With a rekindled love of mountain biking, Lily spent January scouting out the 7stanes, the major mountain bike centres of southern Scotland.
words by Lily McGuiness
Blue route, Mabie Forest (8.44 miles/1001ft ascent), 1hr 17m.
Although I had wanted to do a hilly run on arrival, I had unfortunately started with a cold and so, deeming mtb-ing less strenuous on the lungs we did Mabie’s blue route. This grade is definitely worthwhile if you’re a beginner, don’t want to push too hard, or need a warm up. The uphills were manageable, and rewarded by some lovely flowy downhills without many technical features.
Red route, Dalbeattie (18.28 miles/1703ft), 4hr 10m.
Wow! Completely unexpected technical route here, mostly spent bobbling along rocky trails and interspersed with rocky steps downhill. I found this route tested my ability to focus, teaching me to look at where I wanted my line to take me instead of where looked the most likely to throw me off my bike. Otherwise I’d brake right at the edge, losing my conviction that I could do it – caution is good for stopping you flying over the edge of a ridiculous drop, but hesitation is difficult to come back from – resulting in me carrying my bike a lot.
The other main obstacles were the slabs. Martin was very psyched to look at ‘The Slab’, a black-graded feature of Dalbeattie, so he built himself up by going down all the slabs leading up to it. Contrastingly, I spent 10 minutes at the top of one slab repetitively riding up to it trying to think ‘yes, I can do it!’ but eventually was too put off by the slightly jutting out rock that I thought may catch my pedal and knock me off.
Upon reaching ‘The Slab’ we cautiously carried our bikes down a sketchy, black-graded descent (riding was utterly inconceivable – a YouTube video later proved it was possible) to have a nosy. A key characteristic of mtb features is their ability to look not too unfriendly from some angles, yet quite horrendous from others. However, this slab looked slippery from all perspectives. The grooves running across it seemed perfect for capturing wheels and running the bike off course, depositing the rider as it went.
There was a platform of mud, roots, and rocks about halfway down one side that Martin decided to head down to. After fidgeting with the mtb position to accommodate the unfriendly nature of the starting position he was ready to have a go. As Martin often easily manages sections I find more challenging I enjoyed watching him get into the headspace for something he found scary. My phone was poised and ready to film as I watched tensely. After his first attempts at starting were foiled by roots and the slippery rock, he was off and whizzing down to where the bike and rider are forced to adapt to the drastic angle change between rock and floor. All went well, and the run out was kind, providing enough time to slow down and not hit anything.
Continuing the trail, Martin’s success and advice inspired me to try some of the small slabs we came across. When we finally got back much later than expected, I was ready to kick my feet up!
Kielder Forest (19.75 miles/1589ft), 3hr 4m.
Although not a Stane we were attracted to Kielder by the 3 red routes that together added up to 40km! Unfortunately, my worsening cold combined with the trails being closed by storm damage we ended up cycling along many fire roads, with only one fun downhill section to reward our uphill efforts. I finished the ride feeling deflated, having a little cry on the last uphill to the car. Perhaps one to return to when the trails reopen.
Red route, Kirroughtree (10.56 miles/ 1194ft), 2hr 7m.
Having rested on Friday I was nervously excited to get back on the bike. I needn’t have worried; this was by far my favourite route! The complete opposite of Thursday, because here our climbs were generously rewarded by awesome descents. I actually quite like uphills, especially as mtb gears go low enough to get up pretty steep sections, and at Kirroughtree the trail’s trickiness was an excellent balance of engaging and challenging. That means it is manageable yet, similar to climbing, requires some problem-solving to work out a good line where I won’t have to put my foot down or get off.
The descents were similar – I walked quite a bit but managed just about enough tricky sections without coming off that it massaged my ego and hence my confidence, so that I could tackle the even more technical bits further on with less hesitation. I even managed a slab! Despite braking at the top on my first approach, squawking because I hadn’t realised how steep it was, I knew I could do it. I walked my bike back for a run up and surprisingly managed first time! I’m very glad my wheel didn’t slide out sideways beneath me; strangely enough it turns out pointing your wheel straight helps avoid this.
Some thoroughly enjoyable sections followed, where I felt confident enough to pedal faster and brake less in a competitive attempt to chase Martin! Upon reaching the end I watched him on some black-graded, horribly slippery rock steps in the skills section. I decided to leave that until I’m more confident.
Red route, Mabie (11.49 miles/1572ft), 2h.
Before heading home we returned to Mabie for a morning red route. The uphill climb at the start did a good job of warming us up, becoming increasingly technical with small rocky steps and slabs trying to foil our attempt to ride up. I walked a lot. But every time I lost momentum and had to put my foot down my frustration grew, motivating me to focus more intensely on following a feasible line on the next one.
The descents were pretty gorgeous with lots of flowy sections intercepted with occasional technical bits. A couple of huge vertical berms were awesome, and hitting them with speed were a little nerve-racking! Mabie is (ironically) definitely worth visiting just for them.
About 70% of the way round my poor legs started complaining, but I was treating our mtb week as training for a 32-mile trail race in March, so I focused on moving as efficiently as possible to increase my endurance. Unfortunately, downhills require low seats and suspension which don’t easily transition into maximising leg strength on uphills as your knees are almost by your ears and pedalling ten-to-the-dozen to get up even the shallowest hills!
I am very proud of how my mind and body coped in the physically and mentally demanding space that is mtb-ing. My confidence grew substantially, as well as my desire to do more. We have floated the idea of 4 Stanes in a day, followed by an impressively ambitious 7 in a day (both would involve a red route at each Stane). To keep up I must work on my mental endurance but also physical. I think my aim of climbing more this year will complement this well by strengthening my lower back, legs, core, and arms, all of which help me drive up and down the hills.