How do you get involved?
Firstly, you’re going to need to acquire a bike. You may know an avid biker or two that you could beg and borrow from, but if you don’t, there are plenty of places you can hire one. These places should also provide you with a helmet, which is equally important!
Once you’ve got your bike and your helmet sorted, its time to hit the trail!
Types of bikes
You’ve seen them on your commute to work – the slick, lycra-clad superheroes on their ultra-light steeds with tyres that look narrow enough to slice bread. Road bikes generally don’t have any suspension, and are designed to be fast and efficient over smooth surfaces. They aren’t suitable for trails as the tyres aren’t designed to provide traction on mud, gravel or uneven surfaces, and the lack of suspension means they don’t absorb any of the shock even from small lumps and bumps.
Think chunky tyres and long, lean shapes, wide handlebars and grinning riders who look like they’ve got most of the trail stuck to them.
There are two major types of mountain bike. The first is a ‘hardtail’ – a bike with front suspension forks, but nothing at the back. Hardtails are generally lighter, and more efficient on steep climbs or mixed terrain, where no energy is lost ‘bouncing’. There’s also less to maintain on them, and although you’ll have to concentrate a little more, a good hardtail is more than capable of tackling technical downhill terrain. Some would even argue that being able to take a hardtail on technical trails makes you a better rider…
The second main type is a ‘full suss’ or full suspension bike. A full suss has a rear shock and pivots to take the impact out of long, technical descents – or even just over rocky trails, lumps and bumps. It’s much easier to go faster downhill on a full suss, as they handle well around tight corners and over rough terrain. However, the additional kit has a weight penalty you’ll notice on the uphills. It is possible to shave down the weight of a full suss bike, but this will involve spending a fair bit more than you would on a hardtail, as well as the extra time and money on maintaining those extra moving parts.
Hybrid bikes strike a balance between mountain and road use. The tyres are neither particularly wide or narrow, and they will generally be ‘hardtails’ (front suspension only.) These are ideal if you want a multi-discipline bike, or if you can shorten your commute to work by nipping through a few fields – but if you know you’re going to be exclusively a road or trail rider, you’re probably better off going for a more specialised model.
A new and slightly unusual style of bike – a fat bike has extremely wide tyres, inflated to low pressures. The advantage of this is the large contact area between tyre and ground, providing excellent traction, and the ability to ride over sand and snow without sinking. The frames can be rigid, reducing the maintenance required, as the tyres themselves have some shock-absorbent properties. They might be slow and heavy, but if you’re someone who just cannot be put off by foul weather, or who has always wanted to ride their noble steed across a beach at sunset, they might be worth looking into.
Where can you ride?
Cyclists have every right to ride on roads and should behave that way – you’re actually safer keeping some distance from the kerb – it helps prevents motorists cutting you up, and gives you a ‘buffer’ if they get too close. It also helps you avoid any grit or rubbish that’s drifted to the side.
If you aren’t sold on the idea of cycling along busy roads, that’s fine! There are plenty of quieter country roads in the UK that you have every right to access, although it’s worth being aware that these may not be as well-maintained, so keep an eye out for potholes.
The Highway Code has specific rules for cyclists. These include wearing a helmet, light coloured clothing, and lights when it gets dark.
The Highway Code rules for cyclists can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-highway-code/rules-for-cyclists-59-to-82
Trail centres, such as Dalby Forest in Yorkshire, Coed y Brenin in North Wales, and Haldon Forest in Devon, are excellent places to start riding. You can generally hire good quality bikes, helmets and emergency maintenance kit. The trails will be waymarked and, importantly, graded by difficulty!
If you’re an absolute novice, your best bet is to start on a ‘green’ trail. These are family-friendly and suitable for most types of bikes. The next step is to blue, where you’ll start to encounter more technical terrain such as ‘berms’ (corners with banked outer edges,) ‘rollers’ (humps in the trail) and small ‘drop offs’ (downward steps.) At blue level, you should be able to take all of these obstacles at a speed you’re comfortable with – it’s a good grade for developing confidence, speed, and learning to let your bike move under you. Once you’re confident on blue trails, you’ll want to step up to red and then black, where you’re looking at tougher, steeper, more committing obstacles and jumps.
Country rides and bridleways
Time to dust off the old map and compass! Bridleways are publicly accessible paths through country areas. You’re allowed to take your bike along these, but be aware you could end up sharing with pedestrians and horse riders. They aren’t maintained like trail centre routes so it could be worth doing a quick recce of the route you’re considering. They may take you away from towns, villages and roads, so make sure you’re prepared with food, water, extra layers and a small maintenance kit. The usual country code rules apply – leave no trace, respect the land and other users, be aware of livestock and nesting birds, etc!
If you want to ride out through the hills but aren’t sure where to go, there are lots of resources to help you plan routes. Black Dog member and mountain bike newbie Meg recommends the ViewRanger app with OS subscription – this allows you to download and follow routes set by other members. Routes have the distance, difficulty and elevation profiles visible, and will usually have a description, so you can pick one that’s right for you. You can track your location and progress along the route so you know exactly where you are and what’s coming up. Make sure you still bring a map and compass though, just in case your phone loses battery or starts to misbehave!
The National Cycle Network
Sustrans have done something amazing – they have built a network of cycle paths and trails both on and off road across the UK. These are waymarked trails of varying distance and difficulty, and the full map is available at the following website: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/map-ncn
Links and Resources
The links below will take you to the websites of various groups and organisations within the biking community.
Feel free to drop us a note if you can’t find what you’re looking for. We’re happy to help!