Words Tom Fenton Photography Andy Heading
When Chipps asked if I wanted to write about the ‘must-ride’ trails of the UK, I was pretty excited. Ride all my favourite routes and get paid to do so? Hot diggity. I rushed out, rode awesome trails, wrote equally awesome words, and generally had a great time.
Then I ran out of ideas. What exactly was a must-ride trail? Nothing seemed good enough to qualify and those that did had already been done. I asked my friends. That didn’t work. They all disagreed. ‘What about trail X?’ ‘Rubbish.’ ‘Trail Y?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘Z?’ ‘You’re joking.’ Turns out that one person’s must-ride is another’s must-not.
The more I thought, the more confused I became. Does a great trail need to be singletrack? With views? A decent length? What if you’re in the Alps, where every trail ticks those boxes? Are they all must-rides, or, if they all are, maybe none are? And then there’s the trail behind the pub near my house. It’s 30 seconds long, sort of singletracky and has absolutely no view. But I ride it whenever I can. Why?
Navigating out of a paper bag.
I hatched a plan to head to Grizedale Forest in the Lake District with photographer Andy and my friend Rich. Grizedale’s one of the best places in the country to ride. It’s full of great trails: technical ones, flowy ones, scenic ones… all we had to do was pick some and compare them.
Unfortunately, I then realised that neither Rich nor Andy would be much help. Rich is the happiest cyclist in the world. He could have the time of his life scooting down the street to check his brakes after a service. Everything is a must-ride trail to him. And Andy can’t remember one trail from another. He tried to tell us about a ‘must-ride’ trail he’d found the other day and described a completely different one in a village ten miles away. How’s he going to help? Still, Rich is free and Andy’s handy with a camera, so they’ll do.
Arriving in Grizedale, it looks like rain. As ever, Andy wants bright colours for the photos, but Rich and I only have matching blue waterproofs. Disaster. We can’t possibly wear the same colour and because my T-shirt is also blue (it brings out my eyes), it’s Rich who’s forced to start in his bright red base layer.
Possibly because he’s now freezing cold, Rich sets off at pace. He and Andy are committed singlespeeders and rather fast ones at that. As their ridiculous bikes force them to sprint up every hill, I find myself struggling to keep up. So I do what geared riders always do to singlespeeders – get ahead of them and twiddle tiny gears at critical points, ‘accidentally’ getting in the way and killing their momentum while apologising profusely.
Somehow we’re still friends at the top of the climb, and ready for our first ‘must-ride’ candidate – Parkamoor. Starting near the top of the forest, Parkamoor heads for open ground above Coniston Water before rattling down a big track towards the lake, chucking in the odd rock garden and finishing in High Nibthwaite after a series of fast and loose switchbacks. It’s long, scenic and technical – but is it a must-ride?
I always enjoy the singletrack start to the Parkamoor. It climbs deceptively, but drops and twists as it does so, guiding you through an alleyway of pine trees. Today, with a brief hailstorm adding a touch of white to the branches, it feels like it’s leading us to Narnia. Even Rich, in his red top, is enjoying it and wonders whether a good trail is one that you can enjoy in all weathers. Andy agrees, probably because the red stands out beautifully against the green forest.
As we reach open ground the hail has stopped and we’re reminded that a great trail has more than just good riding. High on the fell tops, we’re in a spectacular position, with views across a sizeable chunk of Cumbria. It’s breathtaking. Sadly, so too is the bitter wind, so we get a move on, with Rich finally rebelling and pulling on his jacket before we head down.
As we head for the main descent, Rich discovers that he was having so much fun scooting down the street after a recent brake fettle that he forgot to check they actually work. They don’t. Unluckily for him, this discovery coincides with the technical bit of Parkamoor… a mixture of flat-out easy sections and sudden rock gardens – the sort that look innocuous from above and then leap at you, a toothy mess of sharp edges and awkward gaps.
Rich is concentrating hard now, his front brake only there for cosmetic effect, but he’s still grinning. Andy wonders if the best trails are the most technical – the ones where you have to pick a careful line. He wants a side-by-side shot in a rock garden and Rich volunteers to take the awkward side. Predictably, this ends with Rich bike-free and airborne, luckily landing on some of the ‘softer’ rocks. He’s OK, but examines his hand in a worried fashion for the rest of the day. At least he’s learned an important lesson about volunteering. Andy sympathetically proposes renaming the trail ‘Rich’s Faceplant’.
Redone rock gardens.
More rock gardens follow. Sadly, with the photo stops, I can’t get going and everything feels jerky and awkward. Can great trails lose their appeal if you’re having a bad day? Then Andy decides he’s got enough shots and Rich and I are released to hit the trail at speed. Flying into tricky sections at a cracking pace, a wave of fear and blind luck sees us through with a huge buzz. Then, right at the bottom, a series of big, open corners are dispatched feet-out and sideways, ensuring that we’re left with nothing but happy memories.
That’s more like it!
