Friday debate: Is the UK the best place in the world for mountain biking?

Q: IS THE UK THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD FOR MOUNTAIN BIKING?

Words: Ali Todd
Photo: Andy Lloyd

As I settle down to write some more contentious material (or at least try) from my desk in Bike Magic Towers, all I can see outside is snow. White, cold stuff, about four inches deep, covering everything but the tarmac (only because Big Jim came down with his plough this morning). It’s pretty, but riding in it loses its novelty after an hour or two. Even with spiked mud tyres (Specialized Storms, before you ask) the corners get somewhat lairy, and my mind floats to a different place. A warmer place. A place with dusty trails, a sunny horizon, winding trails through amazing landscape.

OK, it can rain a lot in Britain, but at least the trails aren't under snow for entire months. And isn't it great that you could ride a trail centre one day and something like this (in the north of Scotland) the next.Photo by Andy Lloyd, featured rider Andy McKenna.
OK, it can rain a lot in Britain, but at least the trails aren’t under snow for entire months at a time. And isn’t it great that you could ride a trail centre one day and something like this (in the north of Scotland) the next. But hang on, I could be riding in perma-sun on great trails elsewhere instead. Which is best?
Photo by Andy Lloyd, featured rider Andy McKenna.

It seems a bit too good to be true, looking out of the window. But where, exactly? It’s not quite clear. It’s a bit like Spain, I suppose… Malaga? Maybe New Zealand… I’ll have a think. Back in ten minutes. Where exactly is that riding heaven?

So I’ve been for a spin on the bike, just down to the river and back – usually a good plan when you’ve got a blocked mind. It all came clear as I two-wheel-drifted round a corner with a scared expression on my face – it’s not New Zealand, and it’s not Spain. Much closer. It’s the UK. Give it three or four months, and my riding heaven will be back in view, and I’ll be out there every day.

Is Britain THE perfect riding spot then?

Argument #1: Of course it is.

Huge amounts of trails

We may not have the big, mountainous landscapes of France and Italy, but we’ve made up for it with covering what we do have with trails. Centres are everywhere, and seem to be growing exponentially. I know we’re spoilt here in south Wales, but it’s the same story the whole country over. And even if it isn’t, secret tracks live in abundance…

Amazing terrain

So it might not all look like Whistler or Morzine, but the UK hills are more than enough. They’re not all so big that you have to spend the whole day climbing so you end up doing the fun bit in the dark. The soil varies almost by postcode, so there’s a great mix of clay-based trails, rocky challenges, conifer woods… A bit of everything, really.

Weather

We hate it. We moan when it’s hot, we moan when it’s cold, we moan when it rains, and we moan when it snows. In reality, though, the climate over here isn’t at all bad for riding bikes. We don’t have many extremes – it fluctuates around the comfortable temperature mark with a bit of a watering for the trails occasionally, just to keep them healthy. Compare this to Canada, which is snowed under for entire months of the year, and we get a lot more riding time.

And leading on from that, the mud!

I often wonder why there are so many Brits dominating the mountain bike race scene. One answer comes to mind though – we have mud. Nothing teaches you to ride better than going into steep, rooty sections when you have to get loose to get through alive. A good set of mud tyres and a decent jacket and you’re off. Bike control is learned in abundance. Compare this to the guys from Austrailia, California, Spain… And when they meet Champery’s famously steep track when it’s been bucketing with rain, The Fear appears. Embrace the mud, and the UK quickly becomes an amazing location.

Argument #2: But is it?

The weather, part II

I can’t deny that my enthusiasm to ride can go down when it’s soaking outside. Add a bit of cold and a bit of wind, and only getting a new bike will force me out of the door [Bike Magic note: is he showing off about how many new bikes he gets?]. It’s hard, and sometimes I look at the calendar and consider a trip to New Zealand in November.

It’s not the Alps

The standard pilgrimage of UK riders in the summer months, the Alps have it all. Huge, brake-melting descents, amazing climbs… Chairlifts, entire mountain bike resorts… And neither is the UK any sort of Whistler. No bike-parks the size of a city, no chairlifts (apart from Fort William). There is some mind-blowing riding to be had abroad, and it just isn’t available here.

The mud, part II

So it makes you a better rider. But it also gets everywhere – in your clothes, your eyes, your shoes, the little spaces in your bike… and into your suspension. The seals aren’t perfect, and a lot of suspension is produced in places that see far less rain than we do, meaning their seals only have to stand up to a bit of dust. And then it’s a very expensive servicing session. Full-on UK slop grinds paint off, wears stanchions, and even the rider. I find that the soft sandstone that covers 99% of surfaced trail-centre trails gets in my eyes unless I wear glasses, and refuses to come out for at least two days… Not so good.

Perhaps I should move to the south of Spain after all?

My conclusion

Here’s where I nail my colours to the mast of the Friday Debate ship, and say I reckon we’ve got all we can use, and more, right on our doorsteps. I’m not saying I won’t spend some money kitting a van out and wandering onto the continent for some summer sun and some amazing riding this summer, but I know that I shouldn’t need to. The Alps have some killer descents, but the best places (like Morgins, on the French-Swiss border) are only open for three months a year. Whistler, described by Dirt Magazine’s bike tester Steve Jones as “a bit soul-less and plastic” has some incredible riding out of the bike-park, but how much does it cost to go and ride there?! I’d buy a bike with that kind of money!

If I’m really honest, I know I’ll always come back to the secret trails around here (Monmouthshire) with their loose corners and natural sections and breathe a sigh of happiness. It’s two minutes from the door, and I kick myself every time I miss an opportunity to ride it. The UK? We don’t know how good we’ve got it.*

*Or do we? Let me know what you think in the comments box below – is the UK the best place in the world for mountain biking?
  1. James McKnight

    Yep!

  2. Adam Jackson

    Yes UK is the best place in the world for mountain biking. There are 10-25 cycling events in every month in which 8-15 cycling events are most popular across the world. It is the best place also because peoples are more interested to ride bicycles and the weather conditions of UK is very trustworthy according to races.

  3. serge the seal of death

    The UK is a good place to ride its try. but we still lack the spread of trails needed to be the best, because we do not have the huge areas of public access land.
    Wales and Scotland pull up the score, but England is not great. But we play to our strengths, in reality you are never more than 1 or 2 hours from at least 1 trail centre, I have Aston hill, Cannock and FOD within 1.5 hours.
    Trail centers have made mountain biking into an almost weather free pasttime, the trails generally are always useable, apart from deep snow. and the british have always been good at ignoring the worst or the weather, or we would never go outside, and making the best of the good we do get, why else did we invent golf and cricket.
    Personally i think Italy and the South of France are probably some of the best locations for natural trail riding/weather but throw in the armoured trails for all weathers and the quantity that we are getting in the UK results put us near the top of the list.

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