Fighter pilot and poet John Gillespie Magee famously described how he “slipped the surly bonds of earth” every time he flew his plane.
Many cyclists experience a similar feeling as they ride their bikes out of the town or city they live in, wondering if they’ll ever “slip the surly bonds” of busy roads, aggressive drivers, gaping potholes and endless traffic lights.
Reader Dan Grime and fellow members of VC Glasgow South faced this dilemma when they planned this ride as part of the CW5000 challenge. For a change of scenery and to increase their mileage, they decided to head east instead of south from their regular meeting place in the car park of Toryglen Asda near Hampden Park football stadium. They set out towards North Lanarkshire and West Lothian.
“The first segment of the ride through Rutherglen, Coatbridge and Airdrie is definitely not that scenic,” says Grime, “though once out in the countryside it improves dramatically.”
If you were a fan of urban architecture, modernist high-rises or contemporary roadside sculptures – or simply had a penchant for iron girder railway bridges, of which there is no shortage in the centre of Coatbridge – you might actually enjoy this part of the ride, though you’d have to keep your wits about you at a succession of busy junctions, roundabouts and filter lanes.
But this route really starts becoming interesting as the road rises out of Airdrie onto a plateau dotted with lochs, forests and farmland.
“I didn’t know much about this route beforehand but rides like this and the CW5000 challenge have definitely helped keep me motivated this year,” says Grime. “I was supposed to be doing the Deloitte RAB LEJOG in September until it was cancelled, so reading how other people were getting on with the CW5000 challenge has really helped encourage me.
“The most I’d done in a year previously was 5,000 kilometres, and this year I’m already up to 5,300 miles, so I’m on target to reach my goal of 6,000 miles.”
Grime, a store manager with Marks and Spencer, joined VC Glasgow South in January with the purpose of meeting other riders and discovering new routes.
“It’s been all about getting into group riding,” he says. “I do most of my cycling solo – I enjoy the solitude when I can strategise work stuff – but it’s great to have a balance. It’s fantastic to chat and also push yourself with others.”
Back on the route, riders are usually accompanied by a generous tailwind for the outward leg. The A89 is straight as an arrow and quiet, so it’s a good chance for groups to work together and quickly accumulate miles before arriving in the sprawling village of Armadale.
On the left as you ride through are the distinctive stone arches and clock tower of one of Scotland’s more unique public houses, The Goth, that was opened in the early 1900s with the aim of discouraging patrons – mostly miners from the nearby coalfields – from drinking too much(inspired by a co-operative movement in the Swedish port of Gothenburg).
But it’s a few miles further on at the bustling town of Bathgate where the real “fun” of this route starts.
This is the edge of a compact area of hills christened the “Bathgate Alps” in 2007 by local rider Sadiq Mir, a founding member of West Lothian Clarion. The name has officially been adopted by the West Lothian tourism office and the club has produced a much sought-after T-shirt – modelled on the LP sleeve design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures – to commemorate the uniquely lumpy quality of their local terrain.
Any thoughts of how quaint and charming this all sounds are quickly dismissed as the road rears up violently to a double-digit gradient – classified as a category one climb on the West Lothian Clarion website – even though you are still surrounded by the shops and homes of Bathgate town centre.
Trevor slips the surly bonds on his way out of Glasgow. Picture: Russell Hogg/Aboyne Photographics
A brief respite arrives only after you have passed a bowling green on your left. From here the climb swings left, the gradient slackens and the road finally breaks free from its urban shackles.
You now enter a tree-lined avenue with fields and ponds to your left. Instead of continuing straight ahead to the apparent crest of the climb, you turn left at the crossroads and emerge from the arboreal corridor onto a ridge offering sweeping views to the west.
This is the calm before the storm, the sense of false security before the toughest ramp of the route which unfolds in all its savage beauty in the shadow of a rugged escarpment, the 290-metre high Raven Craig. This is how the Clarion website describes it:
“Category Two. The pinnacle of the Bathgate Alps, providing magnificent views across the Forth and to Edinburgh. This short, sharp kick up is over before you know it. There are harder climbs in the Alps, but none as dramatic.”
Though we are actually on Cairnpapple Hill, this final peak is known as The Knock and is the highest road in the Bathgate Alps with an elevation of just over 300 metres.
“There’s a burial and ritual site here from 4,000 years ago,” says Grime. “And then after that a nice descent into Linlithgow for a coffee stop.”
The descent is every bit as dramatic as the climb, with the road twisting and zig-zagging down a corridor of trees turning golden in the autumn sunshine. Another line from Magee’s famous poem comes to mind:
“I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…”
There’s a couple of unexpected little jolts requiring the small ring once more before the road eventually starts a consistently downhill trajectory through Beescraig Country Park and down to Linlithgow.
The Bathgate Alps and surrounding roads are the training haunt of former pro rider James McCallum who was Scottish national road champion, a Commonwealth bronze medallist on the track and British and Scottish national circuit champion before retiring from racing in 2014.
“I virtually lived in the Bathgate Alps when I raced,” he says. “It’s a great place to train because there are about 30 climbs within a 10-mile radius. They are so varied in length and gradient you can really test yourself. You can put yourself in a horrible place and then roll home!”
Linlithgow is famous as the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. The park and loch in the shadow of the palace where the controversial queen was born are well worth a ride around, followed by a snack at one of the several cafes that are situated on the cobbled forecourt in front of the handsome, 17th century Burgh Halls.
