Is This Sheffield | Biking In The City of Steel

Over the past few years Sheffield seems to have been getting more than its fair share of attention in the mountain bike sphere. There’s a lot going off at the moment, so there is a lot to report on and we have a very solid base on which to build, so perhaps it’s not really that surprising? The Sheffield scene is riding a wave of its own making. But where did this momentum come from, what’s making it happen now and where’s it all going? Hopefully I’ll be able to answer some of these questions.

I’m born, bred and buttered in Sheffield but my parents are immigrants to the area. They were captivated by the place enough to stay here for 40 odd years and it’s had the same effect on me. I’ve been riding and running mates races in Sheffield for several years now and got involved with the fledgling ‘This Is Sheffield’ last year. We’ve gone from strength to strength ever since and appear to be making an impact. We’ve helped to bring together those that can and do, and tried to promote all the good work. So here’s a snapshot of the past, present and future of the Steel City.

From Dirt Issue 118 – December 2011

Words by Nick Hamilton. Photos by Grant Robinson.

Down south, Sheffield is often perceived as a grotty, polluted, industrial city where the men make steel and the woman are scared. If that’s you, please keep believing it, don’t read on and stay down there. But I’ll share some facts which might dispel the Full Monty myth and help explain the prevalence of bikes round here. Sheffield is the fifth largest city in the UK with a population in excess of half a million people, but is also the greenest city in England. We have more trees per capita than anywhere else, some two million of the air cleaning flora. Like Rome, Sheffield is nestled within seven hills; this topography has been both critical and detrimental to its development and of course provides a perfect playground for mountain bikes. It sprawls through the valleys, which makes it difficult to get a good view of the whole city and equally as difficult to get around. Living here feels like being in a very big village and is often described that way. This is partly due to all the villages it has incorporated as it’s grown.

Seven hills mean we have five rivers and it’s from the river Sheaf that Sheffield takes its name. These rivers were crucial to the burgeoning industries of Sheffield supplying power through waterwheels to thousands of grinding wheels. In combination with the abundance of iron ore and coal the steel industry flourished and gave us a very strong industrial heritage marked particularly by innovations in the steel industry. Steel City! The cutlery industry has always been synonymous and quality tableware should always bear the Sheffield marque. Steel production and other related heavy industries made Sheff a very polluted and filthy place to live, with Sheffield ‘pea soupers’ common. A bit like London on a good day.

These industries and coal mining were major employers in the region but competition from aboard led to a huge economic downturn before the recent rejuvenation. This means that the air is now clean and sweet and that call centres have prospered. We have two large universities with over 50,000 students during term time and the highest retention rate for students staying on in the city after graduating. Something’s got to be keeping them here. Sheffield is also unique in that a third of it lies within the Peak District National Park; no other city has a national park within its borders. This makes Sheffield a very outdoor city and offers a great escape from city life. We have a deep–rooted hill walking, fell running and climbing culture which was well established way before mountain bikes came along. So perhaps it was this engrained spirit of outdoor living that aided our two wheeled advances? Sheffield does have some amazing none–bike facilities, mainly thanks to the 1991 World Student Games which nearly bankrupted the city but left us a sporting legacy. It’s very good at pushing this sporting heritage and stars to the benefit of the city.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the evolution of mountain biking in Sheffield trying to get to the bottom of why and how we’ve got to where we are today. As I’ve already mentioned we have the right geography, but this is true of a lot of other places. Many folk have sighted the influence and inspiration of Sheffield Steel himself, Steve Peat. Being as successful as he has been over such a remarkably long career has encouraged countless riders to get out and ride. But what was it in Sheffield that inspired him to race?

Steve’s own racing career began with a local club BATS, Beighton All Terrain Squad, in around 1992 as they were organising XC races over at Rother Valley, a country park over to the south east of the city. At a similar time XC races were also being put on in Wharncliffe woods by Sportage and later NEMBA were using another part of the woods for DH races. NEMBA also put XC races on over at Wyming Brook to the west of the city and there was also other DH races going on too. In 1995 there was a national downhill race held in Grenoside woods just over the road from Wharncliffe on a long and pedally track running parallel to this year’s Steel City race. Steve was picked up by a shop team, Langsett Cycles, which is still going strong today, with his mate Will Longden. Tim Gould and David Baker were also from the region and were already doing very well in competition. Wharncliffe is famed for its downhill trails, which have been going since the mid 90s, and has gone through constant evolution and fluctuations in popularity. Over the years attempts have been made by Singletraction to legitimise the trails and undertake sanctioned building but unfortunately these efforts are currently in disarray. However, riders and diggers like James Crossland and Craig Evans are hard at it putting in new lines and maintaining old ones. What Peaty rides most though are the miles of technical single track that Greno and Wharny have to offer. He’s originally from Chapeltown, which is to the north and within spitting distance of the woods, and rarely rides anywhere else around the city. This is true of most of the people I spoke to, why would they travel somewhere else to ride when they have quality trails on their doorstep?

