Argyll was the first place I went in Scotland after cycling around the world (33,500km) in August 2016. Although I did a fair bit of cycling there before my big adventure, it was the diversity of the region that has kept me coming back to this natural playground. This is Scotland’s Adventure Coast where mountains, lochs, islands and forests combine, with a spectacular coastline to provide an awe-inspiring setting for a host of activities on land and water.
RIDING, ROADS & ROAD RAGE
Possibly the best-known climb in the area is the Rest and be Thankful. Starting on the junction of the B839 and B828, north of Lochgoilhead, it is steady for the first mile, before gradually increasing in steepness. Although a testing climb, it never gets really steep, hitting about 15% for a short time. The views from the top are amazing, before you can either return to your starting point or join the A83 to continue east or west.
The Rest and be Thankful can be combined with another great climb, Hell’s Glen. Starting at the intersection of B839 and A815 near Cairndow, this is a climb that offers amazing views towards Loch Fyne and the west of Argyll. It meets the Rest and be Thankful climb, and the A83 and A815 will take you back to the starting point to make this a great loop.
The private road that climbs to the Ben Cruachan Dam is possibly Argyll’s best kept road cycling secret. The 2.7 mile stretch climbs approximately 1,044ft with an average gradient of 6.9%. There are sections of 9% over 0.6 miles that lead up to the final ramp of up to 18%, so its name ‘sting in the tail’ is more than justified. The views on both the uphill and downhill are breath-taking on a clear day, overlooking the stunning scenery around Loch Awe.
The Ben Cruachan Hill Climb is now part of the annual Oban Sportive. The short and the long route offer two fantastic day rides starting from the major town in Argyll, Oban. Both routes offer some testing climbs as well as flatter sections and open roads. There aren’t too many services along the route, and the west coast weather can be notorious, so good kit and enough food are essential for both loops. At 87 miles the long route takes you south from Oban to Kilmelford, before it climbs steeply up to the remote Loch Avich. Following the loch for a while it descends to the third-largest fresh water loch in Scotland, Loch Awe. There’s a great café for a first stop at Dalavich, before you continue southbound and then follow the loch all the way to its northern end and savour the views to Kilchurn Castle. The Ben Cruachan Inn is a great place for a stop, and also offers the opportunity to extend the route by tackling the hill climb to the dam. From here it follows the rather busy A85 for a section to Taynuilt, before joining the Caledonia Way (Sustrans Route 78) through the picturesque Glen Lonan back to the starting point at Oban.
The shorter 54 mile loop follows the same route for the first section, but joins the Caledonia Way after descending to Loch Awe. Be prepared for a lot of climbing on the shores of Loch Awe. The Kilchrenan Inn will be a welcome rest stop before tackling more hills and riding through stunning native forest into Taynuilt. From here the shorter route follows the Caledonia Way through Glen Lonan back to the start in Oban.
A short ferry ride from Oban is the Isle of Mull, another paradise for road cyclists and off-roaders alike. The shorter and longer loops of the Isle of Mull Sportive provide two great itineraries to discover the island. Starting at Tobermory the shorter 43 miles course loops the northern end of Mull, taking in one of Scotland’s most picturesque beaches, Calgary Bay. An alternative starting point is Salen, which is closer to the ferry terminal in Craignure.
You can start the longer 87 miles route at Tobermory, or alternatively at the ferry terminal in Craignure if you are taking the boat from Oban. It takes you through the wild and rugged southern part of the island first, passing Mull’s only Munro, Ben More. From Gruline it follows the same route as the shorter loop, taking you past stunning Calgary Bay back to Tobermory, a picturesque fishing town with great options to eat out or to enjoy of the tasty whisky produced here.
For gravel enthusiasts, the Wild About Argyll Trail not only offers a superb 407 mile loop through Scotland’s Adventure Coast, but can also be ridden in shorter sections, well-served by public transport. Starting and finishing in Helensburgh, Scotland’s first long-distance gravel trail is suitable for gravel and mountain bikes alike and provides an amazing adventure on gravel tracks, forest roads, singletrail, quiet roads and cycle paths.
