Sunday, 1 October 2017

"Ride the bike, Ruth!" - Entering the world of Under 8s cyclocross racing...

Ruth ByCycle is not a little girl to sit around and wait for things to happen to her.  Oh no.  Since she could first talk and walk, she has made things happen.  Some of the things have been very successful, others, not so much.  She learned to open doors, and baby gates because she wanted to get out to have a crack at more exciting things she could see on the other side.  She cut her own hair, because frankly Mummy was taking far too long about arranging a hair appointment.  She helped herself to her brother’s bike packing bags and tried to fit them to her frame when it seemed that Mummy and Daddy had failed to realise that 3 year olds need bike packing kit.

So it should have come as no surprise that when Ruth, now 4, decided she wanted to enter a race on her bike, Ruth was going to enter a race on her bike.  Or rather, on her brother’s bike.  Ruth had decided that she was going to need something more competitive than her 16” wheels, so 'Merida' was consigned to the cupboard and Ruth pestered Daddy until he conceded that she could have a go on the semi-retired 20” Islabikes Beinn, which, she pointed out, she could test ride on the turbo trainer.  The reach was a bit more of a stretch than ideal, but having taken it for a spin around our usual training ground, the nearby “Secret Squirrel Velodrome”, Tom was happy enough that she wasn’t going to do herself a mischief.

Training with Dan Lloyd. Like a boss.

So it was that we found ourselves headed for the Milton Keynes Bowl on the cold but sunny morning of 30 September.  

Until this morning,  I associated “the Bowl” with concerts - not bike racing.  We arrive in the car park (such is our eagerness that we are uncharacteristically early) and get Beinn the bike out, and some extra layers to keep Ruth warm while we wait for the race to start.  

Kit is very important to our little people.  They want to feel part of things, so Ruth was already fully kitted out in her mini Canyon-SRAM jersey, her tri shorts and leg warmers (again, shamelessly pinched from big brother @Thomas_Ivor) and had been since she arrived in our bedroom at 6am declaring herself “ready”.  Rhoda, likewise, absolutely required full cycling kit for her role as her big sister’s chief cheerleader, but equally absolutely shunned the idea of wearing anything to cover her legs, so it was shorts for her.

“Mummy, I need my Laura Trott plaits”.  I dutifully braid Ruth’s hair to her satisfaction - if it’s good enough for an Olympian, Ruth thinks it will probably do for her first race.  “I need plaits too”.  Rhoda likewise, is soon sporting her own tribute to the mighty Laura Trott - if you need proof of what the influence of successful women on little girls can be, look no further than these two!

We were ready: time to sign on.  We walked through to the bowl from the car park. As well as being Ruth’s first cyclocross race, it was also Mummy’s first time at a cyclocross race.

It is probably time for a confession:  I am not sure I really understand the point of cyclocross racing.  It appears to me that a group of fully grown adults, and a smaller number of children,  take their bikes to chase around a churned up patch of grass over which they ride lap after identical lap and then go home in a muddy mess having gone, well, nowhere.  However, I am not one to stand in the way of a dream, so I donned my wellies and kept my counsel.

Arriving at the gates, I look around and take in the Bowl, filled with what looks like several hundred miles of plastic tape marking out a course that traverses and climbs the sides and bottom of the bowl, disappearing off into trees.  I try to work out where you get into the taped labyrinth for practice.  I can see the start/finish line, but struggle to work out much more than that.  

Clearly the under 8s weren’t going to tackle the whole course (not unless we wanted the race to last an entire week), but which bit would they race over?  The flat bit at the bottom?  How was four year old Ruth going to fare with navigating her way around this?  Good job we came early for a look at the course, I thought.

But first things first:  a very proud Ruth, grinning ear to ear, was hanging Beinn on the bike stand (which it is barely big enough for) by the registration desk and was soon clutching her very first set of race numbers, and a timing chip (which looked rather large) for her (implausibly small) shoes.  We pin and stick the race numbers to her jersey and look around to see where to get into the course to give Ruth a proper look at where she would be going.  Tom set off with her to walk along the course with her.

This was no flat course, and Ruth was soon having to work out that she needed to get off and push her bike up the sloped side of the bowl, before getting back on to roll down again.  This all took quite a long time, and she lost confidence as other kids warming up zipped up  and down past her.  Urged on by her friend Jake (racing in the U10s) and Daddy, she was soon back with us in the start area to be marshalled.

The body warmer came off.  The drinks bottle found its way to Mummy’s handbag (where all discarded items belonging to the children seem to end up, no matter what I do) in the name of "weight saving", and she was ready.

There were quite a few parents watching, but most it seemed were getting ready to race themselves.  At aged 4, racing in the under 8s, Ruth was one of the youngest competitors.  She looked serious as she listened to the commissaire’s instructions.  As the race began, there was such a look of determination written across her features- I have never seen her so intent on anything.  They were off, with Daddy strategically positioned further up the course to help make sure Ruth goes the right way through the taped maze...

Rhoda and Mummy begin whooping and hollering:  “Go Ruth!  Whooooo!”.  Mummy realises that she might be the only grown up cheering.  What is wrong with everyone?  Why is no one else cheering?  Wait, no, there is someone else shouting.  That would be Daddy.  We are potentially committing a cycle parent faux pas - I have no idea.  Maybe people don’t cheer?  They definitely cheer at road races.  Does cyclocross have different rules?

