Routes

Spending the day cycling in Clackmannanshire

Summer seems to be slipping through my fingers, and with its slide there is an accompanying mild panic that I am not fitting in enough exploration of Scotland on two wheels while the weather is playing fair. Thankfully, I am not the only person currently experiencing this sensation, and so to that end my pal Suzanne and I hatched a plan to spend a weekend in the Highlands cycling. Sadly, as time is wont to do, it disappeared in typical fashion and we found we didn’t have enough of it to plan a few nights away with the pair of us and her adorable mini-cyclist. So instead we decided to go to Clackmannanshire on a day adventure!

The Ochil hills of Clacks looking particularly lovely

The Ochil hills of Clacks looking  lovely. That high-quality stretch of path is also pretty glorious.

I have to admit, Clackmannanshire didn’t really inspire much in me when we initially decided to pay it a visit by bike. Suzanne was keen to explore the cycling in the local authority as it was considered a good bet for wee legs and little bikes as there is a decent network of shared use paths and cycle-friendly roads around the area. It’s a small local authority, so it’s relatively easy to connect to places by bike.

The Clackmannanshire network at a glance

The Clackmannanshire network at a glance. You may need to zoom in to see it, though!

After the familiar fight on the Scotrail train from Waverley, whereby four grown ups attempted to squeeze four and a half bikes into a space that comfortably takes two (whilst simultaneously receiving glares and a telling off from the guard), we made a tight connection at Stirling and alighted, slightly frazzled but in one piece, at Alloa.

Our adventure began with various squints at the map and spots of the Sustrans blue signs that highlighted our way around the cycle network. We took the NCN 768 to Alva, which was almost entirely on wide and well maintained shared use paths. When we hit Tillicoultry I almost felt like i was in the Netherlands, as there was a fully segregated path running parallel to the busy A91 into Alva. Of course, with no tangling in traffic the cycle journey was stress free and highly enjoyable for all concerned.

Other than jelly babies, this infrastructure makes cycling with a four year old a doddle.

Other than jelly babies, this infrastructure makes cycling with a four year old a doddle.

I learned a fair bit cycling with a little one. As I don’t have sprogs of my own, cycling with a child provides a whole other bucket of considerations that sit outside of a solo rider’s thought processes. For example, our route included small sections on rural road and even though they were quiet and non-threatening I still had nerves about the mini-adventurer and traffic. With two of us to tag-team with the little guy everything went without a hitch, but it was a good way for me to learn more about cycling with kids.

Gear like the follow-me tagalong is impressive and means everyone can enjoy the amazing activity of cycling

Gear like the follow-me tagalong is impressive and means everyone (including mini-cyclists with tired legs) can enjoy the amazing activity of cycling

One of the best things about the day was our relaxed pace. Family-paced cycling has a lot to be said for itself. You literally stop and smell the flowers. You point out the animals, plants and people you see as you tootle along. There is lots of discussion about treats and sweeties and cakes, and it all just fits so wonderfully together that it feels like the most natural way possible to travel.

Sharing the cycle path with a child unfurls so many bonuses to a bike trip.

Sharing the cycle path with a child unfurls so many bonuses to a bike trip.

Of course, our day trip wasn’t 100% idyllic. There were annoying barriers and dismounts, and we encountered such a ridiculous irony on the on-road cycle route that I had to stop and snap the silliness of it. A car complete with two bikes taped to its rear was parked over the cycle lane on the road in Clackmannan. Normally this would be a minor inconvenience for me, but when you have a tiny person with you the flaws in infrastructure and resulting behaviours of people take on a whole new colour.

Oh the irony of a bunch of bikes blocking the on-road cycle path.

Oh the irony of a bunch of bikes parked over the on-road cycle route.

After this ironic encounter, we took the NCN 764 to Dunfermline, a route almost wholly on disused railway line and complete with abandoned brickworks. The route stretched for something like 12 miles on the old railway and we encountered other cyclists and walkers enjoying the day.

