Staycation inspiration: Scotland
With its lockdowns and travel restrictions, 2020 will long be remembered as the year of the staycation. And who knows? Perhaps 2021 will follow suit? While we may not be allowed to ride our bikes abroad where we’d like next year, there are benefits to staying in Scotland.
Granted, the weather doesn’t always play ball, but you can’t deny that our countryside offers some astoundingly beautiful biking opportunities, whether you choose to stay on the road or venture off it. There’s the added bonus that, by travelling in Scotland, you’re cutting down enormously on your carbon footprint and saving yourself money in the process.
Of course, domestic travel restrictions are as tough to predict as international ones. Next year we may still be cycling in groups of six. Whatever the rules, there are countless routes for roadies, touring cyclists, gravel bikers and mountain bikers to enjoy, whatever their level of expertise and fitness. Here are some suggestions for all types of trails in Scotland.
The North Coast 500 835km/519 miles
Head north of the border and the weather can be inclement, especially on the west coast, where the midgies – which descend in their hordes in summer – will frustrate even the most stoical cyclist. But of all the four home nations, the natural scenery of Scotland cannot be beaten.
To witness some of the very best, embark on a legendary road route called the North Coast 500. Some call it “Scotland’s Route 66”. Yet this 500-mile tarmacked tourist route around the Scottish Highlands sees a lot less traffic than the famous road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Although it can get busy in the summer season as motorists – some of them not the most responsible drivers – negotiate the route, outside of the tourist season there are rural sections where you’d be lucky to spot anything speedier than Highland cattle.
Riding clockwise, the route starts in Inverness and takes in some gloriously Caledonian sights including windswept coastal roads, snaking inlets, rugged sea cliffs, loch-spanning bridges, deserted sandy beaches, fairytale castles, little known Gaelic villages, island-dotted bays, imposing Highland Munros, and mainland Britain’s most northerly point. It runs for 519 miles in all, with an elevation gain of around 10,500 metres, and would take a fit and experienced touring cyclist five days or more. Former professional cyclist James McCallum holds the course record – 31 hours and 23 minutes.
“It was like nothing I had ever taken in before and a million miles from what I did as a professional athlete,” the cyclist said after completing his ride in 2018. “Yes, I have done many races around the world but none of them had the combination of the constant elevation changes or the beautiful scenery of the NC500.”
Most cyclists tackle the route clockwise, to benefit from the southwesterly winds that prevail on Scotland’s west coast. There is plenty of accommodation en route, and many great spots for wild camping.
Heading west from Inverness, the route first crosses the southern section of the North West Highlands on A-roads towards the Applecross peninsula. Before you reach the coast you’ll face the toughest test of the entire ride, and arguably the toughest road climb anywhere in Britain: Bealach na Ba. Once that’s completed, for the remainder of the route you mostly hug the coastal roads, twisting, turning, rising and dropping as you skirt the entirety of the top section of the Northwest Highlands, taking in Ullapool, Durness, Thurso, John o’ Groats, Lybster, Helmsdale, Dingwall and back to Inverness.
Since he holds the record, the last word on this Scottish classic really should come from James McCallum. “Plan for every eventuality both mechanically and from a weather perspective. Scotland can be both very beautiful and brutal at the same time.”
Obscura Mondo Cycling Club’s An Turas Mor route takes you off-road from Glasgow into the Highlands proper. This is a two-day slice of it. The first leg to Balquhidder Station is a good warm up through the Trossachs. The more challenging
second leg makes good use of tracks built for Scotland’s new hydro schemes and ends at the remote Loch Ossian youth hostel.
The Great Glen slices diagonally across the neck of Scotland, coast to coast. For beginners or families, the 11-mile section between Fort Augustus and Laggan Locks – on flat towpaths and cycle paths – is the perfect introduction. It starts at the southern end of Loch Ness and skirts Loch Oich as far as the northern tip of Laggan Locks. Even beginners can make the journey there and back in a day.