Behind DBC’s ‘centre of trails’ is an inspiring couple whose vision could point the way to the future of UK mountain biking.
Life is complicated, so sometimes simple can be revolutionary. When the trail centre at Coed y Brenin opened in 1996 it was an instant hit with mountain bikers, and it did this by making going for a great ride simple. Rather than having to find and research trails, plot a route, work out the best place to park and find somewhere to buy a sandwich and spare tube, trail centres packaged all these elements together, allowing riders to turn up and just get on with riding. With purpose-built trails designed to cater for all abilities, it didn’t matter whether you were a grizzled old-hand or a fresh-to-the-sport novice, you were guaranteed a good time. Not only that, you could have a good time together, allowing family rides to be both possible and entertaining for everyone.
The idea quickly caught on, and similar centres started popping up all over the country, putting otherwise unheard of areas on riders’ radars. For many riders, trail centres became mountain biking. While the boom in publicly-funded trail centre building has mostly fizzled out, and some riders are now finding their thrills in the new breed of bike parks, existing trail centres are still hugely popular. The formula works as well today as it always has.
So what happens if you take that same simple concept of packaging up all the things that make going for a ride simple and apply it to somewhere with an existing trail network?
If you’ve ridden in the Yorkshire Dales there’s a good chance you’ve started your ride from Dales Bike Centre, just outside of Reeth in Swaledale. With accommodation, parking, a bike shop and cafe, it’s the obvious place to kick off a ride. Sound familiar?
Centre of trails
Dales Bike Centre (DBC) calls itself the ‘Centre of Trails’. Outside the bike shop is a signpost with arrows pointing to each compass point, all inscribed with the same word – ‘Trails’.
The word play and fingerpost sign are deliberately tongue in cheek, but both ring true. Passing DBC’s front door are the C2C route, National Cycle Network Route 71, Yorkshire Dales Cycleway, The Swale Trail and a web of bridleways that run in all directions. DBC, and its owners Stu and Brenda Price, are very much at the centre of the trails.
Stu is rarely seen without a smile, and you don’t need to spend long in his company to feel your mood lift and return his smile with your own. Initial impressions of this tall man with an ever-present grin and friendly north-east lilt are that he loves his job and is happy with his lot, but spend a bit more time with him and you realise that he’s not merely cheerful, he’s truly content.
Contentment has taken a good deal of work though. At the same time that the trails at Coed y Brenin were opening, Stu was working at the Youth Hostel in Grinton, just up the road from the current site of DBC. Originally from South Shields, he’d come to the Dales, fallen in love with them and decided to make them his home. Stu’s wife Brenda is a local lass who’d moved away for uni and then work – firstly as an outdoor instructor and then managing an outdoor education centre – before the pull of home brought her back to Swaledale and Stu. Being where you want to be with the person you want to be with, doing what you want to be doing: it’s as close to living the dream as it gets. No wonder Stu is always smiling.
Despite the Prices’ mutual love for the area, encounters with other riders in the late ‘90s were rare, which was strange considering the amount of riding on offer. With their combined experience, they felt there was an opportunity to be had.
The idea for DBC came about in 2001 after the couple had visited trail centres in Wales and the Scottish Borders and come away impressed with the way these venues had successfully packaged mountain biking. They couldn’t see why a similar idea couldn’t be replicated in Swaledale. The big difference would be that this would be a private venture, unlike other trail centres that had been built by publicly funded organisations. While building a bike shop and cafe wouldn’t be straightforward or inexpensive, it would be doable. What was never going to happen though was building mountain bike-only trails in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. But they didn’t need to, they just had to help riders explore the existing network.
While the concept was simple, getting planning permission was much less so. When permission was sought for the buildings that would be the cafe and bike shop, they were met with resistance and confusion by the Park’s planning board. Nothing like this had been done before and the planning board struggled to get its head around what was being proposed.
After a lot of explanation, discussion and compromise, permission was finally granted in 2003, and building could commence.
For 2021 DBC is starting work on the first phase of its expansion plans, having outgrown the current buildings. With additional seats in the cafe, larger bike storage facilities, showers for day visitors and more parking and accommodation for those looking to stay a bit longer, DBC will be better placed to cope with the number of riders who are now coming to Swaledale.
Introducing Ard Rock
It’s a sizable and expensive undertaking, but it’s not been the Park slowing them down this time. Having seen what Stu and Bren can do and the positive impact it’s made on the area, the Park is now very pro-cycling, and planning permission was granted unanimously by the planning board.
The pandemic has obviously had an effect on DBC over the past year, and despite technically being able to have the bike shop open, they chose to keep it closed to deter visitors traveling to the area. The cafe (or cakery, to give its proper title) has been running a mail-order cake service which has been hugely popular – if riders can’t come to the cake, the cake can come to them. From providing bike hire, food, accommodation or cake by post, having multiple income streams has been a key part of the overall success of the business.
