I found myself signed up for the 3rd time to join the group ride of the Capital Trail, a 250km, 5000m of ascent, bikepacking trail. The route takes riders from the beach (literally....it starts on the sand!) at Portobello, Edinburgh around a big loop which encompasses some of the best riding and trails in Scotland. Although never too far from the nearest town, the route at times feels remote, and the high open hill tops certainly need to be respected, especially in bad weather.
It's a tough ride, the climbing would be hard enough without the added weight of overnight gear that most people carry. The inclement Scottish weather also means riders need to be prepared for the worst it can thrown at you, adding even more to the bike weight.
Living only a 10 minutes bike ride away from the start always helps when it comes time to decide whether to do this event again. This year it clashed with an orienteering event I'd otherwise have done. In fact the orienteering event was taking place on the trails around Peebles, the very trails I'd be riding later that day. I made a mental note to keep a lookout for leftover checkpoints as I cycled through.
I signed up, drank some coffee from the Tide Cafe, and then headed down to line up on the beach with the other riders. We had a moment of silence for Mike Hall, a well know figure in ultra-distance bike riding, an event organiser, and inspiration for similar events, who died earlier in the year during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Austrialia, after being hit by a car driver. And then we were off.
I spent the first easy sections of the ride chatting to friends, mostly Jay, who I first met on the first Capital Trail ride and been friends with since. As we rolled out of the city and through the open countryside, I think most people were riding in a few close groups. A lot of familiar faces were probably taking their time at least partly because they knew what was to come.
A few wrong turns were quickly rectified by alert riders. Someone suggesting we should all drink a shot of something every time we go the wrong way.
I spoke with Jeremy, who I'd ridden with before, as we rolled along the quiet country roads. Noticing that it was now getting quite warm. The sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Considering the forecast had been for heavy rain....I was quite happy.
Then...it was time for the hills. We headed into the too-often ignored, but spectacular, Lammermuirs. The first climb is long, ramping up at the end. Determined to push less and cycle more than in previous years, I made it all the way up in my largest cog. Looking back, I found I'd distanced myself from the groups behind. I continued on my own for the time being and soon caught up with a small group. Sliding down the steepest hill on the way down to a lonely bothy next to a river crossing I splashed through without much bother and stopped to fill my water bottle while having a chat with a lone rider and his upturned cyclo-cross/gravel bike.
"Yeah, but this is my fourth puncture!"
Not to much further on, the same guy raced past. As he bounced over a rocky section of road just ahead of me, I heard a loud hiss and saw a fine mist of sealant escaping once more from his front tyre.
A while later and we were over the other side. As I descended and joined back onto a small tarmac road leading down the valley, I found myself being held up by a slow moving muck spreader. The fence-less field through which the road passed, looked entirely ridable despite the long grass, so I swung off of the road to overtake. Suddenly as fresh muck was picked up by my spinning tyres and flug into my face I realised I'd made a terrible mistake. Continuing on regardless, muck flying around me, I passed the tractor, and rejoined the road stopping at the first opportunity to scrape at least a little of the thick straw bonded muck off of myself and my bike. The smell was to stay with me for a while, to the extent that when back at home and about to wash my bike in the garden, my neighbour leaned over the fence "what IS that smell???"
Once on the road I caught up with another cyclist. In the distance I recognised the familiar rocking motion of someone on a single-speed pumping their way up a hill. Soon I caught up with Markus, the event organiser, as he stopped to take a phone call. We had a chat as we passed through the town of Lauder, both deciding to keep going to the next town before stopping for a break.
As I climbed the hill out of Lauder, the heat was really starting to get to me. I hadn't drunk enough water and now I could feel the faintest start of a headache coming on. I started drinking more at regular intervals even though it made my stomach also feel in some sort of turmoil.
Next came Melrose. It was lunchtime. Here I stopped for a break, to get some food, a coke, and to refill my water bottles.
Soon a bit of pushing was required. Then we hit a new part of the route. Instead of turning right on a small road for a massive and easy road descent to the valley floor, we took a left. Up the steep hill. The new route was great, some fun, fast, single-track trails swooping down into the town of Selkirk.
