Like Wordle for bikes, Dan Greenwood’s trails challenge the mind as much as the body. Sim Mainey explores the one nerve-shaking example at Wharncliffe Woods, Sheffield, UK.


Sim Mainey chats with mountain biking polymath Dan Greenwood to learn more about his unique approach to trail building. 

Standing on the edge of Wharncliffe Crags my feet are level with the top of the birch trees. Winter means they are stripped to the bone, giving a clear view of the woodland floor below. Birch are pioneers and opportunists, often the first trees to occupy disturbed ground. And around me is most definitely disturbed ground – a chaotic scene of rock, root, dirt and brash. It seems an odd landscape to come to in search of flow, but I know I’m in the right place.

With me is Dan Greenwood. If you ride an Orange, chances are Dan has either had a hand in assembling your bike, or cast an eye over it before it’s headed out the factory doors in Halifax. As Orange’s workshop manager, Dan spends working hours spinning spanners and after hours turning pedals, and with a couple of EWS podiums under his belt, it’s safe to say he’s as handy on the bike as he is on the tools.

Dan Greenwood of Orange

Trails as puzzles

As well as building bikes, Dan builds trails. Trails with a particular character. Dan calls them ‘Tech-Flow’ trails, but most of us would call them ‘steep and scary with a high penalty for failure’. And these unique puzzles are why we’re here.

Wharncliffe, on the northern reaches of Sheffield, is an iconic riding destination. It’s long been a place for trail builders to let their imaginations run riot and for riders to push their limits. Ride from one end of the woods to the other and you can experience mountain biking’s trail building progression in chronological order, like sideways archaeology. Old school, new school, built when someone should have been at school, trails that have appeared in high production videos and some which are strictly no-media allowed, it has it all.

While many of the trails are dug into the soft and easily sculpted dirt, Dan and his like-minded friends have deliberately based their efforts amongst the rough and tumbled down rocks of Wharnie’s shattered crags and old mine workings, finding flow in the most unlikely of places.

Find the flow

Flow on a bike is a hard thing to explain to those who haven’t experienced it. That feeling of becoming just a body effortlessly moving through space, with rider, bike and trail in unity, is one of the best feelings you can have on two wheels. When you experience flow you know you’re riding well. It’s such an intrinsic part of riding a bike that every trail guide, skills tutorial, video, and photo is, in some way, influenced by it. We admire it, aspire to it, we seek it out. Sometimes elusive but always a thrill, flow is what most riders are trying to achieve on a ride, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Bushwhacking through the bracken and birch below the crags, Dan points out some of his old trails. Some now seldom ridden, some long abandoned. Small rocks piled against large slabs are clues as to where the trail went and what was going through the trailbuilder’s mind at the time. There are few obvious lines here, but there are plenty of interesting shaped rocks, some perched precariously on larger slabs, others iceberg-like, tips of what are clearly massive chunks of stone. For the trailbuilders, these rock features act as the dots that need to be joined up, the trail incorporating as many of them as possible along the way. It’s safe to say these are not your typical flow trails, “It can’t all be trail centres you know,” teases Dan.

It can’t all be trail centres you know

Funnily enough, the best loved trail centre trails are those which have the most flow designed right into them. That feeling of leaving one corner and almost effortlessly arriving at the next, without losing speed in the process, is the mark of a trail which has been built by someone who understands flow and how to let every rider, regardless of ability, experience it. It’s often the reason that, controversially, many blue-graded trails are more fun to ride than their red counterparts.

The temptation then, is to equate flow with easier trails. Afterall, what could be more flowy than a perfectly smooth ribbon of hard packed dirt? But flow isn’t that obvious, as anyone who’s struggled to maintain speed around a pump track can attest. Flow is earned, worked for and only bequeathed in return for effort. Blue graded trails and purpose built flow-trails might help lower that barrier, but flow is relative and can be found even where it doesn’t look like it should exist.

Dan’s trails are a case in point. Large rocks, awkward steps, steep rollers, odd commiting turns; all require pause for thought and some deliberate, precision moves. To look at you’d think they would be best ridden in a trials-like fashion – hopping, track standing, holding the bike on the brakes as you squeak down a piece of gritstone the size of a car. You could ride these trails slowly and with purpose if you had the skill, but as Dan demonstrates, that’s not how he designed them to be ridden.

Most of these trails only work when ridden at speed; fall below a minimum level of momentum and commitment and the trail won’t work, and you’ll find yourself dropping into holes and struggling to make your way over the unforgiving rockscape.

