February 28, 2022 6 min read
Scotland must be the best place for gravel riding in the UK – as a destination it really can’t be beaten. The gravel cycling options here are endless and Scottish outdoor access rights open up so many gravel tracks compared to finding gravel routes in neighbouring England, Wales and even Ireland.
I wanted to write Gravel Rides Scotland to share why I fell in love with gravel riding and to make it easier to explore Scotland for those wanting something a bit different to mountain bike options. It was also a great excuse to get out there and ride parts of Scotland I’d maybe never thought of riding.
Gravel Rides Scotland reflects my passion for both road cycling and mountain biking, and the routes involve a bit of ‘type 2’ gravel fun, whether this means they have high climbing statistics or just cover long distances.
Gravel riding lets you explore, taking you further and faster into the mountains of the Highlands or to the moors of the Scottish Borders by letting you cover ground efficiently. I enjoy both road cycling and mountain biking and the challenges and pleasure that both offer, but a gravel bike brings elements of both, and routes like those around Aberfoyle (aka Gravelfoyle) might suit a road rider, while others like the Dukes Path near Lochgoilhead gets into ‘underbiking’ (aka mountain bike singletrack). Gravel bikes still let you feel the direct power on road and some rides have longer sections of quiet back lanes like the Dunkeld wind farm route, which just feels like it works on a gravel bike.
Gravel riding lends itself to bikepacking, which has become a big part of the cycling scene. While similar to cycle touring, as we called it a few years back, it is so much more fun with modern bikepacking bags on gravel tracks. It’s about going further than a day ride and taking your kit with you. From social media posts you’d think bikepacking means wild camping, but why not use B&Bs or hostels to carry less kit and add some comfort? Gravel Rides Scotland offers ways to add loops together and easily create bikepacking adventures, while some of the longer gravel rides, like the Callander and Loch Tay monster loop, could be cut in half over a gravel weekend. The best example for bikepacking might be Loch Eck and Loch Long, which offers an easy extra section to add on and detour via Dunoon. Dunoon is easily accessed by a ferry too, which completes a bikepacking adventure.
We can’t not mention the boom in outdoor swimming in Scotland, which much like bikepacking has seen a rise in interest in recent years. They can go hand-in-hand, as on a hot ride it’s great to jump into a pool or by a waterfall to cool yourself off and in Gravel Rides Scotland I’ve tried to share a few prime wild swimming spots. It’s a great post-lockdown excuse to try a few new things at the same time.
Trains offer a great way to link up routes. Scotland is home to some iconic train lines like the West Highland Line and the Scot Rail from Glasgow to Oban (and soon extending to Fort William), which has dedicated bike carriages. Some routes rely on trains, such as Beauly to Ardgay, so train stations are indicated to help you link up the rides.
Trying to narrow down all my researched routes to the twenty-eight rides in the book was hard work, and here I try to describe the top five, which was near impossible! So, my criteria here meant picking my five most memorable, albeit each for different reasons. They aren’t ‘the best’, but they are the routes that really surprised or left an impression on me.
1. Beauly to Ardgay (Route 28)
This one was such a surprise. Researching the book was the first time I had ridden here, and I had no idea what lay in store. The first piece of gravel really starts on the approach to the stunning Glen Orrin. We called our son Orrin, because we liked the name but also because we knew this peaceful idyllic little glen with its ancient redwoods and the river’s rocky rapids. However, was the gravel riding good? It certainly was! While the road down from the reservoir is paved, the first track climbing up on to the moorland is a classic. It is not always smooth (or dry), but it has an isolated drama that’s hard to match anywhere in Scotland. The route then meanders between forest roads, a bit of road and then the next section starts towards Loch Vaich. Granted, when I rode it the sun was out and the sky blue, but, wow, what a ride! Just book this in for a summer adventure!
2. Loch Eck and Loch Long – The Dukes Path, Lochgoilhead and the Arrochar Alps (Routes 09, 09a and 10)
To be honest I have infrequently visited Argyll because it is a bit of a faff to get to. However, the process of writing this book has made me want to go back and explore more. It has a lot of fascinating corners of interest like Puck’s Glen (look it up!) and a lot of great gravel riding that is unparalleled. Catch the ferry to Dunoon and you’ll find two routes that could easily make for a perfect long weekend of riding. The Wild About Argyll campaign has highlighted the area’s natural beauty, something fellow Vertebrate author Markus Stitz was involved in developing.
3. Four forests and a wind farm in the Tweed Valley (Route 04)
This gravel route is my local ride, and the shortest version can even be done before work! It is the ride that kick started gravel in the Tweed Valley, which was already a mountain bike Mecca. I love this route because it has a bit of everything. You can climb on Glentress’s red mountain bike route, then take the smooth, fast descents on gravel and a big climb to a wind farm. The MTB riding in Innerleithen is well known, but the gravel riding at the ‘Golfie’ or Traquair Forest is also awesome and will confuse the enduro riders as you descend past them. You might even spot a local pro enduro rider out grinding some gravel miles, as a few have taken it up off-season to train.
4. The herring roads of the Lammermuirs (Route 05)
This area is just within the Scottish Borders and not far away from East Lothian and Edinburgh, so is really accessible. It is also close to the Berwickshire coast for a surf at Belhaven or Pease Bay. I chose this route for the book because I love the mix of open moorland, the hidden little valleys, the tough climb up to a ridiculously big wind farm and its smooth fast tracks. It is well surfaced but feels remote and like a proper exploration. I was left torn because the wind farms have opened up gravel tracks and obviously provide renewable power, but there is no denying they have also ruined the peace in this natural environment. It is a wonderful area that reminds me of the Cairngorms and the North York Moors in places.
5. Ballater, Balmoral and Loch Muick (Route 17)
The gravel tracks on Deeside (the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park) are as close to gravel perfection as you can get in so many ways. The pick of them all must be the Ballater, Balmoral and Loch Muick ride. Firstly, this crosses some of the most spectacular landscapes on generally smooth and well-maintained tracks before a boulder-strewn descent that most will walk at least some of (possibly the only such descent in the book!). I just love the native pine forest here – it’s all-embracing with so much wildlife and birds in particular, from golden eagles to the rare capercaillie. All the routes in the area are amazing, but this just edges it. You could always make a real adventure of it and link this route up with Invercauld and the River Gairn (Route 18) and Corgarff Castle and a military road (Route 19).
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