The last time Jake and I tried a backroad / offroad route from Peebles to Balerno we spent about 20% of the whole time walking. This was not pleasing as we had hoped to cycle the vast majority of the route but the Pentland Hills just outside Edinburgh are a bit of a barrier, there’s only really one way through from the south and we had ended up too far west for that. So a rethink, a further scan of OS maps and I thought I had a potential new route.
At 5:05am, that’s AM! We rolled out of Peebles for attempt number two surrounded by fog. We knew we would have to spend the first 8km on the main road heading to Edinburgh which is usually hectic. But we were passed by maybe a single car per km before we heading off and through a private estate with manicured lawns and in the distance a vast house. Initially tarmac we were soon on a good gravel road and for a brief couple of minutes the sunshine appeared and a golden light spread though the trees. We skirted a loch before descending onto the smallest of small backroads before cutting across a moor on a forestry track. Loose and undulating it made us focus while the fog closed in, the moisture in the air coating us with a film of dew.
Back on tarmac again we headed down to Penicuik and through the town centre, busier now we were approaching 6:30 but still relatively traffic free. A quick climb and backroad dirt track saw us to Flotterstone. Following this access road up into the middle of the Pentlands the sun threatened to break through the grey but it never quite managed and we had to make do with a warm gloom. On the singletrack of Greens Cleugh we forded the river without a dab. Only a mechanical was going to ruin this now and despite the loose rocks we made it through, punctures avoided and we hit the long descent down to Balerno. And coffee.
The return leg was all stunning sunshine and blue skies. We were slightly faster heading home and the North Sea breeze certainly helped keep us cool. Hitting Peebles just before dusk started to set in felt amazing and it has been one of the best days on a bike so far this year. The route was a winner, so much so that we might give it a crack next week as well. The only downside is that I want a new bike to do it on…
Tomorrow we ride a new route to work, a bit less climb but further and hopefully faster. After playing around with gears for a bit it’s back to the singlespeed Steamroller for this. Should nudge 90km over the day but hopefully no walking, a crucial improvement over the last time Jake and I tried this.
For now, food and then sleep.
Forgive me singlespeed gods (Adam Craig, Burry Stander, Heather Irmiger) for I have sinned. I thought that by adding gears to my mountain bike I had reached a new level of understanding and progress, my “Darwin” moment, if you will. I was wrong. I am weaker, I have lost my flow, spiritual clarity and excuse for being slow that I previously enjoyed while following a one geared faith based biking movement.
But I’m back, I’ve powered up my Thetan levels and stripped away the heavy cogs of infinite choice. I’m back on the path to righteousness. I will be the master of the Trutch climbing technique once more.
One Gear (and absolutely) No Idea.
After a day of working brains and resting legs it was back on the bike to head south back to Peebles. Having ridden a fair amount in the Pentlands I knew what was waiting for us leaving Balerno, after 100 yards it was a right turn and straight into a climb, which would continue almost unabated for 6km, fluctuating between false flat, to trying to find a tempo on the pedals and finally, just trying to get the next pedal turn in as the gradient ramps up.
Finally though we ended up at the highest point of the ride and if it had been a clear day we could have seen our target in the distance. The descent off the Pentlands was pretty sketchy, wet grass isn’t ever the most encouraging surface to try and tame, especially on 32C’s but the Clements did better than they had any right too. Many parts of the ride were well outside their envelope but I never once felt like I was going to get posted to Crashville.
We retraced our route along the minor tarmac roads, then onto the A-Road for our solitary scary single kilometre with fast traffic, after a Froome-esque time trial style effort we were back to slogging up a gravel climb, I was feeling ok at this point and having failed to get up this on the test ride somehow managed to cruise up relatively untroubled, more gravel miles saw us back to the steep sharp walk into the forest and this is when it could have all come apart. The temperature had nosedived and on the climb up to the forest Jake had started to feel a touch light headed. If we hadn’t had any fuel left we would have been in trouble, as it was a Honey Stinger Energy Bar and then a gel put paid to any notion that we weren’t going to complete this muther f******.
Another half an hour which included an evil push just before Peebles which meant the 80km really felt like 80km. But eventually the bright lights of Peebles were visible and as we cruised through the back streets there was definitely a sense of achievement, of having a goal and just getting on with it. Just as the everyday population had no idea as we trundled out of Peebles that morning, few would have noticed our return. But that’s ok, the satisfaction of doing something a little bit adventurous, a little bit out of the norm was enough to make a 4:45am alarm call seem justified.
So we did it. 7 hours of cycling, eight hours of work and two very tired people.
I looked out the window on Monday morning and it was absoloutely stunning, blue skies, frosty, no wind, brilliant. The only tiny detail was this, we weren’t riding on Monday, we were riding on Tuesday. I looked out the window on Tuesday morning and it was a touch different, it was dark, there was the definite threat of rain in the air and it was a touch breezy.
