RIDING ON ADRENALINE
For a moment, I think I'm going to die. The bike is plunging down a rocky ravine; I'm clinging on for dear life. Undergrowth leans in from all sides, whipping at my arms. I can hardly see my front wheel as it bounces madly from boulder to boulder.
We swerve left, then right, then left again, fly over a series of lunatic switchbacks and then suddenly, before I know it, we're back out in the dappled calm of a clearing. We skid to a halt and stand there, laughing and panting, letting the adrenaline subside a little before we ride on.
It's a perfect summer's evening; the setting sun throwing long shadows between the trees, making the leaves glow in a thousand different greens. I'm trying out the mountain bike trails of Ashton Court and Leigh Woods with Antony de Heveningham from Bristol Trails Group. The BTG are a gang of friendly volunteers who look after Bristol's mountain bike trails, repair them at monthly trail days and act as enthusiastic advocates for trail riding in the area. The group was founded back in 2004, to tackle the deterioration of Ashton Court's original way-marked bike route, the Timberland Trail. With shovels, wheelbarrows and hard graft, they re-routed and reworked the trail to make it usable for more of the year.
And what trails they are! They're sinuous, beautifully sculpted rollercoasters, weaving and dipping through the woods. Yate-based cycle importers Paligap have just announced they'll fund ongoing maintenance for the next five years – a much-needed boost, as the trail's huge popularity means about 45,000 miles are ridden on the two main routes every month.
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The trails loop for some four miles around Ashton Court and many more in Leigh Woods, and are widely regarded as being among the best in the UK. They were (allegedly) used by Team GB's BMX team during their pre-Olympic training, and a national magazine recently rated Bristol the best place to live for mountain biking in the UK. Not bad for a city without mountains.
The routes are clearly signposted and colour-coded according to difficulty, much like ski runs. There are beginner-friendly "blue" routes with more advanced "red" sections for those who like a little more adrenaline. A word of advice – take it slow to begin with. By way of introduction, Antony led me along the blue-rated Nova route through Ashton Court first, gasping at the steeply banked corners, rocky obstacles, bumps and jumps. Even at my novice pace, it was pretty intense.
A quick detour led out to Fifty Acre Wood, an older, volunteer-built route towards Abbots Leigh, considerably muddier and full of tricksy tree roots.
Pressing on into Leigh Woods we found the narrow, twisting Yer Tiz trail, a breathless whirl of "berms" (banked corners), "rollers" (bumps), sudden drops and short climbs – there are some red-graded sections called Gert Lush for those with the nerves/skills to risk them.
With much reassurance from Antony, I ventured on to the Keener Skills Loop, a training run specially designed to include different types of obstacle – boulders, jumps, drops – at increasing levels of difficulty, so riders can practice and gain confidence. As Antony bounced happily off into the distance, I bravely tackled the whole lot – though I very nearly came a cropper on the rocks.
There's a wonderful camaraderie amongst riders, sharing mud- splattered smiles as they emerge from yet another white-knuckle rush between the trees. There are silver-haired riders in their 50s and 60s, gangs of teenagers whooping and hollering, dads and sons out together.
We wallop around Leigh Woods, bucket down a boulder-strewn gulley to the bottom of the Avon Gorge, then find our way to a dockside pub. Over a well-earned pint, Antony reflects on the trails' importance for the city.
"There aren't many places in the UK that have good mountain biking within riding distance of a major city," he says.
"It opens up the sport to a whole range of people of different ages and backgrounds. We're really lucky to have a mix of beginner-friendly and more challenging trails to keep more experienced riders interested.
"But mainly, for me at least, they're just a really fun place to escape to, to challenge and scare yourself, to hang out with your mates. I've been riding there for ten years now and still go out almost every week. It's one of the best things about living in Bristol."
Route details and maps can be found at www.betterbybike.info/off-road-cycling. See www.bristoltrailsgroup.com and www.1sw.org.uk to find out more.
To ride the trails at Ashton Court and Leigh Woods, you'll need a mountain bike. These come in three basic types: no suspension (rigid); rear suspension ("hardtail") bikes; and full suspension, with suspension front and back.
Many have disc brakes, which are considerably more effective than standard cantilever brakes, but are more expensive and more difficult to maintain. There are plenty of bikes out there which look like mountain bikes, but aren't. Any bike that costs less than £250 new isn't worth it. Any bike with suspension that costs less than £500 new isn't worth it. The components will be cheap and unreliable – avoid.
For starting out, you'll probably be fine with an entry level hardtail; expect to pay £500-plus for a decent new one. There are bargains to be had second-hand though, as the mountain bike fraternity are endlessly upgrading their machines and selling on the old ones. Scour eBay and Gumtree, but take every precaution you can to avoid buying a stolen bike. Getting a bike that fits is crucially important – the sizing of mountain bikes is not like other bikes, so the only way to really be sure you get one that suits is to try a few out. Go to a decent bike shop – locally, Mud Dock and Bristol Bike Workshop are particularly good for mountain bikes – and let them help. A mountain bike is a specialist thing, good only for its intended purpose: bouncing about off-road. It's heavy, expensive and slow on the roads – so think of it as a toy, a big chunky plaything, that can open up a whole new world of fun, and treat yourself.