A golden age
When it comes to bikes and trails, we’ve never had it so good and nowhere represents this utopia better than the trails of the Tweed Valley.
Take a step back for a minute and you’ll see that mountain biking is in its golden age – the sport is established, riding locations are sprouting like wildflowers and bikes get better every year. We headed to the Tweed Valley where the golden age began in earnest.
A golden age
Words and photos: Sim Mainey
My brain, like my shed, is filled with junk. Neither is particularly large and I have a problem clearing both of them out. In the shed’s case it’s because I like to hold on to things for improbable what-if scenarios. What if I need that 18 year old 110mm Syncros stem for a bike build? What if those first generation XT V-brakes one day change from dirt covered scrap to collectors items? I have boxes, tubs, jars and shelves stacked with redundant bike components I can’t or won’t let go of on the off-chance that they may be needed.
When it comes to clearing out my head it’s not really up to me, my brain’s inner workings control what gets safely stored away and what gets forgotten – generally vital and useful information is buried deep under a pile of trivia, generally bike related too. I can’t remember my credit card PIN but I can remember the colours of the 1996 Kona bike range (Explosif in Olive Green, please). Most of this knowledge can’t even be pulled out, dusted off and put to use in a pub quiz. It is useful for writing about bikes for a living though.
Whether it’s my mind or my shed there’s a very human condition keeping me from having a good clear out, sentimentality.
Sentimentality is when we project memories onto objects. It’s what makes us associate old bikes and kit with good times, people and places. Sentimentality is what fills lofts and sheds with objects that have been replaced and superseded, it stops us letting go and moving on.
I hope I don’t need to tell you this but we are living in a golden age of mountain biking. Sentimentality may bring on waves of warm nostalgia for times and bikes gone by but things have never been better when it comes to riding a bike off-road. Bikes are more capable, more reliable and better value than ever. Despite a few ongoing hiccups access and the acceptance of mountain bikes on the trails is now well established. The list of places to ride is growing all the time with bike parks, trail centres and a host of home-grown trails to explore. And the best bit is we’re still on an upward curve – mountain biking’s golden age is not a fixed point in the past, it’s today. Everyday.
Mountain biking is still a young sport but one place it feels like it’s come of age is Scotland and in particular the Tweed Valley. Home to the hugely popular Glentress trail centre and the uplift accessible downhill tracks of Innerleithen it also plays host to a multitude of events on a local and global scale. Nowhere else in the UK shows off the march of our sport’s progress quite like this valley south of Edinburgh.
This progress has come about thanks to ambitious local riders and Scotland’s forward-thinking countryside access laws. Together they’ve helped create a network of trails that are truly world class and are pushing mountain biking forward as well as acting as a magnet for riders seeking new challenges. In a progressively grown-up way they’ve also created a way to manage this amazing resource. The Tweed Valley Trails Association’s aim is to help sustain and grow the trails and the scene – ensuring visitors and locals alike get the most out of their riding.
The need for Tweed
With a couple of days in the Tweed Valley Dan and I are keen to discover some of the hidden, and not so hidden, gems on offer. Our first stop is Glentress visitor centre to pick up a clutch of trail maps and get busy with a highlighter pen to fill in some of the gaps.
Trails have changed and so has the way we find and navigate them. From maps and guidebooks to following arrows there are plenty of ways to plan your ride. In the spirit of progress we embrace the latest technology and half an hour with a cup of tea and an app has helped us track down some trails, check out a few videos of what we can expect and helped us plan a route. It’s never been easier to find the good stuff and there’s never been as much good stuff to ride.
Heading out from the Buzzard’s Nest car park above the Glentress visitor centre we watch a young lad wait for the rest of his family to get their act together by lazily wheelying and manualling the entire length of the car park. It’s mighty impressive. You’d have to be a particularly cynical type to not see the benefit of trail centres to family cycling – allowing all members of the family to get something out of the ride. They’ve also become an easily accessible point of entry for the sport, a feeder into the wider world of the outdoors. If there’s been one development in recent years that’s got more people mountain biking it’s the trail centre.
The official black trail is a reminder of just how much progression has gone on since it was built. What I remember as once being challenging now comes across as tame – increased suspension travel, wheel size and skill levels flatten things out. My riding and what I want from it has moved on and as bikes have got more capable so the search for more challenging trails has continued. This to and fro of bike development and trail development is what drives mountain biking forward, it’s what helps keep me hooked on playing in the woods. I don’t want things to be how they were, or even how they are, I want to keep being challenged, to keep exploring and for things to keep progressing. Sentimentality may be stopping me getting rid of a set of Middleburn cranks but it’s not going to get in the way of my riding.
