Downhill world champion Steve Peat thunders into a bermed corner, cutting high up the bank on entry and leaning the bike over so far that its tyres start scrabbling for grip before he’s spat out of the turn at warp speed.
An everyday sight on the World Cup circuit – but this time he’s in the far-from-mountainous Midlands, on a cross-country race bike with sky-high seatpost and skinny-legged RockShox SID fork, and if a frame could beg for mercy, his lightweight Santa Cruz Blur XC Carbon would be on its hands and knees.
As Peaty rails the berm a group of riders look on with a mix of concentration and apprehension on their faces. Concentration because, although they’re all accomplished cross-country racers, they want to pick up some downhilling tips from the best in the business, and apprehension because they know it’s their turn next – and in front of the world champ!
Luckily, Steve lives up to his reputation as one of the nicest and most down-to-earth guys on the race circuit and soon puts them at ease as they repeatedly ride the same corner so he can spot mistakes and tell them how to improve their technique.
The group are here at Cannock Chase for the Garmin MTB Academy – a day’s riding with Steve which was part of the prize in BikeRadar’s Garmin MTB Days competition. Three of the riders – Grant Ferguson, Natasha Litherland and Adrian Rhodes-Patterson – are on the Commencal bikes which they also won, along with a Garmin unit of their choice, while Wiggle-sponsored Matt Page is on his Focus.
They’ve already impressed Steve on a quick blast round the Follow The Dog trail, and now we’ve moved onto the partially finished new red trail over by the Stile Cop downhill courses – the public aren’t allowed to ride it yet but we’ve got special permission from Forestry Commission ranger Rob Lamb – so they can session some key sections.
As the gang take it in turns to rail round the berm, he explains the importance of spotting the perfect exit point and working out how you’re going to get there, instead of just concentrating on your entrance to the turn. He also tells them to enter as high as possible in order to widen the bend and make it easier to keep their speed.
“There was a crowd gathering to watch and it just felt great being a part of the action,” says Natasha. “He taught us to get the right speed as you go into the corner, look where you’re going, and then let the bike gather speed as you come out.”
Next, it’s on to a tricky tight section of trail where Steve discusses line choice and the importance of pushing the bike into the turn for maximum grip and speed. You can practically see his bike flexing as he flings it into the corner.
The competition winners take it a bit more tentatively – especially after Adrian washes out on the loose surface – but are soon hitting the section faster and faster, and with much more confidence.
Next it’s on to a series of rollers where Steve shows how to boost off jumps and pump the terrain to gain speed. With him is one of his latest Steve Peat Syndicate proteges, Josh Lewis, who’s whipping out the back end of his bike over each of the small humps.
Scottish young gun Ferguson takes the chance to show he’s not just about cross-country racing as he manuals the whole set, hinting at the downhill skills he’s learned with his mates at Innerleithen and Glentress.
We finish up on another corner with a loose gravel surface, where both Steve and Josh almost come a cropper as they try to hit it faster and faster.
Then it’s off to the pub for a quick pint and the handing out of some goodies, including signed posters, baseball caps, Battle Royal T-shirts and Steve’s Crud Fast Fender mudguards.
“It was great riding with Steve, a real privilege,” says Natasha. “It’s not often that you have the opportunity to ride with a sporting hero. Also, watching him just tear down the hill has made me realise I must be a little more fearless!”
Adrian said: “Riding with Steve really demonstrated how riding in control is the key to maintaining speed. If I can smooth out my riding style and fall off a bit less then the weekend will have been a real success!”
Day two, and the competition winners get the chance to ride more of Cannock’s new Monkey Trail, which is now covered with snow. The previous night’s curry feast is soon forgotten as we hit up mile after mile of perfect singletrack.
We meet up with Rob from the Forestry Commission again and he shows us some of the new black sections, including a particularly nasty looking rock garden, which Grant and Adrian soon have nailed. Don’t worry – there’s an easier ‘chicken run’ option too.
Big thanks to Rob Lamb for showing us around. You can try out the new Monkey Trail for yourself when it opens at Easter, and we’ll have more information about it on BikeRadar soon.