A History of Northen Downhill.
When the common perception of northern England is the geographically central Manchester where does that leave the ‘real’ North? Off the radar, that’s where. Separated from the rest of England by a wild, green, gulf, the northeast is isolated, autonomous and invisible to outsiders. The urban centres, between Tyne and Tees, are cut off by a wide belt of rugged and menacing wilderness. It’s easy to grow up with the impression that the rest of the country doesn’t really know we’re here. It’s in this wilderness where you can find some of the UK’s newest and most challenging mountain bike trails.
Today, the northeast is home to a growing number of official trails, a busy network of riders and a calendar of well-run events to suit all abilities. It’s never been easier for a beginner to get involved and find their level, while older riders are coming out of the woodwork and wondering what the hell is going on. It wasn’t always like this. Someone had to pull their finger out and start getting stuff done. I recently spoke to just one of those people.
If you’re a DH fanatic living in the northeast then every ride starts with a lot of travelling. The well-established downhill venues of Scotland and Wales are mostly unreachable except for special occasions. As for the Alps, well you’re lucky if you manage one week a year. For Carl Davison and Phil Grimes this was too much hassle, expense and not enough riding so the hunt was on for a new playground somewhere in the many, many unused local hills.
The first candidate was Kielder forest, which has some of the biggest hills around and, just as importantly, an excellent network of access roads. This was Carl and Phil’s first attempt at acquiring permission to construct a purpose built DH track with an uplift route and it looked promising. It was also the first encounter with the Forestry Commission and their ravenous appetite for paperwork. Six months of bureaucracy and hoop jumping ultimately came to a dead end but it was suggested that they should check out the hillsides of Kidland.
Deep in Northumberland Carl and Phil found a hill with everything they needed. They finally got to work building a track that would challenge experienced racers at a time when they were crying out for more technical racetracks and their nightmares were about to come true. As a bonus, Kidland stands facing its equally fierce twin, Alwinton, which would eventually come into play and provide the second venue in an all new, ground up, race series.
Northern Downhill was born as a way to run a race series that made racing easier and more accessible for the many riders living in and around the northeast. For Carl a large part of the satisfaction comes from the fact that they not only started a successful race series but they built their own tracks from scratch and didn’t have to piggy back on anyone else’s efforts. Racers aren’t known for mincing their words about track design and can be very demanding on a good day and extremely critical on a bad one. But, there was a lot of very sheepish, wide-eyed racers on that first day of practice in Kidland.
The stand out characteristic of both Kidland and Alwinton is the alarming gradient. “I did worry that we’d gone over the top”, says Carl as he remembers bikes and bodies being separated and tumbling down the hill. Practice was a learning experience more so than normal and the attending racers had to raise their game that weekend. By race day everyone was up for the challenge and survived mostly unscathed. Everyone left feeling heroic for having tamed the beast and the local grapevine was buzzing with news of a mental new track in the middle of nowhere.
If this all sounds easy, it isn’t. When asked if he had any advice for anyone wanting to host an event Carl says simply, “Just hire me. You collect the money and I’ll run it.” Fair enough. It’s taken years to build NDH and a lot of that time has been spent swamped in paperwork. Risk assessments and emergency plans have to be written. Due to the remoteness of the locations things like mobile phone reception areas have to be identified. You have to seek permission from the locals to use their landlines in an emergency, inform police and hospitals about the event and supply the coordinates for a landing spot should you need a rescue helicopter. Your entire plan of action and intentions has to be written down in minute detail not once but twice to satisfy both British Cycling and the Forestry Commission.
In the last five years NDH has had its ups and downs but Carl (now going solo) has just closed the book on the most successful season of racing and events so far. All of these pictures were taken at NDH events in 2013 and as an outsider looking in everything appeared to be well run and well received. I noticed a lot of happy riders at all events and a distinct lack of whinging.
Carl still loves downhill above all else and continues to run a slightly reduced race series with three rounds and a handful of uplift days being enough to satisfy the locals. The advantage of having your own uplift vehicles, timing gear and a family full of willing volunteers means that you can experiment with different formats and the most well attended events this year have been Enduro style. The Hamsterley and Chopwell Trail Bike TT races have taken place on existing and fun (but less lethal) red and black trail centre routes.
The less intimidating nature of these events have seen well over a hundred riders turned out on all kinds of bikes. People can get a taste for racing using their everyday bike and there’s a much-increased turn out of women and children, which can only be a good thing. It should be noted that even these apparently less ‘hardcore’ races still attract a handful of World Cup downhill riders who are more than happy to give you a time to aim for. Both of these events will be run again in 2014.
At the end of this year the festivities moved back to Kidland for NDH’s first attempt at a more professional Enduro format. “We tried to run the kind of Enduro event that we would like to ride. People have these bikes that they can ride the downhill tracks on but by being able to pedal uphill in sections we can double the amount of descending compared to the DH run.” The challenging terrain and versatile bikes certainly makes for a full day out. The event was a hit with riders and will return next year along with a similar event at Hamsterley.
When I first quizzed Carl on the logistics of running Northern Downhill my eyes quickly glazed over in a blizzard of facts and figures. He is not only a mountain biker who wants to promote and facilitate the shared enjoyment of his passion. He is blessed with the tolerance of desk-bound tedium that it takes to actually make these things happen. We should support people like this because without them, absolutely nothing would ever get done.