The last time I competed in a Tweedlove enduro I thought I was going to die. I’d only been riding for a year and it was my second ever race, but what I initially thought would be an unintimidating race on my local trails, turned out to be the Scottish Open Championships, featuring a 40km course with 1300m elevation, taking in some of the area’s gnarliest trails. I slogged, slid and slammed my way round the course, feeling well and truly out of my depth, but managed to get round in one piece, give or take numerous scrapes and bruises, and a tennis-ball-sized hematoma.
Two years down the line, with a number more enduros under my belt, including the ten stage epic that was the National Enduro Championships, I was keen to revisit the Tweedlove series, but this year’s events had all clashed with other engagements. However, the week before the third and final race of the series, King and Queen of the Hill/Scottish Open Championships, I realised I’d be able to make it after all, so put the word out on social media to see if there might be any entries up for grabs. As it happened, Janey Kennedy, the series leader, had injured herself racing the previous weekend and was out of action, so kindly let me have her race entry. No pressure then!
We didn’t make it to Innerleithen until early afternoon on the Saturday, but managed to get a practice run of all the stages, with the exception of Stage One, which we decided just to ride blind on the day.
With three stages over at Caberston forest, aka, “the Golfie” and two on the other side of the valley at Traquair, it was an awesome course that was both technically and physically challenging, but most of all, great fun. The trails were also running great, and by the time we finished, I couldn’t wait to ride it again the next day.
As we’d stepped in at last minute and were too late to be seeded, we were allocated a very civilized race start time of 11am on the Sunday, in the final wave of riders. The weather was dry and mild as we set off, and forecast to stay that way, which was a big relief, especially given the atrocious conditions that have blighted some of the Tweedlove events.
The race started with a big old climb through Caberston forest, right up to the top of Priesthope Hill for the start of Stage One, on a section of trail known as “New Wolf”. The same trail had been used two years previously where it had provided an education on the varying consistencies of mud and how rapidly they can change. Other than going from sliding down a liquid mud chute one minute, to struggling to carry my crud clogged bike through a quagmire, the next, I remembered very little about the trail, but once I set off, a few memories were triggered. Two years on, the muddy chute had become a deep channel and it was a bit like riding a luge. Once in, you just had to go with it, steering round the tight corners, negotiating sniper roots, and trying not to catch your pedals on the walls of the rut. Although not quite as bad as before, I still got stuck in the muddy flat section, but fortunately, this time, didn’t have to scoop handfuls of mud from my bike’s nether regions in order to get going again. Further down it was actually fairly dry, and although pretty steep and tight in places, it was much easier to ride, and great fun.
Stage Two involved another long transition up onto the purple plateau of Priesthope Hill, but instead of climbing to the summit, we traversed round the back of the hill to a trail known locally as “Boner”. While I might not go as far as to say it aroused me sexually, it was definitely one of the best trails I’d ridden in a while and had me absolutely buzzing by the end. It was a tight, twisty and technical descent through the trees with some pretty steep sections and big root-lined drops. Fortunately it was nowhere near as muddy as Stage One, making it much easier to hold your line, but that didn’t stop me catching my bars going through one of the tight gaps, and being spat head first over the bars. Fortunately, a bit of helmet adjusting was all that was required to get going again, but it was another annoying time penalty.
Stage Three was back over on the front side of Caberston Forest and combined a couple of classic Golfie descents; ‘Community Service’ and ‘Final Fling’. The stage had also featured in my Tweedlove debut and was one of the sections where I thought I was going to meet my maker. I remember rag-dolling and walking down much of it in practice, and although I fared a bit better in the race, it still wasn’t pretty. Fortunately this time round I was able to ride the steep, stepped chute with much greater ease, and managed to keep it rubber side down for the duration.
With forearms and thighs burning, I was grateful for the gentle spin over to the other side of Innerleithen for the first of two gruelling ascents through Traquair forest. Stage Four was down Cadon Bank on a section of trail known by many as the final descent on the Innerleithen XC loop. I’d only ridden it once before, when I first started mountain biking, but its trail centre format threw up few surprises, other than the odd tight corner. Although not as technically challenging as the other stages, it was a fast, flowing, adrenaline-inducing blast that earned me a stage win in my category.
By the time we got to the bottom of Stage Four, there were a lot of riders milling around having finished the race, which made it all the harder to drag my weary body up to the heights of Traquir Forest for the longest, and arguably most physically demanding of the stages. The delicious cakes at the feed station provided a well-needed sugar burst that helped to propel me most of the way up the long fire road slog, but by the time it came to the final push-up to the top, I was really starting to flag. I took a gel, which just made me feel nauseous, and more alarmingly, my vision was starting to blur. A little bit of a wait at the start of Stage Five provided a well-needed rest before the final onslaught, but by this point I was just looking forward to getting to the bottom.
Fortunately adrenaline kicked in when I set off, and I actually had a pretty decent run down, managing to take the best lines, hit all the drops and even power up the nasty mid-stage climb. However, I was reminded of my body’s fatigued state when my fingers and hands started to cramp up – not ideal when you’re hurtling down through tight trees and kinda need your braking fingers to work. I managed to keep it at bay by stretching out my fingers, but as the descent continued, I started to feel the burn in my arms and thighs too. At this point my inner voice piped up, urging myself to hold it together. The race had all gone relatively well until this point and I was determined not to mess it up at this stage.
As this was the first stage we’d practiced, I could barely remember it, but as spectators started to line the track, I could tell I was nearing the end. Amongst the blur of faces I saw Dan, who I wasn’t expecting to see until the finish line. In my energy deprived state, I must’ve thought I was at the end of the course, and, rather than taking the sharp right turn into a bomb hole, I launched myself straight off the edge, plunging through the tape, and skidding to a halt down the steep embankment. It was one of those sequences that feels like it’s happening in slow motion, and had it been a cartoon, I’d definitely have been pedalling backwards, desperately trying to rewind. Fortunately I managed to come to a controlled stop, but had to haul my bike back up the steep slope and remount on the ridiculously steep lip of the bomb hole. I couldn’t believe it. I was literally seconds from finishing the race and had managed to mess up quite spectacularly.
Despite losing a big chunk of time, I’d managed to do well enough in the rest of the race to finish third in my category, which helped to soothe my damaged pride. Lewis Buchanan and Ella Conolly were crowned King and Queen of the Hill with the fastest times of the day, and Gary Forrest and Melissa Pearson took the Triple Crown for clocking up the most point during the overall series.
Although it didn’t end quite the way I’d have liked, I still came away buzzing from what had been a fantastic weekend. It was undoubtedly a tough race, but unlike the last Tweedlove event I entered, at no point did I feel like I was going to die, unless, of course, you count the embarrassment of seeing my woeful blunder splashed across social media, captured perfectly by mtb snapper extraordinaire, Jerry Tatton, who just so happened to be standing next to Dan, with camera poised, when I ploughed through the tape. Cringe.