Bedgebury vs Swinley

1 04 2014

This weekend, I was lucky enough to ride at Bedgebury on Friday, and then at Swinley Forest on Saturday.  For riders living in the relatively flat South East of England, these two venues are rare in that they offer officially sanctioned, purpose-built mountain bike trails within easy reach of the M25.  Riding both of them back to back gave me an excellent chance to compare the two.

When you arrive at either venue, the first thing you’ll find is a large car park.  The one at Bedgebury is not only much, much larger, it’s also much, much more expensive.  Swinley is £2 for 4 hours or £4 all day, at Bedgebury you have to pay £8.50 to park (unless you park on the edge of the forest and ride in like the majority of regular riders there)  Parking space at Swinley is a bit limited though, this weekend with the sun shining, I was struggling to find somewhere to put the car at 10.30am.  Never known that to be an issue at Bedgebury as they have a huge field for overflow parking.  Arguably though, a small car park is a bonus as more parking = a more overcrowded venue…

Tree down!

Tree down!

In terms of facilities there’s not a lot to split the two, cafe, bike wash, bike hire etc are available at both.  The cafe at Bedgebury overlooks a lake and for my money is a far nicer place to sit for a post ride coffee than the one at Swinley, which overlooks a playground.  Both are a magnet for families with kids, but my impression of the crowd at Swinley was that there were more people there for fitness.  As well as cyclists, Swinley seemed very popular with runners too.  The biking crowd at Swinley looked a bit fitter too, a bit more “serious” but maybe that’s just my perception of things.

I can’t comment on the bike hire at Swinley, but I have rented bikes from Quench Cycles at Bedgebury, both for myself and for friends and family riding with me.  My experiences have been hit and miss, a lot of the entry level MTBs for hire at Bedgebury aren’t in the best condition and I have felt pretty badly let down by the state of them on some occasions.  My suggestion would be to thoroughly check a hire bike you’re given before you accept it and don’t be shy to say you’re not happy with it if the brakes are spongy or there’s no tread on the tyres! On a more positive note, the staff at Quench are always friendly, helpful and apologetic if you complain.  It’s staffed by decent people with a genuine interest in mountain biking, they just need to keep their hire fleet in a bit better condition.

Now for the important bit.  The trails. It may be difficult for me to objectively compare these two routes.  I ride Bedgebury 3-4 times a month, all through the year, I know it like the back of my hand, I know where each root, rut and puddle is going to be.  Swinley I’ve ridden 3 times, and only twice since the trails were revamped to their current state.  Knowing Bedgebury so well might lead me to be a little bored with it, familiarity breeding contempt and all that. However, I find that when you know a trail really well, you also get to know how to get the absolute most out of it.  I definitely feel that I ride faster, and with more confidence at Bedgebury than anywhere else because I know exactly what the bike is going to do wherever I am.

Berms as far as the eye can see

Swoopy Swinley

Bedgebury and Swinley both list their red routes as being 13km in length, but Swinley has 10km of blue graded trail as well. The blue trail starts from the car park and about half way round, you have the option to either join the start of the red route or head back to the car park on the 2nd half of the blue.  So, the sensible think to do is ride both red & blue to give you a 23km ride.  For my money, there’s very little difference at Swinley between the red graded trails and the blue in terms of the confidence and skill you’ll need to ride them.  Bedgebury also has a “family trail” as well as it’s red, but this merely uses the wide gravel walking paths that crisscross the forest.  Not very interesting and not (in my opinion) even very picturesque.

So, Swinley wins on quantity of trails, but what about quality ?  Bedgebury’s red route first opened around 8 years ago, and in that time a huge amount of work has been done to make the trail more durable and more fun.  There’s very little in the way of hills at Bedgebury, so the trails are mostly flat.  No big climbs, no big descents.  What has arrived at Bedgebury over the past couple of years, as the local bike club have worked some magic, is flow.  Not all of the singletrack has it, but the bits that do flow well (Particularly the very last section) flow really well.  There are a lot of manmade features, every other corner has a built up berm,  expect lots of gravel, a few rooty bits, one or two rock gardens here and there but nothing remotely dangerous or challenging for an experienced rider.  There are even one or two “unofficial” trails and cheeky detours dotted here and there about the forest, a few of which are real gems.  Many of these “off piste” trails at Bedgebury are really natural, rooty, muddy bits of fun.  They’re all short, but worth riding.