The race moves away from the start/finish line, and Rhoda and I set off for the side of the bowl where we know Ruth will struggle to push her bike up and around.  There is an interminable wait (at least three minutes) until we can see Ruth well enough to see how she’s doing.  She is dead last.  She is crying but she is still riding the bike.  She approaches the bottom of the hill and looks unsure.  “That’s it Ruth” - I can hear Tom hollering.  “Jump off and push, now”

“GO RUTH!”  Rhoda joins in.  
“Push your bike to Mummy - good girl - you can do it!”
She heaves.  The grass is wet and she struggles for grip.  She sobs, but she doesn’t stop.  The first child laps her.  She stops while they pass her but then she is moving again.

“Ruthie, Ruthie, Ruthie!  You’re doing it - keep going!”

We are still the only parents cheering.  People are looking.  And frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. That’s my girl, and I’m going to make ALL the noise for her.

She crests the hill, briefly triumphant.  Rhoda and I are jubilant and immediately make a lot more noise.  Tom (down the bottom) is louder still.

Now, get back on the bike, Ruth, I think.

She is still walking.  She turns and looks doubtfully at the slope back down, now churned by the wheels of the previous 30 odd kids to pass over it (twice by now).   She stops and looks some more. 

“Get on your bike, Ruth”, I venture.

“Ride the bike, Ruth”, I hear Tom shouting from some considerable distance away, and briefly register what a ludicrous thing to shout this must sound to anyone else who came here to watch a bike race.

Ruth has rolled down slopes like this hundreds of times, but in this moment she has misplaced the confidence to do it.  She scrambles down slowly on foot until she is back on the level.  She is still running with the bike.

“GET ON YOUR BIKE, Ruth!” She looks at me.  Tear stained.  Muddy.   I want to go and grab her and hug her and take her home.  “You can do it Ruth -just get on your bike!”  She looks daggers at me, briefly, but then climbs on and pedals away from me. She expects to see a flag at the finish (and so do I - she has taken over 9 minutes at this point).  There is no flag.  So she..... sets off for a second lap.  Just like that,  no fuss.  She’s just as intent as she was for the first lap, as the entire field begins to lap her again.  

I can see Tom jogging along with her.  She is making good progress along the bottom of the bowl, and then, they are back at the slope again.

“You can do it, Ruth, up you come!”

She gets off, she grits her teeth. She wails, she cries, she shouts, she growls, but she does it.  Herself.  She is up.  Other parents look at us like we are a) insane and b) possibly torturing our daughter, who is by now so far behind the field that it is starting to look like she isn’t even in the same race.

“Ruthie! Ruthie! Ruthie!  You’re a star! You did it! Woooohooo!”  

She rounds the corner and again refuses to ride down the slope, and slip-slithers her way back down.  The determination face is there again at the bottom.  She is going to finish this.

Rhoda and I hare back down to the finish area, waiting for the marshals to allow us to cross the course to get back.

Ruth is there, muddy, beaming ear to ear.  She came in last, and probably about a minute after the rest of the race finished, one lap down on most of the other participants, but she did it.  

I ask her what she might like as a treat for completing her first race.  She wants to watch the podium. She doesn’t say it, but I watch her as her friend Jake collects a medal and I can see on her face that she knows that one day that will be her on the podium.

Medals awarded, Ruth is back to business.  “Mummy, I have thought of what I would like. An egg sandwich.  And when we do this next week, I would like to win”.

"Next week?"  What?  We have to do this again?

Footnote: Ruth has indeed been Cyclocrossing again, on a brand new steed. As if we could stop her...

We are very grateful for the warm welcome (and cake!) we all received at the MK Bowl, from the Central Cyclocross League. You can find out more about the Central Cyclocross League on their website, and if you're elsewhere in the country, try the British Cycling website for Cyclocross events listings near you.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Riding The Hebridean Way

We're home, busy getting back into familiar, and less familiar, routines - this year seems to be one of those where the weather saw 'September' come up on the calendar and promptly flicked a switch! Sitting in front of a log fire with drab, autumnal rainfall outside, it's hard to believe that last week we were on the very edge of the United Kingdom, in relative warmth, if still a little damp at times. The unfortunate reminder is that the car boot still has panniers in it which need unpacking...

We left it properly late this year to hatch our plan for the summer, last year's bike theft having put paid to plans we had for 2016. As ever, it's been a year of change, with bigger children, new kit and new skills to accommodate. This time, with Thomas Ivor elsewhere, it was just the four of us, with the trailerbike rigs we shook down in Denmark back in May. Without the luxury of a trailer's 'boot' to stow bulky items in, we had to find a way of carrying a suitable tent for us all, in just panniers.


Late in the day (as in, we only really decided for sure once we were already on the M6!) it was unfinished business that drew us back to the Outer Hebrides, where we'd had to bail out half way through our journey in 2014 thanks to sunshine bringing strong headwinds as we made our way up the Uists. Could we make it all the way up the archipelago this time, with the girls out of their trailer and on their own pedals?

