Lined up next to the likes of Katy Winton, Bex Baraona, Ella Conolly and other EWS regulars, waiting to start the Tweedlove British Enduro Championships, it dawned on me that this was by far the biggest race I’d ever entered. If I wasn’t already anxious about the 53km loop with 1600m elevation and 6 tough stages that lay in wait, having to take to the stage for a mini interview before setting off, did little to calm my nerves, although it did make me feel pretty pro!
When my turn came, the MC kindly complimented me on my Biketreks team kit, before pointing out that it didn’t match my bike. Talk about giving a girl a complex! How was I going to focus on the race now that I was preoccupied by the lack of harmony between my ‘pine’ jersey and bright red Mojo 3? Fortunately I don’t think anyone else cared, least of all myself, and by the time I left Peebles, my concerns had shifted from my fashion faux pas to making the tight transition time, and desperately trying to remember what the first stage involved.
With practice having taken place over two days, my recce down Stages 1 and 2 on the Traquair side of Innerleithen seemed like a very long time ago. However, as we pedalled up the relentlessly long transition to the top, catching glimpses of the taped stages along the way, some of it started to come flooding back. Ah yes, that brutal fire road sprint… those nasty off camber roots…
Without much time to spare, we arrived at the top of Stage 1 and lined up in our order of seeding, with Katy, Bex and Ella dropping in first. With only 20 seconds between the riders, it wasn’t long before my turn came around, and I set off down the top section of ‘Matador’, or ‘Morning Glory’, as it had been christened for the race. Unfortunately there was nothing perky about my start to race, and it took me ages to get going and find some flow (was probably still worrying about my clashing kit). The long fire road sprint at the end of the first section seemed to wake me up a bit, and dropping into the next section, I felt a little more on it. Over the sound of my heaving lungs, I could hear the girl behind me gaining ground, which spurred me on further still, and I flew down the rest of the trail with her in hot pursuit.
Next it was back up to the top for Stage 2, or ‘Fool’s Gold’, which took in parts of the Inners classic ‘Gold Run’ as well as dipping into a handful of other trails. At 1.6km, it was the longest stage of the race, but it flowed so well that it didn’t feel all that long. Having said that, by the time I got to the familiar tight, steep berms at the end, my thighs and forearms were starting to burn, and I had to urge myself to hold it together down the bone dry, loose corners.
Despite the fact that there had been thunder storms forecast for the weekend, other than a brief shower on Saturday evening, the weather had been warm and dry, ensuring that the trails remained as uncharacteristically dry and dusty as they’d been for Round 2 of the Scottish Enduro Series two weeks previously. The hot weather also made the long transitions even harder and thirstier work than usual, so I was extremely relieved to arrive at the water and feed station before starting the long slog up to the top of Stage 3, particularly as I’d decided to go full enduro with just one water bottle and a bum bag for tools and a few snacks.
Stages 3, 4 and 5 were all over at the Golfie, with 3 starting near the top of Priesthope Hill and dropping right down through the forest, to the golf course at the bottom. It was an awesome flowy descent, which definitely lived up to its title, ‘Scotland, the perfect stage’. At 1.4km, it was slightly shorter than Stage 2, but it actually felt longer to me, which may have been due to the large number of dips in the trail that required pumping, or because it was a bit more pedally, but either way, I was definitely feeling it by the time I popped out of the forest at the end.
With tight transition times to meet, there was no time to pause for breath after the stages, so recovery had to happen whilst spinning back up the fire road en route to Stage 4. The ominously titled ‘F.E.A.R’ also started amidst the heather on Priesthope Hill, but this time we were headed down the other side, on what’s more commonly, and less forebodingly, referred to as ‘Waterworld’. While not quite as scary as the stage name would suggest, this was definitely one of the toughest, and one that many riders, myself included, were most apprehensive about. Having ridden, and raced, it for the first time at Round 2 of the SES, I was familiar with its precipitous chutes, big steps, tight corners and sharp mid-stage climb. However, despite the fact that conditions were still as dry as they were then, the trail was riding quite differently, and seemed a lot more greasy, with some big loose rocks to dodge. Other than the odd dab, I made it down the steep section without any major issues, then hit the rocky riverbed, which even in the most prolonged of heatwaves, was pretty wet. Although the gradient had eased off, the loose, wet trail with tight bends through the dense trees was still pretty wild, culminating in a swooping rollercoaster-esque section with plenty of opportunities to get airborne. By the time I reached the finish, I was absolutely buzzing, not least to have got down without incident.