Here I met Andreas, and together we took several wrong turns on the slightly weird route out of the town, before heading back out into the wilderness and hitting the monster climb up to the Three Brethren; me complaining about the heat, him being very matter-of-fact about how I might be hot because we were climbing a bloody steep hill.
I stopped for a rest at the top under the guise of taking some photos, while Andreas disappeared down the steep track road which led along the hill tops.
I followed. The next bit of route change was also great. Instead of a short bit of the Innerleithen mountain bike red route followed by a long forest track, we kept to the technical red route decent all the way to the bottom. Even with bike-packing bags attached to my bike the berms, jumps and fast dry trails were great fun. The smell of hot brakes and tired fingers the results of pulling hard on brake levers for so long.
Another stop to fill up with water and eat and I was off again. I was feeling better now that I felt that I'd drunk my weekly quota of liquids in a couple of hours. The next section was hard. I started to feel tired as the deceptively easy track road climbed along the edge of a remote valley. A push up to the highest point of the route came next, folllowed by some of the best wild downhill tracks anywhere, Both in terms of fun and the views.
Peebles passed by in a blur at around 7pm, as did the red route at the nearby mountain bike trail centre; Glentress. Normally enough cycling to fill an afternoon, it was only a small incidental part of our route. I felt good climbing and then descending through the forest. Near the end I heard the unmistakable crashing, and skidding of a cyclist approaching at speed from behind. Thinking it was probably just a random cyclist enjoying a couple of hours out and racing around the trails, I pulled over to let them past. I was surprised to find it was Andreas from earlier. He slowed enough to tell me I'd somehow passed him in Innerleithen, then he'd broken his chain, fixed it, and was rushing to get macaroni cheese. Before I could ask "where?", he disappeared into the gloom of the thick forest.
The route took me back through Peebles for the second time, where I stopped for some disappointing chips.
It was time for a proper break. I did consider just keeping going, but after thinking about it, I decided I was quite tired, and that having a decent rest would mean I could enjoy the rest of the ride rather than just struggling onwards. Also I wanted to try out my new bivy bag. Never slept in a bivy before!
Just up the hill from Peebles I stopped in a sheltered spot. I unpacked, downed some more water and was just getting ready to climb into my bivy bag, when a familiar face appeared.
"Hello......wondered if you'd stop here, but didn't think you'd be here this early!" said Jay.
"Well, you seem to be doing alright yourself!" I replied.
It transpired that, in fact, he hadn't felt well earlier in the day. Possibly a result of the heat, the fact that he spent a hard week building a polytunnel, and had too many sleepless nights from looking after his youngest daughter. But, rather than give in, he taken the sensible option of taking a couple of short-cuts.
It was good to see him continuing. He planned to stop, get a full night's sleep, and then ride the rest of the route the next day.
Three and a half hours later at about 1.30am I woke up, emerged from my bivy like the filling falling out of a burrito, and hit the trail once again.
I absolutely love cycling though the night. It's so quiet. Everything is different. Watching the sun rise into a clear sky while cycling along is one of the greatest things.
I crossed the hills, crunched across pine needle forest floors, chased a badger down a track, glimpsed a swooping owl in my headlight. And then crossed the wide valley floor between the Moorfoot hills and the Pentland hills. It was freezing cold. The valley was filled with an eerie fog. I realised I'd lost my gloves somewhere, and instead slipped some socks over my hands to keep them warm.
All that was left now was a couple of steep climbs over the Pentlands and a long but flat-ish ride around the Edinburgh coastline (with a nice tailwind!) to reach the beach at Portobello once more.
It was 6:40am. I'd taken 22 Hours 40 minutes for the ride, 3 hours faster than previously. I was pretty happy with that.
There was no-one else around. I lay on a bench looking out over the beach for a few minutes, before picking up my bike and heading home.
Yet again I really enjoyed the ride. It's a great route, and fits easily into a weekend making it perfect for a group ride like this.