Over the next little while we will tell the story of our expedition, what we did and how we did it. We have kit and destinations to review, and as always, advice and opinions along the way about adventuring with children and the particular things that matter to us.

Can a four year old on a trailerbike rack up 200 miles in eight days, in all weathers, over wild terrain? Too right they can. Stick with us to find out how!

Sunday, 27 August 2017

It's raining midges - crossing the Uists

Having spent a small fortune, we took our time to savour a later than usual start, waking as we did in proper beds with our panniers still largely packed on the bikes; our roomies, meanwhile, had left early. We were the last to leave Howmore at quarter past eleven, and even though the day was well on, boy, the midges were bad. Clouds of them outside the buildings (which we had to move between) and a shedload in the toilet. In discomfort and cheesed off, I attacked them with the air freshener to protect the few parts of me as yet unscathed, while I used the facilities.

Ironically, the weather was dry and improving, which is often what happens when we see a dodgy forecast and get ourselves under cover for the night. We posed for a picture and rushed to get moving, to give the midges a slightly harder time, setting out once more onto the (happily, quiet) spine road in very similar conditions to our previous visit. Passing the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, we remembered how a coach load of pensioners from Ayrshire stopped us and gave Thomas Ivor a big bunch of grapes, anxious that he had enough fuel for the task at hand!

Today was the point where we would start to break new ground, heading up the West coast of North Uist towards Berneray, rather than bailing out to Lochmaddy and Skye as we had to previously. The road off South Uist is really rather dour, and in our frustration at the expensive night out, the midges, the changeable conditions and slightly recalcitrant children, arguments broke out between Katie and me, mainly about pacing and every filming opportunity I tried to take being wrecked by rare but seemingly deliberate appearance of cars running through the shot!

Via a predictably unsuccessful otter-spotting stop at the causeway, we pushed ahead to the Co-op megastore in Benbecula. After the retail desert we'd been through, I was astonished to count seven tills and be able to pay with my watch for the first time in about a week! The weather, muggy and moist as it had been all morning, was warming up, and so the shopping, which had to be more expansive than usual because of the impending Sabbath and our proximity to Protestant islands, began with a round of ice creams. I cracked out the big seat pack to help stash extra shopping, thereby proving that if you can't decide between bikepacking and panniers, you can always use both.

The children were still in a funny mood when we got to Benbecula's war memorial for our planned lunch stop, previously the scene of the 'lady and the cake' incident where a man (possibly me) once dared to suggest to a lady cycle tourist (definitely Mummy) that we could "keep that cake for later". This time she was taking no such risks with her Tunnocks teacakes. Ruth proceeded to make her own contribution to a thus far rather chaotic day by wetting herself, whilst doing Vic Reeves impressions involving Jack Dee's face and a blacksmith's bum-bag. This scene may, or may not, reach the final edit of the film of our trip...

As we packed up to move on, a cyclist whom we recognised from the hostel the night before, stopped to say hello. He had done the loop of North Uist and was on his way back to Howmore. I must confess I was secretly rather jealous of the ground he'd covered - touring with the children has been a serious change of pace from going out on my road bike at home most days over the past few weeks.

Crossing the causeway to North Uist, our hearts sank as we saw a Police car in the distance, blue lights on and apparently waiting patiently for us to reach them. We debated what they might be picking on us for, but when we got to them, they turned out to be guarding a rather mysterious crime scene!

Berneray, our 'stretch target' for the day, was starting to look a long way off and Katie was in search of a toilet - a proper one, she insisted; not a cycle tourist's one. Right on cue, we waved back to a man cutting the grass at the church whose car park we had sat in to feed Rhoda and plan our bailing out move to Lochmaddy in 2014. We decided to ask him for advice about where we could go to church tomorrow, and came away having had a tour of the church (including the toilet, much to Katie's relief) and, to our collective relief, a suggestion for wild camping, not too far from the Sound of Harris ferry - within sight of the gentleman's house, it transpired.

Quite how and why, since the spine road runs continuously across the islands, we knew not, but the local traffic was palpably more friendly on North Uist; it seems to rub off on the visiting drivers. who were treating us rather more gently. Rhoda's interactions with passing cars become more smiles, waves and 'thank yous' and fewer grumpy faces for close-passing vehicles. Taking the West side of the island, it was time to crack on and hit our first new roads since Vatersay. Almost in celebration of this fact, very shortly afterwards Rhoda suddenly decided she would start pedalling forwards continuously for the first time ever. Jelly babies all round! It's amazing how, when you're touring by bicycle, your children hit all sorts of developmental milestones, and I am sure that in many cases the experiences and opportunities that are coming their way when we're on the road are directly contributory to their progress. After many frustrating trips to the bandstand, Rhoda had cracked pedalling when we least expected it - and she was loving it! 

North Uist was a stunning island not quite having the best of days thanks to the iffy weather, and the exceptionally violent midges. Mistaking one for the other, I stopped to film Katie, thinking it was starting to rain, before realising that the 'rain' was biting me all over! There were some very long straight runs, and behind us as I turned to film, views of what we presume were the mountains on the east coast of South Uist in the distance.

