Frozen Scotland – A lowland bikepacking adventure in winter

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14.02.19 at 10:34 am

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By the time we had reached Glasgow Queen Street it was dark. It was an ordinary Thursday evening at the end of January when we followed the Paisley Flyer westbound, a cycling route I had recently devised for the Glasgow Cycle Map. Christian had booked us a small hotel in Paisley and finally we were off on a mini adventure in the lowlands and on the south west coast, an often overlooked part of Scotland.

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By the time we arrived at the hotel it was already bitterly cold. We left the bikes behind and after a quick change of clothes we were out again, exploring the city and looking for a nice meal. Both of us were pleasantly surprised. The icy pavements of Scotland’s ‘largest town’ were virtually empty and the buildings were beautifully lit up. We were both excited about what was to come and discussed clothing choices on the way back to the hotel, as the temperature was supposed to drop even further overnight to -7. We were out in the coldest night Scotland had experienced this winter.

In the morning it felt more like -20 when we got outside. Normally I use my down jacket only for the times off the bike and hardly ever when I ride, but it was cold enough to use it as the final layer this morning. My winter boots and knee-high socks kept my feet dry and cosy, and with two pairs of gloves my fingers warmed up after a while. The sun was just about to rise when we cycled through a beautiful winter wonderland on Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 out of town. Our first short detour was Elderslie, the birthplace of Scotland’s national icon, William Wallace. Other than the usual monument there was not much else to see here, and with the temperatures still well below zero, any minute standing around meant getting colder again, so we kept the visit brief.

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As not many people braved the temperatures we had the cycle path for ourselves. As the sun gently warmed our backs, our tires crunched through the frozen snow on the path. Everything was coated in white crystals. At Castle Semple Loch we left the cycle route for a few miles and enjoyed the winter wonderland views from a gravel path along the shore.

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A challenge when cycling in winter is finding an open café in rural, less touristy towns, and luck wasn’t on our side this morning, so Tesco filled the gap before we left Route 7 again for a while to discover Kelburn Castle. Christian took the safer option on the road, while I tried my bike skating skills on the snowy and at times solidly frozen paths on the grounds of the estate. The views over the sea to Arran and the rather eclectic castle were worth the effort. Kelburn Castle’s walls are covered in striking graffiti from four Brazilian artists, which makes it stand out on a route that brought us to many castles.

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The snow covered hills of Arran formed a beautiful backdrop for the rest of the day while we cycled along the coast, basking in beautiful winter sunshine along the way. A short off-road section brought us to Portencross Castle and on to Irvine. Another short detour from Route 7 took us to the ‘Bridge of Scottish Innovation’, behind which an abandoned Science Centre that only opened for three years hides. The bridge is permanently retracted as the centre on the Ardeer Peninsular is closed, and we could only imagine what lies on the other side. A visit to the sauna and a whirlpool in our hotel in Ayr ended our second day on the road in style.

Day three started with a mishap on my side. After a beautiful sunrise the wind had picked up, it was freezing again. One of the cleat bolts on my shoes had come undone, and I could no longer unclip the shoe from the pedal. I had no other choice than to take off my shoe and sit on a bench, trying to separate my shoe and the pedal. I felt sorry for Christian as he had to wait in the cold wind but eventually succeeded, and thankfully he had brought a spare bolt as well. The cycle on more scenic paths along the Ayrshire Coast made up for my frozen foot that was gradually warming up again.

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Again we left Route 7 for a short detour further along the coast to Turnberry, passing a section of road called Electric Brae. The make up of the land around this short stretch of road makes you think you are going downhill but in reality you’re climbing. We only believed this when we actually stopped to see where the bike went without pedalling.

Turning eastbound again we found a lovely café in Maybole, strengthening ourselves with warm food for the last and most demanding leg of the ride over the Galloway Forest Park. Distracted by the beautiful views we went the wrong way and added a few kilometres to the daily count. Shortly after re-joining Route 7 we found a ‘Road Closed’ sign ahead of us. We ignored the sign and celebrated the fact that we had the road to ourselves and climbed steadily on to about 450m of altitude. The road was covered solidly in snow and the climbing was tough. At times we had to get off the bikes and push them over patches of ice. The going was very slow and we were pleased to join a busier road to Glentrool after about two hours in this winter wonderland.

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We rolled into Newton Stewart at about 6 and checked into our room. The Black Horse Inn was a proper rural pub, and soon we got to know the owner and a few others while enjoying a big meal. While I was reasonably tired and retreated to the room soon, Christian had a proper ‘night out’ in Newton Stewart.

Both of us didn’t look forward to what was to come the next day, as the forecast was for temperatures just below zero and rain. We had originally planned to head eastbound to Dumfries and on to Lockerbie, where trains to Edinburgh depart frequently, but the conditions outside were treacherous.

Cycle touring in Scotland railway-path

It took us a good two and a half hours for the 30km cycle to Barrhill. Heavy rain turned us into soggy looking and cold creatures and the roads into an ice rink, but somehow we made it to the station without a single fall. Drying up in the four different trains we had to take to make it back to Edinburgh this way, we looked back onto an amazing bike adventure, dreaming about more snowy roads, frozen lakes and warm hotel rooms to hide in the evening. While winter in Scotland might not be your first choice when you think about a bike adventure, our experience proved that it is the perfect time to enjoy the country.

Cycle touring in Scotland, mountain bike beside frozen-lake

Tips for cycling in winter:

  • Make sure your feet, hands and head are properly covered. Winter cycling boots and knee-high socks keep your feet comfy and dry, while several pairs of gloves of varying thickness give you the chance to layer them up. Plastic gloves from petrol stations are a good layer of insulation should your hands get really cold. Make sure your ears are covered in frosty temperatures.
  • Layer up and adapt your clothing choice during the day. Try not to get sweaty.
  • Take a down jacket for colder mornings and evenings or a visit to the pub.
  • The wider your tire choice, the more flexible you are.
  • Check the ‘feels like’ temperature instead of the actual temperature, as cold winds can have a significant impact.
  • Get good lights and head out before the sunrise on a clear day.

Markus Stitz is the founder of bikepackingscotland.com. He is speaking about his recent adventures on 2 May in the Green Jersey in Clitheroe. More information about the event can be found here.

Yellow Jersey bicycle insurance will cover your bike for all forms of bike packing, here in our beautiful UK countryside as well as the rest of the world.

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