On any given sunday
From downhill groms to weekend warriors, the Forest of Dean welcomes mountain bikers of every tribe, and we tagged along for the ride.
Forest Of Dean: the trail guide
- Green 18km, 1-2 hours
- Blue 11km (plus 5km alternative end), 45 minutes-1 hour
- Red 4.5km, 20 minutes
- Black 10km (multiple downhill trails), 1 hour
Sleeping and eating
You’re spoilt for choice here — pubs with great food and accommodation fill the Forest of Dean and follow the River Wye, while the towns of Coleford and Monmouth are very close too. The Cannop trail centre cafe has decent grub; try the hog roast if you’re there on a weekend.
Fixing your bike
There’s a bike shop and workshop right on site, at Pedalabikeaway. You can also rent out a range of bikes. pedalabikeaway.co.uk
What bike to ride
The green family trails are fine on a fully rigid bike, but step up to the blue and you’ll want a good quality hardtail, or short-travel full-suspension bike. Tackling the downhill trails, a full-suspension bike with at least 140mm travel is preferable. If you’ve got a full-face helmet and armour, wear it because it’s rocky and fast at the FoD.
Pick of the trails
Forest Of Dean, Gloucestershire trail centre guide
Article originally appeared in MBR September 2015 | Photos: Roo Fowler, Andy Lloyd
Tom Everett and Jack Delbridge are searching for secret singletrack up on the hill above the Forest of Dean trail centre hub. They know it’s here, tantalisingly close and probably just yards away, but we find them on the main trail and the first accessible track from the uplift. Sixteen-year-old Jack has just skipped over the top of a berm, missed two trees by a whisker and ended up tangled in brambles.
“I just messed up the lip there — it’s really bumpy,” he says, emerging with scratches and a big grin. “We’re trying to find some different trails. We know they’re here because we rode the enduro this year and they use a lot of off-piste stuff.”
Jack’s friend Tom, 18, has skipped work and driven the pair up from Somerset today for a spot of enduro training on some of Monmouth’s legendary secret trails. “We just need to find some locals who can show us around.”
Not far away, less than a mile as the crow flies down the fearsomely named Sheep Skull, is local rider Ieuan Williams, 26 years old and from Usk in Wales. Tattered Five Tens propped in front of him, happily basking in the warmth of the sun outside the trail centre cafe, he’s a self-proclaimed mountain bike addict.
“Some of the stuff I could take you on around here is insane. It’s just wild,” he says, taking another sip of his coffee. “There’s a lot of local stuff that’s been built on the side. The problem they’ve got here is that so many trails aren’t sign-posted — people get on the uplift and nobody knows where they’re going and what else is here. If they just looked a little bit further down the road than the drop-off, they’d find loads of trails.”
Who rides a modern trail centre? Less than five years ago, each UK trail centre seemed content to appeal to just one kind of rider. Go to Afan or Glentress and you’d find trail riders. Head to Innerleithen or Aston Hill and downhillers in full-face helmets would be the dominant life form. But now it’s not so easy — the best trail centres are switched on to appealing to all mountain bikers.
Nowhere does this show itself more than the Forest of Dean. This ancient woodland and Area of Natural Beauty has been home to the West Country downhill set for most of its mountain biking life, boasting an efficient uplift service and a spread of downhill tracks all finishing at the cafe and pickup point below. Beginners, XC riders and kids be damned.
Then in 2011, everything changed. The 11km Verderer’s Trail is a mere wisp compared to its brethren across the Welsh border in Afan and Cwmcarn. But that didn’t stop trail riders ghosting into the forest seemingly overnight. It’s hard to explain just how much the trail has changed the dynamic of the Forest, but here’s one example: in August 2011, a year before the blue trail opened, 906 laps were completed on all the trails combined. But by August 2012 the trail counters showed 8,174 laps on the Verderer’s alone. It’s currently clocking up some 100,000 riders a year.
The Forest of Dean is now the most complete trail centre in Britain, after the launch of the UK’s only track designed specifically for four-wheeled disability bikes. Add that to the uplift service, the downhill tracks, the bike hire business and the family trail, and nowhere else in Britain will you find such a varied and interesting group of riders. It’s like taking a core sample of riders in Britain, just without the blood.
