The Central Belter: Scotland’s Longest Bikepacking Trail
Upon its completion earlier this year, the Central Belter became Scotland’s longest off-road bikepacking trail. To celebrate its launch, trail creator, Bikepacking Scotland founder and Apidura Ambassador, Markus Stitz, held a mass start event in September that saw a group of bikepackers attempt the trail for the first time. We caught up with Markus after the finish to discover more.
Photography Markus Stitz
What is the Central Belter?
The Central Belter is a new bikepacking trail, starting and finishing on Portobello Beach in Edinburgh. In a way it has two purposes; first it is a trail that takes people through some of Scotland’s magnificent scenery and historic places, many of which wouldn’t necessarily appear on a ‘normal’ itinerary. It also connects five well-known existing bikepacking routes; the Capital Trail, Reiver Raid, Highland Trail 550, Cairngorms Loop and Deeside Trail. Parts of these trails are included in the Central Belter, but it is by combining all of them that makes it the ultimate bikepacking journey.
Can you outline the route?
The route starts in Edinburgh and runs through East Lothian, before joining the Capital Trail route through the Scottish Borders. From here the trail is a wild roller coaster, through the heart of the Central Belt, to the start of the West Highland Way. Stirling marks the entrance to the Highland section of the Central Belter, passing through Glen Ample, Glen Ogle and the start of the Highland Trail 550. It follows the Highland Trail until the shores of Loch Rannoch, then tracks into the wilderness of the Cairngorms, connecting with the Cairngorms Loop at Gaick Pass. After passing what is possibly Scotland’s most beautiful glen, Glen Feshie, the route crosses the Grampians, then follows the Angus coast and Fife coast until Lower Largo, where it climbs back into the Lomond Hills near Falkland. The final stretch crosses the Firth of Forth over the Forth Road Bridge, then follows the coast back into Edinburgh to the finish at Portobello Beach.
How did you decide upon this part of Scotland to build a route?
I’ve lived in Edinburgh for nine years, and so I’ve also spent a long time jumping on trains or driving in a car to get up to the Highlands. When I started developing the Capital Trail, I realised how much good riding there is around the city, and how little people know about it. When I came back from cycling around the world (on a singlespeed bike), I discovered that there’s heaps of great riding towards the west of Edinburgh, and that’s when the idea for the Central Belter was born. I like developing routes in parts of Scotland which are not on the tourist map, to help those regions get more visitors, and at the same time I think it will help visitors discover a real country, not just a tourist region. With Edinburgh accounting for most of the people coming into the country, it makes sense to start here.
What makes it so good for bikepacking?
The variety! It’s not just a bikepacking route, it is also a journey. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from riding great trails and views, but in my eyes bikepacking is also a great way to discover a country in its full depth, and that’s what the Central Belter is for. It includes some great urban riding, fantastic cafes, bike shops, and architecture. But I also understand why people come to Scotland in the first place – for the remoteness – and so that also forms a good chunk of the trail.
How long did the route take to create and finalise?
It took more than a year. I rode all of the trails first, often without looking at a map first, so I was forced to explore more. Creating a trail over 1,200km was a very tough task, especially considering that I didn’t want to replicate anything that currently exists. In the end I didn’t have time for a final ride before the group start event, which meant that this year’s race was always going to be an interesting experience. Riding it for the first time at the group start, I discovered whether the full route worked as a whole, and, with some very small exceptions to modify for the future, it did.
Where can riders sleep? Is camping necessary, or are there alternatives?
That choice is the rider’s. You can camp pretty much everywhere for one night in Scotland, as long as you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. There are two bothies on the route, one of which is hidden well away. There’s also a good choice of hostels, official campsites and hotels.
What is the terrain like?
As an estimate, I would say it’s 80% off-road, 20% on-road. There are a few hike-a-bike sections in there as well, the main ones being the climb to Gypsy Glen in the Borders, and the section from Glen Feshie to Braemar in the Cairngorms, but in wet conditions there could be much more. At least 20% of the off-road sectors are single track.
What was the thinking behind holding a ‘Group Start’ event, based around the Central Belter route?
What attracts me most to bikepacking is the social component, and as I mapped most of the route alone in smaller bits, it was great to have the chance to ride it in full with other people, and most importantly get more feedback on it.
Is the emphasis on speed, or exploration?
Whatever people like. It’s a great route to explore, and would make a great two-week bikepacking holiday – or even longer than that, as there’s loads to discover along the way. If people prefer to ride it as fast as possible, the route offers a great challenge. I cycled it in 7 days, 10 hours and 51 minutes, but the more significant number was the 24,000m of ascent. That’s quite a lot, but the climbing is a key ingredient in getting a nice view. As the Central Belter is mostly off-road, it is much safer than routes like the North Coast 500, for example, which get a lot of traffic during the summer.
What do you hope riders will get out of riding the Central Belter route?
I want poepie to understand that there’s much more to bikepacking in Scotland than just riding the Highlands. We have brilliant access laws here, which enable people, if they ride sustainably and responsibly, to go pretty much everywhere in the country and have an adventure, and the Central Belter utilises that. It’s a proper bikepacking adventure, and the real surprise is how much there is to be discovered in one of the most populated regions in Scotland.
Can anyone do it at anytime?
No. As a whole the route requires an amount of bikepacking experience, and the winter season is out of bounds for most parts of the route, unless people are super fit and can handle the Scottish weather well.
However, the route passes many train stations along the way, most of which are within easy reach of bigger cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, so it is quite easy for people to spilt the route up and do sections of it at a time. I would always advise carrying a GPS communication device for safety purposes too, especially as the remoter sections don’t have any cellphone coverage.
Will there be more Central Belter group start events in the future?
Yes, I am just deciding on a date for 2018. It will likely be in May or June, when the days are longer, and the weather is a bit more settled.
Full Central Belter route
Read more about the Central Belter and other bikepacking routes in Scotland at bikepackingscotland.com