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To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1) Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Utrecht

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1) Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Utrecht

The plan was simple, get on a bike, ride to EuroBike see the show, and then ride back. That was my plan. When I told Ulli, her initial reaction was “it’s too far, it would take too long.” Well, the direct route from the ferry terminal at Ijmuiden to Friedrichshafen is about 780 Km, which could be ridden in eight days, or ten allowing for sightseeing. Each-way. So maybe she had a point. I parked the idea.

One evening about a month later Ulli commented “do you know that there are one day train passes in Germany (Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket), unlimited travel on regional express trains and you can take bikes? We could cross Germany from the Dutch border to the Austrian border in about 10 hours.” For €44, and you can take up to four additional people for €8 each, so for the two of us, it would cost €52 to take us all the way across Germany (+€5.50 per bike)! This was a game-changer for Ulli. Instead of just going to EuroBike and then coming back again, we could have an interesting few days cycle touring, catch a train to get across a large part of Germany and have time to go see her family in Austria. The trip was on.

So it was that we found ourselves on a train to Newcastle on a bright sunny day in mid-August. My plan had always been to take the train to Newcastle, having ridden NCN1 in the past, I was in no hurry to repeat the exercise this time around. Getting the bike into the hanging cubby hole was a bit of a faff and made me wonder what we might come across in Germany.

Having arrived at Newcastle Station, the first challenge was to find a way to get to the Ferry terminal at North Shields. The obvious route was to follow the river Tyne downstream. The first attempt to find a way to get to the river ended at the top of a flight of steps, but undeterred, we finally found a way. Once at the riverside, wayfinding was much more comfortable, and we picked up signs for the Hadrian’s Cycleway, as used by the habebat vehentem phalanx of the II Adiutrix. On the way, we passed the air control tower of the Segedunum Roman Fort as used by the aerium Cohort of the XIV Gemini.

On arrival at the Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal, cyclists are directed to line up in the car lane to check in, which looks more like a motorway toll booth. Having arrived at check-in, passports are needed to go any further. I knew I had my passport with me as I could remember that I had packed it in a safe place. The problem was it was such a safe place I couldn’t remember where it was. Cue five minutes of frantically searching panniers and rucksack, much to the amusement of the large group of cyclists behind us. Passport found, checked in, and meals paid for (it is one third cheaper if you do it at check-in), we then had to line up with the motorbikes for boarding.

Boarding a large RoRo ferry with a bicycle is an odd experience. It is clear that the vehicle decks are not places for people, they are all about large machines. That said, the crew are welcoming and helpful, showing us the correct place to stow the bike and how to get to the upper decks. The ferry crossing was uneventful, the North Sea was like a millpond, so it was a restful cruise.

Arriving in Ijmuiden, the Netherlands. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1)

The following morning, after a good breakfast, we arrived in a dull and overcast Holland, the port of Ijmuiden looking grim. Even so, we were looking forward to the adventure ahead, crossing the fabled cycle-friendly Netherlands. Off the ferry and through immigration, we looked around for signs and cycle infrastructure to take us towards Amsterdam. There was none. Fortunately, we had pre-programmed a route into Komoot using Komoot’s auto-routing. This is where the problems really started.

This was the first time we had used Komoot for routing and weren’t prepared for some of its idiosyncrasies. As it was raining, I had my phone in the pocket of my jacket rather than mounted on the bars of my bike. Therefore, I was reliant on the voice directions, which sometimes make little sense. Such as being told to turn where there was no apparent turn or telling me to go straight ahead at a T junction. Despite this, we managed to find our way off the main road (which leads to a motorway) and onto quiet side streets, so far no dedicated cycle infrastructure or even signage.

After some time going around the houses, we came onto a larger road with separated cycle lanes on either side. This leads up a slight rise to a bridge over the main road coming out of the port and our first roundabout. Now ordinarily a roundabout is nothing to get excited about, indeed in the UK, it is something which many cyclists would prefer to avoid. But this was a Dutch roundabout which has an outer cycle lane which motor vehicles are required to give way to when entering and exiting the roundabout. This means that accessing the roundabout by bicycle is easy and stress-free. To test this out, I decided to go all the way around. As a result, I became disoriented and couldn’t remember which exit to leave by.

Having worked out how to exit the roundabout, it was time to head for Amsterdam. We thought we had chosen a route which would take in as much green space as possible (and a short detour planned detour into the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park). It was a pleasant enough route passing through forgettable villages and polders. Ulli took to stork spotting. Also finding out that mobile phone cameras don’t have the sort of long lens needed to photograph a stork halfway across a field (not that that stopped her trying).

At some point on the outskirts of Amsterdam Komoot decided to randomly direct us off a perfectly functional cycle path on to a section of singletrack. Why this was, I don’t understand. However, this seems to be a bit of a habit with the Komoot algorithm, and one that we would come up against a number of times during our trip. But there was one unexpected detour which wasn’t Komoot’s fault. While playing around with the potential routing before we left home, I had looked to see where the Urban Arrow factory was. I had found that it was only a few hundred meters to the north of our intended route. Knowing that we were going to be there on a Sunday, and the factory closed, I thought I had removed this, but Komoot had other ideas. So it was that we found our selves outside the home of one of the largest cargo bike manufactures in Europe. On a Sunday, when they were closed and no chance of taking a look around. Durr

Sent off down single track, thanks Komoot! To EuroBike and Back: a continental journeyThe home of Urban Arrow. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey.

