A perfect pathway: Cornwall's new Mineral Tramways Project is a delight for cyclists

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The Independent Travel

Roger is pointing out a route on a huge map plastered to the inside wall of his bicycle-filled barn. "Have you memorised the way?" he asks. "It looks like pretty easy," says my friend Ed, confidently scanning the map.

"Well," says Roger, "remember the route isn't fully open yet, so the signposts might not be in place. It's pretty straightforward – just follow your front wheel. The only tricky bit is near the Rodda clotted cream factory. The whole thing should probably take an hour, or an hour-and-a-half each way max."

I look at my riding buddies and back to the map. Clotted cream. I love clotted cream. If there's a café, we should factor in an extra hour. However, Roger's Bike Barn (that's its official name), closes at 6pm, and it's afternoon already.

Roger Knight and his partner Karen have tapped into the growing interest in cycling with a well-organised but rough-and-ready bike centre in a spectacularly beautiful part of the country. Their 16th-century farmhouse has been converted into a Wi-Fi-enabled B&B with simply decorated rooms and a fantastic rustic charm, their fields welcome campers (£3 per night), there's a beer garden, and the Barn is the starting point of some incredible new cycling trails. If The Good Life ever gets re-made they'd make a fantastic Tom and Barbara.

While Roger sets up our mountain bikes, I assess the bike-readiness of the rest of my party. There are five of us in total: my partner Rachel and our six-week-old baby Harry, and our friends Ed and Rach. I hope that the day will live up to the hype I've been giving it.

We're here to explore the Mineral Tramways Project, a network of cycle paths that roughly encircle the Cornish town of Redruth. Originally built in the early 1800s to carry mined ore to the quay in Portreath – and coal back to the mines – the trails were worn flat by pony hooves and then levelled for steam railway tracks. When the mines closed for business, the rail network fell into disrepair, and the neglect lasted decades. Then in the late 1980s, Cornwall County Council realised it had a ready-made web of bridleways at its disposal and work began on restoring the pathways for walkers and horse riders.

The project never achieved its full potential, but by 2005 a different market was identified. Mountain bike-orientated destinations such as Afan in Wales had started to attract up to 200,000 visitors per year, and the Forestry Commission was pouring millions of pounds into a series of resorts in southern Scotland called the Seven Stanes Project. The money being handed out from Lottery funding and European Union grants, and the sheer visitor numbers of such enterprises, caught the eye of the council. The Mineral Tramways Project was restarted and a deadline of 26 September 2009 put on the completion of the network.

In late August, when we arrive to test-drive the route, the trails have been ride-able for a few weeks, though there are still some signs to erect and stones to polish before the grand unveiling. First impressions, though, are good. After leaving the Bike Barn, we're immediately riding down a gravel-surfaced path flanked by bushes and trees which hum with insect life. Strong sunlight bursts through gaps in the hedgerows and illuminates both the faint dust-cloud kicked up by the bike tyres and an impressively high number of butterflies. Towing my little boy in his bike trailer, I feel like a very adventurous dad indeed.

There are seven routes to choose from: the Tehidy Trail, the Portreath Branchline Trail, the Tresavean Trail, the Tolgus Trail, the Coast to Coast Trail, the Redruth and Chasewater Trail, and the brilliantly-named Great Flat Lode Trail. Each explores a different ex-mining area, and though they do differ in terms of difficulty (some have greater uphill challenges and steeper downhill sections) all are perfectly suitable for even the most cautious of cyclists. Roger has a wealth of information on each route, and had we wanted to find a particular speciality (a route with plenty of cake stops for example), he'd have pointed us in the right direction.

In the end we choose the flagship route: the Coast to Coast Trail, which starts at the north coast village of Portreath and weaves its way down to the south coast hamlet of Devoran – a distance of about 12 miles. There's one main road to cross, but all bar half-a-mile or so of the route is on wide cycle paths running through glorious, rolling hills. We pass cows grazing in the sunshine, white-washed stone walls bordering idyllic cottages, and two old men leaning on a gate – a scene so perfect that I suspected the gentlemen in question of being employed by the Cornish tourist board. It's virtually impossible to get lost; waymarkers guard every tricky junction, relaying where you are, which trail you're on, and which direction you should be heading.

