The wind is uncharacteristically still at the tower.
The heat of the climb is emanating from my jacket and I breathe deeply. In through my mouth then out through my nose, deep in and deep out. I am slowing my breathing and can hear the exhalations loudly in my ears. The usual dog walkers and families burning the Christmas energy are about, but my gaze is elsewhere.
On the other side of the valley the trees are breathing as well.
The warmth of their cover rising in tendrils of mist with every exhalation of their limbs. Thin threads of moisture slowly rising and intertwining in infinitely complex and delicate forms. Barely rising above the uppermost boughs of the plantation, just high enough to meet the cold December air.
The grey sky cracks, and the woodland’s mist illuminates, golden fleece hanging pristenely in the air. The heat from the sun energising and exciting the droplets, they rise and dance. Rapids and eddies of warm and cool air, revealed by the shifting of the subtle density of the woodland’s breath.
The clouds above roll in their own waves, suddenly washing over the crease in the flat grey blanket cover, blinking out the shaft of golden “God ray” light. The mist has risen too high and now begins to dissipate. Like cotton wool in water, it has spread too thin, and slows, and fades.
The whole dance was probably no more than five minutes long. A brief canto in the hills and woodland. One that I would have missed had I been within the canopy, and one I would have missed had I pushed on to get as much riding into the time available. But sometimes, well, most rides, these moments occur. Some are not as delicate as this, but there are always those moments where you can see the land breathe.
They are important. Yet they do not always present themselves obviously, but sometimes, it’s worth stopping just to breathe.
I have been musing about land access and the “right to roam” enjoyed by outdoor users here in Scotland.
This can be a thorny issue for all users and commercial operators in the countryside. However, this is only made worse by the common misconception that we have the right to roam when what we have is “the right to responsible access“.
A right that has been challenged recently by Scottish National Heritage on a few fronts. With the recent embargo on camping at Loch Lomond and this winters fracas between the Scottish ski touring fraternity and the ski resort management. They also named mountain bikers as one of the user groups infringing on the wrong side of the access code. Whilst the instant response is “what have we done!” when you consider wild trails dug without permission, they have a point that is hard to argue against. Especially when they use arguments framed around preventing injury to riders and damage to sites of archaeological interest.
How do we progress without running the risk of losing the support from the public to access our wild spaces freely? That is a question without and easy answer, but we aren’t going to find it without a free and open discourse on the matter.
Land-use, a polorizing and often controversial topic of conversation.
One person can look at a hillside and see the epitome of rugged, untouched natural landscape. Another will look upon the same slope, and see a burnt, over exploited desert, perpetuated for one exclusive activity at the expense of all others. Some will just see heather.
How you view the land is coloured and predetermined by many factors. These notions of what the land “should be” rather than what it pragmatically is, tends to skew our assessments. We see the land as we wish to see it, rather than for what it is. This is frequently more convenient for us than accepting the often hard truths about our environment and the extent that we have altered it.
If we look at Scotland for example, in all of its rugged beauty and splendor. We must first accept the fact that the “country side“, in its entirety, is a man altered landscape.
If you measure the land in convenient terms, with a short enough timescale. You will find pockets of wild ground, ground that is self determining in terms of the flora and fauna it supports. But extend that timescale backwards by a few decades and you will find human actions, of often industrial activities, shaping what the land could and does support.
These industrial activities are often so long established, that they are perceived as part of the natural order. The land MUST be managed. Farming, shooting and clearcutting are all heritage industries on a man inhabited landscape. They have an impact on the shape of that land, but they are not naturally occurring systems. A forester given the right conditions does not populate a woodland in the same way as a Crossbill or a Blaeberry bush. These industrial activities are decisions made on a societal and governmental level. No one likes the slate being scraped clean by clearfetting, but we as a society allow it to occur, we pick other battles to fight.
To a certain extent that is OK, as long as those decisions are made from an informed standpoint, rather than one based on the pitfall that afflicts much of conservation policy. That which can best be described as “when I were a lad“. The approach that holds the landscape in stasis against a measure set by one generation previous.
This antiquated methodology works against natural processes and inhibits areas where growth can be naturally sustained. It props up parts of an environmental mix which cannot be sustained at a that level without continued intervention.
Now this is a gross over simplification of the complex web of environmental factors on the ground and the people and policies trying to do good things by it. But like the spider silk heavy with morning dew, the threads holding this system up are weighed down and prone to breaking.
“The Forestry” is the enemy after all. To ask permission is to be told no.
Now I thought this was a MTB blog? well it is, but we as a group have a vested interest, as well as an impact on that landscape. We are a user group with our own agenda and view point, just like all of the other groups working on and with the same landscape. We may be small and less well established than some, but that does not mean we are immune to viewing the landscape through the lens of our own biases.
This is no less true in Scotland, a place often held as an example of progressive land access law and tolerance towards those who view the landscape with less than traditional eyes. This subject can (and has) filled many books and long essays, I am by no means trying to explore the topic in depth in this post, I am just looking to discuss it and how it pertains to us as a tribe.
In Scotland we have some very permissive land access laws. Essentially it allows anyone to have universal access to all land and inland waters (with a few noted exceptions) within Scotland. These rights and responsibilities are outlined in some detail within Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Whilst it is broad in scope, it cannot cover every eventuality. But it essentially boils down to these core principles.
Respect the interests of other people;
Care for the environment;
Take responsibility for your own actions.
Now Scotland has a strong culture of wild trails, trails dug illicitly and without the permission of the landowner. We also have a strong network of trail centers (bike parks), albeit more centralized within the borders.
