UK Mountain Biking’s Dirty Secret

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As you might already know, we had some disappointing news recently. The Welsh government looked like it was about to follow Scotland in opening up access to its amazing countryside for many more potential users. But then it quietly buried any proposals for reform. It’s not known for sure what caused them to get cold feet – some people have assumed that they caved in under strong opposition from pressure groups, while others have pointed to the general post-EU referendum uncertainty that seems to have gripped many branches of government.

This isn’t the first time that moves have started to reform Welsh access, only to be quietly dropped. We do know that the government’s consultation generated one of the largest responses ever, mostly from mountain bikers, so I’m going to assume that the problem wasn’t cyclists being shouted down. It’s that many people (including the Welsh government) simply don’t understand why the current rights of way system is bad for anyone on two wheels.

Y tho?

The nightclub metaphor

For anyone not familiar with the land access situation in England and Wales, try this metaphor. Imagine you’ve heard about this really fun nightclub with a great atmosphere, so you go along with your mates to try and get in. Obviously, you’re all going to be on your best behaviour and not start any fights – that goes without saying. You’ve also put on your smart shoes. But the doorman won’t let you into the main bit of the club – you can only go in the small back room. He also makes you limbo under the velvet rope on your way in, because he likes being an awkward git.

Of course you could sneak into the big room, but if you get caught you might be barred permanently, and your mates too. Other people in the club might realise you’ve not paid to come in, and kick off. By this time, you’re starting to lose interest. The other club up Scotland Street, the one without a dress code, starts to look more interesting. You’ve also got the mobile number of a mate who’s organising an illegal free party in a field somewhere, which sounds a lot more exciting.

So it is with mountain biking, where in England and Wales we have a system of access that wasn’t really designed with cyclists in mind. We’re an afterthought, allowed to slip in after some very prescient lobbying by the Cyclists Touring Club, more or less exactly half a century ago. We got the right to ride on bridleways and byways, which was much better than nothing. In fact there are areas of the country where it works brilliantly – places like the Lakes, where a history of pack horses plodding their way up to mines has left us with a lot of classic mountain bike routes. But there are also parts of the country where you’d be better off trying to find some good natural ice skating. It’s not just that there are fewer legal routes, it’s that once you take out all the ones which are miles from the next one, cut off by scary busy roads, or overgrown bogs even at the height of summer, often there isn’t a lot to go at. Some legal mountain bike routes even turn into footpaths half way along – funny how that works, eh?

Road to nowhere

You might assume, looking at a dotted line on a map, that it corresponds to a path on the ground, and indeed they often do. But technically, a right of way is, as the name suggests, a right, not a route. You might have lawful permission to walk or ride along this line, but the state of it on the ground might make that impossible. I’ve encountered rights of way that have been washed away by floods, chopped in half by motorways, or simply neglected to the point where there’s no longer any sign of their existence. And there’s no accepted definition of a bridleway or a footpath – a soft peaty track across a fragile moor can easily be a bridleway, while a footpath can be stone or tarmac. In theory there are resources to maintain local routes, in practice your local rights of way department probably has one or two members of full time staff and a budget that wouldn’t be enough to replace the street light bulbs that popped in a year, let alone manage and maintain hundreds of miles of paths.

A bridleway. But not one to ride all year round.

Even when paths get maintained, it can still create problems. The bridleway network is really important for another group of users, and the clue is in the name. While horses and bikes don’t always mix well, the real issue is that bridleways have to be kept in passable condition by equestrian traffic. In practice, this can mean a heavy level of interference in the sort of tracks that many mountain bikers would prefer to be kept natural and challenging. We’ve all seen photos of nice rocky descents that have been hastily buried in building materials like an unfortunate Mafia victim. Whether such acts of sanitisation are down to the wishes of equestrians or just a local council’s interpretation of them is open to debate. But it’s another recurring tension with the current system which shows no signs of going away.

I’ve had more than one person tell me that the UK’s rights of way system is the envy of the world. But given that the distribution of access is random at best, the network is scattered and scrappy, and we can’t even have legal routes maintained how we would like, it’s starting to feel long past its best before date.

Some people don’t like to share. And some people don’t like being told what to do.

