The Chairman of Surrey County Council recently cut the red ribbon to officially open Leith Hill’s new mountain bike trail. Here, Adele Mitchell charts how mountain biking crossed over to the mainstream in one of the South’s most popular cycling destinations.
The photo above shows the Chairman of Surrey County Council, David Munro, astride a mountain bike (I think we can safely assume it isn’t his) at the official opening of Leith Hill’s Summer Lightning Mountain Bike Trail. For the record I believe Mr Munro resisted the temptation to become the first person ever to shred some gnarl whilst wearing a chain of office and shiny shoes.
The new trail is the result of a partnership between landowners, local businesses and volunteers and is the first phase of a planned network in the area. It is undoubtedly a good news story for the local environment, community and riders: remarkable not just because it is a purpose built thrill-a-moment to ride, but also because it is a trail that, just a few years ago, we would never have imagined being sanctioned.
Twenty years ago mountain biking in the Surrey Hills was for the mavericks. The now 50-year old local riders who originally rode here (on bikes with no suspension and rim brakes) – riders of few words and jaw-dropping ability – are mentioned in reverence over pints in the local pub. Being singled out for praise by one of them after conquering a local climb (“It’s not easy, that one”) still rates as one of my proudest cycling moments. Meanwhile, the first night riders provoked local gossip about strange goings on in the woods, and women riders had to use men’s kit because there was nothing else available. This was frontier territory (albeit in leafy Surrey).
None of the trails were ‘official’ because ‘official’ simply did not exist. There were instead acres of open access bridleways, fire roads, swoopy, rooty singletrack forged by wildlife and trails that mysteriously appeared over night (and were closed down just as quickly) – and they were on our doorstep.
To find your way around you needed to either know the hills like the back of your hand, or ask around until you found someone who did. And as for an uplift service – well, that’s what your legs are for.
With such varied and challenging riding within thirty miles of London, word was bound to spread – and the area rapidly became a ride destination. Now, at weekends, the car parks are rammed with bike-racked 4x4s. A mountain bike shop opened a few years ago, staffed by an affable bunch of guys who look like extras from a surfing movie and call everyone bro’. The village stores – a business that is only viable because of the patronage of visiting cyclists – probably holds the world record for sales of cheese straws (the Surrey Hills cyclist’s snack of choice). Trails (still unofficial, btw) have names – Barry Knows Best, Cliff Richard, Deliverance, Supernova – and, with the advent of Strava, everyone now knows how to find them.
But with this surge in popularity came inevitable tensions. For every local who views the influx of riders at the weekend as an injection of energy and support for the local economy, there are plenty who see mountain bikers as an invading horde of feckless good-for-nothings intent only on churning up the ground, peeing behind the bus stop and frightening the horses.
It is also an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – a nationally protected landscape having equal status and protection to a National Park. So no, you can’t just dig your own jump park.
And to make matters more complicated, there are numerous interested parties and landowners involved in managing land that the trails traverse. No wonder then that the ‘Mountain Bike Question’ – how to manage the conflict between cyclists and other users and protect the environment – looked set to grumble on, unresolved.
Then, out of the blue last year, I spotted Richard Kelly of mountain bike consultancy B1KE directing a digger up the side of Leith Hill. “We’re building a new trail” he explained, “and yes, it’s 100% official”.
To cut a long story short (which involved the National Trust, The Forestry Commission, Surrey CC, wildlife experts, local landowners, cyclists and a lot of meetings), Summer Lightning got the green light (and funding) in order to help manage the impact of mountain biking in the area, protect wildlife and ensure that everyone who visits Leith Hill can use it without conflict.
Richard and his team spent much of last winter digging swoopy lines, berms, table-tops and drops and since the trail opened unofficially earlier in the year it has proved to be a fast, flowing and fun ride, whatever your ability.
“Getting the trail built is just part of the solution” Richard explained. “We’re really looking forward to working with the landowners, the Surrey Hills AONB and the mountain bike community to continue to develop the relationships that have led to this trail being built.”
This work will involve developing a Trail Care Crew, fundraising to cover the costs associated with the trail and further digging to develop the local trail network (fingers crossed and funds permitting, its going to get bigger!).
Summer Lightning is a huge step forward in securing the future of mountain biking in the area. If you want to have even more fun in the Surrey Hills – and make sure future generations can too – then you are urged to volunteer for maintenance days and, crucially, make donations.
“Mountain biking is here to stay” said Neil Maltby, Chairman of the Mountain Bike Working Group and the Surrey Hills Trust Fund. “We do however need cyclists to support the trail through volunteering and donations in order to effectively maintain the trail and extend the network to benefit other areas in the Surrey Hills.”
And with that, they cut the red ribbon and declared the trail officially open.
For more information on how you can support the Summer Lightning Trail and mountain biking in the Surrey Hills visit the website.
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