Cycling in Scotland: A Beginner's Guide
Thinking about getting into cycling but unsure where to start? We've put together a beginner's guide to offer a taster of the many and varied experiences on offer across Scotland
So you think you might like to start exploring by bike. Let’s assume, for a minute, that you already have a bike. Let’s also assume that it’s not wonderful. You thrash it to and from work most days; it’s had a couple of owners; the price you paid for it suggests that its last owner didn’t voluntarily part with it. What does it matter? Turns out, if it can get you from Newington to Princes Street, or from Finnieston to Buchanan Street, then it can get you from Leith to North Berwick or from Maryhill along the Forth & Clyde Canal. To Yoker.
Pack a rucksack with some food (real food, not energy gels), a pump and spare inner tube (more on this in the essentials box) and some warm clothes plus a waterproof, and go. Cycle until you get tired. Have lunch. Cycle back.
It’s fascinating to watch city become suburbia, then watch suburbia become countryside – reversing urbanisation under your own power and at your own speed. It’s a reminder that cities aren’t made of isolated districts or quarters. It’s all connected.
Take a lock. If it all goes horribly wrong, leave the bike and get the bus back.
Further afield: Exploring Scotland by bike
Before long, you’ll realise that long rides are just small rides pieced together. Getting to Yoker is no different to getting to Loch Lomond. It might just take a bit longer.
That said, going on longer rides means thinking about a few extra things. If your city bike works fine, then you can stick with it – speed is not really of the essence in this game. But adding a pannier rack means you can take a few more things. There’s also now an incredible range of bike-specific luggage that turns every nook and cranny into a little storage space for the odds and ends you’ll need if you’re spending a couple of days on the road.
The first tour I did was with a single pannier containing spare clothes and a waterproof, just eating at cafes and staying in B'n'Bs. I’d recommend that as a good start point rather than going straight for biking and camping. One variable at a time, eh?
Safety first: tell people where you’re going, eat before you get hungry, drink before you get thirsty. Maybe have someone you can call if it all goes wrong. And don’t forget your toothbrush.
Picking the right bike
It used to be that bikes largely fit into three types: upright, heavy, practical bikes for getting around the city; sleek and skinny road bikes with drop handlebars for going far and fast on roads; and mountain bikes for the rough stuff. Excitingly, that’s no longer the case, with advances in technology and geometry meaning bikes can do even more incredible things.
In particular, there’s a new breed of machines branded gravel or adventure bikes which combine the best bits of mountain bikes and off road bikes, allowing you to whip along for miles on roads, and manoeuvre on muddy forest tracks. They start upwards of £600 – but if your employer has a cycle to work scheme that starts to feel increasingly manageable.
With one of these, or with a nice light road bike, what’s astonishing is how far you can get with just your legs – even further if you have company. Cycling clubs have been a mainstay of the British sporting scene since the late 19th Century, and aren’t going away any time soon. For a while they had a bit of an image problem – tough blokes meeting for weekly suffer-fests, and some still are like that. But if group cycling piques your interest, then British Cycling has a great local club-finder.
Getting dirtier: Mountain Biking in Scotland
If you’ve invested in a mountain bike with suspension and fatter tyres, then, fortunately, it’s easy to find somewhere to take it. Scotland has mountain bike trails like it has midges. There are also designated mountain biking centres all the way from Newcastleton right on the Border, to Golspie in Sutherland. For stuff near the Central Belt check out the 7stanes family of trails.
In truth, biking offroad is as different to biking on the road as cricket is to baseball. To be (horribly) reductive, mountain biking aficionados fall into two main categories. There are those who like pedalling – on a bike with a bit of suspension and good grip you can ride for days in Scotland without touching tarmac. There's such a feast of riding in Scotland that there's even a growing and internationally-renowned scene for self-supported endurance racing. Whether or not you're hardy enough to take on all 187 miles of the Cairngorm Loop, or all 550 miles of the Highland Trails route, is moot. Both are worth looking at for routes which take you to some of the most incredible, isolated, breathtaking places in Scotland.
The other category like plunging downhill fast on bikes with knobbly tyres and lots of suspension. Let's call them 'the downhillers', as that's the correct term. It's not hyperbole to say that Scotland is a mecca for downhillers across the world, not least with the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup taking place every summer in Fort William. Outside of those times, you can ride the course yourself.
You might want to warm up to it, though, and fortunately there are trails centres right across Scotland. Often Forestry Commission owned and run, trails centres are purpose built for mountain biking, with a range of trails and features laid out to test your downhill mettle. They have the distinct advantage of having routes designed for whatever your skill level, and some of them even have a bit of infrastructure beyond a car park.
Glentress is arguably the best example of this, combining miles of fantastic trails with some other quite important things like toilets and a cafe. Even better, you can hire bikes here and, since acquiring some skills is as good a way of avoiding injury as any, it's worth knowing that there's a really impressive range of tuition available from a number of experienced bike coaches who base themselves in the area and offer group or 1:1 tuition.
Just when you think you’ve seen or thought of everything people can do on a bike, along comes someone and shows you another side to what’s possible under your own steam. Incredibly, you don’t need to look too far from home to find inspiration. The Adventure Syndicate, many of whom are Scotland-based, are a collective of incredible female cyclists on a mission to inspire, encourage and enable others (especially women and girls) to feel capable of more. Look them up and let them inveigle their way into your imagination.
Another person to look to for inspiration is Karen Darke, British hand cycling Paralympic Champion, and a testament to the fact that access needs are a consideration, not a barrier to getting on a bike. Details of what she's accomplished on a bike are on her website, and are mindblowing. The majority of this article applies to anyone and guidance is available for adapted bikes and inclusive cycling, from trikes to tandems, hand cycles to wheelchair cycles. Cycling UK (formerly the CTC) is a good start point for expert advice, and lists of inclusive cycling groups across the UK.
Your Toolkit: Looking after your bike (and yourself)
Learn how to fix a puncture
Genuinely, the most powerful piece of knowledge you can have on a bike is how to fix a puncture. It’s not an ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ you’re going to get one, and the ability to repair it means the difference between being tied to a walkable distance from your house and being free to explore your cycling horizon. It’s easy empowerment, with vulcanised rubber.
There are loads of YouTube videos on this (including, weirdly, a postlapsarian Lance Armstrong explaining the process). There’s also a few fantastic social enterprises which are focussed on teaching people these essential skills – like the Bike Station in Edinburgh and Perth, Bike for Good in Glasgow, and Velocity Cafe and Bicycle Workshop in Inverness. These are also great routes in for learning more about bike maintenance and repairs.
It’s the best, cheapest repair you can do on your bike – keep it clean and keep the chain lightly oiled.
A light waterproof stuffed in a pocket is an absolute gamechanger if you don’t want to return home close to hypothermic. Also, I love Lycra. It feels great and comes in bright colours, but it absolutely isn’t essential for getting on my bike. Some of the fastest cyclists I know wear skirts and T-shirts. Still, even if you hate Lycra, padded shorts underneath your real clothes aren’t to be sniffed at. Or sniffed.
Cycling in Traffic
This is the biggest worry for a lot of people, and anyone who has ever had a near miss from a car knows it takes a lot of mind over matter to remember that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks. But there are ways of riding that make sharing the road with cars a lot more enjoyable. What used to be called cycling proficiency is now called Bikeability, and training is available for children and adults. Up north this is organised by Cycling Scotland – you can also find out about becoming a trainer in your community from them.