Wed, Jan 11, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Saddle up and head to Scotland

A trail in the country north of England has just been rated by international experts as the best place in the world for mountain biking

By Stuart Millar  /  THE GUARDIAN , EDINBURGH

I've been standing at the top of the trail for what seems like a long time now. As I weigh my mortality against the intimidating presence of the chunky tabletop jump -- which guards the top of Britain's latest world-class mountain bike run with all the subtlety of a steroid-bulked bouncer outside a provincial nightclub -- yet another 10-year-old passes me and casually floats over the obstacle.

At last, self-respect elbows aside self-preservation. I ride up the start ramp, squeeze the brakes a couple of times for luck and launch myself downwards.

It doesn't take more than a few minutes before I'm being spat out at the bottom. But what a few minutes it was: flowing through a beautifully-crafted series of jumps, drops and banked corners, linked by a super-fast hard-packed track that gives even the most tentative of riders the time and the confidence to go higher than they have dared before.

This is the new Red Freeride trail at Glentress Forest, just outside Peebles in the Scottish borders. Not so long ago, finding purpose-built riding of this quality involved a flight to Canada and a hefty wad of cash. But Glentress is the centerpiece of a revolution in UK mountain biking which is seeing ground-breaking trails emerging on these shores at a relentless rate.

So spectacular has this transformation been that Scotland has now been officially recognized as one of the most vibrant places on the planet to take a bike off road. Just before Christmas, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) handed the country its Global Superstar award, knocking British Columbia off the pedestal it has occupied unchallenged for so long.

Lavishing praise on Glentress and its six sister specialist centers -- collectively known as the 7Stanes project -- and the UK's bike-friendly Forestry Commission, the IMBA concluded: "With mountain bike tourism on the rise and increasing numbers of trails being built, we expect Scotland to stay near the top of the international scorecard for years to come."

The IMBA report may well have its faults -- prioritizing new, purpose-built trails over existing land access and completely ignoring Northern Ireland, for example. But it has confirmed what UK riders have known for some time: if you are going to get on a mountain bike this year, you'll struggle to find anywhere better to take it than Scotland.

The Forestry Commission's sites stretch the length of the country, with bike-specific trails in West Argyll, Laggan in Inverness-shire and the Black Isle, as well as Leanachan Forest on the slopes of Aonach Mor in the Nevis range, renowned as the toughest course on the World Cup downhill racing circuit.

Then there are the hundreds of kilometers of wilderness single track that twist through the unparalleled landscape of the Highlands and islands, which the IMBA also singled out for praise.

But it is the 7Stanes project that is pushing the development of the sport hardest, not to mention contributing about US$10.6 million a year to the Scottish economy, according to Forestry Commission Scotland estimates.

Each of the sites has a personality all of its own. At Dalbeattie, for example, there's a massive outcrop of slick granite known as The Slab. Mabie, just outside Dumfries, has the experts-only Kona Dark Side run, a full 2km of elevated timber which is just 10cm wide at some points and includes a 2m-high gap jump. Nearby Ae Forest boasts a full-on downhill race course and the brand new 24km Ae Line trail. Innerleithen, 10km up the road from Glentress, is home to some of the most technically challenging downhill runs in the country, including the phenomenal I-Line, as well as a lung-bursting 19km cross-country route that culminates in a 2km roller-coaster descent littered with rock drops, huge rollers and exquisite berms.

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