The Gypsy Glen descent: why natural trails are vital to mountain biking

The Gypsy Glen descent: why natural trails are vital to mountain biking

(part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 here

Having ignored two of Britain’s best trail centres and grovelled my way up a massive climb, I’d seen not a soul for hours and was knackered. Was the Gypsy Glen descent going to be worth it?

Can we do the fun bit now?

I felt much more chipper about things after a pasty and some fruit. From my lunch spot I couldn’t see very far as I’d opted to stay out of the wind. But the peace and quiet were remarkable. There were no birds, no large animals and no people. The only people I’d seen since leaving the road were in aeroplanes high above. There was a real sense of placidness about this place. However, I wasn’t here to indulge a need for mindfulness. I was here to ride my bike, to experience the famed Gypsy Glen descent. Time to do that.

Lets get on with this

Lets get on with this

One of the fears of a ride like this is that you spend ages climbing to the top and then the descent is rubbish.

I remember riding Hawkcombe in Exmoor a few years back and had a similar feeling then. Phil had blown a gasket and had to be towed the last few miles to the top with promises of a great descent. I had no idea, other than the articles I’d read in praise of it, how good it really was. Phil was toasted and unconvinced. The top was unprepossessing but, about twenty yards in, all doubts were brushed aside as we whooped our way towards the sea.

I was hoping for the same here. No pressure. There’s a reason why it’s a classic, and it’s not the climb.

Good things come to those who wait, naturally

There was still a little more climbing to do, and that took me above the wind shadow of the ridge. I was suddenly confronted with the aftermath of storm Ali and glad I’d chosen to put a coat on. This did not bode well…

…But slowly, and almost imperceptibly, the gradient eased off and then began to point downhill. Not hugely, but enough to drop the saddle and stand up, grateful just to stop pedalling for the moment. Then it got steeper, it was loose and rocky, reminiscent again of Exmoor. Just enough for the wheels to start to pick up speed, then just enough to pop the front wheel off little lips in the trail. This was fun. It wasn’t flowy, and required constant concentration to ride onsight but it was definitely fun. Rocks began to fly up from under my wheels as I contoured down the hillside. The sweeping curve of the hill tightened into a left-right chicane that plunged me down to a rocky ford and spat me out of the other side, slightly unsure how it had happened and that I hadn’t been thrown off somewhere.

The top at last

The top at last

I was actually smiling.

Now the Gypsy Glen descent begins

This is why I love natural trails: there’s no knowing what’s just around the corner.

Inevitably, what was just around the corner was the slight climb up to the top of Kirkhope Law. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. Just a gentle rise to the rounded summit. Looking back, I could see the path I’d climbed up out of the forestry on, past my lunch stop and down to the ford.

Looking ahead, finally, the vista opened up in front of me. And what a view! I could see denture-like tops away in the distance, the rolling hills of the borders in between, Peebles nestled down in the valley floor.

Gypsy Glen all downhill from here

Gypsy Glen all downhill from here

Oh, wow! Snaking its way down the spine of the ridge was what appeared to be miles of downhill singletrack: the famed Gypsy Glen descent. All the climbing was behind me, laid out in front was the rest of the day. I was on top of the World!

The only thing missing was someone to share being lost for words with. Actually, it was pretty chilly, and the wind was biting. So, I didn’t hang round any longer than needed to take a few photos and got on with it.

The natural way down

It took about twenty yards for the pain, the disgruntlement and the potential tantrum-throwing to be washed away.

The trail braided into three or four interwoven paths, some a bit rocky, others smooth. They changed all the time forcing me to choose my line with care to avoid running into the occasional larger chunk of rock. It never felt like I was going to slam into something and launch over the bars, but there was enough going on to keep me from letting go of the brakes entirely this time round.

It swung back and forth as the gradient fell away in front of me, letting me launch of the lips that occurred every now and again. I was having fun. Right up until I whammed the anchors on to stop me plunging into a bog. I stopped inches short.

Danger: Bog!

Danger: Bog!

Then it was a little more climbing up to Kailzie Hill followed my more descending. Flying along the ridge, I was absorbed but never terrified by the trail. There was enough going on, and enough hidden from view that rocketing along that I never felt completely comfortable just plummeting. This time.

Then it got steeper. And steeper. A blind crest ridden at walking pace. Probably for the best as it fell away on the other side. Then another blind crest. Steeper again. Another blind crest, falling away steeply. This time I could see the bottom and could let go of the brakes. Which is for the best as it was steep enough that they’d have had little effect. Bum on mudguard, drop in.

And fly out of the other side of the hollow.


Just came down that!

Just came down that!

It’s only natural: a sting in the tail

I stopped at the gate. The main Gypsy Glen descent trail went straight on, heading for the end of the ridge.

I wasn’t going that way: I’d had a tip-off that there was good riding to be had just off the main droveway. As long as I was prepared for a little more climbing.

I was, but pushing rather than riding.

On top of Craig Head, Peebles was laid out before me. A small scuff in the long grass indicated the way ahead.

The edge of the world

The edge of the world

Rolling along the path steepened suddenly, repeated blind crests meant that I could only five or ten yards in front of me. Beyond that, who knew? Apart from increasing steepness, probably. Blind crests were now accompanied by blind corners too. I dared myself to go faster, then reeled it in again when the consequences of a mistake were remembered. Then I allowed myself to pick up speed again, only to be met with another blind, off camber, corner. Everything was different to the drove road. Everything was brilliant. Taking my eyes off it for a moment was asking for a disaster.

Hitting the main droveway again, everything changed again. Now it was steep grassy lane, swinging sinuously left and right. I was right at home on this, allowing the bike to move back and forth, testing the limits of traction on the damp grass, manualling off the small humps and bumps in the trail.

Steep and grassy

Steep and grassy

It was breathless fun, daring myself closer and closer to warp speed. Duck under the tree, pick a terrace line round the bend. Stop before the gate.



Nearly There

Through the gate and into a tree lined lane. The gradient was more benign, there were fewer curves. For the first time in abut an hour, I could just roll along, relaxed. Carrying enough speed that pedalling was unnecessary.

Then back into the trees, and it suddenly steepened again. This time with steps. I briefly thought about rolling through and braking afterwards. Then I realised that the run-out at the bottom was a river. I had no idea how deep the river was.

I braked.


I stopped six inches short of the river bank.

And got off.

Time for a break. And what a place for it: a beautiful little glen, filled with trees and a bridge over the river that I could dangle my feet off. This was the perfect place for a second lunch. Warm, dry and gorgeous.

Does this rider look happy?

Does this rider look happy?

Then to see if the river really was fordable. Important for a return trip. It was. Mostly.

From here, it was a case of finding y way back to the river and rolling along the other half of the tweed Valley Cycle Path. A couple of detours onto sweet singletrack reminded me why I love Scotland’s access laws. Especially one bit where a mistake meant plunging into the Tweed.

Tiredness was setting in now. My legs were jaded, my arms were feeling the pummelling from the descent. I needed cake.

Why is the Gypsy Glen descent famous? Because it’s like this

Having eschewed the delights of the trail centre earlier, I was not going to resist the charms of its cake and hot chocolate if I rolled past the gate.

Earned: chocolate and cake

Earned: chocolate and cake

What a way to finish a magic ride. Classic is a word that gets bandied about a lot, especially in mountain biking. But the Gypsy Glen descent is a stone-cold classic natural ride. You’ll be out on your own most of the day and it’s a long way to help if anything goes wrong. It’s hard work to get up there, and it keeps you working the whole way down. But I guarantee, you’ll be smiling when you reach the ford.

You should go there.

Read part 1 here

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides
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