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The hamster, the fly, the chick and the monkey

A tour through the varied bike parks of the UK

Bike parks are popular. You only have to visit one on a weekend to see the hundreds of cars filling the car parks. Walkers, dog walkers, families and every kind of cyclist from those with stabilizers to those who need a pilot’s licence. So, what’s the attraction for ebikers and what are the differences between the many bike parks and trail centres?

I took in a selection of some that I have not been to before and these were my findings…

Kielder Water and Forest Park

This is a park that I’ve not heard much about either in magazines, digital media or from other riders so I was intrigued to find out more. The first thing I found and maybe the reason why I hadn’t heard much about it, was its location. It’s miles from anywhere. I drove there along the A68 which instantly became my favourite road in all of the UK. It has so many ‘blind summits’, some of which see the road completely disappear. It made the trip very entertaining.

The first thing that struck me was the size. Kielder is massive. You can spend all day riding and still not cover it all. There are 2 blue routes, 3 red and a black plus a link to the Cross Border Trail.

I started with the Osprey – a blue route which had an optional bit at the end called ‘The Chick’ which I also rode. My first impression – there is a lot of ‘up’. I read a review recently from the trail builders behind many of our parks and they were talking about ‘reward’. In the context that there should be a suitable reward for the uphill sections within a trail – i.e. a blast downhill. That didn’t feel like the case here. With the ebike the ups aren’t a huge issue but like most of us I really look forward to coming back down. There was a lot of forest road, which is expected on a blue route, but the downhill single track seemed scarce for the effort I had put in. This might be statistically incorrect but its’s how it felt to me.

The single track that that was there, was great – fast flowing with high berms and confidence building rollers which with enough speed made for enjoyable jumps. The detour towards the end, back up the hill to ride the ‘Chick’ was amongst the best of these.

The trail centre has toilets, café, plenty of parking and details on the routes as you’d expect and but the signposting to the Lonesome Pine red trail was limited. A few wrong turns later and I was heading out along the Lakeside Way Trail – a 25-mile loop that encompasses Kielder Water. The trailhead is 3 miles out along this track.

This was much more enjoyable, still a large amount of climbing but the single track was worth all the effort. The highlight of this route was the ‘Stairway to Heaven’. A snaking  section of Northshore that climbed up across the boggy top of the hill. It was dry when I did it and still my tyres slipped. This would be hilarious in the wet.

At the top you can access the Bloody Bush Loop giving you even more distance or go even further afield to Newcastleton (one of the 7Stanes). This in my opinion is Kielder’s main strength – The vast distances you can travel. Many parks will consist of 14-35 miles of cross-country routes but here you have 100 plus miles and access to even more. I covered 32 miles and was thoroughly knackered when I returned to the van.

Hamsterley Forest Park

Hamsterely is easily accessible from the A1 (M) and has several car parks. I landed at the main visitor centre. It was early on a Saturday morning and was already filling up.

This place has it all – there are blue, red and black cross-country routes plus there is a downhill park called Descend which has an uplift service.

I set off on the red route which took me up the track towards the downhill routes. There is a junction half way up and you turn right to follow the red trail or go straight up on what I found out was the black route. It takes you up to the top which is the headquarters of Descend Bike Park.

I  watched some of the riders tackling the downhill and was blown away by the air they were getting. I’m old school when it comes to jumping. I like doing it, but I know my limits. When my wheels are about a foot from the ground, I feel like I am competing in the Red Bull Rampage and the ‘fear’ and lack of skill makes my legs turn to jelly.

After reaching the top one of the staff kindly pointed out that I could ride the black back down a short way and then go left to re-join the red. This I did and got my first taste of what Hamsterley has to offer. Loads of drops, table tops, doubles, massive berms and sharp turns. It was all rollable and by the end I was flying off the rock lips with a massive grin on my face. I continued with the red trail and after more enjoyable single track tackled the long slog to the top of the hill on the other side of the valley. As I was pedalling upwards, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for those riders I overtook, blowing hard on their clockwork bikes, a feeling which was short-lived as I received several scowls and the obligatory ‘cheat’ remark. I just laughed as I changed up a gear.

Once at the summit I took in the spectacular views and I was eager for my downhill reward. I was initially disappointed as the first long section was all forest track. It was fast, but it was straight and featureless. I needn’t have worried. I turned left onto single track and within moments my hands and forearms were burning. The descent from here on back was fabulous and worth every bit of the climb.

