I've seen extreme biking - and i'm happy to watch

I discovered a new extreme side to the world of cycling last week, when I took a trip up to County Durham for a few days' mountain biking. Hidden in the depths of Hamsterley Forest - a 5,000-acre wood near Bishop Auckland - I had my first encounter with the sport of downhill bike racing.

For those of you who are not familiar, this is a rather terrifying activity, which involves hurtling down narrow, near-vertical mud tracks, which are cluttered with boulders, trees and ditches - all designed to make your descent as challenging as possible.

I should probably point out at this stage that discovery, in my case, does not translate as participation - I was more than happy to sit on the sidelines and watch. Any foolish ambitions I had about taking on the full course were abandoned when I saw my companion start to kit himself out for a run. Having donned full upper-body armour underneath his regular cycling kit, he finished off by placing a full motorcycle style helmet on his head!

The top half of Hamsterley's course is actually fairly manageable - no tougher than most of the man-made single-track stretches that you'd find in other forests around the country. But the bottom stretch of the course was like nothing I've ever seen. It was a challenge to even walk down.

The very best in the country bolt down the 1km-long course - which took four years to build - in only 90 seconds, constantly making crucial split-second decisions on their line and speed. One small mistake is almost certain to result in a crash.

By the time most riders get to racing standard, you can bet your life they've had a few serious wipe-outs over the years. Broken collarbones are apparently the most common, although broken wrists, broken arms and broken legs are also all regular occurrences for the maniacs who regularly take part.

Nevertheless, downhill is becoming an increasingly popular sport in the UK. At least a quarter of the top 20 in the world are now British, and the 3km course at Fort William in Scotland is set to be the host for the sport's World Cup this year.

If, like me, no amount of money would persuade you to even give the sport a quick trial, it's well worth turning up to watch. The few riders that I saw (literally) fly past me on my trip to Hamsterley were very impressive. Hamsterley holds races every few months (check out www.descendhamsterley.co.uk for details). However, there are also a handful of other tracks around the country, including the Fort William course in Scotland.

If you want to get a more instant feeling for the sport, you can also download video clips from the Hamsterley website, filmed from cameras attached to bikes descending the downhill course at breakneck speed.

The other new biking sport I discovered at Hamsterley was 4-cross, where four riders race against each other on an undulating, windy gravel track - usually wiping each other off their bikes as they fight for the best line on the corners. Although this is much less intimidating to try than downhill, it takes quite a bit of skill and confidence to master. For much of the course, riders are airborne, as they are propelled over the top of man-made mounds. Landings are all crucial, as is getting the most efficient line on the bends so as not to lose speed.

I'm very glad I got the chance to learn about the more extreme end of biking - a world of which I was previously completely unaware. However, after not very much deliberation, I decided I'd be perfectly happy to stick to the roads and slightly less intimidating mountain bike trails. Fortunately, there were plenty of those on offer in the north-east (of which more next week).

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