Category Archives: Mountain biking

Penmachno Preview

IMG_8847“Fancy doing this?” read the message, followed by a link to a mountain biking Facebook page. “Places are going fast, so we’ll have to make a decision quickly”. I clicked on the link and had barely read the first paragraph when my phone rang. It was Dan. “So, are you up for it?” By making a quick decision, I thought he’d meant sometime in the next few days, but apparently it meant straight away.

“Umm, yeeeeah… maybe”, I replied trying to be as non-committal as possible, without sounding too unenthusiastic. From what I’d managed to deduce from the Facebook page, the event was an enduro in Penmachno,Wales, mid-November.

IMG_8856We’d been talking about entering an enduro (a mountain bike race that tests endurance and bike handling skills with a series of timed downhill stages within an otherwise untimed circuit) all summer, but now that the season was over I thought I’d now have until spring to hone my skills a bit more before entering something so scary sounding.

“Well, what do you reckon” he urged as I desperately tried to find out a bit more about what I might be letting myself in for. Last time I said yes to something like this, I found myself riding in a sportive incorporating the toughest road climb in the UK.

IMG_8860Well?”

“Umm, okay then…” I heard myself reply, not entirely convincingly. And that was it. Within ten minutes I was signed up to do my first mountain biking race.

Entries for the event closed minutes after Dan signed us up and there was a moment when I thought we hadn’t got places after all. But rather than feeling relieved, I was disappointed, which made me realise that deep down I obviously did really want to do it. I love organised events and am intrigued to see how I fare against other female mountain bikers. I’ve been doing a fair bit of riding over the past year and feel like I’ve improved loads, but other than through Strava results, I haven’t really been able to see how I compare to anyone other than Dan (who’s much better than me) and a handful of other guys who we’ve ridden with.

IMG_9039However, as the race approaches, I’ve been feeling an increasingly nervous. I’m worried that everyone else will have been riding for way longer than me and be loads better; worried that everyone else will have been competing in enduros for ages; worried that everyone else will be familiar with the trails; worried that I’ll mess it up and not do very well; and most of all, worried that my competitive nature overrides my sense of self preservation and I injure myself, again.

In order to eliminate one of the unknown entities that was giving me the fear, we decided to pay a visit to Penmachno to check out the trails. We’d already planned to tag a bit of mountain biking in Wales onto a trip to Liverpool so we figured we might as well go there.

IMG_8872Penmachno is a little village near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, and around one and a half hours drive from Liverpool. The mountain biking trails are independently run and refreshingly non-commercialised. As you drive out of Penmachno, an unpretentious handwritten sign directs you up a fire road to an information board and space for dozen or so cars to park. There are no ticket machines, just a slot on the board in which to post a small donation towards the upkeep of the trails.

The contents of the donation box must have stretched a long way, as the local trail fairies have been extremely busy lately building two whole new sections of singletrack to add to an already extensive network of trails.

IMG_9037The trails are split into two red-graded loops, which can either be ridden separately or as a complete 30km circuit. From the car park you join the 19km ‘Dolen Machno’ trail, or ‘loop 1’ which, after a fairly grueling stretch of fire road, takes you into the forest for some enjoyably technical stretches of singletrack. Unfortunately the first proper descent was closed due to felling so we had to continue up the fire road until the end of the diversion.

About half way round the loop, you meet the start of ‘Dolen Eryri’ or ‘loop 2’, which takes you deeper into the forest for a further 11km. It’s a great trail that leads you through thick wooded areas and open stretches of younger forest, over exposed rock and deep water-filled troughs. The scenery is stunning and other than the wildlife, we felt totally alone, and most probably were.

IMG_8877Eventually you pop out onto the fire road again and rejoin ‘loop 1’ to climb up to the top of a rocky ridge. From here it’s pretty much down hill all the way, although the first stretch still requires a fair bit of pedaling and negotiating rocky outcrops. However, when the downhill proper starts, it’s a fast, flowing, fun ride that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

Unfortunately by this point the sun was starting to descend as rapidly as we were, something we hadn’t fully appreciated until we plunged into the darkness of the forest and had to rely on blind faith to get us down. The challenge was intensified by fact that the heavens had opened and heavy rain was penetrating the thick canopy and turning the trail into even more of a mud chute. It was still IMG_8987great fun though, and I felt reassured by the fact that conditions were unlikely to be any worse than this on the day of the enduro! As we got further down, we hit one of the new sections, which swooped through the trees in a series of impeccably manicured berms.

