Off-Road and Off the Grid: A Trip to the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is a magical place. Comprising rugged coastlines, peninsulas, sea lochs, hills and mountains, the island’s centre is dominated by the Cuillin, a dark, brooding range of rocky mountains, beloved by climbers and hill walkers. Not just a walker’s paradise, Skye is an underrated cycling destination, as long as you can handle sudden biblical rain showers! At 1656 square kilometers, the island is big enough for epic rides both on and off road, although with many of the roads being rough, bumpy singletrack, every ride becomes a road/gravel/dirt hybrid. In short- you’ll find a bit of everything here. 

After spending the Covid19 lockdown in Madrid- a very difficult time- Skye was the ideal chance to decompress, escape from the city and explore on my bike. I was staying on the peninsula of Sleat on the southern tip of the island, home to a small ferry port, long rolling coastal roads, hilly loops with viciously steep gradients and forest trails. Oh and sheep, lots and lots of Highland sheep.

My favourite ride became the Tarskavaig loop, a 19km route of breathtaking beauty that passes remote crofting villages, farms and isolated stony beaches. What this loop lacks in distance, it makes up for in difficulty. Riding the loop clockwise, you immediately begin the Loch Dughaill climb, a  gravelly 4km, undulating test with 15% sections. In all directions are stunning views of the landscape, the Sound of Sleat sea inlet behind and the Cuillin in the distance ahead. This climb is tough, particularly on a 9.3kg gravel bike, and the extra weight is noticeable on the steeper inclines. Reaching the top, the views are dramatic. Sometimes the clouds are low with gentle rain falling, mist shrouds the hillsides and only the sounds of grazing animals can be heard. 

Next is a long, fast, winding descent. Punctuated by sudden sharp rises when the crest of a hill obscures what lies beyond it, this downhill is like a rollercoaster ride. The road is narrow singletrack, often scarred and gravelly, so you have to be aware of the occasional car, farm truck or errant sheep or cow suddenly darting into your path, which happened to me on more than one occasion.

Speeding past the picturesque villages of Achnacloich and Tokavaig with majestic views of the Cuillin in the distance, the sense of blissful isolation and adventure is powerful as sea air fills the nostrils. This is not the time to get lost in daydreams though as a leg-sapping 20% climb leading out of Tokavaig brings you back to reality. My single chainring and 11/42 cassette felt very welcome here.  

The loop continues on a rolling road until eventually reaching a steep downhill. When riding the loop in the other direction, climbing this 20%+ gradient with its loose gravel made the stock tyres on my gravel bike lose traction and spin out. However, going downhill it’s a different story and you fly into Ord, a beautiful village by a rocky beach. Many locals say the Cuillin views here are amongst the best on the island, making Ord an ideal place to stop for a bar or gel and to take in your surroundings. Ord, like the other villages on this loop, are still crofting communities, the traditional Scottish Highland method of agricultural landholding, and being here can often feel like a step back to a simpler time. 

Leaving Ord, rolling terrain is followed by tree lined sections that give way to a wide valley with animals freely roaming, a stone farm shack and high, lush, green hills speckled with mossy rocks. The road eventually reaches the final test, a 3km climb of changing gradients that makes it hard to settle into a steady rhythm, particularly on the 9% sections. Cows and sheep congregate in the road and avoiding them as you grind up the hill presents an extra challenge. At the top, the road becomes gravelly and rough once again as the final stretch of the loop winds past a large windswept bog. My 40mm heavily treaded tyres run at low pressures help me ride fast and comfortably and the loop road eventually ends at the junction of the main road. 

The Tarskavaig loop was indeed a favourite but there were other memorable rides too. I rode on logging tracks with terrain so rough and rocky I thought I needed an MTB but was astonished how much my gravel bike could handle. I rode winding, lumpy roads surrounded by endless purple heather moorland with red deer in the distance. On the road to Kylerhea Pier, I was taken into an enormous valley that descends rapidly into a remote village with a sea loch at the bottom. Here, otters and sometimes seals are visible and the tiny ferry dock, now closed due to the virus, meant the area was deserted. It was just me, my bike and a solitary red phone box. On longer road rides I sometimes felt the awe-inspiring landscape was swallowing me up with the vast hills, reminding me of my insignificance within nature. 

Before the pandemic my focus had been entirely on speed and performance on the road. As I attempted a PR on a Madrid mountain or focused on holding the wheel ahead of me on a group ride in La Vega to the south of the city, I had my head down, ignoring the landscape around me. Riding fast and testing my limits will always be important to me, but Skye reminded me of the other reasons I love cycling- adventure and freedom. Riding on this island with its stunning mountain scenery, water and abundant wildlife, made me feel far away from where I’d been, reignited my passion and shook my riding routine up. I could ride almost anywhere, never knowing what was around the next corner or beyond the crest of a hill. For a dedicated roadie, this island adventure on a gravel bike was priceless and unforgettable.

Words: Charles Graham-Dixon

Photos: Laura and Delia Thomas