The Bedgebury red route starts off with a half mile or so on forest road out of the car park (unless you know where the singletrack climb is that runs alongside it) then throws one of it’s most technical sections at you right at the start.  Just a couple of tight turns with rooty steps on a short, steep (ish) hill, nothing that would worry an experienced rider. Having these right at the start however, helps remind any families who have wandered onto the red route by mistake that they’re not in Kansas any more.  From there on it’s all good, a variety of trails ranging from rooty and natural to almost BMX-track smooth and swoopy.  It all feels like it’s gradually getting better and better till you hit the “Bikea” trail and from there it’s all just one big “Meh” for what feels like a couple of miles till you hit the very last section which is a real treat.  A lot of work is currently being done to the trails in what I think of as Bedgebury’s “flat spot”, so it may yet be reborn as something wonderful.

No pics of Swinleys Singletrack as I was enjoying it too much to stop...

No pics of Swinleys Singletrack as I was enjoying it too much to stop…

For a long time I’ve thought that Bedgebury didn’t feel all that natural and had more berms than it needed, but Swinley takes the man-made banked-corner thing to a whole other level.  For years Swinley had a lot of unofficial trails dotted around the woods with no signposting and no set “route”.  I rode there back in 2011 and spent most of my time wandering up and down forest roads trying to find all the good bits I’d seen on You Tube.  I found less than half of them, and a lot of these were in a bit of a state, cut up and muddy.  In 2013, Swinley was reborn into it’s current, red & blue, trail centre incarnation.  A lot of the surface is very hard packed and the trail can look a bit like a yellow-brick road cutting through the forest.  As you roll over the humps and round the berms, you find lots of short, sharp climbs followed by short, sharp, swoopy descents.  As you move from blue to red, it just keeps on with the swoopy, jumpy theme.  How challenging the riding is will depend entirely on how fast you ride it. I’m not a big fan of jumping, but you’ve got no shortage of kickers at Swinley if you want to get your bike airbourne.  There are sections of the red which are a bit more natural, rooty and muddy.  There were some fantastic, narrow trails in a thickly wooded area of pine trees, but soon enough you’re back on the hard pack surface and bombing down short hills as fast as you dare, and in my case, trying not to let the bike jump too much in case I crashed and made a tit of myself…

Bedgebury is about 20 minutes drive for me, Swinley is about 2 hours.  If they were both 20 minutes away, I’d be going to Swinley every time.  For me, the best bits of Bedgebury are as good as the best bits of Swinley, but the best bits of Bedgebury probably make up about 2 miles of cracking singletrack.  Swinley probably has at least three times as many trails guaranteed to have you grinning.

Cake Run, Bedgebury

Go with the flow. Bedgebury singletrack, January 2014

The one thing Bedgebury does a lot better than Swinley is signage.  On two or three occasions we exited a section of the red route with no clue which way to turn to find the next section.  The situation is made worse by the fact that the Forest is still littered with old bits of singletrack that you could easily confuse for the next bit of red and end up completely lost.

Man-made trail centres like Swinley and Bedgebury aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t care how much of a grumpy-old-cross-country-map-reading git you are, you can’t deny that places like these offer some seriously enjoyable riding.  If you want natural, make-it-up-as-you-go-along riding you’ve got the Surrey Hills and the South Downs (though not a lot else in this part of the world) but not everyone has all day to get lost each time they go out for a ride.

The one thing both of these trails have in common is that they are only as hard as you make them.  If you’re a beginner, ride them slowly, you’ll be safe and you’ll have fun.  If you’re more experienced, ride them hard & fast and they’ll be challenging and you’ll have fun. You can ride at either venue with kids in tow and teach them how to ride off road without anything being too daunting or scary.

