Another advantage of velomobiles is the fact that you can ride longer distances per day than on an upright bike. Anyway, most of the riders can. The first day of our trip we manage to cycle more than 300 k to the Netherlands. Before we take the ferry in Ijmuijden we stop for a last check up at the manufacturer in Dronten.
From Newcastle we ride alongside the Hadrians Wall westbound. During the next six weeks we will take the ferries to and from the islands 11 times. Because not only the Inner Hebrides such as Arran, the pninsula Kintyre, Islay and Skye, but also the Outer Hebrides with South Uist, North Uist, Harris and Lewis will be explored on our route. Not to forget the Orkneys in the very north of the country. Afterwards we ride via Inverness alonside Loch Ness, through the Cairngorms National Park along the coast via Aberdeen to Edinburgh. As we have underestimated the daily range we end up with a couple of spare days until we need to be back for the ferry. We take the chance to visit the popular Lake District in the northwest of England. From there we cross back to Newcastle and having reached the continent, we cycle in two days back home.
After 46 days of travelling, incl. one rest day, we will have cycled 5,074 k and 42,220 m altitude. The average speed is 22 k/h, the longest day stage is 307 k.
Monday, May 21, 6 am. Whitsun. Wide awake we slip into our well packed bicycles. Still a bit fresh outside but the weathergods smile on us. We are a little bit excited as this is our first time travelling by velomobiles. Will they be accepted as bicycles on the ferries without discussion? Are the Scottish roads as bad as being told? And will we not be bothered by the Scottish weather in our carbon boxes? Many questions to be answered during the next few weeks.
The Netherlands. Dream for every cyclist. Highway-like cycle paths offside the motorists, as well as cute little towns make you love pedalling. Even riding through cities like Amsterdam is no problem, because cyclists are granted far more space (well, mostly, see pic 2) and rights than in Germany. We look for fellow velomobilists in the home-country of these kind of bikes. Only once we will meet another ‘velonaut’ near Amsterdam.
Neither the ferryman who takes us across a river nor the staff at the ferry terminal in Ijmuijden take any special notice of our velomobiles. Everything seems normal to them. “Bicycles over there, on the left side, please”, is the order. Tomorrow we will be in England.
… are the words of a friendly gentleman behind the garden gate. We explain, that we do not need any petrol, but the well trimmed lawn seems to cry out for a tent. Without a word, but an inviting gesture he opens the gate for us. Ron and Alison are wonderful hosts. As experienced backpackers they know, what tired travellers need most. They bring out a cup of coffee, invite us to use their shower and serve a cooked meal. Next morning, after a full English breakfast they send us back to the road with best wishes.
The route along the historical Hadrians Wall equals a ride on a roller coaster. In wide swings we ride up and down. 14% ascents and slopes are the rule rather than the exception.
Every now and then we meet people who admire our velomobiles. Other than in Germany they do not hide their interest, but come up to us for a friendly chat about the bikes. At the end of our trip we will have answered the same questions a thousand times. The English and Scottish people seem to be far more open than our German fellowmen.
The second night we stay with warmshowers-hosts in Troon, near Ayr. An Australian couple with a tandem bike is also part of the party. A convivial evening amongst cyclists. Next morning we take the ferry across to Arran.
Ready for the islands
From Adrossan the ferry takes us over to Brodick on Arran. The road on the east side of the island is tiring, even for cyclists with electric assistance. The west side with view over to Kintyre is far more flat. Only the wind blows quite heavily. Being on the road for a week now, we have not seen a single dark cloud in the sky. Are all the stories about the Scottish weather faked?
In Lochranza, in the north of Arran, we stop at the old castle, before we set over to Clanoig on Kintyre.
There again we face the same situation. The east, with old gnarled trees aside the roads ist hilly, while the west side shows long sandy beaches.
Outside Campbeltown we are stopped by a police patrol. The friendly gentlemen are concerned about our safety. We chat a while, before they let us ride on. But not without securing a blind spot on the road for us. Very relaxed, these guys.
No whisky for us
The very evening we cross over to Islay, the island where many of the peaty whiskys come from. On arriving it is dawning already. The owner of the little shop in the harbour, who also owns the hotel and the local pub, invites us to camp in front of his house directly beside the harbour. No sooner said than done. Nice place, really, if there weren’t these little black pests, the midges. Coming out in the morning and evening hours they attack innocent people. Other than mosquitos, the midges do not sting but bite which is no less annoying. We better get inside the pub for a beer.
