Often judged to be one of the best cities in the UK or Europe to live, and very often topping lists of places to be or visit if you’re a mountain biker. I used to be one of those, even attempting to make my mark on the subculture’s publishing scene at one point. But alas, circumstances and egos got in the way and I was largely happy to slip back into obscurity for nearly a decade before the itch to ride came back.
Look beyond Nova, Yer Tiz and Fifty Acre, and Bristol has much more to offer. The downhill crew will know Belmont Plantation and may still be mourning the loss of Still Woods, but here, barely a stone’s throw away from where one William H Chippendale III cut his mountain biking teeth, there is a patchwork of fields and woodland criss-crossed by on- and off-piste ways giving the option of leaving the house a hundred times and never having to ride the same route twice.
Bank Holiday, sunny and warm. Not hot like the oppressive French heat I’d just left, but warm in the sun and pleasant in the dappled shade of the woodland. Warm enough to break a sweat, but not to leave you parched by the end of the ride, though the promise of a pint or two provided ever-present motivation. The start of what could turn out to be the last week of summer.
We headed out as we always do, but with less of a plan and more leisurely than we sometimes prefer. The ’94 FSR was having its annual fair-weather outing, and pressures of various kinds needed tweaking on the way up the first climb. A detour from the usual jeep track took us onto a dark tunnel of singletrack, punctuated by shafts of sunlight shifting in the breeze. A clean ascent other than that darned log hop, I arrive at the top to see two other retroriders sneaking through the hole in the wall and onto the golf course.
Track to the car park, more tweaking – cleats this time – and on to another patch of woodland. Chasing down two other riders, we nearly miss the turn onto the bridleway. The gate has been ominously locked shut since the land was auctioned off, and now we see the spectre of a tracked earth mover has been at work, with logs having been laid over the start of the trails to the left of the bridleway. Ride it while you can folks, the twisty, branching ribbon of singletrack thus far remains intact through the heart of this little patch, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess.
Emerging through a hole in the fence into the blaze of the top of the day, we turn down the green lane which bisects yet another golf course. A rollercoaster of farm track and hoof-pocked bridleway give us opportunities to get out of breath and enjoy the vista. Kindly ramblers warn us of the hedge hacking which has taken place up ahead, so we forego a mooted detour and plough on along the footpath with the accessible gates. No-one’s trying to keep us out if we have wheels, and everyone smiles and says hello.
The planned break at the pond becomes enforced as my too-vigorous launch off a rock with too-thin sidewalls causes the snake to bite. You’re not on the Hemlock any more, kiddo. The swearing band of teenagers disperse as families emerge from the shade. A trio of identical hire bikes arrive and we discuss routes. Crossing paths with the pair we’d chased down earlier, the vintage of my steed is noted and photographs are taken for friends ‘into that sort of thing’. Vague ideas of where to go next crystallise into A Definite Plan, and off we pootle, tube swapped and jelly babies imbibed.
Single track road, a large Mercedes, and two teenagers on horses, one of which we are told is ‘only a baby’. We hang back, looking up left longingly into the woodland, wondering if the top of the slope is accessible and how easy it might be to leave a trail where there was none before. After the water splash, a quick check of the mapping shows a hitherto unridden section. Open at both ends, a concrete farm track is not very much of a find, but anything to help join the dots is welcome. It’s a short and stiff little blighter too, shortening two tarmac sides of a triangle and revealing yet more patches of forest to investigate later in the year.
Dropping onto gravel, the surface-dressed tarmac providing an ‘interesting’ tyre interface to the verdant descent. Sharp right and onto the Byway, the proper job, the holy grail. Overgrown undergrowth, over the gate and stile to bypass the most aquatic section of the Byway, then along the sliver of trail atop the high bank. The pitiful skeleton of an abandoned frame reminds us of the fragility both of our existence and the steeds on which we hurtle through the countryside.
The final climb leaves my companion wanting the short-cut to the pub, so I mentally cut out all unnecessary distance. The upside is that we can ride one of my favourite local Byways, one-third of which is invariably a swamp in winter. Never the same terrain for more than a couple of hundred yards, its two forded streams provide the last big entertainment of what has turned into the memory of a ride to be savoured, followed by much banter and bollocks over bevvies at the local.
I’ve never liked the term ‘mountain bike’. I don’t ride in mountains, at least not on that bike or most of the time. I ride on-road, off-road, sometimes where-there-is-no-road in order to see where I end up. And in this regard, as with so many others, I feel it is the French who have got it right. The All-Terrain Bicycle: le Vélo Tout-Terrain.
Je ne suis pas un «Mountain Biker», je suis un VTTiste.
Words & pictures – Matt Wenham.