At Oh Five Hundred Hours on the nose Jake rocked up, not in the full polar ensemble I was expecting. Up until this moment I was pretty convinced that something would come up to stop us riding, a bike issue, a failed alarm, a meteor. Something that would allow me to go back to bed but no, and as we trundled down the street at 5:03 am I flitted between “this is nuts, I should back to bed” and “this is awesome, there’s no-one else around” and finally “I hope there aren’t any farmers wandering around with guns shooting poachers right now”. But as the wheels started to roll a little faster and the lungs started filling with cold clean air it felt like a proper adventure.
The first major obstacle was the climb up into the Meldons, this point was one of three where we could loose a fair amount of time, a grassy section with a steep climb and then a sharp descent followed by a traipse through a field to hit tarmac again. Safely negotiated and a short section walked we started to make some progress. Onto a gravel track we gained some height before another field crossing and into a woodland section with a fierce climb, too much for my gearing and another five minute walk ensued. Then a swift downhill with a couple of moments dodging fallen trees and we were onto a truly gravel grinder section, a tailwind helped whip us along at a decent pace, the eastern horizon starting to light up as dawn approached while we made good speed. Loosing some of our height gains we dropped down onto our longest tarmac section, braving the A-road for a kilometre before swinging off onto a quiet side road, and heading across to sleepy Carlops.
By now we were pretty much in complete daylight, but I’m not sure that was a really good thing, we were at Nine Mile Burn and ahead lay the nastiest bit of the route, we had to get over the Pentlands. I had factored in somewhere around half an hour to make this summit and I wasn’t far wrong. It was a slog, but there were two motivating factors. The first was that we needed to be at work by a certain time and the second was that once we hit the top, it was downhill pretty much all the way. The view at the top after a significant hike-a-bike was hazy but a few rays of sunshine were hitting the farmland below us and after a brief pause we descended as fast as our skinny tyres would allow, trying not to have one of those crashes that so often happens just as you get to the end of a ride, keeping the concentration up.
Rolling into Balerno after 3 hours of cycling just as the general population was heading out to a regular Tuesday at work was pretty cool. I grabbed a bottle of Osmo Recovery to fill my legs back up and sat myself down in front of the computer, ready to have a day of working my brain and resting my legs, ready for part two, the return..
Peebles - Balerno - Peebles is on. Alarm set for 4:45 am, tomorrow we ride the gravel road to work. Hardcore on the hardcore.
The first I heard of Ezra Caldwell was through a colleague at howies, who back then didn’t have the most subtle way of putting things…
"Have you seen this guy, he’s rad, he built an assless bike because he has ass cancer."
Actual words. He now works at a rather posh cycling clothing comany, a paragon of good taste so I’m not sure he would put it quite like that now. Actually, you know what, I hope he would. I hope it hasn’t changed him.
But since that moment I’ve been regularly following the story on his blog and perusing the beautiful hand built bikes created under the Fast Boy Cycles name. It’s an incredible read, I could use many other words but his choices are better than mine. If you have the time and inclination, start at the beginning and follow the story through to where he is right now.
It’s the day after the ride before and my legs know they’ve done a bit of work in the last 24 hours. Considering that over the last few of weeks I haven’t done a ride which is longer than about 20km they aren’t as bad as I feared they would be after 65km and 3500ft of climbing which I can only put down to the Osmo Acute Recovery drink I had post ride. I also sat and watched a lot of tv for the rest of the day but I swear that stuff fills your legs back up.
As the PBP looms large and is going to happen in the next couple of weeks I needed to get out and ride the Steamroller and in particular the new Clement tyres. My route was up and over Cardrona, down to Traquair, a long road section to Berrybush Forest, down the Southern Upland Way to St Marys Loch, up to Megget Reservoir, then a big push up, over and down in Manor Valley and then the road back to Peebles. In my head I was thinking this would be a lovely spring ride, what I got was thick cloud, drizzle and a headwind. A very tough headwind.
I hate headwinds, I might be wrong but being relatively light it seems to stop me dead in my tracks. Lowlights included; a 6km climb straight into a headwind funnelling down the valley, actually having to trackstand on the way to Megget because I couldn’t go forward, pushing 50% of the way over the hills to Manor because it was too windy to stay on the bike due to the sidewind and finally, being blown over just before attempting to descend into Manor Valley.
Highlights were; I was actually getting some kilometres in, the view approaching Manor Valley makes it look really imposing and tyres. The Clements were basically everything I wanted, they seemed to roll nice and quick on the road, were light, didn’t puncture and managed to get me down stuff that really they probably weren’t designed to do. I don’t know if it was compound or tread or both but there were sections where I was thinking that this was really mountain bike territory and there was still grip available. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t mtb tyres and I was riding very much with that in mind, but it was a hell of a lot less scary than it should have been on 32C’s.
