It was my brother’s birthday over the Bank Holiday. He likes his mtb’ing, so we headed to Thetford Forest Park for a spin along the trails. Yes, that’s right, Thetford in Norfolk, on the edge of the Fens, where it’s so flat that the USAF have two massive bases at nearby Mildenhall and Lakenheath. Years ago, driving back from Norfolk with my wife (when she was still my girlfriend) I saw a pair of F-15’s take off from Lakenheath. I admit to having a macho soft spot for military jets. Distanced from their function, they look so beautiful, but that really was a stunning sight.
Anyway, this is a post on cycling, not lusting over very big boy’s toys. My brother and parents were late arriving at Thetford, so I had plenty of time to try out the basic Merida hardtail I had hired from Bike-Art. The gear shifters took a little practice for my roadie fingers, but otherwise it was a well-maintained and competent ride, and, as I soon discovered, easily capable of Thetford’s trails.
When he finally arrived, my brother and I had time for a quick ride before lunch, so we opted for the shortened Beater Trail. It’s classed as a red route and comprises many miles of single track. Most of the trail was straightforward. I’m no mtb’er, but there was nothing especially challenging. For a couple of sections (the 39 Steps stands out) the track threads through the pine plantations. It follows a gentle downhill gradient, sweeping back and forth, inches from the tree trunks. Each bend is bermed and the track flows nicely, so the skill isn’t so much in getting around them and staying upright, but getting around them at speed. And that is something that comes with practice; but if I’m honest, I found riding through the pine understory a bit, well, boring. I’m not sure I could sustain enough enthusiasm to want to get any faster.
Over lunch the morning’s sunshine gave way to showers. We allowed our food a couple of minutes to settle then rode the Lime Burner Trail. Apparently parts of this used to be black routed, so I was expecting more of a challenge. Along the way we stopped off to ride a couple of the bike pits. These are bomb holes a few metres deep. You drop down fast then power up the other side and, if you get enough momentum, pop a little air over the rim. Mind you, my first run down Madgett’s Pit earlier in the morning almost ended in disaster. I was overconfident and in way too big a gear so stalled just before the top. Still they’re good fun, but if you can handle a bike and are not stupid, I’m not sure they deserve the guide map’s severe grading.
The Lime Burner trail’s single track was more challenging and thus more enjoyable than the Beater trail, and things were to improve further as we approached The Beast. It’s a long long time since I last rode around Thetford, and I suppose The Beast was what I had in mind, but first I want to step back a bit. As teenagers, my brother and I spent hours on our mountain bikes – odd, you might think, for two Fenland lads, but then, we had the London Brick Company to fashion our playground. Weekends and holidays we would ignore the No Trespassing signs to ride around the abandoned clay pits on trails carved out by motocross bikes (which also shouldn’t have been there). Those trails had big dips, fast jumps and sweeping banks. It was great fun, and now I look back at my old, suspension free, MBK with fond respect. That is what the Beast took me back to, and I loved it. It’s a cracking rollercoaster ride and the one place I felt fully engaged with the bike and the trail. But it is over too quickly. We rode it several times, I soon got a feel for it and my fastest time was 1.06 minutes. According to Strava, plenty have gone faster.
After the Beast we rode along some sweeping beechwood trails, perhaps not as technical as the claustrophobic pine tree trails, but visually more enjoyable. I can imagine it is a spectacular ride on a crisp autumn morning.
It was an enjoyable day and Thetford Forest Park has more to offer. While my brother and I were out riding, my daughters had great fun on the Park’s adventure playgrounds, although the older was very disappointed by a “minimum 8-years-old” rule which prevented her from going on a zip wire (how about allowing some parental responsibility, Forestry Commission?). However, as a novice mtb’er, apart from one 400m section, I found the trails pretty tame. What they need are some long technical ascents and descents, but frankly with little more than 100m of climbing on an 11mile circuit, that isn’t going to happen. Yes, you could ride the trails faster to make them harder, but that would mean doing the same circuit again and again, and that sort of repetition smacks too much of a TT. When I’m riding for leisure, I prefer instead to range over distances and explore new routes.
I’m in no hurry to head back, but I will return, because once in a while a thrashing round some single track is fun, though Thetford won’t convert me to an East Anglian MTB’er. For that I would need *ahem* mountains. Perhaps for my brother’s next birthday that’s what we should look for.