August 02, 2023
A month on our bicycles, unsupported, spanning the entire isle of Great Britain. Three countries. Five major cities. Tens of thousands of feet of incline. 800ish miles. Literally millions of sheep.
In this post, I'll cover our journey from Syracuse, NY, where we boxed up our bikes and hopped on a plane, to Edinburgh, Scotland, where we unboxed our bikes and rode right out of the airport to our hotel, to Glasgow, Scotland, where an old friend saved us a lot of time and effort by showing us around the city.
Our story begins on a brutally rainy Sunday. We drove through sheets of torrential rain to Mello Vello, the excellent local bike shop in Syracuse. Our car ended up parked in a large (temporary) pond due to the intensity of the rain. We sprinted through the pouring rain, and the employees produced our prize: two massive bike boxes, just under the airline's limit for total bicycle checked "bag" size. Then we stalled for a solid half hour, wandering around the bike shop, buying some small items, praying for the rain to abate.
Unfortunately it did not. But after a lot of swearing and unloading and loading and wet cardboard and breaking down one box, we ended up with two bicycle boxes in the back of our Crosstrek. We headed home, and started the exciting process of disassembling the bikes and arranging the parts and 90% of our camping supplies, clothes and equipment into boxes below United's 70lb maximum weight limit. After lots of swearing and unloading and loading, we ended up with two loaded bike boxes vaguely likely to make it to the UK in the hold of a plane.
The next step: getting to the airport. Thanks to the (enormous) size of Melo Velo's boxes, we ended up using two cars to ferry the two of us along with two bicycle boxes to the airport. Special thanks to Meg's parents for volunteering to give us a ride! Despite a lot of worrying and finger-crossing on my part, the United front desk attendant coolly and calmly accepted our boxes for the (not entirely unreasonable) hefty sum of United's old bicycle box policy, which waives the oversize box fee, but still charges extra for luggage over 50lb. Fair is fair, we paid the troll toll and found our way to an airport bar to calm our nerves with a refreshing beverage. We eventually watched them load our bicycles into a tiny tiny United Express plane (there was also finger-crossing and worrying involved as we prayed the boxes would actually fit into the hold), then boarded ourselves in a timely fashion. What seemed like 5 minutes later, we descended to Washington DC's Dulles airport.
Dulles airport was more interesting than anticipated. First, we enjoyed the spacious and clean Concourse A. Then we rode the mobile lounge to Concourse C. Unfortunately, Concourse C (and the other side of the same terminal, Concourse D) was a goddamned garbage fire. Narrow, tiny, claustrophobic aisles. Not nearly enough space for the passengers at each gate. Spooky, flickery, surprisingly dark 90s fluorescent lighting. A downright awful selection of food vendors. Fortunately, it was only a couple of hours before we escaped on our flight to Edinburgh, where we lucked out and got a whole 3 seat block to ourselves. Score!
One long international flight, a mediocre dinner, a decent movie, and a mediocre breakfast later, we emerged from our pressurized cocoon into Edinburgh airport. Customs was a surprisingly speedy ordeal, with a quick line and a fully computerized passport scan. Unfortunately, Meg didn't end up with a passport stamp, so her passport still appears naked. Sorry about that! Then we waited at the baggage carousel for our bicycle boxes.
We assumed our bicycle boxes would take a long time to show up in the baggage pickup area; after all, they're overweight, oversized luggage. But I didn't bargain on the fact that the Union Cycliste Internationale 2023 World Championship was taking place in Glasgow just a couple of days after our arrival in Edinburgh. The two cities are only 60 miles apart, and EDI is the cheaper, more popular airport. So you can imagine my surprise when both our flight and the adjacent flight in baggage claim had a LOT of bicycle boxes and bags. Easily the most I've ever seen on a single flight -- imagine the ski baggage on a flight to Aspen in January. And of course most of those boxes and bags don't quite fit on the luggage carousel, so they all jammed up at the end of the carousel where it wraps around back to the staff-only portion of the airport. So I ended up playing the good samaritan, unloading dozens of bicycle boxes and bags trapped at the end of the carousel.
Eventually our boxes showed up, and we escorted (read: hideously dragged to the point of structural failure) our boxes to a forgotten corner of the departures section of the airport. There, we assembled the bikes and I monkeyed with my brakes for a good half hour until we were back to a semi-functional state. And then we were off on our brief 10 mile bike ride into Edinburgh.
