Best roads in the world are right on your doorstep

Published: 25 March 2001

EVERY year thousands of us flock to Spain, Switzerland and France for our riding kicks. We take our bikes across the channel, trap them on ferries and go seeking the ultimate roads because we’ve all been brainwashed that fantastic roads don’t exist in Britain. How wrong could you be. I’ve seen the light and it’s at the end of the M6 over the border. The A82 that runs from Glasgow to Inverness is, or should be the UK’s biking mecca. Keep your Swiss, French and Italian alps because the A82 is a place that matches them in every way and you don’t even have to change your currency, This first becomes obvious when I’m stood at the side of Loch Lomond. Anyone who knows me well would be dumbfounded by my untypical silence. I’m gazing at the truly stunning scenery of Loch Lomond and its neighbouring forestry and mountains. It’s all lit magnificently by the brilliant morning sunshine, and I have nothing to say. As an opinionated and loud-mouthed Northerner, never normally short a few hundred words in any issue, This is not my usual self, in fact it’s completely out of character.

My mind might be racing with the thoughts of joy and elation at being where I am, but the words to describe my emotions aren’t forthcoming. And even if I could summon up the appropriate descriptive phrases for the truly amazing spectacle I’m witnessing right now, I’m in no position to utter a single one of them. The fact is, because my jaw is virtually touching the ground due to the profound effect of this incredible vista, I’m in no position to offer any vocal expression anyway.

Leave that to the Australians, Americans, and Japanese tourists as they get off their tourist coach. But they struggle to sum it all up, and can only offer tit bits like " ooooooh, ahhhhhh, and I don’t believe it. "

When we all calm down a bit we attempt to assess the beauty of the place. They manage to offer the best evaluation, and state with conviction their multi-thousand mile flights from their homelands have been more than justified by how much their hearts have been gladdened by the images that they’re trying to take in.

I’ve only come a few hundred miles to be a part of it. But the long ride the previous day, in freezing conditions, along the mind-numbing length of the M6 motorway fades away in the emotive warmth.

Photographer Howard Boylan knows what I’m thinking and steps in to send my happiness factor a huge leap higher by saying: " if you think this is special , just wait until you get in the mountains. It gets a lot better than this mate. "

He was speaking with plenty of authority with his prediction. He, like the man who’d sent me, Marc Potter, has been to this neck of the woods before and knows exactly what to expect. He and Marc had passed through this utopia en route from Land’s End as they made their way to John O’Groats on Honda C90s at the beginning of last year. They’d fallen in love with the place then. So he knows what lies ahead in my quest to sample one of Britain’s best biking roads - the A82 from Glasgow to Inverness.

But though it was familiar territory for him, Boylan is still shocked at my abstinence from comment. " Bloody hell Mossy, I’ve never seen you so quiet. You should come here more often, " he says. Howard’s advice is good and I urge you to take it too. Quite simply this area of Scotland is such a motorcycling paradise, it almost convinces me that God must be a Scottish biker. It has everything you could ever wish for.

Included on the menu are brilliant roads, hospitable and biker-friendly people, a host of gorgeous places to visit, plenty of history and culture, and of course the staggering views. If this road can’t please you, then you should hang up your leathers and retire right now.

Even the starting point of the journey, Glasgow, had put me in an unexpectedly good mood. I remembered it as a rough, tough city where it was best to keep a low profile. Images of nasty men like Begbie from the film Trainspotting had made my wary as we’d entered the place the previous evening.

Glaswegians have a fearsome reputation, but any worries of being biffed black and blue by any anti-Sassenach locals under the influence of a few tins of Tenants Extra proved unfounded. Much has changed since I was last here, and though there is still some evidence of less than friendly zones ( as there are in any big city ), on the whole the place looks quite upmarket, affluent and prestigious.

