28 December 2017

Long distance mountain bike routes

Whether a once in your lifetime challenge or an annual adventure, long distance mountain biking is growing in popularity. Winter months are an excellent time to make new travel plans so time to sit down with Jonathan Halstead, founder of Total Terrain. Total Terrain is a platform that brings together some of the major existing long distance off-route routes in the UK and and discovering new epic routes. 

When and where did your passion for long distance mountain bike routes started? 
I've been mountain biking for many years with my children, gradually pushing my skills so I could keep up with them! As they started to grow up and do their own thing, going to a bike park lost its attraction, and I wanted to do something different and more exciting. Also I had more time on my hands, so I took a few months out to go around Spain, off road, through all of the major mountains in 2013. Starting in Malaga I headed north and east through the Montes de Malaga, and the Sierras Tejeda and Nevada. Then turning north I rode through the little known Sierras de Cazorla and Segura, and up to the Pyrenees. And finally I went west along the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, and along the north coast to Santiago de Compostella on the pilgrim route the Camino del Norte. The full story is in my book, Three Wheels on my Bicycle, available on Amazon.

In the course of doing this I found having an established route made life a lot easier. This was the case in Andalucia (see www.transandalus.org) and the Pyrenees (http://www.transpirinaica.com). Whereas when I went up the east coast I had to make the route up which lead to many dead ends in the middle of nowhere. So coming back to the UK I decided to set up a portal to bring together all such routes in the UK to help others. We may expand to Europe on day too.

You've mapped 11 routes in the UK, from classics like Lands End to John O'Groats and the Highland 550 to less familiar itineraries like the North Wales Coast to Coast.

Are there certain criteria a route must meet before it gets included in the TT route platform? 
There are no hard and fast criteria - the main thing is that the routes are mainly off road (one can never get 100% off road in the UK) and they contribute to building a network. So some are very long, running hundreds of miles, while some of the link routes are quite short. But they all build up to a network so riders can make up their own mind where to go. There are also a lot of different grades of difficulty and for the routes we have developed, our riders have recorded this in the route notes so people are not caught out unawares. For more established routes with their own websites, we just provide a link to that site, so riders will have to rely on what's available there.

Bikepacking seems to attract more enthusiasts over the last few years

How do you explain this? Is it just the increased media attention or is it the urge for adventure, being alone in nature that appeals to more and more people? 
I think the urge to explore and be out in the wilderness is a big driver; but it's an urge many people have always had and has previously expressed itself through trekking, kayaking, or even bivouac paragliding. So what's changed in our community is, I think, the technology that has enabled that urge to express itself through MTB. Bikes are light enough and have multi-terrain capabilities; so you can get them up steep gravelly inclines, but they won't let you down on a tricky descent either. And the clever tyre configurations mean off-road tyres won't be too much of a drag on the inevitable few miles of metalled road. Then you also have the development of light camping equipment and a variety of bags and panniers to fit even full-suspension bikes. And finally the availability of GPS to allow groups such as us to map out and disseminate routes for the use of others; if you had to carry all the detailed paper maps you needed for a long-distance route on your bike, you'd have no room for anything else!

Total Terrain works with volunteers. What is their role, how can people help? 
The volunteers have been absolutely brilliant. They have been out in all weathers mapping both new and established long distance routes, and also shorter link routes that bind the long-distance routes into a network. Their role has been to record routes on a gps and send through the file to us for posting on the web site. They have also made brief safety notes to describe the difficulty of the various sections of routes, and highlight difficult parts. We have not done the old-fashioned "turn here" route notes as, of course, we have satnav files now instead.

We have almost finished our initial target of routes and link-routes, and have a pretty decent network coming together. So we now need to sit back and see where we need to do further work. For example, we don't have much down the east side of the country, and I think the whole of the canal tow-path network could be added in. So we will have a call for more riders going out in future. But more immediately people can help by publicising the network to their mtb community. Now that we have a decent network, 2018 will be more focused on getting the network ridden and enjoyed by all.

Is it a matter of time before TT will cover more European long distance routes? Could you name some epic long distance routes in Europe you'd like to map and document any time soon? 
We do intend to expand to Europe at some stage, and have some European routes available. I mentioned 2 before and my route around Spain is also recorded on satnav files. As for new routes, I reckon there must be a good one from the Med to the Baltic: start in Sicily, then go up the Apennines, over the Alps and along the Iron Curtain trail. I hope to do this in the next year or two, and if anyone out there is keen to join in, let me know.

Where to start? How do I prepare for such a journey?

Some final advise for people that never rode a long distance MTB route? 
You have to have good bike skills first, and be very independent and calm in a crisis. These are key to getting you through the inevitable difficult and sometimes dangerous parts. Ironically a huge level of fitness is not needed - you may not be super fit to start, so just take it slowly, and you will be fit by the time you finish! But you do need to be fit enough to ride for a full day at least. Also, don't try it without testing your kit and abilities in a safe environment first. Maybe a short ride and a camp out over night for example, just to make sure you know how everything works. Check out the "Equipment" section. If you are doing it in a group, make sure you get together and have an agreed way of dealing with different skill and fitness levels.