The ride started out a bit rough: we were both tired and somewhat sleepy, and not yet used to riding on the left-hand side of the road. So we walked our bikes out of the airport loop and across the first roundabout. But we quickly got the hang of the infrastructure and within a mile we were whizzing our way down the shared bicycle/pedestrian path along the side of the motorway. With our (relatively) new bicycle computer as a guide, we zoomed through culs-de-sac, along bike paths, and sometimes down bike lanes until we reached Edinburgh city centre. We only got stuck at one point where the Water of Leith path appears to turn into a pedestrian trail (via a long staircase, what a statement!) near the city centre. And in all fairness, we saw an even more confused French bicycle tourist at the same spot, so it's not a unique point of confusion.
The Edinburgh city centre was a hell of a sight to behold. A massive castle, stadium, and an ancient cathedral loom over a sprawling park and meat-packed pedestrian strip with significant bus, bicycle, and tram traffic. Bicycle hipsters much cooler than us cruise around comfortably without a care in the world for the bicyclist's eternal nemesis: embedded tram tracks. We (nervously) tailed those hipsters until we turned down a side road to access our hotel. The hotel turned out to be located on an entirely pedestrianised road: for this, I award Edinburgh 17 UKpoints. (Stay tuned to find out which UK city earns the most UKpoints.)
Once we arrived at the hotel, it turned out that we had to wait 30 minutes to avoid paying the early checkin fee. Since we're miserly and enjoy adult beverages, we spent the £10 early checkin fee on a couple of pints at the hotel bar, and killed the 30 minutes staring at our bicycles -- which were parked in the lobby -- and strategising about where to walk for dinner.
Our room turned out to be quite snug, but very clean and well-finished. We especially appreciated Premier Inn's signature purple light bar on the bed's headboard, a feature we enjoyed in all but two of the hotel rooms we utilized during our trip. Once we got the bikes secured and a post-international-flight shower in, we set out across Edinburgh for the first city exploration of the trip.
First stop: the castle! Edinburgh castle is... well, it's a castle. Meg's first real castle (Boldt Castle doesn't count). We walked around. Lots of people asked us to attend their free comedy shows, thanks to the soon-to-begin Fringe Festival.
There were a lot of food carts; we should have stopped at one. We walked around some more. Took lots of pictures of old buildings, cute pedestrianised spaces, and even older buildings. Cobblestone streets. Pedestrian plazas. Pedestrian bridges. Oversized, ancient trees. Cute stone buildings. Lots and lots of tourist trap businesses.
It wasn't long before we got hungry enough to steer toward the first pub of the trip: Cloisters Bar. We began our food & drink journey with a cider, a cask pour, and Mediterranean loaded fries. When those proved worthwhile, we decided to sample the UK staples of bangers & mash and fish & chips, along with some 'high risk, high reward' pints. We also realised that the kitchen is in the basement and sends food orders up using a dumbwaiter. I give serious props to Cloisters Bar for creative reuse of a historic building, great food, chill atmosphere, and a smashing tap list.
After Cloisters Bar, we were ready for a walk around town. So we walked back through the castle, observed a remarkable volume of buses carting across town (the purpose of dozens of empty buses remains a mystery; this phenomena attracts study from bus experts across the world), checked out some of the parks -- and pristine park bathrooms -- and eventually made our way to another very local-looking pub. Unfortunately our travel fatigue had finally caught up with us and the combination of revelry sounds emanating from within and opaque Scottish accents spooked us from trying out Kay's Bar. I'm sure it's an excellent little spot, so please send me a review the next time you're in Edinburgh so we can vicariously experience this missed opportunity.
After striking out at Kay's Bar, we wandered around the aptly-named Comely Bank neighbourhood and promptly gravitated to one of the cutest wine bars I've ever visited: Good Brothers Wine Cellars. I enjoyed the juiciest, tastiest Pinot Noir I've ever had, and Meg sampled their collection of European Reislings (conclusion: nearly as refreshing as the finest the Finger Lakes has to offer, and quite affordable in the UK). Their cheese (a central European Manchego) did not disappoint, either. After some tasty wine, we were ready to turn in for the night, so we headed back to our hotel.
Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to rest for long before the fire alarm went off in the building and we were forced to evacuate. Since the alarm didn't seem likely to turn off any time soon, we headed to the nearest pub, and made our first major mistake of the trip: stepping inside the vile tourist trap that is Element. Let me summarise this repulsive institution with a few bullet points to keep things brief:
I would award Element 2.5 out of 5 stars. The 1/2 star is entirely thanks to the underpaid local artist, who really did the best job he possibly could with his audience.
Almost one drink later (Inches cider isn't worth finishing), we headed back to the hotel to rest for the night. On our way, we spotted the lights from a musical performance up in the hilltop stadium -- a very impressive sight, projected onto the adjacent castle. But a different light show awaited us back in our hotel room: the purple glow of our Premier headboard.
We rose early the next morning, knowing we had almost 70 miles of biking between us and Glasgow. We took the Water of Leith path back out of the city, a decision which unfortunately deprived us of a sample of the Edinburgh coffee scene, since the only coffee cart on the path was closed when we passed it. But the path was overall an excellent way to ride out of the city: no street crossings, a beautiful river and, for a stretch, a beautiful canal. There was even a (slightly sketchily narrow) section on an aqueduct.
But even in a country with decent bike infrastructure, maintenance happens, and we eventually reached a section of the path that was under construction. A quick reroute through a residential neighbourhood later, we were back on the path. We rode over bridges underneath viaducts, a number of pedestrian bridges -- some very very old, some new -- and a number of "dead roads" that have been demoted to mere bike paths as we slowly meandered our way from Scotland's East coast to the West coast.
My personal favourite section was quite close to the Glasgow-Edinburgh light rail, a nice stretch of very wide, well-paved bike path with sweeping views of cows, sheep, and some breathtaking lakes and cliffs. We picked up a couple of toasties in a small town about halfway between the cities, and enjoyed them on what used to be a sidewalk next to one of the aforementioned "dead roads". There were an absurd number of blackberries on the path, but we only tried a couple each because it's not usually a good idea to eat random plants on the side of the road in foreign countries.
As seems to be the usual case in the UK, the bike path made it very difficult to determine when we were "in Glasgow". We just kind of pedalled along the river, through trees and hedges, until at some point we popped out smack dab in the middle of the city centre. From there, our ride was incredibly easy, because the UCI 2023 World Cup was happening the very next day, which shut down basically all streets in the city centre. We checked into our hotel (slightly more spacious than the last Premier Inn, but the elevator literally couldn't fit either of our bikes -- thank goodness we were only on the 2nd (American 3rd) floor!) and met up with our old friend Allison for a (couple of) pints and dinner.
The next day was a full day of exploring Glasgow. We began the day at Barras Market (unfortunately, we couldn't find any souvenirs light enough to haul over the next 800 miles of Great Britain bicycling) and enjoyed a (couple of) great coffees at Us V Them. We checked out the UCI BMX competition from afar, then we headed over to OUTLIER for another coffee and perhaps the best focaccia Meg has ever tasted (This focaccia earns Glasgow 9 UKpoints). As we got closer and closer to the road racing circuit in town, it became more and more obvious that half the patrons at every business were UCI World Cup competitors; if the matching lycra country uniforms weren't enough to tip us off, the giant piles of carbon road bikes outside of every establishment confirmed our suspicions.
The rest of the day, we bopped around town. We watched some of the road race. We visited the local parks. We investigated a pub with very unique digs. We walked along the river Clyde. We saw the botanic gardens. We ogled the abandoned subway stations of Glasgow. We rode the very cute, very short, very circular Glasgow Subway (the incredibly short, also circular traincar shape earns Glasgow an additional 6 UKpoints). And we even got to do a tiny bit of unloaded bicycle riding around the greater Glasgow area. Thanks for showing us around, Allison!
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, we were back in our hotel, readying the bikes for our next great adventure: our bike ride to England. We loved our time in the two largest cities in Scotland (I'm not sure we ever fully adapted to the accents), but we both felt ready to ride our bikes many miles into the hills and pitch a tent on scenic right to roam land. Tune in next time to find out the ups and downs (and subsequent ups, downs, and ups, and downs -- Great Britain is very hilly) of our wildest segment of the trip.