So what’s next? For most riders, nothing. The rights of way system ignores them, so they ignore the rights of way system. Footpaths continue to be covertly ridden, or new unofficial trails are built to satisfy the demand for places to ride. That can create bad feeling towards mountain bikers, as we’re seen to be breaking the law (although that’s rarely the case – see here for an excellent explanation why). It means that many places to ride can’t be publicised openly. I’ve seen route guides that deliberately take you on tarmac roads and past fun, well-established trails. This this isn’t the fault of the people who are trying to do things by the book – like professional guides, tourism initiatives, or this magazine. It’s just that the current system puts them in a disadvantaged position, compared to those who don’t pay attention to the legal status of a track.

Option 1

Another option is to work within the system. Footpaths can be upgraded to bridleways, responsible access can be negotiated with landowners, and gradually an improved network could emerge. The legal machinery is already in place to do this, but it’s an approach that demands substantial amounts of time and patience. In addition, when it comes to upgrades, the system is still very much in favour of landowners rather than land users. Any dispute over the right to ride on a path can be enough to stop a claim, or turn it from a straightforward process into a drawn-out, expensive legal battle.

and another thing..

There’s another option: a sweeping reform of English and Welsh law that actually recognises the needs of users on two wheels. This seems so near (literally – you can see it in action just by driving north of Gretna Green) and yet so far. I’ve heard time and again that it’s only empty countries which have fully open access laws, that powerful vested interests will combine to stop it happening here, and that there’s no political will to make it happen. And right now, it does seem a long way off. But is it less realistic than trying to work within a system that barely acknowledges off-road cycling exists?

Woody had a point.

Perhaps a good first step would be for us to start talking about the issue of access, and how even in a country with a well-developed rights of way system, it’s still possible for two-wheeled users to be overlooked. Because at the moment we seem to be in denial about the fact that we’re stuck with a stop-gap solution from 50 years ago. It dictates where we can ride (and race), and it’s arguably defined the shape of off-road cycling in the UK. But it’s still treated as mountain biking’s dirty secret.

Antony de Heveningham

Singletrack Contributor

Antony was a latecomer to the joys of riding off-road, and he’s continued to be a late adopter of many of his favourite things, including full suspension, dropper posts, 29ers, and adult responsibility. At some point he decided to compensate for his lack of natural riding talent by organising maintenance days on his local trails. This led, inadvertently, to writing for Singletrack, after one of his online rants about lazy, spoilt mountain bikers who never fix trails was spotted and reprinted on this website during a particularly slow news week.

Now based just up the road from the magazine in West Yorkshire, he’s expanded his remit to include reviews and features as well as rants. He’s also moved on from filling holes in the woods to campaigning for changes to the UK’s antiquated land access laws, and probing the relationship between mountain biking and the places we ride.

He’s a firm believer in bringing mountain biking to the people, whether that’s through affordable bikes, accessible trails, enabling technology, or supportive networks. He’s also studied sustainable transport, and will happily explain to anyone who’ll listen why the UK is a terrible place for everyday utility cycling, even though it shouldn’t be.

If that all sounds a bit worthy, he’s also happy to share tales of rides gone awry, or delicate bike parts burst asunder by ham-fisted maintenance. Because ultimately, there are enough talented professionals in mountain bike journalism, and it needs more rank amateurs.

Comments (19)

    Maybe it’s just me, but I get satisfaction from winding up angry old people telling me I can’t ride anywhere off road.
    It doesn’t matter if everything was opened up tomorrow, the conflict will be there just like being tooted at for daring to turn right on the road.
    Keep riding and laughing.

    To be fair the United States mainland is in reality pretty empty, probably more so than Scotland. I think US riders (and walkers/hikers come to it) might argue that they have a massive country but access is poor overall.
    Not sure what point I’m trying to make really. Probably not trying to make a point!

    Footpaths are only to avoid at dog walking time, exposure lights make dark evenings and winter fun

    You’d say that @whatyadoinsuka – but I was up Win Hill in the peaks a couple of weeks ago on a Thursday night with a mate. Only two people there, lights on. I only ever do the summit in the week so as not to annoy walkers as it’s technically a footpath (though the majority of the top bit is awful rutted doubletrack that’s used by the farmer to get access to his fields with his landrover).