Success doesn’t mean that Stu and Brenda are resting on their laurels; quite the opposite. They are always adapting the business to move with the times. While Stu might have started his career hiring out £700 hardtails, today the hire fleet is made up of high-end full-suspension bikes and e-bikes. Partly this is because better bikes require less maintenance, but the market has also changed. Those looking to experience mountain biking for the first time want to do it on something boutique rather than budget, and e-bikes have allowed those who might have been put off riding in the Dales altogether to enjoy getting out and exploring. More experienced riders are also hiring e-bikes to see what all the fuss is about and coming back impressed and putting in an order at the bike shop. The Dales makes for a great showroom.
It’s not just technology that’s changed; the type of riding has changed too. The Dales has typically been home to archetypical XC riding: stiff, gravelly climbs, long stretches of moorland singletrack and rough, rocky descents. Despite its terrain, the Yorkshire Dales is not the obvious place for an enduro race. It certainly has potential, but with multiple land owners, shooting estates, ecologically sensitive areas and drystone walls carving up the hillside, logistically, it doesn’t make sense. But the Dales is used to hosting bike races that make use of the rugged countryside. The Scott trial, a famous motorcycle trials endurance race across 84 miles of the Dales, has been running since 1914, so when the idea of the Ard Rock Enduro was mooted, land owners already had a good idea of what would be involved and were open to the concept.
Come race day, walls and fences are carefully disassembled, or have ramps put over them, trails are taped out, and at the end everything is put back together so you’d hardly know a race had happened. This is what makes this event so special – outside of the race itself, few of these trails even exist, let alone can be ridden. DBC serves as the hub for the race which over the years has ballooned into a festival and become a highlight of the calendar.
In 2019, on the eve of the Ard rock, a weather bomb hit Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. Over a metre’s worth of rain came down in two hours. Flooding ravaged the area, and although there was no loss of life, homes and businesses were destroyed. The mountain biking community was quick to respond, firstly with fundraising and then by helping with rebuilding. Stu put a post on Facebook asking for volunteers to come and clear fields of rocks, rocks that had been the drystone wall that ran alongside the river. Seventy riders turned up to help – an amazing number given the low-key shout-out. Thanks in part to DBC, there’s a healthy relationship between the cycling community who come to enjoy the Dales and those who live there.
Inevitably DBC plays a role in being an intermediary between the two communities – not that they are mutually exclusive. Plenty of locals were once visitors who, like Stu, fell for the Dales’ charm and the riding and decided to move in. As well as acting as a touch point for riders, land owners and the rest, there’s an educational role for DBC to play. Selling itself as the centre of trails means it’s sometimes necessary to explain to visitors that there isn’t a red route to follow, while suggesting something that might be suitable. Getting riders whose only experience of mountain biking might be a trail centre, onto more traditional trails, is just part of the job.
Concept for our times
The trails might not belong to Stu, but there’s also a low-key trail management role to be played – guiding people onto the right trails for the time of year and deterring any trail ‘modification’ by would-be diggers. No one wants to be the trail police, but as the face of mountain biking in the area, it’s often left to DBC to help smooth over issues that crop up involving bikes.
With the Dales now as much a destination as some trail centres for mountain bikers, and with the community and National Park welcoming of riders, it’s clear that the centre of trails idea works; so why hasn’t anyone else copied the concept? Stu and Brenda are puzzled about that themselves. Others have come close, emulating aspects of the idea and they’ve been quizzed by people interested in transplanting the concept to other areas of the UK, but they’ve not seen anything materialise. A loose alliance of similar businesses would be a great way to help grow the sport, becoming hubs that can be used to help people get the most out of an area while also making sure the trails that make the area special stay special.
The reality is it takes a lot of work to make the dream a reality. For those who might want to create their own centre of trails, Stu has plenty of advice. Firstly, pick the right location, both generally but know specifically where you want to base yourself. Accept that it’s going to take a lot of hard graft that doesn’t really stop as there’s always something that needs to be done. Don’t get disheartened when things take a lot longer than you plan – it’s always going to be that way. Have multiple income streams and be prepared to adapt. Build a good team around you who believe in the idea as much as you do. And finally, be the best you possibly can be.
Do all these things and you might be as content as Stu and Brenda.
About this Trail Blazers series
One of the most exciting things about mountain biking is that it’s always changing. From the bikes we ride to how and where we ride them, things never stand still for long. And here at mbr we’re convinced things are getting better.
The Trailblazers series is our look at the people, places and events that are behind these changes; helping to define and improve riding in the UK right now. From behind-the-scenes volunteers out digging trails in their spare time; people lobbying for more access to trails; those working to get more people from all backgrounds out riding; grassroots race organisers making events happen, through to the riders who are changing how and what mountain bikers ride; we want to tell the stories and give recognition to the people who are changing mountain biking and making riding better for all of us.