Why you should cut to the Chase

Cannock Chase is an accessible, cleverly designed trail centre that’s a blast to ride, the Midlands mountain biker’s quick-fix.

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Cannock Chase: the trail guide

  • RED – Follow The Dog — 10.7km, 1.5hr
  • RED – Monkey Trail — 12km, 2hr
  • DH area – Stile Cop — jumps, drops, berms, take as long as you like playing on it

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How to get there

Cannock Chase visitor centre is easily accessed by road; it’s just a 20-minute drive from junction 12 of the M6.

Sleeping and eating

There are plenty of places to stay and eat nearby; one of the great things about being close to so many towns.

Rugeley, 2.5 miles away, is a good bet if you’re looking to stay right next to the trails.

The Horns Inn, Rugeley, 01889 586000, thehornsinn.com

Chase, Rugeley, 01889 582504, chasepub.co.uk

For more options take a look at visitcannockchase.co.uk

Fixing your bike

Swinnerton Cycles has a large on-site shop with hire bikes, demo bikes and a workshop. So, whether you’re there for a ride, to buy a new bike, or to get your bike fixed, they’ve got you covered, bikechase.co.uk

What bike to ride

With so many facets to the trails here, from the XC trails to the DH area, it really does depend on what you want to ride as to what kind of bike will be best suited.

We saw everything from fully rigids and hardtails to DH bikes in a single day. A 140mm trail bike would be the best compromise if you fancy sampling a bit of everything.

Pick of the trails

Follow The Dog into Monkey Trail with a side order of Stile Cop will satisfy all urges. If time is tight and you want the maximum thrills per minute just head straight for Stile Cop and see how many runs you can fit in.

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Cannock, will huck: pumping for speed through the trees

Cannock Chase trail centre guide

Words & pics: Sim Mainey | Article originally appeared in mbr June 2016

Let’s be honest, the number one reason we ride at trail centres is convenience. With the bare minimum of thought, planning or effort you can turn up at a number of locations in the UK, pull your bike off the back of the car, ride some weatherproof trails without a map and then get a decent brew and bacon buttie at the end. Job done. Maximum enjoyment, minimum effort.

Despite where you think I might be headed with this, in my opinion it’s actually a good thing. While rides into the unknown with nothing more than a home-whittled spork, an organically grown beard and a sackcloth sleeping bag are good for the soul, they aren’t always practical or, frankly, that enjoyable. Sometimes you want the best ride possible without the faff — convenient mountain biking.

The Midlands has taken convenience to its heart. Witness the National Exhibition Centre, located to be as accessible as possible to the masses, the M6 Toll Road — to whisk you from one side of Birmingham to the other minus the traffic — and Cannock Chase trails — a trail centre you might well have driven straight past.

Despite being conveniently plonked next to the M6, a road I have to suffer on a pretty regular basis, I’ve never ridden at Cannock Chase. Not because I’ve deliberately snubbed it, but because, despite its convenience, there’s always been the lure of riding in Wales or Shropshire to the south and west, or The Peaks to the north. A handful of muddy 24-hour races over the years hasn’t done anything to inspire further visits to the area with a bike. As a result, the Midlands has been a bit of riding deadzone for me, somewhere to pass through rather than to stop for. But with a hugely popular trail centre, and whispers of some fantastic off-piste riding on offer, I thought it was time to brave the M6 and see if Cannock’s quality matches up to its convenience.

Those in the know recommended that, despite it being a trail centre with the standard issue markers and signs, I’d be better off getting a guide to help me make the most of the place, and maybe even show me some of the off-the-map stuff. I manage to enlist the guiding services of Andy Mee, probably the cheeriest man in the bike industry. An agent for one of the bigger distribution companies, as well as a skills instructor, Andy seems to spend an equal amount of time riding his bike as he does working. Often the two are one and the same. With Cannock on his patch, he’s done a lot of ‘work’ here, the result being an in-depth knowledge of where to duck and where to dive to make the most of the trail network.

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Black runs aren’t super-technical but will catch out the unwary

Decidedly Dogged

In the beginning was Dog. Follow The Dog was Cannock’s first official trail, opened in 2005 — a near seven-mile red-graded loop. While some trail centres are designed and built from scratch, Follow The Dog came about through trail evolution — starting as a locals’ trail that probably began life as a deer track.

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Qualifiers for the black runs require skill and commitment

While the trails here have evolved from muddy ruts to sculpted ribbons, so bikes have evolved from head-down XC thoroughbred wannabees to the do-it-all, and do-it-well, trail bikes we have today. Part of that evolution has seen handlebar width grow from sub 600mm to 800mm plus. While bars have got wider, the gap between the trees has stayed the same. Five minutes into the ride and we’re already nursing bruised fingers, reassessing our ability to judge gaps and wondering if there’s something in not running full-fat bar widths.

