Wheels of fortune
A mountain-biking weekend in the Scottish Borders yields some surprising results
GETTING away from it all. Asuntan. Experi- encing a new culture. All these are valid reasons for taking a trip. This was something different: to resolve an endless argument with my partner.
It always started the same way. I would go away mountain-biking and my girlfriend would ask why she hadn’t been invited. I would explain that, since she didn’t ride a bike, there was no point. She would then claim that she could ride a mountain bike perfectly well; she just hadn’t tried it yet.
Certain ding-dongs can be strangely enjoyable, but this one wasn’t. After its fourth appearance in less than a year, it was time to seek professional help, in the guise of a weekend for cycling couples at Britain’s finest mountain-biking trail centre. One-on-one intensive coaching during the day, a boutique hotel to relax in at night and lunch together on the hills in between.
If by Sunday we can ride the same tough trails together, I will concede defeat.
Barely have we arrived at Glentress, in the verdant rolling hills 45 minutes south of Edinburgh, than my girlfriend concedes her first spectacular own goal. ‘‘Are these the brakes?’’ she asks the instructor, Andy, pointing at the 27 gears on her Kona Hardtail bike.
Andy has been mountain-biking for 17 years, but seems unfazed by her gaffe. Within an hour of her climbing on a mountain bike for the first time in her life, he has Sarah up and pedalling.
It’s pleasant stuff — a gentle winding loop through stands of ash and Scots pine and past banks of purple foxgloves. Unfortunately, it appears to have given Sarah a false sense of her nascent abilities.
‘‘What would you do,’’ she asks the next morning, ‘ ‘ if you were riding along and suddenly I did a massive jump right over your head?’’
I send her off to join another instructor, Davie, at the skills loop. While she pootles round the beginners’ green runs, Andy takes me on to the tougher blues and reds that wind around the hills above the River Tweed. At Glentress, there’s everything from flat gravel paths to monstrous drop-offs and jumps. No matter what your level of experience, there’s a trail for you.
In my head, I am ready to take some serious Borders air. It is somewhat chastening, then, to be told by Andy that I barely possess the technique for a basic bunny hop. ‘‘You’re full of bad habits,’’ he says. ‘‘You’re riding as if you’re on a road. It should all start with the attack position — use your upper body, get your elbows out, make your arms work as part of the suspension.’’
Down below us, a series of rocks jut out to form an uneven stairway. Usually, I’d launch myself with minimum control and maximum probability of stacking it halfway down, then edge down with brakes locked on while blood dripped from my fresh wounds. Andy shakes his head. ‘‘You’ve got to stop reaching for the panic levers. Once you get to the commitment point, the brakes aren’t going to do you any good. Stick to the death grip: 90 per cent of accidents on drop-offs are from braking.’’
To keep the statistics tidy, I then demonstrate some of the other 10 per cent of things that can go wrong. By the time we attempt to ride a ‘‘skinny’’ (a narrow wooden beam) purple welts are blooming on my knees and shins. I manage two more spectacular tumbles before Sarah arrives for lunch.
‘ ‘ Davie says I’m a natural,’’ she says cheerfully. ‘‘By the look of your knees, I’d say you’re not.’’
I dab at my wounds and consider telling her about my plans to ride Britney Spears. That’s not as outrageous as it sounds — it’s merely a section of trail so good you always want to hit it one more time — but the risk of triggering a rather different attack position and death grip is simply too great.
In any case, there is the descent of Spooky Wood to take on. But when a significant error in my racing line ends with a wooden bridge being rearranged at an altogether more diagonal angle, Andy suggests that enough claret has been spilled for one day.
‘‘So then,’’ says my girlfriend, over a hearty dinner at the Sunflower restaurant in Peebles. ‘‘Total crashes from you: five. Total from me: none. Who’s the better mountainbiker now?’’
I decide to continue my tour of the Speyside single malts. The whisky has a pleasantly numbing effect on my war wounds. mb7.com visitbritain.com
Tom Fordyce and his partner, Sarah