Kintyre Way Cycle Ultra 2018 – Here We Go Again

2017 saw the inaugural staging of the Kintyre Way Ultra bike race, a 73 mile epic which contained 7000 feet of vertical climbing and showcased all of the incredible scenery that the Kintyre Way has to offer. The organisers were delighted with the popularity and success of the event, and it has been decided to run the race again in 2018. Entries for this event -due to be staged on May 5th– are already open, and some of us have already started training for it and will continue to do so over the course of this winter. If you are interested in entering this event, or if you have already entered but have little or no knowledge of the route, then this blog will help you to see what is ahead of you and it might help you to make important equipment choices which could improve the quality of your race experience.

Part 1: Corranbuie to Claonaig.

The route.

The exact starting point for this year`s race has yet to be set in stone, but regardless of where the line is eventually drawn the real racing will start when the route heads off the tarmac at Corranbuie. The climb from here starts at sea level and winds its way steadily through a mixture of deciduous and coniferous woodland to the highest point on the whole of the Kintyre Way. My Strava upload tells me that Stephen McShannon and I rode for 6 miles to reach the summit of 1140 feet but it is for the main part a gentle drag that offers superb panoramic views over Tarbert towards Lochgilphead to the North, Portavadie and Cowal in the East and Arran to the South. The surface is generally very good, a well maintained forestry road that you can happily grind away on without having your forward progress impeded.

The forestry road carries on beyond the summit, but the Kintyre Way and the race route bears left at this point onto the old Tarbert-Skipness road and this is where the surface suddenly becomes a lot more “interesting”. Although I assume that a lot of effort was once made to build up this path and to drain its flanks, it is after all a track through a swamp and in some places it has reverted to its original condition. Despite some fine work being done by Kintyre Way employees to create wooden bridges and boardwalk sections over the wettest spots, sniper bogs still hide in wait for unsuspecting front wheels to dig in, stop dead and flip a bike`s rider clean over the bars. This is a physically draining 2 miles stretch that is highly entertaining to ride if you can stay dry and upright, but it can be equally frustrating if you fall foul of a hidden mudbath. You have been warned!

Just when you are inevitably becoming exasperated by your lack of forward progress, you reach a gate and the start of a track that plummets southwards towards the village of Skipness and this stretch is great territory to ride through. Mixed woodland lines both sides of the trail as it follows the riverside before veering up a punchy climb and down an even steeper descent that spits the rider out right into the centre of the sleepy hamlet. A quick squint ahead affords a view toward the North of Arran (above) that can be hard to match on a sunny day, but race competitors will be more concentrated on the 2 mile tarmac blast that must be negotiated to reach the ferry terminal that marks the end of the first of the Kintyre Way`s seven sections.

Distance:12.8 miles

Maximum elevation: 1146 feet.

Strava KOM: 51 minutes 51 seconds.

Loop suggestions.

One of the trickiest aspects of training for the Kintyre Way Ultra is planning how to get back to your starting point. Ideally we want to avoid having to head straight out on a section and then to be forced to ride the same route in reverse, but plotting an enjoyable loop requires a certain amount of local knowledge. If you have reached Claonaig ferry terminal and you do not plan to carry on into the Kintyre Way`s second section, you really have two options available to you in order to get back to Corranbuie.

The first of these is to make use of the tarmac link road that connects the ferry terminals at Claonaig and Kennacraig and then to ride north on the A83 until you reach the carpark you left from. At 8 miles this is undoubtedly the easier of the two options, so if you are short of time or unsure of your capabilities then you should plan to return using this safer choice. In reality this route it is not too disappointing despite its smooth tarmac surface, as the steady climb to the summit of the link road tests the rider and reveals superb views in both directions.

The second return option is more adventurous, and is the route which Stephen and I chose to use on our recent mission. Once again the rider leaves Claonaig on the link road towards Kennacraig, but bears right onto an estate track at Glenrisdell Farm. The climb from here is relatively tough but the surface is good, so it is easy to make good progress into the conifer wood above the farm.

