nb. Sorry about the photos, they weren’t a top priority at the time!
I’m a planner. I like, at the very least, to think that I know what lies on the road ahead, to be able to pre-empt, prepare, control. It works too, at least most of the time; a little like revising for that French grammar test when you were fourteen, it’s possible to think your way out of problems before you even encounter them. If that sounds like tooting my own horn, it isn’t meant to be. I think that at the heart of a need to prepare and control is a fear of what might happen if you let go, clinging tightly to the known instead of surrendering to whatever highs and lows that the great cosmic rollercoaster ride has in store for you. Some things are too big to out-think, too big to outwit, just too real to do anything with, except give in to the experience.
Something really big, like a really big bike ride? Maybe. I rode in my first bikepacking race this year, sort of. I couldn’t make the group start of the Highland Trail 550, so I rode it as an ITT a couple of weeks before everyone else. I knew that such a big ride would need a lot of preparation, so as well as longer rides I thought about the calorie contents of foods likely to be found in a small Spar shop in a Highland village, mileage between resupplies, the combined weights of various clothing configurations… What I didn’t think about much was exactly what it would be like to be out there: alone, small and functioning far beyond the familiar boundaries of what my brain and body are used to having to do. I focused so much on the small things that I missed the big, all-encompassing one that is the Ride. I ended up fighting the Ride rather than enjoying it for what it was; I felt overwhelmed, lonely and insignificant in comparison to the task at hand. Having put so much faith in those minute details, my self-confidence began to crumble when they started to become irrelevant. It’s little wonder that became fixated on known points like cafés and villages like a security blanket, reluctant to leave them and wasting time oversleeping in a couple of bothies. I finished the route in five and a half days, having learned more than I knew what to do with, but mostly having learned that you can’t fight the Ride over a long distance like that.
A last-minute change in work plans meant that I could make it to the start of this years Capital Trail group ride form Portobello on October 1st, so I decided to drop my name into the hat and see if I could put lessons learned from the Highland Trail into practise on a slightly more forgiving route. I spent the last seven days of September guiding in the Tweed Valley, which was a useful way to tune in to the Borders again after a summer spent in the Highlands and the Alps, and signed up for the ride (and I suppose at that point I commited to the ‘Ride’, too) on the Tuesday, giving me a few days to make sure poor Klaus the Krampus was actually working, and wrestle with my nemesis – digital mapping. I decided that 150 miles should be a goer as a single push, being only slightly longer than the first day out on the Highland Trail, and rather than planning around food resupplies and rest points I opted to carry everything with me, going virtually self-sufficient apart from water, on the assumption that the extra weight was worth the freedom from sressing about resupply points and wastimg time deciding which flavour of sandwich to buy. Having washed my riding kit and bought food on the Friday night after work, I hit the road north to Portobello and met Markus, Lee and other riders in the Espy pub for a quick drink, before hitting the hay in the van on the seafront. Always the glamorous life, eh.
The 7 am start meant an even earlier wake-up time for me, as I hadn’t actually had time to pack my bike the night before… Luckily that was a pretty quick job. Apart from food and standard tools and spares from my guiding bag, I took a Primaloft top, waterproof jacket and shorts, and a Blizzard thermal blanket so that I had enough to get me by safely if some mishap meant a night sitting it out alone on the hill. There were some seriously lightweight (i.e. sweet FA) setups being rocked on the Saturday morning in amongst heavier bivvy setups, but even smaller hills like those of the Borders demand respect – relying on an ability to keep moving to thereby keep warm and safe is tempting fate in a world where the unexpected does happen, and eventually your number will come up…
So far, there were plenty of excuses floating around out there in my subconscious that could have had a negative impact right from the start: tired legs from a week guiding… a relatively slow, heavy bike… lack of knowledge of much of the route… These are the sorts of things that I’m usually vulnerable to, building subconscious pitfalls for myself before I’ve even begun. Happily though, the finer details were seeming less and less relevant: I had my route map, loads food and pretty fresh-feeling legs. There were a whole load of us gathered beside the Firth of Forth on a crisp October morning, together we were going to set off into an unknown quantity of pedalling, laughing, suffering and all those other things that come included with a good adventure. It all felt pretty good.
