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Cycle Touring in Scotland

If you have read the tourist books, studied the maps, developed a taste for single malt, watched Braveheart and have finally settled on Scotland for your cycling holiday - good choice. Scotland, in our totally unbiased opinion, offers some of the best scenery in the world including some of the last wilderness in Europe. This adds up to some great cycling, but to get the most out of your visit to our bonnie shores, read this first.

 
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Will it be okay to bring my own bike to Scotland?

If you have decided to bring your own bike, a few things to remember.

Speak to your airline. Some tell you to wheel it on, some advise a bike bag (so do we), some supply a box. If you take the wheels off to box your bike, remember to put a block of wood or some spacers between the wheel dropouts. Check your travel insurance - you would not be the first person to have your bike squashed flat by airport handlers.

Deflate the tyres slightly before putting the bike in the plane (but retain a little pressure - about 25psi - to protect the wheel rims in transit). Low pressure in the cargo hold can cause fully inflated tyres to explode.

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Gearing

Scotland is a hilly place. Even most of the towns and cities are built on hills. These hills are not the 20 mile gradual inclines you might find in the Swiss Alps. Instead, the roads tend to slope up and down in a short sharp fashion, so make sure your bike is geared to cope with this. Console yourself with the thought that the hills do make for some spectacular views - and who wants to cycle on flat roads all day?

Mudguards (fenders to our American cousins)

We're on an island in the North Atlantic, so It can rain any time of day, and at any time of the year in Scotland. It can be a nice clear morning - then pour with rain all afternoon. I cannot stress the need for mudguards enough unless you're into road splash.

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Lights

It's light 'till after 10.00pm in Midsummer, and it gets dark slowly, so unless you are cycling round the clock, you probably won't need lights.

However if you are visiting us in winter, you won't get far without lights. Over the winter solstice, it can be dark from 4.00pm 'till 10:00 the next morning.

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Where can I cycle in Scotland?

You are free to use any of the public highways in Scotland with the exception of the motorways that you wouldn't want to cycle on anyway. And remember: we cycle on the left hand side of the road.

Roads and tracks are well mapped out in Scotland. If you are planning your route in detail, order the appropriate Ordnance Survey Maps - Landranger Series 1:50,000 - from your local book store. These are essential if you are planning any mountain bike trips off road.

There is an increasing network of cycle paths and recommended routes for cyclists in Scotland. These are being added to every day. We would recommend you use these wherever possible. Also use unlisted 'C', and 'B' roads (see Ordnance Survey maps) because the 'A' roads in Scotland can be very busy.

Chose your route carefully. Go for quality. Do not try and 'do Scotland' in 2 weeks. You will enjoy your cycling more if you stick to the quiet routes. Remember most of the best scenery - and the most cycling-friendly routes are - in the more remote areas. The West Highlands and Western Isles such as Skye, Mull, Barra, Uist and Harris are the most spectacular. If your time is too limited to strike out to these remote regions, you can still enjoy a heady cycling experience plootering over the rolling hills of the Borders or Perthshire, a mere 30 miles from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Recommended reading.

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What is the weather like and what clothing should I bring?

In general, Scotland enjoys a temperate climate with summer temperatures averaging around 15-20 degrees centigrade, and in the winter, somewhere around 5 degrees centigrade. Having said that, it can get very cold in the winter if you are out in the mountains - minus 15 degrees plus the wind chill factor. The key point about Scottish weather is that it is famous for being unpredictable. You really can experience all 4 seasons in one day.

Our advice would be:

May - September
Wear layers of light clothing. You will be comfortable wearing shorts most of the time, but be prepared to occasionally pull longs over them. A fleece jacket and breathable waterproofs such as Gore-Tex, which are light and easy to carry, are highly recommended.

The sun is very high in summer. It's possible to enjoy 19-21 hours hours of daylight in June and July, and when a cool North Sea wind blows, you might not realize that you're slowly getting burned. Suntan lotion and shades are highly recommended.

October - April
The weather is at it's most unpredictable. Be prepared for, rain, sleet, snow, sunshine, wind and hail - maybe all on the same day. However, the remote parts are even quieter through lack of tourist traffic, so you can have a brilliant time cycling here in winter too. Just be prepared - and not just for the weather. Lack of tourists also means that many hotels and hostels close down for the whole season. If you're in Scotland at the turn of the year, remember that Edinburgh hosts, probably, the biggest Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) party in the world.

