It's early morning in the forest and I'm looking along a ridge where the mist-enshrined trees fade to a white light in the distance. It's beautiful, but I'm slightly distracted by the prospect of keeping my mountain bike upright on a fiendishly tricky trail that's weaving through the undergrowth. I splash through the puddles, lean into banks and attempt to absorb the bumps. Try as I might, though, I haven't got a hope of catching my riding buddy, who races ahead with a fluidity and grace I can only envy.
I'm with Richard Cunynghame, one of the UK's best mountain bikers, and we're on the new World Cup trail at Dalby Forest. Its alternative name – the Great Yorkshire Forest – gives more of a clue about its location on the North York Moors.
Built at a cost of £100,000 by the Forestry Commission, the trail is ready to host the UCI Mountain Biking World Cup Cross Country championships on 24 April. It's not officially open to the public yet, but it's sturdy enough for the Forestry Commission to turn a blind eye to those trying to sneak a preview.
As author of Mountain Biking Britain and Mountain Biking Europe (both published by Footprint), I've seen some pretty impressive mountain bike trails in my time, but when a place like Dalby gets included on the World Cup circuit something good must be happening. So I grabbed the pads, chucked the bike in the car and headed off to see what all the fuss was about.
We arrive through the forest gates, then drive to the impressive £2.5m Dalby visitor centre – a modern, environmentally sensitive structure with showers, toilets and café, all powered by the wind turbine on the roof. From there we head straight to Dixon's Hollow, the highest point of the Great Yorkshire Forest and home to some fantastic facilities: a three-acre dirt jumping park (similar to a snow fun park in a ski resort); a 4-cross track (a bike version of the skier or snowboard cross as seen in the Vancouver Olympics); and several practice lines where riders can jump to their heart's content, throwing all sorts of tricks off the large mounds of earth.
Next door, wooden bridges snake their way through the forest, comprising high, narrow sections, drop-offs and twisting turns, all designed to test one's balance, skill and nerve. Mountain bikers call this "northshore" and it's great fun for even novice riders. With a fresh covering of snow overnight, however, the wood looks unbelievably slippery and, frankly, hazardous. "After you,"laughs Richard, as we both move on.
The influence of the winter-sports industry is noticeable in mountain biking: Dalby's bike routes are colour-graded to show their difficulty. Green is easiest, blue is slightly harder, red runs are for intermediates and blacks for experts only.
From Dixon's Hollow there are three possible routes to take: the green Adderstone Trail, a family-oriented route which winds easily back to the Dalby Visitor Centre, a more difficult red route which shadows the green, or the new black World Cup trail.
At the bottom of the red, we meet Dave Smallwood, a retired postman who lives within the forest's borders. "It's fantastic to see all these people whooping and hollering through the trees," he says. "There are so many of them. A few years ago the forest was busy in the summer, but now the car park is full every day of the year."
After a coffee pitstop at the Low Dalby Courtyard near the Visitor Centre, home to the Purple Mountain Bike Centre and Café, we meet up with the forest ranger and mountain bike course designer Martin O'Vastar.
"From here to Whitby it's 15 to 20 miles of unspoilt forest," he says. "Ten years ago the Forestry Commission managed the woods and its business model was based on logs and pulp. Now around half of our income comes from people using the forest for recreation. Walkers, horseriders, the Go Ape tree-top adventure park – and of course, the mountain-biking trails."
Though it is a rainy day with patchy snow and little evidence of the arrival of spring, the car park is filling up. Dogs are eagerly wagging their tails, and people are making last-minute adjustments to their bikes before hitting the trails.
Chris Kozelko and his sons, Dan and James, are typical of Dalby's visitors. "We've had an amazing morning," says Chris. "We tried out the blue trail on rented bikes. The kids loved it."
With a catchment area that includes Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, the trails are hugely popular, even on the muddiest of days, and we soon meet a group of seven local children from Pickering who have been blasting around the red route on their bikes.
"We come here as part of our PE class," says one. "You can even have a shower before going back to school." Another family we meet had bought a season pass, which gives access to the car park year-round (day visitors pay £4 to park). "It's such a good day out for all of us," says mum. "Come rain," she says with a look to the heavens, "or shine!"
Our brief tour over, we head back with designer Martin to get a close look at the facility that had lured us here in the first place: that world-beating World Cup course. Though built to test professional mountain bikers, there's also been a conscious decision to make the route rideable for the enthusiastic part-timer. As somebody firmly in the amateur camp, I'm the perfect test pilot.
Cross-country routes have a mixture of uphill and downhill sections, and the World Cup will be contested by several timed loops of the course. For me, completing one circuit is challenge enough. On the trickiest section, aptly named Worry Gill, several drops and steep climbs test the bike's gears and the rider's stamina. "This steep bit has been designed so you come in straight off that downhill, and have to change gears rapidly to get up the rocks," says Martin. It looks like a cliff face to me. "But if you can't manage that, there's an easier route up the bank to the right," Martin points out.
Ah yes, the so-called "chicken run", a much easier detour for riders of my calibre. Richard has a crack at the steep part (it takes him three goes to conquer), while I meander up the chicken run and ready myself for some of the drops on the other side of the Gill.
"The course record is 17 minutes so far," says Martin. "We've picked this area to pack in some of the more technical features because there's a natural amphitheatre for spectators to sit and watch."
Richard and I had to make do with Martin's dog Barney as an audience; and even then I could feel the pressure. On the day of the World Cup, they're expecting up to 15,000 visitors.
A mixture of challenging – but fun – downhill routes weave their way through the trees to a gurgling stream in the valley floor. We cross it using a fantastic new bridge built to accommodate one cyclist at a time, with alternatively raised slats to keep grip even in the muddiest conditions. "Isn't that fantastic?" says Richard. "It's just incredible the amount of effort they've put in." I agree.
"I always thought the moors would be bleak and open," says Richard as we ride past a lake covered in a thick layer of mist. "But this is like something out of A Knight's Tale."
I stop to look at the lake, but after a day on the testing trails, I'm hallucinating with hunger, and the lake resembles an enormous steaming soup. Half an hour later, I'm tucking into a £5 lasagne and nursing the best tea I've ever tasted. We are in Yorkshire, after all.
* Dalby Forest is run by the Forestry Commission (01751 472771; forestry. gov.uk/ dalbyforest). Day admission to the forest costs £4; season passes are available.
* The mountain-bike trails at Dalby are free to use, including a free pocket-map available at the visitor centre (daily 10am-4.30pm).
* Purple Mountain Bike (01751 460011; purple mountain.co.uk) is on site. Mountain bikes start at £25 for a day's hire including helmet, puncture repair kit and pump; child bikes from £15.
* The writer stayed in Lowther House (01751 467157; lowtherhouse.com), in Pickering, which offers B&B for £65 double.
The Outdoors Show
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