The stoke from Stage 4 carried me up the long fire road climb to to the top of Stage 5, where another vertiginous and techy stage awaited. The appropriately named ‘Born Slippy’ took us down the super steep Pirn Craig and ran adjacent to ‘Liver Damage’, which I’d ridden a couple of times before. The stage started by winding down the open hillside on a tight twisty trail, before entering the forest via a log drop. No sooner had you landed the drop than you were met with a couple of massive roots that really had to be gapped. This would’ve been fine, had there not been another pair of similarly spaced roots lying in wait straight afterwards. After sessioning it a couple of times in practice I managed to get it right, only to mess it up on my race run, and end up hitting the deck. Once again, the omnipresent Dialled In Photography were there to capture the carnage (I swear they lay trip wires just to get some good crash shots!), so at least I got another cracker to add to my, ever increasing, crash compendium. The rest of the stage consisted of a series of brake-meltingly steep off-camber chutes interspersed with some flatter ledges to regain composure. I managed to hold on to the end, but as I crossed the finish line, my burning thighs and forearms gave way and I crumpled to the ground in an exhausted heap.
After taking a moment to recompose myself, I set off on the long transition back to Glentress for the final stage, reassured by the fact that the toughest of the stages were out of the way, and we were nearly done. After busting my, already weary, guts to get to Stage 6 on time, I arrived to find most of the elite men were still waiting to race. Unfortunately someone had crashed badly on the stage, and they’d had to close it until the medics had managed to get him down safely. It’s never nice waiting around knowing that someone’s hurt themselves on a trail that you’re about to ride, but it did at least give us the opportunity to have a breather before the final descent.
Stage 6 was the shortest, and arguably easiest of all the stages, which at this point, came as welcome relief. The fast, flowy ‘Fort’ descent, or ‘There’s No Other Way’ as it was being dubbed for the race, had just enough tech to keep it fun and interesting without it being too tough for weary riders. That said, it did have some tricky bits further down. At one point, the trail split into an easier and harder line, which had been worth sessioning in practice in order to work out which was actually faster. The more direct line had a big-ish rock drop with a fairly flat landing, followed by a tight right-hander down another big rock, whereas the easier line was a little longer, but had less crash potential and a bit more flow. After only managing one out of three attempts at the harder line in practice without crashing, I eventually conceded that it was probably wiser to opt for the easier line in the race. Next it was into the home straight, which was anything but, consisting of a series of awesome steep, tight, loamy corners that sapped the last of the strength from my arms.
It always feels great to finish a race, but after a six-hour epic in baking hot conditions, racing against the nation’s best, it felt even better, particularly after collecting the complimentary tankard of Tempest beer that was offered to every finisher. The atmosphere in the race village was buzzing as exhausted, but elated riders arrived back to hand in their transponders and collect their times. I was stoked to finish 6th overall in the Elite (E1) Women’s Master category, and was delighted to watch Bex Baraona, Rosslyn Newman and Polly Henderson take the top step in the Elite Senior, Master, and Junior women’s categories respectively, earning a highly coveted British Enduro Champion’s jersey. Oh to be that fast…
The Tweedlove events are definitely a highlight of the racing season, and they just seem to go from to strength to strength in terms of size and profile. It was great to race alongside so many high profile riders, on world class trails, and the support from the local community is always overwhelming. In August the Triple Crown concludes with the King & Queen of the Hill Enduro, where the top dogs will compete for the overall title, and the rest of us mere mortals will enjoy yet another awesome weekend of racing bikes on some of the best trails in the country.