Bikes are the new golf. Literally.
UK towns and cities are starting to wake up to the value of urban trail developments. We head to Leeds Urban Bike Park to sample one pioneering project.
Leeds Urban Bike Park
Leeds Urban Bike Park
What’s at Leeds Urban Bike Park?
- Bike shop
- BMX track
- Pump track
- Freeride line
- Green trail
- Blue trail
- Red trail
Words & photos: Sim Mainey
Mountain biking is full of obstacles. Sometimes these obstacles can be part of the attraction, the features of a trail that make it appealing and satisfying to ride. Sometimes though obstacles are just that – things that stop you riding.
One of the biggest obstacles mountain bikers face is access to trails. While our antiquated access laws in England and Wales provide an obstacle to us riding on the wider trail network for beginners looking to get into the sport it can be even more basic – they might not know where the trails are or how to access them. They might not even own a bike.
Trail centres have done a fantastic job in providing a venue that overcomes a lot of the problems associated with getting riding. Everything from bikes, trails, coaching and food is in one place, making them an easy go-to location to start an off-road adventure. But even trail centres have their own obstacles. Many are in relatively remote and hard to access locations requiring a car journey to get to them. Jumping in the car and driving to the trails is easily taken for granted but for some it’s simply not an option and just another hurdle to overcome.
Mountain biking can feel like an elitist sport with a minimum entry requirement barrier that puts it out of the reach of a wider audience. With the well documented physical and mental health benefits riding provides, along with the life-skills it teaches, making mountain biking accessible to more people from all walks of life can only be a good thing. To do this obstacles need to be minimised, so if people can’t get to the trails maybe the answer is to bring the trails to the people.
It’s hard to imagine but in amongst the dual carriageways, office blocks, industrial warehouses and housing estates of south Leeds is one of the most exciting new trail centres in the UK. Leeds Urban Bike Park has been open less than a year and is already helping to get more people riding. Built directly opposite a housing estate in Middleton just off the M62 it packs a café, bike shop, BMX track, pump track, freeride line and a green, blue and red trail within its perimeter. It’s not the first example of bringing mountain biking into an urban setting but it’s certainly one of the most ambitious.
Jeremy Hayes is the founder of Cycle Pathway CIC, the not-for-profit company that runs the park. Their aim is to act as a gateway for anyone who wants to get into riding, but also cater for experienced riders who want somewhere new to ride. That might sound like a broad and lofty goal but it’s one that they are well on their way to achieving.
Jeremy’s background is in BMX as both a racer and a coach. He’s worked at British Cycling where he helped the likes of multiple BMX World Champion Shanaze Reade to fulfil her potential and keeps his hand in by coaching the Irish national BMX team when he isn’t managing LUBP.
The park itself is built on what was a council run golf course. The joke that cycling is the new golf isn’t lost on Jeremy. Having helped set up BMX clubs out of shipping containers in the corner of parks Jeremy had ambitions to build something a bit grander. “I’d see rugby clubs, cricket pavilions and golf club houses and think, why haven’t we got that?” The modern glass-fronted café looks onto the pump track. Parents are sat outside enjoying a brew in the sunshine watching their kids whizz around the track. It’s a small thing but putting these two elements side by side is something that helps encourage families to come and make the most of what’s on offer. It also helps keep the place running. Riding at the park is free and there is no charge for parking so the park is funded purely from income via the bike shop and café – easily justifying buying bike parts and drinking coffee.
It’s not been a case of build it and they will come though. Having a facility like this on your doorstep is great but you need to be able to use it and know how to use it. The project’s mission for the year is to gain enough funding to be able to provide kids with bikes and a helmet and to run introductory sessions. From there they want to be able to get them involved in a club which will open up the potential for them to go racing or to go on adventures to Wales or the Peak District. While riding might be the thing that initially draws people in Jeremy sees the park almost like an outdoor pursuits centre. He wants kids to learn to light a fire, read a map and build a shelter – to develop skills that will take them into the wider world. That’s the ultimate goal with the park; to broaden horizons, whatever they might be.
Coffee finished we go to grab our bikes from the van. The riders passing through the car park to the trails provide a snapshot of who LUBP attracts on a sunny Friday. School groups, teenagers on BMXs, £7k trail bikes, £50 hand-me-downs. The diversity of riders, bikes and abilities is incredibile and heartening and helps to break down the classic trail centre stereotypes.