The annual whisky festival is taken place on Islay this week. We just drive along some destilleries, not taking the time for extended visits and tastings. Firstly, we cannot store whisky bottels in our velomobiles and secondly we need to keep fit to ride.
We find a beautiful nature campsite in the dunes near Port Ellen in the south of the island. Finest sand beach in front of us with sunset over the sea, while the full moon rises over white cottages in the back. Pure romance. And tonight without midges.
True panacea against midges
Back on the mainland we ride towards Loch Lomond an the Trossachs National Park. We take the road through the north of Kintyre through Tarbert and along the north rim of Loch Fyne. In Inverary we get us the true panacea against midges. The body lotion ‘Avon Skin-so-soft’. Faith can move mountains, let’s hope it drives away the midges as well. Later we add two mosquito head-nets which turn out to be the only effective weapon against these critters.
Loch Lomond in the Trossachs National park is quite impressive, whereas the road leading to it is not much fun for cyclists. The area is popular so we need to stand up to the heavy motor traffic. The little village Luss, directly on the lake, is pretty but full of tourists.
This evening as we happily lie in our tent we think the weather has changed. But there are no raindropps falling down on the tent, it is some thousand midges who dance on the fabric. Fortunately they cannot come in.
They do exist - clouds
We continue northbound through the Western Highlands. Although thick clouds cover the sky we do not get wet. The route leads us over the busy main road but some of the queues behind us is not caused by our low speed but by the people in the cars who keep taking pictures of us instead of passing.
The ferry which should take us from Oban to the Outer Hebrides has been cancelled for the next three weeks. So we ride further north on the mailnlad to Fort Williams, passing Castle Stalker, a ruin on a tiny island which has served as backdrop in the film Highlander and others. Scotland as it could not be more typical. Near Glenfinnan monument which was built in honour of Bonnie Price Charlie we find another very popular attraction: The Glenfinnan Viaduct, famous railway bridge over which Harry Potter rushed towards Hogwarts. Still today a steam train puffs over this bridge twice a day for the tourists. We missed it.
Isle of Skye
Sleeping with the chickens
From Mallaig we cross over to Ardvassar in the south of the Isle of Sky. Again no campsite in sight. We are lucky, Donna, who we met by chance, invites us to camp in her garden, right beside the henhouse. As we ride into the yard in our soapboxes, Donna’s husband thinks some playmates of his 12-year-old son come along.
Who ever visits Scotland must not leave out the Isle of Skye. Although the asphalt is as rough as in most parts of the country we roll over the amazingly quiet roads. The panaorama is breathtaking. The mountains are not really high, but from our low view they seem impressive enough. While stopping for a photo a man jumps out of his car and asks us how we are doing in our velomobiles. The first who knows what kind of bikes we ride. No wonder, the man has a friend in Wales who also rides a velomobile.
In Uig harbour from where we will cross over to Lochmaddy, North Uist, Fritz detects a puncture in his rear wheel. No problem, the repair will only take a few minutes. But as soon as he has pulled a pallet under his bike, the boarding begins. Better to stop the mending, the velomobile must board the ferry with a hole in the wheel if the boat shall not leave without us.
To the hospital
One road only, a single track, leads us to the south of South Uist, Outer Hebrides. Numerous little ponds up to medium sized lakes line up beside the road through the peatland. The constant wind does not have much affect on us as we are well covered and too low for the wind.
In the very south of the island we find a nice little campsite. Next morning we have to ride the same road back north. No big thing, we enjoy to ride through this landscape a second time.
On North Uist Fritz feels like having an appendicitis. Our campsite host drives us to the only hospital far and wide. The doctor can give all-clear signal. Must be an indigestion. Next day Fritz feels much better again. Did he just simulate? We go to explore the north parts of the Outer Hebrides. On Harris we cannot believe being in the very north of Europe. White sandbeaches and turquoise sea under the shining sun. Are we dreaming?
Lewis offers some huge stone circles. They are said to be bigger and older than the famous circle of Stonehenge. The broch of Dun Carloway is also on our tourist schedule. So much culture makes hungry. We refrain from cooking ourselves tonight, we will go out for a stylish meal: Fish & Chips. Delicous!
