Of course, we all love travelling to a foreign land, stumbling over a language we don’t understand or drinking a beer that we don’t recognise. Adventure is the essence of a good life, it’s food for the soul, and sometimes it can be found closer than you may think. With a group of local guides, we break free of the tarmac to journey through the gravel roads of Scotland’s Tweed Valley, the self-proclaimed ‘Valley of the Bike People’.
Our journey started, as all greatest adventures do, with a strong coffee. Behind steamy windows, we warmed our legs in Innerleithen’s beloved No1 Peebles Road Cafe, enjoying the deep punchy smell of freshly roasted Steampunk coffee infusing with the rich aroma coming from early-bird riders. As we sipped the warm black liquid, jovial conversation and laughter filled the air and one by one our group took shape.The doorbell chimed as rider after rider blinked into the steamy glow, exchanging greetings before clacking over the quarry tiled floor to place their order.
We could hear the wind lashing outside and decided unanimously it was to be a two coffee morning, followed by a healthy dose of banana, nuts and maple syrup on toast. All too soon it was time to get underway, we gathered in all our belongings from beneath the heavy oak tables and stepped out into the cold. The plan was a simple one, to enjoy a tour through the Tweed Valley in the Scottish Borders, known locally as the ‘Valley of the Bike People’. We would take in the highlights by adventuring away from the asphalt and onto the gravel roads that cut over the hillsides.
Our group was an eclectic mix, although we were all on drops we were split in discipline from mountain, cross and road, all were united in a passion for bikes that bonded us into easy conversation. We had our guide, Scottish Cyclocross Champion Maddy Owen, and a collection of some of the latest gravel and cross bikes, what more could we ask for? Better weather, that’s what! The weather was typically Scottish, moody clouds hung low over the hills and the wind was howling down the valley so violently that it threatened to cut our faces clean off. As we pointed ourselves West towards the market town of Peebles we tucked in from the wind, even though we were shoulder to shoulder our voices were stolen by the gusts, lost forever in the void.
We started on the busy road, but almost instantly snapped right onto the newly built Tweed Valley Cycleway, taking us away from the dangers of hectic commuter traffic and instead past fields filled with Highland cattle, then the manicured lawns of the ‘Truman Show’ inspired Cardrona village and finally Cardrona Golf Course where we dodged golf balls launched by wealthy Americans. As we crossed bridges we chatted about how such a project could connect communities, and the number of joggers, cyclists and dog walkers showed the investment had been sound. We could not resist stopping in at the impressive Peebles Hydro hotel, a pilgrimage for many seeking to heal from the famous hydrotherapy waters. But, as any good Scotsman will tell you, the real healing comes from the fine single malt whiskies behind the bar.
The town of Peebles itself has seen much change, once a bustling mill town pivotal in the Scottish Borders Woollen industry, the collapse of the industry in the 60’s hit the region hard. From near ruin came prosperity as the green hills and fresh air drew commuters from Edinburgh, bringing tourism and outdoor types keen to escape to the country. Bike mad families relocated to the valley just for the riding, the next generation caught on to the fun they were missing and now Playstations and Xboxes grow dusty. Kids charge around the parks, trails and quiet roads on their bikes, encouraged by like-minded parents, and on any given weeknight you will find organised time trials on the sleepy back roads.
For most of the morning we’d been riding on the tarmac, taking turns at the front against the wind, but as we turned into Cademuir Woods the surface switched to a gravel road and the incline pitched upwards. With stones crunching under our skinny tyres we made fast, albeit bumpy, progress up towards the ridgeline through the plantations of Larch and Pine. We chatted about world politics, life’s great questions, but mostly about bikes! As we neared the ridge the wind doubled its efforts, blowing hard, and below us, we could see that the last bastion of trees standing on the front line had long given up the fight, snapped at the trunks it looked as if a mighty troll had carved a swathe through them.
Just as we were all feeling the burn someone heroically whipped out a bag of jelly babies. Ride abandoned! Back underway and each enjoying the empty high of a sugar rush we broke free of the forest and were rewarded with sweeping views over the valley. Out on the heather covered open moorland, the terrain changed from gravel track to mud and loam. Steep grassy chutes became a more exciting affair, hauling on the brakes resulted in an increase in speed, only this time sideways, and sometimes even backwards! We hooted and hollered down the rocky trails, recruiting all our skills on the technical descents, eyeballs rattling with determination and concentration, or perhaps just the lack of suspension. Tyres splattered happily, mud for the lucky ones, cow poo for the rest, as we blasted down the John Buchan Way. All too soon we found ourselves at the gate that would see us returning to the tarmac, mud-splattered and exhausted we exchanged fist bumps and proclaimed our love for drop bars, we meant it too!
As we followed our noses down the cycleway with a strong tailwind, the thought of a piping hot plate of Four Bean Chilli Con Carne adding watts of motivation, we chatted about the beauty of our bikes. While fast and comfortable on the road it was the freedom that had impressed us the most, allowing us to spontaneously explore any side trail, challenge ourselves on a muddy climb or race full bore down pine needle lined singletrack, tyres fizzing and spitting mud as our legs burned up the watts. With road kilometres dispatched effortlessly and without the bulk of a mountain bike our range had increased exponentially; traffic-free gravel roads were our new playground.
We had found adventure on our very doorstep, each of the group had discovered some new places where we thought we knew it all, and shared in the simple joy of being out on a bike. Adventuring on skinny tyres had brought a new perspective, a fresh dimension, armed with our gravel grinders the potential had opened up in front of us like opening the folds of a map
Visiting the Tweed Valley
The Tweed Valley is located one hour drive South of Edinburgh, which has excellent air and rail links. We would recommend staying in the market town of Peebles, where accommodation, restaurants and tourism activities are plentiful. If you like mountain biking, the legendary Glentress Trail Centre is 5 minutes drive away and is a must do, with a network of trails suitable for all abilities. High-end mountain bikes can be hired from Alpine Bikes in the Glentress Forest Park. Road biking possibilities are endless, with quiet rural roads in every direction, but we would highly recommend following the Tesco Bank Tour’O The Borders Sportive Route, a 120 km loop that will take you past lochs, over fearsome climbs and give you a real feel for the valley. If you pass Innerleithen, you must stop at the Number 1 Cafe on Peebles Road, serving the best coffee and food in the valley, this bike mad cafe is the perfect place to fuel up or just meet the locals.
Words and photos: Trevor Worsey
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