In mountain bike trails, like in breasts, there are distinct differences between the natural and the manmade. Some people prefer natural. Some people prefer manmade. Some think that variety is a good thing and that their preference varies with mood, or with the time of year or the weather.
Frankly we’ve got to the point where it’s becoming difficult to maintain the boobs simile, so I’ll just talk about mountain biking from now on.
There are key differences between riding natural and riding manmade trails. Here are a few of them:
You can, to a certain extent, ride trail centre trails on something that is not technically a mountain bike. You could ride them on something that looks like a mountain bike but cost you a hundred pounds at Argos, and therefore probably isn’t, and you might well be ok. Many blue trails you could probably get away with riding on a reasonably rugged hybrid bike. They might work. Natural trails, however, might well demand a more hardy steed. You need to have something that works well, that won’t unexpectedly break. Ideally it should be well maintained and well set up.
Having said that, this is based on gross generalisations, but the truth is that trail centre riding will always come with a nice helpful sign telling you what to expect – and then everything that you ride will match it. Out on natural trails you’ll face the infinite variety of bridleways and tracks that cover the country, and could find yourself riding on anything. The bike should match this.
As I mentioned in the ‘Essential Kit’ page, I normally consider it fine to ride manmade trails with the minimum of stuff. So I’ll have the bike (it’s tough without it), shoes (for clipless pedals), gloves, helmet, drink, pump, inner tube, tyre levers, multitool and phone. These means that basically anything minor that happens to the bike I should be able to sort out. I know there’ll be escape routes back to the start. I know that more than likely there will be other riders passing at fairly regular intervals.
Out on the hills, I’d always want to take more stuff. Quite simply, there’s more that can happen when you’re in a less controlled environment. You should always take more food, more drink, more inner tubes, more tools, more clothing – warm and waterproof, a good map, ideally a compass, and equally ideally a rudimentary first aid kit, emergency blanket, and whistle. You never know quite what will happen when you’re riding and given the amount of ground you can cover on a bike, it’s quite possible that if you do seriously injure yourself, no-one would pass by and be able to help. Take emergency stuff.
This to be fair, is sort of the whole point of manmade trails. You know that what you’ll be riding will generally be a hard manmade surface that should shed water nicely and keep a very good riding surface all year round, in more or less all conditions. Equally you know that everything that you’re going to ride should be rideable – even if it’s not completely rideable for you. Hills will all be ultimately doable. Descents will be attainable. Features will be conquerable, given a sufficient degree of skill and gumption.
Natural trails are a different proposition. No-one has looked at them and carefully designed them with you in mind. That drop that looks unrideable? Maybe it is. That climb that looks just plain too steep and loose to get a bike up? Perhaps it is. If you’re following a route that’s described in a guide then chances are most of what you want to ride will be find, but it most certainly will not be kept neatly within the confines of a chosen trail grade. An apparently blue route will suddenly have a bit that would probably be red or even black on its own. A black route will have a long section that seems surprisingly blue. The surface, needless to say, will also differ greatly. A lot of places become a great deal faster and easier to ride in the summer. Hard packed dirt and rocky descents are great fun. Then winter rolls around and you try to ride the same places and realise that the hard packed dirt is now hub-deep mud. It’s a challenge. It’s a different ride. The rocky descents are now streams and although still technically rideable are a great deal more slippery and unpredictable than they were a couple of months ago. You should expect to get wetter and muddier than you would on a manmade trail.
A point that also should be emphasised is that in the autumn, farmers and local councils trim the hedges that border rural roads and bridleways. This means that where you want to ride is often littered with sharp and thorny sticks that are perfect for ramming thorns straight through your tyres and/or jamming in your spokes and tearing your derailleur off your bike.
Natural trails take longer. Firstly they are a great deal more unpredictable than manmade trails – so a ride that takes an hour in the summer might take two in winter, when everything’s muddier. Secondly you have to factor in the navigation component, on trails where it no longer consists of glancing occasionally at a coloured arrow on a post but instead means finding a vantage point and staring at the surrounding landscape with a map in one hand, a guidebook in the other, and your Strava feed in your third hand. No matter how well a route is described it will always take time to find it. Equally given the changing nature of natural trails, they can be a great deal more exhausting than manmade trails, and so can involve a corresponding increase in you stops to eat and drink.
Quite simply, riding manmade trails and riding natural trails are completely different. Manmade trails have miles of carefully sculpted singletrack – to the point where you’d feel cheated if at least half of a trail didn’t consist of this. Natural trails are very different, since they often consist of a huge ride whose purpose is to get you to and from a particularly sweet section of natural singletrack in the middle of nowhere. As a result you can ride five miles on roads and five on fire roads for two miles of awesome singletrack. This can feel somewhat frustrating to the habitual trail centre rider.
However, for all the strength of the manmade trails is their careful consideration and planning, this is also their weakness. As fun as it is, there’s something faintly sterile about trail centre riding. It’s not a grand adventure. But looking at a map or even at a guide and finding a trail that turns off a main road that you’ve driven along before and explores those mountains that you’ve always glanced at along the way is exciting in itself. Reaching the far point on a ride and looking out across the wilderness that you’ve just explored – nay: claimed – on your bike is an intense satisfaction. The five mile ride on the road and the five mile climb on fireroads suddenly seems a great deal less important when the trees clear and suddenly you see ahead of you the next five miles of beautiful, undulating singletrack, that has been there since people first moved into these hills and has been used by people and animals for centuries – and now you can ride it.
This is, in some inexplicable way, real mountain biking, in a way that trail centre riding – for all it’s merits – is not.