You’ve just bought your brand new mountain bike and are desperate to test your skills and fitness on the dirt. Forget tame bridleways, head for a purpose built trail centre for the best in mountain biking thrills and spills.
Exploring remote bridleways, byways and forest tracks and discovering hidden gem stretches of single-track is one of the great joys of mountain biking. There’s something incredibly satisfying about piecing together an off-road route over new terrain and then successfully navigating it.
However, you’ll usually have to include dull tarmac slogs to link up off-road sections and you’ll often be sharing the trails with walkers and horse riders who can appear around a blind bend, leading to shocks and palpitations all round. With unannounced and unsigned trail upgrades and downgrades, even with a map in hand, you’re often unsure whether a section of trail is bike legal.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
The Great British weather often turns natural trails into unrideable quagmires and even though we all enjoy a bit of mud plugging, sometimes you just want to ride fast and dry. Finally, especially if you’re riding unfamiliar trails, you’re never sure if there will be a rock or root around the next corner, that’ll throw you off or rip off your rear mech. So for hassle free riding, you can’t beat a dedicated trail centre.
Not so long ago they barely existed with trails secretly constructed by hardcore enthusiasts. Now the Forestry Commission, as well as a few private landowners, have embraced mountain biking and built a network of quality marked trails.
The trails are graded in a manner similar to ski runs, so you know exactly what you’ll be letting yourself in for. Way-marking means you don’t need to worry about navigation and can concentrate 100% on your riding.
Single-track sections are usually one-way and bike only, so you can fully commit without the worry of encountering someone coming in the opposite direction or being garroted by a dog lead. Trails are built to be fast draining and although they might be more slippery in the wet, you can almost guarantee no slogging through deep mud. You’ll find plenty of tricky obstacles and technical challenges but because the trails are built for biking, if you’ve got the skills, you’ll be able to ride them.
A Day in the Lakes
Whinlatter Forest Park is probably England’s only true Mountain Forest. Rising to 790 metres above sea level, it offers spectacular views of the Lake District and into Scotland. It has two purpose built mountain biking trails, the ‘blue’ grade 7.5km Quercus Trail and the ‘red’ grade 19km Altura Trail. I went with three of my biking biking buddies, Jim, Rory and Steve.
Boys and their Toys
Name: Jim Harbord
Years mountain biking: Occasionally over about 10 years
Make and model of bike: Specialized Rockhopper Expert (2009)
Why you chose/like your bike? I wanted to get a new bike and start to ride more regularly.Lots of people recommended the Rockhopper as it has a bombproof frame. I like it because it’s light and comfortable to ride.
Thoughts on the day: I thought the day at Whinlatter was excellent. I’d only been to one other trail centre (Llandegla) and found the trails at Whinlatter to be more technical and involving with a good range of sizes of jumps and berms. However, as a less experienced rider none of it was offputting.The climbs were quite varied and manageable and I liked that there were some additional technical sections on the blue route for the more experienced. I was surprised that there weren’t more riders on the trails, especially with the perfect weather.The cafe, shop and facilities were great and there was ample parking. In high season I would imagine parking could be tight with Go Ape at the same location.
Name: Steve Hodges
Years mountain biking: 18
Make and model of bike: Trek Fuel EX-9 2007 Why you chose/like your bike? Great versatility. Adjustable,light and efficient enough for racing, but stick on big tyres and open up the suspension and it’s more than burly enough for my needs and great for throwing around a trail centre or down a rocky peak or Lakes’ bridleway.
Thoughts on the day: Well designed trails, some of the best I’ve ridden. Good flow yet varying styles on different sections, which keeps it interesting. Also interesting climbing, few long fire-road sections, which can be a drag at other centres. Very pleasant centre location, tastefully blended into the forest and an excellent cafe.
Some stunning views from out on the trail. In general, I really like trail centres as a change to the natural riding I do in the Peak District. They are very different and I wouldn’t want them to try and replicate natural trails. It’s good to know that there will be a generally consistent trail ahead of you when riding it for the first time. Plus you get berms, which are great fun and manageable jumps/ drops that you know will have an even landing.
Name: Rory O’Curry
Years mountain biking: 17
Make and model of bike: 2007 Cannondale F4 Frame with a lefty fork. Why you chose/like your bike? I bought the frame and fork from a friend because I needed to go back to a Hardtail after a few years of riding a big travel, full suspension bike. I like it because it climbs very well and is easy to fling around on the fast twisty trails.
Thoughts on the day: I really enjoyed the day at Whinlatter. The centre offers a good mix of entertaining and technical crosscountry trails. The blue route was superfast for the experienced rider, yet entertaining and gentle enough to introduce a beginner to mountain biking.
The red routes were challenging and well thought out. Highlights were the descents at the very top of both red loops. I even enjoyed the climbing during the day, which is a first for me! We had the advantage of the trails not being as busy as some of the other trail centres in the UK, but that probably won’t last for long. I’ll definitely go back though!
Name: Nik Cook
Years mountain biking: 10
Make and model of bike: 2008 Gary Fisher Carbon Hi-Fit Pro. Why you chose/like your bike? It took me a long time to convert to full suspension as I refused to compromise on weight or climbing performance. The HiFi completely converted me though and it climbs and is as responsive as any Hardtail I’ve owned. Flick open the rear shock though and it descends like an all-mountain bike.
