trail centres uk mtb-5
trail centres uk mtb-5

The ‘trail centre’ is a UK phenomenon. Loved by many, loathed by some, we take a look back over their short +10 year history to see where we are, where we’ve been and where we are going...

From Dirt Issue 137 - July 2013

Words by Tim Wild. Photos by Steve Jones.

My first trail centre experience was on the Red Bull trail in 1998. It was so good to see the investment that had been made, not just money, but people’s time and effort. The surfaced tracks made it a much faster ride with way more flow than the hit and miss trails of Hampshire I was used to. Things grew from there, one man’s vision led to expansion at Coed–y–Brenin and then throughout Wales. Scotland got in on the act and what started as one short trail (by today’s standards) had quickly become an industry. Afan and Coed–y–Brenin were thought to be world leaders with their characteristic slivers of singletrack that blended into their surroundings. The Seven Stanes (7stanes) up in Scotland felt a bit more progressive with a few more jumps and berms appearing, in contrast to the featureless, but flowing trails of Wales. Ten years ago there wasn’t much debate about whether to spend the weekend at a trail centre or not, the question was: which one?

You see, trail centres bought accessibility and convenience to mountain biking. A fuss free weekend riding in South Wales would have been unlikely if you didn’t have a local mate. Now it was easy; you could pick a location, find a bunkhouse or campsite and turn up knowing you’d have some good riding that wouldn’t be blown–out, muddy or knocked down by ‘The Man’. These centres were more than trails; bike washes, showers and cafés all made life easier. A level of comfort came from the ‘Trail Centre’ brand, much like shopping in a Tesco’s in a different city…you knew what to expect.>>

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trail centres uk mtb-8
trail centres uk mtb-8

These days the UK is well served with trail centres, just check out the map on Bike Magic’s website. Some are best described as regional centres with one or two trails, a few are still big hitters with several trails and seem to serve as ‘national’ centres and a base for a weekend away.

While these centres are still used and popular 10 years on (although not as heavily?) they just don’t seem to occupy the same lofty position on the MTB scene. Trail Centres have always been a contentious issue, and in some circles your social standing would be higher if you admitted to liking the TV show Big Brother than riding Afan.

Their detractors have always, and will continue to, use words like sanitised, busy and easy, but even if you move beyond the haters trail centres don’t seem to be as relevant as they used to. That ride at Glentress in 2012 just doesn’t feel the same as it did in 2004.

So, what happened? Has the riding scene changed or are the trails out–dated?

THE MEDIA

trail centres uk mtb-3
trail centres uk mtb-3

Articles describing how to ride at trail centres are all well and good, but surely looking for a harder line is relevant to riding your local woods if that’s your thing? Aren’t these techniques just mountain biking skills?! Do you dress differently at a trail centre to your local woods?

THE INTERNET

The internet has got a lot to answer for. Why would you ride a muddy hard pack trail when a brand new video edit rubs beautifully lit, loamy turns in your face every morning? Don’t know where to ride this weekend? Check out an online database. Still not enough detail? Look at Strava. Nothing is secret anymore; your local track becomes open game the second someone inadvertently uploads it.

THE ALPS

The popularity of the Alps has grown since the advent of the trail centre. OK, the trails might not blend into the surroundings beautifully, and they might not handle the volume or weather so well, but boy, have they opened up a lot of people’s eyes to flat–out trails and given people the confidence to progress their skills or build harder trails back home.

BIKES

Yes, bikes have got better, but I’m not touching this one. If you usually ride a 160mm trail bike or hardtail around your local trails, you will still find the trails smoother, faster, blander or busier at a trail centre.

LEVEL OF RIDING

trail centres uk mtb-7
trail centres uk mtb-7

While you can easily chart the progress of mountain biking over the last 10 years; the progress of trail centres is mixed. Holes, puddles, worn lips, mud, diversions and an over–familiar feel will probably feature and detract from a visit to a trail centre today. Yes is it mountain biking, we can handle some bumps and water, but this isn’t how it was intended to be. The carefully constructed trails with their grade reversals, rollers, corners and jumps should flow, and this flow is interrupted. If a track does have a fastest possible time or a top speed it can hold, it has probably taken a knock in the last couple of years.

Maintenance aside, the earlier generations of trails do feel dated; a spin around the classic Wall trail at Afan makes you realise how featureless some sections are. Sure, you get into the groove of small rises and changes in direction, but there are very few significant manoeuvres which require breaking, line choice or weight shift. A corner is a welcome sight, but so often a pancake flat hairpin with no immediate height loss on the exit will interrupt the all–important flow. Perhaps this is by design, intended to curb the speed of novice riders. That makes sense, but I’m not convinced it’s the case when the following section is a straight–line blast that will test the nerve of any expert.

All of the main players have had to change and evolve; berms and jumps are starting to find their way into the likes of The Wall and MBR trails. These welcome features will help spice–up what is likely to become a repetitive route.

Not all of the newer generation building is right for you and I. All trails have to be built with a speed in mind, so when trails and features are built with large rocks that won’t erode you may find you can’t quite engage your ‘Chris Kovarik’ mode; when you really push it things don’t link up and the fun is lost. Beware short landings, too, ‘False Teeth’ at Coed–y–Brenin lulls you into a false sense of security with small flat–out drops with little consequence, but then the big drop appears and it is very easy to overshoot and land flat or into an upslope.

What’s the future? It would be unrealistic of me to call for rebuilding or investment, and we should accept that, for whatever reason, gravity riders might not be on the agenda of those that commission new builds. However, some thought needs to given to a rider’s skills journey; if people are being brought up through the trail centre ranks, what will prepare the new generation for the off–piste trails, an experience trail centres can’t replicate?

Personally, I like trail centres, I don’t visit them to hone my skills, but I go to have fun with friends and enjoy the benefits they bring. I guess that’s what makes the negatives more frustrating. Our trails were considered cutting edge and world leading, but it’s hard to see these same trails challenging or inspiring expert riders like they did 10 years ago. Riding a trail centre is mountain biking, but it would be nice if the basics were right and the hard work of the trail builder isn’t overshadowed by a lack of maintenance, drainage or a poor supporting infrastructure.

The bottom line is this: work is happening to bring the trails up to date, and these trails deserve to be ridden. If, as gravity riders, we stay away from trail centres we will never figure in future plans. Get out there, ride these trails and get involved in maintenance days and help shape are more interesting trail centre landscape.