Image: Lardy MTB
When I first got a mountain bike as an adult I thought the only places to ride were footpaths. This led to a few half decent rides but generally they were pretty dull and often meant just riding through flat fields on my own. I still to this day don’t know why I didn’t just turn to Google but the idea of trail centres and unofficial but purpose built trails were just not on my radar. I simply had no idea what proper trails even looked like, I just wasn’t locked in to the MTB mind-set, I wasn’t watching videos or reading magazines. I owned a bike and I thought you just rode wherever you wanted.
Well… I had a lot of fun coming!
It wasn’t until I went on holiday with some friends to Lake Garda in Italy that I really got my first taste of real mountain biking. One of the friends, Ian Bailey of Rock and Ride Outdoors and the other was someone I had ridden many road rides with when we met up in the West Country. They both had pretty serious bikes and ‘Bailey’ had been riding / competing for many years… so I was pretty out of my depth! To cut a long story short I hired a full sus CUBE and was then dragged up a 3 hour switch back road climb = which nearly killed me. Finally I was sat at the top of a mountain ready to start what was to be an almost life changing descent. The route was unbelievably technical for my low skill level, rock gardens were basically rock fields and the numerous wet and slippery drops added a new level of potential injury.
However, I made it through
…with only a couple of simple tips from Ian:
- Keep your weight back, get your arse almost touching the back wheel
- Try to float; make yourself light and keep up the speed over rocky sections
- Look ahead and don’t focus on your front wheel… just go for it and you WILL make it over stuff
Image: Boarson Bikes
What happened that day, as I said, was pretty life changing. I had found what real mountain biking was and by god did I want some more! The feeling of elation as we had a beer at the bottom was just too good and the fact I didn’t go over the bars at any point certainly helped.
After this big introduction to the sport it actually took some time to get back out there. I couldn’t really justify buying a new bike at this point and I still hadn’t worked out where to ride. The next step for me was heading to Northern Ireland with the same two guys – hitting the trail centre at Castlewellan. This was a big turning point too because I didn’t know there were such things as trail centres. Yes I had ridden proper trails in Italy but I didn’t think we had them over here. I also didn’t think they would be purpose built and not by products of footpaths and years of random riding. I had a blast again and came home knowing I needed to sort a bike and somewhere to ride.
Image: Upper Downs
Finally, the penny dropped and I actually started searching. I realised what a trail was and that there should be some near me… should. I did find a few places to ride but a lot were a good couple of hours away apart from a small bike centre called Deer’s Leap in Sussex. So after getting my shiny new Vitus Sentier VRS I headed over to said centre. It was pretty basic compared to what I had tried before but it was a real place where you were actually meant to ride and it was amazing fun. Sadly though, after 4 or 5 visits I was really starting to hanker after something more full-on, longer downhill sections and some more challenging technical bits. So I got searching again and decided to head to Friston Forest…
…so, here we actually find ourselves at the point of the whole post. I had found somewhere to ride that was supposed to be amazing. However, it was not an official bike park and so the routes were not marked and the map was pretty sketchy. I asked a lot of questions on the Facebook group and just about worked out where to go. There is actually one set route organised by the local authorities and this is where I started. Sadly, it is almost impossible to follow so I ended up a bit lost. This was the best thing that could have happened as it meant I just had to head down the first bits of trail I could find. In doing this I found some of the best riding I had done since Italy. The trails were not all gravel lined and well drained with perfect berms, but they were quite fast and a lot of fun.
The bottom line is that I found a great place to ride but what I was not prepared for was the amount of exploration work that comes with finding these kind of trails. Many of the runs had names but finding them in a huge forest is hard – and riding on your own means you can’t have to work it out yourself. For many people the exploration is probably half the fun but as with many other people (those who have kids, basically) the time I had was limited, so a mistake could mean a wasted ride. Eventually with a few tips and suggestions I really started to find my way around – and now I actually feel like I know the place, at least in parts.
What next? …more trails?
Image: Upper Downs
The next step is to try it all over again with another set of trails like those at Stanmer Park in Brighton. After all those years of literally having nowhere to ride I now find myself gagging to get out to a whole host of spots (currently in the process of booking a trip to Bike Park Wales). I have had a lot of fun and can’t wait to try out more places… though a trail map and some markers would certainly help now and again.