Mountain bike rookie Neil Braidwood previews this challenging but manageable route.
I was cycling crazy when I was growing up. As a teenager, I built and rebuilt bikes, bought the latest clothing by mail order, and thought nothing of cycling the 30 miles from my home town of Kirkcaldy to Edinburgh just to visit Sandy Gilchristâ€™s shop.
But this was the seventies, and mountain biking hadnâ€™t been invented. All that was open to me was cycling on the road, or sometimes at the newly built velodrome in Edinburgh. Iâ€™d heard of cyclocross, and thought it sounded fun, but there was nowhere I could take part in something like that.
So I missed the mountain bike craze that took off in the eighties. And although Iâ€™ve been â€˜mountain bikingâ€™ with my kids when they were growing up, in reality, these were pretty flat trips on Sustrans cycle paths, or Forestry Commission roads.
I still cycle regularly, although it tends to be to and from work on my Kona Dr Fine hybrid, with eight-speed gear hub. That keeps me fit, but when I was asked to come along for a preview of the Selkirk MTB Marathon, I felt a bit inadequate.
The Selkirk MTB Marathon has been going for has been going for around 14 years, but has been under new (local) management since the 2013 event, and there are three routes. A 25km aimed at beginners like myself, a 50km for those with more experience, and the 75km, which is for the hard-core champs that the race attracts. Set in and around the very MTB friendly and welcoming Borders town of Selkirk, the routes take in the Ettrick Hills, Bowhill and Philiphaugh Estates and the Forestry Commissionâ€™s Yair, Elibank and Traquair forests. The night before the event, Selkirk High Street is closed off for a free mass party, open to competitors, their families and locals alike.
I was to meet Tom Nash, of organisers Durty Events, and his friend Scott Kimber at the Yair Forest car park, where they would give me a flavour of what real mountain biking was all about. Well, you might ask, what is he going to ride on? Fortunately, our friends at Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op came to the rescue and loaned me one of their entry level hardtails, and you can read what I thought of that here.
Tom explained that we would try to cover the best bits of the 25km route and a more technical descent from the longer routes, but not necessarily in the order that it is done on the day. This meant that we had a 450m climb in front of us to the summit of the Three Brethren. My companions were riding 1 x 10 bikes, meaning one small chainring on the front, and a rangy cluster of ten at the rear, giving a healthy ratio of gears. This is a newish breed of mountain bike, doing away with the conventional three chainrings and so not requiring as much changing up and down. It makes sense â€“ but they come with a price tag. My Revolution mountain bike had the normal three chainrings, but I was glad of the â€˜granny ringâ€™ as we came to some of the steeper climbs.
So our ascent to the summit was long, but gradual, and on wide forestry roads, so wasnâ€™t as taxing as I had feared. The skies were clear, and we stopped for a quick water break about halfway to get our bearings, and Tom showed me where we would be going for the rest of the day.
As we neared the top, we picked up the Southern Upland Way, a wider, smoother track for the final few meters to the familiar trio of cairns that mark the summit of the Three Brethren.
Tom explained that all riders must make this climb during the event, but the 50 and 75km riders need to make it twice. It is a spectacular viewpoint and the 360 degree vistas it offers are truly stunning, with England visible on a clear day.
The wind, however, was blowing a hoolie, so we didnâ€™t linger. What goes up, must come down, and my next challenge was a fairly technical downhill single track from the 50km and 75km, which was to prove testing. The gradient, Tom told me, was -9% (1:11). Scott took the lead, so I could see where to go, with Tom following me.
This is where the adrenalin kicked in and I could see what all the fuss was about. Having never done single tracks like this, I found it scary, but I could see that it was all totally possible, if you put the practice in, and have confidence. As a first-timer, I held my own (I didnâ€™t fall off), but I was a bit scared, and braked more than I should have, which hampered my descent really, making me skid.
Tom being a mountain bike coach for local company Dirt School also helped; some quick advice about position on the bike, too, is important. Keeping your bum off the saddle, feet parallel and heels down, allows you the control you need to stay on the path, and not get hurt. My wrists took an absolute pounding, so I was glad of the suspension forks. I was thankful, too, for the powerful disc brakes.
Not every entrant will do this particular downhill, however the final descent into Selkirk is very similar so itâ€™s important that your bike is in good shape, and that you at least wear decent shoes and gloves (helmets are mandatory).
â€œItâ€™s being with all the other ridersâ€ he told me. â€œThe start in the town centre of Selkirk is a mass of cyclists, of varying skills, and itâ€™s just thrilling to be part of.â€ Of course you donâ€™t stay together for long. The different routes are individually waymarked on the day, in order of distance, and riders peel off on their chosen path. Marshalls are on hand at junctions to help, and there are food/drink stops and first aiders dotted throughout the course.
â€œThatâ€™s another thingâ€, Tom chips in. â€œPeople want to ride a true wilderness like here, but are worried about getting lost â€“ so they feel a comfort in knowing this is a thoroughly organised, awesome course of the highest level.â€
The rain started to set in, and Scott needed to leave, but Tom and I went off to Bowhill Estate to try another stage of the 25km route.
Bowhill House is a spectacular Georgian mansion, and the estate forms a good chunk of the marathon event, taking you gently through pine needled paths next to Ettrick Water. Thereâ€™s nothing too challenging here â€“ itâ€™s more about the scenery â€“ and, incidentally, 12-15 year-olds are able to do the 25km route for free, as long as they are accompanied by a full-price entry adult, for the duration.
By the end of my tour, Tom informed me that we had ridden around 22km, so in fact, had pretty much completed the entry-level course â€“ just in a slightly different order.
I felt fine â€“ we had cheated and stopped for some soup at a cafÃ© on the way to Bowhill â€“ but I had managed to ride the course, and not embarrass myself too much. Itâ€™s only taken me 35 years to catch on to how exciting mountain biking can beâ€¦ See you on the starting line!
Selkirk MTB Marathon
Saturday 2 May 2015