The Tweed Valley is home to some of Britain's best trail centre riding, but explore a little further and you'll find mile after mile of loam and rock-filled natural dream trails, as Mountain Biking UK'sRic McLaughlin reports.
After driving for six carefully planned hours, I’m suddenly lost. Rain gently buffets the stationary van as I try blearily to work out where in the small Scottish town of Innerleithen my B&B is. I opt for a drive around and flip the Vito Sport on. The headlights illuminate the Glentrail House sign just 10ft ahead of me – that’ll be it then...
The Tweed Valley houses the trail centre monoliths of Glentress and Innerleithen. They’re a bastion of all that money, machinery and man hours can achieve for mountain biking. Tens of thousands flock here every year to take on perhaps the UK’s most famous man-made network of trails. Talk to any of the locals, however, and they’re barely mentioned. If you’re prepared to look past the manicured berms and all-weather surfacing, there’s trail-riding gold in them there hills! Using a fistful of locals, an Arthur Daley-style cash advance envelope and my trusty Pivot Mach 5.7, I’m determined to find it!
After a good night’s rest in the B&B, my crack team assembles in the comfy kitchen surroundings of Glentrail over freshly baked scones and steaming cups of journalist-spec coffee. Pete ‘Jesus’ Scullion from Hotlines UK may have only been up here for five years, but his local knowledge is second-to-none. Likewise, Chris Hutchens is a downhill racer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. Our final recruit is Nic Jenkins, who owns The Bike Lodge B&B.
Starter for 10
After quickly loading up the van, we head to the top of the Arthur Lee. Constructed as a testament to one of the early trail builders, it plays host to an annual memorial enduro and is a great opener. Criss-crossing tree lines, it features multiple tight, root-infested turns before spitting us out into a wide-open fire-break. Recent wet weather has left it looking like it’s lost a fight with a plough and it’s most definitely foot-out, man-up time. Hutchens sails drift after drift through the slop before pinning it right back into the trees.
Slightly further on and there’s a longish straight with two kickers before a tight, tracked-out left-hander. I hug the tree-line on the right, trying to make things as wide as possible for myself. It’s going pretty well... then, all of a sudden, it’s not. Whack! I smash my right hand into a tree. I’m spat off the bike and land shoulder first into the slop. Knuckles bleeding and hand swelling, I sheepishly attempt to shake it off.
The throbbing pain in my hand is soon drowned out, however, by the exhilarating final section – it’s one of the most fun bits of trail I’ve ever ridden on. It’s tight and steep but just has so much natural flow. Narrow catch-berms at the base of trees grab you and hurtle you out over steep roots – it’s breathtaking stuff. We session it a couple of times, then decide to push back to the top and razz over to the start of The Classic. It’s an Innerleithen staple and the black route offers several tricky rock sections. Just as I’m beginning to think that things are getting a bit ‘trail centrey’, though, Pete rips off to one side.
All of a sudden, every corner is a brakes-off loam-fest. The straights are littered with rocks and I’m struggling to rewire my brain to the new and distinctly slippery surroundings. We cross a fire-break and immediately things get a lot more serious… The speed increases to a retina-blurring pace and I’m hanging off the back and holding on for dear life. Although the pine-coated loam is loose, there’s plenty of grip underneath and, after a natural mini hip-jump into the final berms, we’re back in the pick-up and heading for tea and buns.
Fuelled up, we make our way to the final trail of the day and manage to upset some sensitive lady golfers by blaring out the pick-up’s only CD (honest) – Lady GaGa. We finally hit the trail head, and it feels like it’s miles above the town. Rocky is its name and, despite its distinctly rock-free beginnings, things soon harden up significantly across the exposed hilltop. Every so often the trail completely disappears from underneath you and leaves faces of exposed rock in its place. Hutchens is again in his element and pinning through it like a graceful juggernaut.
Just one more trail…
Nick isn’t finished with us just yet, though – he disappears off into the thick neighbouring tree line and calls us after him. The final descent back to the van is among the steepest stuff I’ve ever tackled on a trail bike. Hairpin switchbacks disappear well below your line, drops litter the straights and none of it’s on-camber. It’s a terrifying/hysterical way to finish off an epic day’s riding. What I’ve ridden today is the perfect counter-point to the busy trail centres. They obviously still offer highly addictive thrills and all-year rideability, but look a bit deeper and you realise that you’ll have barely scraped the surface of the Tweed Valley. The scope for fun is simply ridiculous. Get a load of local heads together around a coffee pot and some scones, and you might just find trail-riding nirvana too...
Tweed Valley: Where to stay
Thanks to the Tweed Valley’s Mountain Bike Hospitality Scheme, several B&Bs are fully kitted out and ready to cater for mountain bikers. Give the blatant looks of disgust as you turn up bleeding and covered in mud a miss – here’s our guide to some of the best places to stay…
Glentrail Housewww.glentrailhouse.com 07803 188442
Rich and Deidre offer room for up to 15 people at Glentrail – the house is massive! There’s even a living room complete with open fire, leather sofa, big-screen telly and bike DVDs. Outside, they’ve got a garage converted into a bike store/fully tooled-up workshop too.
The Bike Lodgewww.thebikelodge.co.uk 01896 833836
Again, there’s more than enough room and a fully kitted out workshop on offer, as well as space for up to six people. Nic’s about as keen a rider as you’ll find too, and will give you loads of decent local pointers.
Innerhavenwww.innerhaven.co.uk 07713 151773
The ivory tower of fast-talking unofficial mayor of Innerleithen, Go-Where’s Andy McKenna. The 19th century conversion is bright and airy, and Andy’s always available to offer some Go-Where trips out to lesser-known trail gems.
Tweed Valley: Getting there
Innerleithen really is your best bet as a basecamp for exploring the area. OK, it’s not exactly Vegas, but you can spin to all the best riding within minutes and there are several decent pubs alongside an awesome bakery.
Flights: Edinburgh is by far your easiest hub – Innerleithen is only 40 minutes from the airport. Beware rush-hour traffic, though. It’s also worth giving Andy at Go-Where (07713 151773) a ring if you don’t fancy renting a car.
Car: We headed north via the M4/5/6 before turning off just after Penrith. If you head for Carlisle you can’t go far wrong, then follow signs for Peebles/Edinburgh.
Trail hound: How to sniff out something special
The riding around the Tweed Valley is densely packed, but with a bit of know-how and a sharp eye, you can usually find something ‘off-piste’ pretty easily. Follow the main trail centre climbs. You’re going to have to go ‘up’ anyway, so it may as well be as pain-free as possible. Keep your eyes open. they won’t be easy to spot, but the odd tyre track can often be found leading off or onto a main route. Don’t be a sheep, go and investigate! Be careful, things can get fast and sketchy very quickly around here. Never ride alone and always take a mobile when trying new stuff.
This article was originally published in Mountain Biking UK magazine.