Two Bridges – an Edinburgh 50 miler on National Cycle Network route 76

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Sustrans National Cycle Network route 76 is 211.2miles long and runs from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Kirkcaldy, via Falkirk and Stirling, and runs alongside both sides of the Forth Estuary.

The Two Bridges is an unofficial route that starts in Edinburgh, takes you over the Forth Road Bridge, alongside the Forth to Kincardine and across the Kincardine Bridge, then back to Edinburgh.  The route is open to interpretation and variables, but most people agree it must obviously include crossing the two bridges, and you can go either way around of course.

It should be noted there is a lovely cycle path across the Forth Road Bridge, but on the Kincardine Bridge you’re in with the cars, but it is much shorter.

Like all Sustrans routes it is, as they say, suitable for most types of cycles, although they don’t specify which are actually suitable, or not, for specific routes within their guides or on their maps.  Personally, having now attempted this on my carbon road bike with skinny tyres, and having had to get off and walk what I considered to be unsafe sections, I would argue that (at minimum) you need a gravel bike, see photo below:

There are however many other road cyclists who have done the route without issue, no doubt.  Bits of it scared the bejesus out of me, and the road is one hell of a scary option if you wish to avoid some off road sections, and don’t even get me started on the ridiculously steep cobbled hill!  Nobody in their right mind would even attempt to cycle down that.

Sustrans advise:

‘We have taken all responsible steps to ensure that these routes are safe and achievable by people with a reasonable level of fitness. However, all outdoor activities involve a degree of risk. To the extent permitted by law, Sustrans accepts no responsibility for any accidents or injury resulting from following these routes. Walking and cycling routes change over time. Weather conditions may also affect path surfaces. Please use your own judgement when using the routes based upon the weather and the ability, experience and confidence levels of those in your group.’

211.2 miles, 339.9 km

Bike: 17 hours 40 minutes Walk: 70 hours 30 minutes

42.7% Traffic-free | 90.0% Asphalt | 9.4% Unsealed Firm | 0.7% Unsealed Loose

Ed: I would not agree with the surface figures quoted from my personal experience, but perhaps I just chose the whole of the 9.4% and 0.7% sections.

Above you’ll see a 30second unedited clip from a small section of the A904 on the south side of the Forth between Grangemouth and Bo’Ness.  I missed the badly signed turn for the proper route in Grangemouth and ended up in the INEOS terminal and main road out again!

Having been rescued by several other cyclists and kept on the route, and hearing their comments about following the signage or the map, I am not the only one who has got it wrong, and several times.  They all agreed it was not easy to follow and that they were used to finding lost looking cyclists.

This seems to be common of all Sustrans routes, and is a real detriment to them.  In discussions I have had with fellow cyclists, route following and surfaces are points of contention which repeatedly come into question, and most users agree that neither is always fit for purpose.  I can’t say what the situation is like in Northern Ireland, England or Wales, but in Scotland it is pretty dire by all accounts.

As I live in Edinburgh, that was where I started, but as this is a loop you could join at any point, but this may add or detract miles from that 50 miler goal of course.

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Crossing into Fife on the Forth Road Bridge

After leaving Edinburgh on the NCN route 1, and 76, just to confuse matters, you come to the Forth Road Bridge.  The main carriageway is open to buses and taxis, whilst pedestrians and cyclists have their own wide shared lanes.  All the other road traffic having been banished to the new Queensferry Crossing next door.

To the East you can see the Forth Rail Bridge, and to the West the Queensferry Crossing.  The Eastern side of the Road Bridge bridge gives a lovely view of the Rail Bridge.  The shared path is popular, and there is a counter for cycle crossings at each end which makes interesting reading.

After crossing the bridge you take the signed cycle path to Rosyth, where you will pass fairly close to the dockyard.  It should be noted that several sections of the route are very industrial and you’ll get views of docks, petrochemical plants, even the INEOS fuel processing plant, and a couple of recycling/waste/sewage farms.  Expect a few moments of holding your breath on this one, but even in the hot weather we have had of late, it hasn’t been too bad.  Surprisingly perhaps, the biggest issues with flying and biting insects are on the much nicer shared (tarmac) path sections on the south side, although some sections, both on the North and South, are overgrown and I regretted shorts when I got whipped by some stinging nettles.

Am I selling this route to you yet? Ed.

The route goes through some private estates, and these can be badly surfaced.  It is great that the landowners are happy to host a national cycle route, and to allow use their paths and tracks, but they should perhaps receive some financial assistance to upgrade the surfaces in order to make them more accessible to all potential users.

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Where there are signs these can also be a bit confusing.  Some are literally the size of a postcard wrapped around a lamppost or other signpost leg.

