Riding Glenlivet Trail Centre

Glenlivet has had a few changes this year.

It’s also been a while since my last ride there so it was worth a visit to see what’s what.

Most of the adjustments can be filed under “estate maintenance“, and is mostly clear felling. Whilst this does open up the views in the top sectors of the red and blue, it also opens it up to the wind. These trails really suffer from the wind, and it took a lot of pace and energy out of you when it wasn’t at your back.

It also made some of the jumps early on in the red a little dicey, blowing me clean off the track at one point. Now I may have just have been unlucky with the weather, but I suspect there is never a day without a stiff breeze up top.

More excitingly, down at the hub cafe the changes are much more positive with the addition of a new skills park. The feature rich little skills park works as a great compliment to the already excellent pump track.

This development, along with the felling and trail maintenance work is really encouraging to see. All too often when you return to a trail centre a year apart, you find wear and tear, not new features and resolved drainage issues.

All in all, Glenlivet might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is always worth the visit in my view.

Death of a Trail

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging crushed berm

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging MTB Scotland

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging land use

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.

Death of a trail stravaiging scotland land access

For further reading on the issues I’ve skirted around here I thoroughly recommend any or all these books.

George Monbiot – Feral

Gaia Vince – Adventures in the Anthropocene

Nan Shepard – The Living Mountain

Glenlivet

“How big is Big Red?”

“Big Red’s pretty big…”

This was the paraphrasing of a conversation between myself and one of my riding buddies. Joe was selling the virtues of Bike Glenlivet and how it was worth the round trip, well aware that travel time eats into ride time. This would be the first proper ride on the new Banshee Spitfire, a pretty special present from my wife for my 30th birthday and I was itching to give it a proper test ride.

“Its different to everywhere else, and it will be dry”

Stop, you had me at dry.

Bike Glenlivet is one of Scotland’s most recent trail centres, nestled in the Glenlivet estate’s hills and woodlands near Tomintoul, it is somewhat a unique beast. featuring all elements we have come expect of a fully fledged trail centre, you will find a cafe in the Coffee Still, pump track, 24 hour toilet and car parking for those early starts and late nights and two graded loops.

The feel of the trails and the exceptionally long nature of the red’s descent are the things that set this place apart. Unlike centres like Glentress or Laggan, where you climb to the top and then a series of descents linked by fire roads take you back to the carpark. Here most of the reds descending has been condensed in one, long, trail.

Blue Trail

Everything starts on the blue, the trail consists of a 9km loop of fast seamless flow interspersed with some single track and fire road climbs.

Glenlivet trail centre blue.png

Everything you want from a blue is here, but it is also a sneaky trail. You very quickly build up some proper speed, which you only realise when you over cook a turn. Tune out for a second and before you know it your hauling 10km faster than your comfortable with into a surprisingly flat turn. People talk about the fireroad climbs but they are a very small part of what can be a very fast trail, a hot lap being between 30 – 35 minutes.

Big red

Big red is an interesting red, being honest, the trail is not that technically demanding. It is essentially a slightly narrower (in places) blue trail with well sign posted red and black features. It could be argued that the red grading comes from the length and physicality of the trail, not the technicality of it.

You start on the blue trail, tackling the first climb and flowing down the other side before diverting onto the red. Your on the blue just long enough to get warmed up before the real climbing begins.

Glenlivet trail centre red tomintoul.png

A mixture of singletrack and smooth fireroad brings up up to the top of the red, its a persistent 5km+ climb with a nasty kick right at the end.

The usual banter and abuse were dished out on the climb to pass the time. A stand out moment was when Charlie tried to shift me into a harder gear. With perfect timing, I reached out and gave his rear brake a little nudge. Almost in slow motion, Charlie arched backward and landed in a mossy ditch. Thankfully he was unhurt and requiring a lift home I was free of reprisals, although the thought of revenge helped power me up the climb.

Upon reaching the summit the wind had really picked up, none of us wanted to hang around for too long, plus 6km+ of singletrack descent awaited us.

glenlivet-trail-centre-red-view

“That climb though”

glenlivet-trail-centre-top-of-the-red

Starting out on open hillside, you build momentum into the first of many drops, it is so smooth that you instantly gain confidence and want to see how fast you can push it. once you enter the trees the speed keeps on coming, with rollers and jumps to keep your momentum on.

The trail soon reveals that it is a tale of three chapters with the middle third having a far more pedally character after the fast flowing opening verses. The final third kicks back into the fast flow, with whoops, rollers and tight little compressions to throw yourself into. This culminates in a final set of drops that are the biggest on the trail and spit you out at rocket ship speeds into the final few corners and rock gardens.

A full 15/16 minutes of singletrack joy comes as a slight shock to the system when we (and our legs) here in scotland are used to far shorter descents before finding the fireroad again. After recovering and getting some gels and snacks down you the temptation to go back up to do it all again is pretty strong. If you do, just remember about the other climb back to the carpark and make sure you’ve got enough Scoobie snacks to make it back without bonking!

Elsewhere

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Tarland

With the spring rain keeping the natural trails slick and muddy a little dry trail action goes a long way.

There isn’t a trail centre in Aberdeenshire, the nearest is the Glenlivet trail centre near Tomintoul. We enjoy a plethora of every style of natural trail, just not a lot of weatherproofed hardpacked trails

The Tarland Trails are a collection of three graded trails and a expansive pump track out in rural Deeside. Its not as big as a full trail centre, but its not a small “bike park” either, it sits comfortably in between. The three trails are roughly 0.5km each starting and stopping at the same place, this gives you great value for time as its a quick winch back to the start for another run. You wont be clocking up any huge miles or big vertical gains/losses, if your looking for that in a ride you have plenty of other options.

pump track Tarland Trails Mountain bike

Tarland Trails Pump track mtb stravaiging
An expansive pump track is a highlight.

Due to the fact that I just don’t ride that sort of trail very often means jumps and getting an aggressive lean in berms is a weakness of my riding. With improving my skills being on the agenda for this year it was time to pay the trails a visit.

The trails were only recently opened but they were badly damaged by flooding in January and have been closed for a rebuild. Back open the drainage improvements and tweaks have set the trails in a perfectly groomed and smooth state.

The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow,

The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow, crafted berms are punctuated by smooth jumps and rollers that encourage you to jump into the turns. It is an unashamed flow trail, perfect for younger or new riders, but the more experienced will still find their kicks trying for that perfect run.

The red has the same fast flow of the blue with added rock gardens and drops. Smooth berms are joined with flat turns that do their best to break your momentum, so you have to keep your concentration for a clean run. Some jumps are armored with hand placed slabs of granite on the up and down slopes, this gives you the added challenge of pumping the jump and bunny hopping a rock garden simultaneously.

The orange has all the charms of the red, only with the rock gardens making way for some impressive tables and the odd awkward double to catch you out.

The big surprise for me was how physical the trails were, unlike the more gradual undulations and gravity assisted nature of a blue trail at say Glentress. The Tarland trails whilst not having the vertical drop turn the trails into an extended pump track that has been beefed up into a full blue or red run. An argument could easily be made that my fitness isn’t what it has been, (having a baby will do that) but the additional pumping and pedaling required really does make for a very physical if short trail.

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On the edge of the village they aren’t hard to find.

If you are looking for something a little different than the usual Aberdeenshire fair, or for somewhere to session some turns and jumps then you could do a lot worse. It might not hold you for a day but for a few hours fun it is worth the visit.