Whether it was the results of the effort from the pedalling, or the performing for the other road users, or both, or as it turns out with hindsight possibly a dose of the lurgy, Rhoda was flagging as the miles racked up, and we rounded the North West corner of the island. A 'nodding off session' had us rather concerned but she rallied after some jelly babies and stroopwafels. The weather was still and pleasant though cloudy, but dark clouds were rolling in and we needed to get a squirt on, find the promised camp site and get the day done with, if we were to be suitably rested for a church service and a ferry crossing the next day.

The disparity in our pace continued and in the end we decided (well, I remember a group decision; Katie is less convinced) that I would get the hammer down a bit, spend some tokens and get to the proposed camp site, so as to check all was well and get Rhoda and myself under cover before she revisited her 'can I sleep on the back of the trailerbike' game, to which we felt sure the answer was likely to be, 'NO'. Just sometimes, we miss the trailer! Rather than being constrained by tired children, in the old days we'd have been able to wrap the girls up in their blankets, get them comfortable and push on into the evening, probably making really good time. Not only does your kit solution seem to change every year, the dynamics of personal needs and the ability to make progress change so much from tour to tour, as well.

I found the road end where the man from the church lived and just as promised, there was a flat patch of grass with a lovely view overlooking the bay we'd just ridden round. I took a quick screen grab of our grid reference off the Ordnance Survey app, to help us locate it again. As it happened, Katie and Ruth had got a squirt on, too, and came in close behind. We sadly saw little of the beautiful spot we'd hurriedly pitched overlooking, because the midges got bad soon after we arrived, and apart from scurrying out to boil water and fry scallops (the location having some culinary benefits, as ever!), we stayed inside and got to bed. Rhoda was decidedly off colour; we dosed her with Calpol and got some sugar into her. I swapped inner tents and shared with Ruth so Katie, the more reliable of the two of us at actually waking when the children need us, could keep an eye on Rhoda.

I remember looking at my watch having stirred, at 0330 and apart from some rain having developed, and an aeroplane flying over, which had likely woken me, all was well again. For now, at least...

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The graveyard shift - where is it OK to wild camp?

“I know, but is it socially acceptable to sleep in a graveyard’s car park?"

Having the confidence to set out with the children in tow and no booked overnight accommodation is one of the things I find most challenging about cycle touring as a family.  I find it really hard to switch off my thoroughly modern motherly perceptions that unless cosseted in the warm and dry, something dreadful might happen to my children.  This is despite the fact that a) I know that in all the trips we have made the most dreadful thing to have happened was an extensive collection of midge bites - irritating but not fatal and b) I know that the girls themselves actually spend their time indoors dreaming of being outdoors, and specifically, being in a tent.  The girls have a teepee in their bedroom  and often elect to sleep on the floor in it in preference to their beds, reenacting grand adventures with the “sleeping bags” they insisted I must make for them to play with.

I think Tom finds this element of touring easier than I do.  I am naturally more cautious, naturally more risk averse (although conversely, of the two of us, I am usually the more optimistic in outlook!).

After stuffing our panniers full of groceries for the evening meal and breakfast, we looked back up the spine road knowing it was time to make a decision about the broad area where we would camp.  Our previous trip told us that the spine road wasn’t going offer us the best of what South Uist has to offer.

We got out the OS Map.  The scenery on South Uist, despite being so close, is markedly different to Benbecula and North Uist, and to Eriskay.  Off to the east of the Spine Road there is a moorland outlook on to the sweeping hills.  The map showed a bothy but we kept that one quiet from the girls (who are also big fans of Alastair Humphries’ ‘Mountain Bikes and Bothy Nights’ short film), as the terrain to get to it was definitely not designed for 2 x 200kg cycle touring rigs with road-favouring tyres, and we wouldn’t have made the walk in during daylight anyway.  Mrs Risk-Averse wasn’t up for a late night repeat of the Cadderlie “the OS map co-ordinates and our GPS plot say it should be here but it’s pitch black and I can’t see my hand in front of my face never mind a building” trip (read about it here).

Off to the West though is the Machair Way, which is waymarked by various blue signs along the road.  Machair is a particular type of grassland habitat which hosts a rich range of wildflowers, plants and invertebrates (plus the obligatory midges).  We resolved to head off towards the west coast down one of the many roads leading off to our left.  In addition to finding a sleeping spot, we also wanted to see a bit more of the coast as we rode along.  We discounted the sections of beach marked as military practice zones.  Mrs Risk-Averse definitely was NOT up for dodging bullets à la our friends the Simonsens on their kayak odyssey (find their story here).  We picked a general area that looked promising on the map and set off.

One of the things that always reminds me of the real remoteness of the Hebrides is the difficulty that island life clearly poses for the disposal of large scale unwanted items.  It is not uncommon for the front of houses to host a range of rotting cars that can no longer be driven.  The cost and trouble of getting them to a scrapyard on the mainland once they are no longer roadworthy is clearly not worth the hassle.  Similarly, there are lots of examples of families who have decided that the family home is no longer fit for purpose and have simply built a newer one on the land alongside the old one.  No demolition, they are just left until the harsh weather turns them into bare shells - long-abandoned buildings with no windows and roof stand next to smart, well cared for family homes.  It seems wasteful of housing that could be repurposed, until you think through a) population size isn’t exactly an issue out here in the way it is in our mainland cities and b) the practicalities of dealing with demolishing a house on a tiny island.