By now, the rain had intensified and the combination of low sun and rain clouds had made the sky even darker. We were soaked through and getting pretty cold so decided to skip the last section and head straight back to the car via the fire road. On the way we caught a glimpse of more of the new trails that we were missing out on and cursed ourselves for not getting there earlier.

IMG_8995The next day, we had planned to head to Coed-y-Brenin, but after having had to cut short our ride at Penmachno, we decided to go back and do loop 1 again. It was a really fun ride that was definitely enhanced by being able to see this time! The end of the loop consisted of a nice mix of smooth new trails and rougher, more technical sections, and while I tend to prefer the latter, it was definitely fun to blast down the rollercoaster-esque new bits.

It was great to be able to check out the trails at Penmachno before the enduro, and although we won’t know the exact route until the day of the race, I at least feel reassured that there’s nothing there I can’t handle. I still feel slightly apprehensive about how I’ll do on the day, and the butterflies will no doubt be fluttering frantically as the event draws ever closer, but more than anything I’m just excited to ride those trails again!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram 

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Won over by Whinlatter

Over the last few months I’ve been managing to ride Glentress fairly regularly and have got to know the trails pretty well – something I appreciated recently when, having forgotten that the clocks had gone back, I found myself blasting down in near darkness, trying to beat the sun.

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North Loop climb

I feel really lucky to have such a great mountain biking centre nearby and love being able to rip down its awesome trails able to anticipate (almost) every drop, berm and exposed root. However, as good as it is to ride reassuringly familiar local trails, I also love to visit new ones and test myself on unfamiliar terrain. After all, it’s very well to tear down a trail that you know like the back of your hand, but an altogether different matter to do the same on a trail that you haven’t ridden before.

As Dan and I have family in Liverpool, we spend quite a lot of time down that way, and whenever possible try to tag on a bit of mountain biking. As the journey down takes you through Dumfriesshire and The Lake District, there are plenty of places to stop off at en route, with loads more within easy reach of Liverpool. On our last trip we stopped at Ae Forest in Dumfriesshire so this time decided to head for Whinlatter in The Lakes.

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Epic berms on North Loop descent

It might sound crazy but, although I’ve driven up and down the M74 and M6 countless times, I’d never actually ventured deeper into The Lake District before. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it is and I couldn’t wait to get on my bike and view it all from above.

Having seen and heard great things about Whinlatter, I’d been desperate to visit for some time. Resisting the temptation to ditch the bikes and follow the Gruffalo, we decided to ride the red ‘Altura trail’, which consists of two separate loops of around 10km each.

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North Loop descent

We took the North Loop first, not for any particular reason other than we happened to find its starting point first. After a challengingly steep climb near the start, it’s a steady ascent to the top at 500m. From here you’re rewarded with an exhilarating descent, which takes you through rocky and forest sections before you pop back out into the open for what has to be the highlight of the entire trail – a fast and flowing section of swooping berms and jumps cut into the steep valley sides. The views are fantastic but it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on the trail if you don’t want to launch off into the valley below! There are also some optional black sections to dip into on the way down if you want to test your skills a bit more.

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Tight switchbacks on South Loop climb

The loop ends up back at the car park, which is great if you need a toilet stop or to pick something up from the car before continuing onto the next loop. Or, as I imagine is fairly common, repeating the one you’ve just done!

The South loop is slightly longer (10km as opposed to 9.5km) and a little less technical than the North but still equally enjoyable. The trail snakes relatively gently up the opposite side of the valley via a series of tight but easy-to-ride switchbacks, making it far easier on the legs than parts of the North loop climb. And if fatigue does start to set it, the stunning views should help to distract you from any lung or leg burn. There’s also the option to start the descent early but it’s well worth continuing to the top for the additional descent and incredible views from Hospital Fell Ridge.

