10:40 on steep Hanover Street, Glasgow: You probably know that Scots are British, just as the English and Welsh. You definitely know that British traffic moves on the left. But did you know the brakes on British bikes’ handlebars are reversed to accommodate that leftward motion?
Fact: The left brake-lever controls the rear brake, the safer of the two to use one-handed, freeing up your right arm to signal and flip the bird. Good to know, because it’s raining hard now and we’re signaling extravagantly to cross five steep lanes, up 600 meters to a hilltop pedestrian-cum-bicycle bridge over Glasgow’s Ring Road to a canalside path.
It’s not just raining — this is swearing-at-fate rain that makes you question life choices — but if all goes well, this’ll be the last of any traffic we see for the next five hours. Other than learning the difference between ‘waterproof’ and ‘water-resistant’, all doesn’t go well.
Ten minutes ago, we were on a dry train. Our luck seemed on the up. Scotland has some lovely train routes — just ask Harry Potter — but unlike this busy Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor, most won’t allow bikes aboard without advance booking. From Glasgow’s Queen Street Station, it’s almost exactly 100km home, an odyssey for this old carcass. However, being canal paths for 90km, the journey’s mostly flat.
Trouble is, you need to get on the canal first and, right now, we can’t: the googles didn’t know the path’s blocked off for repairs here, rendering the directions useless. Meanwhile, rain’s drumming too insistently to rejig the route or even hear Siri mispronounce street names. So, I go old school, following the direction of the canal by exploring some sketchy north Glasgow neighbourhoods. What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing, it turns out! Twenty minutes later, not only does the old-school plan work, the access point I discover on the Clyde Canal kicks off miles of freshly paved and unoccupied canalside pavement — aka towpath. It gets better. The sun comes out!
It’s a blustery day (which, in Scotland, is like saying it’s a day) but the prevailing 30+kph winds are largely at my back. No longer lost, we’re officially off at 11am. It’s a tad later than planned for and I’m dripping everywhere, but the trickiest part of the day is done. Now it’s just about getting in the zone, as fit people say, and not stopping.
Not much later, we stop. The sun’s still shining, and the rear winds have blow-dried my soaked clothes. Here in the country is a lovely canalside pub with plenty of outdoor seating … it being opening time on a Monday. I carry a foaming pint from the bar out to the beer garden.
See above, re wind. In the intervening two minutes, the sky’s gone blacker than a Shetland midnight in January. The rain recommences. I guzzle some beer then the wet ride recommences. Fortunately, the wind picks up, still boosting my progress but also revealing the welcome sun to dry a twice-soaked chafing cyclist.
1:00pm: The Falkirk Wheel looms not quite halfway to Edinburgh. An impressive feat of engineering completed in 2002, this simplified, titanic Ferris wheel conveys narrowboats between the Union and Forth Canals’ 35m gap in height. The visitor’s centre includes a café Falkirk feels too soon to reward myself with lunch. On your bike!
Unlike the canal boats, cyclists and pedestrians connect to the Union Canal by a steep path, then through a long tunnel. From there and for a good portion of the upcoming ride, you’re following the layout of the Antonine Wall. Never heard of it? After Hadrian’s Wall, its construction was another attempt by frustrated Roman occupiers to bar pesky Picts from entering the Empire. (For further explanation, see Game of Thrones.)
Soon there’s an even longer tunnel, 200 years old and creepier than any Batcave. After a mile, we’re back out and flying on the favourable winds.
2:40: Linlithgow isn’t quite halfway from Edinburgh, still 21 miles away, but boasts its own charming canalside restaurant. By now, the noise from the wind is muffled under my stomach’s growling. I approach the bar, prepared to murder a burger. Sadly, they stopped taking orders at 2:30.
4:00 feels a bit late for lunch. Moreover, the gorgeous ancient village of Ratho in Lothian Region lies barely 8 miles from the end of the Union Canal. So, what! The Bridge Inn is the prettiest of all the old pubs we’ve passed today and, better still, it’s open. Besides, this sturdy stone inn was converted from an ancient barn in 1818 to service the navvies who built the canal. So, this plate of fish and chips with sharp malt vinegar wafting in front of us is practically research!
5:20: In the heart of Edinburgh, the Union Canal abruptly stops at Fountainbridge. From here it’s just 2km to our temporary home in the shortsightedly named New Town which dates from the 1780s.
After 92km of traffic-free riding, we’re achingly close but let’s not get cocky: Don’t most accidents happen close to home? Sure, but think about it. You leave and return home every day with only so many routes available. Logic dictates that a larger proportion of accidents favour routes you must use by design.
Still, it’s worth being careful! The legs are jelly, and many of central Edinburgh’s wet roads are cobblestones, bicyclists’ kryptonite. Thankfully, it’s mostly downhill after this morning’s wet climb from the Glasgow train station, and that further ascent in Falkirk.
5:30: Good, there’s wine in the fridge! 5:31: Out the window, the heavens open yet again, and rain beats down. Cheers!