Lee Craigie is a former professional mountain bike racer, and is the Scottish Government’s Active Travel Ambassador. We asked her to share her thoughts on connecting with nature as a cyclist in Scotland.
The 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships are coming to Scotland this August. I can’t tell you how excited this makes me!
My background is in international cross country mountain bike racing but, if anything, my excitement around this event is despite my career as a professional mountain biker.
These international events are fantastic for inspiring more people to embrace the joy of riding bikes. It was while watching a downhill world cup as a 15-year-old girl that I decided I wanted to do it for a living. But the reality is that elite level racing is a distraction from the freedom and satisfaction that comes from riding a bike for practical, social or personal reasons.
When I finished racing, I put my heart rate monitor in the bin, strapped overnight bags to my bike so I could head into the hills, and reconnect with the reason I started riding bikes in the first place: because doing so makes me feel good.
I live in the Highlands of Scotland. An impractical place to base yourself, perhaps, if you need to be at a different race venue every weekend. While I was racing I found myself packing my van and driving away from the Highlands most weekends in the summer months to race around in circles in muddy fields and patches of woodland.
Nowadays my weekends begin from my door with friends or my with dog and we explore new trails together with no set agenda or time pressure. It’s this type of riding that makes my heart sing. I find that I like myself better when I’ve taken the time to move more slowly through the vast Caledonia pines or I’m forced to pause in awe at the infinite horizon.
Sharing outdoor spaces
The wealth of riding from my doorstep is the reason I live on the edge of Cairngorms National Park. An incredible network of gravel tracks exist here. They tend to be built and maintained by private shooting estates to get paying customers deeper into the hills but they also offer the welcome, if unintended consequence, of allowing us nature loving, mountain going cyclists to access the hills too.
We rub shoulders with gamekeepers and estate managers all trying to do their best to sustainably manage our wild places and keep our rural communities thriving. We have to respect their way of interacting with these wild landscapes even if it seems at odds with our own. It’s only by understanding that these landscapes offer different things to different people that we learn how rich and precious a resource they’re for us all.
Connecting with nature
There are still problems in Scotland with encouraging more people to use their legs, hearts and lungs to reconnect with nature in our uniquely accessible wild places. Those living in these places witnessed the littering and vandalism of our natural environment during lockdown, and some sought ways to further exclude them from the lochs, trails and glens of our beautiful country.
To my mind, further exclusion of the public to these fragile environments will have a negative affect if protection and appreciation of land is the goal. If we’re to save our environment then education and a sense of stewardship over these places must be instilled in all of us.
That sense won’t be developed unless we’re first able to experience the unadulterated joy that comes from moving through them by bike or on foot. The Cairngorms National Park is a superb place for the Scottish population to begin to understand the mutually beneficial relationship humans can have with a natural environment.
My hope is that the UCI Cycling World Championships will encourage a new generation of cyclists from all walks of life to take to the trails, but we have to be ready to encourage them to do so in a way that is both welcoming and sustainable.
The wilds of Scotland has so much to offer all our communities both rural and urban. I can’t wait to see how many more people take to our trails as a result of it.