July 2023 would see me attempt The Capital Trail – a beast of a route, the brainchild of Markus Stitz, of Bikepacking Scotland fame. The trail would be ridden over three hard days. Lot’s of climbing. Lot’s of it. Never straying that far from home in Edinburgh – but still, delivering a feeling a remoteness that I crave. Here’s the story of how my Capital Trail turned in to a fail, or maybe more like a bail!

Day 1 started with an early enough kick off. My pal and I left Edinburgh opting to start from home rather than the “official” start of Portobello Beach. This is our neck of the woods you see, our stomping ground, our house. We know these streets and trails and have been riding them all our lives! So we started from home, and took a slightly augmented route towards the Pencaitland Railway – a fantastic piece of gravel that we are very well acquainted with.

I was riding my Trek 1120 – and had packed (for me) relatively light.

We were camping, and had enough kit for 3 days of biking fun. I’d taken full waterproofs as well, jacket, shorts and gloves. More on this later…

The day started well – we were both enjoying being back out on a longer adventure. There’s something quite magical about riding your bike, from home, knowing that later that day, you won’t be coming back. Instead, you’ll be kipping in a tent, tucked up in a sleeping bag, all of which you’ve carried along with you on the bike. We were both feeling this mix of excitement and anticipation as the kilometres ticked over and we started to head in the general direction of the Lammermuir Hills.

These hills are not high. However, they are steep and there are not really too many natural passes. That coupled with very rough terrain and exposure to the elements owing to the barren nature of the flora and fauna makes for a formidable riding challenge.

We were off and pushing in no time at all!

Still though, a magical feeling being out in the hills on the bikes again. Carrying all your gear and knowing that it’s just you and the bike working in sync that will see you through to the end of the day.

The climbing went on. The sun beat down. We lost track of time. We didn’t fuel properly! Eventually we reached Lauder. By this point we were hungry! Cue a rapid cafe refuel stop and some fizzy drinks from the local Premier store.

At this point we should have really looked at the rest of the route to see what the remainder of the day had in store for us. As it turns out, we pushed on without any prior knowledge of The 42 Gates of Hell, also know as The Southern Upland Way…

This section of the Way was grassy, hilly, and well, downright unpleasant. It seemed like we were either cycling through a field of grass, cycling along the edge of a field with crops growing in it, cycling through a grassy field with sheep in it or STOPPING AT ANOTHER BLOODY GATE AND HAVING TO DISMOUNT TO GET THROUGH. Seriously though, there are a lot of gates. If you’re planning on doing this ride, be prepared to get off your bike. A lot.

Eventually, tired and hungry, we rolled into Melrose. We set up our tents, showered, whereupon I noticed my sunburn, and then fed ourselves. It had been a long day.

Day 2 began the night before with a message from a pal who lives in The Borders. It went something like this : The weather is going to be really bad over the next couple of days. You might want to rethink your plans. Come and say hi.

This particular pal knows what he is talking about when it comes to ‘outdoors activities’. We had already been looking at the weather forecast with some trepidation. Turns out it was a good idea that I had brought the waterproofs…

At this point, given the forecast, we canned the rest of the planned route. It seemed silly to put ourselves on hillsides and moors when the weather was so bad. No point chancing it, and after all, our motto for these rides is that they have to be fun. We’ll push ourselves, certainly, but there is no point purposely putting ourselves in the path of potential danger. So, we decided to have an easy day, cycling from Melrose to Glentress, via our pal’s house in Clovenfords.

Coffee, toasties and homemade shortbread consumed, we headed West, in the direction of our campsite for the night.

Even with the weather, it was lovely to be out on unfamiliar stretches, not knowing what was around the next bend. We followed the Tweed through to Glentress, a trail centre we have ridden many, many times before, not quite believing that this time, we’d ridden our bikes here.

We waited for a break in the rain, pitched the tents quickly and then set about the tricky business of general camp life when it’s wet. Everything seems to take extra thought. “Don’t put that there it’s wet. Oh. Well, now that’s wet too. At least that’s not wet, oh. Yup. That’s wet too.” And so on. A quick walk around to look at the fantastic new developments at Glentress, and then some dinner sorted us out for the rest of the evening.

Day 3 – our final day. We were meant to be returning via The Pentland Hills, but again, the weather said nope. Instead, we opted for a route through The Granites. A road that you’ll be familiar with if you ever ride at The Golfie.

60km. About 500m of climbing. Lovely. Into a 25kph headwind. In the driving rain.

Honestly. This is potentially one of the most challenging days I’ve had on a bike. Once you’re on that road, there is nowhere else to go. That’s it. The rain was unrelenting. From leaving Glentress until riding in to Dalkeith on the outskirts of Edinburgh it drove into our faces. It was brilliant.

The combination of the weather, the colour of the sky and the hillside. The feeling of just me and my bike doing this was, well, epic. At the top of the first climb, the road snakes between two hills – like a pass – and I turned to my mate, laughed and shouted something into the rain and wind about this being amazing and how it was wonderful to be here experiencing this together and how we’d laugh about this later and how we were almost at the top and should we stop for a bite to eat?

And so, this is how I found myself and my pal, our bikes propped up against a fence, with the wind whipping through them, at the top of a hill, rain smashing against our backs. The wind was so strong it wanted to take the bread roll and salami I had in my hand away and blow it over the heather. But I was grinning as I chewed mouthful after mouthful. This, I thought, this is what it’s about. These moments, where we could have gotten the train home, but we didn’t. And now, we’re here. Experiencing this. And we’re alive and free and with friends.

That’s what this kind of riding is all about.