March 20, 2014
For this issue’s advance feature from the next issue of Singletrack Magazine, we visit the Tweed Valley towns of Innerleithen and Peebles to find out why the Enduro World Series wanted to come to this small, vibrant corner of Scotland.
This is the whole, advance feature from issue 88. If you don’t want to spoil the surprise, then don’t read it now and wait for your issue to drop through the letterbox (or the virtual one) next week.
The Tweed Valley – it’s not (just) about the mojitos.
Chipps ponders why riders, guides, photographers and the Enduro World Series all love the Tweed Valley. And why you should, too.
Words by Chipps, photos by Ian Linton.
“Have you tried one of these mojitos?” asks the short, older man to my left at the bar. He reminds me of a Scottish Tony Robinson.
“I’ve got a friend in Burnley and he drinks them all the time. I didn’t know they did them here. They’re pretty good!”
“I’ve just been to see a band playing down the road. What are you guys doing here?”
That’s it, I think. I’ve been in the bar of the Tontine Hotel for less than a minute, and I’ve met the town nutter. He’s either going to start singing, or dancing, or he wants a fight. Such is my slightly suspicious, cynical English way of thinking that I don’t for one minute believe he is actually being genuinely friendly and interested in what I am doing in Peebles. In the same way that I rarely believe that an American waitress really wants to know how I am this morning, so I find that few unprompted pub introductions come from sane or sober people.
But, like many misconceptions about Scotland, I’m wrong. “We’re here for the mountain biking,” I say, not quite sure what reception this will get. He turns to me, full of serious concentration and says: “Really? That’s great! What do you need to know? Where are you riding? Do you have a map? Let me mark down some trails you absolutely have to ride.”
And that’s that. Alan is our new mountain biking oracle for the next hour or so, filling us in with top tips on how best to ride into the forest from town (via Janet’s Brae), where to get the best pies (Forsyth’s in the high street) and the best Indian (Saffron in Innerleithen), and which secret local trails to ride (that would be telling…). Alan has tales of riding before the trail centres existed, on a clapped-out Puch racer and later a Giant NRS, and how he always packs a stove and some bacon when out for the day.
Show them the secret stuff!
What’s amazing about the Tweed Valley is that Alan isn’t a one-off.
It seems that everyone here wants to shout about how great the riding is and where to find the best trail off the well-beaten path to Glentress. There are riders who’ve ridden here for years. And there are riders who have moved here from across the country just to ride.
If you visited Peebles ten years ago, or even five years ago, you would hardly know that there was world-class riding all around. The Peebles of those days was old and stately and where coach parties went on their ‘Scotland in a week’ itineraries, with just enough time to buy shortbread and a postcard before being whisked further north.
Slowly, imperceptibly, the town has been shifting its attitude towards cycling. Bikes are now part of life there; the tourist board and the foresters are starting to appreciate that mountain bikers don’t mind spending a bit of money for an enjoyable experience as long as the welcome is warm, bikes are safe and portions are generous. The tiered cake stands they use to serve high tea at the Tontine are beautiful, but wouldn’t last five minutes when faced with a hungry rider – luckily the hoteliers know that mountain bikers will still be riding until it’s dark, so they can get the big portions out once the little old ladies have returned home for the evening.
In some parts of the country, local trails are just that: local. You need to be initiated into, and accepted as part of the trusted circle before some riders will link together their favourite bits of singletrack for you. Here though, they’ll organise a ride-out so that you can see it all or, in the case of the Enduro World Series, they’ll link them together and make a world-class racecourse.
You’d think that if you had endless trails that were already being visited by thousands of riders a year, you might be less than enthusiastic in encouraging even more riders to come to the area, but when we pitch up in February for a tour of the Tweed Valley, we meet nothing but scary-at-times enthusiasm.
We interrupt Neil Dalgleish, organiser of the TweedLove festival, in his office in mid-flow with Ian Linton, top mountain bike photographer who also happens to live in Innerleithen, as they discuss where we should go that day.
For a location where most riders park up and follow the coloured arrows, there seems to be an awful lot of choice on offer elsewhere too.
Now, every magazine and his dog (including Singletrack) has done a feature about getting out and exploring the landscape just outside the trail centre, but they always sound a little like hard work; and besides, you might get lost, and where would you get lunch anyway?
