All set for the 2016 Great North Run

Craig Dunain hill race 2016

I decided it was about time I tried our most local hill race, especially as I’m trying to do as much hill running as I can this year to prepare for October’s Glencoe Marathon. So on Saturday 19th March I headed down to Queen’s Parkmin Inverness to register for the Craig Dunain hill race.

I’ve been up to the communications masts that sit on top of the forested hill plenty of times, whether by mountain bike, running or walking, but this was altogether different.

My usual approach to hill running is to slow down and just experience it but, as always when there’s a race on, I want to do as well as possible, even though I’ve no hope of finishing anywhere near the front of the field! So I headed off from the line at a pace that I wouldn’t normally have been anywhere near with a 250 metre climb ahead!

When it got to the ascent I just reduced my stride and kept going, encouraged by the excellent marshals along the course, and then I just had to cope with the alternative approach to the top – which diverted left off the Great Glen Way track and across a field into the woods, meeting the top of the zigzags then skirting below the top of the hill to climb up an indefensibly steep mountain bike trail to the muddy summit plateau!

It was, as they say, all downhill from there. I did my best to keep my speed up on the way down but I was passed by a couple of people – including my neighbour – though I was happy that I kept up the pace I did after that climb. I didn’t quite have the legs to catch the pair in front of me on the finishing straight along the canal but it was a great feeling to complete the race in the middle of a field of incredible athletes.

My time, for the record, was 48mins 35secs.

A better vision for cycling in Inverness and the Highlands

Opening the South Bridge linking Inverness Campus to the retail park
Opening the South Bridge linking Inverness Campus to the retail park

A new bridge allowing pedestrians and cyclists to cross the railway line and access the retail and business park was opened last week. It’s a small piece in the jigsaw of connections that are needed to make Inverness a genuine cycling city but it’s a massive step in the right direction.

For the first time, people can get from the city centre (or from the growing suburbs around the southern distributor road) to the retail park without having to take their lives in their hands crossing the A9 slip road at the Raigmore Interchange.

But the future could be even brighter. Given the city’s size, location and it’s surrounding countryside, Inverness really does have great potential to become a haven for cyclists. It’s pretty good as it is, with new figures from Cycling Scotland (see tweet below) showing that cycling to work figures are much higher in the Highlands.

As the new South Bridge at Inverness Campus was opened last week, a new vision for cycling in the Highland capital was launched. ‘Cycle INverness: Creating a City Fit for the Future’ is a document that shows what development is happening now and what aspirations are being worked on for the future. Some of these are small scale and will be implemented in the not-too-distant future – but others are visionary and need a change in priorities from our councillors and MSPs.

Highland Council is working to gain funding for a massive project that will enhance cycling facilities around the city centre and the outskirts, allowing more people to cycle to their place of work from wherever they live. This Community Links Plus project has already made it from the original applications to the initial shortlist of 10, and now has reached the top five projects. Only one or two will get the full funding from Sustrans Scotland, so support from the public will help make this a reality.

Progress is also being made to create a Beauly Firth Loop – a 26-mile flat ride around the firth, connecting Inverness to Beauly and Muir of Ord. Small sections of cycle path are being constructed with more to follow, but the initial stretch from Inverness out to Bunchrew and beyond will take more investment.

East of the city, plans to dual the A96 between here and Nairn include designs of a cycle path – separated from the dual carriageway – which will allow a much more direct cycleway than the current National Cycle Network offers. Other plans for a route along the coast are also under discussion and are likely to progress as development of this ‘corridor’ goes on.

On the Black Isle, there are already wonderful cycling opportunities, both on and off road, but more work is being done to link communities there with traffic-free sections. A new map has been produced showing all the paths and tracks that allow people to travel across the peninsula and discover new routes to explore.

The most exciting part of this vision for me is the idea to build a cycle path on the north side of Loch Ness parallel to the A82. This has great potential to create a loop around Loch Ness, link up communities on that side which cannot be safely reached on bike by the majority, and attract thousands more tourists to the area.

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Transport Scotland has no plans to build this route at the moment – but it did have a designed and costed route in 2007 that was due to be opened this year! Unfortunately that plan was scrapped – but the £20 million-plus price tag is a small amount to pay compared to the £3 billion being spent on dualling the A9.

With pressure in the right places, there is no reason this important route cannot be brought back into the fold. And, if a route like that was to exist, it would have a knock-on effect for the area, encouraging more people to explore by bike.

For the fit cyclists who ride the Etape Loch Ness, the loop would make a perfect day ride – but even families could do this given a week or two for a cycling holiday, which would bring more tourist trade to the villages of Drumnadrochit, Invermoriston and Fort Augutus, as well as Foyers and Dores on the south side.

It could also make Inverness a real gateway to the Highlands, for cyclists looking to get to the Western Isles, Skye and the north-west Highlands.

There is a real vision here, and real positivity. Now we need real investment that lives up to these ambitions.

John Davidson, author and journalist, shares his love of the great outdoors from Inverness in the Highlands of Scotland