Tweedlove Vallelujah – Stop with your brakes, not your head!

Vallelujah starts the racing season in style, forgoing a gentle warmup for a full-gas attacks that reward the brave, the brilliant, and those who put in the turbo-time over winter; at least I’d ticked one of the three! Tweedlove races out of beautiful Peebles in the Scottish Borders offering up some truly breathtaking stages on both sides of the river. It’d been 2 years since my last venture north of the wall and it looks like the weather gods had at least spared the trauma of 2016’s floodageddon for blue skies and dry trails.

bramblescratch hills
Blue skies, dry trails and VW Vans as far as the eye can see. Mountain biker heaven

This year’s approach had been a different one, with a new bike and some new-found confidence riding more technical terrain at speed, I was ready to improve on my seemingly unmovable 2/3 down the results list. The work had been put in riding some looser wetter trails over winter, although lacking in length, should at least have let me known where my limits were and how far I could push them. The Starling Murmur had been performing faultlessly apart from the rear shock acting a little strange between the 10-20% sag mark, but I’ll deal with that after the race!

This year’s event started south of the river with three short but suitably steep and technical trails in Cademuir Forest. The closeness and relatively short climb to the adjacent starting lines allowed for a couple of extra practice runs on the Saturday allowing for the more technical sections on the vertically challenging, but surprisingly grippy stage 2, along with the sheer tree dodging descending on stage 3. The latter of these gave me my first opportunity to inspect the ground more closely, leaving me with a lovely impact right on my hip joint; lucky for me, there was another 2500 feet of vertical ascent still to ride that day – grit teeth, winge a lot, ride on.

bramblescratch_practice
Stage 2 Provided some puckered-up corners and more grip than you’d have first thought!

Knowing this was only day one of a particularly long weekend it was important to remain composed on the climbs to the final 3, and by far longest, stages. Studying the map before the ride showed that both stages 4 and 6 had reasonable fire-road sprints mid stage that were to sap the strength of all but the fittest riders, so climbs were gingerly spun to avoid treacherous cramps the following day. Stages were practiced, videos were reviewed and lines were discussed in detail over a cool beer and mountains of pasta; this was almost starting to look serious were it not for the additional 3 beers that followed. Beer is a carb? Athletes need carbs? It’s science.

Come race day, a chill on the hillsides and a particularly late kickoff time meant a slow start to the day. The first three stages went off without much of a hitch although a few choice dabs on stage one knocked precious seconds off the stage time, put down to season-christening pre-race nerves and an over-enthusiastic caffeine intake. Lesson learned for subsequent races; smoothness is key with such a short stage rather than the jittery sharp turns and frantic mis-geared sprints out of corners.

Stage 2 came and went without much drama; by this point the caffeine jitters had started to subside allowing for a cleaner descent down some of the steepest trails on the race. Although the times hadn’t been earth-shattering, a well-respectable 67/151 stage time had made up somewhat for the patchy first run. Similarly stage 3, suitably named Squeeze Me Please Me, rewarded the rider who’d avoided retaining their fashionable wide 800mm bars, weaving the front wheel between tight-knit tree trunks leading to a particularly fast off-camber rutted final straight. I even managed to successfully navigate the previous-day’s mystery upsetter, root drop and maintained a vital high-line into a tight right hander that had previously eluded me. A good start without too much incident, so on with the play.

Well-placed feed stations throughout the day meant riders were able to carry the minimum with them whilst still staying fueled up for the day, something which other races have maybe not met quite as successfully. This at least meant that entering the start of stage 4 after an arduous climb up past the Glentress Trails car park, we were met with some of the most beautiful views over Glentress leaving us refreshed and raring to go – additional kudos to the girl on the feed-station cranking up the ACDC!

Stage 4 - Tweedlove
Scrubbed for speed? No. Just very tired and trying desperately to hold a line

Whereas the other stages had relied on out-and-out tech to get down the course in a reasonable time, stage 4 provided a nasty little sprint between the two sections of downhill meaning some epic head-down gritted teeth between sections with fellow riders in eyeshot providing the proverbial carrot to my stick. A clean run through the second half was aided by some slower riders moving themselves completely off-trail to the panic-stricken bellow of “RIDER”. Race etiquette observed, and one happy rider at the bottom of the trail.

Here’s where it went a little bit wrong. Possibly the best piece of advice I heard all weekend was ride at 90% of absolute maximum, it means you’re still going to get down the trail in a damn good time, without necessarily binning it with style, completely scuppering any hopes of a decent position. Stage 5 was for me, one of the absolute stand-out stages. It was an absolute credit to Scotland’s trails, peppered with root-strewn drops, kickers, flat dropped corners and tightly taped trees. After more than one near-miss, the terrain got the better of me and without any warning I found myself doing my best Neo impersonation through the air whilst watching my bike bounce perilously down the hillside alongside me. Back to my feet, go catch up with the now stationary bike, straighten bars, shake it off and finish the run.

Bramblescrach helmet
Did its job well considering the impact it took. Good job MET!

Ok – so it’s a lost stage, it happens. When we’re all comparing times at the end we’ll just discount that one and move on with the day? After the initial mockery for not staying rubber side down, my riding mates decided it was probably for the best just to give the helmet a quick once-over. It was at this point that a huge crack along the impact point was found (shout out to Andy and Kev here for having a proper look over the helmet thank you!) meaning my race day was done. After much bartering and negotiating, we agreed that I could still complete the race, although essentially roll down the final stage rather than even attempting to race it from a pure safety point of view (although they said nothing about going for it on the uphill fire-road sections!)

I ended up with fairly respectable 88/151 which considering included a large crash and a stage at limping pace isn’t too bad. On a side note it was great to see so many riders on such a range of bikes – hardtails especially. Over the past two years there seems to have been a YT and Santa Cruz led monopoly on the gravity enduro scene but it looks like the nutters were out in force favouring fun over grip, and hats off to them!

All in all it was a great weekend spent with friends, steakhouses, beers and bikes. I’m still here in one piece with a particularly colourful bruise to show off at the office, and it looks like there’s a chance MET might be honoring their crash replacement scheme on the helmet even thought it’s just after the 2-year cutoff period. Lessons have been learned, and next year I’m coming back with force (and a little bit more time on the trainer over winter!)

Vallelujah Podium Shot
An excellent weekend’s racing with a great group and one enduro dog

 

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