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.

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.

 

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!

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? 🙂