Next up was the old town of Amsterdam, with its quaint canals and massed road works, which made navigation rather more complicated. Fortunately, Amsterdamers are a friendly bunch and welcome the lost cycle tourer with cheerful greetings of Godverdomme and Laat ze opzoute!

It also gave us an opportunity to have lunch and pick up some bakery items for later.

As we left Amsterdam, we encountered the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal (or Rhine canal) for the first time. This canal runs for 72Km from the Port of Amsterdam to the Waal River (a distributary branch of the river Rhine) near Tiel. At 100m wide and 5.5m deep it is an impressive feat of engineering. As are some of the cycle bridges crossing it, but it wasn’t all big engineering. There were tree-lined sections where it feels like you are cycling into an infinity tunnel.

Like cycling into an infinity tunnel. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey.

At Nigtevecht, we turned away from the Rhine Canal to follow the river Vecht, mainly because Ulli wanted to see some windmills. It was a narrow rural road with little traffic, which was just as well because what traffic there was, was mostly large SUVs. The drivers of these vehicles struggled to pass a bicycle with panniers as the road was so narrow, what do they do when they meet another large SUV coming in the other direction?

Only a kilometre or so out of Nigtevecht, we saw a bridge over the Rhine Canal which begged us to divert and have a closer look. The new Nigtevecht bicycle bridge‘s sinuous curves were calling us to ride the double hairpin ramp. It was great fun and made me wish that I had a drone to film it with (and this wasn’t to be the last time on this trip I wished I had a drone).

The new Nigtevecht bicycle bridge‘s sinuous curves. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey

Not long after this, we had another Komoot moment. This time we were following the road around the outside of the village of Vreeland when Komoot decided to divert us into the village among the houses and then out again. There was nothing to be gained from this, it was longer, no point of interest, not even a shop. There was no apparent reason why the routing software was sending us that way. Such is the way of Komoot.

Further up the Vecht, riding alongside the river, we could see most of the houses on the other side of the river, each with their own private mooring. And one development of executive flats even had its own little harbour. There were also examples of Buitenplaats which were once the summer residences of wealthy townspeople, back in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century when the Netherlands had a mighty Empire and a navy which defeated the British. This is a side of the Netherlands that you don’t see on the tourist websites and one of the joys of travelling by bicycle is the opportunity it affords you to come across these things.

We left the river to make our way to the centre of Utrecht, this being the Netherlands it was incredibly simple. Just follow the main road directly into the centre of the city. None of the convoluted routes sending you down “quiet ways” round the back of the houses, stuff get in the UK. From the outskirts to the city centre was a dead straight route of about 7Km on a dedicated cycle path with priority crossing minor roads and separated traffic lights at major junctions. t couldn’t be more natural to cycle into town. The only downside was having to share the path with bromfiets (mopeds) or stinkfiets as I took to calling them, which plague the otherwise wonderful Dutch cycle infrastructure. If you are wondering why stinkfiets, the older ones (and there are lots of them) use two-stroke engines which really do stink.

Utrecht itself is the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands and home to the biggest university in the country. It is a city with a cool urban vibe and bikes are everywhere. Cycle model share (the percentage of all journeys inwith the city) is 33%, making the bicycle the most popular way to get around the place. However, it is not the most cycle-friendly town in the Netherlands, that is Houten, a satellite town a few kilometres to the south-east.

One of the more striking sights in central Utrecht is an artwork called Skyscraper, it is a whale made out of five tons of plastic salvaged from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which appears to be leaping out of the Catharijnesingel. It is intended as a statement about the massive amount of plastic waste that pollutes rivers, seas and oceans around the world. Although as I write, it may no longer be there. It was originally created for the Triennial Bruges art and architecture festival, and was only a summer visitor in Utrecht.

An artwork called Skyscraper, a whale made of discared plastic leaping out of the Catharijnesingel

The thing that will still be in Utrecht, but which we didn’t get to see is the world’s largest cycle parking facility. The reason we didn’t get to see it was because it was first opened to the public about four hours after we have left the city on the next stage of our journey. And that is a story for another post, watch this space.

The Stats (for Ijmuiden to Utrecht):

  • Distance travelled: 86.9 km
  • Time taken: 05hr 15mins
  • Average moving Speed: 16.6 km/h

More route info here:

Part two: Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

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Night Ride along Hadrian’s Wall

Night Ride along Hadrian’s Wall

A guest post by Ulli.

