The Tour of Orkney 2001

Saturday August 11 saw the annual trip across the Firth, this year with six members (Gail, Sam, John Sinclair, John MacKenzie, Julian and yours truly) ignoring (or ignorant of) the poor weather forecast, and cheerfully suffering the unearthly departure time of 0545. We settled down on the Pentland Venture and warily eyed the ruddy east as the sun tentatively peeped over the horizon. Red sky in the morning ?? sailor's warning! But by 0645 we were happily bowling through South Ronaldsay with a modest SSW tailwind and warm, if weak, sunshine. Hundreds of cows blinked, only mildly curious at our passing before returning, uninspired by what they had seen, to their chewing. We arrived in Kirkwall before the street was fully awake, and were first into the pleasant Strynd café to top up on carbs and caffeine. Little did we know how welcome this place would be later in the day! Then it was off to Stromness via Scapa Bay, where a front mech gave up (it needs cleaning Julian) and the steepish Scorrabrae Hill in Orphir, with its panoramic view of Stromness spread between Brinkie's Brae and the cool blue waters of the harbour. As we were entering this old town a spot of rain was felt, but this was not unbearable as we sedately wobbled and weaved up to Ness point and back, up and down the narrow cobbled streets, dodging the ambling crowd to dine in the yard of the Pier Arts Centre, in the shadow of a shapely and verdigreed Barbara Hepworth sculpture. Some twenty heavy glass carboys arranged neatly across the pierside flags tried to say something to us, but we could not guess what - perhaps they were saying how lucky they were not to have been kicked in the harbour by booted boys.

By the time we were finished with a delicious lunch of hot pies and pasties from Argo's Bakery the rain and wind had increased somewhat, but happily, for the time being at least we were still wind-driven though becoming wetter, and brightly-coloured waterproof tops were brought into service. As we skirted the Skaill Loch we were becoming soaked, but shelter (and another café) were near to hand at the Scara Brae visitor centre. The two John's decided to press on, but Sam, who had left us at Kirkwall earlier that morning to amble around anti-clockwise at a self-controlled, leisurely pace, walked in as we settled down in the packed café to more tea, coffee and home bakes, and the warmth and dry was like a soft siren, willing us to linger. Nevertheless, we knew we must be on our way before the lactic acid took its cruel revenge on our legs, and with the wind still behind us and increasing to force 4 or more, we left Sam to go his way and it was on to Birsay. We briefly paused at the car park as the tide lapped over the Broch causeway, then the three of us headed into the wind for the first time for a 20-odd mile slog back to Kirkwall. We figured that the low hills to the south-west would provide some relief, but it wasn't apparent!

There was little pleasure in the day now, dodging puddles and with heads down, but speaking for myself at least, I felt good. Having been training for the forthcoming SCU 12 hour championship the following Sunday with very long runs over the previous few weeks, and having been off the bike for 5 days I was quite up for it despite the gloomy conditions. This would be my last good ride before the 12, and although conducted at a slower pace, it would be valuable practice at spending long hours in the saddle. The wind generators at Burgar Hill were spinning away, but slipping by almost unnoticed in the misty afternoon, and further obscured by our dripping lenses. Plodding limply through Finstown we caught up with John S. at the public convenience vainly seeking to dry himself and his now defunct mobile under an electric hand drier, and here too Julian discovered why his ride had become harder ? it wasn't just that he was feeling weary, it was the weight of the 10 litres of rainwater that had taken occupation of his saddle bag. Soggy sandwich anyone? Remember to make a hole in the bottom next time J. He and I tried to smile as Gail's camera clicked.

On into the Royal Burgh itself, and with anticipation and relief we took in the wonderful ambience of the Strynd café again, busy now as we grabbed the only spare table and discreetly draped as many dripping layers as we could get away with over the seat backs. Mitts, arm warmers, and anything else that could be easily taken off were squeezed out at the doorway, then three shivering souls ignored the incredulous looks from the other diners who probably thought, with despicable smugness, that we were off our trolleys, as hot drinks and hot food primed us for the last 22 mile bash to the ferry terminal at Burwick. The lady who owned the café thanked us for visiting her twice that day, didn't say a word about the puddles around the floor beneath our feet, and even waved us off as if we were about to start a stage of the Tour! Perhaps she was wanting us out before calling in the Fire Brigade with their pumps.

We had at least 3 hours to departure from Burwick at 2030 so there was no rush, but speeds were slow in the warmish, but still rising wind directly in front. We again encountered Sam bravely battling on despite having 'blown' as he told me. I had to ride hard to generate enough body heat to beat the chilling effect of the wet clothes, and soon found myself bowling along and motivated enough to take a few detours up the side roads to make the best of the time left in preparation for the 12 hour, in fact I thoroughly enjoyed these last few hours despite the continual squalls. I finally clocked some 114 miles with (superscript: 1/)(subscript: 2 )hours in the saddle and felt ready for the big one.

In the Thomas and Bews waiting room the heaters were cranked up to maximum while we waited for the boat, we were drying out, and reflected that the day had not been so bad after all. G, John M. and J had managed to catch an earlier boat. Our crossing was a stormy one with force 6 gusts or more and big waves, and although I am not the best of sailors I fortunately remembered a recent TV programme which advised gazing at the horizon as a way of calming the brain, and it worked as I chatted away to Sam and John whilst facing away from them! Into the car, heater on, music on, home, luxurious hot bath, supper, beer ? and that glowing self-satisfied feeling that only a hard day in the saddle can produce!

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