Gypsy Glen: why natural trails are an important part of mountain biking

(Part 1 of 2)

Read part 2 here

I enjoy riding trail centres with their all-weather surfaces and their guaranteed quality riding. But there is a part of me that will always love natural trails with their uncertainty and sense of adventure. That, and a big contrary streak, is why I recently rode right past two of the biggest and best trail centres in the country to get to Gypsy Glen’s natural delights.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The plan was beautiful in its genius. Mel needed to attend a work conference at a hotel in Cardrona, halfway between Peebles and Innerleithen. In fact, it’s barely a mile from Glentress Forest, home of one of the biggest, oldest and best trail centres in Scotland. So, the plan was this: after seeing family and friends in Edinburgh & Glasgow we would head to Glentress with for a day’s riding, and I would go out with an old friend the following day and do the natural classic Gypsy Glen.

That was the plan.

The weather had other ideas. Sometimes, as Paul Simon said, “It just don’t work out that way

A few days before we were due to ride, it was announced that the first storm of the winter, Ali, was due to blow through Scotland on the day we were due to ride Glentress. “It’ll be fine, it’ll blow through” “We’ll hang fire until the morning, and make the call then” “It’ll probably be less severe by then.” Such platitudes bounced back and forth across Scotland.

On the morning in question, it was hosing down and blowing a hoolie in Edinburgh. The forecast for Peebles was winds of 68mph with gusts and higher. A bad day to be in forestry plantation. With heavy hearts we called the whole thing off and did other things instead.

It was probably for the best given how many bits of Edinburgh were closed by falling…stuff. The rain battering off the windows when we arrived at the hotel confirmed we’d taken the right decision. Still, it was disappointing. Glentress is a lot of fun, as I reminded myself when I was there a couple of years ago.

Second time lucky

Luckily for me, I had another ride in my back pocket: I planned to take on the Gypsy Glen natural classic. Just me and an old mate, out in the hills for the day. In a nutshell Gypsy Glen is a 30km triangular ride. One side is flat, one side is pretty much all downhill. The other? Ah, that’s all uphill. It’s not epic, but it’s definitely a significant undertaking. While never far from civilisation, it’s a long way from help should anything go wrong, so it’s not to be taken lightly. Especially the day after the first storm of autumn.

Or, at least, that was the plan.

Sadly, Andy realised he couldn’t make it at the last minute. So, I was on my own. I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a good plan.

On the other hand, I’d brought the bikes a very long way so I was definitely going for a ride. It was time to indulge my inner Wainwright. And take a large bag, filled with everything I could conceivably need, including a portable shelter.

Off for some Gypsy Glen adventure, naturally

The sun was shining as I unloaded the bike from the car and set off along the Tweed. From the Hotel in Cardrona, I was starting about halfway along that flat side of the triangle, so could expect several km to get my legs in order before the hills started. As a start to a ride, it’s pretty good: traffic-free flat tarmac on the banks of the river. I found myself rolling along, relaxed and sitting up while the world passed me by. Part of the world that passed me by was a pump track on the edge of Cardrona. Wary of how my legs might feel later in the day, I eschewed the chance for a play. Maybe on the way home?

Tweed Valley Railway Path

Tweed Valley Railway Path

The other thing I saw was he couple I met in a Peebles bike shop earlier in the morning hiring bikes. They clearly planned to ride to Innerleithen and back, a nice day out. They seemed very surprised to see me again. The Tweed Valley Railway Path is a lovely way to see this part of the world as well as a way of commuting between these towns without dicing with traffic along the main road. Credit to Sustrans for making this happen.

Whilst I was having fun, I was increasingly uncomfortably aware of the size of the hills looming over my right shoulder. This was all lovely but, at some point I was going to have to get up there.

Head down, tarmac up

Eventually, the path popped me out on the outskirts of Innerleithen and it was time to get some road miles in. One of the nice things about trail centre riding is that it’s designed to be ridden and has few “linking sections”. Natural rides, by contrast, often require riding on roads and other unlikely places to get from one bit of good stuff to the next. This was no different, with a 6km road section between me and the first proper trails.

There was a part of me that took great, if perverse, delight in riding straight past the car park for the Innerleithen trails. While people were unloading bikes for a fun day of sending the steep trails in the woods, I was off for an adventure in the wilds of nature.

It didn’t take long for that to seem like a really bad idea. The road went steadily, but relentlessly, uphill. Each slight ramp made me curse the fat tyres and the slow bike as well as my legs. It didn’t bode well for when the real climbing started.

Orchard Mains

Orchard Mains

Turning right off the B road onto the minor road that ran up to the Glen Estate, I found myself plunged into a beautiful little valley. I made a mental note, as I crossed the small bridge at Orchard Mains, that every yard from here was going to be uphill until I got to the ridge. It was not an appealing thought. The prettiness of my surroundings helped ease the pain, as did the company of a buzzard that flew low over my head from perch to perch ahead of me. It will come as no surprise to people who know me that I shouted “buzzard!” at it every time it took off, even though no one else was listening.

