Despite Scotland's reputation of having bad weather and a lot of wind, which is occasionally true and mostly in the wintertime, Islay is an excellent island to discover by bike. The roads are mainly single track, the nature is overwhelming and wildlife is everywhere present. No wonder cycling on Islay is getting more and more popular. And where else do you get a friendly wave from car drivers and other cyclists passing in the opposite direction? The villages are not far apart and in fact the longest distance between two villages on Islay is the ten miles between Bowmore and Port Ellen. Most roads are in a pretty good condition except for the inevitable pot holes but these can easily be avoided since there is almost no traffic, specially on the remote and quiet single track roads. Most roads are relatively flat with the occasional exception of course. What goes up must come down!
If you are not able to bring your own bike to Islay you can easily hire one. The bike hires are located in several villages on the island and you can hire them for a couple of pounds a day on the following locations: Port Charlotte, Port Ellen, Port Askaig and at the Bowmore Post Office. If you want to make reservations, here are the phone numbers: Bowmore Post Office +44 (0) 1496 810 366, Port Charlotte +44 (0) 1496 850 488, Port Askaig Persabus +44 (0)1496 840 753 and Port Ellen +44 (0) 1496 302 349.
Islay has it's own cycling club as well called Velo Club D'Ardbeg. They usually drive around the island on sunday mornings and have a coffee or espresso at Debbie's minimarket at Bruichladdich, who happens to sell the best coffee on Islay, trust me!
One of the most active members from Islay's cycling club is Brian Palmer who works for the Ileach Newspaper and he runs the The Washingmachinepost.net. Here you'll find almost every bit of information available about cycling on Islay: Tours, tips, reports etc. The site is updated on a regular basis so keep in touch. This is also the place where you will find information about the Islay Velo Club. Brian was kind enough to send me the following wonderful cycling route (thanks Brian) on the Rhinns of Islay, the area south of Bruichladdich and famous for it's wildlife, Atlantic Coast, beautiful bay's and historic sites.
Bruichladdich - Port Charlotte - Kilchiaran - Portnahaven - Port Charlotte - Bruichladdich
Best place to start this cycle of around 17-18(30km) miles is the Debbie's Coffee Stop at the Mini-Market, near Bruichladdich Distillery. This way you can have an espresso and carrot cake before setting off, and the same again when you return. Makes the bit in between seem all the more worthwhile. Just to point out that the prevailing wind on Islay, while it might seem to come from pretty much every direction you're headed into, is actually southwest. Assuming this to be the case more often than not, then you are likely to experience a headwind most of the way to Portnahaven. Also bear in mind that you will be cycling down the Atlantic Coast and there is absolutely nothing (and I mean nothing!) to break the wind before it hits the Islay coast. And while you may think you've experienced headwinds before, as the saying goes, 'you ain't seen nuthin' yet.' Of course yours may be one of those unnaturally calm days. There may also be a blue moon or rain going up!
Technical details: please carry at least one spare inner tube and a pump. Even in summer, you can cool down very quickly and getting a patch to stick can be more a matter of faith than physics. Replace the tube and patch the bust one when you get back.
Head south past Bruichladdich Distillery going towards Port Charlotte, taking you past St Kiaran's Church on the right hand side about mid-way along this 5km road. As you come into the village of Port Charlotte, the Museum of Islay Life is up on the right, the Croft Kitchen on your left before crossing the small bridge, carefully ignoring the 'cyclists dismount' signs that appeared several years ago (what's that all about?). We're straight past the Youth Hostel and the Islay Wildlife Centre on the left hand side, then Port Charlotte Hotel and along main street. Just watch here since there are almost always cars parked on your right and Main Street isn't the widest on record. Keep well into the left in case something comes wide past the parked cars. Nobody wants to come off before they've actually started.
On the right hand-side is the Lochindaal Hotel just before the junction where we turn right up the hill towards the ex-village hall which, in years gone by, was the village school. The current school is in to the right of the hall. Carry on past the hall - this bit is a bit of an uphill drag for a mile or two, not too steep but not too flat either. You will pass the Port Charlotte water works on your right, still pedalling uphill a bit, but when the road starts to venture downhill it's a welcome relief (unless you're particularly keen on uphill cycles).
