The South Downs dominate Brighton, a little like the Alps dominate Turin (I said a little): both are thriving cities, full of life and culture, sitting low on a plain and overshadowed to the north by big hills and plenty of riding. There’s a huge concentration of bridleways in the downland above Brighton, and you can ride for hundreds of kilometres without following a road. Then there’s the town itself. We recently rated it number six in our 10 best UK cities to live and ride, thanks to the (comparatively) sunny climate and great job prospects. Turin has the better football team though.
Back to the Downs, it’s high time we put one popular misconception to bed; that there’s no singletrack to be had in the national park. There most certainly is, as the locals will enthusiastically tell you: the trick is knowing where to look over the hundreds of square miles of bridleways, forests and farmland… and that’s where mbr comes in.
Trail-building has taken on new vigour in recent years, stretching from Queen Elizabeth Country Park on the western fringes of the Downs (see our June 2012 issue) right through to Friston Forest, where the ridge of chalk hills hits the sea, just 15 miles from the centre of Brighton. Friston, 15 miles to the east of Brighton, has also been proactive about putting in new trails under its canopy of beach trees — some sanctioned, some not, but all fun. Then there’s Stanmer Park: next to the university and just a short ride up from the city centre, it’s crammed full of riders and trails, with more of both every year.
The South Downs has sprouted a rich crop of trails from its sparse, chalky soil over the years, and the concentration of those trails and easy accessibility over hundreds of square miles means it’s extremely popular — as you’d expect in the UK’s most densely populated corner. Head up onto the grassy chalkland anywhere along its length and you’ll find bridleways criss-crossing their way along the ridegelines or down the sides of the hills; there are so many options from Brighton, we found it difficult to pick just one to ride on the day we visited.
One of our favourite places to ride is around the beauty spot of Chanctonbury Ring, about 15 miles north west of Brighton — there’s secret singletrack aplenty but not strictly legal. So we eventually settled on a ride you can tackle straight from the city centre. In fact, we opted for two rides: one, a whopping 36 miles long and climbing over 4,500ft, easiy accessible from Brighton’s Falmer railway station; and the other, a five-mile ride from the seafront. The former wouldn’t fit on our printed map as it covers such a large area. Both routes are online — see the QR code on p22 — so we rode the ‘easy’ option.
Taking in The Devil’s Dyke and the ridgeline of chalk that makes up the tail end of the Downs, there is some truly spectacular and iconic scenery as you cover the open bridleway sections of the route. But this wouldn’t be mbr if we didn’t offer you some brilliant singletrack in there, too. At times, you’ll be choosing between multiple lines through rutted tracks under big skies, at others, you’ll be bruising your elbows on foliage as you snake between the trees. But always, you’ll sense how much more riding there is just off the bridleways and, if you read between those lines, it’s a veritable playground.
Stanmer Park is a lesson in how mountain biking and other activities can peaceably co-exist on the edge of an urban environment. North-east of the city next to the university, Stanmer’s 5,000 hectares of wooded and open land accommodate walkers, cyclists and horse riders, and has done since the council bought the space from Stanmer House in 1947.
It’s Brighton’s most popular park and local riders have made it their home, sculpting myriad trails just a few minutes’ ride from the city itself. According to Mike Gill from local club Brightonmtb.org, there’s a live-and-let-live atmosphere between park users. “It’s busy, though,” he told us. “In the last three years, the number of riders has gone up tenfold, thanks to trail building and people talking about the place on forums.”
It’s now considered a ‘trail centre’ thanks to the concentration of trails and their popularity, although there’s no centre to speak of. As you’d expect, then, all that traffic means the trails are hardpacked, with the topsoil long since scrubbed away, white threads running through the green fabric of the woodland. Locals have worked hard to improve the trails and now there are drops and jumps dotted all over the place; nothing too serious, but enough to keep things interesting.
Friston is a special place for our tech editor PB, prompting a lingering memory of the past that meant he couldn’t stay away from our day out around Brighton: it was Friston where he took his first national XC win, in the days when cross country was big and racing was on terrestrial TV.
It’s changed a bit in those 20 years — no longer a race venue, the forest now shelters a red trail, green trail and what some people have described as an old-school downhill trail — not so technical and a few jumps thrown in. Ignoring the family-friendly green route, the red is largely singletrack and turns and berms loop around this very beautiful woodland. Simon Godin, who owns the on-site bike shop Seven Sisters Cycle Company, describes the place as “a secret forest” and it’s easy to see why — the trails don’t get much traffic — there’s still brown dirt covering the underlying chalk just a few inches below and there are puddles of beech nuts here and there, lying undisturbed since the autumn. It feels natural, too, more so than nearby Bedgebury, despite the fact it’s a relatively young forest.
Friston allows for some good, fun riding, the best to be had diving off the main red route and onto the unsanctioned trails that have sprung up over the past three or four years. There’s a different feel to nearby Stanmer, which draws off the majority of riders, leaving this place a little bit of unspoilt seclusion — so much so we’re feeling a little guilty about publicising its qualities!