Last week we headed up to Scotland for an early celebration of our first wedding anniversary. Naturally, we had to spend it in the most romantic way possible, which obviously involved throwing ourselves up and down hills on two wheels. Apologies if this post is a bit rambling and disjointed (not to mention long!) – it’s been written over several days.
On our first full day in The Borders, we went to Glentress and started off gently with two laps of the green. As I mentioned last year, the green route at Glentress is a bit of a revelation – 4km of specially constructed, one-way trail just for bikes, not just a series of linked fireroads. The route is smooth, and gently twists and undulates through the forest – and for the experienced you can go stupidly fast around it. It really is a fantastic introduction to trail riding.
After the green, we headed up to the skills area, and did a quick loop. However, there were a couple of other riders there, and I prefer to fall off without an audience, so we swiftly moved on to the blue.
Again, the blue is an awesome route – 75% singletrack, and a quite frankly awesome descent. Berms, switchbacks, drops, rough surfacing, tabletops – trail features you’d encounter on a red, but in a more controlled and friendlier fashion. Again, not just fireroads – in addition to being damn good fun, it’s also a great step up to red grade level of riding. Perhaps there would be fewer accidents or nervous riders on the red if more people could cut their teeth on a blue graded track of the calibre of Glentress’.
The only (literal) dampner was the weather – it went being rather pleasant…
..to slight drizzle, to being absolutely torrential. This actually made the blue a bit tricky in places – namely on the short but steep rocky climbs. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that my one lone waterproof jacket is also thermal, and despite the rain it was actually rather warm – it came off fairly early on, leaving me to get soaked through to the bone.
In that kind of weather, the outbound section of blue seems like a bit of chore – wet, with a lot of climbing! All was forgotten on the return descent, however. Beautiful, beautiful bit of trail, and more fun than you could shake a stick at. Once we got to bottom, we headed to the Hub for tea and cake (carrot cake for Mr Toast, Millionaire’s Shortbread for me).
The weather was slightly better – grey and overcast, but nothing more than light drizzle on the rain front. We played around on the skills course first. Mr Toast was swift to point out I was avoiding most of the ‘skills’ elements on the loop, choosing to go around the rock gardens and step ups rather than over them. Marital disharmony ensued. Eventually I calmed down, and eventually tackled the skinny and the drop on the loop.
Yes, it looks tiny on the photo, but trust me, it looks and feels huge when you ride it. Well, when I ride it.
After riding it and feeling quite pleased with myself, I went and took the above picture. Then decided to ride it again. Then fell off. Sort of. Not entirely sure what happened – I seemed to take it and land OK, but I then lost control of the bike in the mud. I don’t know if it was just an unfortunate slip because the landing zone was quite muddy and churned up, or whether I hadn’t got my weight positioned properly (Mr Toast said I looked OK), or whether I’d accidentally been a bit enthusiastic with braking after landing, but the end result was one bruised right shin.
None of the skills stuff I did was any great achievement, as I did both last year – indeed, I’ve got to admit it was a little disheartening how long it took me to pluck up the courage to do them.
Mr Toast then decided to do the red, and I went to do the blue. He eventually caught up with me and decided to join me on the blue, as the red wasn’t as much fun in the mud. I had a comedy moment when a stealth root hidden in a puddle caught me unawares as I passed an extremely cautious rider. I’d like to say I was the height of cool as my bike spiralled out of control, but in reality I swore a lot as I nearly had a comedy dismount in a nice soft bed of ferns. On the plus side, I did manage to stay on the bike AND upright…and managed to overtake again!
What was originally planned to be a rest day (“Let’s just do some exploring of some bridleways!”) actually turned into one of the more exhausting days. We looked at a couple of leaflets in the B&B, and decided that the Southern Upland Way to Melrose would be a stirling idea.
We set out from the B&B, and headed through the village, past Traquir and got onto the trail. We climbed. And climbed. And then we climbed some more. Eventually we got to a gate:
After which there was…more climbing. Then there was a hut thing, after which there was more climbing:
After that, there was…more climbing. Then, we went past a trail marker for Innerleithen’s XC red route – number 14. We ignored temptation, and carried on climbing.
We then reached a point where the trail carried on straight ahead, but our path was crossed by a forestry road, and signposted ‘Horse and MTB riders preferred route’. We’re not one to argue with signs, and abandoned the steep path ahead and followed the fireroad. Up some more hill.
It occurred to us that we might not be seeing Melrose any time soon as we came across this sign:
Looking down the downhill trails actually made me feel queasy. Mad, mad bastards.
So, as you can probably guess, there was a bit more uphill…then the fireroad started making its way down. We passed the second XC post of the day, this time for section 34. This time we gave into temptation. Possibly BECAUSE I’M STUPID.