Swinley Trail Map

Bedgebury Trail Map

In other news, I finally ordered a new bike!  My Canyon Spectral AL is about 2 weeks from being delivered.  Full Sus 29′er, no more having to deal with my back wheel being bucked about all over the place by a bumpy trail. Bring it on…

'ave it!

Canyon Spectral AL 6.9





Moist

26 02 2014

Since my last post I’ve done a lot of standing at the window, looking at rain and hail fall from the skies in sheets. That’s not to say I’ve not been out, I have managed just under 80 miles during February, hoping to make it 100 by the end of the week.  I’ve been to Surrey where the sandy soil finished off my brake pads, been to Bedgebury to wallow axle deep in mud, but inevitably, most of the time I’ve been riding on tarmac.

Between Pitch and Holmbury Hill, the oasis of Peaslake.

Between Pitch and Holmbury Hills, the oasis of Peaslake.

It’s no fun riding offroad when the trails are in such a state as they are at present, so I’m staying mostly on-road till the biblical floods have receded.  It’s not just offroad trails that are getting a battering by the elements either.  The coastal cycle path between St Leonards and Bexhill has taken a heavy beating, back before Christmas some of the surface had been torn up, but the February storms have pretty much completely destroyed about a quarter of a mile of it as you can see below.

Not quite as bad as the Dawlish Railway line but still...

Not quite as bad as the Dawlish Railway line but still…

I’ve not been a total fair-weather rider, I’ve been out in the rain and some pretty strong winds, but I have drawn the line at taking the bike out when it’s pelting down with hail stones. I’ve also invested in a new toy, a Garmin 200 GPS unit.  I’m really pleased with it, it’s more accurate and reliable at tracking my rides than the Strava app on my phone and it displays current speed, average speed and elapsed time while I’m riding.

Garmin 200 GPS/Bike computer.

Garmin 200 GPS/Bike computer.

I’ve found the speedo really useful.  Makes it easier to keep your speed up when you can see exactly how fast you’re going, which has helped me set a few “personal best” times on certain sections.  I can force myself to stay above a set speed till I get to where I want to go.  The Garmin is pretty much idiot proof in terms of use, I think the hardest thing about setting it up was getting the handlebar mount attached to the handlebars.  4 buttons, straightforward menu choices, a very nifty little unit for under £90 on Amazon.  The one slight niggle is that at the start of a ride it sometimes takes 3-5 minutes to acquire a GPS signal and determine it’s start point.  This may be due to a poor GPS signal where I live though, not yet tested it anywhere other than on my local rides.

So Spring is almost upon us, last March was very dry and a lot of the local trails were rolling fast, can’t see that happening much before late April this year, but you never know…





Back in the game…

14 01 2014

After a month without riding I finally got back on the bike today.  A month of stuffing my face, sitting on my arse and drinking beer.  Just a week ago I was snorkelling on a coral reef in the red sea in glorious sunshine, today I was wading through inches and inches of thick, gloopy mud.

Uprooted Trees

Careful forest management courtesy of 80mph winds…

Today was really hard, just 11 miles but if felt like double that.  Partly because of the horrendous mud, partly because I’ve not done any exercise other than some gentle swimming for 4 weeks.  I started out with a smile on my face, the sun was shining, birds were twittering merrily, squirrels frolicked, it was good to be out in the fresh air. However, two or three miles in, I’d ridden through a couple of puddles which saw the wheel disappear up to the axle and the mud was really sapping my will to spin.  At this point, I did start longing for some dry and dusty trails.  The twisty bits were relatively fast rolling, I was only about 1mph or so off my summer speed down most of the interesting bits, but the fire roads were dreadful quagmires.

Bedgebury Red Route

A lot colder and muddier than it looks.

So that was my first ride of 2014.  I did hope to be able to double up on a few trails, but my toes were so numb and I was so caked in mud that I’d had enough after just over one full loop.  The bike was holding up reasonably well, quite a few bits and bobs will need replacing come the spring, but there’s no way I’m sticking new components on the bike at this time of year to let winter grind them down.

