XC marks the spot

Dalby Forest is a cross-country pleasure palace. The full red route is a good day out, bolt on the black for a World Cup XC experience of your own.

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Dalby Forest: the trail guide

  • Green Ellerburn Trail — 4km, 1 hour
  • Green Adderstone Trail — 12.4km, 2 hours
  • Red (Full) — 34.3km, 4 hours
  • BLACK – 6.4km, 40 mins

Sleeping and eating

Pickering town is right on the edge of Dalby Forest and has everything you might need including hotels, B&Bs, pubs, restaurants and supermarkets. welcometopickering.co.uk

Fixing your bike

Dalby Bike Barn is based out of Dalby Forest and offers servicing and bike hire. dalbybikebarn.co.uk

What bike to ride

The trails at Dalby are mostly smooth and flowing, so a short-travel full-suspension bike or hardtail will be the best tool for the job. The essential component for getting the most out of the trails is a dropper post; if you don’t already have one, buy, beg or borrow one.

Pick of the trails

The full red route is a good day out, bolt on the black for a World Cup XC experience of your own.

dalby forest

Dalby Forest, Yorkshire trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR October 2015 | Words and photos: Sim Mainey

Dalby Forest’s World Cup cross-country race track has been open to the public for years, but does it offer a suitable challenge for trail riders? Only one way to find out…

It’s fair to say that as a nation we have an easier time getting our heads around downhill racing than cross-country. In part that’s down to familiarity — we’re lucky enough to have the DH World Cup rock up to Fort William every year, forming a prestigious and permanent, well-attended fixture on the international racing calendar. In contrast we only get World Cup XC races sporadically. This lack of interaction with top-level XC racing can lead to lazy stereotypes, such as that XC racers are all actually roadies, lack any real off-road skill and have stems more suited to the back of a barge than the front of a mountain bike.

dalby forest

Slippery trails carve through a primal wilderness

A lot of those preconceptions were ridden into the Yorkshire mud in 2010 when the XC World Cup circus came to Dalby Forest. Rather than a sprint around the edge of a field (as many people thought it was going to be), the course threw in plenty of technical features: rock drops, root-covered descents, high-speed singletrack and super-tight twists and turns. Armed only with a token gesture to suspension and Lycra skinsuits, the top racers took the course apart, leaving plenty of spectators wondering if they’d be able to survive the challenging course. And after the circus left town the public got a chance to find out, as the course was incorporated into the trail network — and that’s why, years later, I’m at Dalby Forest trying to get my race head on.

Unlike Nino Schurter or Julien Absalon in 2010, Dan and I arrive with a full complement of leg hair, baggy shorts and long-travel full-suspension bikes. We are the epitome of the modern trail rider and we’re here to see just how hard a World Cup XC course really is. Dalby’s black trail, the old World Cup course, is only 6.4km so, rather than just dive straight into it, we decide to warm up on the red route to get our heart rates into the appropriate zone. Whatever that means.

dalby forest

Trail bikes win when it comes to drop-offs

Into the red

Depending on your riding style you’ll either find Dalby’s red route a constant pleasure or a constant frustration. There isn’t a split between the climbs and the descents, no winch and plummet, no point where it’s obvious you have to raise or lower your saddle. Instead, it’s a constant dripfeed of singletrack that works its way up and down. You really have to stay on the power and pump every corner to keep your speed up as, riding it blind, you have no idea if you’re about to be dealt a sharp climb or steep drop after the next turn. Momentum is your friend and you have to be careful not to lose it. My left thumb is getting a real workout on my dropper lever, permanently hovering over it ready to lower or raise the saddle, while my right thumb works the gears non-stop.

Mentally, the red trail is exhausting, and I love it. Dan is less sure. Dan likes his climbs to be climbs and descents to be descents, and the stuff in-between is just filler. The endless unpredictability of the trail messes with his head. Being summer, the dense foliage limits vision to the next corner, scuppering any planning ahead, forcing us to keep our reactions sharp.

dalby forest

Tight turns suck speed and test bike-handling

A lot of trail centres can feel quite artificial, which is understandable because that’s exactly what they are. They are built to deliver maximum thrills and to withstand the tread of a million tyres. Dalby, however, feels mainly natural, more like something you’d find in the wild than a trail that’s been built. Part of that is down to the prevalence of sand, rather than the usual trail centre aggregate, giving the impression you’re following a deer track or that someone has cleared the brushwood to the side to make a trail. The ferns and overgrown brambles that lash at your arms as you speed along just add to that natural feeling.

While the trails have a heap of character they have pretty limited views. The lack of any great elevation and the dense woodland mean that you won’t be seeing much of the North York Moors landscape — but it does mean you’re more likely to focus your attention on what’s happening in front of you.

dalby forest

Sandy descents look more natural than nurtured

Having worn our legs and thumbs out on the singletrack, it’s a relief to come across the oasis that is the freeride park. A section of North Shore woodwork delivers us to the start of the jump area and pump track. All manner of riders, from kids on balance bikes to those old enough to know better, are having a stab at getting air off the jumps, then getting a bit more height and doing it while keeping their tongues in their mouths.