This was my first proper night ride, and I was very curious what it would be like staying awake and keeping cycling the whole night – not anxious-like, but I was wondering about staying alert and not doing anything stupid due to a moment’s doziness or inattention. I had also been hearing tales of seasoned audaxers (long-distance cyclists doing silly rides of several 100 km in one go) about sleeping in bus shelters or ditches when they feel tired…

But I wasn’t unduly worried, as I had recently proved to myself that I could function perfectly well for 24 hours or so without sleeping (helping out at the premier UK long-distance cycling event, London-Edinburgh-London – participants need to cover the whole distance of 1400+ km in less than five days, by bike). The night ride was one of the most brilliant experiences on a bike I’ve had (and there have been a few) … cycling on empty roads under a starry sky, along Hadrian’s Wall for some stretches, watching dawn breaking and finally the sun rising, all in the excellent company of 12 other slightly mad people (with a 13th joining in from Hexham, and a couple more beating us to breakfast at the Quayside in Newcastle). But I am getting ahead of myself …

We met up at Carlisle railway station, with six of us arriving just over an hour before the off, so we had time for a drink and for getting to know each other a bit (I only knew Marcus, the organiser, but others were clearly old friends, or had met before). There was a mix of people, some regular night riders and a few complete newbies, myself included.

Just after 11pm we set off after an obligatory photo outside the station, slightly incongruous amidst the normal Friday night population of Carlisle, some of whom were tottering about on extremely high heels and were clearly intending to party the night away in their own fashion…

Ready2Roll
Ready to roll, outside Carlisle Station

The first stop was just a couple of km later, at the 24-hour supermarket at the eastern edge of Carlisle, to stock up on snacks, buy a woolly hat in expectation of the temperature dropping and/or use the facilities. While we were waiting outside, a policeman came up and asked us what we were up to. Our explanations bemused him, and when we asked if he wanted to come along, he declined politely.

Soon we were off again, heading east along the A69 to Brampton. Normally this road would be a bad choice for a group cycle ride, but just before midnight there was hardly any traffic, and we were off onto the wee roads before very long, cycling through the deserted town, where we joined the NCN72 (Hadrian’s Wall Cycle Route) which we’d follow on and off for most of the way to the other side of the country. Shortly after Brampton, we went past Lanercost Priory, a beautiful ruined abbey that was built to a large part from nicely prepared stones, freely available from some old wall nearby at the time – some stones with Roman inscriptions, mason’s marks and even the knee of a broken statue with toga folds still visible. [Kim and I had stopped and visited the abbey and pretty much all the Roman sites along the Wall and a few nearby castles in April, during a long weekend – he never got round to writing a blog post about it.] But during the night we only saw the signposts, and I could just about make out the dark silhouette of the tallest building against the little light provided by the very orange crescent moon that was rising to the east as we came over the hill from Brampton.

Soon after, we hit the first proper hill at Banks which I remembered well, including the various twists & turns, so there were no surprises, but it was quite different riding it at night, seeing the various blinking red lights moving along ahead and bits of the road illuminated by some pretty powerful front lights that provided plenty of brightness to see by, both ahead and behind. We stopped at the turret/watch tower at the top of the hill to re-group, have some snacks and admire the starry sky. After switching off all the bright lights, the Milky Way was clearly visible, and so many more stars that I’d seen in a long while, due to the clear skies and absence of light pollution (even though we could see the lights of Carlisle in the distance, but they already seemed quite a long way away). Somebody was asking about the wall, and I said there was a bit just off to one side and switched the front light on, pointing it straight at some rather impressive looking remains that he (and possibly others) had been completely unaware of, having not had the advantage of seeing the place in daylight before.

I was then leaning on my handlebars, and there was suddenly quite a large amount of give. I was thinking that this was rather strange, as my bike didn’t have a front suspension. It was a slow puncture that I must have picked up on the way home from work in the evening (which already seemed a world away), where I had tried to avoid some hawthorn hedge cuttings. Luckily I had a spare inner tube etc. with me, and between a few of us the puncture was fixed very quickly – many thanks to the expert fixers, much faster than I could have done it myself. It turned out to be the only puncture of the night, there were a few other very slight mechanicals, but nothing serious, thankfully.

We continued along the Wall, past Birdoswald (a big Roman Fort), some quick downs and ups into Gillsland and through Greenhead, where we could see the next BIG hill looming up in the weak light provided by the crescent moon. It was here that we came across the first couple of cars since Brampton, which was quite a while ago. The road steepens as the buildings run out, and there is a parallel cycling and walking path that is separated from the road by some bushes. We all ignored it as the road was completely deserted, but it’s quite handy during normal waking hours, especially at weekends when all the Wall tourists are out and about in their 4-wheelers. [I had been very happy to be off the road in April, as fast moving traffic and cyclists wobbling uphill in their granny gears don’t mix all that well. The road surface on the cycle track is nothing to write home about, sadly, but it’s sufficient.]

Where the hill finally flattens out, there is a wee turn-off to the Roman Army Museum and the B&B where we stayed on our spring tour and had a very nice and hilarious evening meal with a group of walkers going the opposite way, but I digress. There was yet more police presence, this time a patrol car parked with a friendly police woman asking the obvious questions as we waited for everybody to conquer the hill … what were we up to? … and of course, why? … We had quite a long chat, but eventually headed off along the very straight B6138 along the Wall which was completely deserted, apart from some owls hooting somewhere off to the right.