We barely see a soul as we pedal along.  I would say it is quiet, but it’s not because it is getting windy.  Echoes of 2014, when the only shelter we could find was in the garden of a lady who took pity on us when we asked for recommendations for a camp spot that would get us out of a proper Western Isles hoolie, grow stronger.

Eventually, we reach the area we had looked at on the map.  The beach is long, sandy and completely deserted.  It is beautiful, and the Atlantic, crashing on the sand is a turquoise-blue against a heavy grey sky.  I wish that I could switch off the worry about finding a camp spot to enjoy it properly, but it is clear that whilst we have indeed found somewhere beautiful and where we would have space to put up our tent, it is entirely exposed.

We had turned off the road when it finished abruptly at a neat and well tended graveyard.  Tom walked around the perimeter wall to see if there was anywhere we could go to the other side of it that might be less directly in the face of the fierce wind, and the foamy sea.  He came back, eyeing up the ground next to the wall.

Mrs Risk-Averse is alarmed, and the inner monologue is running away with me.  We can’t.  It’s a graveyard.  There’s someone’s car parked right there - we might cause offence. You’d be right in the way if someone came to pay their respects.

“We have to make a choice - we pitch here" (he indicates the spot by the wall), "over there,” (he indicates the site we had passed by that wasn’t very flat but was marginally set in a depression in the dunes so had some protection from the wind), “or we give up and move on.  Here looks like the best option to me.”

I look at him doubtfully.  “If we get the tent up, we could eat”.

“I know we're not going inside the wall, but is it socially acceptable to sleep in a graveyard’s car park?" I burst out, unable to contain it any longer.  Tom can see that I am not going to find a stay here restful.  It’s not any fear of ghosts (I ain’t afraid of no ghosts...) or any such nonsense, but it doesn’t feel like wild camping by a clearly well loved graveyard would be right.

We get the map back out.  This is just like 2014.  We have about an hour before it will start to get dark and no more idea this time than last how to find any shelter from the gathering storm when the wind is this strong and the land is this flat.

Tom points out the Gatliff Hostel up the road.  It is about another 5 miles further on.  Last time, we didn’t head there because we understood that they didn’t accept young children.  This time, we knew that they did.  It wouldn’t be free, but we could probably find some shelter putting the tent up outside the hostel.  But to do that, we would have to coax the girls back onto he bikes for another half an hour.

Decision made that we would head to Howmore, we pushed the bikes back to the road and set off.  A little further up the road we spot a sign post to an off road path signed as part of the Machair Wa.  We check the map.  It looks like the path goes straight to Howmore, and if it’s passable on the bikes it would save us more than two miles.

Tom leaves Rhoda with Ruth and me eating the occasional jelly baby at the end of the path and sets off on a recce, bumping and bouncing over the track.  From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like it will be a lot of fun to ride with the trailer bikes on the back.  He rides on over the crest of a hill and out of sight.  We wait.  I would say patiently, but it wasn’t all that patient and I have dispensed half a day’s jelly baby rations before he comes back into view.

We probably could do it, but it might involve a lot of pushing the bikes.  It would be shorter in distance, but it might be faster to stick to the road.  I hate this part - having to make a snap decision.  It feels like I invariably call it wrong.  We decide to stick to the road since we can’t really afford to damage the bikes, and we are not in truth set up for an off road adventure.  The physical toll of lugging all of our stuff to Cadderlie is still fresh in our minds.

Rhoda climbs back on her trailer bike with Tom and they set off.  Ruth and I faff while she does her toe clips and I put away the jelly babies, thereby almost immediately managing to get separated after a farmer waves Tom and Rhoda through before blocking the road with his 4x4 and starting to conduct an entire herd of cows across the road for milking, including one extremely reluctant heifer and her calf.  Tom hadn’t realised that I was stuck and went sailing off out of view.

The calf gambolled one way.  The heifer obstinately stood stock still in the middle of the road.  Another farmer appeared to cajole and then prod the heifer through the gate, where she stood mooing at the calf, which had clearly got other ideas and led everyone a merry dance for about 15 minutes, whilst I watched, bemused.  Ruth was scared of the scale of the heifer and thought it sounded quite cross.  I told her it was cross with its naughty calf for running in the road.  The things you invent when you’re a parent.  “This cow is cross that its calf isn’t using the Green Cross Code”.  Whatever, Mummy.  You’ve got some ground to catch up.

Three miles on, back at the junction with the Spine Road, Tom has realised that he hasn’t seen us for a while and has pulled up for us to catch up, incredulous that it had taken so long.  Ruth gleefully tells him all about the cows and we make the final push up to the road to Howmore.

We soon find the picturesque little cluster of buildings.  Tom and the girls wait outside while I go to see who is there and what space is available.  I stick my head inside the door.  There are three people sat around the table who give me a cheery hello.  A notice in the porch proclaims the prices to stay in the hostel.  We have spotted some tents up outside, and are contemplating doing the same to save some money until I realise that they want to charge £10 per head for camping.  A sign, and a notice in the visitors' book, capitalised, makes it clear that this includes everyone IRRESPECTIVE OF AGE.  So, babies and pre-school children too.  No exceptions.

