In search of Britain’s best blue trail | Part one – England

Easy enough for beginners but still fun for absolute pinners, we’re scouring the country to find Britain’s best blue trail

Luke Marshall and Julia Broussier riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean.

Easy enough for beginners but still fun for absolute pinners, we’re scouring the country to find Britain’s best blue mountain bike trail.

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A good blue-graded trail is hard to beat. Designed to suit riders with only basic off-road skills, the most enjoyable trails are built so that they’re not only tons of flowy fun for absolute noobs, but also for riders hitting them flat out.

That’s why we’re on the hunt for Britain’s best blue trail, in partnership with Saracen Bikes. Our only rule is that it has to be ridable as a fun loop – so no steep fireroad grinds or bike-park runs with push-up tracks.

With so many excellent blue routes in England, Scotland and Wales, we needed to formulate a plan. While our trail knowledge runs deep, this was too big a decision for the MBUK magazine and BikeRadar team to make alone, so not only did we debate the choices back and forth, we also asked our contributors for their input and our readers on social media, so you could have your say too.

With all this info at our fingertips, there was a clear winner from each nation. Now, we’re visiting all three to see which one really is the best, sending along our newest team member, Julia, and experienced racer, Luke, to rate them from their differing perspectives – starting with England’s best blue trail, the Verderers Trail in the Forest of Dean.


Going with the flow

Bloody hell, we’re lucky! We duck under the ‘Closed’ signs and press our tyres into fresh dirt that no one else has ridden yet.

Julia and I snake our way along the orange ribbon of trail and climb the hairpin turns to the top. Once there, we take a quick gulp from our bottles, flick open our shocks and say a silent ‘thanks’ to the Forestry England and Back on Track – the trail’s builders – for granting us access to the new and refurbished sections before they open to the public.

We thrash down the hill, carving fresh tracks into the immaculate surface. Smooth, flowing rollers and massive berms greet us as we try to carry as much speed and flow as possible.

This doesn’t seem hard with such a well-built trail, and we pop out of the bottom of the descent all too soon. Sections like this are what make blue trails so much fun – it’s not about difficulty, but how they slap a broad smile across your face as you ride them to the very best of your ability. This is precisely the sort of thing we were hoping for.

Chart-topper

We weren’t surprised when the Verderers Trail in the Forest of Dean came out on top in our canvassing to find England’s best blue Multiple team members, contributors and readers alike were quick to praise it for its fun and progressivity.

Built in 2011, it’s always been a popular loop, and it’s incredible to see the variety of different riders who tackle it, from families with young kids on hire bikes to ebike gangs in full-face helmets. It’s a real testament to the trail’s excellent design and its ability to deliver a brilliant experience to lots of users.

In recent years it had become a little rough around the edges, but thanks to a £200,000 investment by the Forestry England into the Cannop Cycle Centre trail centre – with £80,000 dedicated to the Verderers – it’s being brought bang up to date with a hefty makeover, and more is on the way.

Two cyclists riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean
The Verderers trail builders have cleverly incorporated extra features for more experienced riders to enjoy.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

What goes up

The trail starts with some gentle singletrack before opening up into loose-surface doubletrack. It’s just long enough that you gain some elevation, but without becoming a grind.

Julia and I ride at a steady pace so we can gossip while still being able to breathe. It’s as you turn left into the next singletrack section that the trail hooks you in, with the first flowing corners allowing you to stop pedalling and let the brakes off.

The worn surface has seen many a tyre without becoming bumpy, so you can easily find some good grip.

This short part ends with three linking berms that give you that rollercoaster sensation – you can rail the outsides or drift the insides on the loose stones if you’re brave enough.

We start easy as I chase Julia and we both stick to the main line, getting a feel for the surface. It’s only short, this section, but it leaves us grinning and is a good warm-up and fitting introduction to what’s to come. Plus, it takes the sting out of the following climb because the buzz gives our energy levels a nice boost.

Two cyclists riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean
The magical-feeling mossy forest takes your mind off the undulating climb.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

From here, we’re on the pedals again as the trail gently rises, snaking through the flatter lower woods, where the new orange gravel surface contrasts with the lush, mossy green surroundings.

Once we cross the forest road, we can see the trail hair-pinning up the hillside. There’s no getting around it, this climb is a bit of an effort, but the trail builders have done an excellent job of keeping it engaging, as well as mixing in rolling sections where you can catch your breath between strenuous efforts.

The hairpins add some challenge and an opportunity to work on your balance and skills, but they’ve been made wider in the refresh.

I have some difficulty finding the ideal gear up here as the trail is undulating, and Julia isn’t sure whether to have her dropper post up or down, but the ascent keeps you thinking one way or another, which certainly stops it becoming tedious.

Getting wild

A lot of this climb has been resurfaced, and it leads to the first proper descent.

From the top, there’s a new section of trail where the designers have made much better use of the hill. A flowing start shoots you into two sweeping 180-degree berms that fire you along a gradual run-out.