[The official NCN72 turns off the B road at the next opportunity and sweeps down the hill again to the town of Haltwhistle, which claims to be the Centre of Britain and has a number of shops and hostelries to feed and water hungry cyclists. Another reason for the diversion of the official cycle route away from the Wall is that the B road gets rather busy and motorists drive faster than they should, ignoring the restricted visibility due to the various dips and rises. That’s what our B&B landlady had told us, and turned out to be spot-on when we did a wee diversion off the NCN to visit the spectacular Roman Fort & museum at Housesteads … – but if I had to choose only one Roman site to see along the Wall, Housesteads would be my favourite.]

I think it was somewhere along this undulating B road that we came across a solo cyclist going the opposite way – we all said hello, like it was the most normal thing in the world to go cycling in the middle of the night and carried on cycling. At this stage, it might have been around 2 AM (?), I was starting to wonder when I might begin to feel tired, but Cathy, another 1st time night rider, and I agreed that we couldn’t possible have been more alert and alive than we were feeling. Maybe because it was all new to us and such an amazing experience, or because the temperature was dropping and stopping us from getting sleepy?

After another quick stop near the intriguingly named Twice Brewed Inn (and Once Brewed Hostel), where a slack chain was sorted, we soon left the deserted B road and headed down the 6-mile long descent to Newbrough along the Stanegate road. We were spread out again, and after I dropped back from the front group to add more layers, I was suddenly all alone. I could occasionally see the twinkling red lights of the front group ahead, and the yellow glow of the group behind just over my personal horizon, but this made me even more aware of just how quiet it was, apart from another owl, some sheep bleating off to the left, and suddenly a rather loud noise, from an invisible donkey that must have been startled by the strange flashing lights disturbing its peace.

Another quick stop to regroup resulted in a search for a dropped glove, which was eventually found on the other side of the stone wall next to the road and restored to its owner by a kind gentleman hopping over the wall. Suddenly the silence was interrupted by a polite sounding cough from the field over the wall, from the complete darkness outside the circle of lights surrounding us. “What was that?” We shone a light over the wall, and found a herd of cattle just a few metres away, panic over.

Next stop at Newbrough, to search for a front light that had worked itself loose from somebody’s handlebars, luckily it was found just a few metres behind, but I don’t think it survived the fall. We used the break to scoff some homemade flapjack, which lightened my load quite a bit. From there it wasn’t far to Bridge End, where we turned sharp right to cross an old stone bridge south over the South Tyne, just before its union with the North Tyne. [It was here that we turned off north on our Roman forts tour in April, to Chesters, just a few miles up the road, where we randomly came across a re-enactment group of Roman foot soldiers and cavalry spearing cabbage heads on stakes in full gallop, and a small museum completely stuffed with artefacts rescued by a local landowner who bought up several Roman sites in the vicinity to protect them from being robbed out for stones – well worth a visit if you are passing during opening hours.]

We shot up the slight incline beyond the bridge, past a signposted left turn for the riverside cycle route, but I assumed that this was intentional, grateful for the additional heat generated by the extra effort, as I was feeling quite cold at the time. We stopped where the road met up with the dualled A69 and some fast moving delivery lorries thundering past, to wait for Marcus, who was leading from the rear at this stage … only to decide to turn back to re-join the NCN72 by the bridge.

A little further on, on the edge of Hexham, we crossed over the railway line, and quickly reached the 24-hour supermarket that was our main planned food stop, it must have been a little after 4 AM. Just outside we were met by the very wide awake 14th night rider, who had made his own way to Hexham on his rather fetching trike. We all piled into the supermarket and did our shopping before congregating in the deserted café, where we scoffed an interesting assortment of foods. I saw sushi, sandwiches, rather colourful iced doughnuts, bananas, a large yoghurt pots very politely emptied with the folded up lid used as a spoon replacement, etc. Soon the first heads started to nod, and one body was stretched out on a row of chairs, fast asleep within seconds.

SleepyHexham
Sleepy in Hexham

NoddingOff
More nodding off ..

NoddingOff2
And more … while others were wide awake!

I was starting to warm up quite quickly once the food had found its way into my system (lesson learnt: body needs feeding if it is supposed to function properly in the middle of the night). But I still followed the example of somebody else and went on another shopping trip, to buy a pair of tights to wear under my rather ancient and thin Ronhill tracksters – I found some rather nice thermal tights which were perfect for the rest of the ride. Somebody mentioned that the lowest temperature he had measured during the night was 3-point-something degrees C.

Around 5:20 we were on our way again, leaving the bright lights of Hexham behind and heading back onto the NCN72 towards Corbridge. I thought I could make out a very slight brightening in the sky to the east, but wasn’t sure whether this was dawn starting to break or just an artefact of the slight mist reflecting our lights. Near the entrance to Corbridge Roman Town [another site looked after by English Heritage and well worth visiting – I’ll stop the tourist ads now] we came across another couple of well-lit cyclists going in the opposite direction, not sure if they were early commuters. In Corbridge itself, we met the early commuter bus to Newcastle and a few more delivery vans and lorries, but after the hill at the eastern edge of the town we soon turned off onto a wee road again.