The road twists and turns a bit on the way to Kilchiaran and because it is a single track road, try not to cycle two abreast when there are cars oncoming or motoring behind. They won't thank you for it. About a kilometre (half a mile or so) before reaching Kilchiaran, the road heads seriously downwards. If you've already cycled up the brae at Port Askaig, then this is the same gradient downhill (unless you're going the other way in which case it's obviously uphill) of 14%.
If you haven't already sussed, Islay is an agricultural island, with farms dotted all across the landscape. With farms generally come herds of cattle and it might not have escaped your notice that they seem to spend almost as much time on the road as they do in the attendant fields. And cattle never clean up after themselves. So as you're hurtling down this 14% gradient and turn the bend at Kilchiaran Farm, please be aware that you are just as likely to run slap bang into cattle on the road as you are to freewheel on past the ruin of Kilchiaran Chapel on the right. Or a car heading towards Port Charlotte. Or large quantities of mud and sh*^!$ which may have an adverse effect on braking efficiency. You have been warned (though it is such a great downhill that you may just be tempted to ignore all the above). The track on the right just prior to the chapel leads up to a point known as 'Granny's Rock' and there is a piece of singletrack that will take you round the coast (all downhill from the top) to Kilchoman and Machir Bay. Also, atop the hill are the remnants of a 'listening station' used during the war to track ships etc in the Atlantic. However, only venture up this way if you are on a suitable mountain bike (not the best place to take your carbon fibre Colnago) and adept at slogging uphill on loose gravel and mud.
Assuming we have not chosen this latter option, the worst is yet to come. Having sped down a 14% gradient, now you have to climb one, and if you can muster the energy to look to your right, there are wonderful views of Kilchiaran Bay and beyond (next stop eastern Canada). Granted if it's a lousy day, you won't see much at all, though if that's the case, you may not have made it this far.
After such a heavy climb, the road levels out a bit, though it doesn't get any straighter. a few kilometres along the road is a track leading to Tormisdale Croft, which still indulges in many traditional forms of rural craft such as spinning, knitting, carving etc. If you've time, it could be a nice idea to drop by. Failing that, carry on towards the south, past Cultoon farm and Shooting Ground on the right and the mysterious Cultoon Stone Circle on the right.
This latter feature is really a stone circle in waiting. Only two stones made it to the upright position before the site was abandoned in the pre-Christian era. All the stones are lying next to the holes dug for them and there they have been for well over 2000 years, and nobody really knows why. It's a bit of a trudge across to the circle, so unless you are wearing particularly stout footwear (not always a pragmatic choice for cycling) make a mental note to return later in the week and carry on. The road passes Kelsay farm on the left and Lossit farm on the right. There is a pathway to Lossit Bay and along the promontory if you fancy a dramatic view of Atlantic breakers, but please bear in mind that Lossit is a working farm and while it might be a pleasant walk through the farm for you, it's somewhat akin to folks taking a walk through your front garden. So just think how you would feel about that, tread carefully and have a bit of respect (this goes for all farmland - there is no law of trespass in Scotland, but cyclists in bright lycra traipsing across farm fields are unlikely to win many friends amongst the local farming community).
There's a couple of hilly bits both up and down before you branch onto the road leading past Claddach and into Portnahaven. Since the road into the village overlooks the bay and across to Orsay lighthouse, do yourselves a favour and stop to admire the view or even pop into An Tigh Seinnse for a refreshment.
Taking into consideration the earlier remarks about prevailing winds on Islay, you could now look forward to about 12/13 kilometres with a tailwind. Or more likely, the wind will have changed direction while you were out and you'll have to slog into a headwind again back to Port Charlotte. On a clear day, there are excellent views up Loch Indaal to the Paps of Jura and across to the Oa, the Strand and Laggan point (eventually). The road back to Port Charlotte is just as twisty turny as the road was on the way down, but there is no climbing to speak of. There are no outstanding features on the road until it reaches Nerabus where there are the ruins of a chapel along with carved headstones. And should you make the trip down to the shore, there are the ruins of a former mill including, at one time, the original millstone.
On the last stretch of road before Port Charlotte village is the new Port Mor centre with a large wind turbine in its back garden. Once through the village it's only those last 5km to reach your starting point in Bruichladdich.
The total time taken pretty much depends on how much sight-seeing you've done on along the way, though if we assume that you didn't stop once and you're reasonably fit, it can be completed in about an hour and a half or marginally less. Now for that espresso and carrot cake.