Last week I undertook a two-day bike ride in northern Scotland to travel up to my friend’s wedding.
The whole process of getting it sorted was pretty fun, and the ride itself was incredibly enjoyable, passing a variety of terrain and affording some lovely interactions with very generous Scottish dwellers.
This is a bit of a longer read than normal.
My good friend from university was getting married 1.5 hours’ north of Aberdeen, and asked everyone to arrive early on Friday evening.
The majority of people planned to fly up on Friday lunchtime, and then drive to the venue.
As I wasn’t constrained by needing to take days off work (I’ve recently finished my job and am (f)unemployed) I thought why not head up earlier and get to see some of the Scottish countryside.
A few years ago I’d cycled from my apartment in London to “home home” near Birmingham over a few days, and really enjoyed the experience.
With that, I went about figuring out how to make it happen in Scotland.
Finding a bike… on Instagram
There were some logistics to figure out.
Transporting my suit was overcome by my friend kindly agreeing to take it up in her suitcase for me to collect.
More pressing though was actually getting a bike.
Bike hire shops in Aberdeen city centre were few and far between, and the ones I called up on the outskirts said it would be £100s to get one delivered for me to then ride up.
I got thinking about “informal” ways in which I could hire a bike.
I posted on a few broad-based cycling forums to no avail and so decided a better approach instead would be to reach out to people individually.
The best way I could think of finding cycling enthusiasts in Aberdeen was to search for people posting cycling pictures on Instagram.
With a bit of Googling I found a tool where you can search for specific #s within a given location and I soon had 6 or 7 Instagram accounts of people nearby who liked to ride bikes.
From there, I sent them a message explaining the slightly strange request.
To my joy, some people replied!
One guy was looking after his friend’s bike and said he’d confirm if I could borrow it. A woman said she was doing a long bike ride herself on that date, but that I should try out a community bike initiative called BeCycle, run in affiliation with the university.
I sent BeCycle a message (via Facebook) and they confirmed that if I came to them on a Wednesday afternoon, I could pick up a bike, do it up a bit, and then rent it for £40 for up to six months.
Landing in Aberdeen on Wednesday afternoon gave me two days to cycle up to Elgin which seemed very doable, and so with that, it was stage one complete in terms of getting something to ride.
Planning a route and where to stay
The UK has an extensive network of cycle paths and lanes that criss-cross across the country.
Fortuitously, Cycle Route 1 goes through Aberdeen to Elgin, and then onto Inverness.
Looking on a map it seemed straightforward enough to follow the route which Google Maps reckoned would take ~9 hours.
Knowing I’d be taking breaks, and no doubt going slower than average, the logical thing seemed to be to stay in Aberdeen on Wednesday, and find somewhere halfway in between for Thursday before cycling into Elgin late on Friday afternoon.
Warm Showers + Airbnb
There’s a website dedicated to connecting people doing “long distance” bike rides.
The premise is that on a trip you might need somewhere to stay (or indeed just have a warm shower) and that there’ll be people willing to host you. A kind of “Couchsurfing for cyclists”.
Anyway, I went on Warm Showers to see if there were any people who may be able to host me on Wednesday and/ or Thursday night.
There’s a higher density in Aberdeen city centre, and after getting the number for Laura (from Brazil) on the website, we messaged via Whatsapp and she very kindly agreed to host me.
The middle of rural Aberdeenshire had less Warm Shower hosts, however I was able to find a bucolic Airbnb close to the Cycle Route and booked myself in with Marianne and Robbie.
The bike ride itself was great, helped no doubt by the lovely weather.
The intended route was as follows, though there were no doubt some wrong turns/ detours along the way:
Getting the bike
The BeCycle concept is lovely.
Basically they collect and store donated old bikes. People (like me) come along and pick up a bike, get shown how to fix it up a bit and then pay a £40 deposit which they get back once they’re done with it.
The workshop is run by volunteers, and on the Wednesday afternoon I arrived there was a bustle of activity with people picking out bikes from the shed out back, and the volunteers in blue overalls being asked for advice at any given moment.
