The weather was awful. A bit of rain, but mostly wind. Crazy wind. It was a few days until the start of the second Capital Trail bikepack adventure...or race…depending on your personal disposition. I'd already signed up and was now slowly getting my stuff together in my kitchen.
I was trying to be lighter than the previous year. However, as I was planning to try to enjoy the ride as much as I could and not particularly race it (although I hoped to beat my previous time), I needed enough stuff to be comfortable in bad weather. I packed my trusty old 1kg tent, a sleeping bag, a new airmattress from Alpkit (last one from another company just never stopped leaking!), and an insulated jacket along with all the normal tools, pump, snacks etc. I managed to pack it all into my saddle and handlebar bags which let the bike handle the weight, rather than my back.
When the weekend of the event arrived, the weather had improved significantly. I got up at 6am, ate porridge, drank coffee, and quietly snuck my laden bike out the door. It was freezing cold as I cycled in the dark for a couple of kilometres down to the event start on the beach.
After lining up across the sand for a photo, we were off. Some raced off down the promenade, most, like me set off at a more sedate pace.
As we weaved our way through fields, along old railways and overgrown paths the sun rose into the clear sky. It was warming up and looking good for the rest of the day. I took my jacket off just before we dropped back down into a dark shaded path along the valley bottom. I instantly regretted removing my top layer as we dived down into the freezing air.
I left the group I'd been riding with behind as they were looking like they planned on sticking together and kept stopping to let others catch up. For a while I cycled onward by myself, until I caught up with another couple of riders making their way up a very muddy section up through a wood. We chatted for a bit and then headed up the first of the big hills in the Lammermuirs. From half way up we couldn't see anyone else. Already we were getting well spaced apart.
I pushed on through the hills, and was too busy chatting rather than keeping an eye on my gps and so missed a quick turnoff on a downhill, but only by a short distance. A quick cycle back up the hill and we were back on track.
We made a small detour in Lauder to visit the shop and drink a sugary Coke before climbing out of the village on a grassy path.
Melrose and it's riverside paths passed quickly and then we were on the long climb up to the Three Brethren, large stone monuments marking land boundries. I liked this climb, it was tough but managable, with only a couple of short sections near the top being too steep to cycle.
From here things became easier or a while. We raced down the other side, someone dropping a bag of boiled eggs on the way; “they'll be fine. It's just a bit of mud” as they bounced down the hill.
A muddy section took us to the top of the Innerleithen red route where we met a group of kids and spoke with their two adult leaders doing the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. “So where have you come from?” “Portobello?….today?!?”.
We headed down the red cross country trail centre route, the guy, Matt, on a cyclocross bike going first. I quickly caught up, but was impressed that his bike was handling the small drop offs, rocks and berms without more issues. Soon enough, the path came to an end as we swept around the hill via a track road. Here, we met the Duke of Edinburgh people again,
“But I don't understand why you didn't just ride straight down the hill”
“Well, we're following a set route”
“Yeah, but the route should have just gone straight, it seems pointless”
“If you're looking at it like that, the whole thing is pointless. It starts and finishes at Portobello beach. It's all about the ride, not the destination.”
“Yeah, but it should have just gone straight, you've just cycled further than you need to!”
Giving up, we ended the conversation without being rude, and escaped off down the an old drove road bordered by thick stone walls.
We were just outside Innerleithen. Taking a left, we headed along a road, then a smaller one which climbed slowly as the sun got low in the sky, flickering through the trees as we rode onwards.
The road turned to a rough track as it made it's way up the valley. My legs were beginning to tire. This road seemed much longer than I remembered. But, eventually, we reached the old house at the end.
“I'm just going to get some water”, as I headed off to fast flowing stream.
“Holy shit. There's a bird that looks like a penguin in the stream! Look he's gone under there” As I pointed to an overhanging bank.
I don't think Matt believed me. We had a quick look, but the bird had disappeared. I looked it up later and I'm pretty sure it was an awk. Apparently they on occasion get blown way inland to where they shouldn't be. The previous days had been insanely windy, so this made sense. They do look quite like small penguins.
It was time for the big push. An un-cyclable path straight up the steep hill. Then a steep cycle to the top. In fact I think this was the highest point of the whole ride.
The last of the light faded as I waited a few minutes for Matt to catch up. I dug out my head-torch and we started on the descent. It seemed muddy and slippy. I said so to someone later on and they replied that it seemed quite dry to them, but them they'd done it in daylight. Amazing the difference in perception.
On the last hill of the ridge we met a family standing around in the dark. A man opened the gate for me “good timing!” he said in a broad American accent. “So what are you guys up to?”.
We told of our adventure, and then with an over exaggerated excitement he grabbed my handlebar bag, “You have a tent!!...in here…...come here girls!” he shouted to his family. “These guys are carrying all their camping equipment. They have tents in the front, and sleeping bags in the back!….isn't that great?”. The girls didn't look quite as impressed. We said bye and headed off down the last section of fast grassy path and along the track to the small town of Peebles.
