An adventure often calls to mind, or requires, or both, a book. This ride was to be a little adventure, and a little book was borrowed from the library; John Buchan’s John Macnab. Sir Edward Leithen and friends are experiencing what would probably be diagnosed today as ‘mild to moderate depression’ and end up playing poachers on three Scottish estates. Being away from their usual surroundings, physically challenged, and engaging in (what they perceive to be) a high-stakes game has the effect of making them feel ‘alive’ and improves their mental health. Now I find it an over-simplification to say that cycling keeps me sane, or that getting out on the bike makes me feel better; my current bout of depression started while I was riding more last year, increasing my distances in preparation for LEL. The lead up to and start of a ride are usually stressful times, not so much a question of physical ability (I’m reliably full-value, reasonably confident in my own slow ability) but social anxiety. The early stages can be uncomfortable with riders in close proximity, but as groups form and people find their pace I usually get my own little space and settle in to riding alone. Seeing people up on the road ahead, out of touch but a reminder of being on the same ride, is all I need. In general I find audax psychologically beneficial on a longer timescale than the ride, and sometimes not during the ride at all. It’s the sense of achievement, and in retrospect the shear bloodimindedness of it all, that I value. Some rides I hate the majority of the time I’m there (I won’t name the only one that I’ve resolved never to do again), but other times I do experience absolute joy in the moment. Like Leithen and his friends, once we sign up for a challenge something about the commitment keeps us going, no matter how foolhardy and indeed unnecessary it is.
So it was that I came to be emerging from my frosty tent on Selkirk leisure centre’s campsite one Saturday morning in March. There were no other campers and I had the newly refurbished facilities to myself, indeed I should have come in and slept in the warmth of the toilet block, but instead I wriggled into a down jacket and woolly hat at 4 am.
After the past few weeks of cold and snowy weather which had resulted in a number of audaxes being cancelled and the innvocation of the ‘severe weather policy’ it was a pleasant surprise to see the sun. It was too late for the original route of this ride though. We were riding the ‘snow edition’, with the road from St Mary’s Loch over to Tweedsmuir remaining closed because of snow. We missed nothing though, this was a cracking route and that sun stayed out all day. There were a couple of ice patches in the morning where the road was in the constant shade so I could see how those high narrow roads could easily stay blocked for some time.
Navigation was not demanding on this ride, and a good part of it was familiar. Essentially ‘left out of Selkirk sp Moffat, 53 km’ was the first section. The A708 is a great road, I’ve ridden it in the north west direction twice before so it was great to be going the other way – of course you see everything from the other side, but also the climbs where you can see the landscape more slowly are reversed. The sun was high enough and the road often on the southern side so that we were mostly riding in the sun. My left foot was quite happy but my right in the shade was still numb with the cold. The roads were in pretty awful condition in many places, here the problem was less large potholes but more the general overall lumpy surface. The route slowly climbs through snowdrop-filled Yarrow, then becoming more moorland. The hills slowly closed in, but stilll the narrowing burn flowed down, down; back the way we had come.
Eventually the top arrived, and the border with Dumfries and Galloway. Here were a few patches of ice but I was happy enough that just going straight and braking in between them would avoid any problems, especially with the road quiet enough to move right out when needed.
There were patches of snow on the hills all day and at the tops of the passes we rode alongside them. Keeping the right temperature was a balance all day long, climbing in the sun was warm but as soon as a shadows and descents appeared zips were pulled right up again. Stretches of the road around Grey Mares Tail had been fully resurfaced recently and the previous vibrations were soon forgotten, although there were still a few lumps and after one I noticed a rubbing noise. I’m having an ongoing battle with rear mudguards and on stopping in Moffat I realised this was yet another break. This is my third rear guard of the same type…what’s the definition of a fool, someone who keeps doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome? I think I should just switch to gaffer tape suspended by mudguards stays, which is more or less what I have now, albeit interspersed with bits of actual plastic.
Moffat was a trip to the Rumblin’ Tum, reliable as a quick provider of nice grub and possessor of a stamp. The controls were nicely spaced on this route, all about 50 km apart and before a climb. This climb was the Devils Beeftub (A701), local from my youth when I was fat and unfit, and being driven/driving up this way I always dreamt of riding up here one day. Having done this with 600 km in my legs on LEL I knew it would be fine, and it really is a great climb, on and on but never too steep.
Over the top and the road meets the start of the Tweed, to be followed now as far as Innerleithen. I thought about crossing it yesterday by train in Berwick, and wondered how long it would take the snow patches that were melting today to end up in the sea off the east coast. We briefly cross Scotland’s watershed on this ride, which coincides with the regional borders around Moffat. I wondered whether it would have been any different in Buchan’s day; probably not much, the snaking burn and road and the shape of the hills must be fairly unchanged. The roads were still quiet, among the few cars passing I noticed a Bentley. After a little while I met it again along with another car, stopped in the road, and realised there was a third in a low ditch on the other side. It had gone through a wall and was lying on its side with the windscreen smashed out. I stopped to see if I could help but they said they were fine, there was someone still in the car but they seemed to be engaged in banter with one of the others (“at least it’s not raining” etc) so I hoped that was a good sign. Soon after I set off an ambulance passed and then a couple of police cars.
