Scattered up and down the British Isles are purpose built trail centres. Their colour-coded trails, graded by difficulty based on technicality and length, welcome thousands of riders every week - but is their day done, ponders Guy Kesteven.
Twenty years ago, purpose built trail centres were the bright new future of mountain biking. But how are they doing today, and are they still relevant when so many of us are riding off-piste trails – often in the same woods and forests as officially sanctioned riding?
When Coed Y Brenin was chopped, hacked, and boulder-rolled into existence in a soggy, boggy, largely unrideable Welsh forest in 1997, it totally changed mountain biking in the UK. Every area had ‘mountain biking woods’ with more trails in than others, but they were mostly just deer tracks and motorbike gouges that we adopted as our ‘own’.
Dafydd Davis and his mates not only armoured their trails with enough rock to survive the worst weather, they also made them exclusively for mountain bikers. That meant you could go and ride them when your local trails were axle deep swamp, and you could go as fast as you dared without running into a dog walker or rambler coming the other way.
As visitor numbers grew, the baked beans on toast shack at the trailhead was replaced with an eco visitor centre with a cafe on top, bike shop underneath, showers, toilets and bike wash areas. The first Red Bull trail was joined by the longer MBR trail, and then Pink Heifer and Beast added even longer and more technically demanding options for repeat visitors.
Coed y Brenin became an MTB Mecca overnight, and that meant ghostly local hotels and B&Bs were suddenly having to take on extra staff. Pubs and restaurants were full on a night, and petrol stations around Dolgellau had queues of cars and vans fuelling up after driving in from all over Britain.
Forest Enterprise and Welsh tourist organisations clocked what was going on, and soon more trail centres sprung up all over Wales, while the Scottish Borders rolled out its ‘Seven Stanes’ selection. English forests like Dalby, Whinlatter, Grizedale, Cannock Chase and the Forest of Dean grew official bike trails too, and the natural trails we’d all been riding became overgrown as people flocked to bespoke centres that guaranteed all-weather riding and a proper cafe.
Coed y Brenin became an MTB Mecca overnight, and that meant ghostly local hotels and B&Bs were suddenly having to take on extra staff
As is often the case, initial government investment wasn’t followed up by consistent support, and while teams of volunteers fought valiantly to maintain existing trails, many of them got ravaged by the sheer number of riders. MTB resorts in Canada and the Alps were turning mountain sides into giant gravity-assisted BMX parks with groomed jumps and berms, and the rocky ‘natural’ singletrack of the UK’s official trail centres just didn’t scratch the itch as the sport developed.
More progressive, privately owned ‘bike parks’ such as BikePark Wales, Revolution, Dyfi, Hamsterley, Rogate, Winhill, Stainburn and others started to appear to fill the gap, but riders also started taking up tools and digging trails themselves. Often in the same forests that contained those pioneering trail centre loops. Bikes had gotten more capable, riders had become more skilled, but that purpose-built singletrack was stuck in a rut.
So where does that leave traditional trail centres now? From a personal point of view, the only trail centre I use regularly is Stainburn. That’s mainly because it’s on my doorstep, and while the official trails are a nightmare of janky, rocky ‘anti-flow’, that actually makes it a brilliant place for testing suspension. Yet most of my time there I spend riding the ‘cheeky trails’, as they offer the flow and gradient needed to challenge progressive geometry.
Bikes had gotten more capable, riders had become more skilled, but that purpose-built singletrack was stuck in a rut
Given the choice though, my mates and I always prefer to hit up any of the many off-piste options that have been carved into local, or even distant, hillsides by aggro riding artisans and lockdown urchins. And from what I see, that’s exactly what most other riders do as well.
That doesn’t sound like great news for the traditional trail centres, but I’ve actually visited a few recently on bike launches and it wasn’t the gloomy experience I expected.
For instance, I was at Coed Y Brenin on the first Sunday of the Easter break and the car park was absolutely rammed. There was everything from family cars with racks on, the inevitable ranks of VW transporters, and even a Ferrari with inner tubes hanging out from under the bonnet (yes really). Heading down to the visitor centre, Beics Brenin was flat-out hiring bikes to families, stag parties or mates/partners of experienced riders who’d convinced them to come and have a go. There were groups of kids and adults being coached, some riders taking a leaders course, and the cafe was full of riders either re-fuelling or pre-fuelling.
At Cannock Chase a few months earlier, it had been exactly the same scene, but with more Cotic hardtails and less coil-shocked enduro bikes. Even so, there were still the same strings of kids, or nervous partners, being led to the trails like squawking ducklings.
And that’s because the combination of easy car parking and guaranteed signposted trails with graded difficulty and a cafe for post-ride rewards is still the super convenient mountain biking ‘ready meal’ that made the concept such a success in the first place.
So while more advanced riders might be using them a lot less, I reckon trail centres still have a very valuable role as the nursery slopes and recruiting grounds for newbies, novices or those who just don’t fancy hunting out feral freeriding.
Looking to visit a trail centre and not sure where to start? We’ve got a whole trail centre section of the site dedicated to them. You’ll want a bike to ride too, and you don’t need to spend thousands to get something good, as our guide to the best budget mountain bikes attests, with each model featured having been thoroughly tried and tested by us.