The outside of a motorbike engine seen up close near the exhaust

Home Travel StoriesScotland In Winter 2015

A Long Ride

By Ren Withnell

I sleep. Not the sleep I have at home in my own bed but a darn site better than I've had on 2 deflating lilos and my bike gear. Hmmm. Today's going to be a long ride. It's Tuesday today and if I'm to miss the snow on Wednesday then I need to make a long ride South so I can have a short ride home on Wednesday, before the snow sets in. Today I'm going to ride to Kirkby Stephen. Today I'm going to cover 255 miles. This time I'd like to lie in bed a while longer but I know I need to get on the road. I need to be in Kirkby Stephen before it's dark ideally.

As I decamp the morning weather brings light drizzle from time to time and a persistent soggy mist in the air. Otherwise it's not too bad, it's cold but the wind is low and the air is clean. I'm packed and loaded before 0745, just in the distance between the mountains the first hints of light are in the skies. I thank the campsite owners for their help and kindness, they can't hear me as I reckon they'll still be tucked up in bed, but I thank them none-the-less.

The bike was fine yesterday because I'd fixed it. I'm fine this morning too so apart from the long ride and the feeling that I've wimped out because of the weather, everything else is good to go. I decide to take the low road, the A85 rather than the high Glencoe road this morning. It adds 10 miles to the trip but I don't fancy wrestling with the winds again like I did on Sunday. First stop The Green Welly for a brew and a bite to eat I think.

The Southerly route is a route I've ridden before but some time ago. In fact I'd forgotten how good a route it is. There's a little more traffic, this being basically rush hour but over the 40 miles I only have to let a handful of cars past. They're all courteous and thankful save for one executive in his Audi who tailgates me in some bends. I'll happily let him pass on the next straight but he's too impatient and makes a dangerous move on a corner. It's no wonder these roads are so deadly.

the connel bridge near oban. steel griders on a cold wet wintry morning
The Connel Bridge on this cold damp and blustery morning.

I ride past more steep mountains with deep lochs. It's beautiful in the mist, the snow, the endless tarmac ribbon. Why now? Why am I enjoying this now that I'm leaving? Why couldn't I savour this before? Why does the snow have to come now, now that I'm settling into the rhythm of being on the road? Perhaps it takes me a couple of days to settle into the new routine of life in the road. Perhaps I can travel and enjoy things. I'm happy here even in the rain and the cold. Argh! But then perhaps I'm happy and relaxed because I know I'm heading home. I can't decide so I decide not to think about it and take in the scenery, well, as much as I can see in the mist.

The Green Welly Stop comes into view and as I park the bike...it stalls.Damn. DAMN! Damn you little sod you, DAMN! I thought I'd sussed it. I thought I'd got it all worked out! The fuel pump, just drain it out once in a while and everything will be fine. I've no idea why that would help but if it helps and it works then what does it matter. But no, not this time, it's playing silly buggers again. Damn. That really takes the shine off my brew and my beans on toast.

the 125 parked outside the green welly stop in tyndrum
Damn the bike. The Green Welly Stop, again.

The bike is difficult to start but once again we're on our way. Once I'm onto the Loch Lomond road I already feel like the trip is over. Why? Because it's only 40 odd miles to the motorway and then, well, you know, back to reality, back to cities, back to traffic and back to the ordinary life. That's it, game over for another trip folks.

The motorway is as dull as ever. Long slow tedious miles just trundling along. Well that's what a biker is supposed to think of motorways. I see them as more of an opportunity to meditate and mull things over. At 50 to 55 mph I'm not concerned about the law, I'm rarely concerned about what is in front, the biggest concern is what is behind! 99.99% of drivers pass by safely and courteously, there's always the odd one who'll cut in front for the next junction. I get myself into a zone where I look, mirror, think a moment, look, mirror, think a moment. I reckon it's as close to Buddhist mediation as I'm ever going to get.

Meditation is supposed to empty the mind. That is something I've never managed to achieve. I know I think too much and many have told me to stop. How? There's no internal switch, there's no volume control on my thoughts. My thoughts are often a curse but equally they can be a blessing. They cause me to worry about things over which I have no control yet they also inspire, enlighten and amaze me. Right now they're flummoxed, pondering every possible reason the bike won't tick over properly.

Idle air control valve? Possible, it manages the idle, the tickover. Engine temperature sensor? ECU doesn't know the engine temp so when the bike's warm it thinks it's cold or vice versa. Fuel pump? Everything suggests it's fine but there's so many things about these kind of problems on the internet and it's always the fuel pump. Tappets gone tight? Nah, that's a cold start problem and I only checked them 2,000 miles ago. Blocked injector, timing, bad fuel, mass air flow sensor, air temperature sensor, the ECU itself, all these things are considered.

These considerations pass the time. I need a few breaks for a pee and a stretch but after 6 hours on the road I'm taking the turning that should hopefully take me to Kirkby Stephen and the Takoda campsite. I know about this site as there's to be a rally here in February I'm hoping to go to. I know it's a biker friendly place and I know it's open all year. I can't figure out why it's biker friendly specifically. Does the owner ride? Is it a hippy kind of place? I guess there's only one way to find out.

