Katy Winton, Reece Wilson, Lewis Buchanan... why does the Tweed Valley in Scotland produce more than its fair share of great riders?
Words and photos: Finlay Anderson
Class of 2021
In case you haven’t noticed, Scotland is fast becoming a hotbed of mountain biking talent. However, there is one valley, in particular, that’s spawning success on the world scene like nowhere else North of the border. And unless you’ve been living under a creag for the last few years, you’ll know that the valley in question is the Tweed Valley.
Here at mbr we’ve covered plenty of the hills, trails and personalities of the area many times over the years (and by now you might well have sampled them for yourselves), but great trails alone cannot be responsible for raising riders like Katy Winton, Reece Wilson and Lewis Buchanan. So is there something else at play? A secret sauce that raises the valley above other riding hotspots around the country? We decided to take a look and find out how a small, rural community, without access to ski lifts, has been responsible for such a prodigious talent pool and bountiful racing success.
While the local trails are not entirely responsible, they do play a key role, so let’s get that out of the way first. This is set to be a milestone year for the development of the Tweed Valley, with the Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal recently signing off a £19m investment into the valley’s trails and riding infrastructure. It builds on the hard work of countless trail builders and riders who’ve helped sculpt a network of hundreds of kilometres of singletrack, from the easiest green trails to the steepest and darkest blacks. Now, with the Tweed Valley Trails Association responsible for more of the network than ever, after taking over management of the Golfie in 2019, the trails are going from strength to strength.
So much so that plenty of riders move here just for the riding. “Having access to world- class trails is a very big thing if you want to be a professional racer,” says Juliana-sponsored rider Polly Henderson. “I knew that I wanted to race as a career, so I passed up a university offer and moved to the Tweed Valley.”
There’s more going on than just trails though. From a young age, kids growing up in the Tweed Valley are chucked in at the proverbial deep end. There’s a host of clubs dotted up and down the valley, from the renowned Peebles Cycling Club (PCC) to the popular Kids Innerleithen Cycling Club (KICC), meaning it’s as easy to get involved in mountain biking as football or rugby. This is really important, because these kids’ clubs pave the way forward for young riders, offering grassroots events and an encouraging path into the competitive side of the sport.
“The unsung heroes of the Tweed Valley are the kid’s clubs and events,” Andy Barlow from Dirt School explains. “They do such a good job of creating the grassroots scene that most young riders here have had almost a lifetime of riding experience by the time they are 16!” he continues.
So you’ve got kids riding from a young age, you’ve got the formidable terrain of the Tweed Valley; next you need some competition. Every national series in mountain biking hosts at least one round per season on the valley’s trails. Events such as the British Downhill Series, UK Gravity Enduro and Scottish Enduro Series are all regular visitors. As well as welcoming race series from around the country, the valley also has its own headline event – TweedLove has been throwing killer events in the Tweed Valley since 2010. With popular racing festivals such as Vallelujah, King & Queen of the Hill and the infamous TweedLove Bike Festival, the organisers have managed to appeal to all, with from beginner-friendly Enjoyro’s to the competitive Triple Crown series. This year also sees the return of the Enduro World Series to Tweed Valley dirt, shining the world’s racing spotlight back onto the region.
But there’s one more ingredient to throw into the mix that marks the Tweed Valley out as a unique, progressive, and indeedpioneering place. That ingredient is the UK’s only mountain bike university, where you can actually study mountain biking on a practical and theoretical level. The Borders Academy of Sporting Excellence (BASE) Mountain Biking course was founded out of necessity in 2009. Scottish Cycling had just axed the support of its downhill racing programme, and Chris Ball, who was a coach for Scottish Cycling at the time, noticed that the Galashiels-based Borders College (which was already running a performance course for rugby players) would be a great candidate to take over the support for Scotland’s up-and-coming downhill racers.
The first year of the course ran in 2009-10 and just five students attended. “Essentially, all of the efforts that were being put into the Scottish Cycling downhill programme sidestepped straight into the newly formed BASE MTB course,” Andy Barlow explains. “Right from the start, the course was filled with the best performers and focused on creating a good environment for them to be able to excel.”
