“If you asked me where the best riding was, anywhere in the world, I’d have to say the Tweed Valley.” The man making this bold statement is Neil Dalgleish, a man who believed enough in the place to leave a career in marketing and design in Edinburgh, move back to an area that seemed forgotten about by everyone except forestry workers and retirees, and start a mountain bike festival.
Tweedlove is now a huge event that draws in over a thousand riders and will take over the sleepy centre of Peebles for an entire weekend, starting on 8 June. The fact that the valley is also home to Glentress and Innerleithen, two of the best-known trail centres in the UK, doesn’t do the festival any harm. But there’s much more to Tweedlove than these two classics. This year it includes a round of the British Enduro Championships, a huge bike demo day, an urban cyclocross race, guided rides, skills sessions, film screenings, family bike rides, a gravel event and a road sportive.
The Tweedlove events programme has also spread throughout the summer, including the May’s Glentress 7 XC endurance race and Enjoyro (think enduro, but with less uncertainty about whether you’ll get to the bottom in one piece), and the King and Queen of the Hill enduro in August. And it’s more than just mountain bikes, with the Gran Fonduro gravel ride, and even a closed road sportive, the Tour O The Borders, in September.
With his wife Fiona and mountain bike legends Emma Guy and Tracey Brunger, Neil started hatching the plans for the first Tweedlove in 2009. Emma and Tracey stepped back after the first year (Emma now works for Tweed Valley Business Improvement District) and Neil assembled a team drawn largely from within the valley. Tweedlove photographer-in-residence Ian Linton used to work in a local cloth mill, and turned his hand to photography when it closed down. He was one of the original documenters of the British Downhill Series, “back when there were only three of us doing it” and now he’s responsible for most of the images you’ll see of Tweedlove. Videographer Rich also returned to the area after growing up in the hills above Traquair. Enduro organiser and “voice of Tweedlove” Jamie moved up from London, and him and his family are immersed in the local riding and racing scene. Together with Tweedlove factotum and fixer extraordinaire Stuart, these are my riding companions for the next two days, as I get a guided tour of some of the best riding in the valley.
The trip starts with a van ride out to the legendary Golfie – a forest above Innerleithen into which local riders have hand cut some absolutely classic trails. Steep, rooty and technical, the riding here isn’t for beginners. It has also been the focus of some controversy recently, even making it onto national TV as the BBC Scotland programme Landward highlighted the proliferation of unsanctioned trail building in the area. Luckily the situation is less dramatic than the “war” portrayed by the Beeb, and the trails, while unofficial, are tolerated by the Forestry Commission and used with permission for events, including Tweedlove’s core enduros. There’s also a degree of self-regulation, with badly built trail features getting removed by the local riding community, and an aversion to cutting fresh tracks to use just for one event.
The top of the climb is signalled by a huge concrete oblong, formerly the reservoir that supplied the town with water. Then we’re off down one of the maze of tracks through the woods, which starts gently before steepening up into a proper test of nerve. We pause so the photographers can set up and a couple more riders bomb past, back wheels skittering on the stony ground, on another track that’s only a few metres away. How many trails are there in these woods? No-one seems to know for sure, although Ian tells me that a couple of locals tried to ride them all in one day last year, but had to admit defeat – although choosing the hottest day of the year probably didn’t help.
After being chucked in at the deep end, the next trail, Flat White, is slightly more mellow, although still plenty steep compared to what I’m used to. The trails are well-built enough to be rideable with a moderate amount of skill and a fair dollop of commitment, although there are others in the woods that up the ante even more, with long, steep chutes being a particular trademark.
The selection of tracks to use for each enduro is hotly debated, with organisers trying to keep the difficulty level just right. In general, the difficulty level ramps up through the year, with March’s Vallelujah using fun but predictable tracks, and August’s King and Queen of the Hill pushing riders much harder. Neil tells me that occasionally riders who’ve entered an enduro will hand back their number board after practice, opting not to do the main event. Even good technical riders can be dealt a nasty surprise by the transitions, as they finish their sprint up a fire road to be greeted by a trail with a -30% start made of rocks, roots and pure evil.
Enduro is very much at the core of Tweedlove, and you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as a niche event for the hardcore riders, but the standard of riding on the scene is high enough to assure huge interest in their events. Throw in the other elements – the XC races, the film nights and the demos – and the festival is a major draw for the area, pulling in thousands of visitors every year. “We survey all our visitors and use an economic impact calculator, and we reckon we’ve made £8 to £9 million for the local economy over the lifespan of the festival” says Neil. “The finances for individual events can be hellish tight, but you forget all that when you see people having a good time.”
All the Tweedlove team are evangelical about the benefits mountain biking has brought to an area previously synonymous with a dwindling textile industry. Over lunch, Ian reminisces about days growing up in the valley with a limited amount of recreation on offer. “You’d go to the local youth disco, and if there hadn’t been a fight by closing time, you’d wonder who was on holiday” he says with a grin. With a straighter face, Jamie tells me that according to the local police there’s been less antisocial behaviour in the valley since the mountain bike developments. He has three children of his own who are already super-keen riders, and it’s rapidly becoming obvious why the festival programme features so many events for the young ‘uns.
