Write to Roam

Bikes are the ultimate vehicle of freedom aren’t they? The freedom to explore and the freedom to be. Throw in a tent, some provisions and some like minded folk, and you have yourself a bikepacking rally. This spring, my husband Keith and I took part in a unique event and the first of its kind in Scotland: The Roam Scotland Rally. This may be the most enjoyable multi-day ride I have ever done, so I wanted to capture it and write it down to share the story of this special event.


Photo Credit: Shona MacPhearson

Sometimes bikes can be way, way more important than simply the freedom to explore beautiful places for a week or to reconnect with yourself and the world around you. Sometimes bikes can be about improving physical health, they can be the conduit to confidence and self esteem, they can build community and even be a reason to get up in the morning.

Rather than paying an entry fee for this event, riders made a donation to the Gallatown Bike Hub in Kirkcaldy. This is a social enterprise which brings all good bicycle related things to the local community and beyond. It would be our hope that by making this connection with a great community based project that a bikepacking rally could spread the biking love and perhaps give opportunities and inspiration to youngsters and their community that would give biking benefits stretching way beyond the event itself.

Photo Credit: Gallatown Bike Hub

So what was the inspiration for the Roam Scotland Rally? In part, it was the Torino to Nice Rally and in part,  Scotland’s right to roam. The first Roam Scotland Rally took place in 2019, with a small hiatus for Covid, we signed ourselves up for the next one in May this year. For 2022, the Grand Depart was at Lamlash on Arran with  around 50 intrepid bike packers from as far flung as Shetland to London in the UK, and Holland, Belgium, Canada and Germany for our international riders.

To roam is to move about or travel aimlessly or unsystematically, especially over a wide area. When this wide area takes you through stunning and rugged parts of the Scottish West Coast, Highlands and Islands, you want a  capable, dependable steed that will accommodate your kit and efficiently cover large distances day after day whilst defying you not to have a ridiculous, goofy grin on your face as you fly down long, snaking hill passes. A bike that will keep rolling that front wheel up and over craggy, bouldery sections of the West Highland Way as perplexed hill walkers look on in slight disbelief!  Most of the Roamers chose gravel bikes, but there were one or two others like ourselves who chose hard tail mountain bikes to get them across the 700km of mixed terrain to the finish in Oban.

Photo Credit: Bernd Wichman

The basic formula for the rally is for all of the riders to gather at the start and then ride the route in their own way, at their own speed and finish somewhere in and around the finish area for each day. It is not a race, more a chance to discover new places, meet like minded folk and take time to drink in the views, wildlife and local sights. That, and you have carte blanche to eat as much as you like guilt free as it is no longer calories, but fuel!

Each rider is given a detailed route plan and gpx track when they sign up for the rally with options for a long or short route each day as well as top tips and local knowledge. This proved invaluable when considering places to resupply, places to eat as well as places to stay. It is very much a case of riding the rally your way. This might be on your own, or with a group of friends. It could be traveling fast and light with minimal kit and staying in B and Bs or hotels each night.  For us, a bikepacking adventure means carrying tent/camping gear and other essentials.  These include items such as our water filter, copious amounts of Smidge to keep the pesky midges at bay and a frame bag often bulging with flapjack and bananas! We knew that to be able to cover the daily distances for the long route each day (averaging 100km) we would need to travel light, so for the first time ever, we left behind our camp stove. This sacrifice shows you just how seriously we were taking this challenge as it meant starting the day without coffee. No coffee!!  It also meant that we were able to trim the rolling weight of the loaded bike and kit to around 26kg.