Finesse is needed to coax flow out of the trails

Speed is your friend on these disjointed trails, but it’s not just a case of wrestling the trail into submission with brute force. Finesse is needed to coax flow out of the trails and avoid the beating that speed, combined with large impacts, can dish out to both bike and body. Dan’s fork and shock wear their o-rings at the far end of the travel, an indication of how much they are being worked. As Dan comes down the trail tyres deform, rims clang and there’s a dull thud now and again as forces make their way through the bike. With this much bike brutality on display, can this really be considered flow, even if it is of the tech variety? The trail is definitely technical, the rider is most certainly flowing, so while Tech-Flow might be Dan’s tongue in cheek name for this style of trail, it does what it says on the tin.

We’ve probably all experienced following a skilled rider down a trail and watching as they pull away, apparently with no effort at all. Rocks that snatch and stall one rider provide a Mario Kart-style power boost to others. This is flow at work. Flow isn’t just about being able to go fast on smooth trails, but about being smooth on any trail, finding the speed hidden in technical sections and using it to your advantage. If you understand flow, you understand how to ride a mountain bike. If you ride a mountain bike on some level, you understand flow.

What exactly is flow, anyway?

So, if flow can be created, regardless of the trail, how do you do it? To answer that particular question we need to turn to Andy Barlow, head coach at Dirt School and long time skills guru here at MBR. Andy explains that when we talk about achieving flow, what you’re actually looking to achieve is unconscious competence.

In riding terms this is where an action or technique becomes an acquired skill. It’s an automatic reflex that you don’t have to consciously think about, it just happens. The more of your riding that falls into this category, the more flow you’ll experience. This is where that wonderful effortless feeling comes from – that ability to do without thinking is flow. Getting to this mental state takes plenty of practice and constant refinement. From body position and braking points to bunny hops and front wheel lifts, there are an assortment of different skills needed to help make riding second nature, and no matter how good you get, there’s always room for improvement. Want to know more? Andy has plenty of advice on how to grow your flow.

It’s clear I have some way to go to achieve unconscious competence on Dan’s Tech-Flow trails as I see-saw my way over and down all manner of slick and square-edged rocks. Other riders have no such problem.

Craig Evans and ‘Hard Grit’

Dan’s trailwork has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated, by other riders with a similar idea of what can constitute flow. Local lad Craig Evans – winner of Red Bull’s infamous Hard Line event – rates Dan’s work highly. In his video ‘Hard Grit’, Craig takes on some of Dan’s trails in his own unique way – the name check in the title sequence being a source of great pride for Greenwood. If you’ve not seen the Steel City Media produced video, it’s worth sticking a bookmark in the mag and heading off to YouTube for four minutes and five seconds to witness what flow in the face of adversity looks like.

Hindus believe divinity lies within. Deee-Lite claimed that ‘groove is in the heart’. Watching Craig ride these trails, you’d have to say that flow is in the rider. It’s not so much that Craig makes the trails look easy – they still look very much the rocky horror show they are – but that he’s able to tune into the natural frequency of the trails. This allows him to appear to be riding in a style more akin to lapping a smooth, concrete skatepark than plummeting down a loosely connected waterfall of rocks. Dan is in awe of how Craig interprets his trails, managing to create flow where even he struggles to find it. Watching Craig ride, you’d have to conclude that flow is relative and exists everywhere. The better you get, the more you find. I’ve yet to find my flow on these trails, but Dan reckons he’s got something that might help with the search.

Lurking in these woods are monsters. Giant monoliths; blocks of stone that are equally improbable, intimidating and alluring, especially for a trail builder. I follow Dan down the trail, struggling to keep him in sight as I perform press-ups on my handlebars.

Ahead is what looks like a huge kicker jump made out of solid gritstone. I cautiously edge up to the lip to see if it can be rolled down or if a hail-Mary yank of the front wheel is required to clear a huck to flat. Thankfully for me it’s a smooth run-out into a left-hander below. It’s a formidable lump of stone in a line of impressive rocks – I can see why it’s been woven into the trail. Dan pushes back up the trail to show me how it’s done. Somewhere between the point that he clips in and this hulking mass of rock, Dan generates enough speed to pop off the top of it. My timid roll in, roll out compared to Dan’s purposeful push in, pop out, demonstrates that, flow or no flow, some moves just require the appropriate minerals and skill to pull off.

As we reach the bottom of the hill I look back up what we’ve just ridden down. The trail is all but invisible to those who don’t know what they are looking for. It doesn’t call attention to itself like a series of ruts cut into the forest floor, but to the trained eye, the dark stripe through the green moss and the rocks placed just-so at the edge of slabs are signs that this is indeed a mountain bike trail, one that is an exercise in subtlety, despite the size of the features on it.

Dan’s trails might not fit most people’s textbook definition of flow, but from how they are conceived and built, to how they are ridden, flow is at the very heart of them. They prove that trails can be built in the most unconventional of places, and that flow isn’t just the preserve of manicured trails. Adjust your mindset, open your eyes, sharpen your skills and you’ll find flow, tech or otherwise, is everywhere.