The shocking state of Scotland's national cycle track - Lesley Riddoch

The national cycle path turns to mud near Dalguise. Pic: Tom Jones/@FamilyByCycle.
The national cycle path turns to mud near Dalguise. Pic: Tom Jones/@FamilyByCycle.
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Does Scotland have the worst National Cycle Path in the UK?

Does Scotland have the worst National Cycle Path in the UK?

The Jones family complete their Land's End to John O'Groats cyle. Pic: Tom Jones/@FamilyByCycle

The Jones family complete their Land's End to John O'Groats cyle. Pic: Tom Jones/@FamilyByCycle

Despite efforts to become an Active Nation, it seems we do. I was travelling to Skye last weekend and came across a dozen cyclists on the A9 north of Calvine, instead of the cycle path visible just beyond. I was behind two articulated lorries, one of which tried to pass the cyclists, only to pull back when an equally large oncoming truck made that impossible. The second truck slammed on his brakes and everyone behind did likewise. I tweeted about this dodgy situation and had an avalanche of responses complaining that the path is in such bad condition, cyclists are frequently forced to abandon it and risk their lives on what was, till recently, Scotland’s most dangerous road.

A Perthshire local who’s been in cycling clubs since the age of 13 says; “The purpose-built A9 cycle-path is narrow and only wide enough for one cyclist at a time, so no talking for 20 slow miles. It has sudden steep descents, sudden short steep rises, lots of near dead turns and narrow bridges. It requires serious concentration and carefulness to make any safe progress. It’s not possible to ride in any sort of a group and cycling becomes an unsocial chore between Calvine to Dalwhinnie. The surface is getting worse - maintaining or even re-tarmacing will not fix it.”

Many cyclists complain that sections of the path are covered in loose gravel and pebbles. According to mountaineer and cyclist Cameron MacNeish; “Like cycling over marbles.”

The cycling charity Sustrans warns on its website that the surface over Drumochter “has suffered deterioration over recent winters” but 2kms were resurfaced in 2011. Wow. It continues;

“The only alternative is the A9 trunk road which has good sight lines, but very fast traffic and heavy goods vehicles.” Now of course cyclists have the right to be on any trunk road – but as the courts established last week in Edinburgh, the authorities also have the obligation to ensure cycle safety is designed in.

So who is meant to fix the dodgy A9 cycle-path?

Simple question. Complex answer.

The Perth-Inverness route is part of National Cycle Network 7 (NCN7) which follows local, private roads and bespoke cycle-paths for roughly 120 miles. Maintenance is split between local councils, the cycling charity Sustrans and BEAR Scotland - a confusing patchwork of responsibility. The Scottish Government has apparently invested £6.9 million maintaining and extending the whole network, including a new 7.5km segregated cycle path and five crossing points where the A9’s been dualled near Kincraig. The second dualled section of road near

Dunkeld will also have 2.8km of new cycle-paths. That’s six whole new miles of proper cycle-path by 2021. Whoop, whoop.

Bear Scotland say they swept 19kms of cycle-path earlier this year and removed overgrowth to make the path wider. They discovered damage allegedly made by quad bikes near

Dalwhinnie and will resurface 5kms in October during which time cyclists must use the A9. But don’t worry. There will be ‘cyclist’ warning signs at regular intervals to increase motorist awareness. Does this sound safe or likely to make the whole route more appealing?

As for the cyclists on the A9 near Calvine, it seems, after four days of asking, that section isn’t BEAR’s responsibility. Who should maintain it? I still don’t know.

Neither do Tom & Katie Jones, exploring the world with four young children and their bicycles. Last summer, Rhoda (then 4 years old) became the youngest child on record to cycle with her family from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Her time of just over 22 days was narrowly beaten by big sister Ruth (then 5) and videos of the cycling quines went viral.

So Tom, a railwayman by trade, can give a blow by blow account of the entire A9 cycle-path, having filmed part of it for BBC’s Newsround and Channel Four’s Roads from Hell. What a shame Transport Scotland won’t be consulting the intrepid Jones family instead of “stakeholders” who’ve been unaware or unperturbed by this hopeless cycle-path until now.
“We got lots of warnings from other cyclists before setting out. Trouble is conditions change from year to year and there’s no simple, reliable source to consult. A lot of the path is the old A9, and no maintenance’s been done in decades. We needed to go on the actual A9 near Dalguise when the track became mud – mercifully we were protected from traffic by our support vehicle. But the worst section was after Calvine where we were sandwiched between crash barriers separating the railway and the road. The A9 is so close you get soaked by the spray from vehicles if it’s raining. The final section involved a massive hilly detour that took us an extra half day. It was tempting to use the dual-carriageway to get straight into Inverness but I’d been warned it was lethal.”

“I’ve cycled on the Tarka trail in the West Country, which has almost a million cycle journeys a year – but a properly functioning A9 cycle-path would knock it into a cocked hat. The route is such a missed opportunity – beautiful, abandoned places could be buzzing with people and small businesses if a fraction of the A9 dualling cash was spent getting the WHOLE cycle-path right. As it is, cyclists are constantly worried the path will turn into a bog or a rock-strewn, roller-coaster round the next corner.”

What use is a long-distance cycling route when parts are “lethal,” the cycle route includes avoidable steep hills, there are few facilities in the event of a puncture and the surface is too rocky for the type of bikes most cyclists expect to use?

Until last week, complaints like these were usually ignored. But last week’s court victory by two cyclists in Edinburgh, suggests the days of unsympathetic judges and uncomplaining, hyper-hardy cyclists are over. As Tom Jones puts it; “You don’t need a Land Rover to drive the A9, so you shouldn’t need to be covered in mud on a mountain bike with knobbly tyres to use the

National Cycle Network.”

Quite.

Maybe someone should get a grip of the A9 cycling situation if Scotland really wants to be a welcoming country, an active nation and a safe haven for cyclists.