The end of the race season is usually a good time to rest and relax or maybe even take up a new hobby. Unfortunately for Liam and I, neither of us are very good at sitting still. I dabbled with a bit of paddleboarding, but… it just isn’t as good as riding bikes!

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So, funnily enough, the ‘off season’ is our preferred time of year to get out and ride. There’s no pressure to perform and there’s no need to get back into training just yet, so we’re finally free to fully have fun. And, in our opinion, the trails are the ones that require a bit more thought and skill to get down. You know that feeling of being right on the edge? Yeah, we know, it’s the best! So when the weather starts taking a turn for the worse, even beyond what we’re already used to, the difficulty level gets cranked up and that’s when we’re hitting the trails. After having had more time on our own tracks than usual over the last two years (perhaps one of those days I’ll have to send a love letter to COVID), we decided that it was high time we set off and experienced some new trails with our old friends. The plan was to meet people we knew from the races and to ride their local spots to see how it all compared to what we’ve got at home in Fort William.

Off we went to Dallas, Scotland

The search began on the east coast of the Highlands with a visit to see Jamie Edmondson in a small place called Dallas. We were greeted by blue skies and mild temperatures. The hill isn’t big, but the gradient is steep in places, so we busted out a few laps using the same forestry road to access the trails, which are all nicely shaped. There’s clearly a good dig and ride scene here and even if it did rain, it seems like it would drain off quite quickly and the ground would hold up well. Slop levels were clearly at rock bottom, but it was a fun visit even still!

Hitting the slabs in Ballater

The next stop was further south in Ballater on the other side of the Cairngorm National Park. I’d never been there before and our aim was to ride Heartbreak Ridge. After faffing about in a field with a football, we eventually hopped on the bikes and dragged ourselves up to the top of the hill. But man, the wind up there? Ferocious! Thankfully, it wasn’t pouring. If we had been caught in the rain up there, we might not have bothered with any filming because we would have got so cold freaking fast. Phew! There is a ridiculous amount of rock slab features up there and in between the exposed bedrock areas the heathland seems to hold up well. I was expecting to instantly flip over the bars on every on/off transition, but some trail maintenance had been done to make it very durable. Also, the ground itself must be far rockier than the traditional bottomless bogs we have over on the west of the country. It had rained really heavily overnight and there were definitely still a few areas of sludge on the flatter sections, but otherwise it was all quite dry and made for a very unique riding experience.

Hangry drifts at the Glassie Bike Park

After a short drive inland from Ballater, we arrived in Aberfeldy, which is pretty much slap bang in the middle of Scotland, to ride the Glassie Bike Park with our friends Euan Thomson and Ray Will. These guys have put in a ton of work to get the trails up and running. To welcome us, they sent out a fellow trail builder Conall Strickland with a big old snack bag full of goodies to keep us fuelled up for a big day ahead. Ace! We even uplifted with Euan’s Landy to start things off. Unfortunately, though, Conall had got buried into the snack bag before we managed to find him, so we were borderline hangry. Still, we let him tag along for the rest of the ride anyway. It was a rainy day and the soil was kind of clay-like, so it’s safe to say that we had a whale of time drifting round the berms and sliding down the straights. Even on a dry spell, most winter days look like this around here! You know you’ve had a good time when you have to get washed down with the hose, and Ray’s daughter Emma did a grand job of that for us.

Slopless Innerleithen

After an evening of home-made pizza courtesy of Ray’s wife Karen, we boosted down to the Borders in the south east of Scotland to meet Fort William ex-pat Lachlan Blair. The Tweed Valley is now one of his go-to riding spots and after some trademark car park stunts, he led the way round some trails that were located just outside of Innerleithen. I’d never ridden this spot before, but they definitely had that Tweed Valley feel about them with tight gaps between the trees and plenty of plantation forest furrows to pump your way through. The forecast was pretty grim and Lachlan said he was close to bailing, but, in the end, he turned up on time. Luckily, the weather stayed quite reasonable with only a few showery outbursts. The soil in the Valley is so gravelly that it withstands a lot of use and never really turns to mud, so there can be lots and lots of spray, but you don’t often get to ride genuine slop there. The biggest challenge is just being able to see!

Speed and flow at Golfie

We then popped over to the Golfie side of Innerleithen to ride with Stuart Nicholson, who we’ve known since when we all started racing downhill many many years ago. He rides there all the time and he chose a lovely route for us. We started on the moorland above, dropped into the plantation forest, popped out into some old pine woods, back into the plantation again and then finished riding through some clear fell at the bottom. The trail felt like it had a lot of variation, but the beautifully shaped corners and firm ground underneath stayed nice and consistent. It’s clear to see why this place has become so popular! I’d say it lacks any genuinely challenging features, but the speed and flow make it all very satisfying to ride. We stopped by at Stu’s place afterwards to warm up in front of the fire and he even got some dinner on the go for us too. What a boy!

A slippy crash at Cademuir

The next day was a short trip along the valley to Cademuir near Peebles to meet Christo Gallagher, who treated us with a box of mince pies. What a legend! We set about this lovely little hill and enjoyed a nice sunny day in the woods until Christo’s tire slid out and he bonked his head off of the ground. Despite the dry weather, the gravelly soil had a layer of grease on top, so it was definitely much more slippery than it looked on camera. As it often happens when you ‘finish’ riding and you want to slow down, mistakes can happen and Christo simply got caught out. Thankfully, he was OK, but his helmet was cracked and he had a bit of a sore noggin, so, quite rightly, he took the rest of the day off and stayed away from his bike for a few more days just to be on the safe side. It was a bummer but it was fun getting to catch up and I think we all still had a good time.