The days on the Outer Hebrides have passed already. In Tabert we take the ferry back to the Isle of Skye. We ride around the north side which is even more spectacular than the south of the island. Towering rocks on the one cascading cliffs on the other side. And inbetween white cottagea glancing in the sun in front of the deep blue sea.
This time we can cross a bride over to the mainland. After a short detour to Eilean Donan Castle we head for Great Britains highest mountain pass, the pass of the cattle, to Applecross. In hairpin bends, like the passes in the Alps, we creep uphill with up to 20% slopes. An English girl, cycling with trailer and dog has a problem with the coupling. Fritz tries to fix it, but it looks quite worn out. We hope the girl will make it home.
The only islands which are left on our plan are the Orkneys. To get there we still need to cycle a good bit of distance. Along the rugged western coastline we ride around the thousand meter high Beinn Eighe and enjoy the stillness of the mirror-like Loch Maree.
The front tyres on Fritz’ velomobil are used up. Under these conditions with rough asphalt and numerous potholes which we cannot avoid due to our three wheel-bikes, we wonder how these little 20-inch-wheels have survived so long. Like on every journey we do carry some of the spare parts you cannot get in every store. With fresh tyres we continue the tour to Ullapool. Our evening beer is well deserved tonight.
Fritz had the first chain tear already in the Netherlands, even before we had reached our destination Scotland. And it should happen again and again. This always means that you have to unload all the luggage, open the maintainance hatch and pull the long chain through a tube inside the velomobile from back to front before you can close the chain again. A velomobile chain is approximately three times longer than a normal bicycle chain. In addition you cannot see whether the chain is twisted inside the tube. Try and error is the motto. Mostly it works.
But not only Fritz had to face this problem. Some days after his last issue, Brigitte breaks down with a torn chain. A friendly dustman shows us the way to Scott and his little bicycle workshop. The greenhouse in his garden as well as the cottage are packed with bikes and spare parts. Naturally Scott can supply us with matching chain links, so we can continue our route after this short delay.
We have reached the north coast of Scotland. Our route leads us from Durness to the east. But every dream has to come to an end. And so we finally have to cope with real Scottish weather. It gets cold an wet. In addition a heavy storm litterally blows us into our AirBnB accomodation near the harbour in Scrabster. All ferries to and from the Orkneys are tied up safely in the harbour. No transfer today. We laze around in our room, before we can risk a little walk down to the harbour in the evening. The beer tasts good, not only when the sun shines.
Next morning the sea seems to have calmed down. Nevertheless the crossing is rough enough and the captain chooses the route inbetween the islands instead of the usual outside way around the ‘Old Man of Hoy’. It must still be too stormy out there.
The loadmaster does not really know what kind of vehicles our bikes are and asks us, whether we already have used Scottish ferries. After we assure him that the velomobiles are bicycles he sends us without any more discussion onto the boat. They find a place under the front of a big truck semi trailer. We hope its landing gear is strong enough. Most of the Scottish island ferries take bicycles free of charge.
"Where is the police when you need them?", ...
… a member of the facebook group ‘Orkneys Past and Present’ asks after watching a video one of the group-members has taken. It shows us rolling at walking pace through the narrow lanes of Stromness. Another one fears to be carried away by the air suction we cause. Warnings about hellish trafic in town follow. Much later, as we pedal through the numerous (pre-)historic monuments of the Orkneys, we learn about this funny discussion on facebook.
Slowly the sky clears up again, but the icecold wind keeps driving us back into our little nutshells. Nevertheless we visit the stone circles, the stoneage village Skara Brae, as well as the Italian Chapel, built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II.
In front of the impressive St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall the head police officer of the town speaks to us. During a nice chat he twitters to his collegues on the mainland to watch out for us and help us when needed. Realy nice people, the Scots.
Orkney Ring of Brodgar
Meanwhile we have reached Inverness. Our GPS leads us over more or less velomobile-suitable ways to Karen, our Warmshowers host in town. She tells us about swimming in Loch Ness even during wintertime. OK, she would wear a wetsuit, but still, we are not as tough as that.
We have crossed the sea from the Orkneys to Gills, passing John O’Groats and following the coast down to Inverness.
The landscape is not quite as pretty as in the west. Green fields, full of broom fall down to the sea, ending up in a nawrrow sandy beach. Maybe we are just spoiled by the western panorama.
We follow the east rim of Loch Ness to the south. No sight of Nessy, either she is asleep or she is afraid of our velomobiles. The weather is changing. Strong headwind accompanied by heavy rain makes cycling on upright bicycles hard to bear. We are better off.
