You don't need to stick to marked cycle routes. You can create your very own cycle routes. All you need is a road atlas and your imagination.
Dedicated cycle routes give you the confidence that you are going the right way and that you will be safe; directed away from busy traffic. The National Cycle Network (NCN), with its clearly marked and signed routes, is the ideal way to explore Scotland by bike, but it does not cover all corners of the country, so I like to plan my own routes.
I love thumbing through my road atlas to come up with new possibilities for bicycle routes. Many of the journeys on my website have been created this way. Here are my top tips for creating your own cycle routes:
1. Look for a train station
I use the train to access cycle routes, so I always look at train stations on my road atlas. Some stations are located in magnificently rural areas which give immediate access to roads with little traffic.
What type of roads lead away from the station? Are they minor roads, with low-traffic volume? If the answer is yes, then you may have discovered a perfect cycle route.
It might be that your dream route starts some distance away from a station, but you could still cycle from the station to the start of the route.
For the ultimate isolated station with great cycling try Altnabreac
2. Avoid big roads
This goes without saying. You cannot cycle along the M74, although in 2014 members of the Sri Lanka Commonwealth Games team did it for their training, but they were stopped by police.
On my atlas I avoid roads that are blue or red in colour. The roads I want are the ones with no number, the white roads, because I know there will be hardly any traffic. If I can find a route with ony this type of road I will be very happy.
B-roads and A-roads can also be suitable for cycling, but some can be busy with traffic, so it pays to do a bit more resarch using Google Street View.
3. Use Google maps Street View
If it looks like you might need to use major roads for your route it is worth finding out if the roads are likely to be busy. Google Street View lets you get a good look at the roads. Move along the road within Street View for a few minutes to see how many vehicles are on the road. The chances are that if it was busy at the time the Google car filmed the road it will also be busy when you cycle on it. Street View will also allow you to see how wide the road is. A wider road, even if busy with traffic, can still be good for cycling as it means plenty of room for vehicles to overtake you.
You might even discover a cycle path that you didn't know existed! Several times this has happened to me when using Google Street View. I have seen a cycle lane along a busy road that I did not know about and this helped me to decide to include the road on the route.
4. Ask locals
Once you arrive at your destination try asking locals about the traffic conditions, particularly on the major roads, to get intel on their suitability for cycling. There have been several times where I have ruled out a particular road, believing it to be too busy for cycling, but on arriving into the area I have found out from a local that the road is good for cycling.
5. Build your routes around visitor attractions
Add something interesting to your cycle route. Visitor attractions are marked on road atlases and if you can incorporate these into a cycle route it will add some history, culture and cake! Remember that many of these places have tea rooms, so they also provide a nice respite on a cycle journey.
6. A place to stay
If your route involves big distances there is a good chance that you will need to stay the night somewhere. Factor this in when designing routes, so that the end of each day is in a location with accommodation options. Or if you find somewhere unique to stay the night it might be worth designing the route around this. For example, the old railway carriages that are converted to rooms at Rogart station are a special experience so my cycle route incorporates them.
Planning cycling trips with a map is as enjoyable as doing the cycle itself.
I spend hours staring at my map of Scotland. I look for roads that I have never cycled on. I wonder what it is like to be on those roads and what the scenery is like. I go into a dream world of undiscovered parts of Scotland, new things to see and new people to meet. I can travel in my imagination and have an adventure without even being there.
Sometimes when I go to bed I choose to look at my map instead of reading a book. I get so excited about the roads and where they can take me on my bicycle. I stare at the map until I can no longer prevent my eyelids winning their battle to close over. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and the map is still resting on my lap.
My joy of maps was shared by the travel writer and explorer Rosita Forbes (1890-1967). Her eloquent quote makes me tingle with excitement because it so perfectly captures those feelings of wonder when looking at a map:
“That is the charm of a map.It represents the other side of the horizon where everything is possible. It has the magic of anticipation without the toil and sweat of realizations.The greatest romance ever written pales before the possibilities of adventure that lie in the faint blue trails from sea to sea. The perfect journey is never finished, the goal is always just right across the next river, round the shoulder of the next mountain. There is always one more track to follow, one more mirage to explore. Achievement is the price which the wanderer pays for the right to venture.”
“…the magic of anticipation without the toil and sweat of realizations.”
This is very true! Looking at a map it is virtually impossible to discern what it is really like to be there. I can form a romantic picture in my head that does not always take account of punctures, torrential rain, killer hills and other “toil” that a cyclist can face.
I am particularly attracted to the “white” roads on the map. The roads that do not have a letter and number designation. The “nothing” roads. Many of these roads appear to serve no practical use for the average car driver as they serve no place of sizeable population. In fact, it almost seems that these roads were put there for the purpose of cyclists to enjoy the countryside. Scotland has plenty of such roads and I came across the ultimate “nothing” road when spending one of my evenings staring at the map.
I was following the Far North railway line looking for train stations that serviced isolated roads. I came across Altnabreac station in Caithness and a big grin appeared on my face when I saw the single “white” road travelling from the station into nowhere. There was only one place marked on the road- Dalnawillan Lodge. Nothing else until the road emerged out of the wilderness and eventually connected with routes heading to Wick.
I had to go there!
There was every possibility that I could have this road all to myself. I discovered that Altnabreac train station is the 8th least used in Britain. I found out that the one place the road seemed to serve- Dalnawillan Lodge- was closed down. It had been a Victorian hunting lodge, but is now boarded up. I managed to find a photo of this abandoned lodge and this conjured up pictures of once grand banquets after shooting parties in the wilderness.
I booked my train tickets and talked excitedly to friends and family about this fabulous road I had seen on a map. I think some thought I was crazy to be this enthusiastic about a road. It’s just a road, big deal! But they didn’t get it. In a world where almost everywhere has been explored there is little opportunity to capture that feeling of being the first there, or one of few who have been there. Finding that road on my map captured that excitement of the undiscovered and the opportunity to feel what Rosita Forbes felt.
A final word
I was going to include a Google map of this road, but it does not look nearly as exciting as it does on a paper map. You really need to be able to see the road in relation to the surroundings and remoteness of the area and this is much better seen on a full page road atlas. It is even better if it is a used map and has some smears, watermarks and folds like mine does now. The map came with me to Altnabreac and these marks are the story of our journey.
I plan to write about my experiences on this road and post it on the website. In the meantime have a look at Altnabreac the next time you pick up a road atlas. You might just feel the same excitement.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.