Once over the wide river Tweed, via the old Victorian pedestrian bridge, Matt said he was stopping for some food. I wanted to get around the Glentress trail centre section before returning to the town and stopping, so we shook hands and headed in opposite directions.
The climb up to the top of the trail centre was tough. I went through a bit of a rough patch. For a while I felt nauseous and come out in a cold sweat as I climbed. I stopped at a bench to eat a cereal bar and have a few minutes rest. It was completely dark but for a few lights on the valley floor in the distance. There was no noise. It was a little eerie. I lay down on the bench for a few minutes and looked up at the stars.
I decided I needed some motivation so dug out some headphones form my pocket, plugged them into my phone, hit shuffle, and turned the volume up.
I felt much better as I set off and climbed the last section to the top. From here it was all downhill, I switched my light to a brighter setting and set off down the sweeping track.
Before I knew it I was back in Peebles and swung off the route and up to the chip shop. It was busy. They served me a measly portion of chips along with my smoked sausage. It tasted amazing though. Nothing like being knackered and hungry and salt deprived to make a cheap processed sausage taste incredible.
It was getting cold, very cold. The clear sky was free of insulating clouds. I rejoined the route where I'd left (no short-cuts!) and headed up the steep hill with the town's lights receding behind. It was time to stop. I found a sheltered spot and quickly disgorged the contents of my bike bags onto the ground, set up my tent, blew up my air mattress and climbed into my sleeping bag. I left the meshed roof of my tent uncovered. The stars had a clarity and intensity impossible to see from my home in the city. I watched them, probably for about a full minute before I was asleep.
Beep, beeeep, beeeep, my phone alarm was going off. I'd set it in the hope of waking up and getting going again after a couple of hours of rest. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and sat in the cold air for a moment deciding whether to go, or just climb back into the warmth and go back to sleep. The decision was easy. I was feeling fine, and how often do I get the chance to do a long distance cycle though the night? I quickly packed up, stuffed a cereal bar into my mouth and climbed back onto my bike. The tiredness in my legs from the day before had gone. I conquered the remainder of the hill I'd stopped on, and passed another bikepacker sleeping by the path in a bright orange survival bag.
The next section was spent looking more at the red track on my GPS than at my surroundings. I weaved along grassy paths, between spiky bushes, through gates, along the edge of a field and finally emerged onto a track road. From here it was an easy ride onwards as the road headed downwards and then along a fast section of tarmac road. At one point I looked around to see that there were no other lights visible at all. No signs of other cyclists bobbing about in the wilderness, just a slight orange glow from the towns and city still far away to the North. As I climbed steep paths through forests, descended overgrown paths and crossed streams on slippery wooden foot bridges, I was really enjoying cycling along on my own. The world was still. No wind. No noise. Just my wheels quietly crunching along. The sky was still crystal clear, the bright stars impossible to ignore. I stopped for a moment to eat some M&Ms and just stand alone taking it all in and appreciating the moment.
I cycled onwards at one point passing through interminable gates. Soon I was crossing the very bottom of a wide valley with the periphery Pentland hills of Edinburgh on the far side. Very suddenly I found myself enveloped in a thick fog. I could barely see a couple of meters in front. I adjusted my light downwards to stop the glare. It was also freezing in the fog. I dug out my gloves, which I hadn't need up until this point, despite the cold clear night. A road section meant I had to switch on my rear light for the first time, then I passed through the ghostly, mist shrouded, town of West Linton.
I was now on the far side of the valley and hence now faced a long climb along farm tracks.
Next was the final big challenge, the steep slopes of Cap Law. I hit the first of the climbs just as the dark was receding and a glimmer of daylight appeared on the horizon. I pedalled onwards as the sun rose, stopping to take a few silhouette photos of my bike with the orange-yellow sky glowing behind. Somehow I had enough energy left to cycle most of the hill.
As I rounded a hillock nearing the top, I spotted the red flashing lights of 3 other cyclists. Quickly catching up, I stopped for a chat. They'd been going through the night and seemed in good spirits as they pushed their bikes onwards. They looked pretty knackered though. I'm glad I stopped for a rest in the night.
Once over the hill it was a relatively easy ride down through the Pentlands and down some nice single-track which led back into Edinburgh via the back of a tram depot. From here, the route wiggled its way to the coast which eventually took me, finally, back to the beach where I'd started. Exactly 27 hours had passed since then.
I spotted another bikepacker, Scott, who it turned out had finished in 1st place the night before! He'd been home to sleep and then come back down to see if anyone else was around. We went for breakfast in the Tide Café and shared stories. Soon enough we were joined by others. It was awesome, I want to do more.