800 Mile Great North Trail Opens

Looking for ideas for your next long-distance bikepacking trip, or just an excuse to get off the tarmac for a day or two? The new Great North Trail, devised by Cycling UK, joins up various existing bridleways, byways and cycle routes to take you from the foot of thePenninesall the way up to Cape Wrath or John O’Groats.

The charity’s new route comes about as a result of increasing demand from cyclists for routes away from busy road traffic and a growing sense of frustration at the lack of progress in extending or developing national off-road cycling trails. For instance, the proposed extension of thePennineBridleway into Scotland was published 20 years ago this year without being implemented, prompting Cycling UK to take matters into their own hands.

Taking in 4 national parks, the route passes through some of the most dramatic landscapes of mainland Britain, touching just 16 miles of road in the process. Starting at the base of thePennines, the Great North Trailtakescyclists through the Peak District (and a stones throw from our Hathersage Store), the Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs before passing Loch Ness and heading into the far Northof Scotland, with options tofinish ineither Cape Wrath or John O’Groats.

The appeal as a multidaybikepackingchallenge is clear and the route has certainly generated a bit of a buzz aroundtheAlpkitoffices–it was only earlier this year thatAlpkiteerPete McNeil was giving us hisadvice on long distance cycling challenges after ridingthe Highland Trail 550.

Pete McNeil: At the Bothy by sunset on the Highland Trail 550

We spoke to Sophie Gordon, Cycling UK’s Off-Road Campaigns Officer to find out a bit more about the trail:

How long has the trail taken to develop?

“It's taken around a year of detailed map research and negotiating permissions to link together existing long-distance trails using bridleways, forest tracks and disused railway lines. We were helped a lot by Obscura Mondo Cycle Club who suggested we used theirnewly-developed'AnTurasMor' route from Glasgow to Cape Wrath, which sped up the process considerably!

The route isn’t perfect: the trail will continue to evolve in the future as we campaign for increased off-road access. For example, sometimes an ideal connecting trail is designated as a footpath rather than a bridleway, so we’ve had to take the long wayroundand include a quiet on-road section. In places, we’ve managed to negotiate permissive access, but in other areas, the process is still ongoing.”

What do you see being the biggest significance of opening this trail?

“Though the Great North Trail makes use of several existing long-distance trails, it's the first route to connect them all together,so you can ride from the Peak District all the way up to the north coast of Scotland. It also forms an end-to-end Scottish route,which is exciting inofitself.

We're lucky to have a great selection of long-distance cycle routes in the UK, butthe majority ofthem are road routes. Of the 15 National Trails (long-distance off-road trails) in England and Wales, only two of them can be cycled along their full length.Cycling UK has put together a riders' route for the North Downs Way (find the GPX route here)and we're continuing tofind alternative routes and connect existing trails into a network that will enable you to cycle off-road across the length and breadth of the country. These will be adventurousroutes on unsurfaced terrain, in keeping with the spirit of thePennineBridleway.”

Would anyone be able to tackle the whole route?

“Mountain bike guide MaxDarkinskindly test-rode the entire route for us and wrote up his experience for the route guide.This can be found here, broken down into individual sections.

The idea was that while the route as a whole is a challenging adventure, it doesn’t require high-level technical mountain biking skills (although there are options to include that if you want to) – so it should be achievable by people with a good level of fitness and experience of the outdoors. It’s important to bear in mind that some of the route crosses hilly terrain in remote areas, so you would need to be able to look after yourself.”

It covers a vast range of terrain. What would you suggest the most suitable style of bike would be?

“We asked Max which bike he would recommend after riding the route and this was his advice: The ‘right’ bike will depend on the rider, and your abilities and priorities:efficiency, comfort, or to ride the more technical sections at speed. Some experienced riders whoprioritiseefficiency,andwould be willingto tough it out on the more challenging sections,could use a gravel bike– althoughwe would suggest40mmtyresas a minimumwidth.Our recommended choice of bike would be a hardtail mountain bike or short travel (100mm) full-suspension: for comfort, enjoyment and security on the rougher terrain and descents.”

What else is in the pipeline from Cycling UK – or is that top secret?!

"A key link will be a 200-mile loop which will connect the heart of historic Britain – Stonehenge, Avebury stone circles and Winchester – and link to the existing National Trails of the Ridgeway, South Downs Way and North Downs Way, which we are developing rideable routes for.

An eventual goal is to create a connection down through Cornwall so it’s possible to cycle off-road from Land’s End to John o’ Groats – but that will take a lot more research and negotiation so no promises for anything soon!"

To support their efforts and read MaxDarkins’ write up of the Great North Trail in their latest members’ magazine, you can join Cycling UK at:cyclinguk.org.

Thinking of riding it yourself? Make sure you're well prepared by taking the right bikepacking kit with you. Happy riding and see you out there!

By Mark Roberts