth while. I restarted from Strath Carron railway station.
Will the circle be unbroken? No.
I eased up the climb out of Lochcarron with a stop to change to less warm clothing being needed half way up. The descent to Loch Kishorn was pretty and rural, a contrast with rocky Beinn Bhan opposite. I munched a bit of pork pie and then started off up the big hill. Initially, the gradient was kind so, despite the traffic, I was able to enjoy the climb. Boy, was there some traffic! Motorbikes, camper vans, more camper vans, cars and a few cyclists.
The road steepened when it entered the corrie but was still rideable. Big rock walls framed the view back down to the sea. The zig zags near the top proved rideable so, to my surprise, I ascended the highest pass in Britain without having to get off and push. To complete an excellent day, I needed only a safe descent and a pitch for my tent in Applecross and these were duly delivered.
The Clyde Valley bikers arrived on big, loud machines. First an advance guard and then hoards. Then my guts decided they objected to something I had done to them so they bloated and demanded several trips to the bog. Then the wind picked up and rain hammered the new tent. Somehow a decent kip followed but the puddles round the tent this morning should not have come as a surprise. Unlike the bikers’ pre-seven start to the day.
Sunday 8 May
As I wheeled my bicycle through the campsite everyone seemed to want to talk. The atmosphere was very friendly. One woman warned me that the coast road would be as difficult as the Bealach and she was not wrong. I headed south to investigate the shop, which turned out to be shut and quirky. Someone’s garage had been converted. It reminded me of the little shops on the side of people’s homes in the Philippines. Heading north was initially pleasant. I photographed Sand, where a TV programme had been made and headed on into an increasingly hilly landscape. A knot of vehicles scattered across the road had me worrying about an accident but it was just a bunch of tourists photographing Highland cows.
The road climbed to a rushy lochan where I stopped for a snack. Inevitably, a tourist car stopped to see why I had stopped. There is no solitude in tourist country. I can hardly wait to get back to backpacking from one wild pitch to the next. Rounding the corner to go beside Loch Torridon, the road became taxing. Plunge down to a bridge and the drive to someone’s home then back up a one in five to regain the lost height. Over and over again. A couple of times, I found myself roughly 500 feet above the sea with no recollection of a climb that might have got me that high. Luckily there were trees as the wind was now a headwind. Unluckily, there were trees so every descent needed care. A campervan could have been hidden behind the foliage. Leaves on trees were a stark contrast to the canopies when I had started this ride.
Eventually, Shieldaig arrived. The single track ended, allowing cars to hurry by without waiting for a passing place. Sadly, the shelter from the wind had gone and the wind was strengthening. Torridon would be enough. No way was I going to battle that wind up the glen. I pitched and went for a meal at the inn. OK food. Good service, and a pay off next morning, when I actually felt energetic.
Monday 9 May
The headwind was still blowing. I decided to use bottom cog and ease my way into it. The tactic worked. I pulled over for every car and took some photos, although I was already too late for the best light. The sky was cloudless blue. If Spring had arrived yesterday, today is Summer. The Whistle Stop cafe was irresistible even though I could feel the effect of eating real food yesterday evening. The tea was leafy and came in a pot with a strainer and the scone was excellent so I was almost happy to pay over £4 for my snack. They also provided me with the Telegraph to read. A dashed good cafe.
After changing into shorts, I set off for Gairloch. The ride beside Loch Maree was quick now that the wind was on my back. A climb brought me to roadworks which advertised a 10 minute delay. I spoke to the young man with the stop / go sign and warned him that I would be slower than the cars to clear the roadworks. I also mentioned the incident on the way to Ft Augustus and he said the workers there were arseholes. “You’ll get more respect on this side of the country.” And I did. The descent after the road works was gorgeous and quickly dropped me into Gairloch. I stopped at the pier shop to get money from their machine and for an ice cream and then headed up over the hill to the rest of the town. I called in at the information centre and at McColls as much to get out of the heat as for any other reason. Then I climbed up and over to Poolewe, with its big rapid where the river enters the sea. Up and over to another branch of Loch Ewe and then up and over again to Aultbea. Not much to stop me at Aultbea so I pressed on and came to a halt at a campsite on the beach at Laide. Very well tended and friendly.
First shower stone cold. The pilot light had gone out. Rinsed clothing and got it nearly dry in a spin dryer. Fabulous evening with views beyond Quinag.
Tuesday 10 May
Hills over headlands made the start seem tough. Bit of a headwind too. After Second Coast, the scenery became beautiful, thanks to woodland. A big climb from a river wasn’t the one I could see from the Laide campsite. That was much bigger and curved round directly into the wind. The big descent past the Northern Lights campsite almost needed pedalling down and the ride up Little Loch Broom was very tough. I stopped by some woods for a snack and then headed up the day’s biggest climb. Once out of the trees, the wind became horrible. Great views with pure white snow in the corries standing out against a blue sky but the slog ruined it. Finally Braemore arrived. My phone’s GPS claims I got near 40mph. Unlikely, but it was a nice descent and there was just enough wind on my back to bring Ullapool into view quite quickly. Soon, I was pitched and scoffing fish and chips.
I had a rest day in Ullapool. You can get enough of fighting into a headwind on a hot day. Met a Swiss guy on the Cape Wrath Trail having a day off thanks to a swollen Achilles’ tendon and a cyclist having a day on the bus to get his rear wheel repaired in Dingwall.