Over the years of my racing career many people have asked me the same questions: “How to you Brits manage to train in the winter when the weather if so bad?" and “Where do you train in the UK as you have no mountains?"
I have to say that there are many times during the winter when I do wish I was somewhere a little more sunny, with some slightly drier trails and the thought of just being able to wear a pair of shorts and not tights, overshoes, thermals, gloves etc. seeming like a dream! However in the last month I have been back into full training with lots of off-road and have had the chance to answer both of those questions and experience just how much riding the UK has to offer.
We are pretty lucky in that we rarely get enough snow to really stop us riding our bikes for more than a few fays at a time, so we really can ride all year round, unlike many of my race competitors who live in the mountains of Europe and can only ski for many months so have to travel to ride their bikes or spend hours indoors on their turbos. Once you have invested in some good quality biking kit, learnt about layering, waterproofs, windstoppers and got some overshoes or winter boots and some mudguards you are set for a winter of riding in the UK.
Over the last month I have had the opportunity to visit some of the best riding spots we have on offer, from the natural terrain in the Lake District to the purpose built trail centres of North Wales. Both deliver a very different mountain bike experience but both perfect destinations for winter riding.
The Lake District trip – natural riding at its best
The Lake Dsitrict is somewhere I have ridden a few times but I have never spent more than a few days at a time there, so this year to spend a week in the Langdale valley was a great opportunity to really get a feel for the amount of riding the lakes has to offer. We had a true week of winter weather from snow blizzards up on the tops in the Kentmere valley to sunshine around Loughrigg to being snowed into the valley for a day! The rocky nature of most of the Lakes trails means that they are perfect for a winter riding trip as they can still be ridden in all weathers. We barely had to clean any mud off our bikes, but we certainly tested the waterproof capabilities of our shoes and shorts over the week…
Riding natural terrain is also something that I have found myself doing less of over the years, mainly due to the increase in man-made trails and their adoption into the race scene. I recently realised that nearly all the XC races I did last year where on a majority of man-made trails and even a lot of the DH and enduro races in the UK are trail centre based. It reminded me that before we had trail centres this is all we used to ride, natural terrain with no berms, jumps and no arrows to follow! Natural riding, I believe, is a much greater challenge for your skills as the conditions of the trail constantly change and especially as the climbs haven’t been made to gently get you up the hill with a nice series of switchbacks, it’s often just straight up the steepest most direct route. The trails are not a nice 1m width of endless singletrack, they are wide, rock-strewn tracks where you need to pick good lines to keep your flow and avoid punctures on every descent. It really is true mountain biking up there and 3 days of big rides in the Lakes left me feeling thoroughly beaten up, a feeling of a complete body work out.
Antur Stiniog trip – the flipside
In contrast, a few weeks later I spent a few days riding in North Wales, taking in a few of the trail centres along the way. Antur Stiniog for some DH riding, which was great fun, the fastest uplift anywhere and some really fun trails built into the slate quarries of North Wales. Coed-y-brenin, one of the first trail centres to be built still has some of the best man made trails out there. I also rode at the lesser-known trail at Penmachno, which still rates as one of my favourite rides. I think it gets less use than many of the other better-equipped centres and the trails have almost been taken back over by nature. The trail is narrow and almost feels like a natural trail in the woods, just with a great all weather surface.
I also visited the climax trail at Machynlleth on my way home. A great few days again in winter and again I barely needed to wash my bike. The all weather nature of the trail centre not only creates a mud free environment, but its also creates endless singletrack and miles of flowing trails, section after section. You know that there will be no one coming around the corner, that any drops will be indicated and you wont need to look at a map! Trail centres have brought mountain biking to the masses and created places that are really fun to ride for all abilities. You can go as fast or as slow as you like and will generally have no issues riding it all. I love the fact that you know what you are getting and you know that you can have a great workout for 1,2 or 3 hours and will get tonnes of flowing trails. However you do miss out on the feeling of adventure, the journey you get when you plan a route with a map and link up bridleways and you definitely don’t get challenged technically in the same way as a tough natural trail.
In my 2 trips I have only touched the surface of the riding we have in the UK and it made me realise just how lucky we are. Within a very short distance we have so much variety of riding. Many of us can ride from our doors out in to the countryside and onto great trails. We have an amazing network of trail centres now all over the country and more natural riding than you could ever explore. So I think that, although we have some horrible weather in the winter and no massive mountains, we still have some of the best riding you can find and we can ride it all year round.
Thanks for reading, Tracy.