I’m starting 2014 pretty fat.  I’m as heavy now (18st) as I’ve ever been, so hopefully I will have shed at least a stone by Spring.  To do that I may have to give up or at least cut down on beer though and this is always difficult.  My main goal for 2014 is to ride 1,500 miles, if I can manage that I’ll be satisfied.





Winter Warmer

15 12 2013

Hello Blog, it’s been a while.

hastings beach

Taking this pic was more fun than the ride

Been harder and harder to get out on the bike lately, limited daylight hours, grotty weather, getting ready for Christmas etc etc.  I have managed 4 rides in December, two on road, two off-road.  The two on-road rides were real slogs, numb fingers, slippery roads, high winds, just no fun at all.  My two rides at Bedgebury however were a lot more enjoyable.  I rode Bedgebury on the 3rd December and it was preposterously dry.  I couldn’t get over how fast and grippy sections of the trail were this late in the year.  Had a blast finding out how much grip my mud tyres had in them.  I’m a bit of a way off the fitness levels I had in June-September, but still managed a few personal best times.

Me, poncing about on a berm.

Me, poncing about on a berm.

This Satuday (14th) after one day of steady drizzle, the difference in the trails was huge.  Bedgebury was back to it’s traditional boggy self and myself and the bike ended up caked in mud within the first mile or so.  With all the recent trail improvements, lots of the trail is still holding up well and riding quickly however.  December – March is probably when Bedgebury is at its worst.  Even drab and muddy, it still rides a lot better now than it did a year or two ago, and it’s still a hell of a lot more fun than slogging up and down tarmac getting cut up by twats in mini-cabs…





A nip in the air

25 11 2013

Lovely, sunny, cold, crisp, fresh end-of-autumn morning today and I managed to sneak in just under 15 miles and over 1,150 feet of climbing on the bike.  Nearly ran over a squirrel, nearly had a van pull out in front of me, but generally the ride was pretty uneventful.  It was both actually, pretty and uneventful.  About the only thing I could complain about was my thumbs getting so cold I thought they might drop off at one point.  That and the fact that my fitness has dipped noticeably since September.

Not really much chance of my words doing justice to the pleasure of being out in the fresh air today, so I’ll let this pic to the talking…

Bike basking in some low autumn sunshine by the sea

Bike basking in some low autumn sunshine by the sea





Photo Blog Part 2

14 11 2013

I’ve been needing to get up onto the South Downs for a while now,  I run a couple of local magazines, and I need some interesting pics for the front covers.  I’ve been waiting and waiting for a clear, sunny day where I didn’t have a lot else on so I could get the bike out to Eastbourne and ride up a cliff.  At the far western end of Eastbourne seafront, you’ll find the easternmost point of the South Downs way.  Setting off from this point involves climbing about 700 vertical feet in about a mile and a half according to my GPS log…

Cuckmere Haven

Why would anyone go outdoors on a cold November day ?

The ground wasn’t helping either, wet grass with very little grip or wet chalk with no grip at all.  I’m thinking about riding the South Downs Way in 2014, if the bit just outside of Eastbourne is a good guide of what to expect, I might not make it.

South Downs Way

I like this photo.

I had planned to ride over the downs from Eastbourne to Cuckmere, taking some pics of Beachy Head lighthouse, Cuckmere valley, Cuckmere Haven, maybe even detouring into Friston with the camera for a bit.  This would have taken all day however and I was instructed by my wife, about half an hour after I got there, that staying out all day with my camera was not permitted.

Some reflected trees that caught my eye.

Some reflected trees that caught my eye.

As I had to get back sooner, I decided to have a little ride up and around Beachy Head, ride back to the car, drive to Cuckmere, pootle about there and then drive home.  I only rode about 6 miles but picked up about 2 gallons of mud on the way.