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Stunning views from top of the South Loop

After a bone-shakingly rough (especially on a hardtail!) cobbled section at the top, the trail winds through trees and heather, and over patches of exposed rock and loose shale, which keep you on your toes. The lower section is a fun blast through open hillside with lots of nice berms and jumps. And then, before you know it you’re back at the car park, desperate to go again.

I like trails with a defined climb and descent, and you certainly get that on the Altura Trail at Whinlatter. Nothing irks me more on an unfamiliar trail than preparing for what I think is going to be a decent descent and then after a couple of hundred metres, finding myself climbing again! For the most part the climbs on both loops are interesting and, although challenging in places, rarely feel like too much of a slog. And, when you get to the top, you’re treated to long, varied and great fun descents. The fast open bermed section on the North Loop was a definite highlight, but by no means overshadowed any of the other sections.

End of the South Loop

End of the South Loop

The nice short loops mean you can mix and match your ride and do as little or as much as you want. It’s also never too far to get back to the centre if you have any mechanical problems, with either your bike or your body!

Whinlatter is definitely up there with one of the best UK trail centres I’ve ridden, and while it may not quite steal my heart from Glentress, it could certainly become a love rival if we were to become better acquainted.

Where’s your favourite place to mountain bike? I’m keen to hit up more new trails so would love some tip offs!

For more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Strava Striven

I have a problem. I think I’m addicted to Strava*. Every time I go out for a ride, whether on my road or mountain bike I can’t resist the urge to tap that little orange icon on my phone and hit go. But only just before I set off, of course. Any additional seconds could skew results. If I forget something and have to go back, which is not an infrequent occurrence, the activity has to be deleted and reset. strava-logoSee, I told you… And that’s just the beginning. I’ve come to resent anyone or anything that slows me down, be that traffic, traffic lights, slow cyclists, wind… even children and dogs. Not that I would ever ride recklessly. I do manage to suppress the impatience and intolerance that burns inside, although I did take out a pigeon recently, which I still feel awful about. It’s also got to the point where I feel loathe to stop at any point during my ride, just in case it ruins my chances of getting a personal best. This is fine if I’m on my own, but when riding with other people I find myself getting frustrated if they want to stop or slow down. Recently I was mountain biking with my other half and he stopped to sort something on his bike. Knowing that it was nothing IMG_8427serious I decided to carry on to the top of the climb and wait at a point where we usually have a break. When he caught me up he accused me of never looking back. Defensively I protested that I did and had seen him stop, before sheepishly adding that I’d just wanted to push on to the top in order to clock my time. I’ve also become obsessed with getting a best time on the Spooky Wood descent at Glentress. Gone are the days when I can just blast down enjoying its awesome berms, jumps and drop offs, maybe stopping to do a bit of filming here and there. Now each descent is executed as quickly as possible in a desperate attempt to shave seconds off my time and secure a new personal best. I’ve always been competitive when it comes to sport – apparently when I was little I’d challenge my siblings and friends to a race and then run with my elbows sticking out incase anyone got close. I would never employ such dirty tactics now but I still enjoy a bit of healthy competition. That’s what sport’s all about, isn’t it? IMG_8554 I do, however, draw the line at competing with virtual strangers on the app, although that’s not to say that I don’t find it interesting to see how I compare to other women who ride the same routes. As I mainly seem to ride with men and often trail at the back, it’s quite reassuring to know that I’m actually not doing too badly. I don’t ‘follow’ anyone on Strava and I don’t set out to beat anyone else’s records (except on Spooky Wood!) although it is always quite satisfying to get a ‘Queen of the Mountain’, even if it is on a completely random section of road or trail. These days my competitive urges are generally satisfied by competing with myself, and I really only use Strava as a tool to measure and improve my own performance. There’s no doubt that being able to compare my performance with that of others makes it more interesting though. However, fitness tracking apps do have their limitations and are nowhere near as accurate as using a computer. There are times when I know I’ve ridden a section fast and it doesn’t even register in my feed, and others where it hasn’t felt so good, yet I’ve apparently earned a PB. It doesn’t happen often but the odd glitch is enough for disillusionment to set in. Interested to know just how accurate the data collected by Strava is, I got Dan to time my descent of Spooky Wood by stop watch and compared it to the time awarded by Strava. The stop watch time was 3.40 minutes whereas Strava clocked it as 3.18 minutes – quite a difference. IMG_8626Perhaps the best example of its unreliability was when I forgot to stop the clock after a mountain biking session at Glentress and only realised half way through the drive back to Edinburgh, by which time my average speed had increased from 16 to 60 km/h, and I’d supposedly burned off thousands of calories. Needless to say I got lots of ‘Queen of the Mountains’ that day! Don’t worry though, fellow Stravaholics, I surrendered them. I think a much better outlet for my competitive streak might be to enter more events. Despite having plans to enter an Enduro this summer and at least one other sportive, I’ve only managed the Bealach Beag sportive in May. I really enjoy organised events and definitely get spurred on by riding with other people. And, unlike my five-year-old self, I keep my elbows firmly tucked in, unless, of course, I’m on a mountain bike where elbow sticking out is acceptable. Fitness tracking apps are a great way to log your rides and analyze your performance, but should never be taken too seriously. As with anything in today’s increasingly web-based society, competing against actual people is much more fun and rewarding than striving to beat a virtual stranger, especially when there’s every chance they’ve done it in a car anyway!