The West Island Trail offers more possibilities for off-road enthusiasts. It starts and finishes in Oban and connects the hostels in Oban, Lochranza on Arran, Port Charlotte on Islay and Tobermory on Mull. While the whole loop takes a few days to finish and a good bit of planning around the ferry schedules, sections of the trail can be ridden as day adventures. The route passes Tomsleibhe Bothy on Mull, perfect for a gravel microadventure.
The Five Ferries challenge is a great introduction to the beautiful islands of Arran and Bute, as well as the Cowal and Kintyre peninsulas. You can ride and sail on five ferries, making this either a long weekend by taking loads of time to explore, or a perfect day challenge. The bike is by far the best option for discovering the route, a combined ticket for all ferries is only £13.80 for an adult, while bikes go free. Find out more about the ferries at Calmac’s website.
Last but not least you can explore a section of the Caledonia Way , National Route 78, which runs from Campbeltown to Inverness, following Kintyre and the Great Glen, iconic features on any map of Scotland. It offers a variety of cycling, from challenging on-road hills to lengthy sections of traffic-free path through the spectacular scenery of the west coast of Scotland.
Traffic on the minor roads in Argyll is very light, while section on the major roads can get busy at times. It’s best to avoid the A-roads wherever possible, and prepare for rougher roads when choosing tyres. Scotland’s very generous Land Access Law offers fantastic opportunities for off-road cycling.
If you’re into road or gravel cycling, it’s advisable that you bring your own bike. Coming from the south, you can hire bikes in Glasgow at Billy Bilsland or Mugdock Country Cycles. In Argyll itself, Oban Cycles offers bike hire, and Kayak Wild Islay offers fat bike hire for a proper beach adventure.
There’s plenty of accommodation to choose from in Argyll, from five-star hotels to remote self-catering holiday homes, with something for every taste and budget, whether you’d like to base yourself in a bustling seaside village or get away from it all on a secluded beach. For a true back-to-nature experience, the region has beautifully located campsites. For those on a budget, Hosteling Scotland runs hostels in Oban, Tobermory and Port Charlotte, with an affiliated hostel in Inveraray. The Ben Cruachan Inn on the A85 is a good alternative for cyclists to stay near Oban. Portavadie offers luxury accommodation and superb spa facilities on the Wild About Argyll Trail, while a Friday evening in the bar of the Lochmelfort Hotel will give you a real taste for Scottish folk music. Opening soon on Islay The Machrie will be one of the most luxurious hotels you can find. Visit Scotland’s website is a very handy tool to choose the right place to stay.
FOOD AND DRINK
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat. The region’s seafood and game is appreciated by food lovers around the globe, and there’s an array of fabulous restaurants, cafés and hotels serving up delicious locally sourced food. Whether it’s a simple bowl of fresh langoustines at a seafood shack or fine dining at a loch-side eatery, come to Argyll and the Isles for an unforgettable culinary experience. For local craft beers a visit to Fyne Ales is a must, while the seafood takeaway in Oban on the pier and the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar should be a must-do on your itinerary. The region is also host to a number of food festivals, like the Islay Festival of Music & Malt from 25 May to 2 June, Fyne Fest from 1 – 3 June and the Tarbert Seafood Festival from 7 – 8 July.
Tucked away between the Scottish Highlands and lowlands, Argyll has pretty much every ingredient for a perfect long weekend on a bike. While the wet west coast weather can be challenging at times, you will still find many places that don’t attract large numbers of tourists in summer, while the quality of food and accommodation is very high. Oban is good base for multiple day rides, well-served by trains from Glasgow. Around the world record holder Mark Beaumont gave the region his blessing with fronting the Wild About Argyll campaign in 2017 for a very good reason.
TOP TRAVEL TIP
The shoulder seasons (the time between high and low season) is particularly attractive for a visit to Argyll. In April and October you won’t have to fight the midges if you are fixing a flat tyre or when sitting outside in the café, and as the region is one of the warmest in Scotland, those months are best suited for cycling.