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Just like a Smarties bar, not that we’d suggest you taste it…

Look up, stay sharp — if you don’t the forest will have you. And if the wood doesn’t get you, the stonework might. For a trail centre built in a forest, it’s remarkable how much stone there is in the ground. The trail looks like a partially melted Smarties chocolate bar; round, polished stones in a range of sizes and colours are sunk into the dark soil. For the most part they provide a fast-rolling surface that complements the fast, swooping corners, but occasionally one of those Smartie rocks will catch you out, usually on the entrance or exit of a turn, where you’ll suddenly find that your tyres aren’t going in the direction you intended.

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And no, that’s not chocolate milkshake…

Hey, hey it’s the Monkey

The Midlands isn’t exactly known for its altitude, but it does offer good VFM (that’s value for metres). By cramming as many corners onto the hill as possible, the trail builders have made the most of the meagre height, creating some fierce little climbs and some surprisingly long descents. There’s plenty of opportunity to get anaerobic and feel some lactic burn, too — especially if you stop following the dog and go the way of the monkey…

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Turn after turn creates flow and makes the most of the gradient

The Monkey Trail takes its name from another locals-built trail that has now become an extension to Follow The Dog. Where previously you had to hunt through the forest for a stuffed monkey tied to a tree to find the trail, now you follow the signs. Just because trail centres are convenient doesn’t mean they have to be easy though. The black option on Original Monkey follows that historic trail, starting with a step-down qualifier and steep corners. Despite the (slightly awkward) rock sections, there’s a natural feel to this bit of trail, as if it’s been made presentable to pass as officially sanctioned, without robbing it of the character that made it fun to ride in the first place.

Trail centres like Cannock Chase, that are convenient to reach and easy to navigate, arguably do more for growing mountain biking than anything else. While convenience is often taken to mean lower quality, or compromised, what places like this are really about is accessibility and possibility. While Original Monkey might not be a locals-only trail anymore, it’s been given up for the greater good; exclusive appeal traded for inclusive enjoyment. I wonder if the people originally responsible for the trail feel sore about this. Whether they’d rather have kept it to themselves, or if they were happy to spread the love and move on to other parts of the Chase to build the next Monkey. From talking to Andy it sounds like it’s probably the latter.

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It’s refreshing to see the trails preserved despite heavy felling

Gravity-fuelled thrills

To just call Cannock Chase a forest would be to do it a disservice. Sure, there are a lot of trees, but it’s also the largest area of heathland in the Midlands, with parkland and quarries scattered in between. The trail stays mostly within the forest, occasionally passing through a clearing, exposing you to the elements — for better or worse — and giving you a view along with a sense of place. We get to one section where trees have been recently felled, but rather than close the trail or use it as an access path for a few tons of digger, the trail is unharmed and clear. It must have been easier for the forestry services to just mash the hill and say tough luck to mountain bikers, but I get the impression they realise the worth of the trails as much as the riders, and treat them as such.

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Open areas bring a completely new trail perspective

While XC trails are a given at a trail centre, what is maybe a bit more of a surprise, particularly in the Midlands, is a DH area. Stile Cop has 10 official gravity-assisted tracks, giving you enough options to spend a whole day just in this one area of the forest alone. The lack of altitude might mean that each run is short, but it also means the ride, or push, back to the top is over quickly too. We spend a while sessioning drops and psyching ourselves up for, and out of, jumps. Sure, it’s no Fort William, but what it lacks in vertical it makes up for with punch, stacking as much as possible into the limited space available. Suitably buzzed, we crack on with the rest of the Monkey Trail, stomachs praying that the cafe hasn’t closed.

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Well-built berms dare you to stay off the brakes

There are always pieces of a trail that stand out; sections that become your lasting memory. The Lower Cliff descent is that piece of trail at Cannock. The clear felled zone makes a change from the dense trees we’ve spent most of the ride wiggling through, but that’s not the reason it’s lodged in my brain as Cannock’s defining trail. It seems as though the trail builders have used every trick in the book to make you feel like a riding god: bumps and humps give you something to pump; fade-away jumps give you maximum air for very little effort; corners are built to hold you without you having to think about touching the brake levers — it’s exhaustingly exhilarating. Even tired legs don’t stop us pushing up for a few more goes, purely for photos you understand…

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Rock sections offer a challenge, especially when it’s wet!

We’re now faced with a choice, continue on the trail towards the centre and bacon butties, or peel off and see some of the secret stuff. By this point we’re starting to flag. A full day of chasing each other down has led to empty legs and vacant eyes. We succumb to the lure of an all-day breakfast. “The good thing about not doing something is that you’ve got a reason to come back,” says a still cheery Andy. He’s right you know.

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Good cop, Stile Cop: if you’re feeling playful, check out the DH runs

For a lot of people, Cannock Chase is hugely convenient. It’s therefore good to know that convenient doesn’t automatically mean crap. The sheer variety of trails here allow you to turn up and do whatever kind of riding you like, from XC to DH, on well signposted trails or, with a keen nose, some off-piste sections. It might be the easy option, but even as a destination in itself Cannock Chase delivers.