#brickworks #clackmannan #oldruins #instascotland #clackmannanshire #chimney #abandonded #abandonedscotland

A post shared by Brian Allan (@brianallan7) on

 

Upon reaching Dunfermline, the map came back into force and we struggled our way through the town. It always confuses me that cycling routes are so grimly signposted in urban areas, but so easy to follow in the sticks. You’d think it would be the other way around, right? After negotiating a gyratory-type roundabout and blender-esque junctions in the town, complete with bizarre breadcrumb-style painted bikes on the ground, we made it into the park and finally train station.  Huzzah!

Clacks offers some spectacularly good cycling.

Clacks offers some spectacularly good cycling.

I would just like to say bravo to Clackmannanshire Council for maintaining such a good shared path network. Sure, it’s not perfect, but Suzanne, the mini-cyclist and I managed 32 miles of almost pristine cycling and I think that’s a pretty good effort. Quite a few of Scotland’s local authorities could take a leaf out of Clacks’ book with their cycling provision.

I highly recommend a visit, especially if you have a family. Clacks is easily accessible by train, well connected with paths and in my experience was flat and easy to ride. Plus, it’s really pretty!

What to do when the world is imploding

Even people who have been living under rocks have heard about the steaming broth of self-inflected doom us Brits have ladled upon ourselves in the last few days.

It’s difficult for me to articulate the dismay and sadness I felt upon Brexit.  Along with 75% of Edinburgh’s residents, I voted to remain as part of the EU on Thursday and woke up first thing on Friday to news I did not want to hear.

So, in an attempt to remember that the world is still turning and that life is still good, I went cycling with friends in Dumfries and Galloway at the weekend.

Even on a dark day the sun shines and reminds us that life is good

On a dark day the sun shines and reminds us that everything will be ok when we’re on a bike ride.

And indeed, a bike ride with friends was the tonic I needed. It was Sally’s not-my-birthday ride and over the course of the day we explored some of the beautiful and chronically underappreciated cycling opportunities that Dumfries and Galloway offers.

Hill climbing is a good way to get EU despair out your system and replace it with clean and refreshing gulps of air.

I hadn’t appreciated the scale of Dumfries and Galloway. When you look at it on the map at the foot of Scotland, it doesn’t really register that this particular foot has the shoe size of Sasquatch. It’s very big, indeed. Fellow bike rider Rhian told me that the local authority is around the size of Northern Ireland.

Rural cycling at its best.

Rural cycling at its best.

Not surprisingly, D&G voted to remain part of the EU on Thursday. This was due in part, I’m sure, to the agricultural industry that is part and parcel of rural living. Us cyclists had the farmers to be thankful for, too. With so many small access roads and a network with practically no traffic, riding a bike in this area was an absolute delight.

Wide open spaces to explore on two wheels. What a delight.

Wide open spaces to explore on two wheels. A changing landscape from hilly moorland with lochs to patchwork fields, farmland and dense woods.

 

Woodland riding, with plenty chat thrown into the mix

Woodland riding, with plenty chat thrown into the mix.

I was tickled by Sally’s apologies for the weight of traffic on some of the “busier” roads. By Edinburgh’s choked car standards, the “busy” roads around Dumfries felt like idylls. I figure there needs to be a convertor for traffic levels from rural to urban areas 🙂

We did around 48 miles over the course of the day. We stopped for lunch, tea and cake and various photo opportunities to appreciate the landscape and nature. I’ve been getting more into birds recently, so Sally named some of the common ones for me so I’ll know for the future. We spotted wagtails, bullfinches, wrens, curlews, swallows, larks and an enormous buzzard that took a fright and ensuing flight right in front of us as we tootled past.

We also spotted a storybook hare with ears that looked like they’d been dipped in dark chocolate. There was a fair bit of accidental bug-eating, too. One kamikaze fly took to bullseyeing itself in poor Suzanne’s peeper and, when she extracted it, the blimmin’ thing was the size of a raisin.

Looking from the top to the bottom

Looking from the top of the hill to the bottom

My ride around Dumfries and Galloway made me feel very happy on a weekend where many people around the UK were feeling the exact opposite. A humble bike ride can cure many ills, as these smiling faces demonstrate. I had a wonderful time experiencing a part of Scotland I’d never visited before. I came away from my weekend knowing that life’s simple pleasures can refocus the mind. Even the sporadic and heavy rain showers felt positive and life affirming.

