Feature: Hitting the mountain bike trails at Lee Valley VeloPark
15:22 16 October 2014
Cycling in this country seems to be the thing that suddenly all your mates are obsessing over.
The sport has enjoyed an enormous surge in popularity following British successes at Le Tour De France and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The greatest are household names – Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton – but how many of us have heard of Team GB’s Annie Last or Liam Killeen? If you have, you’re clearly a fan of mountain biking.
Both are among our best exponents of the sport that, along with BMX, seems to have been somewhat overlooked amid the furore over the track and road events that contributed so much to the British medal haul in 2012.
The closest spot to go riding cross country for east Londoners has traditionally been Epping Forest, on the border with Essex, but that changed at the end of July when Lee Valley VeloPark finally opened up its trails.
Although coming a few months later than planned after heavy rain damaged some of the tracks in March, rendering them unsafe, there are now several runs graded from blue (easiest) to red and black (hardest), offering five miles (8km) of bike trails.
I went along to test a few of them out. It was drizzling and overcast as I pulled on my helmet and hopped on my Condor hard-tail bike, pretty much perfect conditions as it meant there were a few puddles to get stuck into.
Apprentice mechanic, former infantryman and my guide for the day Matt McCormack admitted he had been “sceptical” when he first heard about the trails. “I thought ‘a mountain bike trail in the middle of London? How good is that going to be?’,” he said.
“But since actually experiencing it, they have turned out to be beyond my expectations.”
We start easy, on a blue leading us out of the VeloPark grounds and taking us up, over then along the main road that dissects this part of the park in two.
While I never truly feel like I’ve left London behind – the Velodrome looms into sight round every other corner – the course is tight and winding, demanding my concentration at all times if only to avoid being thrown off by an exposed rock.
Much like skiing – which grades runs in the same way – the blue is an enjoyable blend of fast rolling bumps mixed in with some more challenging descents covering a surprising distance. We try the red next and there’s a marked increase in difficulty.
Suddenly I find myself struggling up steep ascents and readying myself for bigger drops, battling to keep my balance.
For me, a relative novice to mountain biking, the trails are the prefect place to get a feel for the sport and hone my skills.
There’s no doubt a hardened mountain biker will find them less of a challenge – though admittedly I did not test out any black runs – but regardless it’s a fun day out and there’s enough to keep you coming back for more.
It also presents a nice change for the growing number of road cyclists on the capital’s streets, as self-confessed “roadie” Matt tells me.
“On the road, especially when it’s a circuit, you are just going around and around and when you’re by yourself it’s just a grey blur,” he says.
“But on the mountain bike it keeps you sharp because it’s a constantly changing environment – and everyone likes to get a little bit muddy.”
• It costs £15 for a taster session with an instructor or £6 (£4 for concessions) to ride on the tracks with no equipment hire. Click here for more information.