Thoughts on the day: A stunning location with quality and varied trails. For me, the final descent of the North Loop of Altura trail and our second all-out blast round Quercus were the highlights. The trails might be short but you can still have an epic day out that’ll leave you exhausted and exhilarated.
On the trail
Our plan was to ride the Quercus Trail to get ‘dialed in’ and warmed up before tackling the more demanding red route. A good blue trail should be ridable by novice mountain bikers but, if you try to ride it at speed, provide fun and challenges for the more experienced rider. Quercus ticked all the boxes.
Swooping single-track through the trees, interesting climbs with tricky switchbacks, a few small berms (raised area) on the downhill sections, some bumps and jumps and even a cracking little boardwalk section. On one of the uphill sections there were even some trickier optional routes that were a genuine challenge to ride clean.
We all finished the trail with massive grins on our faces and agreed that the trail builders had managed to pack a lot of quality into such a short route. After a quick coffee in the excellent Siskins cafe we headed out onto the Altura Trail. Split into two loops, we opted to ride the 9km South Loop before lunch. Straight away we all noticed an increase in difficulty.
More roots and rocks littered the trail and some sharp little drop-offs kept us focused. Soon the trail kicked up through a relentless series of switchbacks and we were grinding uphill for what felt like an eternity. However, the technical nature of the climbing, the testing but achievable gradient and the satisfaction of nailing each switchback without dabbing a foot detracted from our burning quads.
Even Rory, a committed downhiller who normally loathes climbing, grudgingly admitted to enjoying it. Unlike Quercus, which mainly stuck to the forest and the valley floor, we were now high on the valley’s flanks and after a final steep upwards kick on bare rock, we crested the climb and a spectacular Lakeland panorama unfolded in front of us.
After catching our breath and taking in the view we eyed up the descent. Opening up with some steep rock steps, it soon had our backsides hovering over our rear wheels, but then leveled off and dished up a series of adrenaline pumping bumps and berms.
“The great thing about long climbs at trail centres is that you know you’ll be rewarded by a fantastic descent”
Some of the narrower sections gave a real heart fluttering sense of exposure and it would definitely be long way down if you overshot a bend! The descent went on and on and was more than reward for the climbing and as we rolled back to the centre, the first half of Altura got a big thumbs up from all. Lunch didn’t disappoint either, although we wondered if Steve might regret his choice of a Cumberland sausage sandwich!
Onto the North Loop and after a brief section of downhill forest single-track, more climbing tested how well we’d digested our lunch, or not in Steve’s case. Goat track and narrow with a significant drop on one side, again the climbing was interesting and enjoyable. Unfortunately the climbing then continued on a sustained stretch of forest track.
This was the only one of the day though and considering many trail centres have the bulk of their climbing on tracks, the Whinlatter trail builders have done a fantastic job of keeping it to absolute minimum. A sharp left switchback took us back into the trees and a great rolling but steadily climbing section of single-track.
The great thing about long climbs at trail centres is that you know you’ll be rewarded by a fantastic descent and the rise in lactic acid is always accompanied by a rise in anticipation. Again Altura came up with the goods and the wooded descent threw everything at us – vicious roots crossing the trail that’d be extremely tricky in the wet, drop-offs and even a sneaky steep climb that saw us scrabbling down our gears.
Popping out of the trees we all took a moment to catch our breath and for Rory to fix his chain. A couple of hundred metres up another forest track and we were at the top of the final descent. We’d seen the trail from across the valley in the morning and the sinuous series of switchbacks down the open valley side looked awesome.
Dropping in, acceleration was rapid and with big berms on the switchbacks, a quick dab of the brakes on entry was all that was needed to get round. The descent just got quicker and quicker and it was a real adrenaline rush. A few bumps and jumps provided some fun airtime, but could easily be ridden flat by less experienced riders.
With hearts thumping and a squeal of brakes we reached the valley floor and Jim, who’d never ridden berms before, had a grin like a kid who’s just got the best Christmas present ever. With time to spare, we decided on a final blast round the Quercus Trail and with our focus sharpened by the harder trails, we were able to really attack it.
We pushed ourselves and our bikes to their limits and left everything on the trail. Only after an energy boosting coffee and slice of cake could we tackle the drive home. It’d been a great day and we all agreed that we’d make a return visit and maybe combine it with the nearby Grizedale Trail Centre.
Green: ‘Family trails’ on broad forest tracks without any significant climbs, descents or technical features. Rideable on most bikes, including those without suspension or off-road tyres. Also suitable for child trailers and tag-alongs.
Blue: Suitable for novice mountain bikers, riding genuine off-road bikes. Expect some sections of narrow singletrack, more testing climbs and some more technical features on descents.
Red: Suitable for proficient mountain bikers with good off-road riding skills and fitness. There will be challenging climbs, tricky descents and technical features such as drop-off, large roots and rocks.
Black: Suitable for expert mountain bikers with a high level of fitness and quality off-road bikes. Expect large unavoidable technical features such as fast berms, jumps, rock gardens and skinny board sections.