Some, for example see above, are simply unclear in way they fail to sign the ultimate route directions or even just East/West would do.  In the picture above, I am heading from the Kincardine Bridge towards Bo’Ness, but neither of these places appears on the three directional signs.  The signs are for the smaller towns or villages that are on the way, so unless you’ve really worked out each tiny section and what order the villages come in, this can be very confusing.  I was helped here by a gentlemen who was local and cycled the section of route I was doing regularly.  He commented that it wasn’t unusual to have to assist lost looking cyclists at this junction, and several others.

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Lunch spot viewing the Kelpies from the Grand Union Canal, a small detour at Falkirk

There are some real bonuses to the route however. You can visit the Kelpies with only a very minor detour, and I picked this spot on the Grand Union Canal, at just over half way, to have my lunch break.  I have since found out, because I wasn’t sure at the time, but the  track I’m on here is also on the network and would have also taken me back to Edinburgh along the canal.  Perhaps in due course I might try this route, but I am put off by the surfaces of these ‘off road’ alleged ‘cycle paths’.

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Blackness Castle

After negotiating Bo’ness, where you need to look for the John Muir Way as it is better signed than the NCN route, you finally approach Blackness.  As you approach, you will get a marvellous view of Blackness Castle.  Currently closed due to Covid-19, it can also be made into a small and well worthy detour, under normal circumstances.  This is one of the nicest bits of the whole route as the tarmac path is beautifully smooth and well used by local pedestrians, families of young cyclists, and even a group of mobility scooterists as I went through.  Once you get past Blackness Castle the route turns into something a little more suspect, and then enters another private estate, where it is for the most part, not bad although loose.

There is a bit of an insect issue around here on the coast, but it is still a nice section of the route for a road bike especially.  There will also be a lot of pedestrians and dog walkers, so you do need to go carefully around the corners and slow for them.  Be prepared to stop as they won’t always be paying attention for cyclists.

The sight of the Forth Rail Bridge at this point also gives you a degree of hope as your legs are beginning to tire, but don’t be deceived, you’ve still a long way to go and some of it will be off road and up hill, on gravel and through woods.  When you do get to the estates main drive DO NOT CROSS THE CATTLE GRID!  You will see where I mean if you’re on it, but that is the wrong way, and the land owner does not like unexpected guests in his grounds.  The gate is locked with a pin pad, but if a resident has come through it recently it might still be open, and it is a very common mistake.

The landowner is normally encouraging of visitors through his lands on the designated routes, and it is very well used especially in the tourist months, so it is only respectful to allow him some privacy in his, and his staff’s, residences.  His main house is also open to the public at certain times, but again, not as I write this due to Covid-19.

I was rescued from the wrong path by the residents of the house adjacent to the cattle grid, and they’re very used to the problem.  Lovely couple, and they have suggested installing signs but nothing has happened as yet.  They reckoned that last summer, in one day alone, over 1500 cyclists passed their house.  I assume this was a local club run or two!

Once you come out of the estate you are back in South Queensferry, and close by the Forth Road Bridge, which will take you back onto the cycle paths into Edinburgh. Do not go down he hill into South Queensferry unless you are planning this as a detour because you will have to come steeply back up again.  Saying that, there are some lovely cafes and restaurants as well as unique and individual shops that might be worth a visit if you’re not short on time.

If you take the direct route to your right, under the Forth Road Bridge you come out at the viewing point where there are toilets (currently closed due to Covid-19) and a cafe (currently serving as a takeaway kiosk).

It would appear that Police Scotland’s traffic division like to stop here for their lunch breaks, and who can blame them.  Nice view, and they can see the Bridges and access them quickly, should the need arise.  No less than four of their cars arrived whilst I was sitting here taking a rest.

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Me, looking a bit tired, at the viewing point.

By the time I reached the viewpoint I was knackered, and had (stupidly) run out of both drink and food to fuel my ride the remaining 8 miles to home.

I would have used the cafe, but without toilets, and feeling a strong desire for just such conveniences, I ended up calling for back-up.

The day had turned out warmer than forecast, and took a lot longer than I had imagined due to the appalling signage and dire surfaces in places.

My 50miler turned into 48.25miles, but I could do no more without refuelling, so let that be a lesson to me.  I didn’t even have the urge to cycle around the car park a few times whilst waiting for my rescue lift to get the 50miles (mainly because I really wanted a pee).

I have never ridden that far in a single trip before, but I would happily do so again, but with better course planning, better research into the surfaces involved, and better preparation of food and drink.  I have learned by my errors, but I feel that I shouldn’t have to be questioning a National Cycle Route’s surface conditions – it should be accessible to ALL CYCLISTS, including those with mobility issues where walking sections would not be an option.  Either that, or there should be a cycle type recommendation printed in the maps and guides.  A simple ‘not recommended for road bikes’ would suffice.  It would then be up the more informed individual to make a judgement call.

Would I do this route again?  Yes, but on a gravel bike NOT my road bike.  Which is a shame, because I really enjoyed the adventure otherwise.

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