Singletrack Magazine issue 115: Trail Hinter – Dartmoor

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TRAIL HUNTER EXPLORES those must-do RIDES that should be on every British mountain biker’s bucket list.

Words Tom Fenton

Photography Andy Heading

Tom Fenton heads to south-west England and the plentiful, but hard-won, delights of Dartmoor and a strong contender for his ‘best riding anywhere’ award.

Ever get a bit overwhelmed by choice in a restaurant? You quite fancy the pizza, but the burger looks good and whatever they’re having on the table over there smells delicious. You sit, paralysed by indecision and the waiter says he’ll come back to you and now everyone else has ordered and it’s your turn…

I get so overwhelmed in restaurants that I’ve turned vegetarian. This way, instead of ten options, I have two: chilli or risotto. I don’t like risotto, so my decision is made. Stress-free dining.

Writing route guides is the same. You want to pick the best trails and find the perfect ride, but, inevitably, all the good trails end at the same place, or run in the same direction. You can’t include them all, just one or two. But which? Potential loops spin round and round in your head, driving you nuts. And this time, there’s no veggie option. 

These ‘Trail Hunter’ articles are about finding the best trails in the UK, which potentially makes them the most stressful of all. So I’m going to cheat. This particular article is about Dartmoor. Specifically, Lustleigh Cleave.

Lustleigh Cleave is a tree-filled, steep-sided, singletrack-packed valley on the east of Dartmoor. It contains some of the best trails in the south-west. They’re fast, twisty, and full of rounded granite boulders that beg to be hopped over, launched off or carved around. It’s the sort of stuff that makes you grin. But here’s the problem: all the trails in Lustleigh are great – as descents. They’re all must-ride tracks. It’s hard to pick one over another. Even worse, they all lead to the same point. Once you’ve ridden one, there’s no neat way to loop up to the top of the next. You have to push up and come straight back down the same way. And as the unwritten rules of route guides demand that a ride is a loop, that’s a problem. You have to choose one. 

This is where I’m going to cheat. I’m not going to pick or create a neat loop. I’m going to call the whole place a ‘must-ride’ and leave you to explore. The riding is so good that you’d struggle not to have an ace day.

With that in mind, I call my friend Pete and invite him out to play in the woods. 

And so, the cheating begins…

First, we have to get there. While Dartmoor is right at the bottom of the M5 and surprisingly easy to reach, when you are there the tiny lanes mean it takes an eternity to get anywhere. Inching along them, wing mirrors brushing hedges on both sides at once (backwards, in one instance, as Pete loses a game of chicken with a little old lady in a Peugeot), it takes bloody ages to reach our starting point in the village of Manaton.

Our first trail, because it’s the closest to the car park, is a wet one. Starting from the appropriately named village of Water, it’s the obvious bridleway drop into Lustleigh Cleave. What the map doesn’t tell you, but the village name hints at, is that you’ll be riding down what is basically a stream. 

Pete goes first. The trail starts wide, straight… and dry, which makes me anxious that it isn’t as good as I remember, and fools me into thinking I’ll stay dry. But then Pete swings high up onto the bank and darts around a left-hand bend and I needn’t worry. The trail narrows, turns rocky and floods. I’m definitely going to get a soggy arse. 

We skitter off a technical drop, taking different lines for photographer Andy’s camera, and begin a high-speed rattle and splash down the hill. The spray flies and it’s tricky to see what’s going on, which is a problem when there are so many rocks around. You’ve just got to hang on and hope you avoid the biggest and most slippery ones. Up comes a corner, and Pete again hops up onto the bank, taking the widest line through the bend he possibly can. I thought I understood racing lines, but Pete’s finding space where there isn’t any. 

Then the stream exits stage left and the descent changes character. This is definitely a trail of two (awesome) halves. The rocky blast up top isn’t typical of the area and now, without the stream to wash it away, the trail turns to smooth dirt. Less frantic, we relax and speed up – but not too much: rocky obstacles still litter the trail, and we hop and dodge around them looking for the fastest or most entertaining lines. At one point, we find ourselves hopping side-by-side over a tiny stream. This is not a good plan. Singletrack is singletrack for a reason and I leap face first through a holly bush while Pete more or less hops off the trail.

No damage done, the descent steepens for the final stretch, snaking awkwardly around a final rocky chicane and slithering down greasy rocks to a bridge. Not a bad start to the ride.

But now it’s time to climb. To begin with, it’s a nice gradient and the dry ground lets us spin up easily enough. It’s wideish singletrack, twisting and turning with a smooth dirt surface and only the odd root or low rounded granite boulders to think about. Pete pedals smoothly, cruising around the rocks and picking neat lines between the roots. I can’t resist hopping straight over the roots and onto the boulders and scrabble upwards behind him in a less-tidy fashion. 

Changing, changing.

Higher up, the trail ramps up in both gradient and technicality. There are no neat lines for Pete to take and the rocks are a touch too big for me to scramble over. We’re both off and pushing, heading up the long climb to Hunter’s Tor. 

The push gives us a chance to check out our surroundings. The woods are beautiful. They’re quiet, picturesque, and very, very green. Green grass and bracken cover the forest floor. Green moss clings to everything and green leaves float above our heads. We’re in the Lord of the Rings. Lurking between the trees are huge granite boulders, big rounded hulks that loom over the trail. Weird little plants sprout from cracks and little passageways lead off between them. It’s all a bit mystical.