On the less official side of racing in the early noughties the legendary Iron Justice races were going down on the same reclaimed landfill as Sheffield Ski Village. Set up by Dan Graham, Iron Justice was a dual race unlike many others. Racing head to head on full–on DH tracks with sketchy jumps and a gap over what can only be described as an open grave, it wasn’t for the faint hearted. With committed volunteers digging and hoards of keen racers Iron Justice was a great success, Tracey Mosley even raced when she was at Sheffield University. The inclusion of the NY Sushi sound system blasting out the bass lines cemented Iron Justice firmly in the Sheffield’s biking history. Rich Baybutt, a very talented ‘Tog from Sheffield, actually had his first ever picture published in Dirt#22 which was taken at one of the Iron Justice races. The moody black and white picture shows his mate, Pete Leyland, looking out over Sheffield clutching his Kona Stab. Ten years later we took the time to recreate the same shot in the same place but this time with Baybutt as the subject. It’s even timelier as Richard has returned to live back in Sheffield after ten years out in the wilderness.

In 2000 Mark ‘Del’ Wilson got involved with the races and talked to Dan about moving them to a different site which would be legitimate and sustainable. The Ski Village tracks were suffering from motocross attention. He secured some land from his mate Farmer Jack, who’s now Peaty’s neighbour and a legend is his own right, with the intention of building a BSX track. With the help of friends and riders, including Phil Saxena who was up at Leeds Uni, they built a buff dual track. The shift away from DH slowly saw a changing of the guard in terms of attendees with a new wave of riders came along. The first race in 2001 was very well attended with 60 riders showing up. Four cross riders like Martin ’Oggy’ Ogden, Lec Park and Duncan Ferris raced over the two seasons it ran. Iron Justice is analogous to what we’re doing with the current batch of mate’s races, reinforcing the fact that we’re not doing anything new.

Also important to Sheffield’s biking history is Bolehills, a BMX track in Crookes to the west of the city, which is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Phil ‘Hudu’ Charnley has spent many happy hours up on’t Hill and has written down the history from his perspective. On the wave of the popularity of BMX in the late 80s Sheffield city council built BMX tracks in parks around Sheffield. They were dreadful but the Bolehill Bandits seized the opportunity and with much graft and many iterations, have transformed the place into the track it is today. The club produced British, European and World Champions under the leadership of Roger Baltimote, then the track floundered during the early 90s. Revitalised by George ‘GSport’ French and the Carve House of Death Crew the Bolehills Dirt Society was born with jumps and transitions all over the track. In the late 90s Hudu took charge of renovations and maintenance rejuvenating the place again. Then Dave, Phil and Steve ‘Bike Track’ Taylor with Paddy Baker came along and ploughed their energies in. Dave’s daughter, Abbie, got silver in this year’s junior World Championships in Copenhagen which isn’t too much of a surprise when you see her clear the back straight with ease. Her younger brother and sister are complete pinners too. Now run by Sheffield Dirt Society, Malco holds the reins with many other committed riders and diggers giving up their time to make the place work and bring hours of pleasure to all that ride there.

Back in 2004 Dave Taylor and Phil ‘Dirt Works’ Charnley set up Wheelbase, an indoor BMX and 4X track out at Ecclesfield to the east of the city. ‘Indoor dream’ was a unique training ground and race venue for Sheffield’s riders built by Dave’s construction company, TGN. During the first winter British Cycling subsidised the rent making the business viable and 50 to 60 riders would turn up on busy nights. It hosted the first round of the NPS each season while the weather was still grim and lasted for three winters before interest waned, costing too much money to keep going.

So that’s a potted history of highlights of Sheffield, which I hope puts the city into context. Next I’d like to deal with what’s going on right now, perhaps some of the things that aren’t quite so obvious from the outside. I mentioned the proximity of the Peak District to the west, from where I live I’m lucky that I can be in the Peak in five minutes, by bike it’s more like 25 but I almost don’t have to touch tyre to road. I should say that I can ride to the city centre in 10 minutes, which should hopefully put it in perspective. I can also ride out up the Rivelin Valley, which is home to many archaeological sites from the industrial past I mentioned. The plethora and scope of riding in the national park is just incredible and worthy of an article all of its own (there has been many). The bridleway network is amazing but sometimes poorly connected, but groups such as Ride the Peak and Ride Sheffield are trying to address that by working with the East Moorland Partnership and are protecting the quality of the trails we already have. My mate Matt Harrington would always joke that there are no corners in the Peak, he’s not far wrong. The bridleways were not made with bikes in mind but the access they give and the surroundings that they are in more than make up for it. From a quick XC blast to day long death marches or secret downhill trails, it’s all on our doorstep.