That’s a pretty sum - £40 to pitch your own tent for ONE night.  Never mind Howmore, it should be called HowMuch?!

I go back to Tom with the news.  He is equally astonished.  For an extra £6 we can all stay inside in a bunk.  We have a brief conference and check how much cash we are carrying.  Just enough, (but not enough to use the hostel linen - that would be another £8, and paying to stay for the night is going to completely clean us out of cash).  Our stay here, in shared dorms, is going to cost us more than the last night we spent in a Premier Inn.  Given the general lack of options and the increasing strength of the wind (by now the forecast is suggesting overnight gales), we are all out of choices.

I realise as I stop my Strava recording that despite having made good mileage, for some reason, nothing has recorded since about half a mile in to Eriskay, so I have no record of today’s efforts.  This is a ridiculously minor thing, but it irritates me.  I am by no means a proper Strava warrior - I don’t have any “QOMs”, I don’t chase segments, and my only “follower” is Tom.  But I liked seeing our route tracked on the map, and now there would be a great big gap in the trace.

The other residents greet us genially as we arrive inside, having left our bikes under cover in the bike shed.  One of the gentlemen already there kindly goes and moves his stuff out of one of the rooms so that we can get everyone in one dorm room, and have it to ourselves.  There are 6 bunks; I reason that if we’re being charged almost full price for Rhoda (3) and Ruth (4), despite them being tiny, they are having a bunk each!  This is the saving grace - the girls are madly excited about sleeping in bunk beds, even if, in an ironic twist, the hostel is right next to a ruined church and its graveyard!

Poor Rhoda’s face is still covered in midge bites, and they are out in force in the shelter of the buildings.  Moving between the dorm building and the communal area is a dash, getting out and shutting the door as quickly as possible to avoid letting them in.  The bathroom window has been left open all day and the midges are swarming around the ceiling.  I get bitten as I shower and wash away the day’s greasy coating of sunscreen and insect repellant.  Those that bite me end the day drowned, but it is little consolation.

We spend the evening in the communal kitchen area, preparing a pasta feast from our supplies. Had we planned to have spent all this money to come here, we would have bought a more exciting meal at the Co-op, to take advantage of an oven and big pans!  Our presence (never mind that of the girls) significantly lowers the average age.  Ruth and Rhoda sit at the table on their best behaviour.  They watch a couple of episodes of 'Bob the Builder' while we are cooking.  The other guests include two cyclists, a chap on a motorbike, and a man and his (adult) son in a van.  The caretaker calls in and collects our payment - no, we haven't got it wrong.  We hand over all our cash and try to look happy.

Once fed and watered, we head for an early night, reflecting that Youth Hostels these days appear to be the preserve of the previous generation, who are no longer all that young.  With pricing like this, and wild camping for free (rather easier to find a spot as a solo traveller with a tiny tent or bivvy bag), it is perhaps no wonder we rarely see anyone who would class as “youth” in such a hostel these days when we stay.

The girls are tired, and very quickly fall fast asleep.  For the first time on our trip, I lie in my bunk and get out my Kindle, which has been carried but not been used so far.  It is tonight that we remember that my Kindle still contains the guide book we purchased for our last Hebridean trip.  We open it up again and dip into it - one more day’s riding and we will reach the turn off for Lochmaddy - the point we reached during our previous trip.  If we make it past that turning, we are into new territory for us between there and Lewis. The prospect of beating our previous attempt and seeing some new parts of the Hebrides gives our mood a boost, and as I turn off my kindle and snuggle into my sleeping bag for the night, I am looking forward to getting off South Uist and seeing a bit more of North Uist.

During the night, the remaining two bunks are occupied by two women who come in late and leave early.  By the time the girls wake in the morning, the chaps we chatted with yesterday evening have also left, so it is just us as we have our breakfast, pack up our sleeping bags and hang everything back onto our bikes.

We are still a bit sore over the cost of one night’s shared dorm hostel accommodation, and leave some feedback for Gatliff in the book.  Given that their mission is to encourage young people to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, their pricing structure (charging full rate for pre-schoolers to camp and a significant sum to stay in the hostels) is a pretty big barrier.  We also now urgently need to find somewhere to get some more cash, since between us we now have about £1.57 to our name!

Steaming socks on the 'spine road'

Tom takes up the tale of our 2017 Hebridean Way experience...

I woke to a hot tent, sunshine, and rain. It was Katie’s turn to have sneaked out early, not for a swim but to photograph the huge rainbow straddling our camp, and only to discover that I’d left her camera’s memory card in the reader last night, thereby causing her to miss the best moment. Whoops.

It’d been a later night than we’d expected. Having paid for a campsite and not knowing where my next opportunity for ablutions would arise, I for one had taken the opportunity to have a shower after finishing culinary duties in the ‘dining shed’ (very handy indeed - every campsite should have one). Possibly more importantly, I was able to rinse out my utterly minging socks. I’m not sure how I’ve done it but I only have two pairs with me, and one of those is the ‘I’ll take them just in case’ spare pair I grabbed from the car’s door bin as I was about to leave Oban. Flippin’ good job I did, because even with two pairs, it’s going to get ‘interesting’. This is definitely not a place where I am going to find an M&S selling size 15 socks and mail order doesn’t quite cut it when you don’t know where you will live by the time a consignment reaches the islands.