“Everyone will always associate the BASE MTB course with the pinnacle of performance – I mean ex-student Reece Wilson just won the World Championships. However, the course is set up to help you apply the principles of peak performance to whatever you go on to do in life,” Andy Barlow says. And to prove his point, Andy reels off a list of former students in careers as diverse as engineering and sports science.
The truth is that the majority of BASE MTB students don’t go on to lap the World Cup race scene, but really that’s not the primary function of the course. It attracts people that aren’t necessarily getting on academically, those who struggle to find meaning down the traditional educational route but are still bright. “They might leave school, feel lost but enjoy riding their bike,” Andy says. Once we persuade them that they’re not actually stupid, they can do well in life.”
This is the very essence of BASE, teaching people how to live their best lives, Andy explains. “We sometimes have emails from former students years after they’ve left the course and completely out of the blue,” he says. “I remember one from a roofer who’d moved to Canada and quickly risen through the company – he was now a supervisor and the company thought of him as so vital they were sponsoring his visa application. He took the time to say thank you and to tell us he put the success down to the preparedness and work ethic the course taught him.”
It’s not really the course that does it though, Andy puts down the success to the riders themselves. “We manufacture talent, sure,” he says. “We develop a situation where riders can practice in a safe environment, we give them the opportunity to make it all happen. But really they’re creating all of this.”
Is he being too modest? Yes and no.
Since its creation, the BASE MTB course has seen over 160 students taking part. It’s list of alumni includes Katy Wilson, Lewis Buchanan, Polly Henderson, under-18 British Enduro Series champ Jayden Randell and, of course, Reece Wilson. Would they be as successful without the course? Probably not. Could the BASE course have produced professional racers without a supply of already high-achieving and talented athletes? Again, probably not.
There’s a nice symbiosis going on between the two groups. Take Reece Wilson again. “When he turned up he couldn’t pedal very well, he was really untidy on the pedals,” Andy says. “But there was something about him, he stood out and not just for his riding, it was his attitude. He worked hard on his pedalling, he got himself to the skate parks, worked on his pumping and now when you see him ride, he’s hardly putting a pedal stroke in. Then you meet Wal, his dad, and he has this attitude that you can do anything you put your mind to, and that’s where Reece’s mentality comes from.
What about the raw talent then, that came with the attitude? “Reece’s commitment to cornering and straight-line speed over steep stuff was incredible, he just went through stuff,” Andy says. “The speed never phased him. Then he’d do 10-minute descents and he wouldn’t have a hint of arm pump thanks to his motocross background.”
Polly Henderson had a different route to the BASE course, with a background in XC thanks to riding and racing local trails at Dalbeattie and Mabie Forest. While her local riding spots suited the needs of a budding XC racer, Polly soon found herself drawn to the enduro scene. Unfortunately, the nearest enduro trails were only accessible by car, limiting Polly’s freedom to train when and where she wanted.
“Once I started racing enduro, I realised that the BASE MTB course was a good pathway to try and become pro,” she explains. “There were a lot of fast riders coming through the course and it seemed like the best opportunity to take my racing to the next level.”
Jayden Randell, who grew up near the Forest of Dean, agrees: “A lot of good riders come from here. If you are into racing and want to go on to continue racing as a career, it’s the perfect place to make that next step from.”
“Here in the Tweed Valley, everything is on your doorstep and there are always people around who want to go riding. The trail network is also unlike anything else in the country – it’s the ultimate,” he says.
Polly agrees: “There are so many people to ride with here in the valley. At home, I didn’t have anyone to ride with apart from my dad and his friends. It’s always fun to go riding with him, but you need people to ride with who are a similar age to you and keep pushing you to progress!”
After an insightful chat, I join Polly and Jayden for an evening ride around their favourite trails at Glentress. While trying my best not to lose sight of them, I start to reflect on their words. Would they have made it without the BASE course? Perhaps, but it would have been harder. Without the trails? The odds are rapidly slipping away.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to miss all the behind-the-scenes work, events and support that go into making the Tweed Valley what it is. However, when you delve a little deeper, you can start to piece together the many aspects that work hand-in-hand to develop, not only the region’s trails and infrastructure, but also create the perfect storm for manufacturing world-class talent.