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Markus Stitz is an Edinburgh-based filmmaker, photographer, writer, and the founder of Bikepacking Scotland. You might recall the two previous films and photos essays he’s shared with us here at CyclingTips: the first, documenting a solo bikepacking trip through Kyrgyzstan; the second, an exploration of physical and social distance in the Argyll region of western Scotland.
In his latest film (see above), Markus brings us along for the ride as he tackles the John Muir Way, a stunning coast-to-coast bikepacking and hiking trail that runs from west to east through the heart of Scotland. Along the way Markus reflects on one of the great advantages of travelling by bike: being able to slow down and connect more fully with your surroundings.
I started 2020 in the fast lane. Developing a network of gravel trails in Highland Perthshire in Scotland over the winter kept me busy, but a delay in getting funding for the project pushed the test riding of the routes into the coldest and darkest days of winter. I was signed up for the Atlas Mountain Race in February, but I had hardly been on a bike since my shoulder operation in September 2019, so having a project deadline and a race coming up at the same time meant I had to ignore non-daylight hours and ride, a lot, regardless.
While riding a singlespeed slowed me down a little at the Atlas Mountain Race, it also bought me valuable time before the race, so the deal seemed fair. There is very little that can actually go wrong with the bike, so even with as little preparation as possible, I still made it over the finish line near Agadir.
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I took a deep breath when I arrived back in the UK, and then the world suddenly did the same. Collectively we were forced to slow down. Not just for a few days, or a few weeks. For months, and as it looks like at the moment, for much longer. Eventually, a hectic life in the fast lane will become the default again, but we can also try to resist, and become a little bit less hurried in the process.
While my life felt like an neverending bikepacking trip across the world beforehand, all of a sudden I was forced to find the beauty within five miles of my front door. My plans to film in Malawi and Australia — unrealistic. I had to adapt, and it wasn’t bad at all.
No other route would have fitted better for making a film in a lockdown year than the John Muir Way. The 212 km route, named after the Scottish-American adventurer and environmentalist, offers a walking and cycling route, both signposted. While the cycling route appeals to traditional cycle tourers, the walking route, with a very few exceptions, is a great bikepacking route for gravel bikes. With 212 km and 1,830 m of climbing it’s one of the most accessible off-road coast-to-coast journeys in Scotland.
The John Muir Way passes through my hometown of Edinburgh, so riding and documenting it needed much less preparation than a project further afield. If I missed a small detail initially or the weather was unsuitable, I could go back and justify a ride after a long day in the home office.
Being so close to home also gave me flexibility. There weren’t any complicated travel arrangements that could fall apart as soon as one small detail changed. There weren’t any bike reservations to be made, nor did I have to pay a small fortune to get my bike on a plane or to the airport.
To enjoy the route and keep things interesting I had to research more than before. I love discovering new things, and while I thought I knew the route very well already, there were parts I hadn’t discovered at all. I can vividly remember spotting the many murals dotted along the walls lining Prestonpans, or being mesmerized by the huge trees that surround Callendar House.
One thing I realised: It doesn’t hurt to stop. It’s much easier to go from riding ultra-long distances to short distances than the other way around. The more I stopped, the more I enjoyed it. I wasn’t judging the days on the bike by the distance cycled, but by the meaningful experiences I had. Experiencing the fresh air and removing myself from a never-ending news feed was what counted the most, not a number on my GPS, which disappeared as soon as I switched it off.
For producing ‘Unhurried’ it was much more important to really immerse myself into the locations I wanted to feature and not just rush through. I didn’t just have minutes to find a suitable frame and composition and move on. I gave myself much more time.
I spent the best part of a morning on less than 10 miles from Belhaven Beach to Dunbar. I took the time to experience the subtle light changes and sit on the beach watching the birds fly by and play in the air. I watched the waves crashing into the harbour, and seagulls stealing each other’s food. My patience was rewarded with moments I can still vividly remember, and some of the most rewarding footage for the film.
No, the John Muir Way wasn’t a bike journey of epic proportions. If I wanted, I could cycle the whole route on a long summer day in Scotland in daylight. While the idea of that still has some sort of attraction, it wouldn’t do it justice. It’s the finer detail that makes this a great bikepacking route, and that is best enjoyed unhurried.
The John Muir Way links Helensburgh in the west of Scotland with Dunbar, the birthplace of John Muir, in the east. Using a combination of the waymarked walking and cycling routes, Markus has produced a recommended bikepacking version. A GPX is available to download for free on the John Muir Way and Bikepacking Scotland websites. The route passes through Scotland’s first national park, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, and provides a journey of contrasts and the chance to connect with nature, taking advantage of the green spaces that link coasts, villages, towns and the capital city, Edinburgh.