It was while dawdling around the Forest of Dean’s gentle trails that my pal piped up: “My team mate can’t make our race up in Glentress next month. You should come instead! You can bunk up with me.”
Only four months into mountain biking, but game for anything, I agreed. What I actually was agreeing to enter was the Odlo Glentress Seven.
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TweedLove Festival is a highlight of the racing calendar in Scotland, and this mighty endurance race in the beautiful Glentress Forest is made even more special because part of the route is not open for riding the rest of the year.
Further investigation revealed that the Seven in the race's title stood for the mighty seven hours we’d be riding, taking turns to complete as many 11k laps as we could — each of which features 380m of climbing.
You can enter as a solo rider or in teams of two or three. It sounded kind of gruelling, but it was too late to back out. “You’ll be ’reet”, my friend promised. Turns out, I was.
So here are five things I learnt racing cross-country for the first time and with only four months' riding under my belt.
1. You’re not the only newbie
How can you still get that first day of school feeling in your thirties? Surely it should have died along with my original Raleigh Chloe?
I pulled up to the event expecting to find a mass of slick and finely toned cross-country racers. What I actually found? A good mix of riders, of all shapes and sizes.
Yes, there were event stalwarts and some cross-country elite, but also a fair mix of occasional racers and a good few gals who were racing for the first time too.
Not only that, but everyone was amazingly encouraging, from the organisers to the officials and even the race leaders as they sped past us — cheers guys!
2. Basic kit will do the job
Without a dropper post I lost time hopping off to lower the saddle of my Trek hardtail before the steeper ascents, but in a seven-hour race, unless you’re seriously competing, this doesn’t matter a jot. In fact, it was an excuse to stretch the pins and gab to the marshals.
The race really is a game of two halves, mostly uphill for the first 5.5k and downhill for the second, with only small sections of undulating singletrack through the forest.
Comfort was the name of the game for me and I wore Lycra kit for ease of movement and to keep cool and picked the pair of shorts with the thickest padding.
A bottle cage rather than hydration pack was sufficient and I popped a basic repair kit in my shirt pocket. A cake stop half way round meant you didn’t need to carry food.
3. There’s no shame in knee pads
I started the race mortified about my knee pads. In a sea of bare, shiny, smooth, pink patellas, my grey enduro protection screamed amateur.
Having walked part of the course the night before, I was well aware of the rooted, rutted sections, fast and stony runs, and the formidable Tunnel of Love – a sharp descent on loose earth with a tight 100-degree turn mid-way around a bothersome tree — and I decided I wasn’t setting off without them.
Yes, they were irksome on the climbs, but how smug was I at the end? The contestants' area was a war zone, with bloody knees full of gravel and grit at every turn. There was an unceasing queue from the medics’ tent, past which I smugly paraded my intact, fleshy orbs.
Be proud of your pads, you’ll make up any time you lose on the climbs with your extra confidence on the descents.
4. You can’t predict the weather
Scotland. It’s cold, right? And it rains. Always.
Well, we started the ride in blazing sun, riding through 30+ degree sections. The climbs were tough and would spit you out onto exposed fire track, where usually your heart rate would drop, but in the blazing heat my heart rate remained high.
Then, 45 minutes before the end of the race, a storm of biblical proportions broke out
As thunder raged and lightening cracked over our heads we pulled together in groups, nervously laughing and trying to pedal harder against the torrential rain. It was electrifying and petrifying all at once. And, to my secret (don’t tell anyone) relief, Mountain Rescue shut down the race deeming a particular descent too dangerous to ride in the wet.
After we’d freewheeled down a fire track, while lightning hit fields and marshals had clambered down to safety, officials worked hard to recalculate timings, voiding the last runs. And lo and behold, we didn’t come last, with a solid five laps completed.
5. You’ll need a spa hotel…
…or at least a stopover with a decent bathroom. And this isn’t so much to dispel the lactic acid or massage tired legs, as it is to steam out the alcohol from your post-race celebrations.
The Scots know how to party, and we kicked off with pints from Tempest Brew Co who were on site, before heading back to nearby Peebles and the Love Club Hawaii 7.0 for a TweedLove hula-themed shindig. We’re not sure what the theme will be next year, but definitely book your ticket — all profits are donated to local trail building and bike community causes, too.
Peebles, the Borders town that straddles the River Tweed, makes a great base for the race, with a range of pubs, cafes and accommodation options. It's also close to the incredible riding at the Glentress and Innerleithen trail centres, both well worth a visit.
Tempted to give it a go yourself? There are plenty of events out there to try, suitable for all levels of rider, and we've got all the hints, tips and equipment advice you need to get ready for them: