Over the past 18 months, riding has been a lifeline for many but a mixed blessing for the state of our trails; we sound out some of the biggest stakeholders to find out what lessons have been learned

In this feature we’ll touch on just a few examples of what’s happening out on the trails in the UK. To build a bigger picture of the state of the trails in 2021 we need your help. Tweet us or tag us on Instagram, @mbrmagazine, using the hashtag #mbrsott21, with photos of your trails and let us know how the last 18 months has affected where you ride. Have your trails seen more traffic? Have you been out making sure great trails stay that way? What do you think the next 18 months has in store for your trails?

mbr State of the Trails 2021

mbr State of the Trails 2021

mbr State of the Trails 2021

Ride a trail enough times and it becomes a part of you, imprinted on your memory alongside all the important information and trivial junk that takes up space in your brain. These trails are so familiar, their detail so baked into us, they’re ridden on muscle memory as much as by sight. But sometimes memory and reality don’t quite tally.

Trails are constantly changing. Sometimes this is seasonal; autumn throwing leaves on the lines, winter’s endless rain filling ruts and holes with water, or summer’s dust making it harder to scrub speed. These changes require a slight recalibration, but are generally factored into the mental map we have of a trail. It’s when larger changes happen that the map, rather than being a guide, becomes a liability. Relying on the lines in your head rather than those in front of you usually leads to even the best mountain bike handlers unexpectedly cartwheeling down the hill wondering what just happened – just ask Mathieu van der Poel about his line off the rock drop at the Olympics.

A lockdown-related surge of riders has put our our trails under pressure

A lockdown-related surge of riders has put our our trails under pressure

Wear and tear

This last year and a half, over the course of the pandemic, my local trails have been going through changes, with every ride requiring amendments to my mental mapping. Part of it is the seasonal year-in, year-out stuff, but there have been some bigger, unexpected, changes, too.

Well-known trails have seen more traffic than usual, growing deeper and wider. Riders with time on their hands, thanks to furlough or working from home, have taken the opportunity to get out more, but with travel restrictions in place, their riding has been limited to, and concentrated on, a much smaller area. At the same time, we’ve had an influx of new riders on the trails, eagerly discovering what’s on their doorstep and keen to get out and explore. The trails are busy, and in parts they are showing a lot of wear and tear.

A groundswell of interest in local trails could become a new grassroots movement...

A groundswell of interest in local trails could become a new grassroots movement…

In some cases though, trails have actually improved. Those same riders with time on their hands have got stuck into fixing some of the blown-out sections, so they now ride better than they did pre-pandemic. New trails, for better or worse, have also started to appear, while other trails are fading out of existence. The trail network is seeing some of the biggest changes in recent memory.

Keen to find out how other areas have fared over the last 18 months or so, we got in touch with riders and trail groups around the country to try and create a snapshot of the state of the trails here, now, in 2021.

...of volunteers ready to get their hands dirty and build the future of mtb

…of volunteers ready to get their hands dirty and build the future of mtb

Trail explosion

The Forest Of Dean is one of the South West’s most popular riding destinations, with a mix of official and wild trails. Dan Weston works for Forestry England as a cycle ranger in the forest.

“We’ve had off-piste trails here for over 30 years, and a lot of the authorised trails at the Cannop Cycle Centre started off as wild trails, but the growth over the last 18 months has been huge. We’ve seen areas that have always been popular just explode, with longstanding trails being altered and new lines being cut in – generally, to a very poor standard. The number of built wooden features and shonky dirt jumps we’ve found has gone up, as have the complaints and awareness by the wider public.”

More people connecting with nature is great but it's also had an impact

More people connecting with nature is great but it’s also had an impact

Ride Sheffield is one of the most well- established trail groups in the land, and its work has been instrumental in helping keep Sheffield worthy of its ‘Outdoor City’ moniker. Henry Norman is its chairman.

“Over the past 18 months, Sheffield’s trails have never been busier, not just from mountain bikers, but from all users. More people connecting with nature is great, but it’s also had an impact on the trails. Like a worn- out drivetrain, or a pair of grips showing patches of plastic, worn trails are certainly a sign of lots of people having a good time. On our built trails, like Lady Cannings and Greno, there was an explosion of new users. It’s been amazing to see so many new people out there (particularly from a broader demographic too). But more users have definitely taken their toll.”

The quality and quantity of the riding in the Scottish Borders is no accident. The Tweed Valley Trails Association (TVTA) has been responsible for building, maintaining and safeguarding trails that have achieved international renown. Gordon Smith, a member of the TVTA’s board, is for the most part positive about the effects of the pandemic on the trails in the area. “My own personal take on things is that most trails have improved. With them being inaccessible to the main population centres for the majority of the winter, it was only the riders from the Borders who were on them. With the higher trails buried under snow for almost a month, then the ongoing good and dry weather we are having, the trails are probably running better than they ever have round here.”

Riding during the pandemic often blurred the line between therapy and thrill-seeking

Riding during the pandemic often blurred the line between therapy and thrill-seeking

Tweed love

It’s not just been the weather and lack of traffic that has helped matters in the Tweed. With a strong culture of digging and proactive maintenance in the valley, existing trails have been given the love and attention they require and new trails have started to appear.