The trail dips and twists through forests, runs parallel with gurgling streams and never gets too steep or strenuous for moderately competent cyclists. An hour out, we pass under a spectacularly beautiful Carnon Viaduct, almost 100ft high and built when such enormous structures actually added to the beauty of the landscape. A group of climbers about to tackle one of its eleven arches nod and say hello as we glide past.

This is clearly a great family day out. But is it a serious mountain biking destination? After all, there are plenty of other beautiful cycling trails. In fact, the West country alone has the Tarka Trail (another ex-railway route starting in Braunton and ending in Meeth, so named because the countryside it crosses inspired Henry Williamson to write the novel Tarka the Otter), and the Camel Trail (a national cycleway route between Padstow and Camelford, which also uses former railway lines), so is there room for a third, similar route?

Well, the Mineral Tramways has an ace up its sleeve. The network connects three world-class mountain biking destinations, in much the same way as strategic ski lifts in the Alps link vast winter-sports areas. This is Cornwall's version of the Franco-Swiss Portes du Soleil.

Just a few hundred yards from the Bike Barn lies The Track, an area several football pitches in size that's home to an enormous, earthen fun park – the dirt equivalent of snow parks in Alpine ski resorts. For those who love to jump their bike (or want to learn), it's heaven. There's even a foam pit – a large swimming-pool-sized area filled with chunky foam shapes – where riders can practice their moves before taking them to the solid jumps.

The Mineral Tramways Project also cuts straight through Unity Woods and Poldice Valley, which have long been known within the mountain bike community for their downhill trails, and are just the ticket for expert riders who love to race full-suspension bikes.

Unity Woods is a beautiful old forest with plenty of twisting routes that good riders can race along, slaloming past bushes and trunks and using the gradient to gain speed to carry them over jumps and drops. The mantra here is: "look at the gaps, not at the trees!"

Poldice Valley is in fact a large, exposed hill, on which speeding cyclists have scratched a variety of routes, which twist past thorny, hardy plants, mining chimney ruins and abandoned tractors. Poldice also has its own free-riding area (affectionately known as Mars), where an enormous area of disused mining detritus has been found to be the perfect wasteland for enterprising jump builders and those who wish to leap off cliffs with their bikes. If a Cornish film company ever decides to remake the film Mad Max, this is where they'd come to shoot it.

In the thrill-seeking spectrum, then, the Mineral Tramways Project goes from the gentle trails we're riding all the way up to 11.

"I bet you were wishing you didn't have that trailer on the back of your bike," says Rachel, as she catches me gawping at some of the helmeted, downhill riders flying down the slopes as we ride past Poldice Valley.

I was actually thinking that if they keep building trails and adding jumps and extra loops, this could really turn into something amazing. The Mineral Tramways Project doesn't have the infrastructure of the Seven Stanes yet, nor will it ever have the mountains of Afan, but it has the potential to be bigger than all of them.

When we get to the Old Quay Inn in Devoran, I quench my thirst with an ice-cold, sparkling lemonade and look out over the idyllic estuary and picture-postcard village – something few trail centres can offer. While there are undoubtedly other great mountain biking destinations out there, the starting point for most of them seems to have been "what can we build for people who can already ride?" At the Mineral Tramways Project the organic evolution of its trails – and the accidental threading together of some excellent existing riding – make it a far more fascinating destination.

Chris Moran is author of 'Mountain Biking Britain', published by Footprint Guidebooks (£14.99)

Travel essentials: Cornwall

Getting there

* National Rail enquiries: 08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk

Staying there & cycling there

* The Minerals Tramway Project will be officially opened by Olympic cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel on 26 September, with a day of accompanying bike-themed activities.

* The Bike Barn at Elm Farm, Cambrose (01209 891498; cornwallcycletrails.com ). Double rooms start at £50 including breakfast; camping from £3. Bike rental starts at £12 per day.

* The Bike Chain, Bissoe, near Devoran (01872 870341; cornwallcyclehire.com ) offers bicycle hire from £10 per day.

* The Track, Parc Erissey Industrial Estate, New Portreath Road, Redruth (01209 211073; the-track.co.uk ).

More information

* Mineral Tramways: tiny.cc/xE7Sg

* Sustrans: 0117 929 0888; sustrans.org.uk

* Visit Cornwall: 01872 322900; visitcornwall.com