*Other fitness tracking apps are available!

What do you think of fitness tracking apps? Do you use them? 

Mountain Biking at Gisburn Forest

IMG_7889On a recent trip to Liverpool we took a detour through the Ribble Valley to ride the mountain bike trails at Gisburn Forest. I’d heard good things about Gisburn and couldn’t wait to check it out. It was a gorgeous day and the drive there through the Lancashire countryside was stunning.

Like most of the UK’s main trail centres, Gisburn Forest is run by the Forestry Commission and has a very similar feel to my stomping ground of Glentress. The trails are expertly built and maintained, and the facilities excellent.

IMG_7892We decided to take the red trail, ‘The 8’, an 18km long figure of eight route with optional black sections. Unusually, in my experience at least, it started off with a short downhill section. It was quite nice to have a little downhill blast without even having to earn it first, but once we got to the bottom the climbing began.

I actually enjoy climbing, especially when it’s up meandering trails through the forest. The climb sections of ‘The 8’ at Gisburn were particularly good, with lots of steps, dips and rocky sections to keep it interesting and challenging. There’s a pretty steep stretch of fire road half way up, which can feel a bit relentless, especially if you want to ride the Hope Line (a short downhill section with berms, rollers, tabletops and drop offs), which means you have to do it twice!

IMG_7893Once you get to the top of the steep section, you’re not only rewarded with the option of riding the Hope Line, but also beautiful views of Bowland Forest and the Ribble Valley. Continue up the trail and you soon arrive at a quarry where the trail takes you over solid rock and features built from massive slabs. Shortly after, you hit the Sheep Hill boardwalk section. Unlike smooth Northshore sections that you just cruise along, the boardwalk at Gisburn is made from rough, uneven planks that you actually have to concentrate on riding if you don’t want to risk falling off! Good fun though.

Hully Gully - Ian CawthorneFurther on you arrive at Whelpstone Crag with its weird stone formations and plenty of good technical black sections to challenge more advanced riders. It’s here you’ll find ‘Bigfoot Slab’, a short, steep section of trail made entirely from, you guessed it, massive slabs. It’s one of the things to do at Gisburn and tends to attract crowds of people either psyching themselves up to do it or just watching others give it a go. We decided to give it a miss but will definitely do it another time when it’s not so busy.

The other main attraction is Hully Gully, which you arrive at soon afterwards. This section of trail is certainly worthy of its acclaim as it’s unlike anything I’ve ever ridden. It consists of a series of swooping, exaggerated berms that plunge down one side of the gully and up the other. It’s about as close to a rollercoaster as you’ll get on a bike and is such good fun you want to do it again and again. Sadly we only had time to do it once, so that’s another good reason I’ll be heading back there as soon as possible.

