BIKES are big news in Scotland these days in a country that has been voted the world’s number one biking destination. Mountain bike centres are springing up all over the nation, but what about more traditional cycling tours? Scotland is ideal for such excursions, which are an excellent way of exploring the country’s wildest, most scenic corners, as well as of getting fitter rather than fatter on holiday.
There are two key choices to make. The first is what type of bike to use – road cycle, mountain bike or hybrid. There are pros and cons to all three, with thin-tyre road bicycles no good on rough trails, mountain bikes comparatively slow on tarmac and hybrids a sort of compromise without the outstanding parts of either. It all depends on the type of terrain you plan to tackle.
The second choice can take care of the first for you: whether to go out on your own or join a guided tour? Getting out on your own has never been easier with a string of bike shops dotted around the country and the internet providing a wealth of information on all the gear and maps you will need. There are myriad route options, but one particularly rewarding one is to island-hop up the west coast using cyclist-friendly Cal Mac (www.calmac.co.uk) ferries. If you just want to explore one island, Arran excels as you can cycle around its coast in a long day, split it into parts, and also venture inland onto rougher tracks.
On a guided tour meanwhile, you can have the bike chosen for you, won’t need a map and just need to pedal. Robin Hogg, of Galloway Cycling (www.gallowaycycling.co.uk), explains the advantages: “Guided tours mean you get real local knowledge, someone with you who knows the local surfaces and routes. You also get cycle-friendly accommodation set up, and if you get a puncture you are not stuck out there struggling on your own.”
Galloway Cycling are typical of what tour companies now offer in all parts of Scotland. They open up myriad routes around Dumfries and Galloway, with everything from short two or three-day tours through to week-long epics. Flexibility is something most of the operators stress, with the possibility of arranging bespoke tours where you help determine the route and length of the trip. As well as sturdy hybrid bikes, Galloway Cycling also stocks electric bikes for those needing a little help with the steeper gradients.
A real challenge is the week-long mountain bike guided trip organised by Wilderness Scotland (www.wilderness scotland.com). It bashes off from the North Sea at Aberdeen and, 375km later, after 7,000m of ascent, finally reaches the Atlantic at Ardnamurchan. This is a testing adventure, but takes you well off the beaten track on to some remote and spectacular sections of single track.
A tempting halfway house between going solo and in a group is offered by Ticket to Ride Highlands (www.ticket toridehighlands.co.uk). They are based in the Great Glen at Inverness and rent out bikes or can just transport you and your bike one way to Fort William. From there you can set out on your own on the challenging pedal back that takes in parts of the Great Glen Way and opens up access to dedicated mountain bike trails too. As with all of Scotland’s cycle routes, you can explore it in a group or on your own, but either way you will be discovering some of the nation’s finest scenery and getting fitter while you are at it.