It’s no exaggeration to say the rolling hills and forests of the Scottish Borders and Dumfries & Galloway are home to some of the best cycling routes in the United Kingdom.
Indeed, there’s a reason the Enduro World Series will be returning to the Tweed Valley later this year – it’s the perfect opportunity to ride just some of the roots, rock and drops that make up the legendary 7stanes mountain bike trail network in the south of Scotland.
It’s also worth noting that the current downhill mountain biking world champion, Reece Wilson, is from the Scottish Borders and honed his skills on the trails across the region.
There’s a real cycling culture in the south of Scotland, and it extends beyond the trails. The region’s roads are perfect for those who prefer Lycra to baggy shorts, and wide, open panoramas over forest trails, so it’s no surprise the Tour of Britain will also be returning to the Scottish Borders this September.
There are no shortage of routes weaving and winding over the Southern Uplands hills, past picturesque towns, dramatic lochs, historic castles and ruined abbeys.
And with the recent boom of bikepacking and gravel riding only extending the route options, plus numerous events lined up for later this year (Covid-19 restrictions permitting), there’s never been a better time to plan a two-wheeled trip.
Here are just seven reasons why your next cycling holiday should be in the south of Scotland.
1. World-class 7stanes trail centres
There’s a whole lot of riding to be done in the south of Scotland, but the 7stanes – world-class trail centres spanning the south of the country – have really put the area on the map.
Just an hour outside Edinburgh, Glentress and Innerleithen are perhaps the best known of the 7stanes.
There are some great little glamping pods on the edge of the forest for those who want to ride from sunrise to sunset, and what’s brilliant about the 7stanes is the huge variety of tracks.
You’ll find everything from fun and flowy for riders new to berms, huge jump lines and black downhill trails for those who’ve ridden all their lives. And, it’s all well signposted.
Still, there’s more to the 7stanes than the best-known trail centres. Get away from the crowds and feel wild at Newcastleton in the Borders. Snake through forests and get beautiful views at the Forest of Ae, Mabie and Dalbeattie, near Dumfries.
Or combine a trip to scenic Glentrool with the gnarly trails of Kirroughtree and the infamous McMoab – a trail on huge granite slabs named in honour of the famous rocky trails in Utah.
2. Enjoy some of the UK’s best gravel riding
The 7stanes are home to so much great gravel riding, too. Take the lesser-visited Glentrool in Galloway, for example. There you’ll find the Big Country Trail – a 36.1-mile epic on fire roads, accessible to any level of rider and boasting jaw-dropping views of lochs Dee and Trool.
Elsewhere, you’ll find scenic gravel routes weaving through a typically rugged Scottish landscape, with the Galloway Forest Park’s native woodland backdropped by rolling hills.
Further east, the Tweed Valley is home to top-notch gravel as well, from loops connecting Glentress and Innerleithen, to wild gravel trails with panoramic views that take on parts of the Southern Upland Way, a long-distance, signposted hiking route across the Borders. At 212 miles, connecting the west and east coasts through Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders, this is the longest of Scotland’s Great Trails.
3. Explore the region’s culture on the rolling roads of the south
Perhaps the best way to take in the heritage and scenery of the south of Scotland is to ride the rolling roads, which constantly rise and fall for dreamy road riding.
This is showcased brilliantly by the Borderloop4 routes: four relatively challenging loops that start from picturesque towns across the Scottish Borders, such as Peebles, Hawick, Melrose and Kelso, and can easily be combined or extended.
The Peebles route climbs to a beautiful 450m viewpoint between the Megget and Talla Reservoirs. The Hawick route passes Traquair House (Scotland’s oldest inhabited house), while the Melrose route includes an optional stop at Abbotsford House, the former home of novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. You’ll also ride past Melrose and Dryburgh abbeys and the Mary, Queen of Scots’ visitor centre in Jedburgh, where Mary stayed for a while before, err… well, you know the story.
The 100-mile Kelso route is another beauty – home to one of the Borders’ four famous abbeys and a whole lot of hilly climbs to test the legs.
For a shorter ride, visit the routes that played a huge part in cycling history. The newly set Kirkpatrick Loop, a 10-mile road route around the stunning Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries & Galloway, celebrates the little-known inventor of the pedal-powered bicycle Kirkpatrick Macmillan. It’s a quick one, but it’s also incredibly scenic, including some forest stretches, open panoramas and an optional stop off at Kirkpatrick’s grave at the old cemetery of Keir.