After a brief hello and welcome chat from Markus, it began. The drag of soft sand adding to early-morning legs; overheard conversations from the far side of the crowd; ragged breathing as hearts and lungs turned towards the task in hand. I fell in with Scott somewhere near the front of the long conga-line that began to snake its way through the quiet back roads and cycle lanes of Portobello, and before lone it didn’t feel like we were still in the city at all, as we picked up the railway line and tarmac increasingly gave way to the gravel or muddy singletrack. In all honesty I had no idea where we were – I was just flowing the magic purple trace line that ran through the centre of my GPS screen and onwards beyond that into the maze of tracks and lanes that makes up East Lothian.
By the time the Lammermuirs appeared on the skyline to present the first big climb of the route, me and Scott had been joined by Dave King, who I was informed holds the ride record of just over fifteen hours. He was motoring along on a singlespeeded 69’er, and as soon as the gradient kicked up he simply danced off into the sunshine, defying both gravity and mountain bike fashion trends in one fell swoop. We decided that chasing Dave would probably be unwise, so we settled for chatting about the merits of various bike foods, and just enjoying the glorious autumn morning we were out in. We began to ride The Ride. The climb into the hills went steadily: it meant waving goodbye to the city and the easy miles on cycle paths and roads, and a big hello to the open hills and some proper mountain biking.
Somewhere among the Lammermuir hills we were joined by more company: Martin Graeme came steaming up alongside, having been delayed by a wrong turn earlier on in the city. We chatted a little before he headed off ahead, clearly with an agenda to get the job done quickly. Unfortunately, a little further on he missed another sneaky turn on a very fast doubletrack descent, and so we were eventually reunited when he caught back up. A self-ejecting Garmin repeated this process a little further down the line, and the frustration with so many little setbacks was showing. Determined to make back the time on Dave, Martine rocketed ahead as me and Scott found ourselves alone once again on the approach to Lauder.
Bikepacking races have embodied a noble tradition of good sportsmanship and fair play, but I’m not sure if the time-neutral poo stop has ever featured before. At any rate, it has now, and the stopwatch clocked a decently quick six-minute detour off the route to Lauder public toilets and back. Shortly after Lauder we were joined for a while by Andreas the Giant (who puts down some serious Watts on the road); at one point we saw Martin again, below us, re-climbing a hill having missed another turn. As a threesome, we rode some of the nicest surprises of the whole route on the approach to Melrose, as flashes of dry, flowing singletrack came and went, and the miles went by with seemingly little effort. Before long we were enjoying the fishermen’s paths beside the Tweed, crossing the pedestrian bridge and arriving in Melrose itself, fifty miles in. We all felt pretty good, and while Scott and Andreas nipped into the Co-op I stuffed some food in my face. Although we were only one third of the way through, we had been riding for around five hours already and the need to replace expended carbohydrates began to make itself known. We left Andreas there, taking a little more time to eat his sandwich, and chewed on the go, riding in what we knew from Scott’s handy toptube-mounted elevation profile would be the toughest third of the route. As far as we knew, there were at least two other riders ahead of us, possibly more; it didn’t seem to matter to much, and while a lot of the chat from other people had been centred around getting to Peebles (the 100 mile mark) to resupply with food and drink, I was happy that I’d removed that fixation by bringing along so much food.
