Is Pedalabikeaway the model trail centre?

Pedalabikeaway in the Cannop Valley of the Forest of Dean has been a fantastic mountain biking and family cycling venue for decades, but after visiting it this weekend, I realised it has become so much more, it’s on a different level to other “trail centres” and is probably the model for others to aspire to.

The former mining hub in Cannop Valley was bequeathed some amazing resources as a result of the decline of mining in the forest that, with some intelligent foresight, were tailor made for off road cycling.

Setting aside fabulous natural terrain for a moment, the mothballed mining infrastructure – primarily disused railways – was perfect for conversion. The old lines were easily converted to Green graded cycle tracks, snaking through the beautiful forest with gentle gradients, perfect for anyone – beginners, children, one off cyclists or even retirees, who’s legs don’t have the longevity they once had.

But the natural terrain of the forest is perfect for mountain biking. There are way marked graded trails from blue (the showcase Verderers), red (the newly extended Freeminers) and a set of varying grade downhill trails, supported by uplift. All of which is just the Cannop Valley – the wider forest has amazing natural and sculpted trails (such as Dowies) as well.

So there is possibly one of the greatest varieties of good riding available in one place at the Forest, but there is also the supporting infrastructure that takes it to another level. At the centre of this is the Pedalabikeaway hub – a cafe and bike shop in the converted former Cannop Valley station house. This is the start of the way marked trails (Green Family, Blue Verderers, Red Freeminers and the downhill tracks and uplift), but it really is a hub. There is also bike hire available on site, from basics and tagalongs for the family trail, up to full on downhill machines, coaching courses, guided rides exploring the greater forest, social rides, periodic races and even a downhill track purpose built for paralysed riders. Other offerings have recently been added – such as the Little Fodders kids club, first aid courses, mountain bike coaching courses – in fact there is almost nothing related to off road cycling that you can’t get at Pedalabikeaway.

And this is where the years of investment I think have really paid off – a kind of “if you built it, they will come”. I spent a couple of days at Cannop this weekend and, even though I’ve been going there for 24 years now (and it looked quite different back then!), what I saw this weekend made me stop and think. When I arrived for a coaching course, I bumped into a group of retired ladies and gents who had just done a lap of the family trail and they came in and sat with a group about to do uplift on the downhill tracks. Outside there were groups of all abilities set off and returning from trails and more than anywhere else I’ve been, I could see diversity. Not just in ability, or types of riding and riders, but gender and age. All ages, and a 50:50 mix of the sexes – something that really stands out, in what sadly is often a male dominated sport. But there was none of that imbalance and such an open attitude from all that was there.

Beyond that though, I want to single out teenagers. Not because they’ve done something bad, but on the Saturday afternoon, there were large numbers of teenagers (early, mid and late), who were not only there to ride, but to hang out and talk about bikes and enjoy the outdoors. Again an even split of genders, not hanging around complaining of nothing to do, but really relishing the outdoors.

I think Pedalabike away really shows what a trail centre can become with a bit of investment and the right ideas. It’s providing great employment opportunities and a community for everyone – a place you can feel very comfortable just turning up to have a look at what mountain biking is like and about, even if you’ve never done it and don’t have a bike.

I have to contrast it with a few other great trail centres, which are great, but not on the same level. Swinley Forest has some great riding – a Green, Blue and Red trail like Cannop – but no hub. There is a small bike shop there now, but it’s the shed on the side of an unrelated exhibit building. People try and congregated there to an extent, but its so small there’s only room for a few. Consider how busy the trails (and car park are), there isn’t that central hub for cyclist – or it doesn’t feel that way.

Bike Park Wales on the other hand does have exactly that, with a fantastic cafe and bike shop, picnic tables and communal areas to share war stories and encourage that interaction that builds community. But Bike Park Wales is a downhill centre – a really excellent one, but it’s uplift and down. You can’t, for example, take your family on a pootle with a tagalongbike in the morning, and then a blast downhill after lunch – you can only do the latter, so it’s limited. And you can generally count the number of female bikers on one hand on an average day, so it does lack diversity.

Pedalabikeaway on the other hand has everything and everyone using it. I really think any organisations or funding bodies looking at starting a trail centre in their area (and there is certainly much talk of this in Swindon at the moment), should look at what has been done in Cannop, because it has been done so very, very well.