All photos courtesy of James Irvine.
With summer just around the corner, many of us are dusting off our bikes and hitting the roads (or pavements). I spoke to James Irvine about his experiences cycling in Shetland. Many people ask me about cycling here, and as I’m more of the cycle-around-taking-Instagram-videos kinda cyclist, I thought I’d better consult an expert on this one.
If you are thinking to come to Shetland on two wheels rather than four, then this is for you. Or, if you are a Shetlander who has a bike, or is thinking to get a bike, then this is also for you. And, for all the dedicated four-wheelers out there, this is your chance to sit back and enjoy the ride!
There are plenty of options when it comes to a cycling holiday in Shetland. You can bring a bike with you, or hire locally. Either way, once you arrive there are plenty of places to explore. And with fantastic road surfaces, and over 1,000 miles of road to cover, there is something for everyone, from the experienced hardened-cyclist right down to the novice who is simply along for the ride.
Following James on Instagram (@jamesirvine_), I’m in awe of his adventures. His hobbies include hiking, kayaking, surfing, camping, coasteering, wild-swimming and rock climbing. A real thrill seeker, I immediately feel for his mother and wonder how she copes with his antics? I imagine a certain sense of resignation as he heads out the door with his wetsuit and go-pro camera.
A quick chat with James:
Off-road cycling or road cycling?
James tells me that for him, he enjoys “a bit of everything. When I was younger, I did a lot more mountain biking and BMXing but recently I’ve started doing a lot more road-cycling, more for the fitness side of things, that and you can go out alone without having to gather friends”.
How many bikes do you have?
“Five. Well, five and a half if you include the unicycle."
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done a bike?
“Broken a few bones.
“There are a few things. I jumped [on a bike] off the bus shelter at the Thule [public bar] impressing the drunks.
“I tore my AC joint in my shoulder [The AC joint is where the collarbone meets the highest point of the shoulder blade] on holiday in Austria. I was riding my mountain bike over some bigger jumps which was not very clever in the gusty winds. This ended my trip prematurely, and I had to come home.
"Then I had to wire up Aaron’s shed for him" he says, nodding towards my husband.
Is Shetland good for those in search of a thrill?
“It definitely lacks good mountain biking trails. There are lots of decent tracks, old peat roads and access tracks but there are no designated trails. To create these, a lot of time and money would need to be invested, and that’s one of the reasons why I started road cycling."
The road between Voe and Aith, known as the Alps, or the B9071.
What are the top cycle routes?
“The best road is the Alps [a term locally used for the stretch of road, B9071, between Voe on the east side and Aith on the west side].
“We’re lucky to have a lot of single-track roads so you can cycle all day and not have to face the traffic on the main roads.”
Considering the question a bit more – “The south end is good too – around the Spiggie loop as it’s relatively flat and all single-track”.
I’ve come to believe that James is in fact mad. As mentioned, he embarked on a gruelling 100-mile cycle, on one of the windiest days we had seen since the previous winter – all in the name of ‘fun’. The route he took included some of Shetland’s stunning scenery and ever-changing landscapes – from the peatland heart of Shetland, and the furthest point from the sea (three miles), to the coastal edges and cliffs at Eshaness in Shetland’s north-west corner. Travelling from our main town, Lerwick, the route incorporates the parishes of Nesting, Northmavine, Aithsting, Whiteness, Weisdale and Tingwall. Who needs the North Coast 500?
Looking down the Kames across Pettawater, on the A970.
James describes this route as one of his ‘bucket list goals’. Choosing a cold, windy day in September to embark on this challenge he explains that he had meant to cycle a 100-mile route all summer and that time was running out (I spoke to him in November), so he says that he just "just went for it."
Describing the route, he says that it’s quite difficult to accumulate a lot of miles [in Shetland] as the island’s size governs you. The mainland is about 60 miles long from north to south, and at some points is only a few hundred yards wide – it’s said you can throw a stone between the North Sea and the North Atlantic at Mavis Grind – or the Narrow Gateway – which sits on the border between Delting and Northmavine.
To get the miles in (and ensure a scenic cycle), James took in the Nesting loop on the way north and the Alps (B9071) on the way south.
“It was quite a challenging cycle”, he explains. “There was a strong headwind on the way there.
“It was stupid really, once you get there [Eshaness], you realise that you have to get back! “Thankfully the café at Breiwick was open, so I got a coffee and cake. Luckily the wind blew me back.
“It was four hours to get to Eshaness and two hours to get home again!” An indication of the wind conditions here.
Since completing this, James has added many more challenges to his tally. Over the Christmas period he completed the Festive 500 which he finished on the 30th December with a 60 km ride “through the wind and rain, accompanied by a mild hangover.”
More recently he has taken part in his first serious competitive road-race, under the watchful eye of local coach and cyclist, Robin Atkinson.
Competing in Peebles earlier this month, James completed the 55-mile circuit, finishing up in a respectable position mid-pack in a group of about 60 other experienced competitors. For a first go at serious cycling, James describes the experience as tougher than he had anticipated, and a great experience for his next big challenge.
The following day he competed in a time-trial competition nearby, the opportunity to take part in two events made the cost of travelling to the mainland worthwhile and an invaluable experinece.
Representing the islands
James is now preparing for his toughest challenge to date – the Island Games in Gibraltar. Held every two years, this event sees some of the toughest competition attending from islands all over the world. James and Robin Atkinson will be flying the flag for Shetland at the event which is set to kick-off in seven weeks.
I know that these serious cyclists do everything, including leg-shaving to streamline their bodies. When I asked James whether he would be shaving his legs for the event, he said we would have to "wait and see". But, whether he shaves them or not, I would like to wish both James and the wider Shetland team every success at the Games.
Training at the moment is quite tough, and James is currently getting between 100 - 180 miles a week around Shetland's roads, so if you see him out training, remember to give him a wave!
James’ Shetland bucket list cycling-goals
Pondering this question he says that he would love to complete “the four corners [of Shetland] – Sumburgh, Sandness, Fethaland and Nesting, basically the four compass points of the island [mainland]. That route is about 180 miles.”
James' advice for cycling in Shetland:
What do I need to bring?
Any other tips?
“Yes, bananas are a great way to refuel, the wrappers are compostable, and you can make your pals slip on the skins!”
Should you have a bell on your bike?
It's easy to bring a bike on the Northlink ferry, to book a passage visit here.
You can hire and repair bikes in Shetland from here and here. Hire is also available in the island of Unst from Unst Cycle Hire (T: +44 (0)1957 711254).
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.