The sun was still shining as we rolled along more riverside singletrack, picking up sections of the Borders Abbeys Way. The good people of the Borders, out and about on a bright autumn Saturday, provided only momentary distractions as our legs began to strain at the task and the chat lessened a little, minds on the miles still lying ahead. Near Selkirk came the first of three big climbs on this middle third. The long drag up to the Three Brethren starts gently enough, and on that day wound us up through yellowing larch and birch. It goes on, and kicks up all the while, until the final approach to the triple cairn on the summit made me realise that we had entered a new stage in the race, for me at any rate. It was time to start chilling out a little and pay more attention to fuelling well, as The Ride might start to buck…
Riding along the roof of the Borders, following the old drove road to Traquair, we could see some heavy showers moving slowly thorough the hills to the north, some of them managing to spit on our own shoulders. Still, riding these high hills with views of where we had ridden from, and where we had yet to ride to, was a huge boost for the spirits. As we dropped off the top of Minch Moor on part of the red trail centre route (bone jarring, since you ask), I knew that there was only one really horrible hill left to tackle before we hit Peebles for the first time, followed by a quick lap of Glentress and then a fifty mile scoot home. It was mid-afternoon and things were looking good – if only they could have stayed that way.
The first problem hit as we span up the back of ‘the Glen’ towards Bunny’s Bothy, and it was Scott that was in for a smiting from the bike gods first. In what is surely a world first, the internals of his Shimano shifter spontaneously, inexplicably died. After some time wasted head scratching, umming and even ahhing, he rigged up a basic singlespeed using the limit screws, and we were on our way at a slightly slower pace. I was loath to try and get ahead, as I’d been enjoying the company and knew that having a partner to ride with was giving me a different perspective and healthier outlook on the challenges ahead. I didn’t have long to mull it over anyway, as just then David Jones came gasping up behind us, having started 25 minutes late and worked hard all day to catch us up. We moved up the climb together, Scott planning to drop in to the shop in Peebles if it was open to try and source a shifter.
One problem was quickly superceded by another, anyway. Halfway up the steep (really really steep!) push up from the bothy, a roll of thunder in my tummy set off some alarm bells. I dismissed it. I also noticed a slow flat that I’d picked up, so stopped to plug it. Before I’d finished though, it was off into the heather to see to some basic needs… I pressed on to catch the others before the summit, but before I got there nature called again… and so went the rhythm of the ride for the next seven hours. By the time I got to the summit of Birkscairn Hill at 661m, Scott had zoomed off to try and find that shifter, so me and David zoomed down the rollercoaster of Gyspy Glen and on to that ‘quick lap’ of Glentress…
It had all fallen apart so quickly. From the relaxed surety of pedalling along in the autumn sunshine, Scott’s bike and my guts had both malfunctioned, the sun had set and it seemed like a long way to Edinburgh. David had gone off ahead during our sunset descent of Spooky Wood, and I met him again drinking milk and frappuccino at the garage in Peebles, with Scott having left just before I rolled in (now confined to singlespeed for the rest of the ride since the shop had already shut). I knew that getting enough fluids and food on board to fuel the hilly fifty miles that remained would be a big ask, but made a decent go of it with some fare from the garage. David and me set out into the darkness, heading north into new territory for me, on mostly grassy tracks and farm lanes. A rhythm emerged whereby I would stop every twenty minutes or so for a nature break, work too hard for fifteen minutes to catch David up, ride with him for five, and then repeat. It became gruelling, and I wasn’t sure if David was holding back to wait for me, so I urged him to press on after Scott.
It was becoming harder and harder to stay with The Ride; my mind latched onto negative thoughts like how low our average speed was becoming, how long it would be until I had to stop again, how me and Scott’s projected finishing time of midnight was slipping steadily away… I had lost control of events, so I tried to remember the lessons from the Highland Trail, and focus on the few things that I could control: put food in mouth, keep pedals turning, walk if you must, but don’t stop. Whether it worked, or it was simply tiredness and unwillingness to think too much, but despite the constant stopping and nausea, we slowed, but the glow of Edinburgh’s lights on the horizon inched closer nonetheless.
