Is the UK the Best Place in the World for Mountain Biking?
Ali Todd discusses whether the U.K is the best place in the world for mountain biking...
Words by Ali Todd photos by Andy Lloyd
As I settle down to write some more contentious material (or at least try) from my desk, all I can see outside is snow. White, cold stuff, about four inches deep, covering everything but the tarmac (only because Big Jim came down with his plough this morning). It’s pretty, but riding in it loses its novelty after an hour or two. Even with spiked mud tyres (Specialized Storms, before you ask) the corners get somewhat lairy, and my mind floats to a different place. A warmer place. A place with dusty trails, a sunny horizon, winding trails through amazing landscape.
It seems a bit too good to be true, looking out of the window. But where, exactly? It’s not quite clear. It’s a bit like Spain, I suppose… Malaga? Maybe New Zealand… I’ll have a think. Back in ten minutes. Where exactly is that riding heaven, the best place in the world for mountain biking?
So I’ve been for a spin on the bike, just down to the river and back – usually a good plan when you’ve got a blocked mind. It all came clear as I two-wheel-drifted round a corner with a scared expression on my face – it’s not New Zealand, and it’s not Spain. Much closer. It’s the UK. Give it three or four months, and my riding heaven will be back in view, and I’ll be out there every day.
Is Britain THE perfect riding spot then?
Argument #1: Of course it is.
Huge amounts of trails
We may not have the big, mountainous landscapes of France and Italy, but we’ve made up for it with covering what we do have with trails. Centres are everywhere, and seem to be growing exponentially. I know we’re spoilt here in south Wales, but it’s the same story the whole country over. And even if it isn’t, secret tracks live in abundance…
So it might not all look like Whistler or Morzine, but the UK hills are more than enough. They’re not all so big that you have to spend the whole day climbing so you end up doing the fun bit in the dark. The soil varies almost by postcode, so there’s a great mix of clay-based trails, rocky challenges, conifer woods… A bit of everything, really.
We hate it. We moan when it’s hot, we moan when it’s cold, we moan when it rains, and we moan when it snows. In reality, though, the climate over here isn’t at all bad for riding bikes. We don’t have many extremes – it fluctuates around the comfortable temperature mark with a bit of a watering for the trails occasionally, just to keep them healthy. Compare this to Canada, which is snowed under for entire months of the year, and we get a lot more riding time.
And leading on from that, the mud!
I often wonder why there are so many Brits dominating the mountain bike race scene. One answer comes to mind though – we have mud. Nothing teaches you to ride better than going into steep, rooty sections when you have to get loose to get through alive. A good set of mud tyres and a decent jacket and you’re off. Bike control is learned in abundance. Compare this to the guys from Austrailia, California, Spain… And when they meet Champery’s famously steep track when it’s been bucketing with rain, The Fear appears. Embrace the mud, and the UK quickly becomes an amazing location.
Argument #2: But is it?
The weather, part II
I can’t deny that my enthusiasm to ride can go down when it’s soaking outside. Add a bit of cold and a bit of wind, and only getting a new bike will force me out of the door. It’s hard, and sometimes I look at the calendar and consider a trip to New Zealand in November.
It’s not the Alps
The standard pilgrimage of UK riders in the summer months, the Alps have it all. Huge, brake-melting descents, amazing climbs… Chairlifts, entire mountain bike resorts… And neither is the UK any sort of Whistler. No bike-parks the size of a city, no chairlifts (apart from Fort William). There is some mind-blowing riding to be had abroad, and it just isn’t available here.
The mud, part II
So it makes you a better rider. But it also gets everywhere – in your clothes, your eyes, your shoes, the little spaces in your bike… and into your suspension. The seals aren’t perfect, and a lot of suspension is produced in places that see far less rain than we do, meaning their seals only have to stand up to a bit of dust. And then it’s a very expensive servicing session. Full-on UK slop grinds paint off, wears stanchions, and even the rider. I find that the soft sandstone that covers 99% of surfaced trail-centre trails gets in my eyes unless I wear glasses, and refuses to come out for at least two days… Not so good.
Perhaps I should move to the south of Spain after all?
Here’s where I nail my colours to the mast of the Friday Debate ship, and say I reckon we’ve got all we can use, and more, right on our doorsteps. I’m not saying I won’t spend some money kitting a van out and wandering onto the continent for some summer sun and some amazing riding this summer, but I know that I shouldn’t need to. The Alps have some killer descents, but the best places (like Morgins, on the French-Swiss border) are only open for three months a year. Whistler, described by our very own Steve Jones as “a bit soul-less and plastic" has some incredible riding out of the bike-park, but how much does it cost to go and ride there?! I’d buy a bike with that kind of money!
If I’m really honest, I know I’ll always come back to the secret trails around here (Monmouthshire) with their loose corners and natural sections and breathe a sigh of happiness. It’s two minutes from the door, and I kick myself every time I miss an opportunity to ride it. The UK? We don’t know how good we’ve got it.