For that afternoon’s riding, we head one step further up the valley to Thornielee, another patch of woodland with tracks which have been used for events. The trails are just as steep and committing as the Golfie, but with added rocks. The hills, which look so rolling and gentle from the valley floor, also get steeper as you head down, making it easy to get lulled into riding outside your ability. We manage one top-to-bottom run of the hill, complete with a few photo stops and comedy crashes, before everyone decides they’ve pushed their luck enough. It’s time for me to check into my hotel, the Peebles Hydro, a stately Victorian behemoth of a place that’s currently being modernised by forward-thinking new owners, who have mountain biking front and centre in the suggested activities for visitors.
Over dinner at Cringletie House, an amazing Scottish Baronial country hotel just outside town, we’re joined by more locals, including skills coach Andy Weir from Ridelines, who was in at the start of trail developments in the valley, and Gavin Thornley, who set up one of the four (yes, four) local kids’ riding clubs. The chat ranges all over the place, from how to make next year’s urban cyclocross more fun (one suggestion is to add some hecklers dressed as angry farmers, a nod to the group who took issue with last year’s Tour O The Borders), to trail politics and development. With a major expansion scheduled for the trails at Glentress, the town looks set to attract even more mountain biking visitors, but there’s also been a rise in the number of people moving to the area just for the riding. “It’s becoming a bit like a ski town” says Neil. The number of businesses run by riders is also increasing, with the area supporting around half a dozen bike shops.
The next morning’s activities start with a gravel ride, and we’re able to spin straight out from the door of the hotel, up through the bluebell-filled woods of Janet’s Brae, before dropping into the back of the Glentress trail centre. Neil explains that this is a sneak preview of a route they’re hoping to use for September’s Bombtrack Gran Fonduro, a gravel ride with enduro-style timed sections. We ride past the top of the Red and the Black and burst out onto open hillside, with views way up the valley.
There’s a fast and sketchy descent back down to the river before we head up into the forest again, and after a brutal climb we hit a track that threads through the middle of the biggest wind farm I’ve ever seen. Being up so close to the massive turbines is a new experience for me, and quite awe-inspiring. As you’d expect, there’s a fresh breeze blowing, and we don’t linger too long before heading back down to the valley floor. We chaingang back into town and I also get a taste of the incredibly quiet roads in the area – compared to some other places I’ve ridden, it’s like stepping back in time 40 years.
Lunch is lined up for us at Number 1 Peebles Road in Innerleithen, the start or finish of many a local mountain bike ride. We’re joined there by Grant Ferguson and Isla Short, two of Scotland’s best XC racers, who also just happen to be Tweed Valley locals. Grant in particular has seen an amazing career develop almost in parallel to the trails in the valley, before going on to represent Great Britain at the 2016 Olympics and becoming British cyclocross champion to boot.
“We moved here when I was 7 or 8, just before the trail centre was built at Glentress” Grant says. “There was nothing here at the time. I remember when the freeride area opened and it was a really big deal! I started out racing downhill, then found I was better at going uphill.” Grant was spotted by Emma and Tracey at the Hub, who sponsored him to race, and the rest is history. Isla moved to the valley more recently, but is completely sold on its charms. “It’s got every type of riding round here, and the trails aren’t too busy either.”
Both racers have demanding schedules (“I basically have to train all summer, and the only time I get to ride for fun is in winter” Isla tells me) so the tight-knit riding scene in the Tweed Valley, together with the range of trails, makes it a perfect base. The diversity of the riding is reflected by the versatility of the riders: Grant and Isla are both more than happy to join in at the valley’s enduros, as long as they don’t clash with their World Cup racing commitments, and Isla enthuses about Cardrona’s new pump track.
Another racer I speak to later, 14 year-old Callum Thornley, is sponsored by Tweedlove and recently won his category at Vallelujah with a time that would have placed him at the top of the seniors podium. “I’m racing two enduro series this year, plus the Scottish XC series and some road crits” he says. “I started out riding trails like Blue Velvet and the Peebles Cycling Club Dirt Crits. I remember looking up to riders like Grant, seeing him and thinking ‘He’s been to the Olympics!'” Grant and Callum’s progression through kids’ clubs to racing has been followed by many riders in the valley, including enduro superstar Katy Winton. With a huge range of trails a short ride or drive from town, plus a thriving events scene, it’s an environment that seems to churn out fast racers.
Lunch troughed and flat whites quaffed, we head up the hill to find some fun. A hootsome trail with flowy corners is located, and we form a slightly improbable train for Ian’s camera, before heading further down the hill to finish with some classic Inners DH tracks. Isla is running a dropper post on her 29er race hardtail, and makes the steeps look ridiculously smooth, while Grant bombs down everything with his seat in the traditional position, before he ends up teetering on the cusp of a ridiculous chute near the bottom of Gold Run.
There are massive grins all round, and as we pedal back to town it dawns on me that all the top class riding over the past couple of days has taken place within roughly ten square miles. Best riding in the world? If we’re judging by quality, quantity and proximity, the Tweed Valley has got to be up there.
To find out more about Tweedlove’s programme of events and social rides, check out their website.