The time and the lack of carbohydrates actually staying in my body were really making themselves felt, so the chat gradually died to barely a murmur in the foggy night. We were still moving though, and when we found ourselves on the southern flank of the Pentlands we knew that there was just this last big climb standing between our beds and us (and a proper toilet). The fog closed in as we climbed, wrapping me up with my thoughts again. I knew that once we did leave the Pentlands there was still a good few miles of convoluted gpx rack to follow until we arrived at Portobello, and that it would demand some alertness as well as willing legs. At one point I noticed that David’s lights were taking a very different path to my own through the fog. I checked, sure that I was on the right track, and waited while he made his way across tussocks and bog towards me. It turned out I was lucky enough to have a slightly better-defined GPS screen to follow, and the tendril-like sheep tracks in the fog had lead him astray.
The lights of Edinburgh emerged as we crested the hill, a beacon of warmth and comfort and food(!) that we were glad to see again after some sixteen hours of riding. Barrelling down the Red Road was another lift to the spirits, despite another couple of nature stops. Our legs strained to the task of the final drag, pulling us up and over the very last climb of Maiden’s Cleugh, and onto the familiar trails of Poet’s Glen as we neared the outskirts of the city. We were back on board The Ride, and I wished that the momentum of that descent from the hills and into the city would take us all the way to the sea… Of course, that wasn’t to be. As we entered the maze of rabbit trails, tiny alleys and dog-walker’s trails, it became harder and harder to focus on which turning exactly we were aiming for, especially with tired eyes and a screen blurred by condensation from the gathering autumn fog. After a dozen or so wrong turns and plenty of confusion, we were near the end of our mental tethers, especially when we realised that we were skirting the airport, having travelled away from Portobello rather than towards it. Still, The Ride demands to be satisfied, and at the late stage the finish began to take on a solid form.
Cursing Markus (he seemed the easiest person to blame) we followed what was, in hindsight, some lovely trails out towards Cramond, where the burning torch of the oil plant at Cowdenbeath seemed to want to tempt us across the water. We turned right, knowing that a few flat miles along the waterfront stood between us and the finish. All the while we wondered whether we would see Scott – had he already finished, or had we passed him somewhere out there? Abandoning moderation, the speed racked up and our heads lowered to the task. We passed club-goers in Granton and Leith, and as the lights of the promenade at Portobello finally became visible, we saw a lone rider coming back towards us. It was Scott. He seemed pretty emotional, having chucked everything on the line as he thought that he was chasing us to Portobello rather than the other way around! He had finished about twenty minutes before us, an amazing effort on a singlespeed for the last fifty miles! We went our separate ways, me and David arriving to a crowd of no-one and a deafening silence of applause, before I climbed into the back of the van and went to sleep. It felt good.
What was nicer was the atmosphere the following morning. Once the sun on the van made it too hot to sleep inside, I reluctantly rolled over and slouched the twenty metres to the Tide café. Scott was there, as well as some other riders who had arrived in the intervening hours. We chatted the required chat, dissecting the route, the conditions and the stories we had each lived along the way, mostly through mouthfuls of food and coffee. That shared sense of achievement was something that I had missed in the Highland Trail, having been alone, and it made me fall in love even more with this strange, lonely form of racing that is also deeply rooted in shared experiences and camaraderie.
A few days later we found out that as both Dave King and Martin had scratched during the day, Scott had been the first rider home followed by David and me, which was a nice surprise. A nicer surprise though was the astounding volume of 10/10 singletrack that Markus had built into the route, not to mention the friendliness of everyone that I met. I also felt as though I had learned to love The Ride, and it seems that when you stop fighting it and commit to the experience, despite its unpredictable nature, it might just sweep you up along with it to who knows where.
So, thanks Markus, and thanks to everyone that I met. Hopefully I’ll see you all next year, but as the 2017 ediiton is just a week after the start of the Highland Trail, it might be from the sidelines.
You can find more info about the Capital Trail and Markus’ other adventures here: