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.
When I first started cycling I could not fix a puncture. I didn’t have a clue.
If I did get a puncture it would take me hours to figure out how to get the tyre off the wheel and then get the inner tube out. It seemed like too much hassle to try and find the hole and patch it, so I would always resort to putting in a new inner tube. More often than not I would get this wrong and end up bursting the inner tube! I could easily go through two or three inner tubes before I achieved success.
I was hopeless!
I became paranoid about getting a puncture and developed an obsession with continually stopping to check my tyres. Every time I went over a bump or stone or something on the ground I could not help but glance at the tyres to see if there was any damage.
Most of my earliest cycling trips tended to be a few miles along the Forth and Clyde canal path in central Scotland. I lived very close to the canal and when I got a puncture I still managed to cycle back home with a flat tyre because it was not far. I politely said “thank you” to the dog walkers and other cyclists that thought they were being helpful by saying “you’ve got a flat mate.” It was embarrassing, but I preferred to limp home to try to fix the tyre because I knew it would take me hours and it was better to do this at home than alongside the canal.
When I started going on long distance trips with my cycling buddy Paul I relied on luck not to get a puncture. He had a mountain bike with indestructible tyres and I am sure has never had a puncture in all the years we have been cycling together. My thin tyres were much more vulnerable, but the first few trips we did together my bike survived unscathed. Luck held out.
That was until a ride from Culrain to Ullapool, in the north-west Highlands of Scotland.
This is probably one of the worst places to get a puncture and not be able to fix it because the road is so isolated. About the only place marked on the map is the Oykel Bridge Hotel and this is where we pulled in to try to fix the problem.
It was a nightmare. I used up my two spare inner tubes by bursting them. As I was inflating the inner tube I did not notice some of the tube started spilling out the sides of the tyre and this caused it to pop. This happened twice!
It was also cold with a chilly wind blowing across the hotel’s car park and I remember having to frequently rub my hands together to stop them going numb.
The hotel owner must have thought we were fools for coming all this distance into the wilderness without a clue as to how to fix a puncture. He offered us the use of a bowl and water so that we could try to find the hole in the original inner tube from the bubbles and then patch it up. This is the classic way to fix a puncture which I had never tried before. With no spare inner tubes remaining there was no option but to try this.
Celebrate with bubbles
It was a moment of celebration when we saw the bubbles coming from the hole in the inner tube. Found it! The tiniest hole it was too. And this is what had caused us such an enormous hassle! I kept a finger on the hole so as not to lose where it was and then removed the tube from the bowl.
I used the little puncture repair kit with the tube of glue and patches to cover the hole. I was very delicate with it, following the instructions precisely and leaving plenty of time for the glue to dry. I was very well aware that this was our only chance to ensure the continuation of this cycling trip. Would this work?
I cautiously filled the inner tube with air. I put my ear to the repair patch and could hear no air escaping. Yes! This was good, but I still had to get the inner tube into the tyre which is where it all went wrong before.
Once I had the tyre back on the wheel rim I triple checked that there was no bits of inner tube spilling out. Then I slowly used the pump, checking that the tube was still not spilling out.
It worked a treat and at last we were able to say goodbye to the owner of the hotel and start cycling again. It took a while to get warmed up because knees and legs had become frozen in all the hours we had spent outside in the cold.
Without the puncture we would have been due to arrive into Ullapool at 5pm, a nice civilized time to look around town and then have dinner. The four hour (I am embarrassed to admit that it took this long!) puncture stop meant we arrived at the decidedly silly time of 9pm.
Our bed and breakfast owner said that there was nowhere serving dinner at this time and our best bet was the fish and chip shop. The food tasted so amzing that I can still recall the perfect crispiness of the chips to this day. This is not just because the Seaforth is an award winning fish and chip restaurant, but becase we felt we really had to earn our dinner. When you come very close to disaster and manage to get yourself out of it the meal you have afterwards will never be forgotten.
Not being able to fix a puncture stopped me going off on my own on the bike. I was afraid that I would get one and then not have the moral support of my friend, so I did not want to take off on my own.
I have come a long way since then.
Fixing a puncture is now second nature for me. I don’t fear it like I used to. It is simply a fact of cycling. It no longer stops me from cycling on my own. I still prefer to carry spare inner tubes to replace broken ones than spend time trying to locate the hole and using repair patches. But I can do it this way, if needs be.
It takes me less than twenty minutes to replace an inner tube, which is probably quite a long time compared to most seasoned cyclists, but at least it is not four hours like it used to be!
