Mountain biking in Surrey: from Summer Lightning to Barry Knows Best via the Yogurt Pots
The Surrey Hills are a mecca for mountain bikers. Here, Surrey Life beauty editor Adele Mitchell, a keen mountain biker herself, brings us a fascinating insight
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2012
It was several years ago now that I took up mountain biking: I love being outdoors, there was a mountain bike available to me (my husband was already riding) and, as further incentive, I was promised cake on top of Leith Hill.
It didn’t take long, however, to realise that Leith Hill was much bigger than I was in more ways than the obvious ‘highest point in south east England’ one. “I won’t take you anywhere too technical,” said my other half, while bouncing off logs, disappearing over drops and rolling up near vertical climbs. Meanwhile, I rode into one of very many stones and fell off. Mountain biking’s thrill-a-minute gauntlet had been well and truly laid down before me. In the frame Mountain biking – off-road cycling – originated in California in the 1970s. It wasn’t long before bikes specific to the sport were developed with suspension forks, disk brakes, 27 gears and knobbly wide tyres. Soon, every component on the bike – from the wheels to the seat post to the pedals – could be adjusted or upgraded to improve performance. They are strong enough to withstand rapid descents over rocky ledges and gnarly roots but, crucially, light enough to make slippery hill climbs that little bit easier. Sometimes, though, it can be slightly worrying to know that the bike carrying my 63kg self down the root-strewn vertical face of a gully, through the muddy puddle at the bottom and up the other side, weighs just 10kg. So far, we’re both still in one piece!
But it’s not just about the bike. Regular riding builds cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance and co-ordination as well as delivering a big adrenaline and endorphin fix. And while anyone who can ride a bike can have a go, it takes skill and experience to get the most out of the more demanding trails – or at least get to the bottom (or the top) with a smile on your face.
Here in Surrey, it’s no secret that the Surrey Hills – and particularly Leith, Holmbury, and Pitch Hills and parts of Winterfold – are regarded as one of the best areas for mountain biking in the south east. Across this spectacular landscape, the singletrack trails that riders love – most started life as animal tracks – wind their way through ancient woodland and follow the steep contours of the hills. Many have been named over the years – though don’t expect to see any signposts – so that riding from Summer Lightning to Barry Knows Best via the Yogurt Pots makes perfect sense to those in the know. Furthermore, no two rides are ever the same: trails that are fast and fun to ride in the dry become slippery and unforgiving after rain. It is also an ‘open all hours’, year-round sport: high-tech LED helmet and bike lights have helped make night riding increasingly popular. Day or night, this is a beautiful area to enjoy. “Why would I go to the gym when I can be out on the hills, working out with my friends?” says Suzanne Cain who lives locally and rides every week. “We’re so lucky to be able to spend time in such an amazing place.”
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Another person right at the heart of the local scene is Howard Wagstaff, who owns mountain bike store Pedal & Spoke in Peaslake, between Holmbury and Pitch hills. “The average rider is male, 35 to 50 years of age,” he says. “But locally there are children and teenagers who ride and groups of women too.” He likens the relaxed atmosphere to that of a ski resort. “Everyone wants to talk about what happened on their ride, which trails are riding well, how their bike is handling: there’s a real community feel.”
The store sells and services bikes and equipment but with the hills on his doorstep Wagstaff often finds himself helping visiting riders. “I’m used to lending tools for emergency repairs but I was a bit surprised when one guy turned up and admitted that he’d actually forgotten to bring his bike. Luckily, we have a few for hire…”
Pedal power The sport’s popularity benefits other local businesses and charities, too. Peaslake MTBO is a twice-yearly mountain bike orienteering event that raises funds to support Peaslake’s village school. “We average 200 riders for each event,” says co-ordinator Martin Cade. “It appeals to riders with all levels of experience and there’s a great atmosphere. The last MTBO took place on spring’s wettest day but still nearly 100 riders took part.” I can confirm this because I was one of them: wringing my rain-soaked socks out after three hours of riding.
At the local shop, Peaslake Village Stores, they’re used to serving up supplies to Lycra-clad customers spattered with mud. “Mountain bikers keep the shop going,” says Trudy Robinson of Peaslake Village Stores, where many riders stop for a break. “They keep us busy at the weekend and that helps keep the shop open for locals during the week.” With so much energy-sapping riding to enjoy, food is at the forefront of most riders’ minds and the shop sells around 300 cheese straws a week (nothing tastes better after a couple of hours of thigh-burning riding!). And by using local meat and bread to make sandwiches and pies, there is a ripple effect that benefits other local businesses as well. On the trail However, not everyone in the villages welcomes the weekend influx of riders and the sport has had a noticeable impact on the local environment. As a result, the Surrey Hills Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) board has created a working group with the local landowners, users and businesses to progress the proactive management of mountain biking in the area: a sport that they recognise is here to stay.
The Friends of the Hurtwood is part of the group and a registered charity that supports the management of the 2,500 acres that cover Holmbury Hill, Pitch Hill and parts of Winterfold. Chairman Peter Copping says: “We promote responsible riding in order to reduce the impact both on the local environment and other users. For example, visiting riders are encouraged to park in the car parks and new, unsanctioned trails are forbidden in our code of conduct.”
Meanwhile, a grant from the Surrey Hills board has allowed local volunteer riders from Hurtwood Trails and experienced trail builders to specifically engineer some of the Hurtwood’s most popular trails to withstand heavy usage without causing environmental damage. “This is an ongoing issue but the work on the dedicated trails has taken mountain bikers away from the paths used by other visitors to help enable everyone to enjoy the hills,” comments Peter Copping.
Seven years after my first ride, I am still enjoying every challenging minute of riding in this wonderful area. And that cake at the top of Leith Hill is always worth the climb.
MOUNTAIN BIKING GLOSSARY Because you need to be as fluid with the lingo as you are on the trails!
HARDTAIL: Bike with suspension on the front wheel only. Light, agile and thrilling to ride – but also a bit bumpy. FULL SUSPENSION: Front and rear wheel suspension to soak up the aforementioned bumps. Favoured by endurance riders as well as old blokes with bad backs. CLIPPED IN: Being attached to the bike via shoe and pedal to aid impulsion. A great idea until you have an off (see below). OFF: Falling off. Can be an ENDO (over the handlebars), a FACEPLANT (landing face first) or an overbalanced DAB (putting foot down). In short, all best avoided. GRANNY GEAR: The lowest gear available on the bike and, for the feeble of leg, an essential on a steep incline. AQ SINGLETRACK: A flowing trail that is one bike wide, which should be navigated as quickly as possible, resulting in a big, endorphin-fuelled smile. LINE: The quickest route through a singletrack – so long as there isn’t a slightly deaf Labrador lolloping along it already (in which case, you just have to wait). TECHNICAL: A challenging singletrack, or – let’s be honest – anything you’re not quite skilled enough to ride yet. For some, this includes the first puddle they encounter in the car park...
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