    Anyway. Earlier, when starting out, we’d ridden up the roman road from hope and the farmer had come up behind us in his landy. We’d gotten off our bikes and dragged them, smiling, up the embankment to let him past.

    Who should turn up at the top of the hill later on but the farmer. He’d made a special trip all the way up there because he could see there were two mountain bikers, by themselves, on the double-wide rutted landrover track – and he wanted to inform us that we shouldn’t be there because it was a footpath.

    On a thursday night, with nobody else there you get asshats who make a specific effort because they hate mountain bikers so much.

    All of the ideas in the article above are good, and should definitely be pursued. But there’s one option that, historically, has proven effective in opening up land to wider access. Mass trespass. I don’t think we’re there yet – but I don’t see any reason why this sort of thing shouldn’t be getting talked about and organised by interested organisations.

    First you take your legitimate recourse as far as it will go – maybe we’ll get lucky but maybe asshats like that farmer will derail all efforts. Then you take the action described above and see what happens 🙂

    Option 2.

    Ride where you like but dont be a dick.

    Lifes too short.

    I feel like I should point out that whilst the article is correct about a bridleway or footpath marked on a map (green long or short dashes on the 1:25k OS) doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything on the ground, if there is a known path (and your map is up to date) that will be marked (all black; parallel solid lines for a road, parallel dashes for doubletrack and a single row of dashes for singletrack). It’s obviously not always reliable, and it doesn’t tell you the surface, condition etc but it gives you a much better idea.

    Option 3.
    Move to the paraidse that is Scotland 🙂

    The issue of trail access for mountain bikers is similar to that of access to crags if you’re a rock climber. Because there is no right to use many trails, access needs to be agreed with landowners. Climbers have the BMC who employ an access officer to negotiate and coordinate access with landowners and conservation organisations. It’s probably time something similar existed for mountain bikers. If it did, would bikers join up? And would they observe voluntary bans on certain trails just like climbers do?

    Daz, there’s a similar arrangement in place with Cycling UK and their network of Right to Ride representatives. It’s probably not as well-known in the mountain bike community though.

    @chevychase, perhaps a little stealth no lights uphill and then lights on for the blast down. :0)

    I’ve had the same, some good runs just over the hill in the yorkshire pennines, its amazing how many walkers have no idea that footpaths are only for walkers,
    although the farmers on issues road, Holme village, holmfirth have the same issues as your farmer..

    How are the CTC not shouting this from the rooftops? It’s been their biggest off-road campaign for over a decade, and it’s been quietly shelved. Why are they not kicking up a massive fuss?

    The response to “this is a footpath” is “I believe higher rights exist for this right of way and until settled otherwise by a public inquiry I’ll continue to exercise these rights”

    The current process for gaining higher rights however is broken, the process is steeped in the landowners favour and in a few years will cease to exist. Talk to any of the people who actually try and grow the bridleway network and you will get a sorry story of woe and drudgery.

    Yeah i think it is a waste of time trying to co-ordinate mtb’er to come together. Bit like hearding athiests…

    I appreciate it would be the right thing to do but life is too short etc when you can just ride where you want and get away with it 99.9% of the time – been shouted at 5 (ish) times in 25 years of riding. Hardly a punishment/deterient.

    I agree with the general mantra on here: ride where you like but don’t be a d1ck.

    Yes, higher rights often exist. Recording of RoW status was not a priority for the OS and the current system is very hard work, even before LA cuts. The 2026 deadline looms too…

    We do have small wins in a long game. I got Bradford Council to accept off–road cycling on their woodland and on Baildon Moor, based on a user protocol:
    We fly the flag in the Local Access Forum too.


    Bradford Local Access Forum
    Cycling UK volunteer
    Chair, Friends of Baildon Moor

    fuck ‘rights of way’ and anyone who says you can’t ride footpaths. Ride wherever you like but be pleasant and corteous to anyone you meet. I doubt whether you’d ever go to jail for riding a fp plus they’d have to catch you first…..

    Mrelectric, I’ve just joined my Local Access Forum and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. They’re very strongly in favour of access for all user types and tend to oppose restrictions of any kind. Not all of them are like that sadly but they can be handy allies.

    Has the time come that a cyclist’s political party a viable option?

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