Cycling in Shetland

by Elizabeth Atia -

I'm going to be turning 40 this year. As such, last Spring, I wrote a list of 40 Things I'd Like to Do Before I Turn 40. A few of the items involve travel, like drinking coffee in Paris (I crossed this off last September - it was fantastic!), visiting Norway (my ticket is booked from Sumburgh to Bergen for July!), visiting all the inhabited islands on Shetland (I have Vaila and Foula left!). Others are a bit less expensive: learning how to play the guitar, kayaking into a sea cave, owning a bike again and climbing a mountain again.

I haven't owned a bike since I was 15. Back in Canada you could exchange a dozen empty beer bottles at the liquor store for 95 cents. My mother didn't drink, so my brother and I used to scour the local ditches for bottles thrown from cars (as an adult this does make me question the amount of drink driving that must have gone on in my rural Canadian village!). It took me two summers to find enough enough, but I collected enough bottles to be able to buy myself a 10 speed bike from Canadian Tyre. It cost $110.

Gosh I loved that bike.

Last Autumn I was gifted an old second hand bike from a friend, and this rekindled my love of cycling. Slightly terrified of cars I started cycling down nearby quiet rural roads, and as my confidence grew I started cycling on the busier main roads.

While pondering which mountain I was going to climb this year I was struck by inspiration. Ben Nevis, although a fairly small mountain by Canadian standards (my last mountain climb was one of the Rockies when I was 19), it is still, nonetheless, a mountain, and it's the nearest mountain to me.

Why don't I cycle to Fort William and then climb Ben Nevis?

Well one thing led to the next and in mid-March I ended up buying myself a brand new mountain bike from Grantfield Garage in Lerwick. One month later I downloaded the Strava app so I could track routes, miles and my progress.

According to Strava I've covered 530 miles since mid-April. That's not bad, considering I only took up cycling again last Autumn.

So, I'd like to share a few of my favourite Shetland roads to cycle on, so far. I've not covered them all yet, so I am sure there are still a few hidden gems out there.

To start with - since I live in Aith, on the west side of Shetland, I train on the Vementry road. It's only a 7.7 mile cycle from my house to the end of the road and back, but it's hilly enough to get the heart going. There's a great feeling of achievement to speed up The Steed, a rather steep hill towards the end of the road. My lungs and thighs stopped burning long ago, and I feel I'm getting stronger and fitter with each attempt. There's a great feeling of satisfaction getting a good, proper lungful of air when pushing uphill.

Then there's the Alps - the Aith to Voe run. According to Strava there's approximately a 42,000 foot elevation change there and back. Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, measures 15,781 feet, so you can get a fair indication of how hilly it is! Fortunately, Hayfield Croft Produce has a little honesty cupboard on that road where you can stock up on water and cakes, should you need some fuel!

Continuing on the west side of Shetland one of my favourite long runs is from Park Hall in Bixter down the B9071 to Reawick, around the back road to Skeld, around the back again to Westerskeld and returning to the main west side road at the Brige of Walls. From there, carry on through Walls on the A971 to the Dale of Walls (stopping at the beach for a rest) and coming out on the Sandness road and heading east again to Park Hall. It's a good 50 mile run, and on a sunny day with little wind it's heaven. On a rainy day with a stiff breeze it's a completely different story. Mental endurance training, I call those days.

You could also, if you wanted to cover a few more miles, head down the West Burrafirth road past the Papa Stour ferry. Again, it's hilly, but the views are stunning.

We've had two weekends of absolutely glorious sunshine recently with very little wind, so my cycling friend and I ventured out for our longest trip yet: 100 miles from Aith to Sumburgh and back. It was the first time both of us had tried the really long big hills like the Whiteness Hill, the Scord in Scalloway and that hill coming back from Quarff.

Still, we did it, and we were rather proud of ourselves. It was also the first time we'd both hit the main Shetland trunk road, and although, at times, it felt like I was playing Crossy Road and was about to get squished by speeding vehicles at any time, it was good practice for what we might expect when we head to the mainland next month.

On our way to Sumburgh we took a detour down the Bigton road to St. Ninians beach for lunch, and then on around Spiggie loch. We stopped to watch the seals basking on Rerwick Beach, and you can just spot the local yoal team out practicing in the water.

Note - when cycling to Sumburgh Lighthouse cyclists have to stop at the Sumburgh Airport runway so security can radio and check that it's safe. We learned this the hard way. I didn't see the sign until it was almost too late and I had visions of security vehicles swarming in to stop us crossing the runway, so I slammed on my brakes without warning. This caused my friend to crash into the back of me and tip over onto the road, narrowly missing being run over by a car (sorry car driver! It was all my fault!). Nonetheless, no one was harmed and we now know!

After this long cycle in one day I now understand the merits of padded cycling shorts for longer distances. Mine should hopefully be arriving in the post today!

Last weekend was glorious too, and a long bank holiday weekend to boot, so I borrowed a set of panniers (mine are in the post!), loaded up the bike and headed north to explore the islands of Unst and Yell on a practise run with long distance cycling with loaded panniers. This is a completely different experience than cycling on an unloaded bike!

It's only £5.50 to take your bike across as a foot passenger on the ferry from Toft to Ulsta in Yell, and this ticket gives you access to Unst as well. There are plenty of places to stop over in Yell overnight if you've got your own camping gear - there are a few campsites dotted along the B9081. This stretch of road (which I did on my way back south) from Mid Yell to Burravoe (stopping over at the Old Haa Museum for coffee and cake!) was one of the most pleasant cycles I've had on Shetland. The sun was shining brightly, there was barely a breath of wind and the views are spectacular!

I spent two nights at the Windhouse Lodge camping bod (more about this in a later blog post!), and at £10 a night for a bunk bed it was a bargain, and a great location to explore the northern isles.

Cycling through Unst was very pleasant too. Although the sea fog was quite thick first thing in the morning it had cleared by midday and, after a quick lunch at the ominously named Final Checkout (Britain's most northerly village shop), I cycled to the very end of the road at Hermaness.

Not content to just stop there, considering the sun was shining brightly, I headed north along the cliffs to the furthest point of land that I could walk to, stuck my feet out over the edge, and stopped for a break. Puffins watched me with curiosity.

I had all of the happy that day sitting on the edge of the world.

It's official, I have the cycling bug. I feel I am mentally and physically ready to tackle the 250 mile trip from my home on the west side of Shetland through Orkney and down through the highlands of Scotland this summer, wild camping the whole way.

This challenge is one of those sorts of things people tend to raise money for charity for to kind of help motivate (and do something useful!) so I am raising funds for the RNLI, the charity that saves lives at sea. You can sponsor me online if you wish, or there's a paper form in the Eid Community Co-operative.

There are bicycle hire shops in Lerwick (and I spotted one in Unst too, in Saxavord), if you don't fancy traveling to Shetland with your bike. Shetland.org has quite a few routes mapped out as well. Shetland is part of the National Cycle Route #1, connecting Dover with Shetland and it's also part of the North Sea Cycle route - a 6000 km route following the coastline of the North Sea from the tip of Unst all the way around to Bergen. I may be daydreaming here, but I'd like to give that a go too, one day.

All the photos above were taken en route with my iPhone so I could share them on Instagram. Do give me a follow if you want to keep up with my adventures! :)