Better late than never, Michael Hayward shares his Scottish EWS experience from the social end of the field.
As the sun rose on the Tweed Valley one crisp morning in May, I could be found dozing in the front of my beaten Ford Transit van. I’d arrived a half hour earlier after a long ferry from Ireland and a red-eyed overnight drive from Liverpool, interrupted by only a brief nap at a roadside service station. The laughter of youths cut through my impromptu snooze. In my sleep deprived state I’d parked next to a slowly filling school. Sleepily I started the van, highly conscious of my crumpled clothing and great need for a wash. There was no time to worry about my unsavoury demeanour though – practice was starting for the Tweedlove EWS.
The Scottish EWS raced six days after the Irish round. That’s a quick turn around to get from venue to venue, recover mind, body and bike and then practice all 8 stages. Based out of Peebles in the Tweed Valley (an area known for golf, fishing and mountain biking) there were great tracks aplenty for the organisers to choose from. We raced over two days incorporating three distinct zones.
The weather’s always a factor in Scotland. They must average about 12 fine days annually. During one day of practice we had blistering sun, pleasantly overcast skies, drizzle, heavy rain and hail on rotation. Mostly it rained. These weren’t van life conditions. I cheerfully wrangled a spot on a couch for the duration, with full shower and washing privileges.
After practice there was one conversation topic around the watercooler – stage six. This flat pedally stage went forever and had several climbs but few zesty steep or technical sections. I would’ve gladly sent my Mum down the bulk of the stage – not what I expected at a world level enduro race. The rider response wasn’t ecstatic. I see why the organisers included it: enduro racing aims to find the most complete all-around bike rider, which incorporates pedalling and fitness. However I disliked that it seemed likely to determine the overall winner due to it’s length – it would bias the results too much.
Miraculously, day one was rich in sunshine. Transition times were generous so riders could form bunches for the 10km spin to the first stage at Innerleithen. When all the air went to the top of my rear tyre climbing to stage one I was especially grateful for the relaxed times. This would have been a drama in Ireland. Burning my spare tube option at the start of the day put the pressure on to ride smooth and mistake free.
The afternoon stages in the Golfys zone were my favourites. The top was in open heather, a beautiful series of turns to be hit full noise as the heathery ruts provided great catch. Once in the trees we had to deal with furrows left from replanting. These could be pumped for speed or ploughed into for arm-pump. The tracks were constantly steep, and tight enough that 780mm bars made me fear for my fingers. Stage three was especially grin-worthy with plenty of chances to ride the ragged edge.
The mud in the UK is a special kind of greasy and loves filling tread. Tyres quickly became jumbo mud-slicks. We were facing this for day two at Glentress, a hill overlooking Peebles. Overnight the rain came back with high winds forecast. Because of the anticipated weather stages six and seven were dropped. I had mixed feelings about this: I didn’t particularly enjoy stage six and it didn’t play to my strengths, but it was good to have something different in there.
Conditions made day two diabolical. Stage five was freshly cut, providing huge helpings of mud. About half way through I remember looking down at my front wheel as I entered three steep linked dropping corners. It wasn’t spinning; the mud had jammed the wheel on the arch. Needless to say I crashed. I got away lightly: many amateurs stopped on the side of the track to take out a wheel and frantically remove mud so it would fit through the frame again. After that, the last stage was a relief. It was the longest of the weekend and had everything in it: flat bits, tech bits, fast bits, and some pinch climbs. It was exactly what stage six should have been.
Once again the EWS delivered a challenging, varied and fun course. Fatigue from the Irish round left many feeling off the pace (myself included). It highlights how conditioned those at the top are, to go at 100% week after week.
At the recreational end of the pack, the best part of these races is meeting loads of great people. We hung around for a week or so after the race and got shown the hot lines for the trails of the valley. Locals opened their homes to make sure we were fed, stabled and watered. The Tweed Valley has a strong community vibe that extends far beyond riding bikes. Everyone seems genuinely happy and proud to live there. The highlights of travelling is making authentic meaningful connections and feeling like you are part of something, however briefly. For this Tweedlove was superb. I’m already looking forward to returning to catch up with new friends on the trails.