Off-Road Utopia


Last weekend was one of our several-times-a-year mountain biking trips. The first significant trip of 2007.

The destination for this springtime adventure? South Wales. The purpose-built, manufactured trails of Brechfa and Glyncorrwg, near Port Talbot.

A superb weekend. Largely thanks to the chance to spend time playing with good friends. But a significant part of last weekend’s smiles were due to the frankly wonderful trails we rode. Superb. Distracting, winding climbs followed by flattering playful singletrack. Si and Sam roar on ahead while I endeavour to keep up with Sally as we follow at our own pace. But everyone reaches the bottom with a smile on their face. A huge smile.

Wales and Scotland are now rich with these ‘trail centres’ – off-road networks in rural forests where mountain bikers have right of way and every curve, berm and obstacle has been developed with the goal of pleasing the British mountain biker. A well-stocked bike shop and better-stocked cafe are strategically positioned at each trailhead to capitalise on two of the key spending tendencies of the species Mountanica Bicyclus Britannicus.

It’s a kind of off-road Utopia. But is everything as perfect as it seems?

  • We drove for several hours to reach our destination for the weekend. We could have ridden locally on the South Downs. We tell our friends smugly how we do our bit for the environment by taking to two wheels, then whenever we get the chance we drive (or fly) hundreds (or thousands) of miles to endulge our hobby.
  • These artificial trails may offer superb riding, but sometimes one wonders if they are perhaps a little too perfect. As every corner leads to another stretch of lovely singletrack, gone is the hit-and miss trial-and-error approach of ‘natural’ mountain biking in Britain’s rural areas. Gone are the playful squabbles and guesswork involved in plotting an entertaining route along traditional bridleways and ‘cheeky’ singletrack. Jo Burt has written more about this in Singletrack magazine (I’ll add a link to the exact article if I can find it).
  • When you separate mountain bikers from the rest of the outdoor enthusiasts of the British Isles by giving them their own playgrounds, you wonder if we’re forgetting how to share the open spaces we love. It’s great being able to hare around each corner with no concern for the possibility of the absent-minded dog-walker or red-socked rambler, but in the long term, are we doing ourselves any favours by ghettoising ourselves into designated ear-marked mountain biking zones? If the idea gathers momentum that mountain bikers belong primarily in these trail centres, do we start to forego our acceptance on the regular byways and bridleways of the land?

Don’t misunderstand me; I had a brilliant weekend. But it does make me wonder about the future of British mountain biking if we focus all our passion of these centres.

But they are so much fun! And that is what it’s all about.

Roll on Canada…

Meanwhile, here are my photos from the weekend.

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