The unfortunate side-effect of a time-constrained tour, especially when you’re dependent on relatively infrequent ferries, time-limited border crossings, or a train to get you home, is that you end up with more intermediate ‘deadlines’ than you might like. They’re all self-imposed of course, the world won’t end if you don’t make it, but the prospect of making it to all the places you’re hoping to, is always set against the pleasures, or necessity in extremis, of staying where you are. It’s especially hard to make that trade-off when you are entering new territory, which for us this time is North Uist, Berneray and Harris, in particular. For the more intrepid traveller, a good knowledge of the CalMac booklet’s contents is invaluable if you are to avoid an awkward call to your employer to break the news to them that the next ferry off the island is the day after you were due back at your desk in the city.

As a result, the equation of ‘waiting for the tent to dry’ vs ‘losing minutes off our margin for making the ferry to Eriskay’ was particularly finely balanced this morning, and having bade a final farewell to Clem, Steff and a notably disappointed Noel, our almost-dry tent was shovelled into the panniers so fast we hardly noticed the midges, and we dashed off for the 1110 Eriskay ferry, my still-damp socks installed under the legs of my bibshorts; a hint of steam emanating from their new thigh-powered drying system.

The road from Eoligarry past the airport became a heavyweight time trial course, and we knew we were missing some beautiful beaches just out of sight to our right as we went haring over the lumpy, sandy road. At the end of a long, draughty straight back to Traigh Mór, I made the mistake of stopping to wait for Katie within sight of the baggage handling facility, and nearly had a mutiny on my hands when Rhoda, and then Ruth, wanted another ride through it.

Back towards the junction with the island’s ‘ring road’ and we found ourselves on familiar tarmac, alas with little time to stop and take in the stunning view of the beach we’d sat and drunk in last time we were here. We attacked a couple of sharp little rises, which we remembered slogging up with the trailer pushed on foot by Thomas Ivor, and it became apparent that if we were going to make it, it would be very tight. Frustrated by seeing a lorry,  which I knew would make the ferry comfortably, turn across our path, whilst possibly leaving us to watch it depart, I decided to go on a solo break (well, Rhoda and me) in the hope of ensuring they hung on for Katie and Ruth’s arrival. Cresting the last rise before the slip, a little bit anaerobic, sock-steamer on full blast, and wondering where I put my Ventolin, I saw the MV Loch Alainn, which looks broadly similar from both ends, some distance from land. Relieved by the realisation that I hadn’t seen the tell-tale line of cars coming the other way, I rolled to the terminal, having, as it turned out, ‘spent my tokens’ for nothing.

As is often the case in the Hebrides, the ferries are the place where you bump into other wheeled travellers, often the same ones in different permutations, to swap tales of what’s happened on the road (and sympathise about the direction of the wind) since last you crossed paths. Some of the cyclists we had seen on the ferry to Castlebay were rather shocked by the solid progress we and the girls had made, as were an elderly couple with a motorhome, whose dog the girls had played with on the crossing from Oban. Presently, Katie and Ruth rolled in, showing similarly the effects of needless exertion. Ruth had been pushing especially hard to make the ferry, Mummy noted. Jelly babies and fist bumps all round.

The Sound of Barra ferry is a pretty dour affair, for what is in fairness one of the shorter and more frequent crossings, where motorists can elect to remain in their vehicles. There’s an open car deck with a waiting room befitting a tired NHS hospital to the side; a small promenade extending along its roof for tourists and sunny days. Unusually, it affords access to your bikes during the crossing, which is particularly handy for us and something we would be glad of more often! The chance to adjust things, oil chains, swap pannier contents around and set up cameras whilst making forward progress is to be seized with both hands.

Readying ourselves to get off the boat, we were in the invidious position of knowing that we were about to tackle our nemesis from our last visit here - the short, sharp climb from the slip, over the hill to the village and the causeway to South Uist. We decided not to put on an ‘ambitious, but rubbish’ display of heroic failure for the other tourists, so as we usually do now, we waited for everyone else to hit the beach and get up the road before setting off.

I’ve been in training for the last few weeks, attempting to ride 10% of Mark Beaumont’s mileage as he cycles round the world, and so am rather fitter than I was in 2014. Mark climbed the steepest part of the climb, segmented on Strava, in 59 seconds, when he launched the Hebridean Way. The new trailerbike, and its occupant, even accounting for luggage, are probably a shade lighter and definitely more stable than Thomas Ivor’s Mountain Train was, last time - but the gradient still kicks to 22%. In my book, that’s sick and wrong on any kind of bike - but especially when you are taking a bike and rider totalling near enough 200kg. I had been having nightmares about having to trudge up this one again ever since we chose this itinerary.

The first part of the climb isn’t so bad - you have to walk off the ferry, and so that’s your excuse to stay on foot up the steep and potentially slippery slipway to the road, which then points you straight at your objective; the ribbon of tarmac leading you deceptively towards the hill on a trajectory that looks really quite reasonable. The view over the beach is a pretty one, and your attention is briefly diverted as you settle into the climb. Like a pilot in an action movie, suddenly it dawns on you that you’re not gaining enough height. The road bends left, a junction off to the right leading sadly to a dead end rather than a way out. You won’t see that lovely view again for a couple of hundred yards, measured by your brain as an absolute eternity, as the legs, which were coping with the first slope, meet the brutality of the ‘kick’. - 

One-in-five. Single track road. No way out. 

