Route setter Ray Young has put a lot of work into this (he's still the only person to have done it - chapeau) and it shows. On the face of it the Border Hills and Southern Uplands suggest easy riding and pleasant terrain. The reality is very different - think Wales and the Yorkshire Dales rolled into one. Rays write up of his ride last year says it all really so I'll not pontificate.
Saturday 8am saw myself, Karl Booth and Ollie from Newbury waiting for the off. First bit of good news - Karl had a bag of banana and choc chip muffins provided by Bear Bones regular Bridget aka Borderer for the intrepid riders / idiots. My pre-ride banana turned out to be rotten mush so this was very welcome.
Karl went off like a bullet out of a gun so me and Ollie took a more leisurely start to warm up. The first climb sets the scene - steep fire road then straight into the first of many rough, peaty, boggy trails. Heavy rain the week before meant lots of surface water so it was defo gonna be a wet one. I caught Karl and we chatted a bit about what was to come. Neither of us was underestimating this route. On the descent my nav skills left me - first a missed line then a total inability too find the route along the first of many heather, tussock and bog infested 'trails' down to woodland and then into a fire break which is seriously wet. Cue first above ankle plunge and water into my totally waterproof boots....
Thereafter it was the Southern Upland Way over to and round Meggat Resevoir. On the climb up to Dollar Law the sun was beating down and the track was at a grade requiring max effort. From the track Ray has scoped a reasonable way to pick up the path but once again I was struggling to follow the line on the GPS. The first person to invent a heads up GPS display will get my money.... Eventually I got on track and onto a trail that was dry and fun. A fast descent was followed by back roads and a really nice section round the John Buchan Way to Broughton and its excellent village store.
|View from the summit of Dollar Law|
The next track over Common Law was nice. Well, nice apart from the locked gates and snotty signs. I really don't get this. The landowner will have got government grant to plant the woodland and will be getting further grants and tax breaks 'maintaining' it and yet they still can't get their heads round Land Reform. I was almost hoping some estate worker pitched up so I could tell him exactly what I thought of their 'Land Management' policies and who was paying for them. OK rant over but given that most landowners seem to manage this fine, it really pisses me off when you come across the ones who are still stuck in the 18th century.
Up to Cocklie Rigg was a max effort push and then it was wind farm world. I run hot and cold with these things. On the one hand if we are going to burn so many ions charging up a vast array of gadgets then we can't complain about any method of generating said ions (including nuclear) but I just wish they would make a bit more effort to landscape the roads post construction. Hey ho, at least it made for easy pedalling and another flat out descent to Kingledores (ROW goes right through the Farm yard - they don't appear to mind) more nav errors then onto an old railway line parallel to the A701.
Memory lane - the line goes past a CTC owned hut which was an annual destination for the Heriot Watt Uni cycling club. We'd ride down from Edinburgh on a Friday evening, get wrecked at the Crook Inn, do the Tweedsmuir / Moffat / Boreland / Eskdalemuir / Megget circuit on the Saturday, get wrecked in the Crook Inn, Ride home Sunday via Innerleithen. Happy days. Sadly the Crook Inn is long shut but I was pleased to see signs indicating that it was to be run as a Community owned facility.
Pedalling alongside Fruid resevoir I contemplated the next section. I was in good shape, mentally and physically so felt ready for anything. Another nav error climbing away from the resevoir spoiled my mood. Somehow I missed a turn and ended up following a quad track which would have taken me fully into No-Mans land. Back on track it was actually pretty rideable. Wet in places and tussock central but 3" tyres deal with this stuff well. Not as good as a fat bike but good enough to make steady progress. Higher up it got progressively worse. Then the weather closed in - no drama, one second I could see, the next I couldn't.
I was in a narrow world of grey and green. I'm no stranger to this but I was struggling today. With views and sun its easy to ignore the immediate problem of the terrain your crossing. Without the view you just end up staring at, and cursing, the terrain you are crossing. I guess this is where a music player would help. I rarely bother with such a device as they are too much faff plus high speed dreich and electronic components don't mix. So someone needs to invent a faff free, waterproof music player that automatically responds to your moods. Mainlining some Shostakovitch would definitely have helped here....
On and on it went. I was now largely pushing but a sudden change to descent confused me. My pre ride map appraisal hadn't shown this. Give or take 50m I was still on 'the line' but not being able to see feck all made it hard to work out what the hell was going on. Hmm. I had no map back up so if the GPS failed I was screwed (yes I know this is stupid - I've never claimed to be otherwise). After a while I was again climbing and then, finally, the Annandale way. Except there was no respite. The path was now clear but it was still a bog and inevitably more climbing ensued. And more. And more. Up and down with little sign of the end. One final monster climb loomed out of the now lifting cloud followed by a final short descent to the A701.
|Rising cloud on the top of the last climb on the Annandale Way|
That's when it all went wrong really as the first climb produced much knee pain and worse, sharp stabs of pain from my lower back. Also my legs were totally shot and barely able to produce enough power to get up this (tailwind assisted) climb in my lowest gear (which is LOW).
The Southern Upland Way from Moffat to Overphawhope is a gem - nice singletrack and a suitably dramatic bit over the pass. Buzzing down towards the bothy I got a glimpse of fire light and on entering was greeted cheerfully by Stuart (I think that was his name), his son and a his sons Italian exchange pal. They had biked in from Ettrick and were planning on a circuit of the SUW / Romans and Reiver route the next day - a true mini adventure. We chatted for a while and then I turned in.
Sleep came instantly but my bladder woke me at midnight. I lay awake not willing to leave my cosy cocoon when the front door went. After a few vague noises a light shone into my one bed on-suite.
"Is that you Karl?"
"No its Ollie, whats the score?"
"Plenty of space on the floor here or there is another room through the back"
"Cool I'll investigate"
Hmm - great news that Ollie had made it this far but where the hell was Karl? I figured he must have seen the lights in the bothy and pushed on. Bladder emptied I drifted off again and then was rudely awakened by my alarm. On autopilot I got up, made a brew, ate food and packed up. 5 am saw me leave into a breezy but bright dawn.
The first climb revealed my worst fears. Knee pain was instant and my back joined in shortly after. Not only that but my legs had nothing in them. In effect I was in the same place as I was at mile 530 on the Highland Trail. Except I had 250 miles still to do. Then the weather closed in again. I stopped and stared into space for a while. Then I checked my GPS. I was right at a turn that would take me out of the forest for an easy return to Peebles. The decision was made and I departed the route.
Driving home my mood lifted and I hatched a plan. I would do the rest of the route at some point this summer (Start at Inners, follow the SUW to Ettrick and pick up the route there). Assuming Ray hosts another group start next year (and assuming he'll let me back after two fails!) I'd make it my main / only goal for next spring / summer.
Reading the above you'd be forgiven for avoiding this route like the plague. Don't be put off as there is a lot of excellent riding, fine scenery, fine food and bothies! But; its a beast and on a par with anything else out there, including the Highland Trail so don't underestimate it! In terms of distance it fills a gap between the likes of the YD300 or Cairngorms Loop and the HT so in that respect is unique (for now!) The Scottish Borders and Northumberland tend to get ignored as destinations as most people heading up to Scotland are looking for mountains, lochs, tweed and haggis. This is a shame as they provide excellent mountainbiking opportunities, with as much to amuse the avid bikepacker as there is the legions of trail centre warriors that come here.
Borders 350 - I will be back!