One of the things I love most about the mountain bike scene is the vibe. It must be something to do with the amount of adrenaline flying around, which loosens tongues and makes for a great sense of camaraderie. I guess part of it is the shared experience of managing to escape serious injury on a regular basis because I reckon I’ve broken myself more times in five years of mountain biking than in the previous twenty five years of climbing. One of my favourite spots to enjoy that unique mix of adrenaline overload and survivor syndrome is the bottom of Spooky Wood at Glentress. There you’ll see riders wearing similar grins swopping broadly similar tales of disasters averted. The only problem is when you get to the inevitable, “Where are you from?” moment. I always hesitate before answering that my home patch is the Peak District. The response will inevitably be, “The Peak District?! What are you bothering to come here for? You’ve got some of the best riding in the world on your doorstep.”
Olly airborn beneath Stanage
And, to a point, I’m forced to agree. The Peak has fantastic riding of all sorts, gorgeous landscape and it’s only twenty minutes riding from my front door. But, and this is the bit where they look at me as if I’m mad, sometimes I just want a holiday from all that super technical, steep, rocky gnarlyness. Sometimes, a trail centre hits the spot in a way that natural trails seldom can. Trail centres are predictable in a way that encourages flat-out riding. I love re-doing a trail I know well, learning its foibles, nailing tough features and railing those berms. It’s a bit like the difference between scaring the bejesus out of yourself on the grit and going sport climbing on Portland. One is a life defining step into the unknown, the other a bit of a laugh, a holiday from the intense experience of placing gear and cheating death.
Not that trail centres don’t sometimes present a challenge. I returned to Innerliethen this year for the first time since I smashed my shoulder three years ago. On that occasion, riding with my old mates Simon Jones and Lucy Creamer, I attacked the initial drop offs on the infamous Caddon Bank with gusto, survived and then piled it on the whoops that follow. I still remember the look on Lucy’s face every time my collar bone kept popping up in my shoulder like Alien trying to get out.
Lucy Creamer going for it on Innerliethen’s infamous Caddon Bank
This time, I was pretty nervous. Even though I was three years older I wondered how I’d get on. What I’d forgotten was that I’d got three more years of Peak District insanity under my belt. I hit the drop offs with considerably less speed than last time and still survived plunging into the rock gardens below. I then felt chastened when I found that the far from being ten foot tall, the roller that had done for me last time was probably more like four.
Having survived that, I gained access to the bit of the trail I missed last time and it’s an object lesson in why I, and many others, find trail centres so seductive. After a short rock chute, the trail swoops down through the trees with a succession of loony drop-offs. The difference with those at the top of the trail is that the landings are all perfect, smooth and barrelling down into sculpted berms. I reckon they could hear me shrieking with exhilaration all the way to Edinburgh. It was the kind of riding you would seldom find on a natural trail, but is common on the well designed trails for which Scotland is rightly famous.
Interestingly, a couple of days later, I bumped into a guy called Richard at Glentress. He works there now but back in the day he was responsible for building Spooky Wood and Caddon Bank. He made me chuckle when he pointed out that back then, the only reason they made it a black run was because they were all riding hard-tails. He reckons that with the advent of full suspension, it’s really only a red now. Bloody hell.