cycle touring

Cycling in Rome – a physical manifestation of Dante’s Inferno?

For a capital that is home to some incredible sights and is brimming with tourists year-round, it is hard to believe that Rome is so walking and cycling unfriendly. It may be the worst city I have ever visited with my “places are for people” glasses on.  I spent a week there, marveling at the city’s loveliness on the one hand, and despairing at the city’s ugliness on the other. The architecture, art and history of the place are spellbinding, but all of the high points are mired by the atrocious traffic and air quality.

Rome looks picturesque but don't be fooled by its beauty...

Rome looks picturesque but don’t be fooled by its beauty… It’s a monster for walking and cycling.

I’d need to drink several G&Ts to take the edge off before attempting to write about my walking experience, so rather than get drunk I’m going to write about my stresses of getting around Rome by bike instead.

Traumatised but defiant after a day cycling in Roma.

Traumatised but defiant after a day cycling in Roma.

Weathering the traffic storm

With a week spent mostly on foot, I was able to see the city in all its car-strangled glory. Only one day did I hazard exploration on a bicycle, and I am convinced the only way I lived to tell the tale is because I was too scared to cycle on any proper trafficked routes.

As a barometer on cycling awfulness, my refusal to cycle in Italian traffic points the needle to “hurricane force shitness”. As a seasoned utility cyclist in Edinburgh, I’m battle-hardened to riding through my home’s busiest and most congested streets without so much as a shrug. Occasionally, *whispers* I even enjoy it.

Rome was another kettle of fish. If you think driving in Scotland is bad, Roman driving has its rightful place in the seventh circle of hell. Italians’ love of their cars has completely smothered this beautiful city – its arteries are black from tarmac and traffic flow.

These cars are parked. In the middle of the road. Parking fuckwittery in this town is grade 1.

These cars are parked. In the middle of the road. FFFfffffffffffuck’s sake.

The sickness of Rome’s car obsession

The weird thing about this city of 3 million people is that it is much denser than London’s 9 million or so inhabitants and so cycling seems an obvious way to get about. The topography of the city would lend itself to cycling (the seven hills aren’t that bad and would easily be tamed by ebikes). The main roads are obscenely wide and the congestion of the place is so utterly pronounced I am flabbergasted that cycling provision has been given even less than lip service.

What's that? Oh yeah, just a five lane motorway in the middle of an ancient city.

What’s that? Oh yeah, just one of about a million five lane motorways in the middle of an ancient city.

Dad and daughter cycling. What's wrong with this picture? No traffic.

Dad and daughter cycling. But no space for cycling infrastructure, apparently.

In an attempt to combat the endless hours that Romans must spend stuck in traffic, the population has really gone above and beyond. Instead of investing in better forms of transport, they have just shrunk their cars… I can sort of see the logic in this madness – with roads the size of motorways wrapped around anything and everything, you can imagine why people might think smaller cars might get you places quicker. Except they OBVIOUSLY don’t.  Way to not solve the problem, guys.

Rome’s answer to traffic congestion – that tiny car from Muppets Most Wanted

Roaming Rome by bike

There is almost entirely no useful cycling infrastructure in Rome. What does exist is beyond terrible for getting from A to B. This is reflected in the woeful bicycle modal share of 1%. An incredible 54% of Romans use their cars to get around (London sits at 34%) – no wonder the city is gridlocked. Rome is car sick.

On my second day in the city, I was excited to discover a Bici Roma stall at the Piazza del Popolo and immediately spent 5 euro on their cycling map. Expecting to see an network of cycling routes around the city on a map of Spokes’ quality, upon unfolding it I discovered I had bought the world’s worst bike map because there is basically nowhere to cycle in Rome.

Over the course of my week in the city, I spotted a few shocking attempts at cycling infra, including one protected cycleway that spat you out into a gigantic junction of misery, some cursory cycles painted on the footway and what appeared to be its flagship route – the river Tiber.

I spent half a day enjoying the cycle path next to the Tiber river, but getting on and off in the city centre was deeply unpleasant. The infra was quite narrow, had cratered surfaces but was well used by folk on foot and bike. Whether it’s useful for utility trips will largely depend on whether you’re happy hefting a bike up and down 200 steps.

Oooh this is quite nice. Cycle path along the Tiber.

Oooh, this is nice. Cycle path along the Tiber.

Knew it was too good to be true.

No, wait. Knew it was too good to be true. The state of this.

I did manage to find one place in the entire city where cycling was the de-facto way to get about. Rome’s main park, the Villa Borghese, only has two massively stupid roads that slice it up, and cycle hire is available for exploring the islands of greenspace that float amidst the particulate matter.

It was a delight to see the park by cycle, although I did have a mid-level meltdown when attempting to park outside the world-fucking-famous Villa Borghese museum, only to discover that not a single scrap of bike parking existed. In a park full of bikes.

Cycling in the Villa Borghese

A snapshot of what cycling in Rome could be like. Except it isn’t.

