Welcome to mountain biking in Scotland – a country that well deserves its growing reputation as the world’s number one mountain biking destination.
Glentress is the perfect introduction to Scottish mountain biking.
I pitch up at the centre’s The Hub In The Forest and tuck into some heart-starting coffee and freshly baked goods as the staff fill me in on all the various routes on offer.
Then it’s off to their gear store – they rent and sell gear too – to get kitted out for the thrill ride.
I choose the red route as the black run looks too insane and I want more of a challenge than the green and blue routes.
For those looking to brush up on their skills beforehand, The Hub offers coaching and you can warm up on the Skills Loop. For serious bikers the Free Ride Park comes with a warning: “body armour is seriously recommended”.
The red route starts with an epic haul uphill through the forest, but the effort is worth it as the views open up.
Pennel’s Vennel is the first stretch of single-track downhill, loose and rocky, but it’s just a warm-up for the challenges of Spooky Wood, which kick off with three mighty drop-offs and push on into a dozen 180-degree bends, 18 jumps and 17 tabletops.
Like many routes in Scotland, the red at Glentress has a number of options so you can pedal around the toughest sections and duck out of some of the climbs.
My journey takes me flashing through tight single-track woodland where wet roots across the track and narrow gaps between the trees have my head spinning, and also across a tricky raised wooden section.
Then there are the hulking rocks that have to be banged over, leapt across or avoided at all costs.
Just under two hours after I left The Hub’s café I am back, a sweaty, adrenaline-pumping mess of dirt and smiles.
The red route here offers seriously testing mountain biking, and after a morning slapping down it the afternoon awaits with the choice of tackling that black route or one of the relatively easier routes.
The biking of scotland
Glentress is typical of the experience on offer at the mountain biking centres now springing up all over a country made for mountain biking, with its phalanx of unspoilt mountain landscapes.
It is one of the Seven Stanes – a network set up by the Forestry Commission.
Indeed Scotland recently usurped Canada as the world’s number one mountain biking destination, according to an International Mountain Bike Association people’s poll.
Since 2002 Fort William in the Highlands has been holding rounds of the Mountain Bike World Cup and it has also hosted the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series, the most prestigious
and extreme competition in the mountain biking calendar.
Scotland is certainly not resting on its mountain biking laurels, though, with centres constantly upgrading their facilities and new runs being developed all the time.
There are the aforementioned world famous downhills at Fort William, and a 3km fire road climb and its myriad obstacles, including huge drop-offs, boulder fields, rock slabs and stone staircases, with the nefarious names of sections – Two Ton Drop and Surgeon’s Slab – giving you an idea
of the difficulty involved.
Whether you’re seriously into your mountain biking or just want to try it out for the first time in a user-friendly environment – and enjoy some epic scenery while you’re at it – forget about jetting off to Europe or Canada and take part in the world class mountain biking on your doorstep.
There’s a wealth of biking centres in Scotland to choose from, as well as endless opportunities for going out on a bike on your own and losing yourself in the wilds.
Cycle Europe: More routes to try
Almost £1 million has been invested to bring the Dalby Forest visitor centre up to scratch and improve mountain biking facilities in this gorgeous woodland forest in Yorkshire.
Purple Mountain is what a biking centre should be.
There is a wide choice of routes, from beginner greens and blues, to more technical red runs and, for adrenaline junkies, crazy black runs.
As well as hiring bikes the centre also has a bike shop, with all the kit you could ever require, and a café stocked with the needs of hungry bikers in mind.
» See purplemountain.co.uk.
With some of the most spectacular mountains in Europe, Slovenia is perfectly set up for biking.
The Mountain Bike Park at Crna na Koroskem was set up in 1995 and boasts a dozen fairly wild trails, with GPS on hand to keep you on the right track.
Many trails link into longer adventures, and they have a hotel, bike hire, bike wash and repair shop on site.
» See mtbpark.com
Mountainous Norway is an awesome biking destination, and at Hafjell Bike Park they have shown how mountain biking can make up for a decline in ski business.
Mountain biking is really emerging here, with decent facilities, a range of rides available and plenty of lifts, gondolas and the tempting Afterbike Pub.
» See hafjell.no
The mountain biking oasis of Les Gets Bike Park is set in some stunning French Alpine scenery.
As well as lessons, bike repair and bike washing, there are a whopping 650km of trails to explore in the region, with ski lifts handy for getting up the tough ascents and letting you enjoy the downhills more.
» See paradisvtt.fr
The Black Forest is home to Bikepark Bad Wildbad, which hosts the German Downhill Championship.
They are well set up with coaching, a bike shop, mountain railways and cable cars on hand.
There are eight trails on the site, ranging from easy to difficult.
» See bikepark-bad-wildbad.de
Hat’s the way
Some bikers joke that a good helmet is even more essential than a bike.
Always get one that fits properly and is made specifically for mountain biking.
Even after a small impact that shows no visible signs of damage, you should still get your helmet checked out.
On your bike
When it comes to a bike the choice is either hard-tail or dual-suspension.
Hard tail bikes, with only front suspension, are fine for most trails, but on tough reds and blacks, as well as skill tricks, dual-suspension bikes come into their own.
Prices range from a few hundred pounds to thousands, so hiring is a good option if you won’t be doing much cycling afterwards.
It is also essential to get a frame that fits your body size. Go to a specialist shop so they can help you out.
Take a brake
On the brake front, forget brakes that you normally get on road bikes and opt for disc brakes instead.
They offer a lot more control and you don’t have piles of wires getting in the way.
As with a lot of mountain biking gear, once you have tried them out you won’t go back to the cheaper options.
Wear and tear
When it comes to what to wear most riders won’t need body armour for the easier trails, but it does offer protection and is essential on the serious black downhills – some centres won’t allow you on without it.
Otherwise a light, breathable base layer is essential, and waterproofs are always handy in the UK.