I stalled and had to walk last time; what Mark shrugged off in less than a minute took me six and a half of them, in an unedifying spectacle of grunting and straining. I wasn’t going home this time without having at least tried.

Red mist mode engaged, and having already more than warmed the legs through on the approach, I was resigned to dropping Katie and meeting her at the viewpoint near the top of the climb with the camera already on the tripod ready for a picture. We’ve not had chance to swap Katie’s cassette yet and so she was running a slightly longer gear than me. Without the benefit of training miles and with Ruth unlikely to be able to carry her own weight by the time the climb stiffened, it seemed likely that it would be a ‘Mummy walks, Ruth rides’ kind of climb, as we’d done on Vatersay.

As the steepest section really starts to bite, there’s a jolly tempting passing place on the nearside, but I could see the viewpoint I was aiming for, and I wasn’t having any of it. I dug deep and committed, sights set on a non-stop, pedalled ascent. The only animal noises this time would be a celebratory roar…

Yeah, right. 

I laid into it as well as I might have, but ultimately, I’d have needed teeth on the rim of my wheel to have been geared to make it right up, in the seat, with Rhoda as dead weight on the back, and with my heart rate topping 160, only just able to unclip my feet, I had to admit defeat. Tell you what, though, it was close. I walked all of 50 yards, tops. That was as good as a win, in the circumstances -  justification for another jelly baby, at least.  6 minutes 34 seconds in 2014; 2:36 this time. Mr Beaumont can hang on to his place on the leaderboard - for now!

Looking back down the hill, Katie was indeed walking, and some way back, with Ruth twiddling away on the rear, but it turned out that this had happened sooner than she’d hoped, because the extra bottle of water we’d strapped to the lids of Ruth’s panniers had made a bid for freedom and rolled back down the hill. We swapped war stories, strapped the bottle down again, got the obligatory photograph (the sun being in as bad a place for this as last time, which is, I suppose, logical, since the island hasn't turned on its axis in the interim) and carried on, knowing we’d overcome a hurdle with less bother than we’d anticipated and keen to finish the day in similar style.

Last time we crested that hill, we rolled down the other side and shot through the village, straight over the island and stopped off at the beach by the South Uist causeway; this year, we had business to attend to in the Eriskay community shop, in the way of procuring lunch. We’d been hoping to get some cheap scallops from the seafood company on Barra, but our late departure had sadly killed that plan. We sat outside, eating an eclectic mix of short-dated and thus reduced-price items, until the rain suddenly pitched up, causing us to retreat to a nearby bus shelter to finish our yoghurts. The cycle-tourist's dining room always comes to our rescue at least once per trip!

“If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” is a common mantra up here, and sure enough, by the time we were ready to go and togged up in our waterproofs, the rain stopped and I was drowning inside my own trousers. Crossing the causeway onto South Uist, we arrived at the junction where the ‘Spine road’, which runs the length of the Uists and Benbecula, properly begins. Three years ago, this was the most soul-destroying piece of riding we’d done with the children.

Everyone tells you to ride the Hebridean Way South-North, to account for the prevailing winds, but this means that if you meet with nice weather, there’s a good prospect of a headwind, because the prevailing wind brings the persisting rain. Pedalling to stand still is purgatory at the best of times but all the more so when you’re heading across open moorland on a straight road; after the beautiful beach trip on Eriskay, our only happy memory of South Uist was the moment a lady took pity on us and kindly let us pitch our tent in her garden as night was falling. It really had been a bit grim.

We got quite a shock, then, at the speed (nearly three times as fast) with which we climbed the first hill past the brutal form of the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, and were quite unfazed by the periodically squally weather as the wind propelled us towards Daliburgh and our next Co-op.

Castlebay - Eriskay - Daliburgh - Benbecula - Solas. The spine route is broken up, for us, into the gaps between Co-ops, and working out the resources we need to get from one to the next. They are our primary source of food, and of cash, a commodity one needs more often than we are accustomed to at home these days, in order to contribute to the economy elsewhere on the islands. Sure, there are a few other places to get food in between, notably the Fish, Chips and Petrol station just before Daliburgh, but a Co-op is an event. A moment to stop, take stock and obtain whatever supplies we’ll need before the next one. It’s like being on the M1 with a toddler and doing a ‘bladder audit’ on your prospects of reaching Toddington with dry seats, before you've left it too late to dive into Newport Pagnell. Frankly, the consequences of getting it wrong are just as catastrophic. Hell hath no fury like a junior touring cyclist who’s ridden all day and just been told you’ve run out of Stroopwafels.

Looming over us as we parked up against the wall at the Co-op was the question of where we were to stay the night, because we still hadn’t sorted it out and so we didn't know what our cooking arrangements would be. History was repeating itself, albeit with time and a favourable wind on our side compared to last time - but the forecast was for a draughty night. For all the uncertainty, at least my socks would definitely be dry...

Coming up next - “I know, but is it socially acceptable to sleep in a graveyard’s car park?"