As a seasoned trail centre rider, railing the perfectly groomed berms and calculated drops of Cannock Chase and the Forest of Dean over again can sometimes become a little mundane. I’ve come to know every turn, and much to my friends delight (or pain), will happily provide a commentary of what to expect at the top of each descent. (“This is the one with the front wheel-swallowing rock garden. You know, it has that north shore section you fell off that one time!”)
And I’m fully aware that I only have myself to blame for not venturing further afield more often. But with most of my rides being dictated by what can be squeezed into a Saturday morning, the perfectly groomed berms and calculated drops of the trail centre tend to offer the most bang for your buck. Plus, the post-ride coffee and cake from the trail centre cafe is a powerful lure!
But, in a bid to bag a couple of quick rides, I’ve found myself at the Clent Hills. The hills to the west of Birmingham are a scenic patch of elevated countryside just 20 minutes from my door, and have been optimistically coined “The North-Worcestershire Alps” by the local mountain bike community. I’ve been there on Christmas Day walks with my family, and always felt the mountain biking would be rubbish – the obvious paths being wide and featureless, and littered with dog-walkers – so never bothered. However, one late summer evening pedalling to the summit at the Four Stones, my friend and I spotted a mountain biker dropping in behind a bush. Tom went in to inspect. “There’s a trail down there! It’s pretty rooty and looks steep!”
We followed the tyre marks along a natural feeling trail, towards a series of drops and berms. Clearly people had been here with shovels! But the half-finished line cut into loamy dirt left the trail with a natural, sort of ‘just discovered’ quality to it. We toppled haphazardly out from the last drop and rolled up towards two other riders. After seeing the excited looks on our faces from stumbling upon such a trail, the two locals offered to show us some more. We obliged, followed them up the hill and chased them down another unknown steep descent. So far, so much better than we’d expected.
A few weeks later, I returned with my bro-in-law, Adam, to show him what I’d found. We explored more secret passage-ways, revealed only by tyre marks, and found more beautifully messy downhill trails. All of them either very steep, or very rooty, or both! More recently, I headed back to the hills for a Friday afternoon solo spin… and found more trails! This time of year they are barely ridable. Sodden, slippy and utterly filthy! I came off at least three times, losing my front wheel on leaf-disguised roots. The puddles lining the deep ruts were sometimes axle-high and impossible to pedal through, owing to the thick ooze chomping at my wheels. But I had so much fun man-handling my bike around steep switchbacks, fighting to stay upright, that I’ve since declared the Clent Hills my favourite place to ride my bike!
Realistically, I’m probably in a Clent Hills honeymoon period. You can’t beat riding trails for the first time. And then riding them again a second time once you know what’s coming! I suspect if I keep returning, the loamy descents may become boring. But in praise of the Clent Hills, this little cluster of upland bridleways 20 mins from my house packs a decent punch! Just be prepared to do some tyre-tread hunting and pushing back up from the occasional dud!