A few close shaves and dodgy landings later, it’s time to take on the reason we’d come to Dalby: the World Cup course itself.

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Rock step and jump: woodwork leads to tumbling trails

The main event

The black trail has been modified slightly from the original World Cup race course, but enough of the main features have been left to allow you to put yourself in the racers’ disco slippers to see how you might compare with the world’s fastest.

Being honest, I’m not a racer — I’m not even particularly competitive when it comes to riding my bike — but there’s something about riding with another person on what you know is a race track that changes everything. You try a bit harder, the lactic acid burns in your legs and the horrible taste of blood rises to the back of your throat.

Click-click… the sound of pedals being clipped into and we’re off. It’s not a race but there’s no doubt about it: we’re racing.

Having watched the World Cup in the flesh back in 2010 I can remember certain sections of the course, but not well enough to use the knowledge to my advantage. I’m concentrating on keeping Dan in sight as we drop into the rocky, stepped descent. I’m riding pretty ragged, the classic novice racer’s mistake of trying too hard rather than trying to be smooth, but 140mm of travel and 29in wheels see me through the worst of it and allow me to make up a bit of ground.

We drop into the dark woods, both of us pumping the suspension and eking out as much speed as we can from the trail. A blind switchback corner into a sharp climb and we’re both mashing thumbs into our gear levers, the sound of our chains being forced from one end of the block to the other a clear sign of the mechanical torture we’re putting our poor bikes through.

I overcompensate, put myself in too low a gear and almost flip off the back of the bike on the climb, only just managing to keep traction through soft pedalling and careful bum placement on my saddle. No sooner have I done all this than it’s time to reverse direction and drop again. At trail-riding speeds I found a constantly up-and-down trail quite fun, but at race speed (our version of it, at least) I’m seeing Dan’s point of view — this is tough going. Gears are crunched once again and saddles dropped. By now I’m gasping and we’ve done maybe a fifth of the course.

The iconic feature of the Dalby track, and the one that drew the biggest crowds on race day, is the near-vertical rock drop in Worry Gill. It looks intimidating, and on an XC race bike I’d certainly be a little wary, but on my long-travel trail bike I clatter down it without needing much finesse. Dan jumps off it. I don’t think I saw that move at the World Cup, so Dan’s one up on the race snakes there.

The ravine that follows is like something out of Jurassic Park, lush with green ferns at their summer finest. The recent rain has made the trail slippery here and the puddles mean we’ve soon got grit in our eyes. We hit the bottom of the hill and onto a flat stretch. I’m spent. Absolutely empty. I’ve managed to burn my reserves in an embarrassingly short amount of time, but there’s still one of the few features I can remember from the course to come: the climb back up. I have a feeling Dan has a bit more in his legs than I do, but he doesn’t know what’s coming up and I reckon I’m a better climber than he is, so let’s have it.

The climb in question is pretty much a straight line back up the hill to where we started. Usually I’m a big fan of the most efficient way to the top of a hill — get it over with and enjoy the descent — but in this case I’ll make an exception. It just sucks, in a glorious, painful and utterly unrelenting way. I top out with Dan nipping at my heels. I stop. Not very competitive or in the spirit of racing, but it feels like it’s a choice between that or vomiting onto my top tube.

There’s a brief truce as Dan and I empty sweat out of our helmet padding and get some air back in our lungs. Faces de-reddened, racing recommences. The next section is a rooty, twisty bit of trail down to the fire road, a beautiful example of technical singletrack, and we lap it up. However, Dan seems to lap it up a bit more than I do, and he gets to the bottom ahead of me before putting the power down on the fire road. I click down the block and get out of the saddle, managing to pull the gap between us a bit tighter.

I’m gonna have him. I’m going to do it, and bragging rights will be mine. But that rotter Dan has obviously held a little back as he manages to complete the loop just ahead of me. Bah. I blame the camera bag, as I always do. Red-faced and short of breath, we shake hands. I try to be gracious in defeat.

We’ve knocked off the black but there’s still the rest of the red to finish. This is done at a slightly more sedate speed, because we’re warming down. That’s what racers do. It’s not because we’re absolutely knackered, oh no.

dalby forest

When your legs are shot it’s time to ‘warm down’

We arrive back at the now-empty car park. The cafe is closed so there’s no opportunity to have an awards ceremony — instead I offer Dan a victory sausage roll and a swig of Lucozade. We contemplate following up the day’s ride with an XC Eliminator race around Pickering town centre but write it off as a stupid idea, much like XC Eliminator.

That kind of stuff gives us XC racers a bad name.

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Dalby Forest: it’s good enough for the stars of XC

A brief history of the World Cup at Dalby

Dalby Forest’s XC race course was built specifically for the arrival of the World Cup in 2010, and the first race was a resounding success. Over 11,000 visitors attended the race, which finished with the closest finish yet in World Cup XC, when Nino Schurter beat Julien Absalon in a sprint finish. Inna Kalentieva won the women’s event.

The race returned to Dalby the following year, when Absalon again played bridesmaid, this time to Jaroslav Kulhavy. Julie Bresset won the women’s edition, and it’s clear that the two winners had a taste for riding in the UK — both also won Olympic gold at Hadleigh Park in 2012.