At MBR, we’ve always sought to highlight the best places to ride in the UK and beyond. But the definition of ‘best’ has evolved massively over the last 25 years. What's changed, why, and what does the future hold?
If there’s been one constant over the last 25 years since MBR magazine first hit the shelves, it’s the trails we ride…or so you’d think. In the last quarter of a century, bike and gear technology has changed a huge amount, mountain bike racing has evolved, and the riding we do has changed too.
Trails are, ultimately, the reason we ride. Tracing the history and development of the best mountain bike trails and trail centres in the UK is the best way to see just how much mountain biking as a sport has evolved, while also giving us some clues as to what the future may hold.
25 years of finding the best riding spots
The job for any mountain bike magazine, especially one with the tagline ‘Just get out and ride’, is to inspire and inform readers about where they can actually go and ride. 25 years ago that pretty much limited options to whatever appeared on an Ordnance Survey map – and was legal to ride, of course.
The first MBR route guide was a selection of rides in the Midlands, mostly on towpaths. We re-visited these routes 10 years later for a feature, ‘Canal Knowledge’, and even then the disconnect between a modern bike’s ability and the trails was huge. Today those same trails would be best enjoyed on one of the new breed of fat-tyred, drop-barred gravel bikes rather than a mountain bike.
Not all routes have aged so poorly. Bikes and riders may be more capable, but some trails continue to provide the same level of challenge and reward they always have, garnering classic status. Often these are well established hard-wearing tracks in the mountains, like Snowdon and Helvellyn.
Erosion and repair, good and bad, have sometimes changed these trail’s character, but fundamentally these trails remain the same and still offer as much fun as they did a quarter of a century ago. Other trails, usually those on more malleable terrain, have changed out of recognition, falling from favour and disappearing into the undergrowth and obscurity.
It’s rare that legal-to-ride rights of way are taken away from us, but it’s something that requires vigilance. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gave the Great British public until January 2026 to find and record ‘missing’ historic paths, after this date no historic paths could be added to the definitive map. Many historic paths have been ridden by mountain bikers for years, but as they are not recorded as rights of way, the landowner is within their rights to close them off at any time.
Adding these ‘missing’ trails to the definitive map and making sure paths are correctly recorded will help ensure we continue to have trails to enjoy. Luckily, this is less of a critical issue as the deadline has now been cancelled.
The rise of the mountain bike trail centre
Of course when MBR launched in 1997 there was one place mountain bikers could ride where the trails definitely didn’t appear on a map – and, in fact, not needing a map was one of the big attractions.
Coed y Brenin’s Tarw Du trail was the first purpose built mountain bike trail, opening in 1996
Coed y Brenin’s Tarw Du trail was the first purpose built mountain bike trail, opening in 1996. It was soon joined by more trails, including the MBR trail, and other trail centres. Having fun, all-weather and all-ability trails has turbo-charged the sport and, while some riders are still a bit snobby about trail centres, there’s no denying the formula works.
Today there are trail centres all over the country and to some riders they are mountain biking. Easy to navigate with a bike shop, café and bike wash to hand, they’ve set an expectation for what many want out of their riding experience.
One of the key moments in trail centre development was the idea of bringing mountain biking to a more urban environment. Making riding more accessible, more convenient and more equitable has always been tricky. Creating facilities in, or close to, cities such as Parkwood Springs in Sheffield, Cathkin Braes in Glasgow and Leeds Urban Bike Park have shown that mountain biking doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of just one demographic.
Wales might be home to the first trail centre, but Scotland didn’t hang around in adopting the idea. The 7 Stanes project – seven trail centres in south Scotland – kicked off in Glentress in 2002. Today Forestry and Land Scotland lists 14 trail centres on its website.
Not content with providing riders with superb purpose-built trails Scotland unveiled the Scottish Land Reform Act in 2003. In short, this established a right for mountain bikers to access most land in Scotland. Unlike England and Wales, mountain bikers were no longer tied to certain rights of way.
Fashion, style and mountain biking trends
Like every other aspect of mountain biking, trails have been subject to the whims of fashion over the past 25 years. Some have played a part in the sport’s growth, while others have been evolutionary dead ends. North Shore – trails made of wooden planks suspended high above the ground – made sense in its native home of Vancouver, where digging into the brash and rock covered forest floor was harder than building over it. In Hertfordshire though? Not so much. A trend few are sad to see the back of.
Other imported styles of riding have translated much better. Again, it’s Canada that has had a big influence in how, what and where we ride, with the emergence of bike parks.
Whistler Bike Park has long attracted riders from the UK looking to push their limits and experience some of the most ambitious trail building projects in the world. More focussed on skill-based riding than covering distance, with jumps, drops and other features, not to mention a chairlift, Whistler became the pin-up destination for anyone with dreams of emulating their favourite freeride heroes. It was a formula that was ripe for copying.
Scotland might have made big strides with the trail centre concept, but Wales has responded by dominating the bike park landscape in the UK. Venues like BikePark Wales, Revolution and Dyfi Bike Park are booked solid, year round. Along with offering a different style of riding, bike parks also brought the idea of pay-to-ride to an audience beyond DH-centric uplift day regulars, and a growing realisation that trails which generate money lead to more trails being built.
