Weaving around woodland in the Midlands is some of the country’s best mountain biking. Daniel Neilson pedals the trails of Cannock Chase, and investigates more superlative singletrack
I’m on the Roller Coaster when I first let out an involuntary ‘whoop!’. On the metre-wide mud and gravel trail in front of me, ascent has just become descent. I pick up more speed and the trail drops. There’s a flip in my stomach, like going over a humpback bridge a little too fast as a kid, then gravity and momentum swing me around the bend (known, understandably, as the Roller Coaster). My cranks barely turn.
It is for moments like this we go mountain biking: when you’re working well with the bike and the expertly designed trail gives space for you to keep the flow. Then I hit Deer Skull, Original Monkey and Absinthe and, improbably, the trail gets even better. There is, I’m happy to admit, plenty more whooping, and through the woods of Cannock Chase I can hear many more joyous shouts from unseen riders. We’ve found somewhere special.
As road trips go, the A513 into Staffordshire is no Route 66. As two keen mountain bikers thrilled to hit a trail we’ve never ridden, however, our car is nonetheless full of loud music and excitement. Our basecamp is YHA National Forest, only 20 miles east of Cannock Chase’s famous (in cycling circles at least) bike trails.
The hostel is a thoroughly modern affair, built with green credentials in mind. I get up early to stretch my legs around the bird-rich paths of nearby parkland, then join my mate for breakfast, poring over a map of Cannock Chase, itching to get out on the bike.
Less than an hour later we’re trying out bikes for size at Run and Ride, before speeding down to jump on The Monkey Trail: seven kilometres of the toughest trails Cannock has to offer. Cannock Chase is a trail of two halves – the original Follow the Dog, which is where the trail strictly starts, leads to The Monkey Trail, serving up 14 miles in total.
For various reasons, mostly involving timings around having a cuppa at one of the two cafés, we start big on the Monkey Trail. And what a ride. Different sections have been given names by the trail-builders: some abstract (Over The Rainbow and Pot of Gold), others more self-explanatory (Tight Squeeze, Lung Buster and What Goes Up). This last one is the most technical section, and pushes my limits. There are rock gardens, jumps, drops and some gorgeous boardwalk sections through thick woodland. Lower Cliff is a grand finale to the Monkey Trail, a sweeping single-track designed to flow and flow.
Across the road there’s a sharp introduction to the Follow the Dog Trail with a slog up Kitbag Hill, so named by new recruits at the RAF camps that used to be based here. On a bike it’s a killer, despite the beauty of the sun-dappled broadleaf forest it roams through. But the thrills keep coming. Follow The Dog is largely less challenging than The Monkey Trail, although it’s no less enjoyable – in fact it’s probably faster.
At the Birches Valley Forest Centre we stop for tea and scones. Here, kids are following a Stick Man trail and less experienced cyclists meander along green and blue trails. Back in the saddle, the
challenges (Twist & Shout, Stegosaurus, Watch Out Trolls) continue until, four hours after setting out, we’re back, reluctantly handing over our bikes. It’s been an intoxicating day.
Over recent years, I’ve found myself plotting bridleway routes from hostel-to-hostel on multiday trips. I enjoy long days in the saddle, taking my time over the routes – but now I realise I’ve been missing these dedicated trail centres. Places that allow for a hell-for-leather ride without having to think too much about navigation. No matter what your age, they get you whooping into your cycling helmet – whether you intend to or not.
• Run and Ride, right next to the trails, offer bike and helmet hire as well as every conceivable need for a cyclist (01543 877745, runandride.co.uk).
The Dirty Dozen
There are 12 dedicated mountain biking sites on Forestry Commission land in England, and a further
eight purpose-built centres in Wales run by Natural Resources Wales. Here are 12 of the best.
• Coed-y-Brenin Forest Park: The first purpose-built mountain bike centre in the UK – and the largest. Nearest hostels: YHA Kings (6 miles), YHA Snowdon Bryn Gwynant (28 miles)
• Gwydir Forest Park: A long-established trail centre with amazing scenery. Nearest hostels: YHA Betws-y-Coed (8 miles), YHA Snowdon Pen-y-Pass (17 miles).
• Bwlch Nant yr Arian Forest: The Mid Wales location means big views, big climbs and big descents. Nearest hostel: YHA Borth (13 miles)
• Afan Forest Park: This South Wales venue is home to more than 80 miles of trails. Nearest hostels: YHA Cardiff Central (36 miles), YHA Brecon Beacons (35 miles)
• Whinlatter: Famous for having the longest trails in the Lakes. Nearest hostels: YHA Keswick (3 miles), YHA Cockermouth (6 miles)
• Grizedale: Has plenty of Green and Blue trails, as well as 24 miles of Red routes. Nearest hostels: YHA Hawkshead (3 miles), YHA Coniston Coppermines (8 miles)
• Kielder: The jewel in the north-east for mountain biking. Nearest hostel: YHA Bellingham (20 miles)
• Dalby Forest: Takes in some of the best of the North York Moors National Park. Nearest hostels: YHA Dalby Forest (6 miles), YHA Helmsley (18 miles)
• Cannock Chase: A brilliant Red trail that offers a great day out in the West Midlands. Nearest hostel: YHA National Forest (22 miles)
• Thetford Forest: This Norfolk woodland has some long and fast trails. Nearest hostel: YHA Cambridge (34 miles)
• Bedgebury: Attracts people from all over the south, with good routes for kids too. Nearest hostels: YHA Medway (23 miles), YHA Eastbourne (30 miles)
• Haldon Forest Park: One of the biggest trail centres in the south west. Nearest hostels: YHA Dartmoor (22 miles), YHA Beer (27 miles)