Just before Broughton we turned off and I was now on unknown roads towards Peebles. There was a mountain bike event on, and I think full suspension would have been useful just for the road surfaces here. I was generally uncomfortable now and a little miserable, and looking forward to a stop in Innerleithen. I’d calculated that Melrose, the final control, would be too late at my speed for a cafe so wanted to sit down and have a warm drink here. Some sort of cyclists’ gravity means that those of us who are slower needed to ride further to find a cafe with space, but the Whistle Stop Cafe was a nice find even if their till clock was running an hour fast on the receipt (stilll within time limits!). My back was sore, which I know is because I had done no core exercises recently, so I had some ibuprofen here (bad habit from LEL) and it was much better for the rest of the ride.
Out of Innerleithen and we were again on a bit of LEL. This had been the end of a beautiful stretch back then, and I remember how weird it was descending these deserted moorland hills to suddenly find a golf course. Again it was great to experience the roads in the opposite direction, and as the road climbed along the Leithen Water and the hills drew closer in I decided this is definitely one of my favourite roads. The sun was sharp on the moorland hills and the roads empty, and I choked up a bit at the beauty of it all. It seems that the only thing that makes me cry these days is cycling and associated reminiscences.
Then we turned off towards Heriot for an info control, before heading south for Stow. We followed the railway line for a while, which had brought me down yesterday and would take me away again tomorrow. This is the most ‘new’ (previously Beeching’d) railway line built for a considerable time, and if it didn’t exist I wouldn’t have been up here riding. Thanks to the Scottish government, and David Steele if I remember correctly. So far the route had been steady climbs and descents but after Stow (unless going off piste which was an entirely reasonable option, good choice Lucy McTaggart) there was a shocker of a hill which had me cursing at the org at the top. Apparently this featured in the Scottish hill climbing championships in 2017. I soon forgave him as there were some great views here. Passing a wind farm I heard the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh as the blades of a close mill rotated. I’d heard similar before, unheralded, in the dark, but never before had I ridden through their shadows, racing towards and through the shadow of my bike going in the opposite direction.
Now we could see the Eildon hills above Melrose which would be visible for most of the rest of the ride. I got a bit confused with the route sheet (my confusion not the directions) and then there was a road closure but the guy working on it let me through and a local reassured me I was going in the right direction. I’d had a walk around here when I camped for last years Moffat toffee so once I could see the Chain Bridge I knew where I was going and headed straight for the Co-op, and crossed paths with Lucy. I’d done pretty well so far not to over-eat but here I had a sandwich and a big twix which I pretty instantly regretted; riding on a full stomach is never comfortable.
The final leg went out to another info which was a bit confusing as the route sheet described it as a T-junction, which did exist a bit further up the road. It took me a while further along the route to be convinced that I’d made the right choice. Lucy had left Melrose before me and arrived at the finish shortly after with an extra few kms so it seemed I had done. As usual the final 10 km seemed to go on forever but once again there was no navigation required so I didn’t bother with my head torch and so couldn’t see how far was still to go or how fast (or indeed slow) I was going, I just practised a bit of being in the present, which I’ve been working on recently. Keep going and you’ll get there. Sure enough almost out of nowhere a T-junction with the A7 appeared and there was the arrivee right next to it – I’m glad I was paying attention and didn’t sail on back down the hill to the town centre only to have to climb back up again, like a few others. Plenty of food at the finish which was great, and I did it in 11 hrs 30 which I was pleasantly surprised by. Then a freewheel down to the campsite, shower and bed. I was quite happy that the clocks went forward as it meant one hour fewer in a frosty (again) tent before getting the first train to Edinburgh from Tweedbank the next morning.
Leithen and his co-conspirators fully exercise and exorcise themselves in John MacNab. Taking themselves out of their usual surroundings and putting themselves ‘in danger’ was sufficient to shift their minds. I was actually surprised by the turns the story took in the later stages; [spolier] the recognition of friends and the security that their place in society provides (so not actually ‘danger’). You can’t read John Buchan now without gagging on the racism, classism and misogyny, but this one has a strong female character and at least some self-awareness at the end.
It’s an over-simplification to suggest that feel bad -> go for an adventure (long bike ride) -> feel better always works. Perhaps it’s rather that making myself do these things keeps a wolf from the door.
207 km, average 21.6 kph, 9:42 hrs riding time; 11:30 total time