I was fascinated by this tree

I was fascinated by this tree

Unusual riding around the downs, obviously cycling the South Downs way is “legal” and there are other Bridleways up there where you’re allowed to ride, but it does feel a little bit illicit.  I always feel odd cycling on grass, like I’m not supposed to be there.

JUMP!

About four million people have taken a photo from this spot.

Also unusual was cycling with a large rucksack containing an expensive, non-waterproof camera and a tripod.  I usually only have my phone camera with me, because often I’m riding “enthusiastically” and commonly one small mis-judgement from falling off or hitting a tree.  The camera is only worth about a quarter of what the bike is worth, but it’s not really designed to be thrown around in mud and muck.

Shot of Cuckmere without my head in the way

Shot of Cuckmere without my head in the way

So, that was my day yesterday.  It was a lovely clear day, but a tiny bit chilly.  Even so, by the time I’d climbed out of Eastbourne I was sweating and hot.  I was fine in shorts and a long sleeved zip up top, I’m not sure where people get the idea that you need to incubate yourself in six inches of goose feathers to go out of the house in November.  I’ve had loads of spam emails from bike-shop websites recently, offering to sell me thick winter riding jackets, gore-tex this and weatherproof that.  I have about two rides a year where it’s snowing and it’s slightly too cold for shorts.  If I’m riding offroad, I’m never cold for more than the first ten minutes of a ride, if you’re cold on your bike you’re riding too slow.

 





Photo Blog

8 11 2013

Three weeks with no riding.  Mostly down to being very busy with work and by the time I’d finished for the day it was too dark to ride, then we had birthdays and half terms and stuff.  Life getting in the way of cycling.

Managed to get out today, finally.  Did 27.1 miles which is (embarassingly) my longest ride of the year.  I think I did ride more than that in one day at Coed Y Brenin, but I split that into two rides, before and after lunch.  So with cycling taking up a bit less of my time than it has been over the summer, I’ve done a bit more photography, so I thought I’d blog about that instead…

Hastings Pier October Storm

Hastings Pier weathering it’s 354th Autumn storm

With the recent bit of blowy weather, the sea and skies have been very eye catching.  With a bit of fiddling about in some photo manipulation softwares some of the pics came out quite nicely.

Pevensey Bay

A very wet groyne in Pevensey Bay.

On the windiest day, I managed to get down to the beach about 7.30am to catch some shots, but there was a lot of spray and it was difficult to keep the lens clear.  All week long though, the surf has been posing and tempting me to take dozens of snaps hoping to catch the waves “just right”.

Church, Autumn Leaves

St Mary’s church in Battle provides a nice background for some autumn leaves.

It’s also that time of year when the leaves want to get in on the act too, I think Autumn is probably the most photogenic season of the year.

A wave breaks upon the shingle.

A wave breaks upon the shingle.

More waves in the pic above, this time just outside of Eastbourne with the pier just about visible on the skyline.  I could have stood there all day taking photos…

Low tide exposes a rocky reef.

Low tide exposes a rocky reef.

The above shot was my favourite of the ones I took today during my ride out to Pevensey Bay.  This was taken about halfway between St Leonards and Bexhill with the sun peeking out from some grim looking clouds, looks like northern France is getting a soaking…

Wind damage to the Hastings-Bexhill cycle path.

Wind damage to the Hastings-Bexhill cycle path.

Just after shooting those moody skies I came upon the wreckage of a very expensive cycle path.  The recent 80mph winds appear to have torn the plastic matting up from the ground and caused the cycle path between St Leonards and Glyne Gap to close, not that I paid any attention to that.  Well if you’re used to off roading, a bit of ripped up cycle path is no real obstacle is it.  Pretty impressive damage that the wind has done there though.

Swans

Swans minding their own business…

Last shot here is of some swans whose peace I disturbed just before turning round and heading back for home today during my ride.  The rain clouds above them eventually caught up with me as I got back to Hastings, making sure I was soaked to the skin by the time I got home.  25 miles without a drop of rain today, but the last two miles through a downpour saw me completely soaked by the time I got home…

 








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