Cycling in Scotland

A good chunk of June and early July was spent cycling and hiking through Scotland. Camera by my side, I’d hoped to snag a few photographs of interesting vintage bicycles along the way.

Let me first say that compared to the Midwest, Scotland and England are absolutely mad about bicycles: they are simply everywhere – and not merely for leisure transportation either. For many people, bicycles are their primary mode of transportation. They ride to work. They ride to the market. They ride to the pub.

Bikes are a functional and utilitarian mode of transportation that is every bit as efficient as the tiny automobiles that zip around the British Isles and they are a hell of a lot cheaper to operate. (A bazillion pounds for a single liter of petrol keeps many a car in the garage; that Brits are less casual about fuel costs is clearly apparent in the singular dearth of filling stations one encounters. By contrast, one can’t drive down a main road in the United States without being confronted by a bewildering selection of gas stations.)

Functionality is apparent right away: nearly every bike I saw had fenders and most had racks and/or baskets. Rather than the variety of drop bar road bikes I’d hoped to encounter, Scots far and away seemed to prefer mountain bikes, and to a lesser degree city bikes/hybrids. After traversing the roads in the Scottish Highlands it was immediately clear why mountain bikes would gain such a significant following. Low, wide ranging gears with triple chainrings make tackling the mountains less of a challenge. There are plenty of mountain bike paths also – although I’m unsure whether those were originally hiking trails later appropriated by mountain bikes or if they were created specifically for them. And even though lycra and clipless pedals were both in evidence, neither seemed to be a preferable cycling accessory – in fact, I saw few toe clips either: most of the pedals were rat traps.

The Brit choice for cycling apparel leans toward the utilitarian side as well, with many riders wearing jackets (Well, of course! The weather can be wet and chilly any time of the year.), a good proportion of which are the neon “safety” yellow. My own yellow jacket, rather than standing out as it seems to do at home, helped me to fit right into the British cycling landscape. I also found that a lot of cyclists and cyclo tourists were wearing loosely fitting knickers, a look that rather appealed to me as somewhat more comfortable than cycling shorts. There seemed to be an active rebellion against the tight-fitting-leave-nothing-to-the-imagination lycra skin suits worn by some of the foreign cyclo touristas. Her voice simply oozing with contempt, our landlady was extremely critical of such garb, “And my goodness, did you see what those Germans were wearing on the ferry ride over?” Bottom line: leave the lycra at home.

The hybrid and city bike seemed to be secondary favorites in Great Britain, I presume due to ride comfort. In fact, when I went to “hire” (i.e., rent) a bike for touring, the only options available were mountain bikes and “road” bikes, the latter being a euphemism for city bike rather than the more aggressive drop bar two-wheeler I’d hoped to find. As the home for so many great hand made road bikes, club racers, and path racers I had hoped to see a fair number of vintage examples on my tour. Alas, this was seldom the case; the vast majority of vintage bikes I encountered on my journey seemed to be IGH three-speeds with open road bars. Most of these were in well-used, but very operational condition. And the plethora of Claud Butlers on view were newer hybridized models rather than vintage lugged steel. (Dawes, too.)

All was not entirely lost, and I did see a few vintage road bikes along the way.

A few nice surprises though: At a pub on Arran Island I noticed a group of elderly gents hoisting pints of their favorite brown ales. As evidenced by the bikes leaning against the outdoor table and stone wall where they were gathered, they’d enjoyed a ride to the pub. One bike caught my eye and after making an enquiry was invited to join the group; they were more than happy to chat about the bikes. The owner of the Nigel Dean road bike that had originally caught my eye confessed, “Well, it’s really my wife’s bike but it fits me better than my own. So you’ve heard of Nigel Dean, have you? Is it a famous bike? Is it valuable?”

I had to admit that, in fact, I had not heard of the builder before and that was what caught my attention. He told me it had been on a ferry that capsized a few years earlier and had spent three days under salt water before being rescued. A flushing of the tubes, new bearings, and he had it back on the road again a couple of days later! Another fellow had a five speed Carlton that appeared to have been badly touched up with agonizingly bright yellow paint that created a sort of fade-style surface covering. And still another told me about the Royal Scot he had hanging in the stone barn at home. I immediately began thinking of how much I might reasonably offer him for the bike and how I might get it back home with me, but those dreams – Alas! – were dashed to pieces by my very reasonable wife. We bid the gents adieu and went inside to enjoy a Guinness and the best fish and chips of the entire journey.

I’ve uploaded quite a few of the bike images from my trip to my the Found Bicycles set on Flickr located here.


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