"Big Rides: Great Britain and Ireland" is a guide to the best 25 routes that the two authors have found in three countries - yes, there are a couple of visits across the channel as well. These routes are split into road and off-road with detailed labelling to explain many of the key conditions that are probably running through your head if you thinking of a long-distance 'Big Ride' adventure.
- To stop, or not to stop - that is the question
- Bikepacking - Exploring the roads less cycled
- How to make your gravel bike more comfortable
There are some iconic routes inside and also a few genuine surprises. It's not a coffee table book, ala Jim's "Bikepacking – Exploring the roads less travelled". It's not trying to persuade you off the sofa with gorgeous photos of places that you have only dreamt of; it's more of a practical guide for getting you out the door.
Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of visual inspiration in the book, but it relies on you to actually sit and read the words, the route summaries and make notes, plan what you need and when you should go. You might even find yourself checking train times and accommodation options – to camp or not to camp etc.
The book covers a selection of 'road' routes, but that's okay; we can forgive them for that as some of them sound absolutely idyllic. The idea of the Wild Atlantic Way definitely draws me in regardless of tyre choice - especially if it stops raining in Ireland. It should be noted now that they are talking touring and hybrid bike styles here with wide tyres in most cases, not an actual road bike.
If, like me, you have a habit of skipping the intro of these types of books and reading from the back (or middle), don't. There is a lot of hard-wrought information at the front, including the all-important 'How To Use This Book' section and the 'Recommend Kit List' honed by Kathy and Markus' years of experience in completing these types of rides.
Not reading the front might cause confusion as to why some icons change colour in some instances, or you might even miss this nuance completely. For your information, a green bike icon is the best choice bike option for a route, with orange the next best choice for experienced cyclists only. There is no need to use red. I take that as the orange bike option is possible if you have plenty of experience of both the route conditions and the bike. Gravel biking rocky descents will not be easy on a 38-45c tyre.
That orange bike option does change the book's value considerably. Initially, it looked to be a small selection of routes for each style of bike, with 7x road, 4x off-road, and 14x mixed terrain routes with green bike icons. This is expanded to a much broader list of 21 routes for gravel bikes, 10 for mountain bikes, and 19 routes suitable for touring bikes with wide tyres.
As a small side note, it is a shame that some of the routes classed suitable for touring, hybrid, and gravel bikes are actually pictured with road bikes being ridden on-road sections of the routes as initially, it led me to believe these routes were for road bikes only and suitable for gravel - it pays to look at more than pictures.
The book is split into different routes listed alphabetically, which might seem odd if two closely located trails appear at either end of the book. At least once you have worked that out, it becomes easy if you are looking for something you know, not so easy if you don’t.
I think that if you are looking for a route in Ireland, Scotland, or South Wales, then the routes would be better located by region and then alphabetically. That way, if you don’t know what it’s called, you can still find the right area to look in.
I suspect Kathy and Markus wanted everyone to read the book from cover to cover and see where the mood takes you. And that sounds fair enough. Of course, there is a map with all the routes labelled at the front of the book, so you can flip to it and use that easily enough.
This is a guidebook for your first or second, or nth ride and offers practical advice after each. There is a decent map showing the route in total and then a full page of route details regarding information for the types of accommodation on offer, whether a credit card will be best, or whether you need a full camping setup. What type of exposure you might be subjected to, what the track or road quality is like, and how well marked the route is all there. It even suggests a season when it’s better to have a stab at the route, which is a good idea for complete novices but should not prevent you from being prepared for anything on the Highland 550, for example.
For example, my local route on the Great Western Way is listed with hard, loose, and unsurfaced tracks and roads on a well-marked route. It has B&Bs and hotels available with no exposure warnings, and it's suitable for all-year-round riding on a gravel bike. Sounds about spot on from what I know of the route, although I do know of campsites not far from the route as well, depending on where you stop.
Markus provides a key piece of information for the reader as an indication of how long it might take to complete a route. There is a detailed section at the front explaining how this is calculated. It gives the minimum and maximum time guidelines for each route but be warned if you think you're fit and are aiming for the minimum time as Markus expects you to pull 10-hour shifts in the saddle.
For everybody else, 6 hours or so seems realistic, and that's where the maximum time comes in. Suppose the weather plays ball and nothing goes wrong aside from a puncture. In that case, everybody with reasonable fitness should be able to get around at this time. It's a very useful guideline.
The Editors have also included information on how to and from the route by train, bus, and ferry. You could, of course, use a car in some cases as 6 of the routes are circular, but 18 are linear routes, so using public transport makes the most sense. You might also have to ride a decent distance just to start your route, but that’s all part of the adventure.
Most of the routes offer some form of variation to the listed route depending on whether you fancy a bit more off-road or even more climbing, perhaps. There are even different endpoints listed – it is, after all, a guide, not a Lego instruction manual where every step must be followed precisely. Kathy and Markus also list a couple of pros and cons for each route, which are essential to pay attention to in some cases. Midges in Scotland are ferocious in May – June and worth planning for or avoiding completely. You have been warned.
At the end of a book is a single route summary page with all the essential information like distance, ascent/descent, how long it takes, what the trail is like and when to go. It’s very useful for a quick glance as long as you have a magnifying glass with you. Even with my glasses on, it is very small. It's a shame it was not printed larger across two pages.
As for the value, at £20 it seems reasonable rather than expensive, although mine is already starting to look well-thumbed. Compared to a £5 outdoor magazine, I think it is good value and compared to the Bikepacking - Exploring the Roads Less Cycled Book, admittedly a hardback, for £35.00, it looks excellent value.
Big Rides is a great book for getting yourself psyched up for an adventure on your bike. You might not opt for the extreme Highland 550 straight away, but that doesn’t matter; you may only use this book as a guide to plan other routes not actually in the book. However you use it, this book is stacked full of useful information on the routes within and will almost certainly get you out the door, if only to the shed at first to check your bike, but hopefully, you’ll take the plunge and load up and start your first bike adventure.