“There’s definitely been a lot of unofficial ‘furlough furtling’ going on over the lockdowns, improving and renovating old trails, but there’s also been at least five new trails built at Caberston/Golfie (a hotspot just outside Innerleithen) alone over the last 18 months. Over on the Traquair/Elibank side (home to the Innerleithen DH tracks) the limited numbers on the uplift due to social distancing, and the fact that it wasn’t running for the majority of the winter, have definitely slowed down the degradation of those trails.”

Unofficial furlough furtling might have been going on in Scotland, but official trail fettling has been off the cards for Ride Sheffield, who normally run regular trail maintenance days. Henry Norman again:

“Compounding issues for us was the fact we were not allowed to go out and maintain the trails during this period of peak usage. This meant that small issues out on the trails rapidly turned into bigger problems. It’s only been in the last month that we have been able to open up trail-repair sessions to the public, so trail crews have been very small. Thankfully, with support from Santa Cruz’s Pay Dirt program, we are currently in the process of setting up a number of trail crews who will be able to keep our trails sweet all year round.”

With official trail building on hold, the trail building that has gone on in Sheffield over the pandemic has not always been done with the landowner’s permission, or to any kind of passable standard.

“We live in a city blessed with lots of green spaces and woodland close to where we live. During periods of lockdown, these woodlands have seen a proliferation of new trails appearing. Sometimes, the quality (pits behind jumps, etc.) and the location (on popular desire lines, close to houses, etc.) have left a little to be desired and have put pressure on those promoting mountain biking to the local authorities, as well as desire line trails that had been tolerated until this point.”

In the TVTA’s case, it’s taken a proactive approach to managing the proliferation of trail building by trying to channel this enthusiasm more productively:

“There was a bit of an issue over the first two lockdowns with (mainly) school kids building sketchy little lines in popular walking forests, and gap jumps over walking trails, but the winter lockdown seemed to keep them at home! The issues with shonky trails and kids building ghetto jumps, we addressed through social media requests to them/their parents to ease up and think about what/where they are building. On the whole this seemed to be taken on board. We’re aiming to run specific under-18’s digs this year to help educate kids about what is good practice and might be tolerated by landowners, versus what they seemed to be doing during lockdown.”

Armoured sections are the perfect way to reduce trail maintenance

Armoured sections are the perfect way to reduce trail maintenance

Education and outreach

Like the TVTA, Dan and the team at the Forest Of Dean have been working on engaging with riders to try and manage things.

“While this [unsanctioned trail building] has been a problem for years, we have definitely had to step up our efforts in the last 12 months to try and address the impact it’s having. Our approach is really to try and engage and educate riders – there are so many aspects of trail management we have to consider, which makes it a very complicated thing to communicate about. There are ecological, heritage and public safety things we have to consider, as well as the fact that it is a working forest, and that, sooner or later, nearly every block is going to have some sort of forestry operations taking place.”

With a real mix of users using the same area there’s always going to be friction, but there have been issues within the riding community too, as Dan explains.

“Local riders have been noticing it [illicit trail digging], too. We’ve had conversations with a number of them after they have started to see increasing numbers of riders from outside of the area coming into the local spots and drawing attention to what was previously a low-key trail that flew under the radar. We’ve also seen an increasing number of trails being built in amongst the authorised trail network. This obviously poses a huge safety concern for us, especially where they interfere directly with a formal trail.”

There are clearly some issues that have been caused, or amplified, by the pandemic, but there are also some real positive outcomes, too. So how does the next 18 months look? Henry Norman is for the most part optimistic.

“More people riding and more people wanting to create new trails, is an amazing thing to come out of the pandemic. But the challenge we have now is to educate those new (and old) riders and diggers on how they can be a force for good in the sport and the outdoors community. This is something that needs support from the industry and media as well as grassroots groups and riders. It is a work in progress, so watch this space!”

The challenge is to educate riders how to be a force for good

The challenge is to educate riders how to be a force for good

Meeting of minds

The trails in the Tweed have had things good so far, thanks to weather and a low volume
of riders. But with riders now returning in force, it could be that they’ve just delayed the inevitable, as Gordon explains.

“When inter-region travel restrictions were lifted in Scotland, there was a huge influx in activity from the Central Belt area, but it came at a time when the trails were already in good condition, and at the start of a prolonged spell of good/dry weather. The additional load that inter-country travel is placing on them is definitely starting to take its toll though, as more riders look within the UK for their mtb fix, given that most people won’t be hitting the Alps this year. I don’t think the amazing conditions we have enjoyed since April will continue.”

The relationship between Forestry England and riders in the Forest of Dean hasn’t always been an easy one. But the current situation has provided the opportunity to improve that situation, potentially leading to a much more solid and productive partnership from now on, something that Dan Weston is happy to acknowledge.

“What hasn’t taken place in the past is a dialogue between Forestry England and riders, which is what we are trying to get off the ground now. Sometimes we have no choice but to intervene in a trail or area, but we have to be better at explaining that. If riders and trail builders understand the responsibilities we have as land managers, hopefully they’ll be more likely to consider those points when they are out and about. We are really lucky here in the FoD to have staff involved in mountain biking right the way up the ladder who ride themselves, and we are really keen that people understand that, because hopefully that will help with that relationship.”

Mountain biking is unarguably on the up and while the pandemic has impacted all of us it’s also had an impact on our trails. Stopping to take stock of where we’re at is an important step in working out what the future of our trails, and our relationship with them, should look like.