I’m not entirely sure what possessed me, or how I thought that going down a notoriously hard red route (that until last year was graded black) when I can’t even do a step up over a kerb was a good idea. The good news is that I didn’t acquire any major injuries. The bad news was that I ended up a gibbering wreck, and spent quite a lot of time walking the Professor rather than riding him! It took me a while to get the confidence to ride even the fairly placid singletrack sections normally – I think the combination of knowing it was supposed to be hard, along with the steep drop down the hill side didn’t do much for my mental state.
Mr Toast was very patient and encouraging though, and assured me that Glentress red was nowhere near as hard. We slowly made our way down, as somebody had seen fit to stick RUDDY GREAT ROCKS in the middle of the trail. Things got slightly more sensible around the 39 marker, and I ended up riding stuff that was trickier than anything I’d tackled before…namely because after what had preceeded it, it looked postively friendly.
We made our way back onto the fireroad, and headed down through Plora Wood. We took a slight wrong turn, going right instead of left, and ended up in Walkerburn. We rode the remaining 2 1/2 miles back to Innerleithen down the side of the river, seeing more herons than you could shake a stick at.
After that little adventure, we headed back to…Glentress. Yes, there was still more riding to be done! My knees were a little shagged from walking down drops with the Professor, so we parked at the top. Mr Toast would do the red, and I’d pootle around the green, the skills area, and the other cycle routes.
I threw myself around the skills route with great gusto. Somehow, the rockgardens, drops and step-ups all seemed a little piddling after Innerleithen. Even the woodwork got some attention, as I finally rode the bobbly boardwalk.
It was all immensely satisfying, although I felt a bit sheepish that the stuff I’d found terrifying the day before was actually fairly easy. It was a bit like watching The Ring, but instead of an angry undead Japanese schoolgirl hellbent on revenge crawling out of the TV at the end, it turned out to be a friendly kitten wearing a hat and delivering flowers.
After a couple of laps around the green, I went around the ‘historical’ Janet Brae route which had some interesting views, and eventually reunited with Mr Toast, who was rather battered from the red. This may have had something to do with the lack of lunch – all we’d had that day was water, a bread roll and an Alpen bar (how very esoteric!). He ended up preceeding our large meal at the Prince of India with a sandwich, a giant bag of cola bottles and a Mars bar. Tall people evidently need a LOT of calories…
We decided to try one of the other 7Stanes trail centres.After reading the guide that came with one of the biking magazinesa few issues back, we decided to give Dalbeattie a go, under the impression it was one of the ‘easier’ centres, but still blessed with plenty of singletrack.
First up was the blue. I had high hopes for this trail, given how good the blue at Glentress is, and it did indeed get off to a promising start. There was a lot of long but simple boardwalk sections over boggy ground, with dragonflies darting about, followed by a nice bit of singletrack that’s shared with the red. Unfortunately, there was then a looooot of fireroad, all climbing. Followed by some downhill fireroad. There was interesting wildlife of the reptilian variety, but it was, alas, deaded. Bizarrely, they were only inches apart – I like to think they died battling like gladiators. Or Pokémon.
There was a little more singletrack, again sections that are shared with the red, which were entertaining but painfully short compared to the amount of fireroad. It left the blue feeling very disjointed – miles of wide, tame fireroad, punctuated by occasional singletrack with some tricky rock features.
After the blue we did a little of the red taster course, which featured…well, I call the lone roots on top of short climbs ‘Evil’, I’m not entirely sure what I should label this…
We then headed into town and got some lunch, before heading back to tackle the red. The red was fun, but bloody hell, the Scottish don’t half love their rockery. Plus their definition of ‘not very hilly’ is radically different to mine…
Got to see the Heart Stane, which is actually fairly near the start of the red. The trail up to this point had been narrow, but pretty tame.
After the Stane, it didn’t take us long to realise that our assessment of Dalbeattie as being one of the easier 7Stanes centres was a little…off. I felt a lot more confident than I had at Inners, possibly because I was used to seeing mental rocky obstacles. To be fair, a lot of them looked fairly terrifying, but were actually fairly easy to ride – there were a few cases where I got off the bike, walked over to assess a feature, then went back and rode it. But then again, there were a few cases where I didn’t…
After Inners and Dalbeattie, I have a new appreciation of how the grading system is actually fairly random. These were two trails that were graded the same as Llandegla and Follow the Dog, yet require a much higher level of technical ability. And obviously, the gap between a blue graded trail (even one that’s as singletrack heavy as Glentress) and these harder reds is absolutely vast. I’m not saying that the harder trails should be made easier, or the easier ones made harder, but perhaps there needs to be another good hard look at the grading system. I’d suggest something like this:
Red One: Features occasional red graded level obstacles and features (ala FtD and Llandegla)
Red Two: Features several red graded level obstacles and features (ala Glentress and Dalby red)
Red Three: Features frequent red graded level obstacles and features (Innerleithen, Dalbeattie)
Then again, it could just be what you’re used to – until I rode some Scottish reds, all the reds I’d ridden had been rooty rather than rocky (try saying that fast…) . Maybe I just percieve rocky stuff to be more difficult, I don’t know.