Building race tracks and the rise of enduro
Racing and events have always played a huge role in mountain biking’s development. Everything from bikes and components through to the sports image and social side have come from and been refined by racing. Paying to line up against other riders has also played its part in trail development.
Mountain bike orienteering races, such as the Polaris, made use of the established trail network, while cross-country and downhill races tended to take place on custom built tracks.
It’s here that much of mountain biking’s trail development really happened. Rather than being stuck with the trails we were allowed to ride, we could create what we wanted to ride. Trails that were designed to be fun and would push bikes and riders, helping to improve both. As bikes and riders got better, so the trails would get harder, providing a virtuous circle of progression.
Away from the sanctioned race track something similar was happening in forests around the country. Illicit trail building has been going on as long as people have ridden off road but, away from prying eyes, trails that resembled old-school DH courses, but with new-school twists, started to pop up. In part a response to modern DH tracks requiring elite level skills and a full blown DH bike, these new trails were designed to offer up a similar level of challenge but for riders on the new breed of exceptionally capable trail bikes that could be pushed hard downhill, but didn’t require pushing on the way back up. A new discipline, Enduro, emerged.
Fun-centric trails designed for the bike in our shed, where do we sign up? Well, online as it goes. While MBR is still very much committed to providing ideas for places to ride, you won’t find pull out route cards and turn-by-turn directions in the mag any more. GPS units and apps have replaced paper maps when it comes to following and finding trails. In some cases ride planning and sharing services have opened up new riding to those who previously might have just stayed within the boundaries of a trail centre, but they’ve also thrown an unwanted spotlight onto trails that have flown under the radar for years.
Social media has had a similar impact, creating a real buzz about the riding in some areas and turning some trails into stars in their own right – even if those who built them would rather their creations had stayed a secret. As with our trails, it’s all about responsible use, and Twitter accounts, like Keeper of the Peak – providing trail condition updates – and campaigns such as Trash Free Trails show that social media can be used to mobilise and galvanise riders to help look after our trails.
The future of mountain bike trails
So, what does the future of our trails look like, at least in the UK? Our Trail Blazers series points to some likely outcomes, like Stu and Brenda Price who are fundamental to the success of the Dales Bike Centre, or Dave Evans of Bike Corris in the Dyfi valley in Wales.
Travelling to new areas to experience new trails and styles of riding will always be part of mountain biking’s appeal, but what we all want are trails from our doorstep. Achieving this is going to take more than time in the woods with a mattock though.
As riders we need to be more proactive in keeping on top of issues on our local trails
With purpose built trails and the rights of way network seeing heavier use than ever, and freshly built wild-trails springing up all over the place, what’s needed is a shift to rider managed trails. As riders we need to be more proactive in keeping on top of issues on our local trails, from access, to erosion, and conflict with other users.
Doing nothing about these issues just isn’t an option if we want to continue to enjoy the trails we have. Trail management needs to be just as much a part of the sport as trail building.
Groups like Ride Sheffield and the Tweed Valley Trails Association have shown that presenting a united front and actively managing the trails we ride can lead to positive outcomes for riders, landowners and other land users. Large landowners like Forestry and Land Scotland, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and Forestry England are all at different stages of working with mountain bikers who want to use their land. One thing they all have in common is that they need to work with groups, not individuals.
An organisation that could help with the creation and guidance of smaller, regional groups makes some sense.
Attempts to create one, certainly in England, have in the past been met with resistance and stalled. In Scotland, where the right to ride comes heavily caveated with responsible behaviour, Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS) has managed to gain the trust and cooperation of riders to become an organisation that most feel speaks on their behalf. With the success of the Trails For Wales campaign, opening up more trails across Wales to mountain bikers, and NRW actively mapping and engaging with mountain bikers on their land, it’s likely we’ll see a Welsh DMBinS equivalent in the near future.
Trail centres will continue to be popular but there’ll be pressure to update trails to keep up with riders’ progression. Catering to that demand for evermore challenging trails, we can expect to see more privately owned bike parks opening. With a business model that depends on keeping trails in good working order and creating new trails to keep riders returning, bike parks might be the best example of sustainable trail growth we have.
Paying to ride, along with travel, are barriers to the sport. As councils discover the positive impact pump tracks can have, for relatively little money, we can expect to see more of them appearing – pioneering the way for further urban mountain bike developments down the line.
The interplay between bike technology and trails will continue. As e-bike use increases, this will likely change the way we look at trails. As riding uphill on an e-bike is almost as fun as riding one downhill, we could see more technical uphill singletrack trails being built in place of direct fire road climbs. Trail centres could repurpose descents that have fallen from favour, flipping them into climbs and building new, contemporary feeling descents.
Mountain biking is a much more diverse sport, in many ways, than it was when MBR first graced the newstand.
Whether you’re into sending huge jump lines in the desert, multi-day rides in the wilderness or just goofing about on two wheels in the local woods, it’s all mountain biking. It’s this diversity and choice that has prolonged its popularity and the same goes for the trails we enjoy.
The UK is a small and crowded place, but the quality and diversity of trails we enjoy is no accident. Much of it is down to us as riders, who have built, bought and fought for them. Now it’s time to make sure the next 25 years are as successful as the last.