They have taken up occupancy, and the understory beneath the pines is their garden.
Now one could say that a symptom of the trail centers not being evenly spread is the proliferation of these, now quite large and mature in some cases, wild trail networks. The requirement for riding locations is there, but not being met due to a three hour round trip for two hours riding. So, a group of stereo-typically male riders in their early twenties go scratch a line through the woods.
The problem here is, they are not taking into account the presence of that Crossbill or Blaeberry bush. The local environmental factors concerning the flora and fauna that may be disturbed, the suitability of the soil or the long term plans for that area of forest are not considered. “The Forestry” is the enemy after all. To ask permission is to be told no.
The permissive nature of land access also lends itself towards taking emotional ownership over a landscape. I ride a network of trails from my house on a regular basis, I do not own the land, I have never spoken nor could I tell you the name of the person/s who own it. But they are my trails. This emotional ownership, in my view, further encourages the trail builder, they have taken up occupancy, and the understory beneath the pines is their garden.
Ownership and competition do not in my experience, lend themselves to co-operation. The Forestry Commission tend to allow these trails to exist, generally because they do not possess the resources to stop them. So when the Forresty move onto a site, resentment on both sides can take hold. For example, I know of no rider, myself included who has ever paid attention to a sign warning that tree felling is taking place. Lack of respect increases the lack of cooperation, or so it would seem.
Trail centers are complex and expensive beasts to establish, and they need to be good to draw riders away from the wild natural trails.
In the north east where I am based there are at least 4 trail center schemes at different scales of ambition and stages of development trying to do just that. A trail center not only centralizes the impact that riders have, giving the un-armoured surfaces of wild trails time to recover. It also gives the opportunity to formalize and quantify the impact that a user group has on both the landscape and its surrounding economy. But it needs time and money. Trail centers still affect a landscape, just like any other industry based on using the land. But it is in a managed and planned fashion, the soil and Crossbill, the longevity and the Blaeberry are taken into account.
I am not advocating a boycott on wild trails, not at all, that would be both madness and impossible to police. Just remember the next time you are on the hill or in the woods that you are but one piece of a puzzle that we cannot understand. That you have an impact, both positive and negative. And as such, the next time you see a harvester driving through your trail be sad for that ribbon of singletrack, but don’t be angry.
For further reading on the issues I’ve skirted around here I thoroughly recommend any or all these books.
Mountain biking is a tribe with a vocabulary all of its own.
Gnar, loam, brap, berm, lip, kicker, stoked, flow, table, gap, double, roost to name a few.
Some of those words, like the vernacular of any facet of life, have a tendency to be overused, none more so than the word epic. Epic is a strange one as it is so overused in everyday language, but it is more defined in MTB.
It is both a description of a feeling and of the physical geography a trail winds over. A ride or a trail can be epic because the adrenaline and speed mixed with the accomplishment of cleaning a trail, creates a feeling that can easily (and inarticulately) be described as “epic”.
A trail can also be epic due to scale of the landscape it traverses, the speed, technicality or sheer quality of ride that it offers. The scale and raw beauty of a landscape can be great enough to imbue even a modest trail with that ephemeral epic quality.
We mountain bikers as a tribe seek it out, we actively try and capture that epic quality and feeling. It may be like trying to catch and hold sand, but the experience of it running through your fingers can be enough to sustain you through many a work place meeting.
But one persons epic is an others local loop.
We swap stories of trails and routes, descriptions of the qualities of trails and enthuse over where is riding best. In hope that acts of positive karma will help us find that feeling for ourselves. But one persons epic is an others riders local loop, it is all a matter of location, experience and perspective.
if you eat cake everyday it will just become bread
The local trails you ride, as epic by someone else’s scale they may be, will become just another local loop by your personal measure. If you ride alpine singletrack every week, whilst the landscape will still be awe inspiring at times, you will, in time become accustomed to it and will expect that level of trail for your weekly riding. Likewise if you never ride groomed fast trail centres with man made drops and jumps, when you do it will feel pretty epic.
But ultimately, if you eat cake everyday it will just become bread. So how do we recapture that sense of “epicness“?
Leave your local, venture out of the routine loop and push beyond your comfort zone. The trail may be no more technical than your normal trails, but the unfamiliarity and blind nature of the riding has a habit of heightening the experience.
Does every ride need to be epic? No, but some of them should try to be.
Mount Keen is a good day on the bikes, doubly so when taken with the Fungle road.
The loop is a long shift taking in everything from some superb singletrack through to long tough climbs and fast fire road descents. Its has been a tradition for me to do the loop at least once a year for a while now and I’m still undecided whether it is best tackled clockwise or anticlockwise.
Clockwise, you unfortunately climb the absolutely sublime Fungle singletrack but Descend the north side of mount keen, which is as testing a natural descent your likely to find. Anticlockwise you get the ridiculously fast LRT down from Keen to Tarfside with its water bars giving you ample opportunities to boost off of, as well as the glorious ribbon down to Birse Castle finishing off with the Fungle in the downward and correct direction.
They both have their charms
It is a great litmus test for fitness and as training loop for events like the Tour de Ben Nevis, the route being only slightly shorter with essentially the same climb, albeit on a faster course than the Tour De ben’s.
My course record was clockwise as 4:21:22, If I did the Tour at that pace I would be incredibly happy with my fastest Tour time being 5:33:15 in 2014. Frustrating as I knew that race could of been faster had I ran it smarter and keep my food intake up and drank more to avoid cramping, but we’re not here to talk about failed race strategy.
Here are some shots from the loop collected over a few years.