On the hunt for riding competency in Thornielee

Thornielee was next on the list. This is another Tweed Valley delight with a lovely view from the carpark – provided that no one parks in the way that is. Christo showed us this spot the year before, so we vaguely knew where we were going and managed to find a couple of new trails to ride. In a similar style to the previous day, the weather was relatively kind, but the trails were super greasy and so tight in places that it made it tricky to feel like you’re a competent rider! Oh well…

Ghost pepper tryouts in Selkirk

King of the Valley, Corey Watson, stepped up to demonstrate what riding he had on offer around the outskirts of Selkirk. It was a cool little spot and not quite as easy as his super smooth riding might suggest. There’s so much good stuff to be found in the Borders, but although we were in another new location, they all tend to have a similar feel, so it was time to move out of there and make our way to England. We crossed the border and swung by to visit Liam’s brother-in-law, whose wife had prepared a curry with one of the spiciest chillies known to man – the ghost pepper. I, of course, fancied a wee try, and it was, well, exceptionally hot! I enjoy chilli quite a bit, but that little bastard had some serious kick.

Meetup with a chocolate bar muncher in Hamsterley

The search resumed in Hamsterley with James Elliott who has stepped on a junior world championship downhill podium before and even on a little trail bike his speed is clear to see. He knows his way around these woods and he took us on a big old loop. He also consumed most of our Penguin bars too! We experienced a nice variety of stuff in Hamsterley and it was cool to see more than just the trails I’ve raced on in the past.

Hidden gems of Derbyshire

We kept trucking a bit further south and found ourselves in Derbyshire where Liam knew of a little spot thanks to where his wife grew up. I had very low expectations, but, in the end, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a lovely bit of woodland with some interesting derelict buildings and a whole network of flowy trails with one particularly gnarly rocky section, which was the total business! We knew very well that there would be plenty of other hidden gems, but we had an urge to get back to some real mountains again and Leigh Johnson had set aside a gap in his busy building schedule to show us a good time in the South of Wales, so off we went…

Awesome trails, some fish and chips and a small plasterboard job at Swansea

Leigh is based near Swansea and he’s told us numerous times about his home trails, so I was excited to finally check them out. He is an absolute pinner as well, so I assumed we’d be in for a treat. I wasn’t wrong. There’s basically just one forest road climb, which is nice and wide, and the perfect gradient for busting out a few intervals. From the top there is an epic selection of flowing hand-crafted delights that lead back to the bottom. We only rode a handful of them, but I was really impressed. The weather was a bit grey and drizzly, and although the ground was wet in places, it was firm underneath and the trees were well-spaced, so you could comfortably carry a fair amount of speed. After a day of galloping about the woods, Leigh had to head back to work, so we grabbed a chippy and helped carry a few bits of plasterboard up the stairs as a token gesture for the guided ride.

A quick trip to Tirpentwys

Tirpentwys was next on the list and what a fun little spot it is! Sooo many cool berms and bumps with the option for some public road tarmac uplift. It felt like it had a really friendly vibe as well with quite a few people milling about, sectioning bits of track and sessioning the various jump lines.

The untamed valleys of Wales

After this, we went to see Rob Williams to ride his local trails at Cwmcarn and Risca and that was a sweet venue, too, with smooth private tarmac climbs and countless flowing singletrack descents. People always talk about the valleys of Wales and it all makes sense to me now. The V-shaped valleys in the south are steep and narrow with all the housing and infrastructure packed densely in the bottom, which leaves the slopes kind of wild and untamed.

North of Wales with Alex Storr

In pure contrast, the North of Wales has a glaciated landscape with big, wide, U-shaped valleys. We ventured over to the West and felt very much at home – except for the funny Welsh words rather than the funny Gaelic words on all of the signposts. We were there to ride with Alex Storr, who had taken victory at the Loudenvielle EWS in the U21 category, so we knew he’d be fast, but, oh my goodness, I didn’t know just how skilful he was. He rides in such a playful way, it’s a joy to watch. It’s also quite fun trying to encourage him to do dangerous things that I’m not skillful enough to do myself! ;).

Mud sans slop in Llangollen

Llangollen was another Alex Storr recommendation and he joined us again for more bicycle related antics. One Giant Leap is a privately owned farm with some sick trails that are mostly out on the open hillside. The soil has a lot of shale in it, so the ground is super durable. We still got manky in the rain and splattered with mud, but there weren’t any sloppy ruts to chance your biscuits in. Instead, it was much more consistent and predictable, which is probably a good thing considering that the speeds are generally quite high!

After a good few weeks on the road and living in the vans, we decided that it was time to head north once more. To celebrate our first ride back at home, I brought a big birthday cake as a trail side treat. We got it seen off and carried on to enjoy some of our favourite types of trails. It has to be said, however, that the weather conditions were unusually good for November, so our trip might not have given the best representation of the sloppiest trails… Perhaps we’ll just have to have another go at it next year!

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Words: James Shirley Photos: Various