Ross takes on the challenge of the Ken Laidlaw Sportive and revisits some old training roads.
Ken Laidlaw was one of the first British riders to successfully complete the Tour de France, a fact that the Scottish Borders Sportive celebrates by naming the event in his honour. Starting and finishing in the Borders town of Hawick, famous for its rejuvenated knitwear brands of Pringle and Lyle and Scott, the challenge facing the riders on the 106 mile route is that of heavy, undulating roads across windblown moorland and traversing beautifully desolate hill tops. It’s not difficult to see how the towns two famous exports; Laidlaw and knitwear, are products of the areas landscape and climate.
The ride rolled out from the Hawick Rugby ground (another sporting tradition in these parts) as one mass peloton with all 500 riders enjoying some blustery sunshine. The mass start is a rare thing on the British sportive scene and I certainly enjoyed the camaraderie and memories of racing days past. The first climb came almost straight out of Hawick with local boy Cameron leading the way as we flicked left and right, picking our way through tiny rural lanes. My legs were tired after a long drive up from the South and I was happy to sit at the back of the forty strong group that had established itself and try to predict what the cloud laden skies overhead had in store for us.
Before long I was on familiar terrain, the northern part of the course intersecting the southern-most range of my training rides when based in Edinburgh. The Swire (which was known in Edinburgh circles as the Witchy Knowe) and the Berry Bush were both training regulars and also featured in the annual Gordon Arms hilly time trial, a stalwart of the Eastern Scotland early season calendar. With familiarity came slight over enthusiasm as I attacked on the lower slopes of the Swire and rode clear with Cameron for company. We let the group ride up to us on the climb but then distanced them again as we descended on rails down the gravelly, sheep strewn single track descent.
After the Berry Bush the threatening clouds started to deliver their promised rain. As we passed the Buddhist Monastery on the road to Eskdalemuir the heavens opened and the resulting deluge seemed to noticeably drain the enthusiasm from the group. Thankfully the rain turned out to be a passing shower and the roads slowly started to dry out. By now we were a group of about 30 and seemingly happy to enjoy safety in numbers given the difficulty still to come.
Cameron’s local tip was to beware the climb that would take us from Langholm over to Newcastleton, right on the English border. He described a vicious start out of the town, easing slightly until emerging onto the moorland and facing winds blowing unabated across the moorland. Born again cyclist and friend of La Fuga, Billy McCord had made it this far in the front group despite being a little short of his usual form and I urged him to the front as we sped through the pretty market town of Langholm. Exactly as described by Cameron, we turned right off the main road and faced a 15% gradient as we climbed away from the town. After a couple of switchbacks, the gradient eased back and allowed the group to find a regular rhythm.
On the lower slopes unity reined in the group until, as we emerged onto the purple heather clad hill side, the stronger climbs decided to make their presences felt and lifted the pace. I followed the wheels and by the top, three of us were clear. The road dipped down and soared up again to the horizon with the tree-less terrain giving us a clear view of the remainder of the group strung out in pursuit. With 35 miles still to ride we decided to wait for the group and enjoyed an amazing view over the border country as we descended at pace into the folk music stronghold of Newcastleton.
And it was on the road from Newcastleton to the final climb of the Gate that it crept up on me. Without notice, the strength drained from my legs and my recent lack of riding manifested itself as light headedness and the inability to turn the pedals with my previous force. The knock, the bonk, hitting the wall, whatever you want to call it, I was know crawling along and thoughts of a high position replaced by those of just making it back. A well placed feed station provided some relief and saw Cameron and myself join forces with an old friend, Hamish, from Edinburgh, to brave the last miles home.
And it was in those last few miles that the wild power of the Borders landscape made itself known. The heavy undulating roads, the windblown moorland and the desolate hilltops; these were the landscapes that had bestowed Ken Laidlaw with the legs to line up against Europe’s best riders and endure France’s own savage landscapes. The three of us worked together in silent team work that only the struggle home after a hard ride seems to endow. The strongest doing the lion’s share, the weakest holding on as if life depended on it and with roles reversed with every lump in the road and emergency jelly baby consumed.
At last we rolled back into the Rugby Club after almost 5 ½ hours on the bike and 106 miles under the wheels. We were eEncouraged over the line by announcer James Johnston, a voice I hadn’t heard in over 15 years since my days at the Meadowbank Track League in Edinburgh. The grassroots vibe of the event extended to the post-race catering with home made macaroni cheese or local dish of stovies the reward for a hard day on the bike.
The Ken Laidlaw Scottish Borders Sportive is organised each August by Hawick CC and offers a choice of three routes ranging from 22 to 106 miles. Sign up for next year’s event at http://www.hamishdsmith.co.uk/cycling/.