Markus Stitz, Bikepacking Scotland | Thursday 1st November 2018 9:00am
My first experience with bikepacking was back in 2006, crossing Scotland on a mountain bike, burdened with a 14kg backpack to carry everything I needed for a three week trip across the Highlands & Islands. Back then, I hadnít heard about East Lothian, and bikepacking bags hadnít been invented. The most common feedback I got from my friends about the trip were the words crazy and amazing. I muted the crazy and focussed on the amazing.
I left Scotland for a while after that trip, but in 2009 I returned after two years in New Zealand. I had spent the last two years cycle touring on the other side of the world, often called ĎScotland on steroidsí. The more I toured, the less I took with me, and from the initial two pannier setup, I went back to carrying everything on my back. This gave me the opportunity to wander much more off the beaten track. My cycling became much more adventurous. The last two months before I left for Europe were mostly spent on two wheels, following the tire tracks of the Kennett Brothers, exploring the South and North Island.
When I settled in Edinburgh in 2009, I abandoned mountain biking for a while. With no car, I relied on public transport most of the time, but after a while I got tired of the long train journeys there and back. Instead of taking the train I decided to cycle to places, inspired by the riders in the 1930s that went from Youth Hostel to Youth Hostel. I took very little with me, a toothbrush, a spare base layer, a pair of boxer shorts and my credit card would do, plus a few essentials like pump, patches and multi tool. On some weekends I would ride more than 500km easily. In my own way I became addicted to road cycling.
As the years went on, the attraction of the road bike slowly faded away, in 2013 I rediscovered the joys of a mountain bike. Simplicity became the key to my riding, so I went on to convert my mountain bike into a singlespeed bike. When I heard about the Highland Trail 550 in late 2013, I applied for a place and got accepted. I still hadnít heard about bikepacking bags. A few days before the race, one of the toughest in the world, a friend from Hamburg offered to lend me his bags and saved my race.
ĎThousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.í John Muir
I didnít take me long to get hooked. Although I was one of the slowest racers in the Highland Trail 550 I finished the race. Considering that more than half of the starters drop out, this was an achievement, the finishing time didnít matter much to me. I was amazed by the flexibility the bags gave me, and was also stunned by how little it takes to have an adventure in Scotland. All my belongings were stuffed away in two smallish bags. My bike was light enough to lift it over fences. With bikepacking I discovered a totally different side of Scotland. I loved being in the mountains, I enjoyed the solitude and remoteness.
Soon after I started developing my own routes, and this is when I first discovered East Lothian. For the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling I wanted to create my own bikepacking event and therefore a new route. When I stumbled across the Cross Borders Drovers Road I started searching for historical routes in the Scottish Borders. But in order to get there I needed a good route out of Edinburgh. What I found was a paradise right next to my front door, a part of Scotland I had not explored before. East Lothian offered so much while being so close to home. Instead of spending hours on the train heading up to the Highlands, I explored the tracks in East Lothian.
The Capital Trail attracted more than 80 riders in June 2015, a huge success given that bikepacking was still in its early days. While most people loved the wilderness of the Scottish Borders, it were the trails in East Lothian that stunned people the most and incentivised them to come back.
Shortly after the Capital Trail I left to cycle around the world. While I had every intention to get to the UK Singlespeed Championships in two days, my first day didnít go to plan at all. Leaving late at 4.30pm in the afternoon forced me to rethink my plans and cut the first day short. When I climbed up to the Lammermuirs, I experienced one of the best sunsets I had in the whole year, a memory that stayed with me for the rest of the journey. And while I could still spot the lights of Edinburgh from where I pitched my tent on the first night, I really felt that this is a part of the world I would love to explore more.
When I returned after a year of experiences, cycling 34,000km through 26 different countries, I had to give my life a new direction. Bikepacking was still developing, but at a much faster pace than when I left. Working on the Capital Trail and receiving great feedback for the route encouraged me to change direction and start Bikepacking Scotland and become a freelance marketing and tourism consultant. Although some great routes already existed in Scotland, I had the strong feeling that there was potential for much more.
Gradually I built up an offer of routes. First was the Reiver Raid, a bikepacking journey in the Ale Water Valley. The next route was the West Island Trail, a bikepacking journey connecting four hostels in the west of Scotland. Shortly afterwards I devised a route that combined bikepacking with scenic railway journeys, the West Highland Rover, while continuously working on the biggest project, the Central Belter, for almost a year. For the Wild About Argyll Trail I worked with Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative to create the first bikepacking trail for gravel bikes. During the year my approach to creating those routes became much more defined. The feedback for each new route gave me the opportunity to improve things.
When I got approached by Elaine from East Lothian Council to present on those projects last December, I got excited about returning to East Lothian. What was missing in the portfolio was a shorter route, accessible for people new to bikepacking. Something families can enjoy, and a route that is short enough to encourage people to leave their office for once during the week, strap a tent, mattress and sleeping bag on the bike and go out there.
The Go East Lothian Trail offers all the adventure the longer routes bikepacking offer, but in a more condensed format. I havenít met anyone who tried bikepacking and didnít like it. Bikepacking is a good incentive to take only what you need, and nothing more. Itís a great opportunity to reduce yourself to the things that really matter, something that gets lost too often in modern day societies.
ĎOf all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.í John Muir
Bikepacking gives you the chance to reconnect with nature and enjoy those stunning views. The East Lothian Trail is designed in a way that you can do that without any hardship that long distance routes bring with them. There is a great variety of surfaces along the route, from quiet tarmac roads to some very nice singletrails. Thereís a cafť around the corner, thereís the opportunity to meet local people. And if you are too tired, thereís always a train not too far away. And if you are hungry for more, thereís plenty of opportunity to extend the route.
As every route development involves a lot of riding, I used the shorter distance as an opportunity to try different bikes riding the Go East Lothian Trail. I started on my 27.5plus adventure bike, then took my round the world singlespeed bike, a gravel bike and finally an e-mountain bike. I rode the route in one go, and took my time and camped overnight, with one of the best views ever, watching the sun setting over the Lomond Hills on the other side of the Forth.
All the time I rode the route I had a big smile on my face. And thatís exactly what I would like you to take away from riding the trail. And if you do, then tell others about it.