Bowbeat Hill

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I’d been watching the weather over the previous week, paying particular attention to the snow conditions on the hills of the Scottish Borders. We’d had a few flurries around Edinburgh but nothing to write home about. The Pentland Hills got a good covering which meant that the higher Moorfoot Hills to the south should also have snow cover as well, which was ideal for a spot of winter fat-biking.

The weather on the Saturday looked, shall we say, interesting. The forecast stated air temperatures around minus 3 degrees C on Bowbeat Hill, a 20 mph wind giving a wind chill factor making it feel more like minus 10 degrees C. Freezing conditions over night would have crisped everything up nicely and I was hoping that the access road would be open. If it hasn’t been cleared it would not be rideable. Best keep my fingers crossed.

The 30 minute drive from Bonnyrigg down the B7007 started off easy enough with well gritted tarmac up to the Scottish Borders sign. After that the road all the way down to Leithen Lodge certainly hadn’t seen a snowplough these past few weeks. Lots of ice and snow drifts to make driving that little bit exciting. However, traffic was light and no risk of getting stuck on the verge after having to avoid oncoming vehicles.

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The start of my ride was from the entrance to Leithen Lodge, an up-market hotel, and was actually the most difficult part of the ride, with slippery ice most of the way up to the forest. Even there, it was quite tricky to stay upright with icy ridges lurking under the snow. However, despite a few almost underpants-changing moments I managed to stay upright. Oh, I spotted a red squirel at the Lodge. Not seen one of those for years.

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The snow depth gradually increased as I climbed, as you would expect, though a few areas under the trees still showed bare earth. My route followed the sign-posted access road that serves the 24 turbines on the wind farm and it looked like the way had been cleared with fresh vehicle tracks suggested that my plan to follow the entire circuit might be on. For those of you thinking of doing this route, I warn you, it’s a long arduous slog with a number of steeper sections seeing me on foot pushing the bike along. I guess that’s why it’s called a push bike? I would also suggest riding the route in a clockwise direction. I’ve done both direction I think this is the easiest. You also get the prevailing wind behind you on the exposed hill.

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Eventually, I left the trees behind, and the shelter they’d been providing and made my way out onto the windswept, desolate open moorland. I thought I’d been cold down in the valley but this was something else. The wind was whipping up ice from the snow field and stinging my face. Fortunately I’d come prepared with plenty of warm clothing. My Buffalo Mountain Shirt was proving its worth this fine day and I was cosy as toast inside.

The clouds were down at ground level up here and visibility was poor. None of the fine views you normally get. I was also doing some filming to make a wee video and you could barely see the wind turbines in the mist. Of course, to operate the camera I had to remove my gloves, which is a real pain as I tend to suffer from cold fingers. Mind you, it was around minus 3 degress C so I shouldn’t be surprised.

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I was able to cycle most of the route until the steep section about half-way round. I could see that a vehicle had tried to get through the snow drift and had failed. Now I had a decision to make. Continue onwards not knowing if the road had been cleared or head back the way I’d come. But that would mean riding into the biting wind. I decided to continue.

Let me tell you its hard graft pushing, carrying and hauling a loaded Surly Pugsley uphill across two foot high snow drifts. However, I managed okay and was quite pleased with myself until I started to encounter more of the same. Hundreds of meters of them! It was a case of take one step, sink to knee level and sometimes waist level, then haul bike along, before taking another step. Who said fat-biking was fun?

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It was also near white-out conditions. You just could not see how deep the snow actually was. One minute you can be riding along merrily, next you come to an abrupt stop in a 300 mm deep snow drift. It would have been nice to get some footage of me struggling through the drifts but to be honest I was beginning to get uncomfortable and just wanted to get off the hill.

At one point I decided to take a short cut across the moor, hoping to avoid a particularly deep section of drifting across the full width of the road. The snow didn’t look that deep but at one point I was up to waist level and the Pugsley all but vanished down a gully. Unfortunately, I soon discovered I was not heading where I should have been and found myself not-quite sure where I was. I wasn’t actually lost just slightly off track. After some thought, I back-tracked, up-hill through snow drifts, I must add, and found myself back on the main route. Great things these timber marker posts that line the route.

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Once back below the tree line conditions improved and best of all I was out of the bloody wind! Now it was down hill all the way back to Leithen Lodge and the car. Of course, with ice under foot it was slow going, especially where forestry vehicles had churned up the snow, which over night, had turned to sheet ice with lots od ridges hidden from view. Lunch was taken sheltering under a tree by the side of the road.

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Todays ride was Pugsleys first with his new mudguards fitted. I installed them a week or so ago and it was only today that I’ve found time to test them out. While perhaps not the best conditions for a test, they do seem to be holding up well, even coping with all that dragging the bike though deep snow. Also fitted are a set of Surly Nates tyres and I can say these did inspire confidence while riding on compacted snow and frozen slush/ice. As far as clothing goes, I must get a pair of those waterproof Sealskinz socks. Might also look at their gloves as well.

Below is  the video I made on the ride.

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