The Scottish border town of Peebles is home to Tweedlove and beloved of mountain bikers, due to its proximity to some of Scotland's best trail centres. A town like that should know how to put on a decent bike ride shouldn't it?
That was my thinking when I signed up for the Tesco Bank Tour O The Borders: a closed road sportive which attracts over 1500 riders across two routes - the 120km full route and the 88.8km challenge route, which largely follows the full course but misses two of the climbs.
Peebles is a good couple of hours drive from where I live and with a 7am start on the cards, it was clear when I signed up I was going to need an overnight stay. When Fairydene Mill B&B, about 10 minutes drive from the start, said they had a room, didn't recoil when I asked for breakfast at 5am and then offered me tea and cake on arrival, I knew I'd struck gold. The cake, by the way, turned out to be a two-tier cake stand bedecked with inventive cupcakes (maple syrup and bacon cake anyone?) and profiteroles, washed down with a big pot of tea.
Once we'd polished off more than was strictly necessary, the fine line between polite and porker well and truly overstepped, we set off in search of the 'event village' to register.
It was immediately clear on arrival that this was a well-run affair. In the huge signing on tent I was handed a rider pack - a large envelope with the route map usefully printed on the front, which contained my number and timing chip, cable ties, a wrist band ("in case you get separated from your bike") a gel, some hydration tablets and, this being Scotland, a packet of oatcakes. So far so good.
After a delicious dinner, a brief sleep and a fab cooked breakfast with freshly baked bread at the B&B, we were on our way. To avoid congestion at the start, riders were set off in waves between 6.50am and 7.40am, based on their own estimation of the time it would take them to get round.
Everything went smoothly when we arrived at Tweed Green, aka the event village. We found wave 6 (thanks to the large sign with a 6 on it) and after fairly minimal standing around were led to the start for a quick briefing and some early morning cowbells, and then we were on our way.
Signage on the route was outstanding. Every climb, descent, potential hazard and in fact every kilometre, was marked. On the steepest climbs roadside markers encouraged riders to 'dig in' at exactly the point you really needed to, and assured us we were 'nearly there'.
The route map indicates there are five climbs of note on the full 120km route. I was so busy looking at the fantastic scenery that I completely failed to notice I was on the first and fifth of these, so it would be fair to say these two are quite gradual. Nothing wrong with that. This route really makes the most of long gentle ascents to show off the views.
And if you want something more challenging there's always the 'Talla Wall'. Marked as having a 20% gradient, it's a fantastic climb. You can see the entire length of it rising ominously ahead of you as you approach from the bottom. The road is narrow and you get to feel a bit smug as you weave your way past the procession of those who have opted for the head-down walk of the defeated. And then you reach the flat section at the top and quickly realise that isn't actually the top. Not so smug now.
This ride also has some cracking descents and the closed roads allow you to make the most of them. It felt liberating and at the same time slightly odd to be able to fly around a corner on the 'wrong' side of the road without having to worry about oncoming traffic. The organisers were clearly concerned about the Talla descent though. It's one of the less technical descents on the course, but presumably one where riders have come a cropper in the past as a neutralised timing zone had been put in place and signage, marshals and hay bales were laid on to reduce the risk of accidents.
Had I got into any kind of bother, I'm confident I'd have been well looked after. Motorbike mechanical support, first aiders, marshals and police were all evident along the route.
The closest I came to peril was when a man dressed as Peter Sagan emptied his nostrils when I was down wind of him. There was also a particularly memorable spectator, enjoying an early morning cup of tea on his door step, resplendent in only in his underpants, a cowboy hat and boots. Even the most thorough risk assessment could not have predicted multiple riders swerving as they desperately attempted to cover their eyes with both hands.
All three of the feed stations were well organised and well stocked. After a chilly early morning start, the offer of a steaming cup of tea at the first one was extremely welcome. There were plenty of sugary snacks and energy products and I heard many a contented mumbling about the macaroni pies (a local delicacy I believe).
There were also plenty of portable toilets dotted along the route. Designated litter drop zones were even in operation, which is one of those great ideas that shouldn't be necessary. There are still far too many riders struggling with the basic concept that having a bike between your legs doesn't give you free rein to fling gel wrappers around the countryside like a spoilt teenager who needs their mummy to put their socks in the wash basket for them.
Opting for the full route gives you the chance to ride Witchyknowe. This timed 'King and Queen of the Mountains' climb presented the day's schadenfreude moment when one fella confidently announced his presence at the start of the climb with a polite if booming request for slower rides to let him pass in pursuit of sure and certain glory. He sailed around the first corner and then juddered to a demise about 50 metres up the road and proceeded to labour his way to the summit a few bike lengths ahead of those of us he had overtaken. Perhaps he didn't read the informative sign at the bottom which told you exactly how long the climb was.
The last section of the course has a nice descent and flatter roads just where you need them. There was a good-sized crowd at the finish, and in fact all along the route there was support from local residents standing outside their houses and waving from windows.
Although Tour O The Borders has big corporate sponsorship, it is organised by cyclists and it shows. They've thought of everything. The seamless organisation, the privilege of riding on closed roads and a route that has challenging features, yet is still accessible to a range of riders, make this a really excellent event.
If you haven't ridden a closed road sportive, put it on your list and make it this one.
The Tour O The Borders returns in September 2018. For more information visit tourotheborders.com.