The bike park is built in a natural bowl. From the hub you can see most of what’s available straight away. Not only does it show what’s on offer here it provides a wider view onto what cycling can be for those new to the sport. It exposes impressionable and stubborn minds alike to a range of new ideas and experiences. It doesn’t seek to push riders in any one direction instead showing what is possible with two wheels and the places it can take you.
While this all sounds very worthy we’re keen to see what the place can offer us. We start on the red trail that drops us into the bowl. With space at a premium the trail winds this way and that making maximum use of the hill. While some trail centres feel like they are pulling their punches and playing it safe with trail features that’s not the case here. The berms are large, sweeping and hold you all the way round encouraging you to dive in without fear of being dumped off the side just before the exit. Rollers are expertly placed to be pumped to give you speed for the upcoming jump. The trail has all the tell-tale signs of having been built by riders who know their craft.
The red trail leads us up to the start of the infamous jump line, infamous in that the second half of it runs uphill. This seems counter-intuitive but we’re told that with the right technique it’s perfectly possible. The park as a whole has been designed to encourage you to improve your riding, to keep you interested in coming back – whatever your age or skill level. A stack of jumps leading off into the distance is the perfect way of gauging your ability and then seeing how much it improves. These are proper jumps too with lips designed to kick you up and over. Rolling them feels wrong, as it should. Calling this place a bike park rather than trail centre seems right. This is somewhere you come to play.
This isn’t the first time that mountain bike trails have been set into an urban environment. Bristol has long had some great trails on the city’s fringes, Lady Cannings has become a go-to venue for riders of all abilities around Sheffield, Philips Park and the recently opened Dirt Factory are all well within Manchester’s boundaries and Glasgow’s Cathkin Braes has become so successful that it will play host to the 2023 World Cycling Championships. Leeds itself has just seen another custom built mountain bike trail built just down the road from LUBP at Oakwell Hall. Making mountain biking accessible to more people can only be a good thing and a combination of committed groups and individuals along with receptive councils is helping to make it happen.
It’s not without its challenges though. Being a ex-golf course in West Yorkshire and not a mountain in Wales the trail builders, Bike Track, have had to work hard to make the most of the terrain on offer. Feedback has been very positive from mountain bikers but it’s caught some trail centre regulars out. Working with a small area and a modest amount of elevation they’ve concentrated on features that work your skills rather than your bike. Don’t come here expecting five minute rocky downhills but if you want to learn how to jump this is the place to come. If you can already jump then you’ll love the trails here.
Jeremy says the vast majority of riders love the trails, problems come about when riders turn up and want to instantly be able to ride everything. He’s had some riders complaining that rollers are too close together or jumps are too long or need to be made into table tops. As diplomatically as possible he tries to explain that maybe they need to up their skill game rather than look to dumb down the trails.
The second part of the red trail, ‘The Omen’, is a perfect example of this. Keep your tyres on the dirt all the way down and it’s an eye wateringly fast descent but it doesn’t quite feel right. Start to pump and jump things though and it makes a lot more sense. It’s amazing how much they’ve managed to get out of a small hill. The trail is short but you don’t feel short changed. The fact that it’s easy to pedal back up to the start again makes sessioning it almost mandatory. Going back again and again you notice yourself improving a lot quicker than on a longer red trail where you might only complete one loop before retiring for cake.
At the far end of the red trail are a couple of black options in the shape of drop offs. Again these have been built so well that it’s hard to get them wrong, but they do require a bit of commitment to attempt. It’s all so well judged from start to finish you don’t mind that the your back at the beginning in no time, it just means you can go round again. All killer, no filler.
Trail builders Bike Track are busy building the next stage of the park’s development, some huge jumps. The scale and quality of the features that are being built is stunningly ambitious, especially for where it is. You can’t imagine some of these jumps being given the green light at a Forestry Commission trail centre. Jeremy is open about the fact he wants to build trails that challenge people but that also attract pro riders who will inject some flair and excitement into things. As he points out a lot of the kids who come here need role models and inspiration, what better way of doing that than getting their heros to come ride their trails.
Rolling back to the van we get overtaken by a young lad on a bike way too big for him with his dad. Trainers, tracksuit, no helmet and the biggest grin in the park. Riding here is a reminder that mountain biking is not one thing. It’s exciting and varied and means different things to different people. While LUBP is an incubator for bringing new people into the sport it doesn’t try and give them one prescribed view of what riding a bike is about. Whether you’re new to riding a bike or have been there and done that it shows off what you can do on a bike and where it can take you.