Mountain biking is the fastest-growing sport in Britain. It also makes an ideal out-of-doors activity for school groups. Alf Alderson takes to the hills.
Mountain bikes are to cycling what the four-wheel drive is to driving: rugged-looking beasts that rarely get off the streets of suburbia and on to the hills for which they were designed. Yet the great outdoors is where they are most at home. Most children (and adults) have at some stage taken their standard bikes off-road, and discovered that bits fall off them and snap, tyres get punctures, gears never change properly, and when they do work there aren't enough of them.
With a modern mountain bike such calamities are history. The frames and components are designed to take everything that you can throw at them - within reason; the heavy-duty tyres take rocks and thorns in their stride; and there are up to 24 gears, all of which can be smoothly engaged.
Once on trails, or bridleways, it is easy to see why this is the fastest-growing sport in Britain. The saddle of a bike is a far better vantage point from which to explore the countryside than a car, and you see much more than you would walking. On top of this, it's great exercise: a day of off-road cycling will have everyone sound asleep at night as soon as their heads hit the pillow. But perhaps the best bit of all is that after every lung-bursting climb comes the thrill of bouncing downhill.
In spite of this, there are still relatively few mountain bikes in their "natural" environment. Huw Williams, deputy editor of Mountain Biker International magazine, feels that part of the problem is access. "There are a limited number of places where people can ride legally in this country, " he says, "especially once they're in popular recreational areas such as the national parks, and I think this plays a part in discouraging people." (See box.) Which is rather a shame when you consider how much fun real off-roading can be. I used to lead guided mountain bike rides around the coast of South West Wales which would attract all ages (the youngest were nine and 10, the oldest in their sixties), and while some were initially apprehensive, by the end of the day most of them were born-again bike-riders.
Admittedly south-west Wales is not renowned for its mountains, but even small hills can be challenging, and it is here that the inexperienced need particular help. Children, for example, will attack a hill until they get the better of it, or vice versa. It is only older children, usually boys, who have reservations about getting off and pushing. If you are accompanying a group, or even your family, the best way to deal with hilly rides is to go at the pace of the slowest rider and, if they get off and push, do the same yourself. In this way, fitness need not be a problem, and if you start to ride regularly you'll soon find yourself riding up hills that would once have meant a long slog on foot.
Access is one of the most contentious issues surrounding the sport, with everyone from ramblers and horse riders to farmers and environmentalists wailing about the impact of mountain bikes on the countryside. However, if you are riding on a legally accessible trail, you have just as much right to be there as they do. The main thing, as with all outdoor sports, is to show consideration for others: don't tear up behind walkers and riders; warn them of your approach and ride past slowly. As for erosion, try not to skid unnecessarily on wet grass and soil, although independent research has shown that mountain bikes cause no more erosion than walkers' boots and a good deal less than horses' hooves.
If you pass through gates, always close or fasten them behind you. Don't disturb livestock, and make sure you always know where you're going, so you don't end up riding through a field of crops after making a wrong turn. Mark your route on a map before you set out (and know how to read it!) so it's easy to follow on the trail.
Everyone falls off at some point - a rock, pot-hole or tree root will catch you out eventually - so the golden rule is to wear a helmet. Always. It's also useful to carry a basic first-aid kit, and, as Huw Williams advises, "don't stray too far out into the wilds, just in case you do have an accident". Many of the more experienced riders who go up into the mountains of Scotland and the Lake District even take mobile phones in case they come to grief in a remote area. Teachers might agree that this would be a good occasion to have one.
MOUNTAIN BIKING: THE FACTS
What you need
Huw Williams advises against buying a Pounds 99 mail order "mountain bike". "These are not real mountain bikes and won't stand up to regular off-roading, " he says. "A good entry-level bike that will handle serious, regular off-road use will cost around Pounds 400." Not cheap, but you can find second-hand bikes for around half this price in the classified section of various bike magazines. Manufacturers to look out for are Saracen and Raleigh (both British); and Marin, Kona, Trek and Giant, all from abroad. Alternatively, outdoor activity centres will offer mountain biking as an option (with all equipment included), and bikes are commonly available for hire at key destinations for around Pounds 8-15 per day (with discounts for groups).
You will need a helmet (from Pounds 20), and a water bottle and holder; padded cycling shorts are worth considering as they can save a lot of discomfort on bottoms of any age. This being Britain, good waterproofs are a must (drought nothwithstanding). Check out local cycle shops until you find one that offers a good deal and after-sales service arrangements.
Where to go
You can legally ride on bridleways, roads used as public paths (RUPPs) and byways open to all traffic (BOATs). You cannot ride on public footpaths. All are marked on Ordnance Survey maps. Popular areas for beginners include Epping Forest, the South Downs, the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales. But be warned, the last three have some serious hills.
What to do
Stay on the trail and don't use footpaths. Look out for waymarking arrows: blue for bridleways, red for byways and yellow for footpaths.
* Plan your route before you set out and take a map.
* Be courteous and give way to horses and walkers * Learn how to control your bike and prevent skids.
* Be prepared for traffic; some routes are shared with vehicles.
* Give advance warning of your approach, especially from behind.
* Moderate your speed.
* Be safe. Always wear a helmet, and take food, water and a whistle (to attract attention in the event of an accident) on longer rides.
* Be tidy and follow the Country Code.
* Look after your bike. Make sure it's safe and well maintained, and carry essential spares (puncture repair kit, pump and so on).
There are several monthly magazines, such as Mountain Biker Internationall (Pounds 2.70) and Mountain Bike Rider (Pounds 1.50). All are available from W H Smith and most newsagents. Mountain bike route guides are available for most of the popular riding areas; check the travel or sports section of your local bookshop. The Bike Book (Haynes Publishing, Pounds 9.99) has step-by-step illustrated advice on bike maintenance and repair.