I have had to make repairs in some pretty lonely places and during some horrific weather. I have had to do it when I am really tired and just want to get home to a warm bed. However, it is very satisfying once the repair is done and I can continue on my way. I always feel that there is a large element of self-reliance when cycling alone and getting a puncture is one of the best ways to understand how much you are dependant on yourself and nobody else.
My advice to pass on is that you must be able to fix a puncture if you are doing serious cycling that takes you far from population centres and assistance. Once you know how to fix a puncture you will become much more confident about setting off on your own.
Puncture repair videos
There are plenty of videos showing you how to fix a puncture. This is a good one from local bike shop Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op:
1. Always book a bike space
Most long distance routes require a booking for a bicycle. You will risk not being allowed onto the train if you do not have a reservation. It is free to reserve a space and you can book bike spaces online at both the Scotrail and Eastcoast trains websites. A list of services that require a reservation are listed on the Scotrail website. You will receive a free ticket for your bicycle reservation. Make sure that you carry this as it will be your only proof of a reservation.
2. Look for the cycle symbol on the train doors
Trains stop for about one minute at most stations so there is not long to get onboard. When the train pulls up at the station keep your eye out for the blue cycle symbol- this will tell you which door(s) to use for the cycle storage area. Some trains will have more than one area, so if you get on and discover it is full you can always try another carriage. If a train is particularly full of bikes the train guard will often pro-actively direct you to the specific door where there is available space. If your departure station is where the train starts its journey you could always turn up early to figure out where the bike spaces are and this will be less stressful than trying to do it at the last minute.
3. Don’t be surprised at how little space there is
Trains in Scotland do not have a lot of space for hefty luggage like bicycles. Most trains can only carry four bicycles. The bicycle storage areas are small and it can be challenging to manoeuvre your bike into them. It takes a bit of practice, but you soon get used to it.
4. Use the restraining belts to secure your bike
Most types of train have straps where you can secure your bike. It pays to use these as your bike could tumble over when the train goes over a bumpy section of track or a tight curve. The class 156 trains that are used on the West Highland Line require you to hang your bicycle vertically from a hook, but most of the other types of train in Scotland have horizontal storage.
5. Talk to other cyclists using the train
If you are not travelling to the end of the line it is important to speak to the other cyclists using the storage area. This is so that your bike does not end up behind other bikes when you need to get off at your stop. There is nothing worse than trying to manhandle somebody else’s bike in order to get your bike out. This is made even worse on a busy train when you are surrounded by standing passengers all waiting to get off. It is far better to make sure that your bike is on the outside of the storage area at the beginning of the journey if you know that you will be first off the train. Talking to other cyclists might even bring about new ideas for future trips and even new friends.
6. Don’t leave it to the last minute when you are getting off the train
Start to get your bike ready at least 5 or 10 minutes before your train is due to arrive at the station you are getting off at. The train will only stop for about one minute, unless it is the terminating station, in which case you do not need to worry. This is particularly important if you have panniers and other belongings to take off the train. You may also need a few moments to manouever your bike so that it can easily be wheeled out of the doors.
7. Beware of short platforms
A small number of stations have shorter platforms meaning that not all of the train doors will open. Your bike could be in the carriage of the train where the doors will not be opened! Don’t worry about this as the guard will advise you what to do when checking your ticket- you may need to move your bike to the next carriage or they might make a special exception and open another door for you. There are very few short platforms- Conon Bridge and Beauly on the Far North Line are examples.
8. Get used to old station infrastructure
You will need the strength to lift and carry your bike short distances at some of Scotland’s stations. Much of the infrastructure dates from the Victorian era and is therefore not always cycle-friendly. For example, some stations have iron footbridges that are steep and can be tough to carry a bike over. A small number of stations have very low platforms where there can be a big drop from the train to the platform- this can make it tricky to get a bike down from a train or up to a train.
9. Enjoy the old station infrastructure
Although old stations may sometimes present practical problems with a bicycle they provide an opportunity to enjoy some beautiful railway heritage. Some station buildings are incredibly pretty and none are identical, so each new cycling route often starts with a unique piece of architecture.
10. Sit back, enjoy the scenery, buy a coffee
Some of the points above might make it sound stressful using the train to carry your bike, but it is generally straightforward and you will soon get used to it. The real joy of putting your bike on the train is that you have leisure time until you arrive and the chances are that you will be travelling through stunning landscapes. When the catering trolley comes around you can treat yourself to a coffee and sit back and enjoy the view whilst dreaming about where you will be cycling when the train arrives.
More information: Taking your bike on the train guide
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.