Just getting started in mountain biking, or tempted to give it a go? Once you’ve got the essentials - a bike, helmet and gloves - you’ll need somewhere to ride.
Luckily, there are loads of places across the country that are great for beginners, so not only will you find something to suit your level of riding, there’ll be plenty nearby too.
These are probably the best places to get started; the trails are graded, a bit like ski slopes, so you’ll have some idea of what you are likely to encounter along the way. This is perfect for choosing what route suits your abilities.
Most trail centres will have an actual trail centre building or hub, usually complete with parking, toilet facilities, a bike shop and a café for that all-important post-ride cake. If you don’t have a suitable bike, a lot of these centres will have a rental fleet available, so you can go out for a ride and see if you like it without having to commit to buying a bike.
There are centres up and down the country, and new ones are appearing all the time. A lot are run in conjunction with the Forestry Commission, or the Royal Parks. Some of the best well known include Swinley Forest in the South East, Afan and Coed Y Brenin in Wales, and the 7 Stanes in the Scottish Borders.
The best way to find a trail centre near you is a basic internet search. There are a few websites that will give you an idea of what’s about; Just Go Ride has a good list of UK trail centres, and the website Bike Magic has guides to centres up and down the UK, and further afield.
An increasing number of trail centres will have a little skills area near the car park. There’ll be a number of short graded routes through it, with each route reflecting the terrain and features of the full trail. This is perfect for getting an idea of what you’re likely to encounter on each grade, and also for having a warm-up before setting off.
Green trails are the easiest, and aimed at complete beginners and families, and are a great introduction to what to expect on the trail centre. The trails themselves here will usually be wide (about 1.5 meters), made of packed gravel so they’ll be super-smooth to ride on, usually quite short and with very few if any technical features.
A step up from the green trails, again expect mostly groomed wide gravel trails. These routes will generally be a bit longer, with a few more features like berms (banked corners), small drops, and roll-able bumps.
Longer and much more technical than blue trails, reds will usually have a rougher and more natural surface, with roots, small rocks, and packed earth. Trail features will be a step up again, though usually roll-able. Expect bigger drops, rollers (a sequence of bumps in quick succession) and jumps. Some trail centres will have a way to ride around and avoid obstacles.
This is where things get really hard. The technical obstacles here will start to be things you can’t just roll over, including gap jumps, rock gardens, and tricky combinations of features. The trail is also likely to be much longer, so these trails test your endurance as well as your skill.
These can be a great way to get started if you have any near you. They are usually nice and wide, with a rough but roll-able surface. Do look out for pedestrians or horses, and ride carefully if you encounter them.
Bridleways vary massively across the country; a lot will be fairly smooth and flat, others will be rough, rocky and actually quite technical – the Peak District and Scotland has some good examples of the more difficult end of the spectrum.
There usually won’t be a way-marked route, so you’ll need to find your own way. Luckily, lots of mountain bikers have been plotting their routes for years and sharing them online through various websites and magazines, so you can find one to suit. Make sure you have a GPS, a map, or an amazing sense of direction if you are off for a long ride for the first time.
British Cycling also have selection of routes on their website; we’d quite like to try the ‘Diggle Jiggle’ route in the Pennines sometime, for the name alone!
You might find that your local woodland, if you are lucky enough to have some, has a few trails sneaking through it. These are worth investigating, but treat them with respect. Often built by local trail builders, a lot of time and effort goes into making a trail.
Local councils or landowners can sometimes allow mountain bikers to build trails in areas of their land, so long as they are used carefully. This can be beneficial all round – mountain bikers have somewhere to build and ride, away from areas popular with walkers.
A great example is the 50-Acre Woods area near Bristol, where the trails are constructed and maintained by the Bristol Trails Group. The advantage of riding this kind of trail is that it tends to be less groomed and more natural, so it’s less of a jump going from the super-smoothness of a trail centre green to riding cross country in the great outdoors.
If you like riding these kinds of trails, and want to give something back, you can usually find your local trail group online and volunteer some time to help keep everything in tip-top condition.
Where not to ride
It is illegal to ride on public footpaths, whether that’s the ones by the side of the road or off across country. Don’t do it!
Private land is also big no-no, and no one wants an irate landowner chasing them down. A lot of parks, like Richmond Park in London, will have marked areas where you can and can’t ride, often strictly enforced.
Other options, while not technically illegal are certainly inadvisable. This would include things like riding main walking routes during the summer when they are likely to be very busy with hikers.
So once you’ve found a place to ride, the best advice we can give you is get out there, give it a go, and enjoy!