Forget bird flu and cast your mind back four years. It was the dark days of foot and mouth disease, a time of closed bridleways and footpaths, when Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food inspectors and slaughtermen stalked the land.
Mountain bikers were restricted to riding on tarmac roads, and one corollary of the outbreak's impact was that farmers not big enough to weather the storm or battered enough to sell up entirely had to diversify to bring in extra money.
Which, in a roundabout way, explains why I'm in the back of a cattle truck, with a dozen other mountain bikers and their bikes. We are being shuttled up to the top of the Red Bull-sponsored Project Downhill track at Innerleithen, in the Scottish Borders, which opened last April. A 45lb downhill bike is no more designed to go uphill than a toboggan, so local farmers ferry bikers to the top of the hill at weekends. The Uplift service costs about £20 for a day's lifts.
Innerleithen, partnered with Glentress, five miles closer to Peebles on the A72, represents half of the Tweed Valley 7Stanes mountain-bike centre. The 7Stanes (Scottish for stones) is a necklace of seven centres on Forestry Commission land, strung east to west across the Borders. From Kirroughtree, overlooking the Irish Sea, to Glentress, a 40-minute drive south of Edinburgh, via Glentrool, Mabie, Dalbeattie, Ae and Newcastleton, the 7Stanes have earned a worldwide reputation for high quality, man-made, all-weather trails, graded for difficulty, like ski runs, from green to blue to red to black.
According to the International Mountain Bike Association's annual report card, Scotland is "one of the hottest places to ride in the world" , largely thanks to the 7Stanes. Mountain-bike centres in Wales such as Afan Argoed and Coed Y Brenin received similar praise.
The Tweed Valley devel-opment is the centrepiece of the 7Stanes project, which began four years ago. Karl Bartlett has been project manager of the 7Stanes since its inception. "A local enter-prise company, run by Robbie Macintosh, a mountain biker himself, gave us £250,000," Bartlett explains. "We won almost £1 million from the European Union, and the Heritage Lottery and other sources made the funding up to £2m.
"This enabled us to have a grand vision. Our part of Scotland is too remote from the main holiday destinations for just one trail to have an impact. We had to build enough trails in a compact area in order to attract people. We didn't just want to transform mountain biking in Scotland, we wanted to think about Scotland as a world-class destination."
On summer weekends, there is a queue of cars waiting to get into Glentress. The number of visitors to the forest increased from 100,000 in 2000 to 250,000 in 2004. Many will visit the Hub bike shop and café run by ex-pro racers Emma Guy and Tracy Brunger. "We think there is the potential to turn the Tweed Valley 7Stanes into the Scottish version of Whistler Bike Park," Guy tells me.
It's a bumpy drive to the top of Innerleithen's downhill tracks, but, as I meet the downhill team sponsored by Hub in the Forest, the shop and café at the heart of the Tweed Valley centre, I suspect it's going to be a lot bumpier going down. The team, made up of rising stars such as Ben Cathro, aged 19, and experienced old hands like 35-year-old Neil Wilson, are training for the Scottish National Downhill Championships. Wilson, friendly to a fault, volunteers to shepherd us first-timers down the Red Bull downhill, using escape routes or "chicken runs" around the more bowel-loosening features. He has the disconcerting habit of saying yes to everything:
"Neil, is this easy enough for me?" "Yes."
"Are you sure?" "Yes."
"It looks pretty steep to me." "Yes, it is."
Although I'm dragging the rear brake just enough so that the rear wheel doesn't start sliding on the slimy, off-camber turns, a thirtysomething's trepidation is slowly replaced by the bravado of an eight-year old. Bigger jumps are sought, steeper, rockier descents are relished. Five exhilarating minutes later, at the bottom, I'm first in the queue for the lift back up.
The popularity of the trails has attracted major-league sponsorship: as well as Red Bull, Helly Hansen sponsor Glentress's signature black route, the V-Trail.