I didn’t see any bike parking in Rome. I did mistake two guardrails for bike parking on my last day, and even took a photo of them as evidence to contradict my verdict of how shite Rome is for cycling. Except Rome is definitely shite for cycling, because they are bloody guardrails and not bike parking.

There is light at the end of the garbage-fire infested tunnel

In good news, I was pleased to see those who did cycle do so with typical Italian flair and style. Everyone looked fabulous. So it goes to show that even in a traffic cesspit, high-viz and victim-blaming safety gear haven’t crept into Italian mindsets quite yet.

While I feel your pain at trying to get anywhere, you do look lovely while doing it.

While I feel Roman cyclists’ pain at trying to get anywhere, they do look lovely while doing it.

Cycle chic in Roma.

My Roman experience has done a good job of putting things into perspective when it comes to cycling in Edinburgh. Although far from perfect, I am glad that the hill we have to climb in my fair city isn’t as tough as the Italian capital’s.

There must surely be a cycle campaign in Rome, but without a grasp of Italian I haven’t been able to find any meaningful information on any that might exist. I am sure campaigners do a beyond incredible job in a difficult situation, and my piecemeal cycling experience perhaps doesn’t reflect the reality of utility cycling. But for me, cycling in Rome was grim. I can only hope that my day in the saddle isn’t representative – except I have a sneaking feeling that it probably is.

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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.

 

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!

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!

My Mini Cycle Tour Around Comrie in Perthshire

I haven’t had much time to get out touring this year because of all the house stuff that’s swallowed up my life, but this weekend I got the opportunity to go camping in Comrie, which is nestled in the hills just outside of Crieff. I decided to cycle there from Dunblane, and it was all just so easy and wonderful that I’m kicking myself for not exploring more of our fine country of a weekend.

I was pretty excited about this wee mini tour because I had to load my bike up with sleeping mat, bag and tent as well as perfectly packed panniers for a potentially rainy weekend of cycling. Previous bike expeditions have always involved the glamour of hostels, so this was new to me. Gosh, it was SO exciting.

me and my load

me and my load

The first time on the bike with all the weight was a bit daunting, but I soon got in my groove and pedalled to Haymarket station, where I jumped on the train to Dunblane. From there, I did a gorgeous 20 mile ride up to Comrie Croft, which I highly recommend for a visit.

The high road on the B827 was absolutely stunning and I was rewarded for my climb. The landscape was beautifully bleak, and I was treated to a glorious tailwind for most of the leg. It’s quite difficult to explain just how contented I was on the bike, in the middle of the countryside, feeling completely self-sufficient, strong and enjoying getting to my destination on my own steam.

The B827 high road to Comrie

The B827 high road to Comrie

The camp site at Comrie Croft was fabulous, with extensive mountain bike trails (if that’s your kind of thing), a tea room serving delicious bacon rolls, a bike shop, several camping fields and a hostel. I will absolutely have to return. A pitch was £10 a night and included hot showers, plenty loo facilities, fire pits and a glorious view. There was also a tonne of tea on offer.

The tea room at Comrie Croft

The tea room at Comrie Croft

I was a bit doubtful about my tent, newly purchased from Decathlon for a meagre £20, and it did look a little bit sad and decrepit once it was up. However, it was the best £20 ever spent, as not a single spot of rain managed to get in despite Saturday taking a leaf out of the Deluge’s book and utterly drenching everything in sight, including me, for almost eight solid hours. It was cosy and dry and I cannot believe it didn’t blow over, leak or refuse to pack back into its bag. It was a quality bit of supremely cheap kit!

My pokey wee tent from Decathlon

My pokey wee tent from Decathlon

We spent Saturday afternoon in the saddle and did another 20 odd mile ride exploring the countryside around Comrie. Myself and friends Suzanne and Lizzie layered up, braved the weather and enjoyed being badass cyclists in headwinds from a horror show and biting, stinging rain for several hours. The weather was so atrocious we even had to have a stab at drafting each other, which is generally unheard of when I get on a bike.

Badass cyclists ahoy

Badass lady cyclists ahoy – thanks to @backonmybike for the snap

Sunday was the return to Edinburgh, much to my disappointment. I packed up the tent and panniers and cycled back to Dunblane, this time with Lizzie to keep me company. It’s much more preferable to have a chum as we were evenly weighted and paced, happy to natter or just enjoy the ride.

Lizzie enjoys the Perthshire countryside

Lizzie enjoys the Perthshire countryside

I really need to invest in a better tent and lighter four season sleeping bag, because I can see this kind of mini adventure becoming a bit more regular. This time round I didn’t do lots of miles or spend much money, because I wasn’t sure how I’d take to a full load on the bike and sleeping on the ground for several days. But it turns out it’s bloody wonderful. I had such a good time. Honestly, it was just so much fun. For those interested, here is the A to B and the Comrie loop on Strava.

