Hurtling down some of the Tweed Valley’s finest off piste trails in prime condition, with the sun beating down on bare forearms, you’d never have known that only a week earlier, the very same trails had been covered in snow.
With Vallelujah, the first of the 2018 Tweedlove Triple Crown Enduro series looming, and the “Beast from the East” showing no signs of retreat, the organisers had had to change the planned course at the eleventh hour, in case the snow on some of the higher trails didn’t melt in time . This had required some last minute trail building and maintenance, but thanks to their awesome team of trail fairies, by Saturday morning, an alternative, and equally epic course was taped up and ready for the 500+ riders who were raring to rip it up.
When we rocked up at the event base in the grounds of Peebles’ Park Hotel, not only was the sun shining, but it actually felt warm enough to bust out the summer riding kit. Full of the joys of spring, we set off to practice the course.
The first three stages were up at Cademuir; a small forest on the outskirts of Peebles that’s home to some of the valley’s original mtb trails, but which now often gets overlooked in favour of the bigger and more developed areas at Glentress and Innerleithen. Although not particularly long, the Cademuir stages were great fun, featuring steep, tight, twisty trails through the trees with loads of roots and rocks to spice things up. Despite the fact that several weeks’ worth of snow had recently melted, the trails were surprisingly dry and grippy, which was something we were particularly thankful for on the steep stuff at the end of Stage Two.
After checking out the three stages at Cademuir, a fairly long transition took us back through Peebles, and over to Glentress for the next three stages. With elevation being greater on that side of the valley, this was where most of the changes to the original course had been made. Stage Four, version 2 started on the aptly named Mud ‘n’ Roots; a tight, nadgery trail through the dense forest, with plenty of awkwardly positioned roots to contend with, and made trickier still by a lack of gradient in places. However, the gradient was at least working in our favour at this point, which is more than could be said for the seemingly endless fireroad climb that we encountered next. Fortunately it led to another great descent in the form of Brown Trout; another twisty, rooty trail through the dense forest.
Stage Five was another back-up to replace a snow bound original, and consisted of two classic sections of the trail centre black route: The Bitch and Ponduro, linked by a bit of off piste. Techy, and steep in places, it was great fun, and much easier on the legs.
However, the biggest and best had been saved until last. Six was a 3.6km epic stage, starting with the fast, rooty and wild ride, known as Ho Chi Min. After the open top section, we were funnelled into the trees, where the trail began snaking down through the forest. After a while, the gradient levelled out, requiring more and more pedalling until the undulating terrain was more a climb than a descent. However, this was nothing compared to the steep fire road climb that we were faced with after popping out of the trees. Finding myself out of my saddle on the practice run did not bode well for the race run, when, after 30km and five and a half previous stages, I would be certain to have even less in the tank.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we were descending through the trees again, which gave the legs a welcome rest, but worked the arms instead. Further down there was another uphill fire road sprint, but it paled into insignificance compared to the one that had preceded. The stage ended with the awesome Dave’s trail, with its steep drops and sharp bends, to keep you pinned until the very end.
The sun was still shining by the next morning, although it felt pretty chilly waiting to start the race at 8.30am. The push up through the mud to the top of Stage One was enough to get the blood flowing though, and, as I was the first of the group of seeded girls to set off, there was no risk of cooling down again at the top.
Indeed, some fairly tight transition times between the stages, combined with the uncustomary presence of warm sunshine ensured that body temperature remained high throughout the race. There was certainly no margin for error when getting between stages, which a race buddy and I discovered when we took a wrong turn on the long transition from Cademuir over to Glentress, after spending more time chatting than paying attention to where we were going.
After realising that we hadn’t seen a sign for a while, we had to turn around and pedal like mad over to Glentress and up the long slog of a fire road to the start of Stage Four, arriving just a few minutes before we were due to race. Of all the stages not to have a breather before, this was definitely one of the worst, particularly having just beasted myself to get there in time. As it turned out, it didn’t feel as hard as I’d expected, and even the endless fire road climb didn’t feel too punishing.
However, fatigue caught up with me near the end of Stage Five, where I had a silly crash. Fortunately, I was only down for a few seconds though, and managed to hold it together for the rest of the stage.
Once again, there was no time to take a breather before pushing on up to the top of the final stage, with another extremely tight transition time to meet. Despite climbing at a fair pace, it soon became apparent that there was no way we were going to get to the top in the allocated time, and by this point, we all needed to pause for a bite to eat, especially with the epic stage that lay ahead. Before the final climb, we decided to stop and wait for all the girls to catch up and refuel before continuing to the top. That way, if there were any time penalties to be faced, we’d all be in the same boat. Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and it was agreed that they’d got the timings wrong in the revised course.
Feeling a little more energised for the quick break and some sustenance, I set off down “Snow Chi Mihn”, which fortunately didn’t live up to it’s reworked title. After flying down the top section on the edge of control, an increase in tree count eventually forced me to reign it in a bit. As suspected, the steep fireroad climb was tough, and I ended up getting off and running up the final stretch, with legs like jelly. Fortunately, the fast fire road descent that followed gave them the chance to recover before dropping back into the trees for another fast, flowing blast to the finish.
By that point, there was so much stoke and adrenaline pumping through my body that it seemed to mask the fatigue, or perhaps I just wasn’t pushing hard enough, but by the time I reached the end, I felt totally elated. It’s rare that you get to ride such a fantastic descent (mostly) of that length in this country, and it was an awesome end to a cracking race. Stoke levels were increased further still when I learned that I’d come second in a stacked Women’s Masters (30+) category, beaten only by the speed machine that is Roslynn Newman!
A couple of beers in the sun followed by a podium champagne shower provided the perfect end to an awesome weekend that I was still buzzing from a good few days later.
Next in the series is the three-day British Enduro Championships in June, which is likely to be my most challenging race to date. Bring it on!