Mind you it still feels a bit foreign to me. And though I might have not have needed to pack my passport or any foreign currency for this trip, a phrase book would have been handy at times. That need had been underlined this morning in the hotel when I asked for kippers for breakfast. I know I don’t speak the Queen’s English myself, but the fact that the waiter had to consult two of his colleagues before he understood my culinary request proved we don’t all seem to speak the same language on this island of ours. And make sure you pack a decent map too, because if you every ask any local the way to places like Auchintore, Drumnadrochit and Dochgarroch they’ll probably laugh at your pronunciation, and you’ll be met with what seems, to us foreigners at least, as a load of unintelligible gibberish.

But there is plenty of familiar stuff to understand in this part of the world, and the awesome A82 road is one of them. It’s tailor-made for biking and the combination of a clean and grippy surface, with every imaginable type of corner makes thrashing along it feel like a pure bliss.

Mind you there’s so much scenery to take in you’d be foolish to ride it flat out because you’d miss out on so much visual splendour. And the signs reminding you of speed cameras is another reason to keep things in check.

The first part of the 170-odd mile route consists of open, flowing sweeping corners. But just about two-thirds of the way along the 26-mile long Loch Lomond, which the road runs right next to, you run into the small village of Tarbet. If you can resist the temptation to stop and gorge yourself on typical Scottish fayre like salmon, haggis or venison at the impressive Tarbet hotel and keep on going, the Tarmac becomes more challenging.

Here it becomes much tighter, twistier and TT-like. The ZX-9R I’d chosen for the trip is in its element here. It had already brought me this far in total civility and comfort thanks to its plush seat, effective fairing and relaxed riding position. And though its sporting ability can’t quite match the latest opposition it’s easily up to the job of carving through the countryside quickly. Light and quick steering, powerful brakes, and a strong if slightly revvy engine provide a perfect cocktail for swift progress.

But the scratching took a back seat when I stopped to get a bit of expert guidance from a couple of local Honda SuperBlackbird riders, Jeremy and Graham. They’re lucky enough to be able to get out on the A82 within minutes of leaving their homes and have much praise for it.

" It’s a fabulous stretch of road and has everything you’ll ever need. The people around here love bikes, and you can stay in the very best hotels and be welcomed. And provided to don’t get up to any silly antics like pulling wheelies, and racing along the straights at 150mph, the police will take kindly to you too.

" But take care, there are some unmarked cars around and in some places the police set up speed cameras. And if you’re new to the area take your time because the roads can catch you out. There are some places where you don’t want to fall off because you’ll inevitably get hurt, and hospitals aren’t always close by.

" I’ve done 8000 miles on these roads on my BlackBird and don’t feel I need to go anywhere else. There are a couple of places where they’ve put ShellGrip on the surface to make it grippier, but this can break up a little when it’s new and makes the surface loose. My advice is too take things easy if you’re unsure of the way the roads go.

" And look out for stray animals like sheep. They can wander right into your path and cause problems. Luckily the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease means they’re confined to their farms and don’t present a hazard. The traffic is much lighter at the moment because of the situation as well. And if it carries on for much longer the roads will be quiet in the summer too. Many people come here to walk the hills and glens, and because most of those areas are restricted or closed off, the number of visitors will be a lot less. Normally there’s a few slow moving caravans and foreign traffic taking its time, which isn’t generally too much of a problem, but it should be really clear this year. "

Their tales had whetted my appetite to sample more of the A82’s delights rather than just talk about them, and armed with their experience and a farewelling words of ‘enjoy,’ I set off for further thrilling.

Sure enough the road continued to be brilliant and the pleasure of being on it grew stronger. Soon after I got going again, the view of the crystal clear waters of Loch Lomond was replaced by dense forests and ever taller snow-capped mountain ranges, made even more colourful and impressive by the brilliant sunlight.

By the time you’ve got this far, the sheer grandeur and scale of the place really does start have a massive effect on you and gives a real zest for life. But as Howard pointed out earlier, I hadn’t seen anything yet. And yes, it was going to get much better than this.

Just before it did, we stopped off at the humorously-titled cafe, cum restaurant, cum gift shop, The Green Welly Stop, at Tyndrum. It’s a popular and much-frequented stop off for many bikers. And the proprietor’s provision of a dedicated bike park, big enough for the hundred and fifty of so motorcyclists who descend on his place in the summer, is a very positive sign.