By taking on a challenge that you have hope, but no certainty of successful completion, you can end up surprising yourself with weird and wonderful solutions to the unique scrapes you might find yourself in! Somehow, I managed to damage the master cylinder for my front brake so that it leaked out all of the hydraulic brake fluid, leaving me with no front brake. The back brake alone could not cope with the weight of my fully loaded bike on the long descents. Back brake duly cooked, I had only my feet left for brakes! We were many miles from the nearest bike shop, so needed to conjure a better solution than my size 8s for brakes. Whilst there was no bike shop, there was a small cafe, and so using the resources we had at our disposal Keith came up with a slightly alarming, but none-the-less effective braking bodge! He reappeared from the cafe with a cunning plan and a cup of olive oil, much to the amusement and concern of our fellow roamers who had congregated at the cafe. The next tricky task was to somehow inject said oil into the tiny hole on my brake cylinder. Again, the universe provided, with a piece of stout cardboard from the cafe’s recycling bin folded into a v shaped funnel. Carefully, we were able to drip enough olive oil into the system that I had solid, functioning brakes once more.  Returning inside the cafe to buy us some celebratory snacks, the lady who had dispensed the olive oil voiced her concern over our Heath Robinson brake fix and wanted reassurances that we would go directly to the nearest bike shop. It turned out that this was not necessary as my olive oil worked a treat for the remaining 400km of the trip!

Problems aside, I love the simplicity and the daily rhythm of bikepacking.  Pedal, eat, sleep, repeat. Pedal, eat, sleep, repeat. It is a total reset and a tonic for the complexities and distractions of regular life. Time is of little consequence and is more governed by the rising and setting of the sun than by the time piece on your wrist. We tended to rise about 5,30am as the sun started to warm our tent.  The midgies are out in force, so we quickly pack up the tent and would often have breakfast on the hoof, out of the reach of the biting blighters! My bar roll and bag make quite a good breakfast table for my spread of banana, granola bar and milkshake. By rising early, we get a good head start too.  Most days the gravel bikes cover the ground fast, so would catch us up at some point and we would have other riders for a spot of company and banter. The miles fall away quickly whenever you are chatting.  Sometimes it genuinely would make us faster too. Our 29er steel hard tails could masquerade for a bit as racey gravel bikes as we would join the efficiency of an impromptu peloton and push our heart rates for as long as we felt like it!

Mostly we pottered along at a more relaxed pace. This allowed us to drink in the constant supply of incredible views, take pictures and enjoy some of the wildlife around us. We passed very close to a herd of deer plus geese and goslings on a coastal estate. I nearly rode over a snake-like slow worm and although we missed the otters and seals that other riders told us about, we made up for this by spotting a golden eagle on Mull,.  Maybe this is not so hard to do as Mull has the highest density of nesting golden eagles in Europe!

We had some comedy moments along the way.  Climbing up a long, winding fire road, we caught up with a couple of Belgian friends who appeared particularly heavily laden. It turns out that they were carrying an extra pannier belonging to a 3rd friend who was blissfully unaware that he had jettisoned half his luggage and gaily ridden off up the hill unencumbered. This situation was animatedly explained to us, and we were duly dispatched to chase down the errant Belgian! Once caught, this rider wondered why his friends were taking so long, and if they had had a problem that was keeping them back! We explained that they had indeed had a problem, in fact about a 6 foot problem who was standing right in front of us! He had had no idea.

There was another international rider from Canada whom we had been most keen to get a chance to talk to at some point on the ride. He is an absolute bikepacking veteran, now in his 70s, who has ridden many long distance trails all over the world. Riding Roam Scotland his way meant flying into Manchester, collecting and rebuilding his bike and then pedaling it from Manchester all the way to the start on Arran! We did get to meet Jim and enjoy some of his tales of adventure first hand, but certainly not in the way we would have wanted. It was the only rainy day of the trip, and Keith and I were trying to make up some time on a road section of the ride, having had a delay whilst we poured olive oil into my brakes earlier in the day! Rounding a bend, we could see someone lying on the tarmac with 2 bikes on the ground. It had all happened so fast, but minutes earlier Jim’s front wheel pulled him further into the gravelly rough at the side of the road and resulted in an unscheduled dismount at such speed that his helmet was smashed in two. Fortunately, he had been riding with another Roamer who had already done the immediate first aid and called for an ambulance. We, and later a few more Roamers were able to assist whilst we waited for the ambulance. By alerting the very occasional traffic to the situation, they could pass by with care and we also got Jim wrapped up as warmly as we could and sheltered him from the rain with waterproof material that we held over him like an umbrella. Despite the pain he was in, he remained in remarkably good spirits and told us about some epic rides that he had done such as the iconic Continental Divide Trail from the Canadian border to Mexico. We knew of only one other Canadian Bike Packer, through spending too much time watching You Tube during Lock Down! It turns out that Jim not only knew of this fellow countryman, but had once bumped into him on the trail and ridden a section with him too. What a Legend! When the ambulance arrived, and the paramedic was checking Jim over, she wanted to know if he had any movement in his feet or legs. This hardy bike packer took this as an invitation to do some “air cycling” to demonstrate that he could ride a bike! Sadly, he was not able to ride his bike to the finish of this ride, but he got patched up in hospital, repatriated with his bike and was already planning his next adventure before he had even landed back in Canada.