If you do choose to come over in winter, dress wisely. Gloves, hat/snood, good quality waterproofs, thermals, and insulating layers. The sun is very low and can often be blindingly bright - straight in the eyes - so good quality sunglasses are recommended.

PS: Don't attempt any mountain biking up to the 3,000ft peaks unless you're led by a sussed local guide. The weather can change in minutes from lovely sunshine to a blizzard.

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What if my bike breaks down?

Outside the central belt of Scotland (the area between Edinburgh and Glasgow) and larger towns such as Inverness, Aberdeen, and Fort William, there are precious few cycle shop. We would therefore advise you to carry a reasonable tool kit and basic spares such as patches, inner tubes, brake blocks and cables with you.

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Where can I stay in Scotland?

Scottish Youth Hostel Association
Youth hostels are the traditional cycle-friendly option as are Scottish Independent Hostels.

If you're looking for hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation with that certain Scottish flavour, check About Scotland Holiday and the Scottish Tourist Board's official site Visit Scotland.

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Can I take my bike on a train?

The situation is improving. ScotRail have abolished the fee for taking your bike on the train with you, so bikes go free. Bike carriage space can be limited however, so their advice is to always book your bike on the train in advance. From our experience, we would agree. For more information and time tables contact Scotrail at http://www.scotrail.co.uk.

This site also has links to the UK national train services.

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Is there a regular ferry service to the islands?

During the summer months there are loads of ferries, and in winter few. Always check and book if you can. (I have never had any problem getting a bike on a ferry. A car is a different matter). It's worth noting here that many locals are strict about observing the Sabbath in the Highlands and Islands, so some ferries don't operate on Sundays.

You can find out times, maps, links to bus services and prices from Caledonian MacBrayne - the major ferry operators to the Scottish Islands at http://www.calmac.co.uk.

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Is there any animal wildlife we should avoid?

Scottish wildlife is generally benign, but watch out for the following:

The Scottish Midge
The bad-natured northern cousin of the mosquito. This has got to be one of the most annoying creatures in creation. They are hardly ever seen in winter, but in mild damp conditions, they come out in there millions - literally. Loch sides and river banks are the midges' favourite habitat. They look completely harmless as they are tiny, and their bite is small. It is the sheer number of these little pests that will drive you berserk. Get some midge repellent from a Scottish pharmacy and don't venture too far into the wilds without it.

Snakes
Scotland has very few snakes. Neither I, nor any of my friends have yet seen one after cycling in the hills for over 30 years. Adders are venomous however and their potential presence is another reason for wearing decent socks and shoes when you step out into the wild. Seek medical advice if bitten.

Sea Creatures
If going for a swim in the coastal waters around Scotland, once you've got over the cold, it's jelly fish you most have to look out for. There sting is very nasty. Seek medical advice if bitten.

Hunting Season
The grouse (large bird mostly found on the moors, and a delicacy with rich foodies) hunting season starts on August 12 every year. The date when the grouse hunting ends has always been a mystery. Beware venturing off road at this time of year. Game keepers start grousing when mountain bikers disturb their grouse. Responsible land owners usually put up signs warning you when shooting is in progress. Your cue to seek an alternative route.

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Two more websites that will help you find your way round Scotland.

Scotland on Line
This is an excellent site for finding out what's happening in Scotland. It covers current affairs, sport, weather, gigs, entertainment, and lots more.

EdinburghGuide.com
Gateway to Scotland's capital
More specific to Scotland's capital, this is a great guide to what's on in Edinburgh - eating out,film, entertainment, recreation, weather, shopping and more.

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Mountain Biking in Scotland

With a world class network of mountain biking trails from north (for instance Highland Wildtrack Golspie, Laggan Wolftrax and the Black Isle's Learnie Red Rock) to south (7stanes) Scotland and mountain biking go together like freedom and whisky (cf Robert Burns).

So much so that IMBA (the International Mountain Bike Association) gave Scotland their 'Global Superstar' award for the quality of our trails; the Nevis Range near Fort William hosts the annual UCI Mountain Bike World Cup; and Glentress Forest is the Borders' most popular tourist attraction.

And these are just some of our most popular 'man made' MTB centres. Thanks to the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2003 (AKARight to Roam) you can ride almost anywhere you want, as long as you do so responsibly.

One of Scotland's best-regarded sports writers, Richard Moore, wrote the following fine article in our 2008 catalogue about the great mountain bike debate: man made or natural.

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Man Made or Natural?