Further west lies the castles and coastlines of Dumfries & Galloway. For a big day out, ride from Castle Douglas or Dalbeattie to Wigtown – a picturesque little place with a fantastic annual book festival – then along the coast through Sorbie to Garlieston on the Wigtown Bay Harbour. There are endless options for hilly routes with ocean views in this whole area, though.
4. Take on a bikepacking adventure
Bikepacking is thriving at the moment and thanks to Scotland’s right to responsible access outlined in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which also permits responsible wild camping, it’s really booming in the south of Scotland.
The organisation Bikepacking Scotland is to thank for much of this – creating a variety of routes around the country to provide inspiration, including a couple of superb routes in the Borders.
The Reiver Raid is a stunning two- to three-day loop starting from Tweedbank, running for 105 miles, following in the footsteps of the 13th century Border Reivers (they didn’t have bikes back then, unfortunately), who used to mercilessly raid towns and villages.
The route runs through the Ale Water Valley, a beautiful, quiet and frequently overlooked part of the country for cycling.
Another option is The Capital Trail, a 156-mile bikepacking loop from Portobello Beach in Edinburgh that passes Lauder, Melrose, Selkirk, Innerleithen and Peebles via the Pentland Hills. With 6,000m of climbing, it’s a route for those riders wanting to head into the hills.
Both routes were created by round-the-world cyclist and bikepacking expert Markus Stitz, who’s doing a lot for cycling across the country – though, of course, a level of self-sufficiency is required.
In Dumfries & Galloway meanwhile, it’s all about the Galloway Forest Park when it comes to bikepacking. We’ve already mentioned the stunning gravel trails in the area, but what makes Galloway so special for bikepacking is that it’s actually a designated Dark Sky Park, meaning the stars shine brightly at night here.
We’d recommend starting at the coast, riding up through Dalbeattie to the Forest Park, past Loch Grannoch and Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre, before finding somewhere to spend the night and exploring the park more fully the next day.
As ever when bikepacking, please camp responsibly and leave no trace.
5. Bike-friendly accommodation is ready and waiting
One thing that people who regularly travel with a bike will know is that it can often be a bit of a hassle trying to find a place to stay and store your bike overnight. Drying out your gear can be a nuisance, too.
Happily, VisitScotland offers a solution to this with the Cyclists Welcome Scheme. It’s a great way to guarantee you won’t be looked at like a maniac when you ask to store your beloved ride in a safe space inside the hotel, or for asking if staff have any idea what to do with all that filthy gear of yours.
Look out for the Cyclists Welcome Scheme logo when you’re booking – there are plenty of accommodation options in Dumfries & Galloway and in the Scottish Borders, as well as cafes and restaurants on the scheme in southern Scotland.
Any hotel or hostel that’s part of the scheme will have a space for drying clothing and can provide packed lunches, late meals and early breakfasts, so you can ride when you want and stay well fed. They should also be able to make local route suggestions.
6. Hire an expert guide
The benefits of hiring a local guide are endless. Not only does it mean you don’t have to stare at maps or a GPS bike computer all day – “no, we’re definitely on the right path,” your buddy insists, as you watch the trail fade into the forest in front of you – you also get a day of riding tailored to your level and inside knowledge of the best routes and lunch spots.
On top of that, you can tap in to all those tidbits that only a local guide will know, which can so often turn a trail from just a road or a bunch of rocks and roots into a hidden gem and a little piece of history.
7. If it’s good enough for the world’s best…
We’ve already mentioned that the best cyclists in the world are no stranger to the south of Scotland. It was recently announced the Tour of Britain will be returning to the Scottish Borders this year, with stage seven running from Hawick to Edinburgh on 11 September, and one of the most popular events in elite mountain biking, the Enduro World Series, is also set to return.
The Tweed Valley will be buzzing to welcome back the EWS for the first time in six years, as will the riders. The valley holds a special place in the heart of anyone who’s been following the event for the past decade.
That’s not the only cycling spectacle. The annual TweedLove festival is a celebration of all things cycling and the community around it. It takes place in September and includes the Tour of the Borders, a sportive classic open to all over 16, and ridden entirely on closed roads.
The hotly anticipated Raiders Gravel Galloway is also set to take place in October. With three gravel stages of 40 to 50 miles each, it’s going to be a stunning ride through the Galloway Forest Park and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere.
Then there’s the small matter of the UCI Cycling World Championships, which are coming to Scotland across 10 magical days in August 2023. You can find out more about the championships and how to get involved yourself here.