From stages of the Tour of Britain, the Seven Stanes mountain bike trails, to the hugely successful TweedLove festival, there’s a regular reason for a two-wheeled Borders pilgrimage.
Next up is the Endura Tour o’ the Borders, which starts and finishes in Peebles on Sunday 10th of August. Heading into its third year, this cyclo-sportive is on the up (quite literally, more of which later): 2014 will be the first running on roads closed to cars.
Last year’s edition was epic. Less than clement conditions resulted in semi-submerged roads and riders at risk of hypothermia. Moving from late spring to the height of summer might make heatstroke more of an issue. Whatever the weather, participants have two route options: 55 or 77 miles.
I’d headed down for a preview of the longer route, to be guided by Neil Dalgleish, Tour co-founder. Mindful of the miles and climbs to come, we settled into an easy pace, heading toward Innerleithen, before a turn through Cardrona. The undulating, rollercoaster road swooped us along the Tweed valley before another right and our first proper ascent: Paddy Slacks (a corruption of Pas des Lacs or Pass to the Lakes). After about 3 miles and 500 feet of climbing, the descent came as welcome respite. We raced downhill, rattled over the first of many cattle grids and on across the Yarrow Water.
From there we were back to climbing (the longer route packs in 4790 feet of ascent). Despite being almost 4 miles long, the Berrybush was less of an ordeal than expected, more a gradual rise, eased by a slight tailwind. By the time the Tour hits this road its 2000-strong peloton will be stretched down the verdant valley like a vast string of bunting.
Every up has it’s down and the descent to Crosskeys was a cracker. We raced along at over 30mph, leaning into the sharp bends, adrenaline washing away fatigue.
Our day’s first crossing of the Ettrick and we followed the Rankle Burn, heading toward Alemoor Reservoir. The latter is said to contain kelpies but all we saw were brightly coloured kayaks bobbing on the blue water. Borders country is beautiful, and full of history too: on the road to Askirk we passed a cairn built in memory of the poet Will H Ogilvie, born in nearby Kelso.
We seemed to have held onto the tailwind, were cruising well ahead of the 14kph minimum that Tour entrants will have to beat. Then came the Woll climb. Hedgerows obscured the scenery and our focus turned to the tilting tarmac. It took us a while to rise through the wooded patches and onto open farmland, the gradient around 5%, burgeoning fatigue suggesting otherwise.
Next came Ettrick Bridge, which will be home to one of the Tour’s three feed zones. Entrants will be plied with food, (including wares from Glasgow’s Big Bear Bakery), fruit and energy drinks. With about half the distance to go, most will keenly take advantage.
The Witchey Knowe is one heck of a calorie cruncher, and the climb of the route: over 500 feet of ascent in just 1.5 miles of tarmac.
“Is that the road, up there?” I gasped, pointing aghast to a thin grey line slashed into the hillside.
With no spare puff for speech, the answer came as a grunt.
The views from the top were equally breathtaking, the Yarrow valley far below.
The descent was pure adrenaline: sinuous and somehow sticking to the hillside. The Tour’s closed roads will allow riders to let rip and take racing lines; we exercised a tad more caution.
At the bottom we took a right toward Selkirk, road following water, wheels spinning faster than the rapids’ splash. I had twigged to the theme of the route: challenging climbs, rip-roaring descents, everything in between utterly entertaining.
We flew by the Waterwheel Café, no time to eat or watch the salmon leaping at Philiphaugh. We were now definitely riding into the wind but the hedgerows provided shelter and distraction came with the road’s changes in pitch and direction.
Farewell to one river and we re-united with the Tweed, heading back along its valley. We had forsaken the busy Galashiels Road for one running parallel but high above. The native woodland to our right was green and specked with patches of silver lichen. I’d not have discovered a lane so beautiful in a hundred Sunday runs.
Yet another descent before a shortcut through the grounds of Traquair House (location for the Tour’s final feed zone). The 900-year-old building is Scotland’s oldest inhabited house and given such beautiful surroundings it’s easy to see why the place has remained occupied.
Shaking off thoughts of a siesta in the garden’s shade we returned to that rollercoaster road, passed Cardrona and back to Peebles.
“One more climb,” said Neil, as he’s prone to when out riding in this part of the world.
“Only one more?” I sighed, tired but disappointed. I wanted at least another three, couldn’t wait for the Tour o’ the Borders to do it all over again.
Endura Tour o’ the Borders
10th August 2014 (last date for entries: 3rd August 2014)
Entry cost: £55