By this time there was an orange glow on the horizon, and we could see the silhouettes of hills, trees and Prudhoe Castle with some very picturesque bits of mist floating about. It really was magical, words can’t do it justice. The wee road was twisting and turning, and there was a sudden steep uphill, which caused somebody on a fixie to start weaving across the road rather unexpectedly, right in front of me. I stopped and then had to walk a few steps to the top of the wee hill as I was in the wrong gear, whereas said fixie rider keeled over at 0 speed, fortunately the only injury was to pride, rather than rider or bike.

We then stopped at the entrance to a field, to wait for everybody to catch up, enjoying the views, and the very earnest discussion on the workings of free wheels and fixies and what happens when a bike of either of those persuasions goes backwards. This was rather funny, and indicated that maybe some brains were starting to show the effects of the lack of sleep…

Dawn
Dawn

FreewheelDemo
Demonstration of freewheeling backwards

At Ovingham, we crossed a pretty spectacular old bridge on stilts, clearly not built for modern traffic, but just about wide enough for single cars, as long as they weren’t too big… demonstrated by one car following us across. Immediately after the bridge, the cycle path heads off road and east along the Tyne, before crossing back north again after a few km, over another impressive bridge, this time a single span metal one. We stopped there for quite a while for photos, chatting and watching some rather large fish jump out of the water to catch insects, and I am pretty sure I saw a bat hunting close to the water surface, too.

TyneBridgeView3
On the single span bridge

TyneBridgeView1
Tyne looking west from single span bridge

TyneBridgeView2
Tyne looking east from single span bridge

By this time the first dog walkers were out in force, and most of us switched off at least some of our assorted bike lights, as they were definitely no longer needed to see by. The cycle path meandered along through woods and fields, with the sun rising as we neared Newcastle. Along the river, several herons were flying about, and we went on a slight detour due to some of us rushing ahead in our eagerness for breakfast – by this time I had been looking forward to a nice hot cup of tea for hours … we passed by a very closed looking café in an industrial estate, where on last year’s ride coffee and tea had been available, but sadly not this time. We pressed on around another bend or two in the river, and under the A1 motorway bridge. The path then left the river again and we cycled along a massive multi-lane road, on a shared pedestrian/cycle path that crossed over said lanes a couple of times via pedestrian lights and a big roundabout. As it was only 7:30/8AM on a Saturday morning, we didn’t really have to stop or wait anywhere, as there was only the odd delivery vehicle or car around, but I was thinking this must be pretty unpleasant during rush hour. Soon we turned back to the riverside with its wide pavement, along the tidal mudflats of the Tyne with lots of wading birds, ducks and gulls enjoying the early morning sunshine, and a fair number of cyclists and walkers doing the same, but on firm ground. The famous bridges across the river finally came into view, and suddenly we were at the Quayside, our breakfast destination. We parked up and shared bike locks before piling into the place, where the only other customers were a couple of fellow riders who had decided to meet us at for breakfast after their own night ride rather than doing Carlisle to Newcastle.

That first long-anticipated mug of tea was SOOO good, followed by a massive breakfast and more tea. We compared photos, sent messages home to report our safe arrival. Some headed on to the Hub, a cycle café just a bit further down the river, after a while. But inertia claimed most of us, and we just stayed and chatted some more or rested our eyes for a little while, before it was time to head to the train station and our separate ways. I dozed for a bit on the train between Newcastle & Berwick, but didn’t actually go to bed until just after 10pm, and slept like a log.

Overall the ride was 100+ km, at a rolling speed of somewhere between 10.x and 12.x mph, depending on whether one was mostly at the front or rear of the group (sorry about the mix of units, I’m only repeating what I seem to remember being told). One rider had even been recording “lap times”, which caused much amusement, until he explained that the laps were 10 mile stretches …

A massive thanks again to the Marcus for the idea in the first place, and for organising everybody, to all my fellow night riders for their company, help with fixing my puncture, and the entertainment … this definitely won’t be my last night ride, but I might wait for slightly warmer nights before I have another go.

This post started as a thread on the CycleChat forum.

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Gifford for lunch?

Gifford for lunch?

The plan was simple, ride out to Gifford, have lunch, pootle around East Lothian for a bit and take some photos before going home again. Well, that was the plan. It was one of those autumnal days when the air was clear and the sun bright, so I packed my big camera in a pannier and we set off, heading out through Holyrood Park, with the intention of picking up the Innocent path below the tunnel. Arriving at the park, we found there were lots of people running along the roads. Although the roads are normally closed on a Sunday, there aren’t usually this many runners around, nor are they usually as muddy as this lot were. We noticed a sign proclaiming “Survival of the Fittest” and realised this was some sort of race, also they were being directed down the path towards the Innocent tunnel. At this point we decided to carry on to Duddingston instead and join the Innocent Path and the NCN 1 after that. So far so good.