Bikes are happiness machines.

Bikes are happiness machines.

 

Joyful selfies

Joyful selfies. Thanks to Suzanne for this snap.

I will absolutely have to return to the area with my bike. It’s exciting to think of all the beautiful places I’ve still to find on two wheels.

We're just little things in a big world and there's still a lot to see. Thanks again to Suzanne for this amazing photo.

We’re just little things in a big world and there’s still a lot to see. Thanks to Suzanne for this amazing photo.

So, despite all the madness, it’s important to remember that we are alive and can choose to be happy. Get on your bike, go for a ride to a place you’ve never been before, eat cake and be with friends and remember that things can still be very good indeed 🙂

Cycling around Loch Katrine

I’ve been working from home a lot these last few months as I manage the Edinburgh Cycle Challenge (remember to register and win prizes, hint hint). As a consequence my daily 14 mile bike commute has been suffering.

In an effort to combat my lack of miles I’ve been trying to squeeze in some more leisure rides. Last weekend I was fortunate to ride with Lothian Cyclists around Loch Katrine, and boy was I lucky. The weather was absolutely spectacular, company great and the bike ride one of the best I’ve enjoyed in Scotland to date.

Looking across Loch Arklet

Looking across Loch Arklet

The route was about 32 miles or so in total; I took my hybrid bike as I was a bit concerned about icy surfaces. Me and Kitt are buddies, but I’m still not 100% confident on the road bike so erred on the side of caution. The good thing about the hybrid is its love for hills – starting with a climb up the Duke’s Pass was no problem for the granny gears.

Climb up Duke's Pass

Climbing up Duke’s Pass

The Duke’s Pass (Sustrans NCN7) was a supremely enjoyable climb. Amazing views and a couple of hairpin bends but no desperately mean inclines meant I was happy as a clam as I pedalled up the hill. Of course, the downhill was great fun – it just kept going and eventually I rolled to a stop at the eastern shore of Loch Katrine. The Trossachs Pier is home to a wee coffee shop and the lovely Lady of the Lake steam boat.

Trusty hybrid at Trossachs Pier, Loch Katrine

Me and my trusty hybrid at Trossachs Pier, Loch Katrine

After a quick pit stop, we cycled on the private road around the north of the loch. The road has no traffic and is very beautiful…

Bike on north shore of Loch Katrine

Can’t complain about that view

Looking south to Ben Venue

Looking south to Ben Venue

The west side of Loch Katrine is home to Strontlachar Pier. This is where we took a wee break and enjoyed a bite to eat before resuming the cycle back to Aberfoyle, past Loch Arklet, Loch Chon and Loch Ard. The return leg was just as stunning.

On the return to Aberfoyle

On the return to Aberfoyle

The two piers on Loch Katrine

Decisions, decisions…

I was happily knackered after my 32 mile loop. I tended to sit at the back of the pack, partly due to the hybrid (everyone else was on road bikes), partly due to me gawking at all the incredible scenery, but mostly due to my lung-and-leg power. It was a clear indicator that my fitness is lacking after fewer commutes these last few months and a winter avoiding longer rides with mileage and hill climbs. There’s only one thing for it. I will need to cycle more…

For those interested, here is the Route on Strava. I highly recommend this loop. It’s a bit awkward without a car as there is no train station. Saying that, if you have the car or can hitch a lift you’ll be hard pressed for better bike riding within an hour and a bit of Edinburgh 🙂 My crappy iPhone photos can’t even get close to the scenic quality of this route. Srsly, IT WAS SO GOOD!

Winter is officially closing in

The clocks went back today. The light and any remnants of heat have gone along with the hour, leaving wind and darkness for the next four months. Autumn is my favourite time; the colours of the leaves, the smell in the air, the crispness and cooler temperatures all conspire to make September and October splendid months to cycle. But that’s all starting to come to an end with winter firmly on the march.