In Spean Bridge we take the A 86 which leads us through the northern Caingorms to Elgin. The cathedrale there is the most impressive church ruin we have seen so far.
The time has come. We are in the land of whisky and have not seen the inside of a single destillery. Just as we ride up, Glen Grant offers a guided tour around. We take the chance to learn a lot about this golden drink. To let the alcohol from the tasting evaporate, we go for a little walk through the destillery’s spacious park.
It is not always wise to choose the little quiet roads. We ride through pretty fishing villages which are connected by roads totally unsuitable for cyclists. They are covered by thick layers of loose chippings and ascend up to 17%. No chance, we need to push the bikes up the hills.
On our way to Aberdeen we suddenly find ourselves on the brand new four-lane highway. Due to roadworks it narrows down to one lane per direction. We turn up to be quite a traffic obstruction. Thank God the motorists are very relaxed. Patiently they hold out behind us until we can escape on to the lane which is closed for the traffic. Fresh asphalt only for us. That’s fun-cycling!
In Aberdeen we find a bed for the night at Andrew’s home. He ist the only velomobilist we meet in Great Britain. Of course the velomobiles have to pose for a photo before they may sleep together in the garage.
Tea time with the Queen?
Once more we cross the Cairngorms. In Banchory we need to make a longer stop due to a strange noise Fritz hears in the sprocket. The guys from the bicycle store have no experience with velomobiles, so they cannot help him. But as they see how skilled Fritz solves the problem they immediatly offer him a job. Should we take this into consideration? Let’s move on, before we do.
Coming in from the east riding towards Braemar the Caingorms offer a beautiful landscape. Probably we will not make it on time for tea with the Queen at Balmoral Castle. So we better stop in Ballater at a neat little café where we enjoy tea and scones with homemade clotted cream. Yummy!
The Queen cannot receive us, once again we have to camp. Wild camping is allowed almost everywhere in Scotland but our cycles are no off-road vehicles and the battery needs regular charging. So we normally stay at a campsite. Which is highly recommended here in the mountains. We do prefer to take a hot shower instead of bathing in a freezing cold stream. Even for breakfast we stay inside the tent, cuddled up in our sleeping bag.
Initially we wanted to follow the coastline down to the south. Until we received an invitation from Stirling. Yann who runs a hostel in town has followed us on facebook. He wants to buy himself a velomobile and as these vehicles are pretty rare in Great Britain as well, he wants to take the chance to see them live. We are well on track, too often we have denied an invitation, this time we will accept it. After Yann has pedalled a while in Fritz’ DFXL he does not want to get out of it at all. In the evening while having a beer Yann peppers us with all kind of questions about velomobiles. Some weeks later he himself will be a member of the velonauts-family.
Passing the Kelpies, these huge horse-head sculptures, our route leads aside the Union Canal to Edinburgh. We hesitate as we drown into the sparsly lit tunnel. The cobble stone path slopes down sideways to the canal. It is moist and slippy from the water dripping down the walls and the handrail is so high that we would easily fit through in our low velomobiles, if we would slip. Creepy vision to be caught in the velomobile, clicked into the pedals while drowning into the water. Carefully we advanced throut the tunnel.
The next barrier shows up in the form of a locked gate across the path. Luckely two pushbikers come along and help us to lift over the heavy bikes. Being on our own we would have had to unload them to be able to heave them over. Sometines you are better off with “normal” bikes. You pass through almost everywhere.
Little racing machines
For the first time during this trip we are rejected at a campsite. Fully booked in Berwick-upon-Tweed. We end up at a little hidden farm-campsite near by. The few campers supply us with bananas and other delicacies. They recommend a walk up the hill from where we enjoy a splendid view around the countryside at sunset. Next morning we need to be on time for riding over to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, because the road is open only during low tide. Unfortunately our little cigars are not able to swim. A lady on the island offers us to park the velomobiles safely in her back garden so we can look around the old cathedral and the excavations without worries. How nice of her! This gives us the chance to walk around together without one of us staying with the bikes. Maybe we are too cautious but we have experienced people grabbing at the velomobiles in a way that does the sensitive shell no good.
