The rise of the trail centre, the death of mountain biking.

I'm not 100% convinced that the rise of trail centres is killing off mountain biking; we all know that the massive popularity of road cycling is doing that. However I do feel that trail centres are partially to blame for destroying the free spirit that once was mountain biking. Back when this game all started, mountain bikes were just that; tools to get you out into the country having fun, a way of exploring the environment. That was way niche, something for those of us attracted to the idea of growing beards, wearing hemp and eating raw road kill. But it worked and the sport grew. Yet there was always an element slightly afraid of the countryside and the need to use maps. Maps frighten a lot of people. So when some rather clever people invented the trail centre, such things proved ideal to those who wanted to explore the great outside but who didn't feel inclined to kill and eat squirrels. Trail centres in the UK have proven hugely popular, and for a time the only way to ride them was to buy a bike. Now bike shops have got their acts together and have a fleet of hire bikes at very reasonable rates; £30 for a decent hardtail bike, or £50 for a full suspension bike. So you can now have a decent day out, not get lost, have some fun, but give the bike back without having to do routine maintenance or clean the thing. What's not to like? Even my local bike shop did a similar thing, and it makes you think. Why spend £4,000 on a blinged up susser, lose £2,000 in depreciation in the first year, spend £400 on maintenance, ride it ten or twelve times and worry each day that it will be stolen, or hire one ten times for £500?

I've spoken to a few people who have been interested in buying a new bike. Given them cheerful advice and they've gone off to bike shops. Each time they've returned a bit more confused than when they went in. 26", 650b or 29" wheels? Rigid, hardtail or susser? Beach bike? 9, 10 or 11 speed? Triple, double or single chainset? Are you going to use a dropper post? Road bias, XC, freeride, downhill or trail centre? Interested in enduro at all? Steel, ali, carbon or bamboo frame? What's your budget? We've bikes from £200 right through to £7,500.

Bugger; I just want a bike. I don't want a degree in differentiation.

A few have since discovered the dreaded hire bike. Pop along to a trail centre, and for £50 you're on a bike that 99.9% of the mountain biking population can only dream of owning. For £1 more you get an helmet. You don't have to invest weeks' and weeks' of time getting to know your local area bridleways or find out how to use a map; just turn up at 9am, get the best bike ever, follow the little blue signs for three hours. Take my recent experience. For the last two weeks' I've been getting to know Dartmoor on my bike. This involved the following:
  • Find accommodation with secure bike storage. Harder than it sounds.
  • Buy lots of maps and look on dreaded forums for possible advice; beard and sandals optional. Have suspicion area may be a bit of a struggle ride wise. Not helped that our house is 2km from bit marked "Danger Area" on map. Hmmm.
  • Set the car up to carry the bike. This means £350 on Thule gear.
  • Fill car with bike gear. Really. You have no idea how large an helmet really is until you have to pack one away.
  • Travel for 6 straight hours to Dartmoor in traffic because I couldn't stop for fear of said bike being stolen. Achieve all of 26mpg at 62mph maximum. Argue with wife and children. Everybody else passes at 90mph in blissful, happy ignorance looking like post-nuclear families should.
  • Spend first seven days exploring trails to find that they are a bit crap. Get a bit depressed.
  • Clean and maintain bike whilst on holiday with my family instead of having fun with them. Notice dents in frame and chips in wheel rims.
  • Find excellent trails near end of holiday. Trails within 3km of house after all. Ho hum, must improve map reading skills.
  • Spend seven hours getting back. 27mpg this time as you do 59mph maximum. Tedious.
  • Inspect bike; muse over damage, such as a small stone embedded deeply in one crank. Bugger.
Bit of a faff isn't it? Instead of the above I could have spent £150 hiring a decent bike at the local trail centre for three days of calculated decent riding. No hassle, possibly more fun, zero maintenance. For me the exploration was part of the holiday, but even I'll admit that the lost time actually finding trails that were fun was a bit harsh. It took me seven days exploring to find trails that were not outright bogs. The trails I did find were excellent, but that's not the point really; I'd blown half the time finding them. Why not just roll up to a bloomin' trail centre and ride great trails instantly?

It makes huge sense doesn't it? This hiring a bike, pop along to a trail centre, get the job done. There's no real reason to buy a mountain bike any more is there? How can I convince somebody to spend serious money on an hobby when the alternatives are so appealing, and the reality of ownership so harsh? Trail centres now give you pretty much everything you need from mountain biking but without the associated time cost or initial, rather confusing investment. Plus if you still want to ride a bike, just buy a road bike [on ride-to-work scheme] in pretty colours. Job done.