I squeezed in some great autumnal rides while the light was on my side these last few weeks. Last week I went out with Lothian Cyclists and did 50 odd miles around South Lanarkshire, a part of the world I know almost nothing about. I always enjoy going out with that group – the pace stretches me and I get a chance to give the road bike a spin. The cycling was excellent and despite an epic number of punctures it was a near perfect ride with blue skies and red leaves. Thanks to CJ from the group for his snap – isn’t this view cracking? Route here.

simple symington

Image courtesy of CJ from Lothian Cyclists

Closer to home, I did a shorter ride with the Edinburgh Belles out to Ratho in order to feast on The Bridge Inn’s utterly enormous onion rings (they are approximately the size of basketball hoops). That was another lovely little ride – 20 miles in ideal autumn conditions and only one puncture to put a dent in our day. Thanks to Jo from the group for her pictures. It’s clear that my photography skills have got some catching up to do! Route here.

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Thanks to Jo from the group for these images

Aside from recent leisure rides, the bike mileage has been kept consistent over autumn with my daily 14 mile round trip to work. I prefer my new commute to the old one by a considerable margin, as it’s more varied and the on-road part tends to be much quieter than the old streets I had to deal with. I’d say I only have a mile or so of commute on road with the rest comprising parks and path. There’s also the added bonus that I no longer live at the top of one of Edinburgh’s seven hills – my knees are considerably happier!

But now winter is coming. It feels kind of appropriate that I am reading George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire as the new season approaches. My winter will never be as bad as the Starks’…

A wee bit of cycling on Skye

The weather has turned and the daylight has diminished, so it’s been a bit more difficult to squeeze in long, leisurely cycle rides. Over the summer period I would go out and explore different routes until around 830 in the evening. Ahhh, lovely indeed. Of course, it’s still fine to cycle over the winter period but I do find it frustrating that the daylight hours have disappeared by the time I emerge from my work at around the 5 o’clock mark.

I raise this irritation as I can’t do exploring cycles just now, like my Skye adventure in August. It was the perfect time to enjoy this amazing island and I’d love to visit it again to try some different routes. I only did a short ride on a rental bike with the bloke and covered 19 miles in total but it was beautiful, so I wanted to share it.

Cycling on Skye.

Cycling on Skye.

Sadly, Skye has a thundering great A road that slices across the east side of the island. It’s terrifying for cyclists and I do not recommend using this as a route option. We were on it only very briefly and I found myself swearing like a sailor and gesticulating like a string puppet from the coach, lorry and car traffic that zoomed past us without any consideration. But once you get away from this heavily used road, things are very different.

The minor roads and tracks are a haven for cycling. The scenery is spectacular. The locals are friendly and patient and give you plenty of space and time when you’re chugging slowly up a hill.

Passing place on Skye.

Passing place on Skye. There are lots of these!

We saw more sheep than motorised vehicles on our morning ride. This is the way it should be, right? It surely beats wiggling down through traffic on a daily commute.

Sheepish traffic

Sheepish traffic

Even my other half, he who is considerably less excited about bikes and cycling than I am, enjoyed the ride. We got rained on and the terrain was undulating (read nippy wee hills) but he still managed the route with only a couple of grimaces and mostly smiles. Good times indeed.

M'oan then

M’oan then

Here’s the route if you are interested. We hired the bikes from Island Cycles. The bikes were (ahem) basic and rattled like a baby’s toy, but they did the job! The chap was pleasant. He gave us a backpack with pump, spares and tyre levers, which was also very helpful.

skye coastal view

It’s the coast!

If you have never been to Skye, you should go. I only spent a couple of days on the island but I’d love to revisit to see more. Other than a cycle, I did a walk along the coast, which was also beautiful and only marred by the endless stream of midges trying to eat me for their lunch. It’s not a problem on the bike because you’re going too fast for the wee shites to keep up. But walking pace? Oof!

Anyway. Now the dark and the cold and the misery is here, it’s not totally out of bounds to squeeze in cycles like this, but I do miss the light more than anything. Roll on spring time… Only another four months to go!

I cycled across the Forth Road Bridge and it was HORRIFIC (in a good way)

I attended the Spokes Bike Breakfast a couple of weeks ago and was sharp enough to be an early attendee. As the fifteenth person arriving, I grabbed myself a free copy of Spokes’ West Lothian map. I was armed with this useful navigation device when I decided to explore some of the quieter roads surrounding South Queensferry.

