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UK Riding: Malvern Magic
Words and pictures by Chipps.
James Richards probably couldn’t be more Yorkshire if he tried. A gruff, cheery fellow, rosy-cheeked and easy with a friendly word, he’d be a shoo-in for a part in Emmerdale. “Oh, here comes young Seth, driving the cows, he’s just moved over from t’farm from over yonder…”
And yet he’s drinking a cup of tea and eyeing up the millionaire’s shortbread outside a twee little tea shop in Worcestershire. He’s as cheery as he’s ever been and talks with an enthusiasm for the rolling hills of the Malverns that seems at odds with someone who grew up with the Yorkshire Dales on his doorstep. However, James’ love for the place is based as much on familiarity with his northern roots as it is in the slightly warmer, drier climate and access to a decent cappuccino.
“I’ve been here for eight years and to be honest there are many things locally that remind me of Yorkshire. Big towns and cities close by, rural living, never far from somewhere good to ride; the close proximity of the Black Mountains is like the Dales. Pub and social rides, miles of country lanes for good road riding; secretly I’m happy with the fact it’s a bit warmer and drier on the tracks round here, but I still love getting up north and riding some of my old haunts in Calderfornia, from the moorland to the woods.”
James’ mission for the day appears to show me all of the trails that the Malvern Hills can offer, all of the altitude gain possible and to introduce me to as wide a selection of local riders as he can. Such is his love of the place that you’d suspect some sort of ulterior motive, but the reality is far from that – in fact by shouting about the Malverns so vocally, he stands to remind people what great riding exists there and as a result will end up with more riders on his local trails. He seems fine with that, though, and the efforts of the local mountain bike clubs have been seeing capacity attendance for youth coaching in the last couple of years, meaning that the hills will always be full of riders.
They’re over there, by the M5.
Like many riders, my only real knowledge of this unique whaleback of a hill range has been through certain mountain bike events over the years (the ’90s Malvern Classic and Mountain Mayhem) along with some sideways glances every time I drive up or down the M5. Unlike the similarly-shaped Quantocks, they’re a little easier to reach from the centre of England and it’s pretty obvious once you’ve got there. But once there, where do you ride? The answer is ‘Just about anywhere!’.
Looking at a map of the hills, the long dashes of bridleways zigzag everywhere. Even though houses back up to the very base of the hills, they’re rarely busy, and yet, this proximity of people and trails has inspired a riding community that rivals any that I’ve ever seen.
I meet James at his home and, after some lunch, we saddle up and ride through the woods near his house as we head towards our rendezvous at the foot of the Malverns. He’s made some calls and assembled a bunch of riders typical of those in the area. First though, we have to get there. I follow on James’ tail as he weaves through the trees, among the bluebells and dappled sunlight. As we pass a sign at a junction, I expect to see, shall we say, a non-positive mountain bike symbol, yet there are bridleway markers pointing in every direction; this area is thick with rights of way.
The recent rains have left some corners a little slick as I try to keep up with this adopted local on his home trails, my optimistic summer back tyre fishtailing around. The trees ease a little and the path widens enough to ride and chat. James enjoys riding here at all hours and in all weathers. Much of the established trails have been around for centuries, as the sunken, hollow ways attest, and are pretty all-weather.
As we pop out near the base of the hills, it’s easy to see just how the villages (and the town of Malvern itself) literally back onto the slopes. We muscle up a short climb, past houses and schools and meet the rest of the riders.
And these will be your riding companions…
I get to ride with some pretty special people now and again – bike company owners, sponsored riders and racing drivers – but I don’t think I’ve ever met a group of riders at the roadside that includes two multiple national champions (one of which happens to be a World Champion and the other a multiple Olympian), along with the then-leader of the women’s UCI junior series and another Under-23 international. Not to mention a king of wheelies, a walking map encyclopaedia and two of the raddest mums I’ve ever met. It was quite the car park group.
The World Champ is, of course, Tracy Moseley, who grew up in Malvern – as did multiple Olympian Liam Killeen. There seems to be something in the water here, as they’re both also mentoring younger riders with great potential on the world scene. The mountain bike bug is bigger than that, though, as there are several mountain bike clubs around the hills, all of whom have strong school-age riders. Some of the local heroes, like Liam, James and Tracy have gone on to help out coaching the clubs, while in return, some of the parents have got into mountain biking due to the involvement of their children.
