Paths of enlightenment
With the remnants of ideas and experiments to be found at every turn, riding in Mabie Forest is like taking a tour through a trail-building laboratory.
Mabie Forest: the trail guide
- Mabie Skills Area
- Green Big Views Loop 8km, 1-2 hours
- Blue Woodhead Loop 10km, 1-2 hours
- Red Phoenix Trail 19km 1.5-2.5 hours
Sleeping and eating
Right at the trailhead there is a great mix of accommodation, and you won’t have to go far to find your perfect bed for the night, whatever your budget. Mabie House Hotel has excellent rooms, but also its own camping pods in the grounds, which means you can get up, throw a leg over your bike and hit the trail straight away (mabiehousehotel.co.uk). Marthrown on Mabie is further into the forest and has teepees, yurts, camping and bunkhouse accommodation — you can even climb into the hot tub and look at the stars after a hard day (marthrownofmabie.com).
Fixing your bike
The bike shop on site has closed for now but there is a long-term plan to rebuild it. The nearest shops for now would be in Dumfries: DG2 Wheels (dg2wheels.co.uk) or G&G Cycle Centre (01387 259483) both have workshops with plenty of spares.
What bike to ride
There are a wide variety of trails in Mabie, linked by the theme of flow. For that reason you could get a lot of fun out of a hardtail, swooping the berms and hammering the smooth singletrack climbs. At most, a short-travel full-suspension would keep you right, and would be handy if you are heading onto the unofficial trails.
Pick of the trails
The Phoenix is a mix of fast and furious modern trail, combined with the rooty and natural.
Mabie Forest, Scotland trail centre guide
Article originally appeared in MBR December 2015
There is no more rewarding experience than riding a trail with its builder. As you pedal you learn how every jink, berm and rise has a reason to be there. It’s a reminder that these aren’t routes that have evolved, taking the natural line of least resistance through the terrain over decades of experimentation, they are designed and built specifically to emulate that process in only a few weeks, using the eye of one man and his team.
If they are good, the bike sings. It surges along as each turn and drop falls into place, supporting your tyres in sweeping bends and catching you when sudden rises in the trail throw you skyward. It flows with speed at some points and challenges your technical ability in others, smoothly transitioning between the two. Ask any trail-builder, and they’ll tell you this isn’t something that could be planned in the office to the last millimetre; rather, it it evolves with each shovel-load tossed over your shoulder, bending continuously to the restrictions of terrain, drainage and budget. This is art, not construction.
As a trail centre, Mabie predates the 7Stanes, and consequently it stands as a living, breathing demonstration of how trail-builders have honed their eye for a line and developed their skill with a shovel. Generations of trails exist side-by-side, some that work well and have been absorbed into the trail system, others that have been phased-out long ago and only survive as a grassy, overgrown cutting into the trees you would barely notice without the benefit of a local eye.
For this reason, it has been described, by those in the know, as a nursery for trail-building; where features and techniques are trialled before being rolled out to the wider 7Stanes network. Ride a section of woodwork anywhere in Scotland, for example, and chances are the design was tried and tested in Mabie. Consequently, nowhere is the development of the trail-building art so clear to follow than here.
A very civilised coffee in the tranquil, wood-panelled surrounds of Mabie House Hotel is the start of my ride out with Andy Hopkins, chief trail-builder in the area and the man responsible for the 7Stanes Mabie trails. We’re also joined by Clive Forth, who moved to the area 10 years ago specifically for the mountain biking, and to run his skills company MTBSkills.co.uk. He’s coming out to show us how to really ride the Mabie trails. And because he’ll grab any excuse to go for a ride.
Andy gives me a potted history of the area as we cruise up the gentle red trail climb. Long before the 7Stanes were even a twinkle in the eye of Forestry Commission Scotland, way back in the mid-Nineties, the locals had discovered Mabie and were riding lines through the mix of plantation and deciduous trees. Attracted by the gradients and good quality soil, the scene here took off in a big way, eventually gaining structure and legitimacy when one of the guys, Rik Allsop, decided to quit his job and start a bike shop at the foot of the hill. The result was Rik’s Red Route, a loop of incredible trails, way ahead of its time, mainly funded by Rik and his shop, and boosted by plenty of volunteer manpower.
With the advent of the 7Stanes project, the Forestry Commission stepped in, adopting the trails and pledging to develop them further. Local lad Andy was working in Rik’s Bike Shed at the time, until FC offered him a job, a budget, a workforce of seven men and the free reign to continue Rik’s good work. For an avid trail builder, it was like winning the lottery. Since then, the trails have continually developed, and some sections are now are in their fifth iteration.
As we hit the top of The Ridge, we jump off to soak up what could have been a spectacular view, but was instead the inside of a particularly soupy mist rolling in off the Solway Firth. Moisture clings to the rocks as we scramble over a crumbling drystone wall to check out what is left of the original Ridge trail, now just a slightly overgrown parting of the heather.
It still runs parallel to the 7Stanes construction on the opposite side of the wall, but the difference couldn’t be starker. Only inches wide, it picks its way along a path with a history longer than any local’s memory, that’s slowly being reclaimed in its dotage by Old Mother Mabie. Beautiful and appealing in its own way, a step back over the wall brings us into another decade.