I started out well, planning on following the NCN1 out to the Forth Road Bridge. However, upon finding NCN1 at the old Cramond Brig I was informed via a large yellow sign that the cycle path was out of commission and I’d have to be re-routed along a diversion. I put faith in the signage (anyone who cycles regularly will know how much of a gamble that is!) and took the detour.

Dalmeny Estate

Dalmeny Estate

I was taken through the Dalmeny Estate via roads I hadn’t previously explored. One of the main bonuses, other than the gorgeous rural views, was the fact that this route wasn’t alongside a busy feeder road into Edinburgh.

I enjoyed several beautiful miles through the estate, with sheep and lambs to keep me company alongside the road, several pheasants and even a deer in one of the fields. Sadly, my poor iPhone wasn’t the best at capturing the deer moment so you’ll just have to take my word for it!

Upon leaving the Dalmeny Estate at the end of the diversion the signage didn’t help me out much. After consulting the Spokes map and a bit of help from a friendly driver, I figured out where I was supposed to be going. A quick right turn took me to Dalmeny where I found the NCN1 route signage again and followed it to the Forth Road Bridge.

Forth Road Bridge

The cycle path along the Forth Road Bridge

I was really looking forward to cycling over the bridge. This would be my first time over the famous Scottish suspension bridge and was excited to see it loom up ahead. I had previously cycled the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran and thought it was an amazing experience.

But once I started it I got properly scared. The bridge encapsulates everything I am terrified of. I could feel the traffic’s vibrations. It was really bloody high up in the air. The bridge has an arc (obviously, it’s a suspension bridge), which stressed me out. There are Samaritans signs for people who are in distress, and that distressed me more. Worst of all, there are seams along the path with quarter inch spacing and I swear I could see the water below. Oh dear goodness me I was terrified. The wind whipped against me and I found it all quite awful  – even thinking about it now gies me the boak.

But I made it over.

Fife to Edinburgh

Triumphant crap photo from Fife to Edinburgh!

Of course, the problem with my plan was that once I was over I had to come back. Bit of a flaw really, seeing as the Forth Road Bridge should actually be called the Bridge of Doom.

A quick Mars bar to give me some suger and calm my nerves and I made the return crossing. It wasn’t pretty (well, actually it was gorgeous but you know what I mean). I had to start talking to myself to get over without having a meltdown. Or maybe I did have a meltdown because I was talking to myself?

Bike on Forth Road Bridge

Bike was not fussed by Forth Road Bridge

There’s no denying the views were spectacular, but I was too scared to get off the bike and take any photos. I thought I might drop through the railings or be blown off the side or crash or be too nervous to get back on the bike again. Or the worst fate of all, lose my phone to the watery deep below me. So I didn’t stop.

In a nutshell I crossed the bridge and almost immediately came back. It was windy and terrifying. But good views when I could bear to tear my eyes away from the path, so silver linings and that.

Still scarred and sweating from my bridge adventure (disaster), I decided to do a loop rather than a linear route so came back to the city by way of Kirkliston. This little place has many, many new houses; I was impressed by the sheer number of them. I took a right turn in the village and ended up back on quiet rural roads. No sodding suspension bridges to navigate here! Bliss.

Farmland between Kirkliston and Cramond

Farmland between Kirkliston and Cramond

Being in exploration mode I took a little turn off the route and ended up at the back of the airport, which was a dead end. So I had to come back again, but not before taking a photo of the river Almond. Ooh, so pretty.

River Almond

Standing on a regular stone bridge at the River Almond

woods around airport

The woods around the airport

The rural roads were practically empty. There was hardly anyone about, and on a sunny evening in summer I couldn’t imagine many better things to be doing with my time.

Rural road to airport

Rural roads like this a stone’s throw from the city

The loop took me about three hours in total and was about 27 miles. I would have been quicker if I’d had any idea about where I was going. And of course that stupid bridge didn’t help what with me freezing up in fear and pedalling like the walking dead.

