Making tracks

Paul Kirkwood swaps his touring bike for a mountain bike to test ride some new trails in the North York Moors.

Bridge and berm in Dixon's Hollow

Bridge and berm in Dixon’s Hollow

I set off from home for this bike ride without a bicycle or map but with lots of bananas. On the day the Tour de France came to Britain I was bound for Dalby Forest to explore trails that opened in April. I spotted another banana muncher in the car park and, once kitted out with a mountain bike and helmet, I looked the part. That illusion was quickly shattered as I started the first ascent up the red route. It was very rough and steep. I was pushing the bike up the bumpy bits as well as down them. Suddenly the idea of completing the full 23-mile ‘challenging’ red circuit looked optimistic let alone within the prescribed four hours. Signs marked ‘Escape Route’ were reassuring.

On the Clenfield Rigg section of the route I was right up in the tree tops – as high as the climbers I’d spotted earlier on the Go Ape! high wire adventure course. A sign for a black trail said ‘If in doubt, stay out’; I didn’t need a second bidding. The origin of some names on the map was a mystery. Whatever it meant ‘Jerry Noddle’ wouldn’t be a doddle, ‘Oblivion’ sounded like a stretch best left for another day and quite why a trail was named ‘E13 London Borough of Islington’ was completely beyond me. ‘The Tunnel’ – which I did cycle down – was self-explanatory. The branches of the trees met above a gloomy trail, the stillness making it all the spookier.

Red Trail

Red Trail

Deep among the pines the only sound I could hear was the occasional swish-swish of tyres approaching from behind. I got out of the way and let the riders pass. I did overtake once, though, and after successfully juddering down three steps. “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just here for the view,” said the other cyclist. But that’s perhaps the drawback with serious mountain biking in my view: you’re so busy staring at the ground below to make sure you don’t come a cropper that you dare not lift your head to look at the surroundings.

The Dixon’s Hollow freeride cycle skills park was the perfect place for a rest and sandwiches. It was created from a three-acre disused quarry and 350 tons of old stone and building material that form its features. I watched the experts swooping and swinging their way up and down ramps, round banked turns – or ‘berms’, to use the lingo – and over and under bridges.

Action in Dixon's Hollow

Action in Dixon’s Hollow

All the talk at the Hollow was of Glentress, another Forestry Commission mountain biking centre in the Scottish Borders that’s popularity was an inspiration for the Dalby Forest’s purpose-built trails. Extending over 34 miles and costing £405,000, they now form England’s biggest mountain biking network and may be used by bikers preparing for the 2012 Olympics. The routes – which are have been designed in the shape of a clover leaf – allow riders to tackle the network in four sections. A fifth section will be added if further funding is secured. The trails have a natural feel since, wherever possible, they to follow the contours of the dale and rigg terrain.

Sculpture in playground beside visitors' centre

Sculpture in playground beside visitors’ centre

After the rigours of the morning I was quite happy to drop down to the green trails for a while. At last: easy riding. The trees inevitably limited views but, as I was to find out, provide ample shelter from a shower. After a while, though, I got bored of waiting for the downpour to stop and set off down the blue trail. My glasses as goggles and as gleefully gung-ho as a child, I hurtled down the hill wishing my arms came with more in-built suspension as the handlebars vibrated violently in my fists.

Turning a corner suddenly everything was still. I was in the bosom of the valley and soon back at the car park with all the other muddy bottoms. It hadn’t been my usual sort of leisurely bike ride along country lanes but had been a tremendous adventure.

Dalby Forest Visitors Centre

Dalby Forest Visitors Centre

With time to spare I had went for a wander. Behind the bike hire centre is a new courtyard with café, workshops, offices and a community room. The new £2.6m eco-friendly visitors’ centre is another notable addition to the village. Clad in wood, the centre looks and feels like the new building at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield and, in keeping with it, includes an interesting display of cycling-related paintings by local artists Helen Shore and Aydon Aspin, art teacher and design studio manager respectively. There’s a shop there too and a restaurant with fine views over the adventure playground and beyond to the trees.

So which grade of ride should you chose? Blacks are strictly for experts only. If you have a sense of adventure, good fitness and some experience of mountain biking then go for the red routes. They take you into corners of the forest that you would never normally see and present a real challenge. At the other end of the scale, green routes are as well surfaced and easy to traverse as canal towpaths and perfect for families. Choosing something in between gives you a taste of both types of terrain plus a small sense of achievement but without having to get off and push too often. For me, I’ve decided, blue is the colour.

Red Trail

Red Trail

Fact file

Into the woods

Into the woods

Parking: Car park at Low Dalby. It’s free – but there is a toll to enter the Forest.

Distance: 13 miles – for my route.

Bike hire: Bike Hire, Low Dalby. www.dalbybikebarn.co.uk.

Map: Buy a map showing all the trails from above.

Directions: You can compile your own route from the trail map. It’s easy to combine trails of different grades and find ways of extending or curtailing your route as you go along. The trails are well signed too. I followed the red route clockwise from Low Dalby then switched to the green route from Dixon’s Hollow to Givendale Head Farm and finally the blue route to the south-west and back alongside Dalby Beck.

Refreshments: Café at Dalby Courtyard and Treetops Restaurant at visitors’ centre, both in Low Dalby.

Bike hire centre (now run by Dalby Bike Barn), Low Dalby

Bike hire centre (now run by Dalby Bike Barn), Low Dalby

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