It is the great mountain biking debate: are you for natural or man-made? Do you prefer a varied, possibly wilderness experience on natural paths, plotted out with a good old-fashioned map and compass, or do you like to ride on specially designed and built single-track, following a pre-determined route, where you can effectively disengage your brain and just enjoy the sheer thrill of riding?

Hmmm. It’s a tricky one. Although it is – as football managers are fond of saying when they have a squad bursting with talent – not a bad problem to have. Which is not an inappropriate analogy, because parts of the UK are bursting with mountain biking ‘talent,’ offering a rich assortment of natural and man-made trails.

The sport has developed at a rapid pace, particularly since the first man-made trails were built within the last decade, in what would become dedicated mountain bike centres. And there is no question that, since then, it is these centres, with mile upon mile of hand-carved single-track, that have converted many thousands to the joys, thrills and excitement of mountain biking.
Wales and Scotland were the early trailblazers – no pun intended – but England has recently been getting in on the act, not least, perhaps, in response to the huge numbers of English mountain bikers who currently spend their weekends travelling to Scotland and Wales to experience the outstanding trails at places such as Glentress, in the Scottish Borders, and Coed-y-Brenin in Wales.

These two centres, and the many others that now exist in Scotland and Wales, are renowned for the excellence of their man-made trails – including epic ascents that zig-zag up the hillside, and twisting, thrilling descents that snake back down, negotiating drop-offs, bermed corners, rocks, roots, jumps, humps and bumps en route. It is the man who began building the single-track trails at Glentress back in 2000, Pete Laing – known in mountain biking circles as the ‘trails guru’ – who is now involved in several projects in the north of England to build trails there.

In Darlington Laing helped construct an “urban mountain biking centre,” where the emphasis is on fun, with a toned down four-cross /jump track appealing especially to younger riders. The numbers who flock there at weekends only hint at the sport’s potential in this area, and there are ‘hopes’ to build a skills trail as well.

For traditional cross-country riding there are few places better than Dalby Forest, on the southern slopes of the North York Moors National Park. It covers a large area and work is ongoing to build a bigger network of trails; indeed, Laing says he would not be surprised if Dalby one day rivals Glentress as Britain’s most popular mountain biking centre.

Hamsterley Forest, on the edge of the North Pennines, is another one: there’s a big skills area, red- and black-graded cross-country trails, and also downhill tracks, with more plans in place to expand. Guisbourgh Forest, on the fringes of the North Yorkshire Moors, is an extremely popular place for mountain bikers and home to a thriving scene. The forest contains some lovely natural singletrack and because of its location there is great access to the moors, and the option, therefore, for some epic days out, riding natural trails.

And you could hardly discuss mountain biking in England without mentioning Kielder Forest, on the Scotland-England border, or the Lake District. Both areas already boast excellent mountain biking, much of it in natural trails, but that is set to be augmented with 30km of blue/red-graded trails in Kielder, and there are exciting plans for a new Red Route at Whinlatter Forest in the Lake District.

What a lot of these centres have in common is a committed group of (volunteer) trail-builders, from the Hamsterley Trailblazers to the Kielder Trail Reavers, who often work with an expert – such as Laing – to design and then build the single-track. Trail builders have been compared to golf course designers, since their job is essentially to “create an experience.”

These days, Scotland, in particular, has a man-made mountain biking infrastructure to rival anywhere in the world. With the 7Stanes centres in the south of the country now augmented by centres at Carron Valley, near Stirling, Wolftrax in Laggan, the Learnie Red Rocks in the Black Isle, Highland Wildcat in Golspie – and the list goes on – it is no wonder that Scotland is officially the International Mountain Biking Association’s ‘Global Superstar.’

Yet even Laing – an instrumental figure in building this infrastructure – insists that the sport is not all about man-made trails. His advice is: don’t forget the natural paths. “The beauty of man-made trails is that the jumps and bermed corners are designed to help maximize enjoyment,” he says. “But natural trails are where the sport of mountain biking started, and people should definitely get out there and enjoy those as well.

“Natural trails force you to think about your line choice,” Laing continues. “Riding fast down a rooty descent or through a rock farm you may have several options – it’s not always obvious which is the best line to take – and so you have to think on the hoof.

“Natural trails change all the time, whereas man-made trails are designed not to change – they’re built to withstand the bike wheels and weather. The interest in riding natural trails is in dealing with ever changing surfaces, the uncertainty of what could be round the corner, or even where you’re going to end up.”

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