The only problem I can see with cycle touring and camping is when stuff gets wet. Without a drying room, clothing and feet stay damp and cold, which is rather miserable. In Scotland it’s pretty difficult to avoid wet weather. So I figure the best way to avoid this is with better kit…

Now I know what I’ll be asking for at Christmas! 😉

I’m off to a festival about cycle touring

I’m not a very experienced cycle tourer. The most I have managed is a couple of days away in Arran, a weekend in Perthshire and a little adventure in Skye. But now that I’ve enjoyed some tiny tours on the bike, I’ve come to realise that I have been bitten by the bug and I want to explore more and more and more.

Cycle Touring Festival

To that end, I have signed up to the Cycle Touring Festival at the start of May with my pal Suzanne (she is an excellent tweeter and mad into her bikes so I highly recommend you follow her). It’s the first of its kind and looks to be really fun, in a wellies-and-tent-in-a-muddy-field kind of way.

I haven’t been camping since 2006, when I went to the Lake District for a long weekend with a since extinguished flame. Some of my enduring memories include the inconvenience of a midnight pee, breaking the kettle and cooking sausages on a microscopic stove. Of course, this time the camping will be all sunshine and rainbows, not least because there will be bicycles involved. Whenever bicycles are involved everything is alright with the world.

I’m looking forward to listening to the inspiring speakers talk about their globe-trotting travels, while I sit slack-jawed and wonder how they avoid knee problems. The deserts, ice and jungle stuff is all really impressive, and I suspect there will be some excellent beards on show to complement the high adventure.

Are you interested in seeing the world on two wheels and/or beards? You should come.

 

2014 was a good year in cycling

I have some diverse bike things in the pipeline for 2015, with a weekend residential for Belles on Bikes in March, Pedal on Parliament in April, an 11 day cycle tour around the Outer Hebrides booked for the summer, various CTC Scotland bits and bobs, and the ongoing irritation of trying to strengthen my offending right knee. I am also in the market for a road bike and nervously look forward to clipping in for the first time in 2015. So many exciting things!

Saying that, 2014 was far from a write off from a two-wheeled perspective. So, as I cycle away from 2014 and welcome all these new events and challenges, now is an excellent time to recap my last year in cycling.

Highlights of 2014 include my two-day visit to Arran in May with the Lothian Cyclists, my first ever cycle touring experience. I think I caught the touring bug on this stunning island…

Mountains at the peak of the hill after Lochranza

Mountains at the peak of the hill after Lochranza

Triumphant at the summit of the hill after Lochranza

Triumphantly knackered at the summit of the hill after Lochranza

I had a brilliant 2014 with Belles on Bikes Edinburgh, helping to get the women’s cycling group off the ground with some other dedicated women in the city. We now have over 160 members and the group continues to grow, showing a real need for relaxed cycling opportunities for women.

I was trained up as a Belles ride leader, learned first aid, achieved a Velotech Bronze mechanics qualification and made new friends and connections through all the female participants and other ride leaders across Scotland. Plus, we got to cycle around Edinburgh and its local environs and take to the roads on a two-day residential in Perthshire. What’s not to love?

The tourer in Pitlochry

The tourer in Pitlochry on the Belles on Bikes weekend

Amazing routes in Perthshire

Amazing low traffic routes in Perthshire

As well as Perthshire and Arran, the bike took me to a wide range of spectacular locations throughout the year…

Cycling in Skye

Cycling the quiet B roads of Skye in an enormous helmet!

Cycling in the Pentlands

Two-wheeled Pentlands visit during winter.

Mount Tiede National Park

Jumping on the bike at the top of Mount Tiede National Park in Tenerife – what a view!

Cycling in Tenerife - Mount Tiede National Park

Big smiles in the desert landscapes of Mount Tiede National Park in Tenerife, just before cycling 22 miles downhill

Winter views across Threipmuir Reservoir

Winter views across Threipmuir Reservoir in the Pentlands

On top of exploring and touring, I managed to rack up around 2,000 miles of utility cycling coupled with my daily commute. Miles that accumulated without even trying; trips to the bloke’s flat, visiting friends, going to the shops, getting from A to B. All that otherwise dead time filled with (for the most part) enjoyable bike trips along the city’s extensive path network and a bit of on-road riding.

All in all, I’d say 2014 was an excellent foundation upon which to build my year of cycling in 2015. I don’t have too much in the way of resolutions, other than get my knee sorted and get fitter and faster. To help with both of these aims, I’ve started hill training around Arthur’s Seat and it almost feels like a pleasure rather than a challenge with these views.

View from Arthur's Seat route

View from Arthur’s Seat 5.5km circular route

Do you have any objectives or plans for 2015? Maybe you want to clock up some serious miles, get a particular route under your belt, try a different type of cycling or get on your bike for the first time in a while? I’d love to hear any of your resolutions! 🙂

So here’s to a happy 2015, filled with plenty bikey goodness, wonderful adventures, good company and excellent Scottish weather (well, we can always hope…).

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!