Cross-country? Living in the centre of Oxfordshire, cross-country riding has always conjured up images of gently rolling hills, ancient woodlands and muddy clay-covered bridleways in the winter. Where front suspension was a whim and the only thing stopping you on the trails was horses and glue-like clay. However my views they are a-changing! I had these illusions slightly altered by exposure to the widely ridden and infamous trails at Coed y Brenin like the Red Bull route (Julia: “Can’t we ride the Horlicks Meander or the Cocoa Toddle?”) and the Karrimor trail. It was my first outing on my recently purchased second-hand full sus and the whole thing was a blast. Julia felt a huge amount of pride of having ridden most of it on my old hardtail, and in our little world we had ridden and survived Wales.
So as we were planning where we were to go on holiday, our eyes were slowly drawn northwards on the AA atlas (no, further then Birmingham… No, keep going at Manchester… That’s it, past Carlisle… Through Glasgow…) and we ended up in the west coast Highlands of Scotland. I had heard that there was this rather good trail but knew little about it, and so the plan was formed – to ride the XC trails at Fort William two days after the world cup event.
And so with more kit than Elton John on tour, we started the drive north. Arriving 150 miles later at Fort William we pitched camp at the lovely Glen Nevis Campsite. Unfortunately I think Elton may have been on tour in the area and given tickets to all the midges, who had got confused and turned up at our tent. But the view took our minds off the flesh-eating insects. Up to a point.
The next day, and covered in enough Deet to keep Elton’s fans away, we headed off to Leanachan Forest and the trails. The first thing that grabs you is how different the place is from the centres in Wales. With no little car parks and handy signs to the start of the trails, it more like a giant car park at a showground with a mountain in front of you and chairlifts. For downhill riders the way is clear, and that’s a mechanically assisted upwards. For those of us planning a more demanding ascent it’s a bit more challenging, although a free map is available if you ask at the ticket office. After a few moments of confusion and finally having spotted some people heading off on bikes with less than six inches of travel, I can now inform you that the start of the Witch’s Trail is in the top right corner of the massive car park as you look up towards the chairlifts.
Having found the start of the trail we immediately fell victim to a navigational mishap. At the sign that gives details of the route, don’t go up the trail that is to the left of you. This in in fact the last technical section of the course – you’re meant to ignore the trail marker pointing up the hill until you reach it at the end. The easy start is along the forest road to the right. However we didn’t know this and so our first section of the trail was “The Berminator”, a wickedly steep technical climb on narrow stony singletrack twisting around a small hill followed by a swooping bermed descent back to the sign, designed to take whatever strength you may have left in your legs after the complete circuit. If you do make the same mistake as us, you will at least have warmed up.
After this incorrect introduction to the trail Julia was not happy and I had a stitch. But we presesed on, with Julia protesting that there was no way she could ride this trail if it was all going to be like that. Happily I convinced her that it would not be and hoped I would be right. So we climbed up the forest road heading for the next section, “The Lazy K”. Straight off the fire road and on to a steep singletrack climb. Then over another fire road and back on to a singletrack climb, but with house bricks and other debris forming the trail. It’s long, it’s steep, it’s technical, and very difficult to clean.
With tired legs and aching back we were once again onto fire roads heading, yes that’s right, upwards. A km or so later we finally reached the top edge of the forest with open vistas up to the mountains, and we stopped to take in the views. I looked at the map to see what is coming, three long sections of trail called Blue Crane, Dubh Drochit and the BOMB HOLE! The Witch’s Trail uses a symbol of small skull and crossbones to show trail dangers and technical sections. Well here was the first! As I carefully controlled my speed on the narrow trail with no obvious line through the covering of rocks and drops, I was thankful of my five inches of travel at both ends. Meanwhile Julia was having problems walking her bike down and the fact that the trail was showing signs of a stampede of cleated hooves to the left and right suggest that this is a tactic used by the pros. As the trail got higher, the drops larger and the turns tighter I gave up. This would be a challenge on a DH course round my way. And so we carried, climbed and scrambled down the track until we can remount in a less extreme part, almost in time for me to fall into the Dubh Drochit. I managed to stop just before the 2ft drop into the side wall of a bomb hole. I’m sure that, if jumped at speed, it would carry you around the side wall of the crater and out again. But it would have left me with a sore head.
