The Complete Guide To: Mountain biking

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Autumn is a great time to get off the beaten track. Chris Moran gears up for a two-wheeled adventure, via gentle hills and gritty descents

Surely a summer activity?

No. Modern bikes, breathable outerwear and a thriving mountain bike scene mean you can ride on every day of the year. In fact, autumn is an excellent time to ride through Britain's forests. Virtually all mountain bike areas in the UK are open through the winter and offer a great reason to get outdoors to experience the seasons close up. Think of it as being like rambling, only faster.

Those who enjoy downhill riding may have to take small excursions to Wales or Scotland if they wish to ride descents of more than a few minutes, but there are plenty of cool, technical downhill tracks in England that will get the adrenalin going. For the adventurous rider, England, Scotland and Wales have infinite trails, many of which are on the doorsteps of a major city. The main outlay will be for the bike, but the cost is coming down every year (a great bike can be bought for under £500). After that, you're only limited by how far you wish to pedal.

What do I need to know?

Broadly speaking the sport is split three ways: cross-country (or XC as it's also known) involves pedalling up and down hills and through forests, double-track farm lanes and bridleways – all of which are known as "trails" within the mountain-biking fraternity. XC riding is the equivalent of a nice, long walk, and many trips are possible on an "ordinary" bike.

An excellent example is the New Forest, England's newest National Park. Country Lanes (01590 622 627; countrylanes.co.uk) is based at Brockenhurst station in the heart of the forest, which is accessible by rail. You can rent bikes and explore trails of between seven and 23 miles.

Then there's freeride (or freestyle riding), which involves cycling over purpose-built jumps and obstacles – often in a setting no larger than a few acres – repetitively testing one's nerve, skill and cartilage. For those old enough to remember Kick Start with Peter Purves, this is the motor-less version. An excellent place to try it out is Hamsterley, the largest forest in Co Durham, which has a good network of tracks and tricks: four cycle routes catering for different ability levels. The visitor centre (tiny.cc/yD4NJ) keeps limited hours, but adjacent is a bike rental depot named Wood'n'Wheels (01388 488 222; woodnwheels.co.uk), which opens daily and offers robust bikes, so you can test the 20 miles of trails before you decide to invest in all the gear.

Finally, there's downhill riding. This is the most exhilarating version of the sport, in which mountain bikers use gravity to propel themselves through forests, down hillsides and along rock-, root- and obstacle-strewn trails. It sounds dangerous, but it is no more so than skiing or snowboarding, and offers similar thrills: fantastic views and fast action.

Specialist bikes for each of the three categories do exist, but all-round mountain bikes are able to handle everything fairly well as, often, all three types of riding will be found at your nearest trail centre.

What is a trail centre, exactly?

Trail centres are hubs at popular mountain-biking spots. They are springing up all over the UK, and are starting to adopt colour-coded trail maps to show the difficulty of the terrain. It's the same system that skiers and snowboarders use: greens and blues are the easiest, red routes are for intermediates and black runs are the most difficult.

A trail centre can consist of something as little as a café or hut with some good riding nearby, such as Nant-Yr-Arian in Wales (01970 612 125; mtbwales.com), or as big as Fort William in Scotland (01397 705 821; ridefortwilliam.co.uk), which has a visitor centre, cafés, restaurants, freestyle trails, some fantastic XC riding and a World Cup downhill course. The Fort William site is free to use if you fancy walking or pedalling, or you can buy a day pass for the gondola ski lift for £19 per day to gain altitude and potential energy and enjoy the descent all the more.

Also in Scotland, try one of the fantastic Seven Stanes areas – a conglomerate of trail centres all to the south of Edinburgh and Glasgow that share a great website and are all managed by the Forestry Commission (01387 272 440; 7stanes.gov.uk).

England's Green and Pleasant Land?

The north-west of England has the fantastic XC centre of Stainburn (singletraction.org.uk), just outside Bradford. A little further east lies Dalby Forest and Pace Bikepark (forestry.gov.uk/england-cycling), perfect for both XC and freestyle riders with a newly built visitor centre and the Purple Mountain Bike Centre (01751 460011; purplemountain.co.uk) – a combined café and bike hire and repair shop. And of course, the Lake District is superb to explore. For first-timers, Grizedale Mountain Bikes in Ambleside (01229 860 369; grizedalemountainbikes.co.uk) hires decent equipment and is a great source of local information, or if you already have a bike, simply pick up a free trail map from the Grizedale Forest visitor centre.

Bristol, Cardiff and the Southwest have Blandford Freeride Park in Dorset (07881 571 069; ukbikepark.com), which is home to some fantastic downhill trails as well as an army-style truck and bike rack trailer to service them.

The South-east is equally blessed. Aston Hill (01296 625 825; rideastonhill.co.uk) in Buckinghamshire has downhill, XC and freeride obstacles, Esher Shore in Surrey (01372 476 969; eshershore.com) has some of the UK's best freeriding, and Penshurst in Kent (01892 870 136) is home to a terrific bikepark (an area specifically designed with obstacles, jumps and balancing tests) and some small but fun downhill trails. For those in the Midlands, Cannock Chase (01785 619619; chasetrails.co.uk) is a well-marked site and perfect for families, while Hopton Castle in Shropshire has fantastic downhill and an uphill lift service – again, a minibus pulling a bike trailer – provided by Pearce Cycles in nearby Ludlow (01584 879 288; pearcecycles.co.uk). u

Wheels around Wales?

