Over the last 15 years there have been more and more trail centres popping up all over Britain giving mountain bikers access to miles of flowing tracks designed to cater for a wide range of fitness and technical abilities.
Trail centres vary in size from large set-ups like Glentress in Scotland, which comes complete with parking, cafes and bike shops, to just a few miles of trails with a small area to leave your car. They offer enough riding to keep you entertained for a few hours or several days without ever having to stop to look at a map.
And in the same way the A-Z in the glove box has been ditched in favour of the simple instructions of the sat nav, for many trail centres mean that the mountain biker’s OS map has been ditched in favour of the way-marked trail.
The popularity of trail centres means that many people who ride today may never have ridden on an open bridleway or explored what riding outside a centre has to offer.
In order to find out what you might be missing if you limit yourself to one or another I took to North Yorkshire over a weekend to experience both.
The things I do for you lot…
[part title="Day One – The Trail Centre"]
With bike and riding buddies in tow we packed up the cars and headed out to Dalby Forest, a trail centre on Forestry Commission land near the North York Moors. This raises issue number one with a lot of trail centres; you really need a car to access them. Despite them becoming increasingly common across the country, unless you’re lucky enough to live in Wales or parts of Scotland you’ve probably got at least an hour’s drive to one.
I know of some people who grumble about the parking charges at some trail centres but the work to maintain them doesn’t come free so I’ve always been happy to pay.
The trail starts from straight out the car park so once we were there, we were there. Then started 20 miles of full on, up and down, twisty turny, massively fun trails.
One of the big pluses for me at a trail centre is that I know, within reason, that everything is ride-able as it’s been designed that way. This gives me great confidence to try out some of the more tricky sections as I have more faith that it’s going to be possible compared to obstacles on a natural trail. The trails had such a great flow it made me feel like a riding goddess – a big plus on the fun side but it probably made me a bit lazy with my skills.
I rode harder than I would do normally. This was partly because the trails were so much fun and flowed so well, but also partly because I felt I was on a bit of a conveyor belt, going one way round the track, without as much time to stop and take in the view.
Amazingly given the amount of rain we’ve been having, the trails were in fantastic condition with just a few puddles on them. Well-constructed and quick-draining trails are definitely pluses of a good trail centre and there were a number of sections which were being worked on by the maintenance teams to keep the track in good nick.
Because the trail is only marked in one direction it can be difficult if you want to break out of it and ride a section again. This was a bit disappointing when I wanted to have another go at a particularly fun or tricky section. Rather oddly, despite being in the great outdoors, this also made me feel a bit claustrophobic as I felt a bit confined in the trails.
Within a few hours I’d done the full loop and although it was fun to do bits again after a warm-up and some food in the café, none of it was quite as much fun as the first time round. I left grinning from a great few hours riding but wishing I’d had a bit more.
[part title="Day Two – The Open Bridleway"]
I probably should have made this confession earlier on; I am a fan of the good old OS maps. So although I’ve not really ridden that much around Sutton Bank on the edge of the North York Moors I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the places I could explore.
This is possibly the first problem with riding the open bridleway. Whereas at a trail centre you know it will be ride-able, the conditions of the natural trails don’t show on a map. Local knowledge and route guides really come into their on here, giving you somewhere to start, or helping you find a route that suits your abilities.
The other option is one of those new-fangled GPS things if you know someone who has a route they’ve done. It’s perhaps not the purist’s approach, but it’s easier to manage in the wind and rain than a big sheet of paper.
We spent a bit of time poring over a map – also a fine excuse for drinking coffee – and using what we knew about a couple of bridleways we worked out a loop that would take us a few hours and that started and stopped where there was a café and some loos. No ride should be without tea and a pee.
Compared to the day before, the trails were much harder going as the natural courses across fields weren’t hard-packed and well-draining like those at the trail centre are. There was certainly a lot of mud around.
But unlike the trail centre I felt like I was exploring, going places on a map that I’d never been before. I also felt I got the chance to take it all in – to stop and wonder at the amazing views, to say hello to other riders and walkers, and feel more ‘outdoors’ than I’d done the day before. We altered our route as we went round adapting to what we fancied riding, rather than just following what was there in front of us. We ended up riding longer if not as hard as the day before.
There are down-sides to riding like this – linking bridleways on stretches of road isn’t the worse thing ever but it’s not the most fun either. The winter rain meant that we had to push up a boggy track or two when the mud got the better of us.
Bridleways haven’t been designed for maximum fun so they don’t always offer the same flow as those at a trail centre – personally I like this, it makes me feel like I’ve earned the good bits and they’re even more fun for it.
[part title="The Verdict"]
Until the last couple of months with this article in mind I hadn’t ridden at a trail centre for a long time, favouring heading out straight from my door – I’ve now realised that I’ve been missing out on some great riding and brilliant fun.
And those of you who haven’t been exploring what natural trails have to offer, you’ve been missing out too.
My advice? Mix it up!
Get a map, get a trail guide, and get exploring.