Billy Fairbrother greeted us on arrival and served me with a bowl of ?????? (Marc, could you please ask Howard what the name of this stuff is) and hot coffee to sustain me for the rest of the trip. Refreshed with the fayre I had a quick look around the shop, and if I had space probably would have walked out with half of it. There’s tons on offer from whiskies to fleeces and all things in between to remind you of your stay.

Billy added a few words about the area. " This is one of the most popular areas for bikers in Scotland. They come from miles around to ride round here. I get to meet plenty of them and I think they’re a great bunch. They’re a good laugh, and there’s never any trouble. They’re always welcome to come here. "

After filling my stomach it’s time to quench the Kawasaki’s thirst and head on up the mountain. The ZX-9R has been quite frugal and is returning a useful 40-45 mpg. But even with a practical tank range of over 160 miles it’s best to top up your tank more often than this as petrol stations aren’t that common, especially where I was about to head to.

After Tyndrum the road starts to climb steeply and its fast sweeping curves take you higher and higher to the awesome mountains of Glencoe. This part of the journey is easily the best part of the whole trip, and definitely the most emotive.

I might have been speechless at the side of Loch Lomond, but the experience of this astonishing landscape is even more overwhelming. As the road twists through the huge mountains you’re totally bowled over by the size and scale of the area. Quite what sort of forces were involved to create this environment I can only imagine. But the enormity of it all really makes you feel quite insignificant as a petty human being. It was here long before we were and will undoubtedly remain here long after we’re all gone.

It’s an inspiration just being near it and when you consider some of the events that have taken place here, the awe of the region becomes even more staggering.

Back in 1692 the Campell clan forced its right to possession on the rival McDonalds and slayed them in a bid to take control the area. And I must say if any foreign nation tried to seize this area, I for one would be tempted to take up arms to protect it. And I’m not even Scottish.

The magnificence and beauty are compounded by its unpolluted and natural charm. And if there was ever a reminder of why we need to protect the environment, then the image of Glencoe is one of the most pertinent.

More recently it’s formed the backdrop for the feature films the Highlander, Rob Roy, and Braveheart. And looking at the striking splendour and grandiose images of this zone, it’s easy to see why the Hollywood set came here.

But right now as we take some static pictures in our attempt to illustrate the glorious and imposing views on film we’re suddenly interrupted by the sound of an very fast moving object. And what seems like just milliseconds after its roar bombarded our eardrums, the awesome sight of a fighter plane flashes into view. It’s flying an amazingly low level, and is so close to us it feels like it’s about to take the bar end weight from the bike. I’ve seen many impressive sights on this trip, but none will match the sight of that plane howling through the mountains. There’s a fair chance you’ll see one too if you go to Glencoe. The Second World War dambuster squadron of Lancaster bombers used the zone for training and it’s remained a venue for RAF pilots to practice in ever since.

Jumping back on the ZX-9 didn’t quite feel the same after that. Compared whatever that low-flying projectile that just passed me was, the performance of the Kawasaki now seemed positively moped-like.

The subject of its speed became a talking point soon after when we spoke to Colin Gough, a police sergeant with the Northern Constabulary, based in Glencoe village. He gave us some views and advice on the A82 in his area.

" We really welcome motorcyclists in this area. On the whole they are very well-behaved and ride sensibly and responsibly. Of course there’s the odd exception, and we do come across guys who want to race their mates and end up going far too fast.

" It’s not safe to do that here, particularly in summer when the area attracts a lot of tourist traffic, especially foreign cars. Those drivers don’t always drive in the way you’d expect and present an extra hazard, so it’s best to slow down.

" I used to be a traffic cop on a bike and still help other officers with rider training on these roads. The car section does the same, so we know the roads well.

" We encourage riders to take care and sign up extra training, which a lot have done through BikeSafe 2000, a scheme aimed at increasing rider skills.

" There’s so much to enjoy on a bike round here, but please note the speed-detecting equipment we have here could land you in trouble if you blatantly flaunt the law. Mobile cameras, videos, and lazers will hopefully discourage excessive speed. The accident record on this section of the A82 is good, and we want to keep it that way. " You have been warned.