There is plenty of gore on show today though — Ieuan Williams’ leg is running with blood from what looks like a pedal strike. Not surprising given he makes his own flat pedals and uses 7.5mm grub screws as pins (something that probably explains the state of those Five Tens too).
Ieuan is at the top of the mountain bike pyramid; he lives it, loves it, and dedicates his life to it. “My job is a mechanic,” he explains. “But I’ve got my own car garage that pays for my life of doing bugger all and riding bikes. I do as little as possible to fund my lovely hobby.”
You can’t help but like the guy. He oozes confidence, walks and talks like he owns this place, but still manages to be friendly and helpful to everyone here. He’s as happy to help out the lost pair looking for the uplift as he is to hit the 70ft stepdown he’s building. Yes, 70ft. He’s built it with a mechanical digger and plans to ride it as a season finale, after the downhill calendar closes.
“I’ve got lots of people coming to watch. I wouldn’t want to hit it on my own,” he says. “I like big stuff. I did a whip the other day, got the bike easily over 90 degrees. “That’s what I do, whip the bike well — I want to go to Whip-off Worlds. I’d do alright over there because it just comes easy to me.”
This kind of riding comes at a cost, though. Ieuan has notched up 160 X-rays in his short life, plus nine operations, two broken legs, three fractured ribs, four collarbone breaks, one snapped wrist, one punctured lung and one bleeding kidney. He’s spent six weeks in hospital, 14 in a wheelchair, “but I’ll still do it, you’ve got to! It’s like an addiction. I’ll do it till the day I can’t.”
Ieuan’s attitude to risk is on another level to most of us, but he’s got a great understanding of what makes the Forest of Dean great. “You can come here and smile all day — you can ride something in the woods that’s steep and with hairpin bends all the way down, then you can ride a man-made and manicured trail. There’s enough here to keep everyone happy.”
It could be the sunshine on this busy Sunday or it could be the influx of newbie riders wobbling and skidding out of the bike hire shop, but there’s a real carnival atmosphere in evidence. Jeans, T-shirts, rugby shorts and trainers form many riders’ wardrobe of choice — something they’ll probably regret half way round the 18km green loop — but they seem happy enough. Toddlers in trailers or strapped into top tube seats, moody teenagers pulling big skids, and 40-somethings popping wheelies, all mix easily around the mobile hog-roast and ice cream van. The sound of three different music systems, the buzz of excited chatter and the occasional food order shout from the grumpy hog-roast man only add to the festival feel.
Just finishing their bacon butties are Julia Innes, 29, and Andy Lovell, 42, from Bristol, gathering strength for their traditional second lap of Verderer’s. The couple ride all over Wales but the Forest of Dean is their current favourite. Ashton Court in Bristol used to be top of their list, but Andy says the trails there have become too sanitised. “They’re not long enough and they’re too family orientated. Yes, there are other trails there like Fifty Acre Wood and the stuff in the Gorge, but I’m just not that gnarly!”
Julia despises Cwmcarn for its interminable climb, so the forest here is her firm favourite.
“The views up through the woods are amazing and apparently there are wild boar here — we’ve seen hoof prints, which is exciting, but no boar yet,” she says. “The climb on the Verderer’s is tolerable and the downhill is really fun. It’s a big grin all the way down.”
The trail has changed a fair amount in its short life, and Julia has noticed that it has become rougher and tougher, with “more red sections to test yourself on”. In fact, the original blue-graded Verderer’s had to be reclassified red last year , with the sheer quantity of riders taking its toll on the once-smooth surface. Rowan Sorrell from Back on Track, which built the trail for £200,000, has come back in to build an alternative last 1.5km of blue run while keeping the original trail intact. It’s not finished yet though, as work had to stop to let endangered owls complete their nesting and fledge… something they did just this week.
Andy and Julia didn’t exactly meet on Verderer’s, but mountain biking did bring them together, through Bristol club Cheesy Riders. “I had a bit of a zombie bike and then this man went, ‘what you want is a nice mountain bike’, and from there on it blossomed,” Julia says. We’re not sure if she means mountain biking or their relationship… probably both.
“He’s also my bicycle repair man. We’ve got so many bikes in the house now, as long as we’re on two wheels we’re happiest.”
