Cycle Cowal - a pedaller's paradise
For the road cyclist Argyll and the Isles is something close to paradise. With quiet roads, spectacular coastal scenery, options for family-friendly routes or hard-core mountain passes and cake-stop opportunities galore there is nowhere quite like it in the British Isles. But with so much to offer the question is: where to start? A good spot is Dunoon, which for many is the entry point to Argyll and the Isles. From here a challenging circular loop will test the fittest rider and illustrate exactly why this is not just one of the best road-cycling regions in Britain, but why it can hold its own with any other cycling destination worldwide. Do it in one day or tackle the ride as a two-day mini-tour with an overnight stop.
Along Loch Eck (Dunoon to Strachur, 18 miles)
From Dunoon you're heading north and even if you begin your ride from the centre of town rather than the ferry terminal at Hunter’s Quay, it’s worth taking the A815 road around the coast. From the impressive stone-built villas and hotels you’ll get an idea of Dunoon’s former popularity – and wealth – as a destination that was once just “doon the watter” for the teeming masses of Glaswegian holidaymakers and day trippers.
You’ll also get views across the Holy Loch which will serve as an appetizer for what’s to come later. The A815 is a gentle introduction to Argyll as the road is flat all the way past the picturesque, freshwater Loch Eck, hugging its eastern shore. It’s only after you’ve covered 18 miles that you might need to drop a gear for a gentle climb that precedes the descent into Strachur where you turn left onto the A886.
Nestling on the shore of Loch Fyne – Scotland’s longest sea loch – Strachur has a shop and tearoom located just before you hit a short stretch of single track on the shoreline. A mile further on you’ve a choice: to take the high- or the low-road. If you stay on the A886 you face a long climb from close to sea level to 830ft over a distance of about two miles. However I recommend that you peel off onto the B8000 and enjoy a gentler ride along the quiet eastern shore of Loch Fyne. This will take you on a long loop that will suit the fitter cyclist or those tackling the ride as a two day mini-tour with an overnight stop.
Local's tip: You might think it’s a bit soon for a pit stop, but Benmore Botanic Gardens on the outskirts of Dunoon is well worth a look, particularly in spring when it's ablaze rhododendrons.
The shores of Loch Fyne (Strachur to Millhouse, 26 miles)
The B-road is mostly single track and before long passes Castle Lachlan where there’s an excellent restaurant and coffee shop. After this it twists and turns along the coast for several miles and on this stretch be sure to keep your eyes and ears open for otters and seals as well as red squirrels. Several miles further on you’ll reach Otter Ferry where the Oystercatcher pub provides a great opportunity to sample local cuisine and local ales. Climbing out of the settlement you again have a choice. A steep winding single track road peels off to the left and gives you the option of rejoining the A886 at Clachan of Glendaruel.
Staying on the B8000 you move away from the coast – albeit retaining regular views of Loch Fyne –passing through Glenfinan and on to a hilly section that will eventually see you emerge in Millhouse, formerly the site of a gunpowder-making complex.
The Kyles of Bute (Millhouse to Dunoon, 28 miles)
You have three choices at Millhouse crossroads:
- Take a right and ride the hilly two miles to Portavadie where you will find a modern marina complete with affordable accommodation, some of it built with walkers and cyclist in mind.
- Carry straight on to ride a 10-mile loop taking you down to the tip of the Ardlamont peninsula with wonderful views over to Arran.
- Or turn left and you’ll soon arrive in Kames and Tighnabruaich – two villages that are practically joined at the hip – where there’s a range of accommodation, pubs, cafés and shops.
This is a great place for an overnight stop but if you’re tackling the ride as a mega single day in the saddle you’d best replenish water bottles and take on some sustenance here. There’s a further punishing 27 miles to go before you get back to Dunoon, with nowhere to stop for a tea break or to buy supplies on the way.
The B8003 is a former logging road that climbs steeply out of Tighnabruaich and retains its height as far as one of the most spectacular lookout points on the west coast of Scotland. Take five minutes to enjoy the view south down the Kyles of Bute. A magnificent panorama of land, sea and sky, it’s a vista that somehow encapsulates the beauty of the region.
After this breather there’s a screaming descent, but beware, there are blind corners and sheep grazing at the side of the unfenced road – or sometimes simply lying completely unconcerned in the middle of it! Safely back down to sea level, a pleasant flat section takes you past the head of Loch Riddon and on to the junction with the A886.
Turn right here and follow the road for a mile before taking a left onto the B836. Now you’re back on single track once more and there’s work to be done. For the next 10 miles the road is rarely flat, the climbs are steep, the bends are often tight and you’ll need to be on top of your bike handling skills for much of the way.
But as ever on this route, there are rewards aplenty, with loch views and a sense of solitude on the relatively flat stretch before Clachaig. Finally a steep descent through a forested area leads back to the junction with the A815. From here it’s an easy spin back to Dunoon and the ferries plying the Firth of Clyde that connect with trains back to Glasgow and beyond.
If you complete the trip, or a shorter iteration of it, you can be assured that you will have seen some of the finest scenery and ridden some of the most enjoyable roads that Argyll and the Isles has to offer. But only some of them. You could stick a pin anywhere in a map of this vast region and be guaranteed to find some world class road cycling country close by. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be a super fit racing snake to make the most of the area, there are routes to suit all ages and abilities. All you have to do is get here.