Progress comes in all shapes and sizes, from the small and unnoticed to the large and disruptive, and with it comes resistance. Whether it’s new trails or new bike technology there will always be some who don’t want things to change or believe ‘things were better back then’ – mistaking the good times they had for good equipment.
Evolving in unison
Some progress, certainly when it comes to bike technology, can feel annoyingly incremental or done purely for progress’ sake – the classic example being the addition of another ‘standard’ to the pile. But through this process bikes have become better and better – a £1,000 full suspension bike is now hugely capable rather than a showroom price point exercise. Suspension, gears, brakes – there’s not one component at any price point that hasn’t improved thanks to engineers looking for ways to improve our ride and taking flack for it in the process.
Bikes and trails evolve in unison, a synchronised development keeping each honest. In evolution there are always going to be losers, dead ends and growing pains. The only difference is with trail evolution it means a growing trail network, with bike evolution it can mean junk in your shed.
We top out on the hill to views up and down the Tweed. Patches of light pass over the hills, a rain squall blurs the far end of a valley and steam pours out the side of the forest. Trail centres have a reputation for offering a sterilised experience but here you can make things as unsanitary as you like. We double check our scrawled on map to make sure we’re in roughly the right place and keep our eyes out for where the first trail on our hitlist begins.
A black hole on the treeline marks the start. Slick roots and uninviting wheel-deep puddles a suitable qualifier for what is to come. Our eyes widen to try and take in what little light there is and help give our reactions time to catch up with what’s going on in front of us. It takes a bit of faith to leave the path well-ridden and enter the murk of the unknown, hoping that our idea of what makes a good trail aligns with whoever has put this line into the hillside. The reward for doing so is huge though. Trails that are better built than the official ones, crafted by riders who really understand flow and what a modern bike with a willing rider is capable of.
While the off-piste trails in Glentress weave their way around an established network those on the Golfie down the road in Innerleithen make use of a blank canvass. Named after the fact that there’s a golf course at the bottom of the hill the Golfie has gained a reputation as the home to the Tweed Valley’s more challenging trails, trails of a specialist nature, trails that have seen use as some of the sharper stages of Enduro World Series races. Rather than rely on a map or an app to find our way we’ve called in the guidance of a local, Ewan, a Valley local who’s just returned from an extended stay in Canada he seems like the right man to point us at some of the more interesting and obscure parts of the Golfie.
Not so long ago you’d have sworn you needed a Downhill bike to get down some of these trails and in a way that’s what we’ve now got. Modern trail bikes have geometry that rivals, and in some cases surpasses, Downhill bikes in the longer, lower, slacker stakes. Suspension, brake and tyre technology has moved at an incredible rate and it’s hard to imagine that things can get any better. But they will. Of course the great thing about a modern trail bike is that despite it being supremely capable on the downs it can still be pedalled uphill efficiently, which is a good job as it’s a long slog to the top of the Golfie.
There’s a definite minimum speed required on most of these trails – without enough momentum they don’t work and feel hard work. Let go of the brakes, trust the trail and let your bike do its thing though and their genius is revealed. Tyres make a tearing sound as side-knobs find traction in the soil and displace rocks in the perfectly sculpted turns. In the absence of all other sounds on the forest floor it’s a dramatic cacophony as the three of us carve down the ill-lit helter skelter etched into the hill – our bikes ability perfectly matched to the challenge of the trail. Not much thrives under the dark canopy of the forest but fungus and creative trail building has done a good job of exploiting the environment.
The trails are hard, testing and tiring – egging you to go a bit faster when your arms are saying they’ve had enough. Rather than go up for an ominous ‘one more run’ we call it quits and roll back into town.
Leaving the Tweed Valley I feel like I’ve progressed as a rider – more confident in my abilities and better able to control my bike in awkward situations. My up-to-the-minute bike has helped me enjoy these state of the art trails and the trails have made me a better rider.
This is the golden age of mountain biking. However long you’ve been riding, whatever kind of riding you’re into and no matter what level you’re at it’s thrilling to know that this as good as it’s as ever been – but stick around, things are only going to get better.
The Tweed Valley Trails Association
The riders and trail builders of the Tweed Valley know they have a good thing going on and are keen to keep it that way. This doesn’t mean they want to keep the trails to themselves though, they are happy to share but keen to do it in a sustainable way that benefits everyone. If you’re thinking of visiting the area check out the TVTA website and Facebook page for useful pointers on where to ride and what’s happening in the Valley.