The loss of a once popular road race from the UK cycling calendar is never a good thing, but a unique legacy has emerged from the ashes of one event in Scotland.
The demise of the Davie Bell Memorial Race in 2015 – a National ‘A’ event which had been running since 1966 – prompted the organiser to look for other ways to promote cycling.
Two years later, South Ayrshire now boasts the UK’s only “road cycling park”, a 15-square mile network of little-used roads that criss-cross a series of hills in South Carrick – about 10 miles south-east of Ayr – known as the “Ayrshire Alps”.
“South Ayrshire council had supported the race but were more interested in something that left a legacy,” says organiser Chris Johnson. “I’d had the idea of promoting the area as the road equivalent of a mountain bike trail centre, but it was hard to explain. In order to demonstrate the potential I built a basic WordPress website and showed this to the team that had funded the race. They were really keen and helped set up a meeting for me to present the idea to the South Carrick community. Following this, the council committed approximately £5,000 to get my website professionally redesigned, and to commission the logo and map idea.”
The website now includes descriptions of the climbs of all 14 “Ayrshire Alps” – detailing their lengths and average gradients – with a “piste map” that categorises them as easy, moderate, challenging or difficult. There are also suggested itineraries, ranging from “The Shark” – 20 miles and two climbs – to the “Omnibus 8” – 88 miles and nine climbs The website also offers information about accommodation, food stops and public transport links offered in the local villages. There are plans to introduce French-style roadside markers indicating the average gradient every kilometre.
Johnson, along with local hotelier Rod Henderson, is also the brains behind the Ayr Burners cycling club, set up in 2014 with the emphasis on recreational, family-friendly cycling rather than racing. The club’s annual sportive – which consists of 60 or 40-mile routes through the area and this year takes place on 27 August – raises money to promote cycling.
Some of that money, together with funding from the Ayr Active Travel Hub, has been used to produce pocket maps of the routes, which will be available to visiting cyclists from May.
Johnson, a former youth racer who now promotes cycling as a sustainable travel choice for Cycling Scotland, is full of praise for the support received from the local council.
“With local elections coming up again this year we hope to engage with the new council to showcase the economic potential of the park, and how the project aligns with local tourism and community objectives,” he says. An increase in the number of riders visiting the Ayrshire Alps has been recorded on the performance analysis website Strava, he says.
I was one of those riders when I visited the area for the first time at the end of last year, and was blown away by how quiet and remote the roads seemed, despite being less than 15 miles from the busy coastal town of Ayr.
I did a four-hour ride that took me over six of the climbs. In that time, I barely saw another vehicle, and there were long stretches, particularly through the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and over Tairlaw – the highest Alp at 433 metres – and Nic O Balloch – one of the steepest with an average gradient of 7.6% – where the only signs of civilisation were the occasional farmhouse or a flickering solitary bar on my mobile phone.
Along the way, I paid my respects at the Davie Bell memorial at the foot of the Tairlaw. It’s fitting that the park should be a legacy from the race that bore his name, as Bell is considered the forefather of cycling in these parts. In the 1930s and ‘40s, his weekly column in the Ayrshire Post under the byline The Highway Man is credited with encouraging readers to take up cycling.
“If I rest, I rust”, was his motto.