At Brunstane we had the absurdity of having to carry the bikes over the footbridge to cross the railway line. This always grates, it is typical of the couldn’t care less attitude of British transport planners. This bridge could easily be made accessible to wheelchair users, parents with pushchairs and cyclists with a little thought, but no, just put up something that is inadequate and tell people to make do. Certainly in the past, the same attitude has been shown by Sustrans, describing this as part of a Traffic Free route and the National Cycle Network. Why do we have to put up with second rate crap? For that matter why does Sustrans think this is suitable for an international long distance cycle route? Rant over*.

We departed the NCN1 at Whitecraig, and where we headed towards Smeaton Shaw, when we had to stop to investigate a strange rattling coming from the back of Ulli’s bike. It turned out to be a loose cable from her rear light, cable tided away we carried on. We had not gone much further, to the turn off onto the old railway line to Ormiston, when I noticed a strange rattling coming from the back of my bike. On stopping to investigate, I found this to be rather more serious. One of the bolts attaching the pannier rack to my bike was hanging loose and the spacer between it and the frame was missing (as I now have disk brakes, there has to be a spacer to stop the rack from pressing on the calliper and applying the brake). Fortunately we only had one pannier each, so I could swap mine onto Ulli’s bike. However I was reluctant to go on, as I was worried about the bolt shaking loose and being lost, so we decided to head home again.

On reaching the Esk, the bolt was still holding firm and Ulli suggested that we head to Musselburgh for lunch instead. We followed the path down the Esk to the town, but couldn’t find anywhere that looked interesting to eat. Rather than retrace our route, we headed west along the coast to Portobello. So it was that for a second weekend in a row we found ourselves on Porty Prom, this time I decided to get the camera out and take a few photos:

Looking across the Forth
Looking across the Forth.

Porty beach on an autumnal day
Porty beach on an autumnal day.

Tides out
The tide was out, people were wandering about…

Fetch!
… and a dog was fetching a stick.

Strange vessels in the Forth
There were some odd looking vessels out the Forth.

Arthur's Seat from the other side
Then, on the way home we took in the view of Arthur’s Seat from the other side, the low angle of the sun showing up the prehistoric cultivation terraces.

The morale of the story, it is always worth carrying a camera…

* I have now been told that there is a way round without going over the bridge.

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Blasted back from Duns

Blasted back from Duns

Having struggled against a head wind all the way down the day before, we were sort of looking forward to having a tail wind helping us all the way home from Ravelaw (near Duns). Coming out of the B&B after a fine breakfast, we soon noticed the wind was still in the East South East and just as strong, if not stronger, than the day before. A later check of records from Charterhall showed the average wind speed to be 23 mph (37 Km/h), gusting to 37 mph (59.6 Km/h), which is not unsubstantial. Indeed, as Bernhard and I posed for photos outside Ravelaw House, the trees were bending in the wind.

Leaving Ravelaw on a windy day

Having set off, we first went south and east, which was odd, because our destination was to the north and west, but then that is what comes of putting a geographer in charge of the navigation, I suppose. The first place we passed through was the village of Whitsome, which has very little to detain the passing cyclist, so we didn’t bother stopping. There was some vague discussion of picking up supplies for the road, bananas, snackie bars, that sort of thing, so we headed for Chirnside with the aim of finding some shops. Having reached the outskirts, a further discussion on buying supplies ensued and it was decided that we didn’t need any. So we followed the A road around the village and didn’t go in, missing out on the delights of the 12th century church and an extra climb. On the subject of climbing, Bernhard, having shown the day before that he was the master climber, was rubbing in emphasising the point by wearing his Ötztaler Radmarathon finishers jersey.

Just short of Chirnsidebridge we turned off the A road and carried on along quiet little roads, seeing no other traffic. This is one of the things I like about cycling in the Scottish Borders, the number of quiet wee roads there are, but the B6355 seemed unusually quiet. We had passed traffic cones and a couple of blown over signs, but we hadn’t taken much notice, until we got to Nel Logan’s Bridge over the Preston Burn, just outside Preston. The bridge was closed for maintenance, which explained the total absence of traffic, but the workmen allowed us to cross over the bridge. However, we didn’t stop to look at the bridge itself, which is a shame, as it has a rather curious history. The bridge (which is now a Category B Listed Building) was build in 1793 with a single segmental-arch, this was later enclosed to form a gaol cell. According to local tradition, Napoleonic prisoners of war were held here while in transit to larger sites. The bridge is named after Nel Logan, she is said to have been the last person to have been imprisoned there, for the crime of sheep stealing. Apparently inside there are still metal rings in the wall to which, it is rumoured, the prisoners were chained. In the middle of the floor, directly above the burn, is a hole which is said to have been the toilet. There used to be a heavy wooden arch-shaped door, but this apparently fell apart some forty years ago. There are some pictures of the bridge on Flickr, really must stop to take a look next time.

We carried on through Preston, to cross the Whiteadder Water at Cockburn Mill Ford, which is now culverted and only a ford when the water is high. Then we followed the Mill Burn upstream to its watershed. Crossing over the watershed, we came down the dead pheasant highway, which was as heavily littered with road kill as the day before. We tore down the hill with the wind at our backs, fortunately there were no pheasants with suicidal intent throwing themselves before our wheels.