The riding in Grizedale is so good that it’s almost a problem. Riding one great trail usually means skipping another. Today, we’re not having that, and turn to climb back up Parkamoor. This gives Rich an idea. Maybe a must-ride descent is one a singlespeeder can’t climb cleanly. (By which he means dab-free. No TUEs here.)
The usual pattern for singlespeed climbing is to stomp off at high speed, gurning dramatically until the rider runs out of puff, encounters a mildly technical section or snaps a chain – the former two indicating good gradients and technicality for descending, the latter indicating an imminent stem/knee interface. It’s a fairly specific way to measure the quality of a descent, but it’s as good as any we’ve got so far.
Back at the top, we roll down an unremarkable fire road until a run-of-the-mill bridleway arrow points us off to the side. There’s no signpost, no trail name. Tucked away in the trees, well away from anywhere, it’s our second descent.
Roll in and you discover something special. Dropping onto the trail, you’re immediately hidden from the outside world. Bright green grass banks stand out against the deeper hues of overhanging pine branches and the black forest beyond, but you’re only aware of them as blurs of colour as you swoop down the hill. It’s a fast and weirdly quiet descent, gliding over rock steps and sweeping around big corners at high speed, suddenly bursting out onto a fire road for a brief return to normality before swooping back into the trees with barely a pause.
I don’t really know what the others did on the descent. Rolling in ahead of them, I’m soon up to speed and absorbed by the trail, staying smooth by taking wide lines in the turns, switching around to avoid the bigger rocks and floating over smaller ones. I’m aware of Rich behind me but sense him dropping back, hampered by his dodgy brake. I consider stopping to check he’s OK, but I’m having so much fun that I don’t really want to.
What makes a perfect trail?
Eventually I hear a shout and pull over. We stop for photos and I realise why I like this descent so much. It’s because you can play around. For one shot, Andy wants us side by side through a corner and the only way to do this is for me to accelerate hard behind Rich and dart up the inside at the last minute. (And then forget that his brakes don’t work and stop sharply in front of him. Sorry Rich.) Further on, instead of taking the easy line round a rooty section, I fancy hopping it, landing wide-eyed with much more speed than expected. Lower down, I take a tight line into a corner which flings me out in what feels suspiciously like a two-wheel drift. Is this what makes a must-ride? Multiple lines? The chance to be fast and aggressive, smooth and flowy, or to go looking for fun?
The third and final trail under the must-ride microscope is the singletrack from Old Breasty Haw. First things first: there’s nothing amusing about the name. ‘Breasty’ means ‘hill’, and ‘Haw’ has something to do with trees. See? Not funny.
The ‘proper’ trail begins after the climb, where a narrow path darts past a rocky outcrop, splashes through a puddle, and vanishes over a small rise. From there on it’s fun all the way. After an undulating start, singletrack tips you downhill, picking up speed as you nip through tight twists and turns, squeezing between rocks and going straight over others. After a time the rocks grow less frequent, but all this means is that you whip down the trail at increasingly high speeds.
Halfway down is a small copper-coloured slab – a little pop at the top and you float across the rock with ease, landing at warp speed and blasting on down the trail. At the bottom all hell breaks loose as the trail tips and plunges steeply to the road. Today, though, there’s a shock: they’ve been felling in the area and the worryingly steep mix of roots, rocks and awkward corners has vanished. The initial tangle of roots remains, but after you’ve rattled through that you’re left with a wideish trail that makes a couple of turns and deposits you at the bottom. What a shame. Still, it hopefully won’t be long before the Lake District weather and a few hundred tyres restore the trail to its former glory.
Trail? What trail?
Rich and Andy reckon it’s the best trail of the day. Suspecting that Andy picked it because he’s already forgotten the others and that Rich secretly liked everything anyway, I ask why. “Because it’s singletrack.” Is that the key? The magic of singletrack? Tight trails that twist and turn by their very nature, meaning more corners, more movement – more riding. And when there’s only a narrow line ahead of you, you’ve got to be in tune with the trail, twisting and turning with it. All the time the edges of the trail whizz by only inches away, increasing the feeling of speed and flow… On top of that, singletrack just looks right. Picture a ‘perfect’ trail in your mind – it’s not wide and double track, is it?
It’s been a good day. I’m still not sure what exactly makes a must-ride trail, but I do know that I’ve just ridden three great trails and had a lot of fun – so much that I don’t want to stop just yet. So I suggest throwing in a final descent. “It’s awesome. Best trail of the day. It’ll drop us right at the car.” It’s also steep, slippery, and full of crash potential and, it occurs to me, maybe not ideal if you have no front brake or you’re carrying a big bag of expensive camera equipment. Still, the others are game and so we go for it. And it’s great. As hard as ever, but brilliant fun. This time I do stop to check on the others, but both Rich and Andy rattle past me with massive grins and, when I finally catch them, are raving about the descent.
Then Andy sums it up: “If you’re not smiling when you reach the end, it’s not a must-ride trail.”