In the week before Christmas, my wonderful other half had the utterly inspired idea to get away from all the pre-festive nonsense and booked us into a luxurious Scottish log cabin on the banks of Loch Lubnaig, between Callander and Strathyre, in the Trossachs National Park. Although this necessitated getting everything ready for Christmas a week earlier, it was well and truly worth the mild panic, with five days of breathtaking scenery, pristine air and zero stress. Her account of the holiday can be found here: http://jenny-marie.co.uk/forest-holidays-strathyre-scotland/. Nestling therein is the suggestion for a blog post from me on the cycling aspect, so here we go.
Now, while the idea of luxuriating in a log cabin with a hot-tub, wood-burner and on-demand video service in deepest Scotland in even deeper winter is perfectly sound, the idea of tacking a bit of cycling on seemed a little more ambitious, given the distinct possibility of some capricious Scottish winter weather. And indeed, our first full day revealed a decidedly stubborn layer of sheet ice over many of the forest trails, so the idea of cycling was abandoned and instead we opted for a hillside trek, which became an ice-slide, ultimately giving way to a scramble through the forest as we abandoned the idea of being outside altogether.Gratifyingly, overnight it absolutely sheeted it down with rain, washing all the ice away – so cycling was back on the agenda. The choice of bikes to rent from the centre was between mountain bikes or mountain bikes, so I hired a mountain bike, donned my winter (roadie) gear and I was all set.
Still nursing an injured arm from a low-speed, high-impact crash in Copenhagen a couple of months earlier, it had been a while since I’d done any leisure cycling, and I was slightly apprehensive about how my fitness would hold up, so the plan was simply to cycle in one direction until I felt I’d had enough, or the light started to fade, or both, and just turn around and come back.
The track past our cabin was in fact part of National Cycling Network route 7, 601 miles stretching between Sunderland and Inverness. This particular section is noted not only for the stunning scenery, but also for being off-road, which is always a treat for someone who spends a lot of time cycling in snarled-up urban traffic. And indeed, the first four miles or so along the loch were absolutely breathtaking, even if the bike’s chubby tyres on the soggy dirt made progress somewhat slow going.
At the end of the loch the dirt track presented a short, sharp series of upward hairpins before joining a tarmac road on which the bike rolled somewhat better.
Rolling down into Strathyre I visited the reconstructed broch before continuing along route 7.
Just north of Strathyre, I discovered the long-distance pedaller’s holy grail: a section of off-road, pristinely tarmacked cycle path. And if that wasn’t enough, there were ponies, too. Actual ponies.
The next section was slightly more undulating and wooded, with the strange leafless, mossy trees creating a particularly eerie impression.
By this point I was about ten miles from the cabin – not really that far, but for someone with no lights, no GPS unit, no sense of direction, no knowledge of the area and the awareness that the Scottish sun would set at around 3:30 p.m., it felt like about time to make a half-way stop. With Lochearnhead hoving into view, I stopped at the local village store for a coffee and Scottish macaroon bar – possibly the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted – before heading back the way I came.
For those who believe bike rides only happen if they’re Strava, here’s your proof:
The next day – the winter solstice, no less – I opted for a variation on route 7 for which I’d seen the signposts on my first outing: more of a loop through the forest to Balquhidder, another loch-side settlement and the site of Rob Roy‘s grave. Continuing straight instead of taking the right turn to Strathyre, this version of the route proceeded along some low-lying, cold, frosty roads before revealing stunning views of Loch Voil, at the head of which Balquhidder lies.
I stopped at the kirk and did my touristy duty, taking in the information sign and pondering the grave as augustly as is possible in tight cycling lycra.
I then hopped back on the bike, headed towards Strathyre, picked up the tarmac ‘n’ pony section and headed back, pausing to capture the loch and its shroud of mist.
And once again for the Strava doubters:
So there we go. That was my experience of cycling on a tiny section of route 7 in the dead of winter. I was very lucky with the weather, and it really whetted my appetite for more. I’ve been pondering for a while about how to make a Scottish cycle tour a reality that involves the Hebridean Way but adds some extra on to make it worth the travelling. Maybe this route 7 holds at least part of the answer….