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

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 in Rides, Uncategorised
Pushing the boundaries, not the bike

Pushing the boundaries, not the bike

And now for something completely different

After my tour of the singletrack highlights of the city of Edinburgh on Saturday I was in Glasgow on Monday. This time I was hooking up with an old colleague, Andy (just to be confusing), for a trip to Glentress. This, most iconic of trail centres, would be a very different experience. Where Saturday was about finding things that were unexpected, this was all about having a blast on purpose-built mountain bike trails. I was really looking forward to it.

Last time I was at the Peebles trail centre, was maybe six or seven years ago on a 100mm travel hardtail with 1.8” tyres. I recall the red route being a little hairy in places, mostly due to our introduction to braking holes in the trail, but otherwise a lot of fun. On an earlier visit I’d underestimated a tabletop on the Spooky Wood descent and ended up with my scaphoid in plaster.

I was curious what the trails would feel like all these years later with more bike and more experience under me. I was keen not to have a repeat of the Spooky Wood incident.

Time for some CPD

Andy is very much a product of the Seven Stanes. Very happy with rocky, technical trails and comfortable with the bike in the air. This was very much his home turf and he was keen to show off the best bits.

I am a fully qualified mountain bike leader. I am a pretty competent mountain biker in a variety of terrain. That does not mean there are no areas where I feel my skills might benefit from “development”. It boils down to being in the air and steep rocks, neither of which are easy to get in Hampshire. So part of the point was to get plenty of that in over the course of the afternoon to refresh and hone my skills.

Glentress has been, and may still be, one of the most visited mountain bike venues in the world. One of the joys of visiting on a Monday in the middle of November is that the place was really, really quiet (apart from the lads changing, wrapped in leopard print towels, in the car park).

We headed for the skills area for a bit of a play to get our eye in. We checked out some rock rolls and drops. All of which are bigger than anything I’ve encountered in Hampshire. It’s hard to find features where air time is compulsory. Drop in we did. First time: wayward, second time: better, third time: nailed and confident. I was getting my eye in and believing in my skills.

Bigging it up

Which is when Andy suggested we move on the freeride area. Some tabletops, about 3-4 feet across the top, a few berms and a step-up. All bigger than anything at my local trail centre. First time: intimidating but largely managed, second time: better and quicker, third time: confident and at pace. I was getting there. These were skills I have but don’t get much chance to work on at home.

So Andy suggested we move on to the bigger jumps. Hell, why not. These are probably 4-5 feet across at the start and bigger at the bottom. So we dropped in. Hit the first one, whoop. Hit the second, whoop. Hit the third, oh god, it’s a hip jump and the landing’s at an angle to the take off. Land it and slide the back wheel round to set up for the next one. Launch that and hope the landing’s in the right place. Catch berm and two more tables to finish. On the final one it seemed to take an eternity for the bike to come down, even then it was only the front wheel. Don’t panic, weight back and wait for the back wheel to land. Which it did, eventually. And done.

I’d got away with it. Just. But definitely outside of my comfort zone.

Let’s do that again.

Push back up and drop in again. This time the lines were better, the speed was better and I spent less time riding along on my front wheel.

Again. Better again. And crucially, more confident. Again, this time with the confidence to attack it.

It’s amazing how much succeeding at something at something can boost your confidence.

Anyway. Why were we here?

Soon enough we needed to get on our way: there was only so much daylight to play with.

And we had an appointment with Spooky Wood and the drop to the valley floor. All that stood between us and that was a big climb. Oh well, best get on with it.

"...make a little birdhouse in your soul"

“…make a little birdhouse in your soul”

After a considerable amount of twiddling, gurning, grinding and a brief pause for a sandwich while a robin landed on our bikes we arrived at the top of the hill. I had brief flashbacks to the last time I’d stood here with a hire bike, before coming to grief.

Concentrate, trust your skills and believe that your bike will do the job.

Drop in

Dropping in at Spooky Wood

Dropping in at Spooky Wood

It was brilliant. A helter-skelter all the way to the bottom. Tabletops were despatched, compressions were pumped through, puddles were manualled past and even the surprise rock drop was launched. It was great. I was looking ahead, seeing what was coming and picking my line. I was loving it, and catching Andy in places. Next section: more of the same, compressions, berms, small tables and the occasional steep bit. All the application of skills in an unfamiliar setting. I may not have been familiar with the trail but I was more than equal to the challenge. The tight section through the trees was much more like home with its slippery roots and leaf mulch. The bottom was just laugh out loud.

I grinned the whole way down. Even the bits where the tree cover meant it was almost dark.

In short I had a great day out. The free coffee at the end was a real bonus.

I can’t recommend Glentress highly enough. Thank you to all the trail builders there. I can see how much of a pasting the trails get and how much hard work goes into keeping them riding sweetly.

This is Luke McMullan riding the Spooky Wood Descent

Moral of the story pt.1

On Monday I went out to ride and have fun. I also chose to deliberately put myself in a situation where I was outside my comfort zone to begin with. I chose to use the opportunity to refresh and practice my skillset. By doing so, in a managed and progressive way, I had a great ride and was able to boost my confidence on terrain that’s hard to find down here.

The use of the first person pronoun is really important. I chose to put myself there. There was no pressure on me, no-one was egging me on, if I decided I really didn’t fancy something I could walk it.

When it comes to progressing and improving skills, peer pressure can be a terrible thing causing you to feel compelled to try things you are not ready for. It makes you more likely to make a mistake because you’re tense so it’s not a part of the way I ride, or the way I lead.

Placing yourself in a space where you feel confident pushing your boundaries and putting your skills into use is a good thing, coming from within and a desire to improve. I will support you in this whenever I can.

Moral of the story pt.2

When you say “I’m not feeling confident about this” I really do understand how you feel.

My desire to get better at riding my bike means I have to step outside my comfort zone in the belief that I have the skills to ride it. I know that feeling of having to attempt something based on belief rather than memory. I know that feeling of taking a deep breath and committing.

The setting for this feeling is different for everyone, the obstacle that causes you to pause is different for everyone. When I say that I understand, it’s not glib encouragement, I really do empathise with facing down uncertainty.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides