From mills to hills

All across the UK, towns down on their luck have been rescued by the sport we love. We zoom in on Innerleithen to figure out how it’s done.

>>> MBR Trail Bike of the Year 2020

Two images pop into my head when I think of Innerleithen. The first is of a town down on its luck, unwelcoming in aspect, and empty of shops bar a bookie or two. Quiet, empty and forgettable. That was 2005 and my first visit. The second came just last year, and despite the rain the welcome couldn’t have been sunnier.

The streets were busy with people, and not just passing through, either: queuing for artisan coffee, licking 99s, and riding bikes. In the dozen years between my two visits the town had gone from down-and-out to mountain bike heaven.

They’re not just my first impressions either, everyone I speak to uses the same word to describe the town: buzzing. Last year it was runner-up in Scotland’s Most Beautiful High Street, and Zoopla reveals house prices are up 25 per cent in that period, four per cent in the last 12 months alone, as people move back to the town.

“Fast-forward to 2020 and the change is palpable,” says Alex Feechan of Findra Clothing, based in Innerleithen. “More cafes have opened as well as other independent gift shops, all of which make a positive contribution to the success and creation of a bustling, vibrant high street.”

Dozens of mountain bike-orientated businesses have opened and now there’s news that an industry hub and potential bike park has secured funding.

“The hub’s going to be based at one of the old textile mills, the last one standing called Caerlee Mill, and we’re going to try and get our college course based in there in around 2024,” says Andy Barlow from Dirt School. “If you needed anything more as a metaphor for a town reborn then there it is really.”

Innerleithen is a town saved by mountain biking. From the growing number of trails overseen by the Tweed Valley Trails Association, to the businesses like Adrenalin Uplift, Findra clothing, Enduro World Series HQ, i-Cycles bike shop and No1 Peebles Road Cafe, this is the story of a town revitalised by riding.

But we could be talking about dozens of towns across the UK; there are success stories, but perhaps none more so and on such a grassroots level than Innerleithen. The obvious question then: what is it that enables mountain biking to dig places out of a post-industrial hole? Innerleithen certainly started from a bad place in recent times, the town’s woollen mills began to close in the 80s and by the 90s they were all gone, leaving the town without industry and a sense of direction.

An established network of trails has put the Tweed Valley firmly on the mtb map

Mills to hills

“I started riding in Inners in 1992, around that time the town was in quite a deep depression, and when the last mill closed that was the nail in the coffin for the town,” Andy says.

“Then something changed in the hills around the town. Tam Ferguson from Bike Sport Innerleithen, now i-Cycles, took the moto enduro trails and made them more suitable for downhill mountain bikes. And local trail builder Richard Hamilton, of course. That was around 1995, Glentress hadn’t even been invented yet, but people were riding at the Golfie, and at Glentress too.”

Build it and they will come, a proverb never more true than for mountain bikers, who started to travel to Innerleithen to ride.

“It’s the trails that lead everything,” says Emma Guy, who set up the Hub in the Forest Cafe at Glentress. “The mountain biking led it, then people saw the opportunity to follow it,” she says.

The UK was slowly waking up to the idea that mountain biking could lead to regeneration, a concept that really took off after the 2001 foot and mouth crisis. If you’re old enough to remember, access to the countryside was effectively prohibited, and towns that relied on the rural economy suffered. In stepped the EU with investment, which included the 7Stanes trail centres, with Innerleithen’s red trail opening in 2005.

Great trails don’t make a thriving town on their own, they draw in the businesses that allow a town to thrive, at least in the case of Innerleithen. Dirt School came to the town in 2007 off the back of the trails and Findra Clothing was born in 2014.

Adrenalin Uplift set up business in 2017, running people up the hill to ride the trails, and recently the Enduro World Series has established an office in town, while coffee shop No1 Peebles Road has helped turn the town into what Emma calls “Hipster Innerleithen”.

“When that opened it was a breath of fresh air, the mountain bikers had somewhere to stop, somewhere to meet and somewhere to chat,” Andy Barlow says. “That was the critical mass moment for me, because they already had a successful cafe called Moondogs in Galashiels but they chose to relocate to Innerleithen.”

A welath of bike-asociated businesses line the town’s streets

Need for tweed

Next came the Tweedlove festival and enduro racing, which has helped to drive forward mountain biking as a professional interest. The Enduro World Series, which last visited the area some six years ago, will return to the Tweed Valley on 15 May, 2021, largely thanks to the efforts of the Innerleithen-based community interest company Hub Events, which is hosting the event.

“It got to a critical point where you had an amazing concentration of people and the landscape,” says Emma, who helped launch Hub Events. “Once the ball starts rolling for mountain biking it’s difficult to stop and you’ve not got the critical mass with mountain biking that can turn the area into a fully developed international destination.”

Clearly, Innerleithen and the Tweed Valley has got itself organised in a big way, and it’s this that has really pushed the area forward. How many other towns can boast a mountain bike development coordinator, like the Tweed Valley’s Ed Shoote? Ed took the job at Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland in 2017 and set to work finding out what the local community wanted to get out of mountain biking.

“It’s really organic and community driven growth in Innerleithen,” Ed says.

From the Tweed Valley Trails Association, to Forestry and Land Scotland, to the trails network which stretches from Selkirk to Peebles and on to organised events like Tweedlove that helps make the trails better known and more official, growth has come from the town itself for Ed.

“It’s a combination of many things, not one thing, that has made the change for Innerleithen,” says Graeme McLean from Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland. “That’s a coordinator’s job to put the right people in the right place to understand the town, introduce the right people and then let them get on with it.”

It’s a theme I hear echoed time and time again, from Emma Guy, Ed Shoote, Andy Barlow, Alex at Findra clothing: it’s not just the trails, or the terrain, or the businesses that make a successful mountain bike town, it’s the people. Innerleithen now has a concentration of people who have travelled the world riding mountain bikes, seeing what works and what doesn’t in different riding spots, and they’re bringing the pick back home.

Innerleithen has big plans, then, centred around the new innovation centre for mountain biking that as of last July had heads of terms agreed with the UK government for £19m. It’s not a done deal yet, work is ongoing to deliver the project and investors are still needed to be signed up, but Ed Shoote says the project team and the government funding gives investors confidence. Inside the centre will be lab and teaching space for Edinburgh Napier as the lead university, and other universities like Strathclyde and Borders College, as well as an open facility for other engineering firms, hot desks for media, and commercial businesses, and local companies for more long-term offices, followed by some expo space.

It’s what’s happening outside that’s probably more interesting though. Innerleithen is getting ever closer to becoming a full-blown bike park, building on the long history of the town as a DH destination and supporting its riding culture on natural, often unsanctioned trails that appeal to experienced riders. “There has been a push for a bike park from the Innerleithen riding community for years but this is hopefully the closest we have been to seeing new sustainable trails, the kind of which Scotland hasn’t seen before,” Ed Shoote tells me.

There’s gold in them thar hills: and Innerleithen is mining for more…

Nothing ventured…

“We brought in Chris Sutton from Select Contracts, who are the guys who developed Christchurch Adventure Park in New Zealand, to see if we were on the right track,” Ed says. “Select Contracts proposed a model for Innerleithen similar to the Christchurch model – using a chairlift as an uplift, but preserving the existing trails and also building new jumps and more freeride lines, and having some other attractions, like a zipline and hiking trails too. Innerleithen would be the first bike park of its kind in Scotland and would still respect Scotland’s open access legislation for all riders.”

It will also look closer to home for inspiration on how to build a bike park: downhill-dedicated commercial trail centres have been the success story of the past five years, rising up like table tops from as far south as Cornwall up through Wales and on to Danny Hart’s Descend Hamsterley in the North Pennines. The biggest and arguably most successful in terms of rider numbers and scale, is of course, BikePark Wales near Merthyr Tydfil, which sees thousands of riders a year on its 40 trails, with scores of employees taking care of visitors.

Could Innerleithen one day represent this kind of commercial success story then? Is it too much of a stretch to compare the venue with Queenstown, or indeed Whistler, where Select Contracts has its head office?

The answer is both yes and no, according to Emma Guy: “For us there is quite a strong community in Innerleithen, so I would envisage something like Whistler but with real soul, taking the community with us.”

The future looks bright for Innerleithen then. A blend of natural tracks and bike park trails, a friendly and supportive town, and organisation and support on a governmental level is what enables mountain biking to rejuvenate a town. With all three in place, we could soon be riding the UK’s first dedicated mountain bike chairlift… here’s hoping.