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Pedalling towards a sustainable future

A blog post by Joe Oxley-Glenister

With the UCI Cycling World Championships in full swing in Stirling and across Scotland, avid cyclist Joe Oxley-Glenister, our Education & Learning Officer, describes what role cycling can play in achieving our Net Zero ambitions and tackling the litter emergency.

A beautiful day cycling in Arran, with Pladda in the background

Scotland has a well-justified reputation for some of the best cycling locations in the UK, and arguably in the world. We have world-class mountain bike centres, endless miles of remote roads and family-friendly cycle networks, and vast swathes of gravel forest tracks, which together cater for a huge range of cycling enthusiasts. With so many incredible places to enjoy and explore on wheels, it is essential that we all play our part in protecting these beautiful places. 

It is well accepted that cycling, along with other forms of active travel, has positive benefits for health and wellbeing. However, it is also undeniable that it has an essential role to play in climate action, through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from motorised transport. In 2019 (the most recent year available), transport (including international shipping and aviation) accounted for 36% of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the only sector to have seen an increase in emissions, with road transport making up 66% of these emissions. With more than half of journeys in Scotland being under 5km, switching these short journeys to use active travel for those that can will make a huge contribution to tackling emissions.

In Scotland we are fortunate to have progressive legislation, through the Land Reform Act, that allows us to take advantage of almost all land and inland water for non-motorised recreational activities – as long as it is done responsibly. As an outdoor sports enthusiast this was one of my main motivations for moving from south of the border around five years ago. Growing up in The Lake District, I wasn’t exactly hard done by for access to the outdoors, but literally accessing it was another matter. Cycling required careful planning, a detailed understanding of the Highway Code and either a good knowledge of the area or - as they became widely available - a GPS cycle computer. A day out on the ‘roadie’ entailed dicing with busy main roads or narrow minor road, stationary traffic followed by those which test the boundaries of speed limits and an array of opinions on the rules of the road. Likewise, off-road cycling involved weaving together a maze of bridleways, byways and permissive cycle paths, in order to comply with the regulations, and inevitably sometimes halted entirely when faced with an ominous “private no access” sign.

Enjoying the scenery during a Stirling Bike Club ride

So why have I gone off on a tangent about access rights you may ask. Well, the reason is that with the right to responsible access the natural environment also comes a proportion of people who choose not to abide by the already amenable regulations.

One of the most noticeable impacts of this is litter. Whether this is improper wild camping, carelessly abandoning litter whilst in the outdoors or roadside litter associated with travelling for leisure pursuits. In every case, the overwhelming requirement for people spending time in the outdoors is to leave no trace. However, cyclists aren’t unaccountable for this either. Recently, a surge in bikepacking and long-distance cycling routes and events has led to cyclists venturing out to more wilderness areas – where environmental damage such as littering and fire scorch marks are especially damaging. 

The NC500 route around the coastline of northern Scotland is just as popular with cyclists as it is with campervans as a long-distance journey to visit some of Scotland’s most breath-taking scenery. Increased footfall ultimately brings a risk of more litter. The Highland Cup Movement is our campaign to reduce single-use cups along the NC500, and as we all know a day out on the bike isn’t complete without a coffee and cake stop, this campaign is one which I think will resonate with many cyclists. Likewise, roadside littering can be attributed to those few cyclists who still believe it is ok to toss away their banana skin or are unfazed when their flapjack wrapper flutters into the gutter. The simple message from our Roadside Litter Campaign is to give your litter a lift and take it home.

Around eight years ago I stopped buying any pre-packaged sports fuel. Bars, gels, electrolyte powders and isotonic drinks were all replaced with homemade, healthier and waste-free alternatives. The stark realisation of how much packaging waste I was producing and the detrimental environmental impact, came as a shock at the time as both an environmental conservation student and outdoor enthusiast.

Homemade snacks - waste-free and healthier!

The move to packaging-free snacks was also in part due the purchase of a cookbook written for cyclists and athletes by top sports nutritionists and chefs. Recipes include sticky rice energy balls (more delicious than they sound and a personal favourite), 'one-bite' pies and mini granola bars. I’m not intending on being all self-righteous about my decision, as in order to make large-scale changes and raise awareness of alternatives as a cycling community we need to promote positive action.

Enjoying a local after work ride with fellow Education and Learning Officer, Josh

Cyclists can contribute to the cause by adopting a proactive stance. In 2021 the UCI introduced fines and time penalties for athletes who litter during their events, following increased pressure to not only improve rider safety but also to clean up international cycling's environmental reputation, with big races such as the Tour de France facing scrutiny over the pollution it creates.  

Whilst individual changes are important, there are also a range of opportunities to take action at a community level. Organising community clean-up events and spreading awareness about responsible waste disposal can go a long way in maintaining pristine cycling routes and protecting vulnerable wildlife habitats. Walk Run Cycle East Dunbartonshire (WRCED) are one of our Clean Up Scotland hubs, and do fantastic work to promote active travel, whilst improving their local area through organised litter picks and engagement events.

The UCI Cycling World Championships are putting the spotlight on cycling and Scotland. The love of cycling, along with many other outdoor sports, and the environment go hand in hand. Taking part in these activities not only allows us to actively engage with our surroundings and appreciate the beauty of our country, but also encourages a sustainable mode of transport to explore them. I encourage everyone to be in the outdoors, be active, be responsible, and play a part in keeping Scotland beautiful.

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