Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Kingdom

I have many memories of riding bicycles and motorbikes in Scotland, some of the best cycling memories where in Fife. In my youth, the route into Fife always required a trip across the water. Traveling across the Tay Bridge is best enjoyed on a bike. On a still Summer morning, with the remains of a sea harr burning off below, it may look calm and all’s well on the Tay. However, the sensation of being 30m up on the bridge and dealing with temperamental cross winds is somewhat different. The bridge gradually climbs from Dundee to Fife, I doubt if many motorists know that fact, or even consider the joy of a gravity assist as you head back to Dundee. The assist was always welcome as the light began to fade and you considered any rewards that may come your way after a hard day in the saddle. The views from the bridge are also stunning;  East towards the Bar – where the Tay crashes and meets the North Sea. Off to the West, you follow the coast falling into the Tay and imagining it burbling away at the source in Perthshire hills.

Rivers offer a romance and escape that we are very lucky to experience in this country. It doesn’t take long before you are above water in Scotland. The average ride will see you crossing many bridges. What lies below changes as much as the weather. Routemaster General has a good theory about rain in Scotland, no prizes for guessing that it has something to do with whisky.

Once in the Kingdom, the prevailing wind usually dictated the route - a turn to the West and enjoy a trip along the Coast, passing through sleepy villages, looking out over remnants of the Tay’s industrial past and the Fishing fleets that once populated the small harbours and brought live to the Market towns. Tom the coach (more on the legend another time) would usually have a test in mind. The test frequently saw the bunch venturing into Perthshire, Kinross and tackling the climbs over Glen Farg and Wicks o’ Baigle.  These are far from being the longest climbs in Scotland, but they do dish out punishment in droves for those that are not in the mood. The descent into Path of Condie is a cracker and once we had stopped exploring the teenage dreams and fantasies of solo breaks in the Alps, we would all be waiting for Tom’s instruction as to where to stop for an endless supply of tea, bowl of broth and how could I forget, the fruit scone.  Tom’s favourite haunts where country side milk bars.

I miss those milk bars. Simple places where you never had to worry about the state you where in.  If your kit was dreach and barket, the old Dearies that ran the places would hang it up in front of the fire/range and the steam would reach into the rafters. I even remember being told, in no uncertain terms to strip down and ‘get oot oh yer wet clathes – dee yee think ev nae seen it ae before?’  I’m still aware of a few places where the fare on offer is hearty and the welcome is just as good, (minus the stripping). Long may they continue.

Once back on the bike it was time to head East and cover the challenging roads and fight the winds of the East Neuk. These roads have to be some of the hardest in Scotland. Once the wind picks up it really is purgatory.  Straights with views out over the sea are there in abundance. The problem is that your head is down as you push through the pedals in a vain attempt to make progress. The physical marker that was selected in the distant provided the homing beacon. The delusion that you would be upon it and looking for the next one was always short lived. The relief of sheltered dashes through the narrow, atmospheric streets of wonderful places with wonderful names is all too brief.  The shelter offered from lines and rows of fisherman’s cottages found in Elie, Pittenweem, Anstruther, and Crail provided some rest bite from the gales whipping off the North sea. The folk that headed out to those waters to earn their keep where/are brave souls. The excellent Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther is well worth a visit. The location and revistalising freshness from the sea air adds a sensory dimension to the experience that many museum curators can only dream about.

Reaper - Fife fishing boat

Those towns have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Many properties that where falling into decline have been purchased as holiday homes and bolt holes. In some ways, this provides a much needed source of income and investment for local industry. In other ways, it is detrimental to the community as local families may struggle to buy a house and stay in that area. The knock on effect to schools etc has been well publicised.  On the subject of education, we often found ourselves in St. Andrews dodgy the sleepy students crawling home after a night out. Out with term time, St Andrews is a very different place and peacefully quiet. If there’s a golf tournament on; please take my advice, don’t even think about going there on a bike. Just soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the event, it doesn’t come much better than the British Open at the Old Course.

Training in Fife was always tough. I used to dabble with Fife Century Road Club, doing a spot of moonlighting from my local club and Tom. I was in training for some serious races and my cousin raced for the ‘Century’. They had a well drilled team of schoolboys and junior racers. Dennis was the coach and a tough one at that. He was involved at a National level and his techniques didn’t involve Milk Bars. His favourite punishment was intervals over 100m, 200m and then 400m. These where quickly followed by a 10 mile (if he was feeling we deserved a short one) APR.

The undulating roads around Freuchie and Falkland where the usual choice. The schoolboys where sent out first and then it was the juniors, the vets and then the top category seniors. A number of months went by before the schoolboys' managed to stay out and cross the line ahead of the fire breathing pack. Dennis had turned us into a very tight five rider team trial squad, we where flying. Pushing schoolboy gears resulted in having to freewheel at times. Come the uphill sections of the undulations, we wouldn’t even change gear. The sheer sense of pride and achievement felt in that squad when we finally crossed line in first place was pure magic. It was a true team effort and even though Dennis was shouting instructions from the car, he was an integral part of the team, thanks Dennis.

A Cyclesguff team road trip to Fife (and a venture into Perth and Kinross) is long overdue and I think the date has already been set....

Aye, it’s a braw place, ken.

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