With that in mind we set off at a slightly reduced rate, and dropped down to the picturesque town of Onich and alongside Loch Linnhe and then on towards Fort William. This is the biggest town we’ve been in since Glasgow and it seems odd to be back in civilisation once more. It’s a good place to stop and shop or eat if you fancy a breather. And the views of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, add to its attraction. The 4406ft high rock is yet another famous and awe-inspiring Scottish landmark.

The A82 then starts to open up a little after that as you head towards the quaint towns of Spean Bridge, Invergarry, and Fort Augustus where very soon after you ride alongside arguably the most famous famous spot in the whole of Scotland, Loch Ness.

Much has been reported of this huge Loch which is deep enough to hold the entire contents of England and Wales put together. In parts it’s been measured at over 900 feet deep, and there are some even deeper parts which as yet have not been charted.

But facts like that take second place to the almost mythical story of one of its claimed inhabitants, the Loch Ness Monster. Whatever your beliefs are in its existence, it’s hard not to stop and check if you can catch a glimpse of it yourself. Most of us doubt whether this tale of folklore is true, but when you survey its waters there’s a strange feeling that it could be there. I reckoned I saw a flash of it for a second, but it turned out to just a reflection of my ugly mug.

If you are intrigued by the monster, everything you need to know about its history can be found in the Loch Ness shop at Drumnadrochit (trying saying that after a couple of wee drams). The town also has pubs, restaurants and hotels named after the beast. And I personally couldn’t help but thinking the whole thing has been founded on a commercial scam to milk visitors of their cash. I don’t know if that’s a cynical point of view, but let’s face it, along with their interest in kilts, whisky, and haggis, the Scottish also have a reputation for being fond of making money and hanging on to it.

The journey’s coming to a close now, and it’s only a few miles to the end of the A82 in Inverness. But there’s a great finale to this wonderful stretch of Tarmac as it twists and undulates spectacularly towards the town, again surrounded by stunning views of the forests, hills and water.

All good things come to an end though, and as I park the Kawasaki for the last time today it’s time to reflect of what I’ve just experienced. Tucking in to a portion of pigeon breast, and sipping on a few glasses of wine in the restaurant of the splendid and traditionally built and furnished venue of the Royal Highland Hotel, I couldn’t have felt much happier.

The A82 had played host to a fantastic time for Howard and I. It had been a truly fantastic time for us both. We ridden on great roads. Seen scenery as good as anything we’ve ever had the good fortune to witness. Been welcomed by everyone we’d met. And as luck would have it, sampled the whole lot in brilliant sunshine.

Biking is rarely this good. And though we backtracked down the A82 to Glasgow on the way home the following day to spoil ourselves yet again, by the time we left the city of Glasgow and joined the motorway to head south, we suddenly became depressed at the prospect of returning to normal life. But every drug has its come down. And the A82 is one drug that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

OR TRY THESE OTHER BRILLIANT ROUTES ON YOUR DOORSTEP

IF you can’t make it up to Scotland then try some of these other fantastic circular routes around the UK. There’s obviously plenty more but these are some you should ride before you’re too old too get on a bike.

DARTMOOR LOOP 58 miles

Route: Start A38/A382 junction, 11 miles SW of Exeter. N on A382 to Moretonhampstead, turn L on B3212 to A386 (19 miles, via Princetown) at Yelverton. Turn R on A386 through Tavistock, R on B3357 « mile after town centre. Take B3357 over Dartmoor to Ponsworthy and Dunstone, to B3387 at Widcombe in the Moor. Follow this to A382 at Bovey Tracy. Turn R to start.

Access: Quickly via M5. More interestingly via A303 (Andover), A30 (Yeovil, Shaftsbury and Dorset GBR) or A35/A3052 (Dorchester and South Coast).