Reaching Ellemford Bridge, we crossed over the Whiteadder Water again, which was to become something of a habit as we crossed it a further four times.

Ellemford Bridge over Whiteadder Water

It was easy riding as we wended our way up past Cranshaws, following the Whiteadder Water up stream. I was starting to look forward to the prospect of wind assisted climbing on the Hungry Snout, but before this steep climb there is an easy slope by “The Bell”, which I sailed up this with ease. So when I came to the Hungry Snout itself I was feeling very confident. Having ridden this road before, I should have known better. The sign at the bottom says 14%, and although it looks easy on approach, it should not be underestimated, as there is a sting in the tail when you round the bend, hidden by the trees. However, confidence boosted, I decided to sprint up it. Bad idea. By the time I reached the steepest section, I was already breathing as hard as I could. I somehow managed to get past it, but as the road started to flatten off, my lungs were no longer able to supply my leg muscles with enough oxygen to keep going, and I had to stop and catch my breath. Utter madness, had I taken it slow and steady, it would had been easy. Ho Hum, but it was glorious.

Descending the north side of the Hungry Snout was fun, then we zipped alongside the Reservoir and up to the cattle grid, where we stopped for a snack and some water. Then, instead of going back the way we had come the day before, we turned off to follow the Whiteadder Water to its watershed. This is a great wee road, although the surface can be rough in places, but don’t let that put you off. Over the watershed, we decided to stop at the White Castle hill fort and take some photos, which isn’t so easy when the wind is trying to push you over.

Blown away at White Castle

The ride from White Castle to Garvald was an absolute blast! I achieved a new record top speed, 80.63 Km/h (50.1 mph), I hardly slowed on the climb up to Nunraw, it was a real blast. After Garvald, as we rode on to Gifford, we were no longer travelling with the wind, but rather across it, which was less comfortable. As we reached Townhead farm, we met a massive combine harvester, so wide it took up the whole road. Once it had passed, we rolled down into Gifford, for lunch at the café “Love Coffee… …and Food?”. It seemed far longer that the 24 hours since we had last been there, but the welcome was just as warm.

Over lunch we discussed taking the scenic route via Humbie, but decided that, given the wind conditions, we would go back the way we had come out the day before. Back on the road, we were confronted with road works just outside Gifford, with the west bound carriageway still being resurfaced. This prompted another change of plan which involved a dogleg along a minor road we hadn’t used before and then heading into East Saltoun from the south. As we rode along, I started to make a check list of things look for to determine if you were riding in a high wind or not, so…

Crows flying backward? check.
Large round straw bales blowing across a field? Check.
Corrugated iron sheets being torn off a barn roof? Check!
Large sections of tree laying in the road? Check!!

That last one also gives you the opportunity to check your brakes…

After passing through the Saltouns we headed for the old Pencaitland railway path and the shelter from the wind it offered. Then on to Whitecraig, where we picked up the NCN 1 back into town. We gave Bernhard the full tour, over the (not exactly cycle friendly) Brunstane Station bridge and the Innocent railway path, including the tunnel.

here is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 88.74 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:08:20
  • Max Speed – 80.63 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 21.53 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 750 m

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Spinning down to Duns

Spinning down to Duns

The three of us, Ulli, her cousin Bernhard (visiting on holiday) and myself, were looking for a cycle tour. I had originally intended to use my new bike but we haven’t gotten around to building it yet, something for a rainy day, after we got back.

We had thought of doing something in the west, maybe a few of the islands over several days, but then the weather intervened. So we decided that a trip into the Borders might be a better option, and to keep it to just two days. Knowing that Bernhard liked hills, Ulli and I had a particular hill in mind, which suggested a route over the Lammermuir Hills. We talked about staying overnight at a place in Coldstream where Ulli and I had been before, but decided we wanted to try something new instead. Duns was chosen as a target area, a quick internet search turned up a suitable looking B&B at a place called Ravelaw, which was swiftly booked. Accommodation sorted, all that was left was to plan a route and ride there.

The early parts of the route were relatively straightforward as we were on home ground. For the first part, instead of just picking up the NCN1, Ulli decided which should use the Joppa variation. The Joppa variation has the advantage of avoiding the not so cycle friendly bridge at Brunstane Station. However, it has the disadvantage of a lot of streets with setts. It should be noted at this point that Ulli has the bike with the widest tyres, but it gave us the chance to joke about training for the Paris–Roubaix, once our teeth had stopped rattling.

Past Brunstane Station we joined the NCN1 and followed it out to Whitecraig, just before Whitecraig there is a short steep slope. As we approached I saw two cyclists up ahead at the start of the slope, and decided to take the first few points towards the polka dot jersey, knowing full well these were likely to be the only points I would get on the whole trip. The two cyclists were a wee bit surprised to be overtaken, at speed, by a hybrid bike with loaded panniers on the back, probably because they didn’t know that this was a cat four climb and there were points at stake (OK, I am getting sad in my old age).