“The most important ingredients of a good ride for me are getting out into the countryside and having a varied route with challenging climbs and good descents – and a good coffee stop,” says Grime, 41, who has been riding “seriously for about seven years”.
“We were out for a 65-mile ride during the recent lockdown restrictions which meant we couldn’t stop. You definitely miss the break and the caffeine!”
The homeward leg of the route starts dramatically when the road snakes under the Avon railway viaduct, an impressive stone structure of 23 arches dating back to 1842 that carries the Edinburgh-Glasgow line 90 feet above our heads.
From here, the road drags upwards through a leafy corridor. We are also heading into a headwind, which makes the incline feel steeper than it looks.
Though a tougher ride than the outward leg, the route is far more interesting. The route profile resembles shark’s teeth as the road dips and rises past farms and forests and twists beneath reddish and gold canopies of autumnal boughs.
The landscape alone makes this ride worthwhile. Picture: Russell Hogg/Aboyne Photographics
We pass through former mining villages where the ghostly, neglected pallor of the houses belies the vibrant histories of the people who lived there.
One of these is Slammanan, which gives its name to another range of “alps” we are skirting.
“This is another great area for training as the roads are up and down, but with a variety of gradients to challenge you,” says McCallum.
This explains the heaviness in my legs. The route has been relentlessly undulating and occasionally testing since leaving Linlithgow. On the plus side, there’s been hardly any traffic, the autumnal colours look magnificent and the views to the Ochil Hills in the north seem to stretch on forever.
As we approach the outskirts of Glasgow the roads become busier, but a succession of parks and other green spaces – including Drumpellier Country Park with its huge lake and, erm, Cathcart Cemetery on the banks of the Clyde – offer temporary havens where we can delay our return to the “surly bonds of earth” as long as possible.
THE LOCAL PROFESSIONAL
James McCallum, who raced for Rapha Condor-JLT and NFTO Pro Cycling from 2005 to 2014, now lives in Linlithgow and says of his local climbs:
“The Cairnpapple climb is the highest, topping out at just over 300 metres. You have fantastic 360 degree views to the Pentlands and the coast down to North Berwick in the south, and the Lomonds, Ochils and Campsies to the north and west. If you shield your eyes, you can avoid having to look at the Grangemouth oil refinery!
“I plotted a ‘2k Challenge’ – climbing more than 2,000 metres in just 100 kilometres and I was never more than 10 miles from my front door – and can totally recommend it! All the roads are quiet and even if you do come across some traffic, the drivers here are more patient and considerate then I’ve come across elsewhere. They even wave to you!
“If you’re coming here for the first time, you should plot your route because there is so much to explore. They are fun roads – up and down, twisting, there are no long, boring, straight bits. The Cairnpapple climb takes you through Beescraig Country Park, and there’s another road we call the Lama Straight because it goes by a lama farm.
“Make sure you pack a rain jacket though. This area has its own micro-climate and can turn from sunshine to rain in a second!”
Where to eat: No shortage of cafes in Linlithgow, the halfway point of the ride. Try either the Strawberry Caffe at The Cross or The Coffee Neuk, opposite, where we can highly recommend the apple and cinnamon loaf. Both have outdoor seating.
Where to stay: There are two Premier Inns near the start of the route, at Newton Mearns and East Kilbride. Bikes welcome in rooms. www.premierinn.com
At the other end of the route(and price range), we can personally recommend the Court Residence in the historic heart of Linlithgow. Luxury rooms with secure bike storage. www.courtresidence.com
Bike shop: Elevation Cycles on the High Street, Linlithgow, offers a full range of services. (Closed Sundays and Mondays).
How to get there: The nearest railway stations to the route are Clarkston(at the start) and Linlithgow(the halfway point), both served by trains from Glasgow Queen Street.
More CW5000 routes
York-Leeds-York (James Baldock)
Start / finish: York
Distance: 92km (57 miles)
Climbing: 670m (2,198ft)
Departing the outskirts of York, James’s ride sets out across the flatlands of North Yorkshire, heading due west for Leeds in West Yorkshire, where things start to get decidedly hilly. A quick detour at the far end of the ride will take you into the Harewood Estate, where there’s a cafe. “Riding through Harewood House estate was a definite highlight,” James says — but look out for the tough climb of Rigton Bank, which comes early on the return leg.
Wemyss Bay and return (Michele Linton-Sinclair)
Start / finish: Ardrossan Castle
Distance: 64km (40 miles)
Climbing: 350m (1,149ft)
This coastal scoot may be, on the face of it, a flat there-and-back, but as Michele says, some of the views are exquisite. “It takes in some of the most beautiful sea views in North Ayrshire and Inverclyde, looking towards Arran, Cumbrae and the Isle of Bute,” she says. “And it has the added bonus of having plenty of nice cafe stops. “It’s a flat route but you’re never too far from a hill and, says Michele, there are options to add in a climb at Inverkip, or inland from Largs and Fairlie.
August Gran Fondo (Paul Shoesmith)
Start / finish: Worcester
Distance: 104km (64 miles)
Climbing: 1,030m (3,379ft)
With a tough climb onto the Malvern Hills, you’re rewarded with a long descent towards Ledbury and into a network of lanes that Paul says are beautiful. “Virtually no traffic, rolling countryside and great views,” is how he sums up this trip through this lovely area. Shoesmith, who has already surpassed 8,000 miles for the year, says this was his favourite ride of August, even if he did miss out on a coffee stop.