With the winter snows finally receding, I cashed in a few spare days off this week to visit the cornucopia of mountain-biking in the Tweed Valley, in a desperate bid for a little freedom just before the Easter holidays and their compulsory round of relatives and chocolate eggs. We were booked in at the camping pods right next to the Glentress Peel visitor centre, so after driving up straight from the school run, we unpacked and rolled immediately out onto the trails. I had never previously been to Glentress, and would probably have been happy riding anything in this massive forest stuffed with bike trails, but I benefited from being shown around some of the off-piste tracks hidden in and amongst the official routes by my mate Rik, who has been up here loads of times before. I enjoyed the first two runs immensely, in spite of feeling a bit tired for some reason, but the final line we did, one of the EWS stages from 2014, was entirely too steep and slippy and root-infested for my abilities, and I walked down much of it. Having thereby calibrated my guide’s expectations of what he could point me at, Rik decided to skip showing me the more extreme end of things at The Golfie, and we instead spent the next day playing on some enjoyable wiggly segments at Innerleithen in the morning, before heading back to Glentress for a short loop on some of the official trails in the afternoon. Feeling thoroughly wiped out again I headed back to base, leaving Rik chance to get a few more challenging runs in elsewhere in the forest.
We were lucky with the conditions on Tuesday and Wednesday, and apart from a couple of very brief showers things were rather pleasant, especially in contrast with recent months. Our own shadows made an appearance several times, and I even had to don sunglasses whilst sitting outside the camping pod (in a bobble hat and down jacket, granted, but still). The ground conditions weren’t too bad either, there were plenty of puddles and muddy spots but nothing show-stopping, and we only ran into the remnants of the last few weeks’ snow in a couple of spots at the very top of the hills. Things looked set to turn on the last day, however, and after examining the weather forecast we decided that we didn’t fancy the 80% probability of heavy rain lined up for the Peebles area, and instead made an early dash for the morning’s predicted clear skies in the eastern Lakes on the way home.
I had been meaning to ride the classic Nan Bield-Gatescarth loop for years now, but hadn’t yet managed to get round to it, so this seemed a perfect opportunity. The route seems to divide opinion quite dramatically; whilst some do rave about it, I know several people who have told me in no uncertain terms that it is not worth the hike-a-bike slogs over the two main passes, and that the descents are somehow simultaneously boring, and too rocky.
Those people are wrong. After an admittedly massive 500m-vertical hike past Small Water to earn your first descent, Nan Bield starts off with the sinuous curves pictured above, which are as entertaining as they look, before turning into several miles of more traditional moorland singletrack. This is rutted and challenging in places, but very enjoyable all the same, even if you do catch a pedal and wind yourself on a pointy bit of the scenery like I did. There is the odd tricky spot, small drops on corners, damp multiple line rock gardens, that sort of thing, but it’s all rideable by a competent MTBer (I nearly rode all of it, at any rate, and I’m nearly competent, on a good day).
Further down the valley things were a bit boggy in places, but we have just had a very wet winter and we still didn’t get properly stuck at any point, so it’s clearly a reasonably all-weather route. From above Kentmere the short hop over to Longsleddale is lovely, a moderate drag (for the Lakes) through fields, followed by a diverting little drop back down to Sadgill, where you pick up a rocky byway for the final haul back over Gatescarth. This long, stony track is a bit soul-destroying, especially if you’re tired, but most big rides in proper hills contain stretches like this, it’s all part of earning the subsequent fun bits, and the views were pleasant throughout. The descent from Gatescarth is frequently written off as a bit rubbish, so I was a bit worried that the ride might peter out with a concrete farm-track or something, but I was mistaken. It is definitely not perfect flowy singletrack or full-on freeride schralpcore, true, but it swoops and curves beautifully all the way down the hill, a river of loose rocks between earth banks, where you can drift crazily round the corners to see how fast you dare go. And the other great thing about it is that it drops you right back at the car park, job done.
Overall, the Nan Beild-Gatescarth loop is an excellent ride, a good solid mountain outing that you can put away in about three hours, leaving you feeling like you’ve properly earned a couple of excellent descents amongst the spectacular scenery of the Lakes. I’d definitely come back to ride this one again.