For those of you who join our regular HQ rides, you’ll know that Biketart staff do actually ride bikes and know the local Kent trails well. We do not, sadly, get to ride as often or as far afield as we would like. Nor do we have the opportunity to see the wider world of mountain biking as much as we want to. There are so many amazing places to ride around the UK and, while we recognise the appeals of the North and South Weald, we know that there are some big descents, tech trails and brilliant views that we are missing by staying down in this corner of the country. It was in the spirit of adventure, therefore, that your humble blogger and Biketart’s ace mechanic and shop manager, Gabor, set off to uncover the distant joys of the Forest of Dean.

One of the first places in England to allow mountain bikers almost unlimited trail access and possessing serious amounts of elevation (the ‘bottom of the forest is just 20m above sea level, the top of the highest climb is over 225m) the green oasis in the Welsh borders has been attracting fat tyre fiends for almost three decades. I had last been there almost 20 years ago, in an age before trail centres, functional full suspension or big wheels and Gabor didn’t even know the place existed. It was ripe for some (re)discovery. Our aim was to tackle the trail centre, while checking out how bike trends manifest out in the west of the country, to toddle across the Welsh border (just because) and maybe to spot some of the forest’s famous wild boar into the bargain.

Staying in the village of Pillowell, at just over 100m above sea level, we started our day with a sweeping descent into the valley, before a brisk spin along the valley floor, upstream to the main trail centre at Pedalabikeaway. Resident here for as long as anyone can remember, the shop/cafe/hire centre is the effective hub of all riding in the forest (although nearby Dean Forest Cycles have a better selection of maps). Gabor and I took a moment to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings and check out a few of the local steeds. Santa Cruz Hightowers were in plentiful supply, all in 29er CC guise, while a rare Evil Following was also spotted. There was, in fact plenty of finery on offer. The ever ubiquitous Santa Cruz Nomad being almost matched in number by its shorts travel brother, the 5010. Older models mixed in with state-of-the-art Carbon numbers, but the dominance of the Californian brand was undeniable. We made a note to check out who the dealer was when we got some mobile reception, something that is in short supply among the deep valleys of the forest.

Also in knocking around were a fair few Yeti SB66s and Ibis Mojos. Amongst the others we even think we spotted one of the brand spanking new Mojo HD3 bikes and possibly the latest incarnation of the Ripley (The LS), but without getting out a protractor or checking the graphics close up I couldn’t say for sure. All the same, it was great to see such a mixture of 26, 27.5 and 29ers. After years ‘stuck in the mud’ British riders are finally and quite rapidly embracing the range of standards available in order to suit their choice if riding style – then they all go to the same trail centres. So ironic. We even saw a brace or two of fatbikes, proving that people will happily ride around manicured trails on any bike, no matter how inappropriate.

Strangely, however, there was one wheel size that we didn’t spot at all. The new 27.5+ that manufacturers and magazines alike have been raving about for the past year, were conspicuous by their complete absence. Maybe the Forest of Dean trails simply weren’t gnarly enough for this particular breed of hoon machines. Perhaps things will be different in a year or so, but for now the only really chubby rubber was 5inches wide.

Riding kit was rather more consistent. Fox gear dominated massively, with more people in Flow jerseys than pretty much everything else combined. In keeping with this theme, pretty much everyone was in Enduro style clothing. Fox and Dakine baggy shorts everywhere, Troy Lee and Bliss Protection Pads dominated the elbow and knee coverage. A big surprise, compared to the trail centres around London, was the continued dominance of flat pedals. More than 70% of riders were on flats (mostly DMR V12 and Hopes as you ask) and the vast, vast majority had gone for Five Ten Impacts as their footwear of choice. I felt quite out of place on my XT SPD trail pedals and Gabor looked smug, with his Fox shorts and multi-pin BMX style pedals. I may have looked old school, but Endura Singletrack shorts are as good as baggies get and a spot of Scottish made merino suits me fine, thank you.

