In anticipation of this year's Commonwealth Games, Meera Dattani finds out how to explore Glasgow on a bike.
There are no brakes. The gears are fixed. Your shoes are clipped into the pedals and don’t clip out with ease. You’re essentially attached to your bike. Then there’s the bigger question of how do you slow it down. If it wasn’t for the reassuring words on the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome website, that it “isn’t just for elite athletes”, I might have done a runner.
This taster session at Glasgow’s new velodrome proves to be something of a revelation. There’s no denying the impressive surroundings, that glossy circuit and sloping sides. But the truth is that getting around it, at a human rather than superhuman pace, is not as hard as it looks.
It’s nothing but exhilarating. The 250m track was designed by Ralph Schuermann (a world-renowned track designer) and cyclists can reach top speeds of about 75 kilometres per hour. Needless to say, my session had slightly lower expectations. It’s easy enough to brake without brakes, and when you’re constantly told “it’s easier if you go faster”, it’s a case of getting your head down and facing the fear. It proved fruitful – confidence grew and soon we novice track cyclists were riding above the top line of those once-intimidating sloping sides.
The velodrome is probably Glasgow’s highest-profile sports venue with the upcoming Commonwealth Games in July 2014, but mention Glasgow and cycling in the same breath, and the typical reaction is one of surprise. In the same way its image as a grey industrial metropolis is undeserving, especially when there’s so much spectacular architecture, it’s also far more cycle-friendly than expected.
The newest treat for Glasgow’s cyclists is the Cathkin Braes Mountain Bike Trails, which opened in May 2013, and are the venue for the Commonwealth Games’ mountain biking events. Overlooking Glasgow, just south of the centre, the trails are free to use before and after the games. On my visit to this 5.5km circuit plenty of bikers were testing their skills, jumping, racing and skidding along the tracks – pros can tackle the route in about 14 minutes. The trail has been designed by Phil Saxena, the man behind the Beijing Olympic course, and local schoolchildren have named some of the route’s features. Evidently the distinct dry Glaswegian sense of humour starts young – consider Brig O’Doom, Broken Biscuits, and Rest And Be Thankful.
It’s a mixed terrain course, with woodland, moorland and natural bedrock, and best of all, all levels can cycle it with experienced riders gaining a time advantage by their skill in tackling the trickier climbs and descents. The trail also links to local cycle routes – a dedicated cycle route from Glasgow’s centre to Cathkin Braes park is being developed.
Over in Pollok Park, in Glasgow’s Southside, the mountain bike trails are more approachable. A short green circuit is a welcome introduction to off-road cycling while the steeper Blue Circuit’s rooty trails lets you test a few skills. The Red Circuit simulates the type of trails you might find when mountain biking and for city-dwelling riders, it’s a handy place to practice some moves. For flatter, prettier cycling, however, there’s the park itself, where you can glide freely past the deer park, hay field, Pollok House and the Burrell Collection art gallery. The park’s western edge also forms part of the National Cycle Network.
One of the best urban cycle routes is along the Kelvin Walkway, by the banks of the River Kelvin which meanders through Glasgow’s western neighbourhoods. Our route took us past the arboretum of the Botanic Gardens which in the summer hosts The Bard in the Botanics open-air theatre, north past Glasgow University Sports Grounds before a short 100-metre stint and into Dawsholm Park for views over the city. A detour onto the Forth and Clyde Canal and across Queen Margaret Bridge leads back to the Kelvin Walkway for a scenic route through Kelvingrove Park past Kelvingrove Museum and onto the Clyde Walkway. Here resides the Old Transport Museum and its new home, the Riverside Museum on the banks of the River Clyde which is also home to the futuristic Science Centre, IMAX cinema, BBC Scotland and new music venue Hydro. Time permitting, you can cycle all the way to Glasgow Green in the eastern limits and beyond.
You can, in fact, cycle all the way to Edinburgh on a flat, easy route along the canal. So to those who say cycling and Glasgow don’t fit, try telling that to the people who work at Siempre, Glasgow’s first cycling cafe in Partick, close to the southern end of Byers Road in the West End. They’re part of Glasgow’s growing cycling community and have created a space which does everything from fix and sell road bikes and cycle gear, serve locally sourced, organic food and organise no-wheel events such as wine tastings. They’re all about making cycling accessible – and as a novice biker, Glasgow has proved that even big cities can come up with the goods if you look for them.