The speed ramps up here, as does the excitement. You can crank it over in the berms and manual or pump the rollers. Hitting this once wasn’t enough for either of us, and because this section of trail was closed to the public we were able to push back up for a second take. It was definitely the reward we needed after the pedal up!

The following section returns to the old surface and, as such, there’s more trail chatter and roughness, which is welcome because it gives the track a more untamed feel as it leads you deeper into the forest.

To both of us, this is one of the critical elements of a good blue trail – even though it may not be the craziest ride, you still want to feel like you’re exploring and getting out into the wilds.

For the next few kilometres, you get the feeling that this trail is exactly that. You really feel like you’re mountain biking.

Cyclists riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean
Swooshing your way through a section of interlinking berms is a total blast.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

Party tricks

This section gets you to the top of the hill and is the longest sustained effort of the whole loop. Fortunately, the gradient is never too severe. Some riders will fly up it and others will grind, but it rides well in all weathers, with just a few puddles in the wet.

We settle into a steady pace and make good progress without burning too much energy. Once near the summit, we traverse the forest with the feeling that we’re still steadily climbing. However, there are a few sections where we can stand up and drop into flowing berms, which keep us smiling.

We know we’re finally at the top of the hill when the Verderers crosses the fireroad that the downhill tracks start from. This is where the FoD has another trick up its sleeve.

You can carry on round to complete the Verderers loop, or you can turn off and hit up Launchpad – a blue downhill run that spits you out near the bike park.

While this track is currently under refurbishment, if you’re after a more gravity-filled finish or the most direct blue route to the bottom, this is the trail to take.

With swooping turns, rollers, berms and minimal pedalling, it’s easy to see why it’s the most popular descent in the forest. Plus, after its facelift, we’re sure it’s going to be even more entertaining.

Cyclist riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean
Even though the older sections of the Verderers are rougher, they’re equally fun to ride.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

The final countdown

We carry on with the Verderers, and the remaining section starts winding its way to the bottom.

The first half of the descent has seen a lot of traffic and a decent amount of feedback rumbles through our handlebars. With a pretty shallow gradient to also contend with, it takes a fair bit of effort to generate speed down here, but keeping off the brakes helps the trail to flow at a good lick.

Once you cross the fire road, you’re on the home stretch. Here, the excitement ratchets up another level because the trail has recently been resurfaced. It’s really fast, with rollers and banked turns, and there are a few inside jump lines where you can get some air.

Sections like this are where talented riders can get creative. There are features to scrub, lips to pop off and corners to drift. If you ride it your own way it’ll put a smile on your face, just as it did for the two of us.

Cyclist riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean
We were super lucky to be the first to ride the newly rebuilt sections of the Verderers.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

We blast down the trail together, with Julia swooping through the turns and me having a laugh and getting my wheels off the ground.

There are a couple of pedalling spurts needed to keep the speed up, but it’s well worth the effort, and the final twisting berms add a last dollop of fun before you cruise back to the car park for a well-earned burger. Well, that’s what we did, at least.

Winner

Verderers Trail

Male and female cyclists riding the Verderers Blue Trail, Forest of Dean
Whether you keep your wheels on or off the ground, you’re guaranteed a great time on this superlative blue.
Andy Lloyd / Immediate Media

Where: Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
Trail length: 11km (7 miles)
Get there: GL16 7EH

Stephan King – MBUK reader

“The Verderers is the best blue I’ve ridden. It’s progressive, huge fun for novices and experienced riders alike, and has a final descent that can’t fail to make you smile, no matter how bad a day you’re having.”

More info: Cannop Cycle Centre

Julia’s take

“The Verderers has all the manmade features needed for beginners to develop skills such as pumping and cornering, and a few sections where it’s easy to get air, which is fun.

“There’s a wavy part where you need to get enough speed on the downsides to go back up the climb. The trail weaves between woodland and open areas. Each section is well divided, and you have the chance to take regular breaks.

“Depending on your fitness and skill level, it’s still a fairly long loop. It’s also a very popular trail (especially on weekends) so if you’re a faster rider, you’ll have to be mindful that families or slower riders might interrupt your flow.”

Luke’s take

“For advanced riders, the Verderers is a great fitness tool. It’ll give you a brilliant workout and keep you entertained as you smash out a lap.

“The new sections are mega regardless of your skill level, with the berms being some of the best I’ve ridden yet. It’s an ideal trail to sharpen your skills on – because the surface is pretty smooth it’s easier to concentrate on technique.

“You can generate some speed on the descents, but be careful of other trail users. Plus, if you keep looking ahead, there are sneaky lines to find, lips to hit and plenty of corners to practice drifting around, to channel your inner Sam Hill.

“Of course, it’s still a blue so don’t set off with gnarly expectations and you won’t be disappointed. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a bit of creativity.”