Changing my battery once back at the van I headed out on the black route. Far more technical with bigger stone drops and tree roots –  lots and lots of tree roots. Having said that, I found it all rideable and equally enjoyable. The final run back to the car park was brilliant. I did 28 miles in total and if my wife hadn’t been waiting for me back at the hotel I would have gone around again (and it was our wedding anniversary!!).

Hamsterley has something for everyone which was made apparent by the queue of cars trying to find a parking spot. Get here early on a weekend would be my advice.

Cannock Chase

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cannock as it’s a relatively small area in the midlands and only has two red trails – Follow the Dog and The Monkey totalling 14 miles. The feedback on social media was good and the sun was shining so I set off.

There are two things that struck me about Cannock. One is the excellent use of space. The trail often loops back around so that you cover all the hill you are riding. It uses the natural terrain to its advantage which leads to the second point. It feels like a trail you’d ride if you were out exploring rather than a bike park. It still has all the features of a man-made trail, the drops, cambers, rollers and jumps but it has been made it such a way that it just feels natural.

Of the 14 miles (combing both routes) the vast majority is single track, even the ups. This gives you an upper body work out and my arms/hands were aching come the end. There are quite a few choke points where wide handlebars will not fit through the closely packed trees without a shimmy. That made riding entertaining especially when you clip the end of your bars and it nearly sends you off. There were a few diversions in place for trail maintenance but that didn’t affect my enjoyment. I particularly liked the Devil’s Staircase and the Original Monkey.

This place should be on everyones ‘to ride’ list. If I had more time, I would have ridden it twice and if I lived closer, I would be riding it every week. I went to a talk by mountain bike legend Hans Rey a few weeks ago and he was talking about the trails he has helped design and they were all about – ‘flow’. Cannock, in my opinion is a perfect example of this and definitely a place to which I will return.

Fly Up 417 Bike Park

The 417 is so called as it lies on Crickley Hill right next to the A417 and is specifically a downhill park. I headed there with my 16-year-old son (riding a Mondraker e-vantage hardtail) and my brother (riding his Mondraker Dune Carbon full-sus). My ticket included an uplift pass, but I had no intention of using it.

I had a bit of a disaster in the morning as I found out I hadn’t charged my batteries. I charged one on the way there via a 240v outlet in my van but intended to sort the other on arrival. We signed in and got our wristbands and I asked about charging my battery. The receptionist looked at me as if I was wearing a balaclava and had asked her to hand over all the cash. I explained that even though I had an uplift pass, I wanted to ride and may need the use of a spare battery. She finally understood and said it would cost £10. After I realised, she wasn’t joking we left for the trails.

417 basically has 2 blue, 2 red and a black. The reds split on the way down giving you different options. There is also a pump track and jump barn. My son and I cycled to the top via the push-path. It was only partially covered in stone and some bits climbed over steep grassy sections which in the wet made it hard to ride. We reached the area where the uplift vehicles turned and realised there was another short section to climb. The majority of those using the uplift service avoided this and used a cut through to access the tracks.

I usually like cycling up but there was little enjoyment in this track so from that point on we all used the uplift service. Now we were really cheating.

Being ‘jumphobic’ as I have previously described I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun I was having on both the blue and red runs. All rollable if you so wish but equally encouraging you to take to the air.

It’s the table-tops that have me foxed. I can manage the doubles by jumping the gap and have no problem sailing off the steps, but tables-tops make me lose all control. I watched a young lad sail up one-side, clear the flat top and land on the downward slope. He made it look so easy. I tried to replicate what I had seen and had various versions of landing on my back wheel, front wheel and once missing the table-top altogether. I need way more practice.

We did about 20 runs during the day broken up by a very nice burger in the café. We also watched the lunatics in the jump barn which further convinced me that my tyres should always remain on the ground. Despite my doubts I found I really enjoyed the riding and it made a pleasant change to the cross-country routes I am used to.

Other Bike Parks are available

This is just a small selection of the ever-increasing trail centres in the UK. They are all different and have something to offer every ability of rider. Most are all-weather and most have toilets, café and bike shop facilities. The entry is free to most, with a £5/6 parking fee.

I still love adventure biking where I just head out and explore the countryside but the fun you can have at these dedicated centres is amazing and they will continue to form part of my eMTB riding calendar.

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