It all began when I received an email from Virgin Trains saying there was a sale. The sales are normally on a train at 2:00am to nowhere. After having a quick look I saw a return ticket to Edinburgh from London for only £35, so I bought it there and then. I knew of a route called the Capital Trail, and for a long weekend in October 2016, it sounded like the perfect ride. The route was created by Markus Stitz in 2015. Markus was known to me as I followed his progress riding over 34,000km around the world on a single speed bike. Looking up the trail I saw it was only 150 miles but with a surprising 5000 meters of climbing. I had booked the train so I had 3 full days and two half days (due to the 6 hour train journey each way). This sounded like a nice leisurely pace, especially compared to some of the trips I have completed this year. Rather than fear, excitement came over me as it may even feel like a holiday!
Even after a few trips to Scotland this year, nothing can prepare you for the feeling of stepping off the train after sitting down for hours, and then suddenly start pedalling into nowhere. In the confusion and excitement, I may have started in the wrong direction. I was having such a nice time riding along a sun filled canal, it wasn’t till I had done 4 miles that I realised that I should be by the sea. Once I had turned around I was heading north to the coast where the official start of the Capital Trail begins.
The ride is great right from the start. Finding any excuse to get you off the roads and into cheeky singletrack sections. So with the setting of the sun I began hunting for a wild camp spot. I filled up my water bottles from a river and then found a beautiful long grassy field. Tent went up and then to my surprise I heard a noise, turning around I saw a car that seemed to be floating across the field. Upon further inspection there was a tarmac road which lead to an estate, so technically I was camping on a glorified drive way. I hurried myself and tent behind some trees, so I wasn’t in plain sight. The evening was chilly but event free.
The next day I woke up ready to put some miles in. As I left the flat plain of the city I entered the Lammermuir Hills where steep grassy slopes began to get the better of me, and the true qualities of this route began. After a few stiff climbs I was treated to a very fast paced descent with some lively natural speed hump launches. I had been keeping an eye out for a bothy of which I had read about, but didn’t come across. I kept finding some great wild camp spots, but it was still too early in the afternoon and I hadn’t travelled far enough. So I pushed on to the small road section towards Lauder. I dived off the road into more quality forest single-track. Sitting down scouring the OS map for rivers, I began to plan where I was going to stop for the night. In front of me was the perfect spot, but it was only 5pm. Looking ahead rivers became sparse, so I indulged myself by setting up camp early after a perishing dip in the river.
Waking up to a frosty morning, I headed off after my porridge and coffee, through Lauder and off towards Melrose. This was mostly through farmland along the Southern Upland Way with stunning vistas over the Borders countryside. I was puzzled the night before when pouring over my map. The route diverted off this great off-road track and took an odd detour on a road. There I was loving life being off road, and thought I knew better. I stuck to the off-road path and after 10 minutes I realised why the detour was created. I opened 20 gates just to go one mile. Dropping down into Melrose it was elevenses, so I sat overlooking Melrose Abbey with a mug of coffee and a ham and cheese Panini, really wild. Then it was off towards Innerleithen. I had overlooked how much wiggling and climbing there was along the Borders Abbots way that took me out of Melrose. This put me slightly behind schedule. The next highlight was riding into the Sunderland Hall estate, where I took a slightly wrong turn and ended up at the front door to the hall. The owner soon found me and we chatted about my journey and what it was like to live in such a grand place. He pointed me in the right direction, warning me of the climb to come. Luckily a lot of height was gained gradually along the fire road of Raelees Wood. I am not going lie, it was a push up the summit of the Three Brethren at 464 meters. I celebrated with a snack of cheddar and chorizo, soon after realizing I had run out water. Panic set in. No rivers anywhere on the map as I was on the tops. I knew I wouldn’t die but it’s still a horrible feeling. So my mind was elsewhere as I tackled the red route of the Innerleithen trail centre. Halfway down I found a spring, but nowhere to camp and it was getting dark. With just enough to drink I tore off the mountain to find a valley with a decent sized river. Setting up camp after nightfall on rather unsuitable long grass.
The next morning was a long stiff climb. Steady gravel roads soon turned into a vertical push up a mountain, topping out at the summit of Stake Law at 661 meters. Views stretched down to Peebles, my next destination. The descent was wild, technical and sloppy, which sped up to fast grassy stretches. Loosing height, I shot into town to find a Co-op and a much deserved sandwich. The Capital Trail was technically meant to include a loop of the Glentress Trail centre. I was worried about the distance I had to do the next day before getting my train home, which I couldn’t afford to miss. So I pushed on through the forest on Cloich Hill stumbling upon the best tight singletrack. This opened out to a wild uninhabited landscape, truly breathtaking. A boggy pedal through farmers’ fields on towards West Linton followed. I dived down a tiny track once out of town to find the perfect wild camp spot for my last night.
I woke early to the howling wind. I started the day on dirt tracks followed by a tiny section of road which led me back into the mountains. This day took me in and around the Pentland Hills. After struggling to get my not-so-light bike over some fences, I was pedalling along the tops and the sunlight was just perfect. It was poking through the clouds casting moving shadows over the mountains that surrounded me. This was great riding, especially the descent down to Bavelaw Castle which was rocky and technical. Then through a beautiful valley deep in the centre of the Pentland Hills, which I couldn’t believe was only 10 miles away from the Scottish Capital. Fun singletrack snaked around the suburbs of the capital, leading me to the canal which flowed into the city centre. Progress was much quicker on the last day. With a couple of hours to spare, I sat along the canal in the sun reflecting upon my trip, watching the world go by.
This is an amazing route that can be done either in two days, or a more leisurely pace of up to a week. This would allow time to spend at the historical sites along the way, such as Melrose Abbey, and of course the historically rich city of Edinburgh. I will most definably be back, and raise the challenge to you too. Truly an unforgettable experience.