Continuing my whirlwind tour of the 7Stanes, I pitch up at Glentress with my friend Mike. On cross-country bikes this time, we set off on the 30km V-Trail. You have to earn your kicks the hard way on this type of trail, but when those thrills include Spooky Wood's jump-laden twists and turns, and the narrow wooden ramps and seesaws of the Ewok Village section, the cardiovascular workout is worth it.
There is plenty for non-bikers in the area too: earlier this year (the 50th anniv-ersary of the osprey's return to Scotland) osprey chicks hatched at an eyrie near Peebles, and footage of the young birds was beamed to the Tweed Valley Forest Park visitor centre. In Inner-leithen, Traquair is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland; Mary Queen of Scots stayed here in 1566.
But it is the mountain bikers the locals are most pleased to welcome. " A rest-aurateur recently emailed to say a party of mountain bikers had run up a £600 bill in his restaurant," reports Bartlett. " Hoteliers and B&Bs are seeing spin-off benefits, such as an increase in bed nights in the off-season - extremely important in marginal tourist areas. " The return on investment across the seven centres is running at about £5m a year.
Among mountain bikers, however, the 7Stanes-style riding centres have not had universal acceptance. Some critics believe they are the biking equivalent of out-of-town supermarkets, encour-aging people to drive miles at the weekend in order to ride their bike on waymarked trails, and removing the element of adventure and exploration. Nonsense, says Guy: "We cater for all types here, from families with children to serious racers, and the centres are great places to learn new skills in a safe environment."
"So much of the success of the project's first stage was because we responded to what mountain bikers wanted," adds Bartlett. "They are not afraid of letting us know what they think - and we listened."
Mountain bikers, it seems, want a challenge, and they find it on the Kona Dark Side trail at Mabie in Dumfries and Galloway. The double-black graded route may only be 2km long but, as it's almost all on raised timber structures, it's hard enough walking much of it, as we did, let alone cycling it. The Dark Side is the exception; the next stage of the 7Stanes, hopes Bartlett, will be to create more entry-level, blue-graded trails for first timers.
Kirroughtree, east of Mabie, was holding a family open day when I arrived to ride the Black Craigs trail. Hire bikes were lined up as guides led out small groups of wobbly-looking cyclists. Kirroughtree, the most remote 7Stanes, has as much to offer the experienced biker as the beginner, though, and is Bartlett's favourite trail: "It reflects everything we've learned about trail building from all over the world," he says.
So where now for the Scottish and Welsh biking centres? "Climate change has killed Scottish skiing, so there's nothing to stop us installing unused chairlifts at Innerleithen," says Bart-lett. Since the Forestry Commission have been compelled to meet social rather than just financial targets, wider recreational use of its land will continue. As Bart-lett points out, the Government have realised that people want more out of forests than just trees.
Robin Barton travelled across Scotland in an Ace Roma (01482 847 332, swiftleisure. com) motor-home provided by the Motorhome Information Service (01444 458 889, www.motorhomeinfo.co.uk)
7Stanes: a rider's guide
Ae: Buckle up for the Ae-Line, a wide Whistler-style trail with jumps and berms.
Dalbeattie: The Slab, a steeply sloping granite rock, is the highlight here.
Glentress:The mother of all mountain-bike centres, with the best range of trails in Scotland; do the V-Trail at least once. Refuel at the friendly Hub café.
Glentrool: Natural trails attract families rather than thrill-seekers.
Innerleithen: The XC route is a slog, but the last section down Caddon Bank to the visitor centre is the best man-made downhill in the country.
Kirroughtree: The singletrack of Black Craig makes the journey to the west coast worth it. Also plenty of family trails.
Mabie: Features the Kona Dark Side, the most difficult man-made trail in the UK - rated double-black diamond.
Newcastleton: Family-friendly trails with walking routes for those not into two-wheeled travel.Reuse content