I picked out my bike, and then was given a spanner and some oil and told to grease it up a bit, and tighten some of the bolts.
Earlier in the year I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it was only now that I was understanding the interactivity of how the bike parts come together and as such, the narrator’s fawning over being able to “be at one” with a machine.
Anyway, after filing down some brake pads and tightening the front wheel I left the workshop (somewhat zen) and went over to Laura and Robson’s.
Staying in Aberdeen
I know that it can be cliche to talk about the kindness of strangers, but I was genuinely taken aback with how welcoming Laura and Robson (her bf) were to me.
They’d cooked up a lasagne, opened a bottle of red, and we spent the evening talking about their past and planned adventures on two wheels throughout northern Scotland.
Laura is over from Brazil doing a Masters in Aberdeen and will be finishing up in the coming months. Robson supports Flamenco (big football team in Brazil) and enjoyed hearing how I owned a Flamenco shirt, after visiting the Maracana ten years ago.
In the morning, we had breakfast together before I said goodbye and set off.
A disused railway line
The main section of the cycle path out of Aberdeen is an old railway line starting in a nearby village of Dyce.
It makes for nice cycling, being relatively flat, and is quite amusing to see some of the old platforms now gathering moss by the wayside.
Within a couple of hours it become clear that my bicycle workmanship skills were not quite up to scratch, and I began to not let the squeaky wheels and crunching gear box to be too distracting from the rolling fields (with wind turbines).
Approaching the town of Turriff I saw a car mechanic, and so cycled up and was kind enough to be allowed some WD40 to somewhat lessen the grind.
It was perhaps another 30 minutes before honing in on where I was staying that night. The Airbnb pin was a bit off, but thankfully people in the village knew where Marianne and Robbie lived, and so at around 5pm I cycled up their drive and was met by another warm welcome.
Evening walk with Shetland ponies
Marianne grew up looking after horses and now, as she winds down her career, she’s spending more and more looking after them at the place her family have owned for generations.
It’s a lovely spot, with a couple of fields for their horses and donkeys, as well as the several dogs and cats they look after.
After eating, it was still light, and so I went out with Robbie to feed the donkeys/ ponies and give the dogs a bit of a runaround.
One of the dogs (Roxy) was particularly boisterous and disobeyed calls to go back to the house, instead choosing to walk with me along by the river which, apparently, was the source of the water I was drinking throughout my stay.
In the morning I spoke some more with Marianne about her work as an equine therapist (really interesting concept) and then fixed up the geolocation on their Airbnb listing before setting off for the day.
To see the sea
From near Turriff, it was basically due north for 1-1.5 hours before cycling west along the coastline towards Elgin.
I passed an industrial bread factory, and some inquisitive cows before freewheeling down a farm track and into the coastal village of Fordyce.
Lunch stop was near the viaduct at Cullen and it was then a few more hours weaving through back roads, past a landfill/ recycling centre and then the homestretch to Elgin.
At this point another cyclist pedalled up beside me and we got chatting. He was in his 50s and taking a few months off from his business to cycle around the coastline of Scotland.
Noticing my non-Scottish accent, he asked where I was from and I told him near Birmingham, and just for conversation added “but I live in Kenya”.
By strange coincidence this man had just come back from several years living in Tanzania, and so out of nowhere we were having a discussion about East African politics/ culture which, I think, neither of us would have expected at the start of the day.
Bill and I parted ways as I headed more inland, and it was then just a few more miles for me to make it into Elgin, passed the derelict cathedral and to the Airbnb that my friend had booked us in to.
Returning the bike
Once wedding revelry was complete the group needed to head back for our flights back to London.
I now had no real need for the bike, and didn’t need to return it to Aberdeen city centre. Rather than just leave by the roadside (where someone might feel guilty for taking an unlocked bike) I wrote note saying someone could take it.
In the end though, I saw a charity shop open on the Sunday morning, and so took it in and dropped it off there.
With that, the mini bike adventure was complete and we hopped in the car to drive back to the airport.
In case you’re interested below are some links to the places encountered and services I used in sorting out the trip.
If you have any questions about the trip, feel free to let me know.