South Wales has some superb trail centres, such as Afan (01639 851 900; mtbwales.com) – considered to be one of the foremost mountain bike centres in the UK – and Coed Y Brenin (01341 440 742; parcnet.com) where a new £1.6m visitors' centre welcomes bikers. Cwmcarn (01633 614 615; mtbwales.com) is one of the UK's most accessible trail centres. You can hire through Martyn Ashfield Cycles in nearby Risca (01633 601 040; martynashfieldcycles.co.uk), and the trails themselves feature fantastic XC, downhill and freeriding for all abilities. The area is well marked, so you're unlikely to get lost, and there's a trailer service to lug your bike uphill for £22 per day per person (book through cwmdown.co.uk). For bike-friendly accommodation, try the Coed Mamgu Guest House (01495 270 747) just underneath the trails.

Can I take the family?

Of all the Seven Stanes areas, the perfect family weekend is to be found by heading to the almost twinned centres of Glentress and Innerleithen. Glentress is brilliant for families with a great atmosphere, breathtaking views and fun terrain including the rock drops and berms of Spooky Wood, and wooden beams and obstacle tests at Ewok Village. Again, the trails are wellmarked, with kilometre pointers so you can judge how far from the café and car park you wish to ride.

Innerleithen is the spot for some more progressive downhill riding, although there is still some great riding for those just coming into the sport. There is a minibus ferrying riders to the top of the mountain (but only on certain days, so check upliftscotland.com). To hire equipment for either trail centre, or for tuition, go to The Hub in the Forest in Peebles (01721 721 736; thehubintheforest.co.uk), while the bike-friendly Tontine Hotel (01721 720 892; tontinehotel.com), also in Peebles, has a power-wash area and secure bike storage.

Further afield?

Hotels, lift-owners, airlines, tourist boards and apartment owners have all come to the same conclusion: mountain biking is the perfect summer compliment to winter ski seasons.

Many of Europe's ski resorts are open in summer for bikers keen to explore the same slopes that the skiers and snowboarders enjoy. Because mountain bikers are able to use the infrastructure that already exists in ski resorts, it means the lift-pass prices and apartments are ludicrously cheap – certainly much lower than their winter equivalents.

The French Alps are leading the charge, with the resorts of Morzine and Les Gets considered Europe's hub. Their shared ski area – the Portes du Soleil (portesdu soleil.com) – markets itself as the world's biggest linked trail centre, with 650km of marked mountain biking.

In Canada, Whistler (whistlerbike.com) has become mountain biking's spiritual home in North America, while the UCI World Cup Tour (uci.ch) visits the most progressive resorts around the world between April and September each year generating competition between resorts to stage races that can have crowds of up to 50,000. Scotland's Fort William usually hosts the UK leg.

Any mountain bike package holidays?

These have started to appear, but the majority are provided by small, independent companies such as the British-run, French-based Trail Addiction (07904 359780; trailaddiction.com), which has accommodation, bikes and guiding trips to Les Arcs in France, Pila in Italy and Grenada in Spain. Another independent is The Mountain Bike Adventure in Lagos, Portugal (00 351 91 85 02 663; themountainbikeadventure.com), which has picturesque XC riding on its doorstep, as well as a 16km descent down a volcano to satisfy their downhill-hungry customers. You'll have to get yourself a budget flight out and they look after you from the airport.

Morzine's equivalent is Bike Morzine (morzine-mtb.com). Alternatively, if you've already got a bike and simply fancy filling a car and an apartment in resort, the cost of a week's lift pass in most French resorts is usually under €100 (the Portes du Soleil six-day pass is €64), and apartments are cheap and plentiful. Morzine Lets (morzine lets.com) is great for searching Morzine and Les Gets apartments, and groups of four and above can expect to pay as little as €80 per person per week for an apartment in town.

Anywhere else?

Oh yes. In addition to ski resorts, there are plenty of lesser hills, or large open areas with interesting terrain, to ride. In fact, it is often the smaller hills that have the most to offer, since repetitive, quick descents are better for most participants than the huge 2,000m downhill courses found in France. As such, smaller ski hills in Austria and Germany that have been losing their snow cover have been given a lifeline – their summer slopes are perfectly suited to this new sport. Some, such as Bad Wildbad in Germany (00 49 70 81 92 5080; bikepark-bad-wildbad.de) have wonderful old funicular railways, which are perfect for whisking bikes and riders up mountains. Meanwhile, Todtnau in Germany (00 49 76 71 96 969; mtb-fun-park.de) and Hafjell in Norway (00 47 61 27 47 00; hafjell.no) have re-invented themselves as bikeparks and biking centres, and have wonderful natural and man-made terrain to ride all year round.

More information?

Footprint Guidebooks has published Mountain Biking Europe, a 320-page guide to the trail centres, bikeparks and resorts of the UK as well as Austria, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Iberia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The guide has details on getting started, is priced at £19.99 and is available via amazon.co.uk or footprintbooks.com.

Get a tan on the trail

Mountain biking is not limited to the mountain resorts: the island of Tenerife has one of Europe's most progressive trail centres (00 34 902 003121; bikeparktenerife.com), with fantastic wooden structures snaking over its forest and brushland.

Finale Ligure in Italy (right) has been at the forefront of mountain biking since the late Eighties and offers year-round warmth, dusty trails, exciting terrain and spectacular views over the Med.

Just Ride is a specialist company offering holidays in the region for as little as €47 (£39) per day including accommodation and all guiding (00 39 01 96 81 019; justridefinale.com).

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