As usual we parted company with the NCN1 at Whitecraig, choosing to turn west to Smeaton and on up past the bing on Smeaton Shaw, which is currently being rearranged to make way for a recycling centre. Currently this area is something of a mess. Before the landscaping began, the bing was partly hidden by trees, and in about 20 years time it will be again. We were fortunate that there were no heavy lorries about as we cycled on to Chalkieside to join the old railway which once served the coal pit which produced the bing. Once on the old railway, which is part of Regional Cycle Route 73, we were relatively sheltered from the wind as we rode to Pencaitland.

I haven’t mentioned the wind so far, and this is a good point in the story to bring it in. The weather was bright and sunny, but rather inconveniently the wind was blowing from the South East, straight into our faces. As the day went on, the wind seemed to get stronger, records from Charterhall showed the average wind speed to be 18 mph (28.9 Km/h), gusting to 30 mph (48.3 Km/h). Not the easiest cycling conditions, but I have ridden in worse.

At Pencaitland we rejoined the road and headed on through the Saltoun’s towards Gifford, past East Saltoun we found that the road was being resurfaced. Fortunately for us, the east bound carriageway had been done first and was now beautifully smooth, which made progress a lot easier, in spite of the wind. This was a good thing, as lunch was now calling, and I sprinted into Gifford, only to find that the café (Love Coffee… …and Food?) was already full of cyclists. At first I thought it was some sort of club run, but it turned out they were just couples and small groups who had all turned up around lunch time. No wonder the owners, Pam and Craig, are so keen on cyclists, they have in the past said that these are their favourite customers, now they are talking about selling “Love Coffee… …and Food?” cycle jerseys. Anyway, we managed to find a wee bit of space and had some lunch, and a bit of chat and banter with some of the other cyclists.

Lunch over, we set out again, taking the scenic route which take you around Yester House (said to be Scotland’s most expensive house, although it didn’t fetch the asking price of £15m or probably even the reduced price £12m. In fact, it would appear to be still for sale), but you never actually get you a view of it from the road. You do however get some good views of the Lammermuir Hills and the road up Newlands Hill to Redstone Rig. Turning on to the B6355, I became aware that we were not going to be alone going up to the Rig, there was a Dutch car rally going the same way. This was unfortunate, as the Dutch are some of the worst drivers in Europe, the concept of sharing the roads with cyclists is somewhat alien to them, which was probably why Dutch cyclists need separate cycle lanes. Local drivers were giving me plenty of room, but not the Dutch. All I wish to say to the driver who came within 60cm of me is “Krijg kanker en ga dood, Hoerenjong!” OK, that has got that off my chest, back to the story.

As you reach the foot of the climb, there is a combination of road sign and road marking which suggests that someone in the ELC transport department might have a sense of humour, or maybe not.

Prediction or advice?
© B. Dragosits 2010.

I mean, who else would tell you to slow as you hit a 17% uphill gradient? Given that we were going straight into a strong and gusty South Easterly wind, I took the instruction literally. For me this is a nemesis hill, I have yet to get up it without getting off the bike. Then again trying it without panniers weighing 10 Kg or so would probably be a good idea. Bernhard, on the other hand, just sailed up the hill (a pretty impressive feat directly into the wind), but then he is a veteran of the Ötztaler Radmarathon. So there was never any doubt of who was going to win the polka dot jersey.

Having reached the top, we were presented with the choice of continuing in a SE direction over the tops towards Longformacus or turning east and taking the low road via Cranshaws. This wasn’t a difficult decision, we took the low road, but it still wasn’t an easy ride. On a previous occasion, riding down the road past Mayshiel I hit a top speed of 69.4 Km/h, this time I was struggling to get up to 50 Km/h (I can get up to that speed on the flat). Further down the road, the Whiteadder Reservoir had white horses on it, with dinghies scudding back and forth on a beam reach. Fortunately when we came to the climb on the Hungry Snout, it was sheltered from the wind.

Passing Cranshaws, I saw the oddest tricycle I have ever seen, it was made from an ordinary child’s bike, but with two wheels mounted outboard of the front forks. Beyond Cranshaws, we crossed the Whiteadder at Ellemford Bridge for the last time and started up the dead pheasant highway. I have never known such a road for road kill, it was littered with dead pheasants and the odd rabbit thrown in for good measure, for about 2 Km.

We carried on to the end of the road where it met the main road between Duns and Preston (A6112). Here we were turning left, Bernhard was in the lead and abruptly switched over onto the right hand side of the road, closely followed by Ulli, I found myself loudly clearing my throat and saying in a loud voice “Links, links!”, fortunately there was nothing coming the other way.

Shortly afterwards, we turned right off the main road and wended our way through a maze of wee roads, crossed over the Blackadder and finally found Ravelaw Farm. By now we were getting tired and were confused at not seeing a B&B sign. We carried on another 200 m along the road and up a slight rise before seeing it. Having arrived, we were given a warm welcome and enjoyed a pleasant and comfortable stay.

There is a map of our route here.

My stats were:

  • Distance cycled – 83.2 Km
  • Time spent riding – 04:29:26
  • Max Speed – 56.2 Km/h
  • Ave Speed – 19.3 Km/h
  • Vertical climb – ca. 620 m

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