But enough gawping. We were there to ride. Specifically to see how our two bikes compared when we left behind the rolling trails of Kent and took on some bigger, rockier climbs and descents. Though both of us run 140mm forks, that’s just about where the similarity ends. Gabor’s Reynolds 853 tubed Stanton Slackline was one of the last of the hard 26″ hardtails to come along before the world went 650b mad. His Shimano 1×9 gearing was set up for largely flat riding, with time over the jumps. My bike has 140mm at the back too, with 27.5″ rubber and carbon all over the place, not to mention SRAM 1 X 11 gearing. Different tools sporting two versions of the excellent Schwalbe Nobby Nic tyre. Which would cope the best on the Forest of Dean’s challenging trail centre?

The surprise difference came not on the downs but on the climbs. With both forks locked down to their shortest travel setting, having rear suspension and a 42 tooth rear cog meant that I could generate more grip and needed less power to whip up even the steepest sections. The extra tyre volume also meant that the Nobby Nics I was running were less likely to wash out on the loose stuff. Descending, we were pretty much even until we hit mud. Again, the bouncy rear and and extra grip meant that I held my line more easily. When things got really quick, the trail centre smoothed out the edges and there was nothing between hardtail and full bouncer – not so over the super steep tech sections where 5 inches of rear travel suddenly made a big difference.

Blue and red trails completed, with a few crashes thrown in (another hardtail issue – they grow you off more readily, it seems), we were ready to head home for the day.

Trails ridden: 28km

Bikes spotted: loads

Boars seen: zero

Our second day was to take us away from the forest hub and out to the Welsh border. The plan being to cross on a footbridge, before climbing to the head of the trail centre and descending back to the bottom of the valley in the fast and flowing blue. The route worked out well and, a slight detour alongside an interesting looking steam aside, we arrived at the river Wye unscathed. A quick spin down an old industrial track to the abandoned railway line the provided the foot bridge to Wales. Here, disaster struck. The bridge had been closed for safety reasons. There would be no border raid. Well, never tell that to a Magyr. Gabor decided that, as the bridge was legally only allowed to be closed for four weeks and the local councils had shut it off for three months, he was technically doing nothing wrong by using the right of way to access the other side of the river.

Border raid completed, we had a challenge ahead. From the river, at just 15m above sea level, we were going straight up to the very top of the forest at 225m, all on road. Suddenly I found myself wishing for a convertabike, that could become a fast rolling tourer at the touch of a button. Gabor felt much the same. What he didn’t know was that we were actually climbing twice, just so I could check out a short bridleway descent that I had spotted on the map. Well, what he doesn’t know…

After about half an hour of climbing, we finally returned to the Blue trail in the Forest of Dean proper. It being Sunday afternoon, the place was abuzz with riders of every hue. A small group were testing out how far up a particularly steep incline they could get now that they’d all ditched front mechs. A family breezed past, one kid on the fantastic Genesis Caribou Junior.

We ditched the fire road and nipped back onto the singletrack. Just as we had hit a switch back before heading across the open ground down towards the final descent, something stirred to our left. I glanced round and just caught site of a fast retreating hairy behind. My first boar! Gabor missed it. Sorry mate.

So on to that final descent. Done an dusted in what seemed like moments. We decided a proper loop of the red was in order (the day before we accidentally cut off a section). This time we got the turnings right and discovered the ‘North Shore’ section of the trail. Unable to resist the challenge of narrow planks, we both nailed the first section perfectly. Onto the up and overs. I was off in a bout two seconds, but Gabor made it to the first ride…and then he was. I’ve never seen someone’s rear end bounce of the tip of their saddle before and I’m not sure I ever want to again. Shorts torn and pride slightly bruised (to say nothing of…well, you know) we hung around for a moment talking to a group who had stopped for lunch by an obvious ‘crash watching site’. Vultures!

Riding on, it soon became clear that canvas shorts, while they look great, do not respond well to tears. Perhaps its time for Gabor to upgrade to the four way stretch of the Fox Attack short instead…

Our riding over and bike spotting sorted, it was time to head for the home. We followed a Thule Chariot 2 trailer for a little while. The kids inside were clearly enjoying their ride. Pub stop over, it was time to make for the train. But that’s another story entirely.