The reality, as many TweedLove enduro riders have discovered, is that it’s as simple as riding across the park, down a couple of back streets and you’re suddenly in a completely different world of more natural-feeling trails, with just a couple of dog walkers and one or two other tyre marks for company on a trail that belongs to you for the day. Ignore the siren song of the big car parks and you get big views in return.
Neil’s been putting on TweedLove for a few years now and he’s obviously had a hard time persuading riders, even local ones at times, that it’s not just about the waymarked trails. Obviously they’re there if you want them, and are great fun, but it’s easy enough to put together a ride that doesn’t rely on them.
Last year’s POC King & Queen of the Hill enduro started off with a couple of stages that were pure trail centre, but as the day rolled on, the trails became less groomed and more natural-feeling. The climbs were less forgiving too, but now that enduro has made climbing on a bike fashionable again, most riders don’t throw a hissy fit at the first sign of a one-in-four.
Enduro shopping list
The ‘e’ word has been buzzing all over the Tweed Valley this spring, thanks to the decision of the Enduro World Series to hold a round based in Peebles this year.
The event will suddenly put the place on the world stage and, just as no one had heard of Punta Ala before last year but everybody wants to ride there now, so Peebles, Innerleithen and surroundings will come to the attention of a far wider audience than before. But what made the EWS choose the place? Surely there’s a whole world of rad trails out there?
There seem to have been many factors at play. A world-class enduro needs a lot of space. Its riders need to be tested with fast, flowing, often steep trails, but they also need to be run ragged on the transition stages – otherwise it becomes less of an enduro and more a day of short downhill races, with pushes back up in between. No, the top level riders will be on the bikes for a good six hours a day and there needs to be the terrain to stretch them that way. The Tweed Valley certainly seems to have that – and Scotland’s enlightened access laws also encourage decent rides out.
Then there are the downhill portions of the trails; the main reason why riders will haul themselves and their bikes back uphill again and again. The descents here can vary from the smooth, very fast, hard-packed blue routes, through the hilltop slivers of natural singletrack – boots brushing the heather – and then the hand-cut, precipitous plummets through the pines over by the golf course. With regular downhill races around the place, as well as the established trails, there are limitless combinations that can be deployed to give a ride that grades from mild to wild. We suspect the latter will probably be invoked for the EWS.
Up, up, up…
Our first taster of our day in the Tweed Valley is a trip over to Cademuir Forest.
It’s an easy ten-minute spin from the middle of Peebles, yet is virtually deserted. There’s a well-graded forest track from the car park that slowly conquers the whole hillside. Unfortunately for us, we’re on the ‘best of’ tour and in order to see as many of the best bits as possible, we have to take the shorter, steeper climb through the trees. Before long, we’ve gained the altitude, and the view. From one side of a stump on the summit, you can see the trails slowly dropping off the edge back towards Peebles. Turning though 180° the view is altogether more wild, with more trails disappearing away, only this time towards imposing-looking hillsides and distant, snow-dusted mountains.
After a few shots, we turn a further 90° and disappear into the deep, dark woodland. The forest floor is moss-lined and the low, wan, winter sunlight drips through the trees as we take in some of the trails that made up last year’s POC King & Queen of the Hill enduro stages.
Natural in feel, with plenty of slither on the spring loam, these are the trails that forum users inevitably ask about. “I went to Glentress and I didn’t see anything like that.” All that’s needed is to wander a few hundred yards off the beaten track and you’ll find them. There are roots and log drops, but unlike many pirate trails you find in your local woods, there seem to be no unannounced big holes, direction changes or commit-or-die moves. Just a lot of flow to reward a smooth rider (and roots to take down any mountain bike journos who’ve not had enough coffee).
As we join up with one of the more committing trails, the difference between a fast, experienced local rider and a jobbing journo becomes apparent. The trail dips down, cut into the bare earth under the trees, unveiling the ‘sniper roots’ below, that are inevitably at diagonals to your intended direction. Unfortunate tyre choice means the tripod and the mince are the order of the morning.
An average rider can probably ride everything on offer here, but to ride it smoothly and consistently all day – that’s what enduro racers are training for. If they get it right, they get to ride like a local, even on unfamiliar trails. Not a bad skill to cultivate.
There’s enough in this one small forest to keep you amused for a whole summer afternoon, and looking around at the patchwork quilt of fields and forests in the Tweed Valley, you do wonder what else is out there.