We are too fast. If we would head directly for Newcastle now we would have almost one week left before the boat via Amsterdam leaves. We decide to make a detour into the very north-west of England, to the Lake District. We take the route through Kielder Forest, such a lonley part of the country that even sheep are rare. Beautiful landscape! The campsite just behind the English border is not at all lonley but very frequented. Even the Scottish pests, the midges, dare to cross the border over to England to destroy our joy of outdoor life.
The fantastic weather seems to follow us on this trip. Here too, in Cumbria, Northern England’s popular holiday region, the sun keeps on shining. On Ullswater lake we find a nice spot on one of the busy campsites, directly on the shore. Other campers splash about in the lake, only we do not dare to hop into the water. It is not cold at all. We could have left our swimsuits at home. Not a single time we took the chance for a swim although we sweated a lot during the days. Understandable in the north of Scotland, where the sea looks inviting, while being icecold, but here …?
The Lake District National Park is very busy. Holiday time in England with lots of sun. Campsite beside campsite, the towns offer the usual cafés and facilities for tourists. Hundreds of cars queue through the narrow roads. Still, the area with numerous lakes and green hills is well worth visiting. We need to say goodbye now, time to head for Newcastle.
Heading for Newcastle we end up on the multilane A 66. Normally these highways are not too bad to ride as the motorists can use the second lane for overtaking. Anyway, that is the way it used to work for us. But here nobody seems to care about the little soapboxes on the side of the road. After being passed dangerously close by a 40-tonner truck for the third time, Brigitte refuses to even stay another minute on this road. After having pedalled almost 4,500 k without problems with the motorized traffic there is no need to let ourselves be overrun on the last couple of meters.
The road we now have to take looks more like a private driveway. Instead of cattle grids gates keep the lifestock in their fields. The few people who pass through have to get out of the car and open the gates. The route is hilly but once more very scenic. Safe and sound we roll into Newcastle.
Inbetween huge construction machines and road trucks we tigh up our little vehicles on the ferry. Our last passage is due to come. We check the ropes thouroughly as the boat trip will take all night. The sea is calm, in Amsterdam (Ijmuijden) we receive back our bikes without any scratches.
Will the cat be happy?
Yet, at the latest, as we roll off the ferry in Amsterdam we are in homecoming-mode. Already since last week we have often been thinking about home. We look forward to our house, the garden and the cat, who had to hold out without us for six long weeks. Will she also be happy to have us back?
We head for Lüdinghausen where we will stay with friends for the last night of our journey. Right through the middle of Amsterdam we wriggle our velomobiles over the streets. It is bustling but not stressful as we share the street with other cyclists. The few cars coming along need to stand back as here in the Netherlands bicycles take priority.
The day is hot and exhausting. Just before we pass the German border we charge Brigittes battery once more. A friendly lady allows us to tap some of her electricity. After 14 hours and 259 k we reach our friends’ house around midnight. One little beer is enough to lull us into our dreams.
Next morning Heike and Jo send us on our last stage. 145 k are no issue for Brigittes battery, no need to stop for charging on the way. In the early afternoon of July 6 we happily roll into our home-yard, the starting point of this journey.
… we look back on this tour. Our first one with velomobiles, but surely not the last. Velomobiles are absolutely suited for travelling. If you accept the fact that you have to travel (almost) allways on own wheels, because trains and airplanes are excluded apart from sending the velos as freight.
Each one separately in his own velomobile instead of together on a tandem-bike. Due to the electric assist in Brigittes bike we could pedal together without one of us needing to wait for the other all the time. Brigitte has never believed that she could share Fritz’ enthusiasm for recumbent bikes. Until she herself has experienced how wonderfully comfortable the seats are. Nothing hurts anymore. Which upright cyclist can claim that after a real long day stage?
Even the security aspect is out of the question, if you ask us. Although people allways argue about the low height of the vehicles, their volume in combination with the bright colours make them well visible. We get the impression that the motorists grant us more space than touring on upright bikes.
We were so lucky with the weather. Even though we also felt warm and cosy in our nutshells on colder days. You do not feel the cold, you do not get wet and even the wind cannot harm you.
Often we have asked ourselves whether we are not made for long-term cycle trips. Because, as soon as the second half of the journey begins we start thinking about home. No matter how exciting and wonderful the trip might be. Maybe it is because we have scheduled the trip for a certain amount of days beforehand. However, this first journey in our velomobiles will stay unforgotten. And it has confirmed us that riding a velomobile is addictive. Next year we will ride again.
Yes, the cat was happy to have us back.