Hands gripped to the handlebars, trying not to touch the brakes, I rocket off yet another jump, swoop through the air and frantically struggle to work out how on earth I am going to land. Somehow I do then sweep into a berm and arch right to its very tip, then twist into another. Then another. Just time to almost catch my breath before the next challenge, bashing down a winding single-track hillside desperately trying to avoid the pine trees flashing past on either side. Welcome to Scotland, officially the world’s hottest mountain bike destination.
I’ve been mountain biking in Scotland for years and it has always amazed why some Scots jet off to Europe or Canada for their mountain bike thrills as the riding here is world class here. It is not just me saying that as an International Mountain Bike Association’s ‘People’s Poll’ has rated Scotland the world’s best mountain destination. Scotland has also shown herself capable of staging World Cup events and even the World Championship.
For me what sets Scotland apart is the sheer diversity of riding. If long distance multi-day adventures on old drover roads and military routes are your thing then you can just head out on your own. Or, and what most people today prefer, you can instead pop to one of the organised mountain bike centres that have sprung up all over the country. Here they have increasingly comprehensive facilities to set you on your way.
The epicentre of Scottish mountain biking is Southern Scotland. It was here that the Forestry Commission adopted an enlightened attitude to land use and access. Instead of blocking bikers decided to work with them as part of the 7 Stanes project. This groundbreaking innovation saw seven mountain bike centres spring up across the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.
The granddaddy of them of all is Glentress and this is where I headed to take the pulse of the mountain biking revolution. The centre is just a short distance from the trim Borders town of Peebles, where the biker friendly Tontine Hotel awaits. For a restaurant with rooms I recommend the cosy Horseshoe Inn, a short drive to the north. The car park at Glentress was bursting with bikers of all ages, sizes and fitness levels. I was massively impressed with the new Peel centre here, a one stop bike shop, bike maintenance and restaurant that looks super stylish too. You can hire all the gear too, including dual suspension bikes, and even arrange for a coaching session.
Glentress, like all of the 7 Stanes, has myriad trails of varying difficulty. Beginners go for ‘easy’ green then move on to the little harder ‘moderate’ blue trails. Then there are ‘difficult’ red trails and the ridiculously tough ‘severe’ black rides, which involve some seriously technical challenges. The more testing trails often have loops where you can avoid some of the trickier sections, which I tend to avoid if I am out alone.
I was in good hands at Glentress, though, in the company of Scottish champion biker Katy Winton. She honed her skills at Glentress and nearby Innerleithen and is a big fan of the area. Katy also introduced me to TweedLove, the local biking festival, which buzzes through the Tweed Valley every May and June. TweedLove gives me a great reason to come back next year, not that I need one given that Southern Scotland already boasts some of the world’s finest mountain biking. I don’t need a people’s poll to tell me that!