We decide to give Forsyth’s butchers in town a miss for our lunch stop – after all, a macaroni or lasagne pie needs to be truly earned and we don’t think we’ve done enough.
Pulling up instead at the Glentress Peel trail centre car park, we make for the creditable baked potatoes and home-made chilli. We’ll regret this in a few short minutes though as we make our way to Innerleithen, just five miles down the road – and now linked by an off-road cycle path that allows you to double the trails on offer without increasing the tarmac toll.
Stopping briefly at i-cycles to pick up owner Steve and visiting Silverfish rep, Raul, we skip over to the Innerleithen golf course. No putting for us today; we ride up into the forest behind the modest clubhouse and into the giant forest behind. No climb comes that easy, and this one feels long and full of chilli-burps, but the winter sunshine has stayed with us and the pace is conversational enough. We pause our mission to the top to briefly throw Richard, Dan and Steve down a clattery, shaley wall, partly for the camera and mostly for the breaking crockery noise they make as they free-ski their way down the vaguest hint of trail.
Back on track, we eventually top out by the old dry hilltop reservoir that used to power the textile factories down in the town. Even though it seems that we are at the top of the climb, there is still more climbing to do. Scottish hills seem to like doing that to you. We slide and shimmy up through the heather until we are finally, honestly, at the top of the descent.
Dropping straight into a black forest with a two-wheel drift towards the waiting tree trunks, I’m not sure if we’ve made the right move; at least hill climbs only hurt in a predictable manner, whereas this descent could go well, or could get painful very quickly. This is likely to be the kind of trail that the organisers are looking for in an enduro stage. It rewards strong, confident riders and penalises riders who aren’t comfortable riding on that slightly ragged edge for extended periods of time.
Tweed tick list
Our local guides are again keen to point out the great trails that branch off in all directions, making us vow to return and try to ride them all.
Although the trails all have the feel of a natural ‘desire line’ through the woods, they’ve generally all been carefully dug in and shored up so that they’ll ride consistently well in all weathers and not just fall down the hill. There seems to be a good relationship with Forestry Commission Scotland, one that realises the benefit of riders coming to the area to use the forests, and the official trail builders, who appreciate that they’re using the land with permission and are keen to build trails that’ll ride well and last well.
We climb again, taking in another local favourite – this time fast and open, with plenty of opportunity for our shallow-treaded, trail-centre-friendly tyres to drift wide, eliciting squeals of excitement as riders fight to regain a slide here and a speed wobble there.
And that’s the end of our ride. It’s always a disappointment to finally see the car park looming close at the end of a ride, but we have a long drive home to do. As we say goodbye to our hosts, we know that we’ll be back to see some of the trails they’ve pointed out throughout the day. And we also knew that they’ll be showing a different group of friends, or lost visitors, or pro riders, around some different trails in the next days and weeks.
That’s just how it seems to go here; the more the locals show strangers around their trails, the more people vow to return – and yet the off-piste trails never seem to get busier. Possibly because riders still don’t want to leave the arrowed confines of the trail centres and possibly because there are so many new trails appearing all the time that there’s always enough miles of trails in which to lose everyone.
Why EWS? Why?
We went right to the top and asked Enrico Guala, one of the organisers of the EWS and enduro event pioneer himself, why the Enduro World Series chose the UK, and the Tweed Valley in particular.
“To answer your question, we felt like we could not leave [the] UK without an EWS for more than a year. The first season, we set the EWS events based on existing events and well-known organisations that could provide us with a strong first season and it paid off.
“For the second year it would have been impossible not to visit a country [like the UK] with such a strong trail riding culture. What I really think the EWS should do is to be able to be a riding experience for the riders attending it, letting them race on a variety of terrains that could also express the local MTB culture.
“French Alps, Mediterranean Sea, British Columbia, altitude trails in Colorado, the Andes – every single event becomes an experience and something each rider can put in his personal ‘backpack’ of experience. It’s not just the riding, but the food, spirit, air, landscapes, fauna, people, history, local culture and tradition that we want to showcase through the kind of racing (damn high level of racing!) that is closer to the essence of mountain biking.
“And, I’ve never been to Scotland, so I have one more excuse to come and finally visit.”
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This story first appeared in issue 88 of Singletrack. Subscribe, buy print and buy digital!