IMG_7899Continuing on, there’s a fun, albeit gentler, swooping section through more forest, followed by a trail with a series of log skinnies, some of which are pretty challenging. By this point the best of the route is over, but it’s a pleasant cruise back to the car park nonetheless.

With its varied terrain that’s both technical and fun, plus some great features, ‘The 8’ at Gisburn is without a doubt one of the best trails I’ve ridden to date. And to top it off, the scenery is absolutely stunning too. Can’t wait to go back!

Where’s your favourite place to go mountain biking? Let me know below as I’m always looking for new places to ride!

To view more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Riding Switchbacks

Even though it’s still snowing in the Alps, my last turns on snow seem like an eternity ago. Since hanging my snowboard up for the summer, I’ve turned to the mountain bike to get my adrenaline fix.

IMG_9153I’m lucky enough to live within easy reach of Glentress so head up there whenever possible. It’s fair to say that the frequency of outings has been directly proportional to an improvement in weather and increase in daylight hours, although I did earn my stripes on the mud chutes earlier in the year.

As I suspect is the case with many visitors to Glentress, my absolute favourite stretch of singletrack there is Spooky Wood. So, after the Cardle Hill climb with its log skinnies, and a few laps of the jumps above the Buzzard’s Nest car park we tend to head straight up there. The final climb is pretty steep but totally worth it when you reach the top and are met with stunning views of the Tweed Valley and the prospect of an awesome 1.5km descent with berms, jumps a rock drops aplenty.

The rest of the red descent is also great fun, particularly the lower stretches (Pie Run and Magic Mushroom) where there are some narrow bridges and north shore sections thrown into the mix, as well as plenty of exposed roots to negotiate.

IMG_7174After a steep but brief final climb up Sair Fecht and a short stretch of road it’s fun to just blast down the blue back to the Peel car park, but if you want more of a technical final decent, you can opt for the red or black.

I haven’t done the whole black route since my baptism of fire on my first visit to Glentress last summer, as at 29km, it’s considerably longer than any of the other routes and requires a good few hours, but I’ll definitely do it again soon.

Just a few miles further on from Glentress (coming from Edinburgh) is another of the 7 Stanes, Innerleithen, which is famed for having some of the best downhill trails in the UK. We went there a few weeks ago but decided to leave the downhill trails to all the kids kitted out in head to toe padding and full face helmets, and did the red XC trail instead.

Although the 19km trail is only one kilometer longer than the full red route at Glentress, it’s quite a lot harder, with a pretty grueling climb to the top that includes some steep and technical sections. When you eventually emerge from the forest, you’re rewarded with stunning views and a decrease in gradient as you wind along a seemingly endless track through the heather to the very welcome sight of the cairn at the summit of Minch Moor. After that it’s pretty much downhill all the way. It’s a fun and varied descent, which includes everything from swooping berms, jump sections and challenging rock drops, to stretches of narrow Enduro trail.

IMG_7175There are some pretty technical parts, including the option to dip into some black sections, but there are always easier alternatives if you don’t feel up to the gnarly stuff. I bottled some that I could have done and sent myself off ones that I really shouldn’t, so it’ll be good to do it again now that I know the route. The best part is probably the final descent at Cadon Bank, which is a 2km stretch packed with rollers, jumps and rock drops. Some of the drops are pretty hefty (beware the 4ft one near the top and another biggie near the bottom!) but you can always take the easier line.

At the moment I still prefer the more “leisurely” red route at Glentress, which feels a bit more theme park than army assault course, but some of the more experienced riders in our group rated the Innerleithen XC above anything at Glentress.

Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll be able to take better advantage of the more challenging terrain at Innerleithen and ride it with a bit more flair, but in the meantime I intend to hone my skills in the fantastic and familiar surroundings of Glentress, and visit a few more of the UK’s top mountain biking destinations.

To view more photos head to the Riding Switch Facebook page or Instagram

Over to you…

Where’s your favourite place to go mountain biking?

