The Enchanted Forest: the best MTB trails in Europe

Mountain biking is having a serious boom right now and since we’re oh-so-wise, we asked Chris Moran a while back to look into the reasons why and pick out the ten best trails in Europe for the mag

Words by Chris Moran, photos by Markus Greber/Scott

We may be coming out of what the doom-mongerers are calling the worst recession since money was invented, but in the cycling world they’ve barely noticed. Participation is well up and sales continue to sky-rocket, with mountain biking burning an especially bright trail. And for once, the UK government actually deserves some credit. The Forestry Commission (FC) is a government agency originally set up to look after and maintain the country’s woodlands. But in 1999 its remit was overhauled and it helped build Wales’s first purpose-built mountain bike trail – the Red Bull Trail at Coed y Brenin.

Since then the FC have regenerated many of the UK’s forests, pioneering and realising the government’s ambition of attracting cyclists into the woods with visitor centres, waymarked trails and cafés. “Six or seven years ago our business was primarily logging, forest conservation and making pulp,” says Martin O’Vastar, a ranger at Dalby Forest, Yorkshire. “Now around half of what we do is tourism, and mountain biking is a huge part of that.”

It’s easy to see why mountain biking is a positive step for a local region. In 2001 a feasibility study commissioned by the FC near the ex-mining town of Afan in South Wales concluded that a similar cycle trail to that at Coed y Brenin might annually attract 200,000 cyclists to the region, generating an estimated £18 million and creating 550 jobs in the area. The study turned out to be unexpectedly conservative. Today there are two world-class centres – Afan Forest Park and Cwmcarn, and as mountain biking continues to rise in popularity, both are outperforming even the most optimistic estimations of visitor numbers.

This increase in riders is filtering through to the amateur competition level. Frazier Coupland runs No Fuss, a mountain bike events company based near Fort William. “Since 2008 we’ve had a yearly 20 per cent increase in the number of people entering the 10 Under the Ben race,” he says, “and 40 per cent more people for the Benromach 10 at the Seven Stanes areas of Kirroughtree, Dumfries and Galloway. I think the secret is that they’re hard work, but they’re fun too and you get to ride in a beautiful setting.”

So it’s a pretty good time to be into mountain biking. Whether the new infrastructure is feeding the boom or whether it’s a perfectly symbiotic partnership is hard to say. It might be simply down to the fact that people are shunning their foreign holidays and getting on their bikes as Norman Tebbit once infamously demanded. Whatever the reasons, the results are less ambiguous – UK riders are doing exceptionally well on the international scene. Led by the energetic, fun and positive Rachel Atherton, British female riders now make up around third of the top ten on the downhill circuit, mirroring the same successes in the men’s division. If we extend that to European riders (against the rest of the world), it’s hard to argue against the continent virtually dominating the UCI World Rankings, especially in the girls’ division. Of the top ten Cross Country riders in the world, all but one of the ladies are European, seven of the top ten downhill riders are from Europe, as are all ten of the top ranking Marathon cyclists.

So what are you waiting for? Check out our guide to the best trails in Europe over the page. Get in on the action and head for the trees. Well, the gaps between the trees, not the actual trees themselves…

Trail Mix – Europe’s best places to ride

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