As we start up the first climb, I chat to Justine, one of the mums at the Malvern Cycle Sport Club. Both of her sons race and volunteer with the club’s coaching sessions for younger children, having done three years of it themselves. Due to their involvement, Justine got involved with the club and is now the ‘organising lynchpin’ according to James and, despite having only got a mountain bike a couple of years ago, is tearing up the hills. She says she’s been getting some help with her fitness from LK. From Liam? I can only imagine how inspiring it must be to have an Olympic cross-country racer give you some pointers on your riding.
All of the riders are keen to show me as many of the trails here as possible and I’m treated to an ‘Italian Stop’ several times (‘You’ve caught us up, great, let’s go!’) in their eagerness to get to the next cool bit. Unlike much of my regular riding, where towns and houses only appear in the distance, on many of the Malverns’ bridleways, you are never far from town and are often looking down on rooftops. Many of my riding companions can see their houses from bits of the ride and to them it seems natural to get back from work or school, get on a bike and ride out the back of the house onto miles of great tracks. The thought of having to jump in a car for an hour is an alien concept; as is not having anyone local to ride with.
A few times on the ride we bump into mountain bikers who are all known to James and his friends. A constantly rotating pool of riders seems ever-ready to form into regular riding groups, from the Thirsty Thursday ex-rugby players who take on the shortest loop possible on the way to the pub, to the serious, effort-based rides that Liam sometimes oversees as the next generation of would-be champs throw themselves repeatedly at the unrelenting slopes of the hills.
As with any place of endless ups, there are, fortunately, plenty of not-endless-enough descents that range from flat-out grassy plummets, to mega switchback, alpine wonders. The locals mix these up depending on their moods. It’s not like they’re trying to get anywhere, they just configure their rides to get what they want out of the maze of trails. We wait a while as James fixes his ‘but I never puncture!’ double flat (on an easy fire road) and the groups assemble to talk about different things. Justine and Ellie, the mums, chat to Tracy about upcoming club events while the lads talk about new trail discoveries and Tom’s wheelie prowess. All the while, the impressive town of Malvern, with its historic streets and original gas lit streetlights, spreads out below us, near enough to touch.
I ride for a while with Caleb Whitcombe who is also a coach for the cycling club, but his real passion is his thirst for trail knowledge. He can describe rides that web out from the Malverns for miles in all directions and he’s the man to talk to for detailed knowledge of routes (and trail conditions based on any combination of weather conditions) for several counties. By contrast, Dave Creber is a powerhouse of a junior rider who seems to spend all of his time throwing himself at the hills to get fitter and faster – when he’s not racing in Europe. He has just returned from a decent result at the weekend, racing as a UCI Under-23. All these riders seem to mix well, whether it’s on a social ride, helping out club youngsters (and oldsters too) or on regular speed sessions.
Late to the ride is Evie Richards, a mere 18-year-old who at the time is leading the UCI Junior Cup in cross-country. She’s just come straight from school, where she’s balancing school work with being one of the new batch of British Junior hopes. She’s being mentored and supported by Tracy Moseley and T-Mo Racing and is in good hands. Tracy’s extensive experience goes way beyond her downhill roots: she knows what it is to be a full time and successful student while managing a potential professional career, and she’s also shown that she has what it takes to train hard enough to transfer from the top of the downhill world to the top of the enduro world.
I had wondered how such a smooth and innocuous-looking range of hills could turn out such technically adept riders as Tracy and Liam, but just under the turf of the hills lies the backbone of rock, and many of the trails we ride have technical ups and downs. Putting them all together is like the biggest technical cross-country loop imaginable. And a few ups and downs here is a day’s worth of riding worthy of a World Enduro Series round.
As we make our way back to the start, Tracy shows me her favourite descent on the hills – a wider track that starts on the grassy upper slopes, scattering lounging sheep as we go, moving on to a narrow, off-camber sliver that clings to the hillside with hardcore, rocky features that seem more at home in Fort William than on these innocent-looking slopes. Even though we’ve only been out for a few hours, I feel thoroughly worked.
Back at base, James makes me a cup of tea and I bump into another local legend (and neighbour), Ed Moseley, Tracy’s brother and top racer back in the day. Having spent years doing a ‘proper job’ in accountancy, the lure of the hills was too much and he’s back (working at nearby Islabikes). He too knows every inch of these hills and is glad to be able to nip out the back door of an evening to get in another lap of these world-class, little-known trails. And he knows that, with the amount of local riders and the growing junior scene (which includes his own children), he won’t be alone. Unless he wants to be, of course, in which case there are miles upon miles of tracks in which to lose himself, so close to home.
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