Throw away any perceptions that Harris is all about tweed. This small ‘island’ at the southern end of Lewis is a cyclist’s dream and if you’ve got the legs you can do it all in a day.
Seilibost was the starting point for our clock-wise circumnavigation around the island as we figured that the distances between refreshment points were just about right, as was the wind direction – forecast to be on our backs for the last leg of the ride.
From the off this ride was set to be epic with the first leg along the famously torturous Hebridean Cycle Way (A859). It’s hilly. It’s beautiful. It passes the best scenery the west coast of Harris has to offer; topped with the option of extending the trip to soak up the famous Luskentye beach. You’ll see plenty of cyclists on this stretch, their gear-laden bikes transporting them the 175 mile length of the Outer Hebrides.
Turning off towards Maevag the single-track narrows further at the beginning of the Golden Road. What a great name for a road! There are two theories about how it got its name, one referring to how much it cost to build, the other reflecting how it connected the previously isolated communities between Tarbet to Rodel . Whatever, it will take you through the best of the cultural and natural treasures Harris has to offer.
One of its most striking features is the almost lunar landscape. Grey rocky outcrops, the oldest exposed rock in the world, juxtaposed with patches of green and splendid waterlily-filled lochans, edged with the wonderfully named bog bean. It makes for blissful riding, winding through this surreal environment which feels more high mountain plateau than low level coastal.
By winding I use the term loosely to describe movement in all three dimensions. Be prepared to frequently crash through your gears as the road takes you on its rollercoaster ride. Twisting and turning through a series of settlements whose Gaelic and Viking names will leave you tongue-tied. A great diversion for the uphill grinds though. Try pronouncing of Fleoideabhagh and the lactic acid burn just fades away!
Although this road is remote there are plenty of opportunities to soak up the natural landscapes and cultural heritage of Harris along the way and to have a well-deserved break.
For a Tweed-fest pull over at Plocrapol, which still hand weaves Harris Tweed in the traditional way. There are fantastic art galleries at Holmasaig Gallery, Finsbay Gallery, Skoon Art Cafe, Ardbuidhe Gallery and the Mission House.
For hearty soup and mighty scones and wonderfully friendly staff the Bays Community Centre, at the Head of Loch Stochanais, makes for a quirky, fun and satiating stop. Have a look through the visitors’ book to find Charles and Camilla’s entry – they were out inspecting the Household tweed no doubt!
Definitely take time to take in the stunning viewpoint at Manish with its great sea and skyscapes and don’t miss Flodabay to view the seals basking on the rocks. You’ll know that you are coming up to it by the number of cars parked on the verges.
After more twists and turns Rodel marks the end of The Golden Road. The church of St Clements and the tranquil harbour make for a welcome break after the stark natural landscapes that have been the backdrop for the last few hours.
Onwards and ‘roundwards’ towards Leverburgh, back on the A859 and riding through undulating landscape that is more reminiscent of The Lakes than a Scottish island.
The enjoyable downhill stretch to Leverburgh provides some relief and fun; finally getting up some speed before arrival at the jumping off point for the ferry to North Uist. Everyone appears to be in transit in Leverburgh. It’s a good opportunity to stock up on goodies though, from the well-stocked Harris Community Shop and the quirky Butty Bus on the harbour with its eclectic soup menu (Turnip & Manuka Honey soup anyone?), all sorts of butties and the best source of local knowledge on the island.
Peddling northwards (and west a bit) towards Seilibost marks the final stretch home. My own experience of this was rather painful. By now my leaden legs started to find the hills a bit more of a challenge on the undulating road. After a few miles, using an excuse to soak up the beach scene at Northton, I realised why. I had just pedalled the last 60 km with my front disk brake fully on. What a great workout that had been!!
After poking about with it without result and feeling slightly irritated, this no doubt fuelled by a carb dip, I continued a few more kilometres only to discover that my back tyre now had a slow puncture and to be honest I was just too tired to fix it.
With only a few kilometres to go I tried to equal the rate of deflation with the distance to The Mobey Van. Passing the chic subterranean holiday homes of The Borve Estate and wafts of barbeque as holiday makers with far more sense than me settled in to a relaxing evening I finally broke and pulled into the stunningly located Talla na Mara for a restorative Harris gin and tonic. Carefully adding the right number of drops of local, hand-harvested sugar kelp, the correct measure of which I had precisely worked out by trial and error the night before, my legs experienced their first relief of the day. Bliss.
The sumptuous food of the Machair Kitchen was very tempting now as I had started the process of self-digestion! Having eaten there previously I knew it to be excellent but if I sat there any longer it was highly unlikely I would move again that evening.
Using the speed of cycling down the steep driveway to propel me towards Seilibost, along with the anaesthetic effect of the gin, the incredible views across to the sands of Luskentyre at sunset were some of the most incredible I think I have ever seen. So much so, that I forgot about my aching legs. Well almost!
Top tip – good bike maintenance. I’m sure you do. I have cycled my usually trusty stead through salt water so many times that I think that this was just payback time!