I carried Julia’s bike down the drop and then mine, trying not to fall on my arse, and hopping back on for a twisting singletrack with just enough gravity assist to allow you to build up steam. It was again the little skull and crossbones that warned me of what was coming. That and the amount of broken foliage at the edges of the track around the next corner. I slowly approached to see a just off-vertical slab of rock with a tight turn to the right straight at the bottom. I got off, lowered the bike down and jumped after it, whilst Julia used it as a slide. Having negotiated that obstacle we were greeted by the first of several sets of wiggly, off-camber bridges on the trail. This was proving a challenging day out.
And there was more to come. Next up was the Bomb Holes. Julia decided to use the escape route but (famous last words) I couldn’t see any real danger. Down I went one side, controlled the speed, then went over the top and down again into a bermed corner to find the trail ahead made up of baby-head sized rocks. Stay on the centre line and you’ll be fine, wander slightly with all the speed you carried round the corner and you’ll be fighting to stay aboard. Again the full sus had saved me.
The next section of fireroad provided some light relief, all swooping corners and a good degree of tilt for some high speed fun before tempering our speed for The Cackle and Nessie. The Cackle is a wonderful swooping singletrack with root drops and a large amount of riding on raised wooden trails, almost all of them bending this way and that, rising and falling and occasionally narrowing from over a foot to under six inches wide. Most were also on a camber, be it helpful or designed to try and get your tyres to slide out underneath you. Julia was starting to get more confident through here, going for more difficult sections that thirty minutes ago would have had her walking. Look to your left and right at this point and you’ll see the obstacles of a North Shore trail that’s being added to the fun in the forest – see-saws, drops and skinny high bridges. Nessie is a diving, soil covered trail of large tight berms, tree roots and little drops which in the wet can be very slippery. As Julia found out.
Now we were starting to have some fun. With more pedalling then clambering we continued at our leisurely pace to Stump Alley, a lovely singletrack ribbon over open ground and into pine woodland. With lots of tree stumps as obstacles, it swooped, rose and fell, and is a joy to ride. Julia was starting to carry plenty of speed through sections and is even starting to use the small bermed corners. This section of trail is a wonderful construction of free-flowing pathway.
The next section is called The Cauldron and shows the level of commitment that the trail builders have for not only making this a track that can be used in wet weather but also for protecting the environment from hundreds of knobbly wheels. The trail passes through a more marshy area of the forest and is mostly raised wooden bridges, changing width, swooping and changing direction with on and off-camber corners. Gradually the corners get tighter and the cambers greater. Julia’s really enjoying this section, using the practice from the Cackle she is riding the wooden trails like she has done it all before. A slight concern is raised when she starts to cut the banking corners quite sharply and comes close to losing the back wheel off the track a few times, and so for a few minutes a more careful technique is adopted. She’s soon back to here freshly-learnt reckless ways, though.
The character of the trail soon changes along The Hole in the Wall. This section runs along the very edge of the forest, and uses the remains of a broken-down stone wall as a trail base. Weaving in and out and over the remains it offers some extremely technical, almost trials style riding, if the right lines are not picked. Once through there it was time to pick up the pace again along Mackenzie’s Road. It’s a twisting fire road to allow you to build up speed for the remaining section of singletrack that twists through the trees, climbs and falls and rolls around over small ridges before a rather thin bridge that deposits you in the bottom right corner of the car park. Again this section flows very nicely, giving us the confidence to carry speed and roll through the section and out over the bridge. If you were doing the trail correctly you would now head up the side and on to The Berminator, but for us it was the end. We’d already done that bit, after all. It had taken Julia and myself over an hour to do the loop. Apparently the record is around the 20min mark, but then we are not world class XC riders…
The Witch’s Trail is a difficult beast to ride. Designed for intermediate riders, it has sections to challenge riders of even the highest calibre and could, in its difficult early stages, put off those without the legs or the skill. The trail allows all the technical section to be cut out with alternatives, however these often cause confusion as you’re greeted at junctions with Witch’s Trail markers going in all directions. What you need to know is all the named sections, and the order they are in, then you can head for the one showing the right name. The first half of the trail is extremely challenging, but should not be cut out. Instead challenge yourself to reach that next bend or tree and experience the full extent of the trail as it was designed, even if that involves walking your bike. You will be rewarded in the confidence you will have gained in the second half which I found was technically easier, and great fun. Finally, when you are back at the centre enjoying a drink, just remember you have just ridden a world class trail. Go on, make the drive. It’s worth it.