The couple leave big jumps and high speeds to people like 14-year-old Elliot Thomes. Dressed head to toe in Troy Lee, a Leatt neck brace that literally has his name on it, and IXS knee pads, he is every bit the downhill grom.
“I did my first downhill race a couple of weeks ago,” Elliot says. “I got 15th in the first run down, but I made a few mistakes and fell off in the second run. I ended up 19th.”
Elliot, his dad Adrian, 51, and 13-year-old brother Oliver are pushing up to save the cost of taking the uplift. “That’s why he had to give up racing go-karts,” Adrian says. “Elliot was competing against kids whose parents spent £2,000 a day on tyres and breakages. When mum and dad turn up in a Ferrari you know it’s just a ridiculous sport!”
Elliot’s a bit shy but his dad definitely isn’t reluctant to sing his son’s praises, or to laugh at himself. “You should have come here the other week,” Adrian says. “I broke my nose, smashed my helmet to bits! And I got whiplash on my neck. Elliot just goes off with faster riders now and leaves me and his brother behind.”
Once safely out of earshot, Elliot tells us he was faster than his dad the first day he swung his leg over a mountain bike. “I could kick his ass right away,” he says with a grin. “He’s got all the gear and no idea.”
Ready for anything
Elliot rides the waymarked downhill runs, of which there are 10 in total, all lasting around three minutes… unless you’re Fabien Barel (see him at po.st/Fabien) in which case you’ll do them in two. The soil in the forest is sandy and rocky so it drains well and is usable even in the worst winter conditions, while the gradient is enough to excite newbie riders and please old hands at the same time. It’s within an hour or two’s drive of London, Birmingham, Bristol and South Wales. It’s that combination of ease of use and great trails that draws people past their closest riding spots and on to Monmouth.
The Forest of Dean is in danger from its own success, however, according to Alan Grist from Dean Trail Volunteers, who are responsible for maintaining and building all the trails bar Verderer’s, Launchpad and the green trail.
“We’ve been grovelling for years for investment,” Alan says. “We’ve got more people coming here than ever, from enduro and downhill race days, to family riders, to downhillers sessioning tracks. They all take a toll on the trails. We need a full-time trail builder (preferably me!) and then a new car park and a pump track. In that order.”
It’s the red tape and the lack of ring-fenced investment that’s the problem, Alan says. “We’re currently sat on £20,000 to build new trails, but that’s not very much when you consider the 1km of Launchpad cost £50,000. We want that money to go as far as possible so we can’t be going to a big company, instead we’ll get a regular contractor and the Volunteers will design it.
“Everyman trails like Freeminers get thousands of riders, GBU is used for practising gap jumps and Mr Rooty to session tight turns,” Alan says. “Then there are the races and the downhillers. Pedalabikeaway runs the Little Fodders kids’ coaching club… you can see how much the trails get used.”
Seven-year-old Megan Cherry would be a perfect Little Fodder, but instead she’s a Junior Rocket at Leicester Forest Cycling Club. Together with her dad Dave she’s here to play, not learn, and Dave is happy to drive the 100 miles to let Megan have fun.
Back home there’s the mighty Peak District and plenty of local bridleways, but they’re hard work for Megan, Dave says. “The forest trails here are nice and safe and fairly easy riding. The green trail follows the old railway lines — we tend to come and go from it, it’s easy to duck off and find a local pub and get back on it.”
It’s not all flat and easy on the green though — the pair of them have found berms and little jumps just off to the side. Megan loves it. “I like stunts! Really big wheelies and jumps. Daddy can do wheelies sometimes…” She breaks off to stare transfixed as Ieuan Williams pulls a wheelie all the way back to his car. “I can do it but I can’t do it really high,” she says sincerely.
So what kind of people ride at a modern trail centre? It’s a broad spread: youngsters on balance bikes and slightly older gentlemen on electric bikes, gravity junkies on £6,000 downhill bikes and XC whippets on hardtails. Big groups of blokes jostling for position are there, of course, but so are families, couples and newbie riders.
Mountain biking is for everyone in the UK, and Ieuan Williams sums it up nicely here at the Forest of Dean: “There’s stuff here for anyone to play around on for a few hours, but I’m going to bugger off now and ride something a bit different, because there’s some amazing stuff around here. You crack on!”