Needless to say, I didn’t ride the infamous Slab. Bizarrely, it didn’t look anywhere near as bad as I expected, but I’d seen far too many Youtube videos of people sliding down on their faces, so I decided to give it a miss!
I was exhausted by the end of the day, but quite chuffed. Normally I only really get to bike on a weekend, but this was my fourth day in a row, again riding stuff far harder than I was used to. I’m also not used to doing over 40km in one day either. As with Inners, I ended up riding stuff I normally wouldn’t even entertain the notion of riding – I think the really huge stuff desensitises you!
It was back to Glentress! After my performance at Dalbeattie, Mr Toast was reasonably confident I could tackle the red. And so I did – I didn’t ride particularly well, as my legs were really starting to protest against the unusual amount of work they’d been given over the past four days. The first section was particularly tricky, being quite steep and still quite muddy and slippy from the recent rain. Then there was the long climb. My main weakness in mountain biking is step-ups, climbing, and tight switchbacks, so the red climb which features tight switchbacks on the ascent with step-ups at the end of each section was particularly cruel. But, as you probably know, at the top of the climb is the famous Spooky Wood descent!
I’d admit, I took advantage of a fair few of the chicken runs (new for 2009, apparently), but it certainly deserves its reputation – it’s a lot of fun, and very fast. Rather oddly a large group of chavvy kids in some sort of school group arrived at the top just as we were setting off. They were gobby, insolent, chucking litter (and getting told off by their teacher), and riding Barracuda hardtails. But what can I say? They were at the highest point of the red route, and the vast majority managed the climb without pushing. Chavs of the Borders, I salute you!
Came out of the bottom of Spooky Wood exhilirated, but slightly wistful and wishing I’d hammered the tabletops with a bit more gusto. Took a photo of the Meteorite Stane!
The next few sections I found a bit tricky – very tight berms/switchbacks on steep descents, and on one of the rockier sections I managed to go over the handlebars. Slooooowly – I’d been hanging on the brakes, and the front wheel got knocked sideways by a rock. Bike lost momentum, but I didn’t – the back end of the bike came up, and I did some sort of sideways handstand still partially attached to the bike. I acquired a hefty bruise on the left shin to match the one on the right…not entirely sure how though…
There was more climbing (!) and then we hit Magic Mushroom. For me, this was one of the sections I enjoyed the most, probably down to the fact it was less technical than earlier sections, and I rode it confidently and with speed. Well, until I got to the large boardwalk – that gave me pause for thought, but looking at it I realised it was actually easier than the boardwalk at Cannock Chase (wider for a start), so it was all good!
Tourist Trap was also a lot of fun, and I was even ignoring the chicken runs on some obstacles, including rock gardens and step-ups – although the step-ups were more me ploughing into them as fast as possible with my weight back screaming “I’VE GOT 120mm OF TRAVEL, MOTHERFUCKER!”.
Still…that, dear reader, is what we call progress.
Alas, the following day my legs were far too battered to do anything – in fact, they’re still feeling a little worse for wear now. A lot of the pain is in my thighs – they’re just not used to endless climbs! – but there’s a bit of knee pain too – hopefully nothing that judicious use of knee peas and ibuprofen won’t sort. I went walking through Glentress along the Red Squirrel walk, and got plenty of photos, whilst Mr Toast sallied forth down the red route once more. It was a bit miserable getting back home – we really are rather fond of Scotland.
So, as you can probably tell, we had an awesome time north of the border. It was peaceful – a lot of people will bitch about Glentress always being too busy, but it was very quiet when we were there, apart from the Saturday. There was also a lot of wildlife – Mr Toast had a close encounter with a buzzard, a hare and some ‘small balls of fluff with beady eyes’. I saw some field voles (possibly the same species as the small balls of fluff), saw various birds of prey circling about (ospreys and buzzards, I’m assuming), and along the river side there were looooooooooooooooooads of herons.
As for the biking, I felt that I’ve pushed myself, and become a better rider as a result – I just hope I can keep it up on Follow the Dog! Must…tackle…Evil…Roots…