Sunset over the Freasdale Wind Farm from Glenrisdell

Eventually you will come to a junction where you must turn to the right instead of going straight on, It is once you have taken the right turn that this return option starts to make sense as you leave the woodland and traverse open moorland which makes the very most of the spectacular views. The trail soon heads into woodland once more, and tracks across the hill until it meets the gate at the head of the trail that we used for our descent into Skipness. From here we have to ride and push up a small section of the swamp trail that we rode earlier, but this probably only lasts for half a mile before we reach the forestry road that we crossed on our way down. From here we can turn left and follow this well-surfaced road up to the summit where we left it on our earlier ascent, and then we get to enjoy the 1140 foot, 6 mile descent back to our starting point. This route is 27 miles in total, containing almost exactly 3000 feet of climbing and descending. Highly recommended.

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The Bike Geek Section!

The Kintyre Way Ultra route is roughly 75 miles in length and contains around 7000 feet of climbing. What makes it even tougher and more interesting is the varied nature of its terrain, and inevitably this raises countless questions about equipment choices.

Should you use a mountainbike? Can you ride it on a cross bike? Which will be faster, and which will help you conserve more energy? What tyres should you choose? Will a 1×11 setup give you a wide enough spread of gears? These are just a few of the questions I was asked before the race last year, in my amateur capacity as “the guy who had probably ridden the route more than anybody else”.

Having effectively negotiated the race on a relatively inexpensive cross bike in 2017, I will admit that I still don`t have all the answers. On the day, my bike was fitted with cable disc brakes and Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres and I felt that it performed very well over the varied terrain. I could climb quickly and had plenty of grip, and I gained valuable time on the tarmac sections between Clachan and Tayinloan and then again between Ballochgair and the finish in Campbeltown. It was extremely compromised on the descents when pitted against the mountainbikes in the race, though getting down the descents at a reasonable pace required commitment and induced serious mental and physical fatigue.

When Stephen and I rode this loop recently from Corranbuie to Claonaig, he rode a hardtail mountainbike fitted with draggy Maxxis Minion and High Roller tyres and he struggled badly to keep up with me on both the climbs and descents. It amused me greatly watching him have to pedal furiously on the descents while I freewheeled alongside him, but it did showcase once again how important bike set-up is if you want to maximise your experience of tackling a race of this magnitude.

I feel that I have taken my cost-effective cross bike as far as I can, and that considering that it is standard save for those Schwalbe tyres and some vibration-reducing Kinesis carbon forks, it undoubtedly offers fantastic value for money in terms of race performance per pound spent. What I am curious to find out though, is how much faster I could be if I had the opportunity to set up a cross-country mountainbike specifically to tackle the varied terrain of the Kintyre Way. I have no doubt that even with basic suspension forks and the increase in grip that wider tyres would offer I would be substantially quicker on the downhill sections, but how much would I have to spend on a mountainbike to be quicker on that than I am on the cross bike overall? Would it need to have a carbon frame? Would a simple 1×11 gear spread give me enough gears to negotiate the steep climbs AND the steep descents, or would I need a double set-up that might increase the possibilities of mechanical issues? What tyres would I go for to give me the best compromise between rolling efficiency and confidence-inspiring grip?

We have teamed up with our sponsors at Wheels Cycling Centre in Callander to attempt to answer these questions and more as we work our way through all the sections of the race route. Wheels will once again offer competitors a hire service with full race support to anyone who wishes to use one of the bikes from their extensive fleet, and they have kindly agreed to set up one of these bikes for me so that I can attempt to answer all of the set-up questions that I posed at the start of this section. Armed with all the information that I have compiled throughout many enjoyable days spent riding all over the stunning scenery that the Kintyre Way traverses, I should be able to set up a steed that works pretty well, but it will be invaluable to have the experience of the team at Wheels to suggest finer details that might help me to cover the ground even more quickly. We will share whatever discoveries we make in future updates of this blog, so stay tuned if you are as big a bike geek as I am!

If you are interested in making use of one of the hire packages that Wheels Cycling Centre has to offer, or you plan to enter the Kintyre Way Ultra and you feel that now would be a good time to treat yourself to a new bike and you want to speak with somebody who can give you all the unbiased advice you need, then give John a call on 01877 331100 and tell him that we sent you.

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