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Hamsterley Forest has been one of my favourite places in the north to ride lately. Around an hour and a half north of Leeds, the 2000 hectare forest is situated just at the edge of North Pennines National Park in County Durham.
The first time I visited Hamsterley Forest, it was on my birthday last year, and I remember it vividly. I was not ready for the technical nature of the black graded trails and I am pretty sure that I missed out on most of the actual trail in the forest. Since that time, I visited Hamsterley multiple times and I have learnt to love the challenging nature of the trails there.
Parking is available for both Descent Bike Park and for the Forestry Commission at a number of locations (both of these are £5 for a full day parking). In the main car park, the machine accepts cards so that helps out when you can’t find a coin in sight. When you enter the Forest, do not miss visiting the ‘Woods and Wheels’ bike shop, and the cake-stocked cafe.
Apart from the extensive trail network in the forest you could book onto uplift at the very popular Danny Hart’s Descent Bike Park. Owned by the World Champ himself, this is one of the most diverse Bike Parks in UK. You can easily find flowy, rooty and rocky tracks. The bike park also has a long 4X track, where you can practice your jumping and pumping. Either by booking uplift or going for the push up option, the bike park trails are a great place for riders who are looking to progress and are comfortable on steeper tracks. You will need to pay for entry to make use of the bike park trails so don’t be tempted to start rolling down them without doing so. Also if you pass the Descent Bike Park shed, you can grab a quick mid-ride cuppa as it offers tea, drinks and snacks for a welcome mid-ride pit stop. My experience of the bike park is fairly limited so I will focus on the red and black trails for now, I’m sure I’ll be back for more soon however.
I have also been lucky enough to explore the forest with Hamsterley regulars, who have showed me just some of the great ‘off-piste’ trails on offer. If you like things a bit muddier and a lot loamier then look out for these trails. There are a number that start up near the bike park, but you can find them all over the forest. Strava or Trailforks are good ways to find some of these trails, or just speak to locals. These trails can be really good fun but consider that they’re not sanctioned by the Forestry Commission and they require a different set of skills to the comparatively well groomed official trails. Me smashing my chest into a tree stump on my first attempt at one of these sloppy wonder-trails is testament to this fact.
As you might have come to expect from a forestry commission trail centre there are a number of different routes pitched at varying skill levels. Oddly enough, the longest trail is not the black, it is the red trail which loops around the forest.. The red graded trail includes an amazing downhill series of linked trails known as Transmission, Accelerator and Nitrous, which collectively are the location of the Hamsterley TT event [insert link]. These particular trails flow incredibly well with jumps, berms and drops which get more and more fun the faster you hit them. This section can be sessioned on its own, you just have to endure the long fireroad climb over and over again.
The black trail is my favourite to ride, though at just 8 miles long it is shorter than the red. As you might expect it is quite technical and makes great use of the terrain, though you will have to put up with a fair few steep fireroad climbs, unless you enjoy that kind of thing.
The trail is well sign posted and starts from the main visitor centre and climbs steeply up fire roads towards a section of trail called pikes teeth, though there are some more interesting steep climbs up through the woods next to the fire road if you can find them.
Pikes teeth itself is a major highlight on the black route, it starts off as a winding descent with roots, rocks and drops (and a river gap if you fancy it) and then moves into a flowing switchback trail with bigger tabletops, step downs and drops that really beg you to hit them harder and faster. If you are already comfortable getting airborne you will love this section, if you are still learning then pikes teeth will help you feel more comfortable tackling jumps and drops out on the trail, it works well for everyone.
From there the trail drops back onto familiar single track for another mile or so before reaching a steep descent towards the river, which thankfully can be forded with the help of a bridge. If you’re looking for something a bit racier then stick on the fireroad for another mile or so instead in order to be rewarded with a semi off-piste section known as beehives. This involves a rooty climb up towards a dry stone wall which turns into a steep and extremely rooty descent which will be a challenge for any rider. It is usually wet, or at least moist, all year round and the roots are just waiting to slide you down the side of the hill and into the river running below you on your right.
If you do opt for beehives then you are going to have to cross the river without the aid of a bridge, in summer this might be ok because the level of the water should expose some slippery stepping stones, in the winter you are going to have decide whether to walk or ride through the river. Take it from someone who opted for the riding option, take it slowly and don’t wedge your front tyre between two rocks hidden under the water, or you might just end up face down in the drink and relying on your friends to drag your soggy bottom out.
Once you’ve dried yourself off you can enjoy Root 66 and Odd Sox, both of which are characteristically rooty and will keep you on your toes, or off your bike. I still haven’t mastered the climbing on Root 66, or for that matter the descending, but it is something I am going to keep working and I know these sections feature on Hamsterley enduro events. I’ve tried these sections in the dry and the wet, and I’ve got to say that as someone still learning to cope with more demanding features, they are a lot easier in the dry and I am looking forward to more summer rides up at Hamsterley (i’ll learn how to master the mud eventually!)
Finishing Odd Sox drops you out at the bottom of Nitrous, but don’t let the few minutes of flat fire road fool you, you are going to have to climb up to the top to the forest to the Bike Park or give up and take the road back to the car park. If you do give up you will miss out on some great descents. Section 13 is a great flowy section which appears to be partially built on sand which means it is fairly dry all year round, which should help you enjoy the big berms and tabletops. Mr Betty and I recently spent a lot of time on Section 13 with Max from Endeavour Coaching practicing features over and over again. If you’re looking to progress your riding to cover faster and more demanding trail features then this is a great place to start.
Section 13 leads into three short but furious sections of the black route; Bone Shaker, Special K and Brain Freeze (incidentally these will be the unofficial names of our first three children). These sections make the most out of the terrain and provide a lot of variety, there are muddy chutes, drops and even a wall ride if you feel like making a fool of yourself. The faster you hit these sections the more you will get out of them. The end of Brain Freeze will bring you back out at the visitors centre with time to take a photo with the Gruffalo (the big wooden sculpture not Mr Betty!).
Hamsterley also plays host to a number of events throughout the year. For example on 14th May there is a group ride known as the Hamsterley Beast that aims to raise money for the North of England Air Ambulance, a charitable organisation that has helped out riders in need over the years. There look set to be 500 riders taking part this year and I understand the event has already sold out! Time to put it in your diary for next year.
Hamsterley Forest is a great place to enjoy a trail centre ride that is a bit different from the others. It is more challenging than the likes of Gisburn or Llandegla, and not as pedally or lengthy as Dalby. Not only it is a great place to ride, but from what I have seen it also has a great mountain bike community of men and women.
April 24, 2017