The perfect Burns' night celebration - mountain biking and single malt whisky
Ric McLaughlin and Marc Beaumont head to the Isle of Arran in search of adventure and discover that the riding is almost as fine as the whisky
As we peer down into the belly of the boat it's all noise and exhaust fumes. Clank after clank we watch cars and vans emerge from the orange floodlit interior out into the cold night air. “Youse will have to push your bikes up the ramp,” a hi-vis clad crewman says. “It’s too slippery.” The last set of tail lights clears the crest and Marc Beaumont turns to me, smiles and pedals off, on his back wheel. The two-time World Cup winner wheelies up the metal ramp, onto the concrete slipway and keeps going.
“There’s one more guy now, on a pushbike... doing a wheelie!” a voice laughs through a walkie-talkie as Marc, now cackling with laughter, holds the effort through the holiday traffic until well clear of the ferry terminal. The tone has been set for our riding trip on the Isle of Arran.
Forty minutes later and with our bags deposited in the Lochranza Centre on the north side of the island, no one is laughing. Stood in the local hotel, at five minutes past food serving time, the owner is less than happy. “We’ve the oven turned off!” he barks angrily from a steaming bowl of stew. Handwritten signs advertising ‘50p to charge your device’ are grubbily taped above each and every socket and guitars are screwed to the walls. “Youse can have a steak and ale pie each but we’ve only the one pastry top left.” “I don’t think we should.” Marc says quietly but firmly, handing the laminated menu back.
Making things up as you go along is part and parcel of a riding trip to somewhere new, and if there are gods of these things then they’re smiling down on us because we’re soon tucking into a Chinese banquet in the back of our photographer Andy’s camper van. The lights of several tankers bob gently in the inky wet night as they take shelter in the bay, waiting to make the trip up the River Clyde.
Bright morning rays break through the lace curtains of our rooms, unfairly raising our hopes. Rain buckets down and fills the car park with cold-tea puddles. A quick team meeting sees riding postponed for the morning because a more favourable weather system is due to break in a couple of hours. And besides, there’s a whisky distillery 100 yards away.
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In an unusual move prompted by the lack of bacon sandwiches, we have a burger each for breakfast before meeting Gerard Tattersfield. He’s a key part of the Arran Bike Club and just about the only thing he knows more about than the island’s trails is whisky. Fifteen thousand litres of beer froth and foam away in gargantuan wooden vats as we wander around the steel catwalks high above the Isle of Arran Distillers’ floor. “Take a breath of that,” Gerard says mischievously. Marc and I duly stick our heads inside the vat and inhale. It feels like we’ve just snorted a shot of vodka and we both retreat instantly, coughing and laughing in equal measure.
Talking whisky with Gerard is like talking about car mechanics with your dad. He knows exactly what he’s on about and cuts right through the flowery nonsense. “You can have a great whisky after six years,” he says as Marc and I roll a selection of Arran’s finest malts around our mouths. It’s not gone 11 o’clock yet.
“People market whisky on its age whereas in actual fact it’s more about the ingredients and what you’ve actually done with them that matters.”
The skies clear and we’ve just about sobered up in time to get riding. The opening climb takes us up and out of Brodick and into the sun. Our chat thins as the gradient steepens. The ground has been moistened by the morning’s rain and we’re soon spinning for grip through thick pines. Finally the corridor of bark clears and we get a glimpse of the Holy Isle and its monastery, set just off Arran. The Clauchlands ridgeline affords us stunning views right across Arran and its highest point, Goat Fell. It’s clear why the island is often described as Scotland in miniature, because the jagged peaks of the north sweep down to more rolling terrain in the south.
Today’s highest point is the 2,500-year-old ruin of Dun Fionn. We drop back down from the stone remnants with Lamlash Bay shooting past on our left. The cliffs are steep and at times worryingly close to the trail, but it’s full gas all the way. Marc launches blind crests without any regard for what may be on the other side and I do my best to match his commitment, ruing every comfort- bringing grab of the brakes along the way. We skim over the odd outcrop of the red granite that’s so useful in purifying spring water soon to be turned into whisky.
Gasping air in through our smiles, we roll onto the coastal path, past a herd of cows and into Lamlash. Gleaming Mercedes and tidy gardens indicate that Arran mightn’t be a bad spot to retire to. We cut from asphalt back to one of the island’s many walking paths and climb before a full-chat descent down a wide, rock-littered trail. A glance at my Garmin tells me we’re doing well over 30mph but Marc’s still messing about and manualling.
The Fiddlers in Brodick (just two doors up from the Chinese) offers a more welcoming ambience than the previous night’s hostelry, along with modern Scottish food, local beers and even a bit of live music. Our faces glowing from windburn and bellies full of haggis bonbons, all feels right with the world.
There’s no time for burgers or even whisky the following morning. Gerard is joining us and has a bit more distance planned for the day, but that’s only after Andy chances his arm/camera getting up close and personal with one of the island’s wild stags, which is the size of a pony. Efforts to cull the deer have themselves been culled and now the residents of the north side of the island are quickly erecting 7ft fences around their gardens. It’s indulgent and even naively romantic, but as the stag stands munching the rough around the 18th tee it seems a shame to shoot anything so beautiful.
The opening climb is again steep and quickly turns into a staged trials challenge over the smooth, slimy rocks. The Isle of Bute and the mainland in the distance cut a line straight through the blue of the sky and the water beneath it. We’re soon tripping along at big speeds again, with the occasional burst of laughter from Marc as he reacts to my squawks of panic as I try to keep him in sight. We stop by an abandoned cottage for some jelly babies but the funk of a rancid deer carcass gets us back on the bikes and moving again. A lumpy four miles follows as we skirt the cragged shore.
We’re lucky to make the ferry. High winds have diverted our planned 6pm sailing but, after a bit of persuasion, we make the 4.40pm to Ardrossan. From the rear deck we watch Arran disappear until it’s just another pin on my smartphone photo gallery map. My legs ache, not so much from distance but from sustained efforts. What we missed in technical descents we more than made up for in deathgrip coastal singletrack. The best trips are the ones when you leave feeling you’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’m looking forward to returning to Arran already.
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