The clean, double-line signifying a road as it crawled its way across our map reduced to a single line, then a dashed line, then… “road surfaces may vary.” Shit, we thought. We’ve ridden ‘tracks’ before, and found ourselves lifting our 150 pound loaded tandem over trees and wading through ankle-deep mud. But today, in Scotland, it is an unusually sunny summer day, the solstice fast-approaching, and we feel more than up to the challenge. This is the land of a few of Ian’s forbearers (where, in his imagination, they spent their days running over the highlands in howling rain).
As it were, our bad-assery was not needed; when following the National Cycle Network in the British Isles, a single-dotted track with “variable surfaces” is, in fact, a glorious, smooth trail that meanders through meadows of wild flowers or glens of moss-covered beech and pine on the shores of a deep-blue loch, reflecting the hills towering above.
This summer, we are crossing Europe, and holy-highland-cattle what a start we’ve had. Variable surfaces indeed: no roots or tree trunks to hop, just miles and miles of awe-inspiring scenery. Here are some of the trails we’ve followed so far.
Day 1: June 8, Glasgow, 8.41 miles
Everyone and everything happily arrived together in Glasgow Airport around midmorning. With trepidation we brought our gear out the glass doors, expecting a highway, and finding instead a cardboard recycling bin and a cylceable roadway. Within an hour, we had built Golden Tandem (GT to friends), loaded it up with our gums and gourds, and set out on our first Scottish roads, muttering “left side, left side” under our breath as a mantra.
Within 8 miles we had bought gas, enjoyed our first lunch perched upon a grassy island in a parking lot (thanks John and Lynnell!) and made our way to our hosts for the night via an incredible underground one-way, cycle-only tunnel under the River Clyde. Almost all of our riding was on urban bike paths, with a short foray through a golf course.
Our hosts, Neil and Jenny, not only put up with our jetlagged chatter, but also fed us a delicious meal, wined us, and tucked us into bed. In addition they are single-handedly responsible for introducing us to the maps of the National Cycle Network, a series of routes around the UK that have taken us from paved, one-lane country roads to isolated gravel tracks deep in the woods along some of the prettiest countryside we’ve ever seen.
Day 2: June 9, Glasgow to Balquhidder Station, 74.64 miles
We left Glasgow on smooth urban bike lanes along canals, passing commuters and people clearly out for their constitutionals. Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland, and comes with lots of traffic, but we saw none of that; our ride out of town was through a tunnel of trees and dioramas of quaint backyard life. A quick expedition to Dumbarton Castle exposed us to rush-hour, and we quickly retreated to our traffic-free haven.
As we headed north towards Loch Lomond we relaxed into a familiar rhythm, the miles rolling by. The congested roads of the UK (apparently some of the worst in Europe), were invisible to us, and we to them. We had become a part of the landscape on our bike; perhaps just another cycle-tourer to those who glimpsed a flash of neon as we crested another hill. But from where our soar bums sit, crawling up hills at 5 mph, we have plenty of time to devour every well-tended garden, and window display. Rather naive and voyeuristic, our imaginations inserted themselves into the country lifestyle.
From a park on the shores of Lomond, to country roads, to forestry trails that climbed dizzyingly into the hillside, our day proceeded quietly. The hills! The vistas we enjoyed were soon exercised in a tangible way upon our legs. We will experience the highlands with a physical intimacy reserved for those who push, drag, or crawl themselves across the landscape (romanticism, anyone?).
By the end of the day, we had run out of adjectives; Ian had devolved to repeating “Dang!” over and over again, while Christine had appropriated “Smashing!” as her word of choice. Words won’t describe. See the tracks we’ve made:
Day 3: June 10, Balquhidder Station to Pitlochry, 52.37 miles
Many of the trails NCN uses are quite old. The UK has a long history of infrastructure, and it shows in the landscape. Our route began on an old aqueduct that climbed steadily through Glen Ogle to Loch Tay. While the ascent was gentle and paved in fine gravel, the descent was a hair-raising, whoop-and-holler bone-shaker through a dark, dense pine plantation on rough gravel. As we we screamed down the hill, our senses were overwhelmed by the smell of the trees (Christmas!).
Our companions for the day were sheep, ruins, and the still waters of Loch Tay, which reflected mountains above. Sheep are great. It’s lamb season, and they would either bound away, bleating, or stare at us with dumb-found indifference. Some roads did have traffic; passing trucks (lorries) on 1.5 lane roads on steep hillsides is quite an experience, and reminded us of how lucky we were to keep to paths so often.
After lunch #1 we were surprised by a small ruin outside of Kenmore. In this ragged structure we were struck by the depth of history. As Americans, we are rarely confronted with visible reminders of the passage of time. And while ruins are grand, old, and dramatic, the layers of plant and human work, one atop the other, decaying, growing, and intermingling along the roadside anywhere you go was the image that truly stayed with us.
Day 4: June 11, Pitlochry to Glen Morlich, 62.43 miles
We spent our morning climbing mighty Drumochter pass, parallel to A9, a major highway. Our path followed the old highway, and we amused ourselves watching the old road as it slowly narrowed as we climbed. A layer of moss, grass and wildflowers is slowly eating away at the pavement. By the top of the pass, the elements had won out completely, and we bumped along a rutted single track over ridges and potholes that encourage both the contemplation of the passage of time and of our digestive systems, which are adapting to UK cuisine. Very serious, indeed.
After ooing and aaahing over the Sow of Atholl and the Boar of Badenoch, we coasted down into a valley of the Cairngorms, enjoying the sun and a tailwind. Punishing weather and road conditions will inevitably come.
We are now in Glenmore, 4 miles up a characteristically picturesque dirt path, camping below Cairn Gorm on the shores of Loch Morlich.
Day 5: June 12, Glenmore, 8.2 miles
We’re taking a day off here to hike some peaks and drink tea. Here we are hiking up Scotland’s 4th highest peak, Cairn Gorm. Talk about variable surfaces!!
Next, it’s on to Inverness, where we’ll be joined by good friends to head east to the North Sea, and then south to Edinburgh. See you on the coast!