Time to hit natural dirt

The gentle but insistent climb through the glen bottom had to come to an end at some point. I turned off the tarmac onto an estate road, then turned right onto a track to be confronted with the first proper evidence of Ali’s passing: a large sycamore had come down across the track. Off I hopped and, not for the last time I suspected, shouldered the bike as I climbed through the foliage.

And then I saw it.

It was like a bracken covered wall

It was like a bracken covered wall

So far, the climb had been treating me with kid gloves, now the Gypsy Glen ride started for real. As soon as I passed through the gate onto the moor, it threw the gloves down in challenge and punched me in the stomach. It was like a wall, a bracken covered, grassy wall, but a wall nonetheless.

Let’s see how we get on with this, shall we? The path turned straight up the slope and made for the bealach in the ridge line. It was brutally steep, and went all the way to the horizon. Downshift, downshift again, downshift another time, downshift again…oh. It was about a hundred yards in that I ran out of gears. No spinning for me, I couldn’t keep the front end down. I was reduced to stepping slowly on the pedals, inching my way slowly up the grassy path. Constantly praying that I didn’t hoop out the front wheel or spin out the back or, worse, both at the same time. I never looked more than ten yards from my front wheel as I grovelled my way up, expecting at any minute to lose my battle with the hill.

Initially, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But, the further I got up the thing, the more important it became to get there without dabbing. It wasn’t desperately technical, but there was enough going on to make it a test of skill as well as raw power.

It's a long way up here.

It’s a long way up here.

Eventually I made it to the bealach and got off to take a photo of where I’d come from before turning round to see the view ahead of me…Oh, you’re joking! Really?

It's even further to go to the top

It’s even further to go to the top

What lay ahead was more of the same, snaking its way up towards the ridgeline. Not all as brutally steep as the first section, but with nasty little ramps and more technical difficulty. (I remembered something from the Lord of the Rings about a steep stair followed by a winding one, but dismissed it) Oh, for pity’s sake.

Onwards and upwards

Right. Let’s do this.

I saddled up and got on with it. I settled into a steady rhythm standing on the pedals like on of those Tour de France riders in the Pyrenees who is virtually stationary as the leaders shoot by. Still, the scenery was impressive. Whenever I could lift my head long enough to look at it.

I grovelled my way up, winching slowly towards the gate on the ridgeline. By this time, I’d been climbing for the best part of 2km since climbing over the tree back in the valley so the sight of the gate coming towards me was welcome. I was very pleased with myself when I got there: I’d gained 160 vertical metres since the tree. I allowed myself an imaginary pat on the back for having done so well. All I had to do now was go through the gate and turn left to run along the edge of the plantation…

…oh. It’s like that is it.

The path along the edge of the plantation appeared to be the steepest bit of trail I’d encountered all morning. Not only that, but my predictions of how fast I’d get here had been blown out of the water. I was hoping to make up some time along the “fun singletrack under the trees”. Nae such luck. To add to my joy, the area had been clear felled since the aerial photos had been taken.

Still no point complaining. Gypsy Glen is supposed to be a classic, I’ve got to earn the good bits. Off we go.

This is hard work

This is hard work

I got twenty yards before I was off and pushing.

I got another ten yards before I realised that the trail was too narrow and the undergrowth too thick to stand beside my bike.

On the shoulders it went.

This had better be worth it.

Are we nearly there yet?

After an eternity, but probably about ten minutes, I got to terrain flat enough to ride. My legs were rubbery from the climb and I struggled to maintain a straight line, which was troublesome on singletrack eight inches across.

One of the route descriptions I’d read before setting off described the last bit in the forestry as being a “steep drop” which could mean anything from a gentle slope through to an unrideable cliff face. It started fairly benignly enough, but the trail consisted of a narrow slot about eight inches across and the same deep. So, it wouldn’t take much of a mistake to pitch me over the bars.

Soon enough, my bum was hovering just above the back wheel as the slot steepened. The best part of an hour’s climbing had prepared me poorly for this drop. Just ride it out, it’ll be fine. Then it steepened again and I saw the drift of detritus washed down the previous day. This far from help, discretion was the better part of valour, so I brought the bike to a halt and hopped off before pushing the last ten yards of the descent.

Part of me was cross for not just battering through, a little speed would have seen me through, surely. A slightly more grown-up part pointed out that I had no idea what the bottom of the drop was like from where I got off and that I’d have been much crosser if I’d gone out through the front door at the furthest point on the ride from assistance.

I got on the bike again as the trail pointed uphill again. Then, when the gradient proved too much for my tired legs.

It was clearly time for lunch.

I've earned my lunch today

I’ve earned my lunch today

Click here to read part 2

Posted by BackPedalling Andy