Up on Hunter’s Tor we can see over to the moors east of Lustleigh Cleave. This big weathered landscape is beautiful on a sunny day. Wild open moorland, with lumpy granite tors plonked randomly across them. Dartmoor ponies graze between colourful gorse bushes as meadow pipits shoot through the air under a big blue sky. Lovely. But this can all change in minutes as thick mist rolls in from the sea, blanketing everything in clammy greyness. 

Now the ancient stone crosses and sodden mires take on a distinctly spooky air and you begin to feel a strange emptiness. It’s easy to start believing in mythical hounds and ghostly legends.

Few places get under your skin like Dartmoor. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, the riding on the moors is seductive. From our vantage point we can see Tegg’s Nose with its technical-but-still-somehow-flowing descent. Behind it, after a stretch of fast singletrack and a huge grassy climb, lies the ancient Roman fort of Grimspound, with its rock-slab trails. Still further is Headland Warren, with its swoopy rabbit runs and handy pub. It isn’t hard to find a stunning ride that starts or finishes in Lustleigh Cleave.

But why dream of trails when you could be riding them? Turning away from the view, we begin the descent to Sharpitor and into Lustleigh Cleave.

Overusing the overused. 

‘Swoopy’ and ‘flowy’ are the most overused words in biking. Here, however, there are few trails that swoop or flow better and no better words to use. The trails are singletrack, and predominantly dirt. They’re not overly technical, and you can see tricky stuff coming a mile off. The corners are open and never seem to tighten awkwardly, so you can carve through them. 

The granite boulders are smooth and rounded in nature, making it impossible not to play around. Whether you swing round them, launch between them or hop over them, they don’t feel scary or difficult, just fun and friendly. 

We sprint away from Hunter’s Tor. Ahead of me, Pete pulls a tidy hop over an inviting looking boulder and fires off down the trail. Following, I hop the boulder, but, unable to see through Pete, don’t know what’s coming. Now I’m going far too fast to avoid the next jumble of rocks. Quick, hop again! But now I’m going even faster and there’s another rock dead ahead. HOP. HOP. HOP. I probably look like a demented wallaby, but it makes me grin. Still, I drop back from Pete a touch.

Just as well really. The open singletrack eggs you on to higher and higher speeds before suddenly slamming in short technical sections to keep you on your toes. Maybe a small rock garden, or a narrower-than-expected gap between the rocks. I get caught out by a moss-covered slab of rock in a corner, which sweeps my front wheel from under me and deposits me on the ground like a sack of spuds. 

I get back up and back on Pete’s wheel. We lean feet out round big bends, roll off rock slabs, and grin as we squeeze between huge rocks on tight, steep lines. 

Pete cuts right and into a big S-bend. I spot a gap between two huge boulders and drop down a rock chute, cutting the bend to pull off a cheeky pass. Too slow. But Pete’s moving back across into another S-bend, crossing back and forth down the hill in big sweeping arcs, while my trail also continues, nipping over boulders and around trees as it cuts across Pete’s line. Every time Pete exits a corner, I cross just behind him as we swap back and forth across one another. We’re grinning at the top and laughing out loud by the bottom. (Especially me, because I finally got past Pete.)

Halfway down we’re meant to turn off, but carry straight on for the full top-to-bottom descent. We know we’ll have to push back up, but we’re having too much fun to care. The trail is easier now, and we know the lines from our push up. The rocks are fewer and smaller, the gradient shallower and the corners more open. We’re really shifting, but can see right down the trail and that means no nasty surprises. We can play around more, picking where to hop and how wide to swing into the corners. It’s a lot of fun. There’s still the odd line that’s a bit blind – the occasional tempting hop through a corner where you can’t see the landing so don’t dare take the chance – but that just makes us imagine how good the trail would be if we knew it…

At a push, the best place we’ve ridden? 

Having pushed back up (totally worth it), we find our final trail – Nutcracker. Good name. A long singletrack traverse up the valley, it’s a lot more physical than the others with some steep and technical climbing. Pete’s not such a fan today as his legs are beginning to tire, but it’s one of my favourites. I used to think it wasn’t cleanable, but now I’m not so sure. The climbing sections are typically steep dirt rises with a rocky section at the top. But they’re easier than they look. If you’ve got enough oomph to power up the dirt and fling yourself at the rocks, the rough and rounded granite is a lot more rideable than it first appears. 

Perhaps ‘rideable’ is the wrong word, but, whether it’s pure luck or whether I’ve got extra energy (ahem, stoke) from the previous trails, I find myself climbing further than expected.

Inevitably, after a few too many enthusiastic uphill sprints, my legs tire too. The climbs seem bigger and the rocks more awkward. Then, on cue, the climb ends and the final descent begins. And there’s not a huge amount to say about it that hasn’t been said already. It’s just like the other descents we’ve ridden, and every bit as fun. Tired legs are instantly forgotten as we hop roots, pop boulders and carve corners. I can hear Pete’s freehub buzzing. He’s right behind me the whole way down which makes it even better. No matter how good a trail is, it’s ten times as much fun when you can ride it flat out and your friends are right with you.

Andy’s waiting up ahead with his camera and his grin says everything. This is the best place we’ve ridden.

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