To the south of Sheffield is an area called Eckington where Darren Wilson and Dom Bent head up the Eckington Trail Collective. They have been negotiating with a land owner for some time and have now managed to come to an arrangement where they can now dig legitimate downhill trails in the woods. They and their team of riders have been busy and have put in a handful of quality runs and formed a club to cover liability. They hold regular races which are amazingly well attended and well organised. It’s this kind of hard work and forward thinking that will keep improving the Sheffield scene.

The dirt jump scene is alive and well with several great spots around the city to choose from. Monkey Bumps has a dedicated team of diggers who’ve sweated and shaped several lines. Ol, Tim, Billsey, Dean and the rest spend far too much time down there is the summer months, but it shows. Up the road at Chain Breaker the glory days are somewhat past but there’s still a small set to get started on. For those that know though, Ed Purshouse has a hidden line of huge overhead lips nestled within the trees. Up north in the woods near a motorway there is also Blair Witch.

There are many skate parks and other BMX tracks littered around the city, from Devonshire Green in the city centre to Cookson Park at Hillsborough. At Cookson there is also one of Sheffield’s two cycle speedway tracks, a niche but old racing format which is about as much fun as you can have on a bike.

Rob Mahwood and the Sheffield Stars Club have been responsible for the rejuvenation of the sport in Sheffield and have the fastest growing club in the country. Rob has been kind enough to let us race on the track several times and the combination of brakeless single speed bikes on a loose surfaced oval track always sends you away smiling and often bleeding.

The bike industry in Sheffield is also very strong with several brands and associated businesses based here. Back in the day Adrian Smith ran Edge Bikes from his house in Crookes. Also in the 90s Dave Loughran founded Planet X and later On–One which are now both housed in a big warehouse in Sheffield. The large volume purchasing, direct sales model and unique marketing angles has seen the company go from strength to strength with turnovers constantly rising. Our own Joe Bowman works for Big Stone who are the agents for several top brands, not least of which is every flat pedal riders favourite, 5:10. The quality of their product keeps Joe very busy up and down the country trying to keep up with customer demand. Just up the road is Shore Lines, run by John Booth who is importing and distributing quality Canadian kit in the form of Chromag, North Shore Billet and Knolly. Also in town is Cy Turner who runs Cotic from his house, has the perfect testing grounds on his doorstep and a warehouse out in the peak. I was surprised that Cy didn’t actually move to Sheffield for business reasons. However it’s worked out very well, he’s been amazed at the strength of the scene he’s found here over the past four years, welcoming as only a northern city can be. Sheffield Hallam University runs Podium Performance in the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science. This is where Peaty now trains with Rob Copeland providing sports psychology support, Dave Hembrough supplying strength and conditioning programs and Rob Scaife taking care of physiology. It is perhaps coincidence that Peaty finally got his rainbow stripes in 2009 a year after he started working with the team…probably not. As with any big city there is a large selection of bikes shops. Shops like Langsett have been around for nearly 100 years, James’ about 50 years and Butterworths about the same. 18 Bikes out at Hope constantly receives best shop awards and shops like the Bike Tree and E.B.C. have more recently sprung up proving the demand is very strong.

This Is Sheffield has got a lot of attention for our videos, photos and races. But we’re not doing anything particularly different to anybody else and we certainly don’t lay claim to the strength of the Sheffield Scene. As I’ve described, there is a very strong foundation for everything that is going on but sometimes is just takes someone to pop their head up and shout about it. The age of the internet and social media has certainly made it much easier to spread the message but it’s the people that actually make things happen. Having Peaty as a figurehead helps to catalyse much of what goes on and he is incredibly generous with his time. Without the riders, there is no scene. So what next, where do we go from here?