The last little bit in my gravel bike build is one the most important bits to a bicycle. Tyres. I have a bit of a thing for tyres, not because I have a certain desire for rubber but because they really can change a bike from a slippery eel of a thing to something that’s sure footed and planted. Anyone who has ridden an OEM Continental tyre and then a Black Chilli version will testify that this completely true. I have sailed over roots on the latter, and sailed over the handlebars on the former.
For the Steamroller gravel build I needed something a little different from the usual. Mainly due to the limited clearance under the brake caliper, the Steamroller may use long reach ones but it’s not exactly a cantilever or v-brake type clearance. So a monster-cross style build was out but I still needed something robust, grippy and fast rolling albeit in a slimline package,
Enter the Clement MSO 700x32C 120TPI. A dual compound mini-me version of their 40C MSO gravel tyre. One which will actually fit in my bike frame. I haven’t ridden them just yet, but they seated really nicely on my Rolf Prima P-Towns, feel nice and light at 285 grams and in my long term test of riding up the street, and back, they feel nice and grippy and puncture proof. Plus, they look cool. Clement make a really nice looking tyre (if there is such a thing) and this looks great. So when this Peebles-Balerno-Peebles ride makes national headlines the tyres will look awesome and by association so will I. Jake won’t though, he’s using another brand and I’ll report back with an expose on his tyres failings after the event. In fact, I’m pretty sure that because he isn’t riding Clements, he’ll burst into flames by the end of the outward leg. Fact.
The last month really hasn’t seen as much riding as it should have, especially with PBP looming on the horizon. But last weekend a group of us headed north to the Highlands for my very own Stag trip and it was very much a trip of two halves.
On the way up the Grantown we dropped in at Laggan for a quick blast around the red route, I had built up my Ibis Tranny again while loaning my HD to my brother who, while not quite a complete novice, is pretty new to mountain biking. Training for a marathon did seem to be good prep for climbing up to the top loop as he spanked pretty much all of us (bar one) up the hills.
Laggan, as always, delivered. I’m not a massive fan of the slightly pedally section near the very top but in fairness the headwind was stealing my speed, but when it gets into the rocky, twisty sections lower down and then into the tree’s at the end it’s great fun. It’s not long but it’s condensed, technical riding and getting to know the Tranny again was a lot of fun. From there it was a trip north to our lodge in Grantown and some beer.
For day two we headed to the new Glenlivet trails and very quickly it became obvious that this was a completely different kind of trail. We arrived on a multitude of different bikes, full suspension trail bikes, 120mm singlespeed hardtail, 100mm geared hardtail and well, a fatbike. And the consensus was probably that of all of these the geared hardtail and the fatbike were probably the most appropriate, the trail was mainly smooth gravel with nothing particularly technical, a couple of optional drops which were easily rollable and a couple of relatively straightforward rock gardens. Nothing that would be massively improved by full suspension, gears were essential however. I found myself spinning out trying to keep up the momentum where normally on a red trail the gradient would be giving me more than enough speed. This may just be a function of riding trails in the Tweed Valley that are typically winch and plummet, if you were coming from more rolling terrain it may be a little more familiar and expected.
However the biggest gripe from the group was how the trail was described, not just on the website but on the trail signage itself with one section in particular resulting in us feeling a touch let down. Proudly touted as a 6km descent we were expecting something with a certain amount of gradient, a little steeper, a bit more challenging. What we rode was more of a contouring singletrack section which at times threatened to pick up and start funnelling you down the trail with great lines and swooping arcs, only to turn flat, require a lot of time hammering the pedals to retain and then recover momentum. Personally I would have had the trail builders halve the distance of the descent and double the average gradient percentage in the process.
We also all took issue with the final section of blue which the red rejoins for the final few km, it takes you back above the car park in an attempt to give a final drop down to the cafe. And honestly after riding another pedally bit of wide singletrack I kind of gave up trying to make the trail flow and just bimbled along, pedal, freewheel, pedal until it was finally at an end. Not something I’ve ever done on the blue route on home turf at Glentress
Back in the Coffee Still at the trail head, which is a great little cafe with exceptional waffles, cakes and super friendly people behind the counter, there was a slight sense of disappointment. The trail had promised a lot but not really delivered, the best description was that it was a tease of a trail. It will be interesting to see how it succeeds or fails over the coming years. I hope it brings in enough revenue for it to flourish and grow over time, to give them the incentive to add in a more technical red option, or perhaps a full black graded, steeper option to use all that height for a real highlight of woodsy, technical trail riding. That would have tipped the balance in its favour.
And why was it a trip of two halves? A quick bike session on the morning of day three turned into a 999 call and a couple of trips to Raigmore Hospital. I don’t ever need to see someones knee cap again.