Runners-up

Blue Steel

Cyclists riding the Blue Steel trail Lady Cannings Plantation, Sheffield
The Blue Steel trail at the Lady Cannings Plantation in Sheffield is one of our runners-up.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Where: Lady Cannings Plantation, Sheffield
Trail length: 1.4km + fire road climb
Get there: S11 7TU

Ed Thomsett – Freelancer writer/tester and former MBUK staffer

“For a bang-for-buck rip, the free-to-ride Lady Cannings has got to be one of the best spots around. It’s home to two blue-graded descents – 1.4km Blue Steel and 1.6km Cooking on Gas, both of which are nearly as fast to pedal to the top of as they are to blast down.

“They’re action-packed, with rollers to pump, gap or manual through, and berms that arc predictably for bar-to-the-ground railing. Lap these out until either legs or sunlight fail you, then roll straight into the Norfolk Arms beer garden for a crisp pint and a view of the city. There’s no better way to finish a ride.”

More info: Ride Sheffield

Bodmin Beast

Cyclist riding the Bodmin Beast trail at Cardinham Woods, Cornwall
The Bodmin Beast is a 12km trail at Cardinham Woods, Cornwall.
Ian Lean Photo

Where: Cardinham Woods, Cornwall
Trail length: 12km
Get there: PL30 4AL

Ian Lean – MTB photographer

“The Bodmin Beast singletrack snakes through the trees with a mix of rollers and tabletops – although before you enjoy the descents and berms, there are technical ascents to endure first. All features are rollable, but there are two sections where you can choose between staying on the blue or diverting onto more challenging, red-graded extensions.

“Parts of the descents are in need of maintenance, but they’re still fun. The Lanhydrock blue trail is a stone’s throw away, and Haldon Forest isn’t far either, with two blue routes.”

More info: Cardinham

Quercus trail

Cyclists riding the Quercus trail at Whinlatter, Lake District
Whinlatter’s Quercus trail is ear-to-ear fun for riders of all abilities.
James Vincent

Where: Whinlatter, Lake District
Trail length: 7.5km
Get there: CA12 5TW

James Vincent – MTB photographer

“Meandering its way through the forest, with epic views at nearly every turn, the Quercus trail is a heap of fun regardless of ability. For newbies, it’s brilliant for an experience of biking in real mountains while enjoying sinewy singletrack, rollable jumps, challenging climbs and gloriously sculpted berms.

“Hit it at pace and it comes alive, providing an excellent testing ground to hone your skills on, with optional features to keep you on your toes. And, in spite of the big mountain views, you’re never too far from the visitor centre.”

More info: Whinlatter

Nova trail

Cyclists riding the Nova trail, Ashton Court, Bristol
Ashton Court’s Nova trail is one of our home loops in Bristol.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Where: Ashton Court, Bristol
Trail length: 6.5km (+ optional 0.8km skills loop)
Get there: BS8 3PX

Luke Marshall – BikeRadar and MBUK tester

“If you’re looking for a gentle introduction to mountain biking or a short blast to boost your fitness, the Nova is ideal. Its rollers, berms and the odd rock obstacle are great for developing your skills. While it’s only a short pedal from the city, you feel far from the hustle and bustle.

“There’s also a short red section for those looking to tackle trickier obstacles. From families to pros, everyone can enjoy the Nova. Plus, there’s a good cafe and helpful bike shop on-site, catering for a pre- or post-ride snack and any mechanical mishaps that might occur.”

More info: Pedal Progression

Other blues worth a bash

We were looking for blue trails that are ridable as fun loops, but if you’re happy to push to the top, grind up a fire road or hop on an uplift, then England’s bike parks have some great blue runs.

Es Ol at Woody’s Bike Park in Cornwall is a really fun, flowy descent, Cheeseroller at 417 Bike Park in Gloucestershire is really good, too, and Bottle Rocket at Rogate Downhill B1kepark in Hampshire is a flat-out blast with big berms and decent-sized tabletops.

For a different type of challenge, Hadleigh Park in Essex is your only chance in the UK to ride an Olympic cross-country course, although it’s currently closed for maintenance.

Other blue trails we’ve ridden and rate include Jubilee at Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire, Kiddens at Haldon Forest in Devon, Osprey at Kielder Forest in Northumberland, Intermediate at Queen Elizabeth Country Park in Hampshire and the unnamed blue route at Swinley Forest in Berkshire.


The bikes

Saracen Ariel 30 Pro

Saracen Ariel 30 Pro mountain bike
Julia rode the Saracen Ariel 30 Pro.
Saracen

Julia rode Saracen’s new trail bike, the Ariel 30 Pro (you can read our Saracen Ariel Pro 30 review here).

Sporting 130mm of travel front and back, aggressive reach numbers and wheelbase lengths, plus a stable 65-degree head angle, this bike is ideal for building confidence and won’t hold you back, no matter what you throw at it.

Saracen Ariel 60 Elite

Saracen Ariel 60 Elite mountain bike
Luke rode the Saracen Ariel 60 Elite.
Saracen

Luke rode the enduro-focused Ariel 60 Elite.

It rocks 160mm of suspension front and rear, and is capable of spicing up your line choice, whatever trail you ride, but without it ever feeling like it rides heavy.

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Its stable mountain bike geometry means you can carve your own path down the hill.