The Enchanted Forest

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."

The Enchanted Forest

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

The Enchanted Forest

1. Dalby Forest, Yorkshire

Best for: Cross country timers.

Yorkshire’s incredible Dalby Forest just hosted this year’s UCI World Championships, and the new “World cup trail" is officially open for training. The world’s best should loop it in around 17-minutes, so go and try it out to see how you measure up.

2. Glentress, Scotland

Best for: Absolutely every level of rider imaginable.

Scotland’s Seven Stanes (seven riding areas each with a “stane" or sculpture in the wilds for you to ride to) are perhaps the UK’s most well-rounded set of resorts. And if they crowned Britain’s trail centres then Glentress would be the jewel within that crown. A well-maintained bike park and incredible range of trails is all served by a new £5 million visitor centre set to open this summer.

3. Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland

Best for: Olde worlde charm and proper old-school trails.

Not only is Drumlanrig a castle of spectacular beauty, but it’s also home to trail-builder Rik Allsop who has weaved some incredible, natural trails through the estate’s unspoiled parkland. This is old-school root and forest riding at its best. Oh and it’s also where the bicycle was first invented too, with a museum should you wish to pay homage.

4. Afan, South Wales

Best for: Hippies.

Afan Forest Park is everything good about cycling. The sport has breathed new life into the community, there’s a good tie-in sponsorship with N-Power regeneration (you’ll pass the electricity-generating windmills as you ride), and the forest is truly, truly, magically beautiful. Trail builder Rowan Sorrell has done an incredible job making every inch of the trails as interesting and as feature-full as you could possibly imagine.

5. Crowborough Bull Track, East Sussex

Best for: Underground Racers.

Proving that you don’t have to be a huge government agency to make a decent riding spot, Crowborough’s privately-owned Bull Track is a downhill area set in beautiful parkland near Royal Tunbridge Wells. It’s got an uplift service (a bloke with a van and a trailer) and a pretty impressive local scene – they organise their own races and are super-friendly to newcomers.

6. Les Gets, France

Best for: The Full Week’s Holiday.

Mountain Biking is rapidly turning ski resorts into year-round destinations, and nowhere in the world has embraced the principle as tightly as the Portes du Soleil region spanning France and Switzerland. Les Gets, rather than Morzine has somehow emerged as the hub for the summer, so get out there and get your bike on one of those sweet egg-shaped gondolas.

The Enchanted Forest

Best for: Party Animals.

Few places can boast miles of well-kept trails, up-to-date chairlifts and gondolas and a party scene that includes a Pacha nightclub frequented by the likes of, ahem, Paris Hilton, Victoria Beckham and the Pussycat Dolls. For better or worse, yhe crazy, euro-beat party town of Ischgl can.

8. Winterberg, Germany

Best for: A Freeride Summer Weekend.

Winterberg is proof that you don’t have to be a huge winter resort to attract the mountain bikers. There’s barely a couple of chairlifts here but they access some of the most well-kept and innovative terrain in the world, with the 9km freeride bikepark being the biggest draw.

9. Leogang, Austria

Best for: Letting Go.

Leogang, Austria is a crazy little hamlet that has gone absolutely mountain biking daft. Though a tiny ski resort in the winter, it has managed to elbow its way into the mountain biking big league with some of the best-maintained trails, jumps, bike parks and funny festivals and races throughout the summer. Where else could you rent a headcam for the day and try out the “Bongo Bongo Freeride Trail"?

10. Lagos, Portugal

Best for: Taster Sessions.

Lagos is right at the south west tip of Europe, a beautiful old fishing port that has largely been taken over by backpackers and surfers. As such, it’s a funny, counter-culture oasis in the golfing and sun-worshipping Algarve region. Head there and seek out The Mountain Bike Adventure, an off-shoot of the hugely successful Surf Experience company. They have an uplift service to take you to the top of the nearby volcano, where a two-hour descent through some brilliant dusty shrubland awaits. Finish the ride with a dip in the sea and a surf. Perfecto.