SCRATCHERS' LANE AND CRANBORNE CHASE 75 miles

Route: From Ringwood (A31) take B3347 south to Avon. Then R at Court Farm over Avon Causeway to Hurn, and R into Scratchers' Lane (200 yards before roundabout, sp. 'Matchams'). Turn R over A338 flyover, continue to A31 underpass, take B3081 to Shaftsbury, via Verwood. From Shaftsbury, A350 to Blandford Forum (by-pass). B3082 to Wimborne Minster. B3073 to Hurn, L at roundabout beyond airport, L again onto Scratchers' Lane, to Ringwood.

Access: Ringwood (all services) lies alongside the main A31 trunk road, giving easy access via the A31/M3 from London, or from the Midlands via A34. Alternatively, try picking the circuit up at Shaftsbury via Salisbury and the A30.

SPALDING-DONINGTON 65 miles

Route: From Spalding take A151 via Bourne to A1 roundabout (straight on), then follow B575 (sp. Melton) to Melton Mowbray. Go straight through Melton, pick up signs for A6006, across A46 and A60 to A6. Turn L, then immediately R, B5324. After 1/2 mile turn R on B5401, through Long Whatton and Diseworth. At A453 turn L to Donington Park (1 mile).

Access: West: M1 J24. East: A16.

PEAK DISTRICT 49 miles

Route: Glossop (on A57 Manchester-Sheffield Road), B6105, north, 5« miles to A628, turn R. After a mile, turn L, A6034, to Holm Moss and Holmfirth. Enter town on A635, cross river, bear R on B6106. In 5« miles, turn R on A616, cross A628 at Flouch Inn (sp. Sheffield), to Langsett. Turn R at Wagon & Horses (sp. Strines and Derwent Valley). Continue, keeping moorland to your R via Strines Inn (good food) to A57. Turn R (sp. Glossop), follow A57 15 miles to start.

Access: A 57 from Manchester and M6/M63 in the west. A57 from Sheffield and M1 in the east.

KIELDER AND CARTER BAR 76 miles

Route: From junction of A68 and B6320, 21 miles N of Corbridge: SW on B6320 to Bellingham, turn right (unclassified, signs to Kielder), via Stannersburn to Kielder itself, then Myredykes (by which time you are in Scotland), to B6357. Turn R, 11 miles to A6088. Turn R, to Borchester Bridge, turn R on B6357 to A68. Jedburgh is 3 miles to L, or turn R to return to start over A 68, Carter Bar pass

Access: Straightforward access from Newcastle in the south (A696), or via the A68 from Darlington and the A1, which traverses Co. Durham to rousing effect. (On a fast bike, the mountainous crests of the A68 north of the Tyne Valley offer more air-time than Radio One.) From the north, the A7, A68 or A72/A721 converge near Jedburgh. The latter is well worth sampling in its own right.

HAYDON BRIDGE-PENRITH 37 miles

Route: At Haydon Bridge, turn south immediately east of Tyne bridge. After 3/4 mile turn R on A686. Continue along A686 (sp. 'Alston') to Alston, then over Hartside Pass to Eden Valley, Penrith and M6.

Access: As well as being a sensational road in its own right, Hartside is a useful and invariably quiet secondary route from the East coast to the Lake District. The A686 not only serves Tyneside via Haydon Bridge, but Alston can be reached entertainingly from Durham via Weardale (A689) and from Teesside and the south via Teesdale (B6277).

RING OF RHAYADER 98 miles

Route: At A44/A483 junction, turn W on A44. At Rhayader, continue straight on to B4518, following signs for 'Mountain Rod to Aberystwyth'. At T junction turn L, 'Not suitable for coaches and HGV', and continue via Cwmystwyth to B5474 and Devil's Bridge. Turn R on A4120, R on A44 (petrol). At Llangurig take A470 (sp. Dolgellau & Llanidloes), then A489 to Newtown. At Newtown, turn R on A483 (sp. Llandrindod Wells), to start.

Access: Even getting to this one is sheer escapism -- a scenic swoop through the Welsh Marches. Take either the A422 from the M40, J15, via Stratford, Worcester (access M5, J6) and the A44 through Leominster; or, from Birmingham (M5/M6), the A456 via Kidderminster, A4117, A4113 and A488.