Scotland, Part I

While this is not quite in the theme of this blog, many patients have been asking me about my recent trip to Scotland.  So, herewith are some of my thoughts, written from the vantage point of the avid cyclist that you know I am... Part I: Geography To Stir The Soul

First of all, Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world. I will make that statement despite the U.S., Canada, and Scotland comprising the entirety of my experience. Naysayers will have to accept simply being wrong.

For some reason which I have been unable to define, the hills of Scotland reached out and grabbed my soul like no other mountains ever have, except for the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Their barren, craggy peaks and steep green sides have an in-your-face grandeur that simply challenge you to best them. You could have thrown me off the train with my hiking boots and rucksack, and I would have been perfectly happy for months exploring those hills.

Except for the fact that I would have missed the shoreline. No namby-pamby white sandy beaches here, oh no. The rocks and the water rush to meet each other in a salty embrace both powerful as the waves hit and the spray flies, and gentle, as the water laps and gurgles around the well-worn curves of its partner.

Small villages wrap themselves along the shore, squeezing themselves in between the water and the hills, utterly unpretentious in their proud claim to this hard land. The architecture is ancient, strong and functionally beautiful. These villages have refused to debase themselves to the tourist dollar. Make no doubt, the tourist economy is important here and accommodations exist, but in only one case did I encounter anything even remotely resembling the typical American tourist town, and even that place had many saving graces.

Granted, the route I traveled was a bit off the beaten tourist path, and intentionally so. I wanted to avoid the hordes of cars and people that invade the prime tourist areas during this time of year, and was successful at it.

Oh, yeah. Scotland also has castles. Reams of them. Which makes the whole castle thing entirely ho-hum from a Scot's point of view, but for me -- even coming from New England, where structures which could at least reasonably be called old exist -- something built six centuries ago, and not only still standing but still being lived in is absolutely extraordinary. If there is any warrior blood in your soul, seeing a Scottish castle perched on a rocky outcrop with a dark, brooding sky behind it will quicken your pulse and send your hand to your side searching for the hilt of your sword.

"How does this translate into cycling?" you may ask. Cycling in Scotland is not for the flatlander, of that you may be sure.

First of all, the road conditions. To listen to a Scot describe his or her roads, you would think that the pavement was nothing but a string of potholes connected by brief bits of crumbling tarmac. Accompanied by maniac motorists threatening your very existence.

This is not true.

The roads of Scotland are glass-smooth, and allow the tire to grip the surface like a baby holds its mother's hand, every curve is banked and motorists defer to cyclists on each occasion.

OK, that might be a bit of exaggeration.

The truth of the matter is that the roads I rode were in most cases in better shape than the roads I cycle daily in Connecticut. There are no shoulders to speak of, and I also rode on many single-track roads, but the well-mannered British driver obviated the need for any sort of additional accommodation (more on that later).

The roads were hilly, to be expected as I was traveling in the southwestern end of the Highlands. But they were not hills as I am used to them in the foothills of the Berkshires. Here, I am accustomed to finding long, slow grinds of several miles in length, as you work your way from valley to ridge. Scottish hills are nothing like that. They are short, sharp, steep, lung-gasping climbs from loch's edge to cliff's edge, with sheer drop-offs to the sides and pitches that will pummel your legs, if only for a short while. Then a quick drop, and you get to reclaim that elevation, plus a little bit more, on the next climb, until you have reached the height of land.

In fact, I found myself on one hill that was so steep that my trusty recumbent bicycle was popping wheelies with each stroke. Not that he is the most sedate steed, but I've never felt myself almost pitched from the saddle in that way before!

In short, they are perfect hills for the sprinter, which I am not. Nonetheless they reward you with some extraordinary fast and fun downhill riding, with curves that will encourage you to test your handling skills and to answer the eternal question of just how far can I lay this bike over? All while gaping in awe at the majestic scenery all about you.