Riders’ John Muir Way challenge

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The 134-mile route is open – and already a cycling challenge has been laid down

The newly extended John Muir Way from Dunbar to Helensburgh, or vice versa, is set to become a big attraction with a 134-mile walking trail and a cycle route of around the same distance.

We wrote about the opening of the new John Muir Way earlier this year. On 21 April, the First Minister Alex Salmond made it official by cutting the ribbon to open the new long-distance trail – and before the day was out there was a whisper of an unofficial cycling challenge.

It seems that the day before, adventure innovator and all-round-fit guy Gary Tompsett had set out to attempt to ride the full John Muir Way in one day. He was accompanied by Glasgow-born Ironman champion Catriona Morrison and her husband Richard Jennings, head of housing investment, economic development and planning at East Lothian Council.

Unfortunately there were a few things that hampered their epic ride and the trio did not quite make it all the way from Helensburgh to Dunbar on day one, finishing instead the final 35 miles on day two. So the John Muir Way “ride in a day” mantle goes down.

First try: One-day John Muir Way ride

The full cycle route is recommended as a four-day ride, yet Gary, Cat and Richard hoped to do it in less than 12 hours. The route is on and off-road with a great deal of dirt and gravel so the trio opted for cyclocross bikes.

Gary added John Muir fancy dress including hat, beard, waistcoat, cravat, geology hammer, small rocks and Tweed rucksack. The ride would be unsupported, with only rucksacks of supplies to rely on.

The trio are fit and strong but a few things conspired against the trio on their record-breaking attempt. First, it being Easter Sunday the trains to reach Helensburgh were not early starters. This meant that the riders did not get on their way until 10am. Additionally, there was a chilly easterly wind that blew unfavourably into the cyclists’ faces as they rode west to east. Thirdly, Gary’s John Muir outfit was not the most aerodynamic, especially the beard.

Gary said: “I did get a few strange looks on the train to Helensburgh but bizarrely no-one gave me a second glance as I rode the John Muir Way.”

Gary also needed to report back home in South Lanarkshire for the very important birthday of his four-year-old daughter by Easter Monday, so there was no option to overnight or go AWOL. He was also limited by the transport arrangements at the furthest away point of Dunbar.



With Cat (world champion duathlete and Ironman winner) heading up the riders, the pace was fast and furious and the stops were limited to major food feasts.

Gary said: “This is not a tricky route to ride in itself but the challenge of doing it in one go is tough.

“There is around 5,500ft of ascent and the terrain is very mixed. Some sections are on road and there are many, many miles along the canal towpath, which are not entirely suited to me because I am more of a technical mountain biker.

“We also started a bit late due to trains on the Easter weekend, then the wind was in our faces and it was really cold. At one point I had to retrace my ride for a bit to retrieve my GPS unit that disappeared from my handlebars. And on top of all this the paths were busy with holiday weekend people, especially in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, the West Highland Way area and the canal towpaths.”

This is not to say that Gary didn’t enjoy the ride. He said: “It’s such a great trail and the fact that it traces a route close to the majority of Scotland’s population is amazing. The scenery is lovely too and the mix of terrain makes for a fantastic long-distance ride. The waymarking is also very good. I think that doing this route in the recommended four days or more by bike will really appeal to lots of people.”

However, with so many factors against the cyclists, they were forced to stop on day one at Musselburgh because of darkness, cold and logistical issues with continuing. The trio had ridden 97 miles (156km) with 1500m of ascent in 9hrs 38 minutes.

This times (and distance) includes brief moments of trail hunting, wrong turns, toilet stops, food hunting, food eating, and a puncture repair while waiting for hot food.

Gary said: “We needed to make a decision that would suit us all. I didn’t have time to go on and then make it back home for my daughter’s birthday the next day due to transport difficulties. We had discussed me taking the best bike lights and continuing alone, and then dealing with the consequences of finishing in Dunbar after the last train. Even a taxi would not catch the last train from Edinburgh to Glasgow. This just wasn’t going to work for me.

“Cat and Richard decided to go home and then return the following day to finish off the route. They did the final 34 miles (55km) and 200m of ascent on the day the route actually opened. They took 2hrs 50mins to reach Dunbar and John Muir’s birthplace. Although we’d bailed, we didn’t see it as a failure, and we’d had a thorough cycling workout. It was fast and fun.

“Also, we have now set down a challenge. Beat our John Muir Way Helensburgh to Dunbar record of 12hrs 28 minutes over two consecutive days as aggregate time and unsupported. I can see some cyclists being really attracted to this coast-to-coast Scotland record. I’d suggest the challenges would be sub 12 hours unsupported in one day, or six hours over two days, overnighting halfway. And how about doubling it? Back to back of 268 miles in 24 hours. I am looking forward to seeing what people can do.”

Following the ride, Cat gave her views on the route. “I enjoyed riding the John Muir Way and whether you plan to ride or walk it as a challenge or over a period of time you’ll find it super accessible from so many points across Scotland.

“There are loads of access places via public transport, too, which I like. The riding is easy and the variety of terrain is pretty cool.

“There are also some interesting places in the Central Belt to explore and those that you may never have seen. All in all this is a great new route and for all types of riders and walkers.”

See John Muir Way and please do tell us if you beat the trio’s coast-to-coast time.



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2 comments on “Riders’ John Muir Way challenge
  1. Glenn Evans says:

    Done the complete JMW way (taking some but not all of the harder walking options) on my MTB in around 14hrs on 30/8/14. First train from Airdrie to Helensburgh for a 7am start. It’s a great route, even though I had covered much of it before during seperate adventures. Antonine wall at Bonnybridge is great. Rather than heading towards Edinburgh town centre however, I took what I feel is a better route by sticking to the coast, heading through Leith. Things went a bit pear shaped however when I took the walkers route at Yellowcraigs just before North Berwick. Front wheel jammed on grass hollow, over the handlebars, broken shoulder blade. Walked for a while until the pain eased and I was back on Tarmac. Continued on to Dunbar in the dark to catch a train back to Edinburgh (after waiting an hour), then Airdrie. Even found £15 on route, which went towards train tickets (and pain killers)! A great day out, excluding the fall of course, but now I’m off the bike for a few weeks, bummer!

    • Neil Braidwood says:

      Ouch! Sorry to hear about the fall, but good job for completing the course under those circumstances!

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