Here’s the route I took. I suspect there are better options for riders as I did take a busy road into Kirkliston, but the majority of it was very quiet and lovely. If you have an issue with heights, falling off high things, vertigo, a watery death or are generally risk averse to batshit crazy things to do, feel free to avoid the bridge if you want.

Cycling selfie

Happy cycling selfie in the sun

There is nothing better than exploring the world around you on the bike. Especially in summer! If you have any route suggestions for me in this area please do let me know – excluding the bridge. I won’t be doing that solo again any time soon! 🙂

Arun Arund Arran

Back in January I signed up for a wee cycling adventure in Arran with the wonderful local group Lothian Cyclists. After several months of waiting and excitement I took to my bicycle along with 25 other like-minded souls and we headed off to this most beautiful of Scottish islands at the beginning of May.

I had been looking forward to the Arran trip, mostly because I had never really cycled out with the boundaries of my local area and was keen to challenge myself with a 60 mile loop around Arran. The group element was also something I was keen to experience – with over 20 fellow bike fans to ride with I was looking forward to the banter and friendships that might blossom.

Map of Arran

Map of Arran, note the red triangles meaning steep hill…

Upon arrival on the island I had positive vibes that I was going to thoroughly enjoy my challenge of a 60 mile loop around the circumference of the island. The map that greeted me at the ferry terminal gave me a few concerns, what with red triangles peppering the route like an unwanted pizza topping, but I shrugged them off and pedalled the six miles to the Corrie Bunkhouse along with my fellow tourers.

The Corrie Bunkhouse

The Corrie Bunkhouse, at the top of an EXTREMELY steep hill

The Corrie Bunkhouse was at the top of a horrendously steep, unmade road. Traipsing up there with a loaded bike in tow was no fun, but the views at the end were most certainly worth the trouble.

View from the Corrie Bunkhouse

View from the Corrie Bunkhouse

Accommodation was basic (what do you expect for £12 a night?) but after a bad night’s sleep due to excitement, nerves and a weird place I positively sprung out of bed, loaded up on porridge and prepared myself for my ride.

60 miles might not seem a lot for some folk, but this was a big thing for me. Having only managed 40 miles in one go prior to my adventure, I was a bit concerned I would have problems keeping up and managing the route. But once I got started the views and experience melted my worries away.

East coast of Arran on the way to Brodick

East coast of Arran on the way to Brodick

Arran is a spectacular ride. I cannot recommend it more. The scenery, the locals, the route is stunning. Even with a crummy road surface and tonnes of hills it was the best route I’ve so far traversed. Drivers were patient and courteous and did I mention the views?

Boats at Brodick harbour

Boats at Brodick harbour

The beach at Brodick

The beach at Brodick

We did the route clockwise, and after a hilly start there was a long, straight stretch which was parallel to beaches and the sea.

West of Arran

The view over the sea on the west side of the island after Blackwaterfoot

And although the straight was energetic and beautiful, I actually found the hills to be one of the most satisfying elements of the run. You just dig down and deep and keep going. They are a fantastic tonic; you are focused and concentrated and are set about the task at hand. Everything else just disappears into the ether. Although challenging and lung burning and red-face inducing, in retrospect they were perhaps my favourite parts.

Triumphant at the summit of the hill after Lochranza

Triumphantly knackered at the summit of the hill after Lochranza

The hill out of Lochranza was killer and seemed everlasting, but we were rewarded with peaks at the summit. And of course, the descent. The wind was strong on the way down and at times I felt like I was flying. I wonder how the folk on road bikes didn’t just take off into the air!

Mountains at the peak of the hill after Lochranza

Mountains at the peak of the hill after Lochranza

All in all, Arran was a wonderful trip. I feel like I have been bitten by the touring bug now and it’s imperative that I get out on the bike to see more of Scotland.

Lochranza

I’m pretty sure this is Lochranza…

So thank you to Lothian Cyclists, who I heartily recommend to you. They do all kinds of runs all though the year so you should check them out and get along on a ride with them soon.

More cycle touring beckons! Have you done this route before? If so what did you think? And I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have for other Scottish cycle tours and routes. Especially the islands. I think that seeing Scotland by bike might be the only real and proper way to see our fair country. Don’t you think? 🙂