Switching boards for bikes

For me, the arrival of summer is usually accompanied by a serious snowboarding comedown, a sudden reduction in workload, and consequently cash, and invariably a period of rehabilitation following my latest snowboard-related injury. Needless to say, I don’t share the same sense of relief and elation that’s experienced by the majority of the UK’s population, who are emerging from a long, cold, dark winter filled with SADness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

IMG_3933Don’t get me wrong, I love summer, when we get one, but it certainly doesn’t bring with it the same level of excitement I feel when winter starts to set in. Let’s just say, if given the choice between a holiday in the sun and a snowboarding holiday, snowboarding wins hands down, every time.

Each summer I try to find something to fill that snowboard-shaped hole, but injuries and/or limited funds tend to conspire against me opting for the obvious choices. A bad ankle break a few years ago put paid to both my running and surfing ambitions when it became apparent that I was only going to get limited flex back, so my physio suggested I should forget those pursuits and get a bike instead. At the time, I didn’t have a spare few hundred quid kicking about to buy a bike, so I stubbornly persisted with unsuitable activities until I eventually had to admit defeat. Fortunately my other half, Dan, is big into bikes so when he got himself a fancy new full suspension mountain bike, I was lucky enough to inherit his old one.

Last summer, a lack of transport to get to any decent mountain biking spots meant that I spent most of the time whizzing around Edinburgh’s cycle paths with a locked fork and slick tyres, and the closest I got to a mountain was Arthur’s Seat in the middle of the city. However, the acquisition of a car this summer meant that the surrounding mountain biking hotspots were finally within our sights.

IMG_3948The only good thing about last winter’s snowboarding injury occurring mid-season was that by the time summer came around, my wrist had nearly mended. So, as soon as I was able to use the brakes and change gear, I was off. After breaking myself (and the newly mended wrist) in gently with a few gentle off-road trails on the outskirts of the city, I was desperate to hit some proper mountain biking terrain.

I’m fortunate enough to live within easy(ish) reach of one of the UK’s best mountain biking destinations, Glentress Forest (about one and a half hours drive from Edinburgh) so have managed to get there several times over the past few months. My first taste of ‘proper’ mountain biking was somewhat of a baptism of fire as Dan decided to take me, and a group of similarly inexperienced friends, on the black route at Glentress. “It’ll be fine”, he insisted, despite never having been there before, “the black route’s only slightly longer than the red.” So, reassured by the fact that he’d done loads of mountain biking in similar areas, we followed him blindly into the depths, and heights, of the Tweed Valley. After 29km of gruelling, seemingly never ending climbs and challenging descents on rough terrain, we emerged unscathed, but absolutely knackered, including Dan, who sheepishly conceded that the route was a bit “longer” than he’d envisaged. It eventually transpired that the route he’d been looking at on the map was a walking trail, which was indeed significantly shorter than the ‘expert only’ mountain bike trail he’d just led us round!

Fortunately it didn’t put me off, quite the contrary, but we both agreed that next time we’d stick to the red route. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, our friends have politely declined invitations to accompany us on any subsequent trips!

IMG_3954The advantage of having been thrown in at the deep end, or rather, thrown down the black run, is that the red route seems like a breeze by comparison. It’s still pretty challenging and definitely puts me through my paces, but it’s great fun. There are some fairly relentless climbs, but these are interspersed with awesome descents packed with jumps, drops-offs, berms, log skinnies, bridges and North Shore timber trails. It’s also a much more manageable 18km, and the terrain is much less rocky and technical.

We took the bikes to the French Alps in June and did some true mountain biking around St Gervais. I love summer in the Alps, and riding fast down steep trails, surrounded by beautiful alpine scenery and snow capped mountains felt like the closest thing to snowboarding. Trips to Fort William, Wales and the Lake District are also on the cards before winter sets in.

I am now well and truly hooked and delighted to have finally found a summer substitute for snowboarding. I feel I’m improving each time we go and consequently, enjoying it more and more. I’ve only fallen off twice so far, and am convinced it’s no coincidence that Dan has managed to capture both crashes on camera! Fortunately injuries have been minimal, and I say this whilst touching wood, I hope to keep it that way. The last thing I want is to be out of action for the start of the snowboarding season. That would definitely temper my excitement somewhat!

Over to you…

What do you do over the summer to stave off cravings for snow?