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Bikes, batteries and blustery breezes

by Tom Morton -

Before we even start talking about cycling in Shetland, a quick word about wind. External wind, that is, not the effect of consuming too many bannocks or a too-sudden intake of a scallop supper at Frankie’s in Brae (other chip shops are available).

Shetland has a lot of wind. And along with said wind comes a variety of weathers, ranging (in the course of an average late April/early May day, from blizzards to warm sunshine, utter stillness to roaring, buffeting, ship-sinking and bike-flattening mayhem.

So if you come here to cycle, be prepared. A former colleague, super-fit, triathlon hardened, came to Shetland for work, and headed off from Lerwick on his mountain bike, which he always loaded into his employer’s van for trips away. In what seemed like mere minutes later he was in Voe, a south-easterly tailwind making every twirl of the crank an absolute joy. And then he turned back. The wind, meanwhile, was strengthening.

He managed five miles before, exhausted, calling for a workmate to come and get him.

Having said that, Shetland offers a great deal to the cyclist who’s prepared to deal with the northern weather’s vicissitudes. Almost 1000 miles of well-maintained, relatively quiet roads. Spectacular scenery. and the chance to cycle to the Very End of Britain, in Unst. Or at least within sight of the Out Stack, the most northerly lump of rock in these sceptr’d isles.

And here’s my dirty little secret: you don’t actually have to be all that fit. There is a way to counteract those breezes. No, it's not that ultra-fashionable red fleece I'm wearing in the picture. It's the bike itself...

Shetland has a lot of wind...and May weather ranging from blizzards to warm sunshine

Now, I have to admit that I’m a bit of a bicycle nerd, and always have been. From my first Tri-ang Speedmaster through a basic Raleigh to a Dawes Dalesman with chopper handlebars (the pain of having it stolen, when I was 15, still hurts, badly), I grew up with spanners and chainbreakers, cone keys and derailleurs, spoke-wrenches and thumb-bruising tyre levers. And my adult life has been much the same, this time with a little more cash to spend on too many bikes. I have just sold my beloved Surly Long Haul Trucker, the one on which I completed the Scottish End-to-End, Mull of Galloway to Muckle Flugga, the 452-mile ’Mull to Muckle’ route, in 2012. But I retain two older hand-built Orbit touring bikes, a vintage Raleigh Clubman sports bike, and a Specialized Hard Rock mountain bike. It was on one of the Orbits that I competed, six years ago, in the very first Frankies Fish and Chip Shop Sportive. I may have come last (check that picture as I approached the finish line) but I raised £200 for the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea fishermen. And, I got a free fish supper and a milkshake.

All of these bikes have pedals. All involve the transfer of physical energy into movement. And therein, for my now-62-year-old self, lies the problem. Because having suffered a heart attack and a subsequent stent (stainless steel pipework to artery) in 2015, I no longer feel quite so confident about sweating it up hills like Hillswick’s Clavie, heart hammering fit to, well, burst. Not that it would, probably. I trust my doctors and all that medication.

But there is another way, and for ages I refused to give in to it. My dirty little secret is: I have just ordered an electric bike.

Pedelecs (electric bikes with pedal assistance, as opposed to battery-powered motorbikes) still involve physical energy. It’s just that when push would normally come to getting off and shoving, the motor, computer-controlled, kicks in and takes the pressure off. Be it wind or slope, this is something, when first experienced, that is like magic. And then the guilt arrives. Or at least, it did for me.

My dirty little secret is: I've just ordered an electric bike

Susan’s Giant Twist Lite can take my 16 and a bit stones up the Clavie without a (heart) murmur. It can face down the wind and say words like ‘Pshaw! Out of my way, wind!’. For about 30 miles or so, before the battery runs out. The more you pedal, and the lower the speed setting on the bike, and the further you go.

I hated it. It was impure, a blasphemy against the Great Truth of Bicycles, which is: suffering equals distance. Any pleasure comes afterwards. But then, as months went by without cycling at all, my knees began to hurt. And a nagging foot injury stopped me walking very far. I needed to exercise but I was nervous of taking too much out of my damaged internals.

So I began to research electric bikes. I noticed that various online friends of a similar age were buying, using and loving them. And of course, to battle those predictably unpredictable Shetland winds, what could be better?

This is something Chas Hollis of Unst Cycle Hire discovered several years ago. For the past few years one of the great attractions of Unst, as well as its cycle-friendly road network, phenomenal scenery and general northernmostness, is the availability of electric bikes to hire for £15 a day. There are ordinary bikes too, and in Lerwick Eric Brown Cycles at the Grantfield Garage offers a large selection of mountain bikes, road and touring bicycles. Bikes can also be hired at the Sumburgh Hotel, the Shetland Bike Project and P&T Coaches, also in Unst. There is even a tandem for hire at Grantfield, which is another way of cheating that Shetland wind! Get your stoker to do all the work.

Anyway, the fateful day came when I put my quibbles aside, took Susan’s bike (step-through frame; how unmanly! But on the other hand, how convenient...) and set off into a blustery headwind, up the Clavie and around my usual 12-miles Northmavine Circular route (go to Map My Ride or the website for lots more Shetland runs).

I came home, exercised but intact. Knees given a workout but not aching. Opposed by the wind, but then propelled by it. Exhilarated but not exhausted.

I sat down at the computer and ordered an electric bike for myself. The time had come. And I’m in the right place for it.

Now, to install a wind generator to charge it up! That wind must be good for something...

Grantfield Garage/Eric Brown Cycles

Shetland Community Bike Project:

Cycling in Shetland information

Map My Ride routes

That wind must be good for something...

Oh, and by the way, the reason I came last in that 2011 Frankies Sportive was...honestly...because I stopped to mend a puncture. Not on my bike, but on one belonging to my son James (pictured eating his second fish supper, post-race) then pre-Great British Bake Off. That's my story and I'm sticking to it...

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