The Great British Mountain Bike Trail Guide
by Clive Forth
published by: Bloomsbury rrp £16.99, in the UK
reviewed by Dave Land
It is a truism of book reviewers to not judge a book by its cover. In the case of The Great British Mountain Bike Trail Guide however, it seemed fairly likely a judgement could be made as to the contents. In one respect we judged correctly. Clive Forth takes you through all the major trail centres in the UK (hint: avoid the South East, the East Midlands, most of the South West). It offers a review of not only the centre, but each trail at each centre.
For those that are not yet aware, many trail centres grade their trails in a similar manner to ski runs. Which means Greens are the easiest, and probably not strictly trails as such. Blue is easy, Red is Medium and Black is difficult. Black, however, doesn’t account for downhill runs, which have their own grading system again (it uses dots), and are not really covered in this book.
There is, however, a world of difference between how centres choose different grades. One rider’s Red is another’s easy Black. This is understandable, after all, there is no universal measurement device. If an overall blue run has one tougher obstacle in it, does that make it a Red? Should they be graded according to an average difficulty, or the difficulty of the most difficult feature on that trail? Does distance count? Are longer trails likely to be more difficult?
This book doesn’t necessarily answer these questions but it does a solid job of trying to find some means of comparison. By riding all of the trails at all of the centres, Clive Forth has built a good idea of how to grade them based on experience. Each trail has the centre’s classification, and then Clive's slightly more descriptive classification. For example, Aston Hill centre’s XC trail, is described as Black by Aston Hill, whilst Clive’s grade is ‘Red with black grade sections’. This supplies a sense of consistency across trail centres. Even if you disagreed with what Clive considered a Red, you know that another trail described by Clive as Red, would be a very similar difficulty. It feels like he has has put the effort in, so you don’t have to, making it an invaluable tool for managing your confidence.
What is confusing about the book is the trail route descriptions. Not only do these make for woefully dull reading, following a “turn east, head slightly down, watch out for dragons” approach, but when would these be used? Are you supposed to take the book on the ride with you, stopping constantly to look at directions? These are trail centres; the beauty of them is that the trail is already marked out. Are you supposed to photocopy the relevant pages, and carry these papers, perhaps gaffer taped to you stem? Are you supposed to memorise the instructions? When it says “the signage is good, but can be hard to see at speed”, can you feel smug that you don’t need the signs, just your awesome memory?
This makes the exercise challenging. We want to see the book as a great teaser to get you out on the trails, to help make decisions about where to ride, and ride safely, whilst having a great time. It does some of this. But most words are dedicated to the technical exercise of describing the twists and turns of individual trails.
We cannot decide whether the Great British Mountain Bike Trail Guide is an accurate manifesto for a corporeal activity which is immune to being described in an appealing and exciting way, or if this is simply not the way to provide excellent descriptive writing to inspire people out on the trails. It is clear that Forth has put the pedal strokes in; that is a great deal of riding to have captured. The ratings system is a leap forward in providing a uniform, relatable and relative measure for trails across Britain and Ireland. We’re just not sure what to do with the rest of the book.
Publisher: Bloomsbury (16 June 2016)