There was one section of the ride that was billed as a “rough stuff”  alternative to the main route. For this section, the only other mountain bike on the trip teamed up with our pair of Moxies to take on Glen Kinglass to Glencoe. This was probably the most enjoyable day of the whole trip for us. We were truly in our element, concentrating on line choice as we rode through rough, loose, bouldery sections or revelling in the riding over slabs of granite.  It was lovely for me to get the chance to know a fellow, female mountain biker, and one who also shares my delight in wild swimming! Keith and I had both developed a bit of heat and swelling in our achilles tendons by this stage, so planned to submerge them in the cold river water for a bit. Fellow rider, (also Lindsay) had a better idea though and suggested full body submersion by the falls and pools further along the route. Total heaven on this hot and sunny day!

Keeping up with the laundry is just one small part of  the daily maintenance that is so essential to keeping bikes and bodies happy for longer multi day trips. We tend to ride in one set of kit, carrying a spare set to wear whilst washing and drying the first. Drying may be air drying with a cord washing line at camp or clothes secured to bar/tail bags with elastic when we get dry riding days. If it is wet, the only solution is to put the damp laundry onto your warm body inside your sleeping bag, and by morning it will be pretty much dry. In this way, we can have fresh shorts each day which is a key part of our strategy for avoiding saddle sores. It may be the physiotherapist in me, but I am also pretty determined about stretching regularly to keep the body moving well. Tight hip flexors and hamstrings are a perennial problem for cyclists. These can be stretched out from a standing position, but we also made use of our tent’s ground sheet to allow us more of a full body stretch. Yoga in a midge net is quite the look! Apart from brake servicing, there was rudimentary bike maintenance to be done. We carried a cleaning rag which allowed us to wipe the worst of the muck and grit off the chains each day before applying a squirt of good quality chain oil.


Photo Credit: Keith Terraventure

Sometimes the end of the day would bring us together with our fellow Roamers as we might share a pint of Guiness in a beer garden with loch side views or settle in to a cosy climbers’ bar for some hearty pub grub.  Other times, we would have found ourselves a remote wee spot to pitch our tent all on our own.  Once pitched we were ready to rest our tired bodies, so would nestle into our sleeping bags and have a small evening meal made up of something simple that we had stashed in our saddle bags. This could be a sandwich or maybe some oatcakes and hummus.

Our various strategies  paid off this time, and we managed to complete the long route every day meaning we rode 700km in 7 days, fully self-supported on mountain bikes and climbing more than the height of Mount Everest from sea level over the course of the trip.   What did we learn, apart from the fact that hydraulic brake fluid may be overrated?!  We discovered that Mull has its very own hill classification system!  I am vaguely familiar with the different category climbs that you hear about on the Tour de France commentary. Mull does it differently and I think more poetically.  You can tell how brutal a climb is by the number of yellow grit bins there are along it! We also learned that bikepackers are a really friendly and interesting bunch and have already been inspired to further adventures by some of the new friends we made along the way!

Photo Credit Shona MacPhearson

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