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Learning a lesson on mountain-bike trails in Whinlatter Forest in the English Lake District

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH On a trip to the English Lake District, Ralph finds his mountain-biking skills can still be honed

Taking a break from the riding.
Taking a break from the riding.

Around 10 years ago, several mountain bike trails were constructed in Whinlatter Forest near Keswick in the English Lakes.

I met the team making the Altura south trail in a high, unfrequented corner of the forest where nobody but me ever ventured. Don’t worry, they told me, these trails won’t be used that much. It will still be quiet.

Times have changed. Mountain-biking is now hugely popular and electric bikes can take the effort out of the uphills.

These are the only true mountain trails in England and the scenery is indeed pretty spectacular. The Lakes have been mobbed recently and on a fine Saturday morning I had never seen the forest so busy, the Whinlatter road was thronged with cars laden with bikes and with bikes hurtling down the pass.

There are three trail grades. Blue trails are suitable for anyone on any old bike. I can just manage round the blue trail without getting off, though there is one scary bridge, twisty and cambered without railings, where I once had a nasty fall.

Spectacular views from the trails.
Spectacular views from the trails.

This year the bridge was closed for maintenance which absolved me from that tricky decision as to whether to try it!

Red trails are for any decent cyclist on a reasonable bike. My heart hasn’t the power to get me up the steep bends and I take the downhills slowly, often lacking the nerve to attempt the more difficult bits.

Black trails are for superheroes only on expensive bikes, I walk all the technical sections.

I’m always being caught by faster riders and try to have the trails to myself by setting out early on a wet, midweek morning. Well, an early start this time meant that at least there were less overtaking me, but I still had to keep looking behind and be prepared to leap out of the way of the high-speed downhillers.

First there is a long climb up the pass with steep blind bends where I can sometimes just manage to keep going without wobbling too much into the passing traffic.

The singletrack mountain-bike trails.
The singletrack mountain-bike trails.

By the time I get onto the actual trails, much of the hardest bit for me is over. The routes are very well designed, but not intended to take the heavy use they now get.

The red trails in particular have become more difficult as a good surface has eroded to stones and bare rock. There are one or two really dangerous bits with a big drop to the side of a very narrow path – these I always walk!

The blue trail gets you relatively gently into the frame of mind for mountain-biking. There are zigzags up through a fine oak wood and lovely downhills through stately pines and spruce, easy cambered bends and just a couple of tricky bridges.

The north red trail is the longest, with a big climb and lots of narrow bumpy sections; it trains you as you go and by the end of it I was riding things I’d never have attempted at the start. Climbing high there are fine views of lakes and mountains with a short section round the top of a 500m peak with the forest stretching out far below. The highlight is a stretch of steep cambered hairpins down to the end of the trail.

A stone resting place.
A stone resting place.

The south red trail is shorter and a bit easier, but often eroded and too steep for me to ride as it twists upward towards the top. The highest section is now graded black but there are only a few really difficult bits; you reach the top of a high spur coming off Grisedale Pike where I met a group of eight (never mind the rule of six!) intent on carrying their bikes right to the mountain summit in order to ride back to the valley.

The rocky, technical sections on the trail itself are hard enough for most. Exhilarating zigzags, a narrow ride though dense trees and a sting in the tail where I usually walk gets you back to the start.

Instead of coasting back down the road, I took the first section of the blue trail again as an alternative descent which now seemed easy.

Ahead was one of those tricky bridges and two cyclists had actually stopped to walk across. On countless occasions others had done this to me… It would probably have served me right if I’d slid off the bridge into the bog but I pedalled harder, raced across and disappeared at speed down the next section as the pair stepped out of the way. Show-off!

Trail markers in stunning surroundings.
Trail markers in stunning surroundings.

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