Finding the site is easy, but it looks very closed to me. There's a large steel barn converted into a fair sized room filled with tables and chairs. There's a summer house looking like a reception but there's no life in there. Other than that it's deserted. No tents, no campervans and no sign in the window saying "Pitch up and we'll catch you later." Sod this, I'm 80 miles from home, I think I'm just going to go home. Oh, hang on.

There's a shed at the far end of the gravel track and a light on within. I see a man milling around inside. I'm not sure if this is part of the site or some random shed belong to a neighbour or something. There's no harm in asking is there? I open the door there stands a Honda Varadero and a chap working on some part or another, "Hello?" It is in fact the owner. Thank goodness for that! They certainly weren't expecting any campers on a cold Tuesday night in January.

Paul is most welcoming, as is the pot belly stove that's warmed the shed most comfortably. We talk. He's done some serious travelling on two wheels yet never looks down on my small bike or my meagre Scottish trip. He's also got a fair story of life's trials and tribulations that lead to the creation of this campsite. I feel comfortable in his company but it's time to put the tent up before it goes dark. It takes great effort to draw myself from the warmth of the stove and Paul's mellow chat.

Tent out. Poles out. Pegs out. Poles in, pull tent up. SNAP! Oh crap! Oh for goodness sake! This trip was definitely not meant to be. I'll have to pack up again and go home. I've just paid Paul for the night, but it's only £8. I need to cut the shock cord in the poles, the sharp alloy has already ripped the sleeve a little and I don't want to make it any worse. I go back to the warm shed and explain my predicament to Paul. He gives me a Stanley blade and tells me to sleep in the barn. "Are you sure, I mean it's not far to home." No, it's fine. I must admit I'm not too keen on another 80 miles. I need a rest. Also reading other traveller's stories I realise there's nothing wrong with accepting help from those kind enough to offer it.

the tent lying crumpled on the grass at takoda camping
Well I guess I'll not be sleeping in the tent tonight then.

I set up my airbed in the corner of the room. I don't know what to call this room, dining room, common room, function room? In the same building are the showers and toilets, is this better than being in the tent? Yeah, no doubt. I'm still on the road just not in the tent tonight. I go back and spend another hour or so talking to Paul about people we both know directly or indirectly, travels we've made, dreams we have and the reality of everyday life. Paul is also happy for me to put the bike in the shed and work on it if I wish. Fabulous.

the airbed and gear in the corner of the room at takoda camping
Better than a tent? Hell yeah.

Soon my bike and myself are within the cosy shed. I make a brew on my stove, hook on to Takoda's wifi and get online while sitting in Paul's comfy chair. Wow, this is what travelling should be like every evening. After catching up with the weather and the gf I turn my attention to the bike. Seat off, side panels off and stare. And stare some more. There's actually nothing I can do here is there? I've got access to all of Paul's tools, I've got internet, I've got warmth, I've got a hot brew but there's one thing missing. I have got no idea whatsoever when it comes to fixing the problem. I stare some more.

the cbf 125 in the warm dry shed next to the pot bellied stove
Warm, dry and comfortable. Still doesn't help with diagnosis this time.

After 15 minutes of staring I decide that whatever I do here will probably make things worse not better. Instead I thoroughly lube the chain and put all the panels back on. Paul said I can leave the bike in the warm dry shed overnight. I switch the light off and close the door and return to the room with no name. I start to watch Top Gear on the tablet then I remember Paul suggested a pub in the town.

The walk into town is very chilly, I can feel that snow coming. The pub however is quite small, warm and has a very relaxed local attitude. There's maybe only 10 or 12 customers but there's a great mix of young and old, race and attitude. They laugh, tease, mock and cajole as only good friends can. They're all playing darts. It's relaxed and healthy and warm. I just watch and laugh for a good while. I like it here.

a packet of hob nobs in the hand on a darnk night in the street
Munchies for the walk to Kirkby Stephen and back.

Back at the site I settle in to the sleeping bag and play a few games of chess. It's peculiar being in this large space all tucked into the corner of the room. Then the wind and the rain starts to lash the barn and I'm almost thankful I'd broken that pole. Sleep now, the snow is forecast sometime in the morning so I want to be away early. I wonder, will I sleep?

Prologue - Scotland In Winter The build up to Scotland In Winter doesn't go anywhere near as well as Ren might hope.
Thinking Too Much As Ren rides north his bike takes a turn for the worse and his over-active mind starts to fret and worry. Is it all really worth it?
Hanging On In There Ren is suffering at the hand of the weather, his bike troubles, his sleeping arrangements and the wind. Will he make it?
A Better Day The weather improves, there's hope for the 125 and there's hope for a better night's rest too.
A Long Ride Ren makes the long journey south to avoid the forthcoming snows. But what does he find in Kirkby Stephen?
Epilogue - Scotland In Winter Ren contemplates the Scotland In Winter trip. Was it really worth the effort?

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