Bang up-to-date, the trail literally launches us off the summit and sweeps us forward. We grimly try to hold onto Clive’s wheel — a waste of effort if ever there was one — and let the trail take over. Leaning deeply into sweeping bends, the silence of the mist is broken by the roar of the wind; jumps and flat-out sections generate speed and acceleration in a way that could never have been achieved on the original path without a madman at the controls.
Even though these are very modern trails, Mabie is a trail centre that has grown comfortable in its own skin, with the wider contemporary trail long since contracting into a very appealing looking singletrack.
“You can’t build trail this narrow,” Andy points out when we finally pull up to grab a breath, “this trail was far wider when we built it, but people choose the line over time and everything else just grew over.” Natural selection at work; the better, flowing line stays, the rest reverts back to nature.
The pause allows us to look west over toward the old Dark Side. After a trip to Canada in the early Noughties, Andy came back with an inevitable enthusiasm for North Shore woodwork and immediately got to work, feverishly building a black-graded pier of raised timber.
“We wanted to build a black route on the hill, but it was very boggy, so woodwork was the perfect answer,” Andy recalls as he scans the area. “There is every type of timber construction out there, and this is where we learned to do it properly. From our original Heath Robinson approach, we developed standards that now apply across the whole Forestry trail network. And it all started here.” Opened in 2004, the Dark Side closed a few years back, a victim of its very challenging nature.
“It was a nightmare to keep the vegetation down, and if you didn’t it became very slippery. We had constant maintenance for only the few hundred riders that were using it.” With a limited budget, the tough decision was made to close it, but lessons had been learned.
A hop and skip through the glorious mix of deciduous and conifer plantation that is a signature of Mabie, brings us to Descender Bender. Without pausing, we dive in and, as I follow Andy, he gives it full beans and disappears over a rise. I prepare to suck up the rise, and scan ahead for the next corner, but my eye is immediately drawn to a wheel. It’s upside down. And closely followed by a leg. Then the sole of a shoe sweeping across the sky. A crackle of snapping ferns and small bushes is drowned out by the honk of my brakes being hastily applied. Then the laughter starts.
Once a trail-builder, always a trail-builder; Andy admits he was distracted — at full speed — by a bit of the trail surface. He looked down, he looked up, and then hit a tree stump that launched him out over the edge.
Taking the Cake
Following Andy makes it obvious why he was the perfect man to throw in at the deep end when trail-building was in its embryonic years. When no one really knew how it would work out, what was needed was a human guinea pig. Someone with the nerve to just jump in and try, to scrape that first digger bucket and give it a whirl. No one really knew about flow in those early days, or what would truly make a great trail, but someone needed to bull on and make it happen so the learning process could begin.
Chasing him down a trail, he clearly rides his bike the same way — he may not have a polished technique, but he has the raw nerve in spades to just charge through. The result is a fast rider, but one who is nerve-racking to ride behind, as I just wait for the next near miss. Clive, a man of measured skill, just shakes his head with a knowing smile when Andy takes off again, scratches his brakes erratically and nearly launches off a berm into oblivion. He has been riding with Andy a long time.
At an innocuous section of fast trail, we stop again to look at cake mix. Yes, cake mix. Another of Andy’s developments, this particular recipe is a 50/50 mix of aggregate and clay subsoil, compacted and formed into trail features like berms, jumps and tabletops. Incredibly resilient, it forms the basis of many a trail feature countrywide these days.
“We even experimented with mixing cement into the soil to support slopes like this,” he kicked the steep berm, “but they just crumbled and looked horrendous eventually so we needed to look for something else if we wanted these extreme features. The cake mix is hardwearing, but even when it does go all you need is a visit with the digger to reform it and you are back on track.”
The result here is an incredibly hardwearing and fun descent, with cutting-edge turns that give me the confidence to lean right over in the knowledge I will be supported all the way to the limit. And the beauty is, that using this organic material has allowed nature to grow back where it can, reinforcing Mabie’s timeless feel.
The icing on the cake, as it were, is a half-pipe constructed completely of the miracle mix, “and a right sticky mix at that,” as Andy points out. No wonder — the sides top out almost vertical and it is clear that the standard stone and whin dust construction would only result in a pile of rubble at the bottom. Clive launches off the top of each of the three turns, using momentum generated solely by Andy’s carefully calculated gradients. It is a work of art, nothing less.
As we finally roll back into Mabie House Hotel for a final coffee, it is almost dark. I can’t begin to think where the day has gone, only that it has passed in a flash of great riding and good chat.
“Trail-building is a balance of fun and sustainability,” Andy muses as we sit down, “but to me, sustainability is less about the trail itself, and more about how long you are going to have people coming back to ride it. If you groom the trail to perfection, sanitising it to give a 20-year lifespan, no one is going to ride it.” He taps his teaspoon to make a point. “Better a trail wears out through use, than be bombproof but not enjoyable.”
Right there is the attitude that has seen Mabie stay at the forefront of trail design for two decades. Generations of trails that have worked and not worked, sit side-by-side, representing a colourful storyline of how the trail-building art was born.