A new mountain bike trail is about to open at Cannock Chase in the Midlands as part of a £200,000 project to improve cycling facilities in the forest.
The more technical, red-graded Monkey Trail will link to the existing Follow The Dog route, making a 15-mile figure-of-eight loop. It's due to open this Easter.
We took a spin around part of the new trail with Forestry Commission recreation ranger Rob Lamb and got the full lowdown.
So Rob, what's the thinking behind this new trail?
The main reason we've built it is because the existing trail isn't long enough. It's only seven miles. We want anyone travelling any distance to come here to have a decent long trail to ride to help manage where mountain biking happens on the Chase.
Do you have problems with people riding 'off piste' then?
Yes. The heathland area in particular is quite a sensitive habitat which we try to keep people off, which is quite difficult to do. Hopefully the new trail will help.
So, how does it differ from Follow The Dog?
Both trails are technically red-graded but in most people's eyes Follow The Dog is more blue-ish. The new trail is definitely a step up. It's aimed at competent technical mountain bikers rather than families, although we are relaunching the family trails too.
On the new trail there are black options – skinnies, rock gardens – but it's generally a mix of twisty handbuilt stuff and more open, flowing, jumpy, bermy contractor-built stuff. It's quite a nice mix. Some of the sections are really tight.
Scottish ripper Grant Ferguson tries out one of the optional black sections
Are the two trails linked?
The Monkey Trail – the name comes from an unofficial trail that was built in that area of the Chase as a test – is going to be an extension to Follow The Dog.
Everyone will start at the cycle centre, where the bike shop and all the visitor facilities are, and then, two-thirds of the way round, they'll have the option to continue on Follow The Dog or join the new trail. The whole loop will be a figure-of-eight.
We've also updated Follow The Dog. The last two miles are brand new and it's almost continuous singletrack. It'll be a really fantastic ending, dropping in opposite the visitor centre. At the moment it feels like there are distinct sections, with quite a bit of climbing.
Who can we thank for the new trail?
Hugh Clixby has done 80 percent of it – he's also done work at Whinlatter and has built the World Cup course at Dalby Forest. The other 20 percent has been handbuilt by Chase Trails, a volunteer group that was set up about eight years ago.
We [Rob used to help run the group before getting the job with the Forestry Commission six months ago ed] started it because we wanted mountain bike trails to ride. Pretty much every Sunday for the last eight years local guys have come out and helped build the trails. I think that's pretty unique.
Funding for the whole project has been £200,000. As well as the new trail, the family trails are being re-waymarked and around the visitor centre we are having a lot more signage and improved information panels. However, the bulk of the funding has gone into building the new trail and upgrading Follow The Dog.
Mountain Biking UK's Doddy checks out part of the Monkey Trail
I'll hand you over to Jason Maclean, the Forestry Commission's environment manager for the West Midlands...
Jason: "The largest amount of money has come from Sport England. What they want isn't just technical bike trails but grassroots involvement, which is why we've revamped the family trails to get lots of different people riding, especially women, young people and families.
"The second biggest source of funds, in terms of cash, is Giant Bicycles, who are the official sponsors of the trail for the next couple of years. CEMEX quarries have also been very helpful by providing us with lots of materials.
"It's been a really long process because Cannock Chase is really busy and parts of it are very environmentally valuable. It's all about encouraging people into the bits that are most robust and keeping them away from the more fragile areas."
Back to you Rob – what would you say to people thinking of riding the Monkey Trail before the official opening?
It's really important that in this period, when we are just finishing off and preparing everything, everyone keeps off the trail. It will damage the surface because it's newly laid. Give us six weeks and it will be spot-on. Riding it now will jeopardise everything we've been working so hard on.
The trail is still a work in progress, so please don't ride it until Easter
So, what's next after the new trail opens?
We're all going to the pub for a long time!
And after that? Will we see a third phase of trailbuilding?
I personally think that'll be the end of new trail development for quite a long time. We've expanded into all the areas that are available for mountain biking. But that doesn't mean we'll stop building. We've focussed on getting the main red route open up to now but there's a lot of potential to put in black stuff off it and continually evolve it."
BikeRadarrode some of the new trail earlier this month with the winners of our Garmin MTB Days competition, and we were impressed. It's much more technical than Follow The Dog, with some super-tight switchback turns and tricky-looking black-graded downhill sections (with 'chicken runs' for the less confident).
We're holding a Bike Demo Day at Cannock on 21 March, so why not come along and try out some of the latest machines on the new section of Follow The Dog? The Monkey Trail should be ready to ride by then too, so if you bring your own bike you can have a weekend of fun.