It’s a very exciting time in Sheffield at the moment, there are many things in the pipeline which will give us even more places to have fun on our bikes. Henry Norman works for Sustrans and is based in the Sheffield council offices next to the Rights of Way department. He was provoked to set up what has become Ride Sheffield after seeing several of our precious tech bridleways become 2 metre wide smooth soulless motorways, unsatisfactory for any of the user groups. It acts as a voice for mountain bikers and uses the large number of members to lobby the council against proposed changes and to gain better access. It is also working to create mountain bike specific trails, a prime example of which is up at Lady Canning’s Plantation on the edge of the Peak District. Over the next year a flowing XC loop will be put in through clear–cut sections using volunteer man power. Over at Grenoside woods where we ran the Steel City race to help buy back the woods, we are in talks with Roy Mosley about building a new trail specifically for running races on. The public consultation is going well and once the purchase of the wood is finalised it should see improvements to the trail network and better access to all users. More recently we have been working with Jon Dallow, a legend and woodlands officer with the Council, who is heading up a scheme at Parkwood Springs to help rejuvenate the parkland. Many years in the making the process started back in 2003 with a feasibility study. From 2006 Jon was involved in realising the project with much assistance from Dan Cook of the CTC and with the weight of Peaty behind them. Between them they are building a 4km XC skills loop in central Sheffield with European and government funding to open next year. Aligned with this Dan, as a semi pro rider and skills development expert, recognised the potential at the Sheffield Ski Village right next to Parkwood. The Ski Village has a T–Bar uplift and a lot of underused land on a very steep gradient, perfect for downhill trails; city centre uplift? The potential is huge and between us we are working with them to develop the site, assess the feasibility and hopefully open in to the public sometime in the future.

So there you have it, the past, present and future of bikes in Sheffield and I haven’t even mentioned our lycra clad siblings. I can’t claim to know it all but I hope I’ve got most of it and I can only apologise for what I have missed. However, from what’s written here and from talking to a lot of people, we’re the envy of many. As to why Sheffield has become such a great place to ride, the fact is that it always has been and there has always been a committed group of riders out on their bikes. All that seems to have happened is that we’ve got better at telling the story.

Words by Joe Bowman

You ever been to Whistler, BC? It’s a funny old place. If heroin is the best high of them all, then this place is my Class A. The people, the trails, the nightlife and more importantly ‘the scene’, makes this place one of a kind. You literally don’t want to leave…ever. Unfortunately, the Canadian government wanted me to leave, pretty sharpish in fact.

A few months down the line back home, winter blues, man flu and shit weather all collided to form a much needed and well timed kick up the arse. Us Brits love back seat whining, we all know we do it, but doing something about it is a whole ‘other biscuit.

Picking a name was funny, we had ‘HiDefLeppards’, ‘Sean Bean Syndicate’ and a bunch of other miss–matched URL’s but finally ending up on ‘This Is Sheffield’. It was spawned from a joke about that brilliant mid 80’s skinhead classic, This Is England.

I think everyone at some point in their life has had a blog or site. Over the years I’ve had a fair few, from selling tees in the dinner queue to drop shipping adult toys. But This Is Sheffield was basically a place to throw our pictures and edits from days out on the bike.

Blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook and general social media seem to be taking over the world, fuelling the fire that is taking over actual physical conversations. Our edits humbly jumped on this bandwagon and after a random urge to go and film I made a rather pricey online shopping spree. We were really inspired by the current crop of DSLR kids churning out ‘Gibbins Gold’. It was real exciting, with the videos taking off on the web, people from all over were watching these edits and liking them. For a while we were all glued to the analytics, which was basically telling us that people seemed to like the grass roots/fun style that came with the site.

The Phat Wednesday league is a weekly local race in Whistler, where anyone can roll up for $2 and race against their mates on the hill. Free pint and food at the end? Yeah, why not. We knew Nick (Hamilton) from meeting him out there, whilst on an over 30’s coach trip or something. After a quick pint, he was on board and the rest is history. Regular mates races, working with the council, a mini DH race, it’s been a hectic year, all spawned through the will for getting things done.

Most of you reading this are probably thinking, ‘who and what make This Is Sheffield so special?’ Nothing really. In fact, when Dirt got in touch I was bricking it, knowing the responsibility that lied in putting this whole city’s bike scene, past and present, into pictures and words, without blowing our own trumpet. Being young I kind of felt like I was stepping on the old–schools turf in a way, but I’ll let you guys be the judge of that.

From meeting people who have been psyched on what we’ve been doing and putting it into practice in their own area, I’m kinda hoping the ball continues to roll. Inspiring people to get off those bloody forums, grab a stopwatch, a camera or even just their bike and go ride. There are thousands of other riders from each and every city and town, not just Sheffield. You’ll never meet even half of them, but everyone has their own ‘scene’, happily doing their own thing. This is Mountain

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