Words: Tommy Wilkinson
Photos: © Wilkinson, Strangeways, Collis, Robertson.
It’s a rare sight, and one that polarises opinion. The North-bound A1 has few sights to inspire the imagination between Leeds and Newcastle. Rounding the crest of the Western bypass at Gateshead is an emotion conjuring moment for anyone used to the wide open spaces of the North East.
To be greeted home by a 74 metre wing-span, iron angel seems to resonate with both men from the ship yards and those who count Black-Faced Cheviots amongst their work contemporaries.
Yet beyond this point there is still another hour and a bit of England left.
Moving through lands where life began, and often ended, in the coal pits and onto the still almost feudal based Alnwick, Northumberland is a county of complexity and glaringly obvious contrasting fortunes.
The summer brings hoards of tourists, who come not for the socio economic lesson but to see castles, pastures, history and the wide-open spaces that lead into Scotland. England’s most Northerly town, Berwick upon Tweed, has a latitude reading that places it further north than Innerleithen.
This real north of England, as we’ll call it from now on, is easily accessible but with huge swathes of military land splitting it from Cumbria, and a menacing north sea to its east, it is out on a limb in many facets of modern life.
And so it is with mountain biking.
The area has had a few corkers come ripping out from its pine-infested floors before. Jez Avery of all people kick started it; JMC took it to a new level and graced the likes of Simonside, Thrunton and the exposed heights of the Cheviots with his indomitable, ever lasting spirit.
Steve Barker, John Robson, Scotty Mears. Not household names but riders who could teach you a thing or two.
For years the county was a hot bed of what I’ll call mountain trackers, people who feel a somewhat strange passion for the constant churn and sound of gravel under wheel – fire road lovers. While Shropshire was taking on the country at downhill, Northumberland was only just discovering that wheels could be lifted of the ground.
This all changed around 2000, when a group of young men from a village that could have been the inspiration for Royston Vasey started exploring famous paths such as The Clennel Street via the humble bicycle.
These paths, used in darker times by the infamous Border Reivers made for some big rides in sweeping vistas, but there was an urge to get in amongst the Sitka spruce and roots. Speed was craved and to that end this band of merry men started to build.
I know this, because through sheer chance one of the club’s founding members, Michael Strangeways, wife worked in my school. As a 13 year old I was desperate to find these “hidden tracks” with jumps, roots and endless happiness. Find them I did, but I couldn’t find them again the next time and I had to stick to my pallet jumps for a little while longer.
Meanwhile, armed with a VHS recorder and a heap of Marin Mount Visions and Attack Trails, the lads were on full hoon in the woods. Some riders were going for style while others were making wind chimes out of GT Zaskar’s.
These unadulterated times of fun and humble beginnings couldn’t last forever though, and slowly other members were brought into the fold. What bike you had didn’t matter. How you dressed was irrelevant, Pinkbike or Vital wasn’t even a thing and the key component that you required wasn’t X11 but an aptitude geared towards fun.
Around 2001 the club became the Cheviot Hill Riders; with a Team-CHR add on for those who decided that gravity was going to help them ride their bike.
The once secret tracks became official, though more hidden gems were added, and the club started on the path towards where it finds itself today. Committee’s were formed, a dialogue with the FC was opened and BC club status was added.
The real stimulus for this was a group of younger riders craving more: becoming official enabled the club to get £4600 of lottery money to build a 4x track designed by Stu Thomson (of Cut Media), North Shore and jump trails at Whitsun Bank Quarry, high above Wooler.
This was one of the first dedicated bike parks in the UK, but it largely went unnoticed outside of the area.
The club was truly catering to the needs and wants of its members and was a huge facilitator in helping a few of us to go racing.
14 years later, the club has 70 members, a team – or shall we say collective – racing across Enduro, DH and long distance and find’s itself as one of the go-to sources of knowledge on cycling in the region.
In a sport that often carries various sub cultures, cliques and prides itself on individualism, it warms the heart to see such an operation being run in aid of the individual members without prejudice.
With space in abundance, it seems strange that the club has mainly had to stick to forest to create its riding centers.
Michael “ Stranga ‘ Strangeways has seen it all from the very beginning and explains
“As far as riding the Cheviots goes there are only a limited number of bridleways and although it is great riding it is highly weather-dependent due to being very exposed and peat bogs – we try to keep numbers low when we head into the hills and only ride certain areas at certain times of year to keep on the good side of local gamekeepers/land owners etc.”
Yet, such is the rugged beauty of the land that the Romans chose to avoid, that big rides are popular amongst club members once high summer shows her cards. Cheviot itself rises to a healthy, if modest 2,674 ft. while nearby Hedgehope and Wyndy Gyle are two popular rides that treat you to virtually unridden single track and views out to the coast at their highest ebbs.
This is an important fact as it shows the demographic of styles that Team CHR is working with. Every cycling discipline, possibly bar Trials, is catered for. The youngest club member is 8 years old and the oldest, (and most full of wisdom he’d like to add) is 54 .
The club’s geographical reach isn’t confined to Northumberland either with riders from as far afield as Leeds and Sheffield often coming to partake in the club organised “ timing days”.
These timing days hark back to the very first DH races and truly keep the spirit alive. Wooler Common is the perennial venue and what it lacks in elevation it more than makes up in creativity. Club members take turns at taping the courses and with a fully installed timing system plugged in; the “ Common” races have become a thing a legend.
Stranga, who is the brains behind these events, continues “ The timing days are aimed at helping younger members learn race etiquette and get used to the protocol before going to do a proper regional or national race, i.e walk the track, try different lines, don’t stop in middle of track, riding against the clock etc.. but being totally honest the older members enjoy it just as much (probably even more so); riding for the bragging rights over their mates – you can get more upset being beaten by your mates at one of these than getting a crap result at an SDA etc as the banter is just as full on than the riding!”
With entrants usually limited to 60, it’s not unusual to see the full spectrum of bikes and styles on the hill. Hardtalis aren’t confined to storybooks here and heckling is mandatory.
No one here is a pro rider and everyone works hard during the week to enjoy his or her weekend “ I work for a brewery and deliver beer across the country all week so having these events is something me and my sons really look forward too, everyone is encouraging and we get to shout our heads of at our mates. There’s always the personal battle with riders of similar standards too, that’s a big part of it “
One the most high profile club members, and a founding father is Ian Jones. Some may know him from races – he’s a British Cycling Commissaire but he’s most probably best known for being World Cup DH’s most famous marshal. Jones Seat at Fort William, or Marshall point 6 is a favourite amongst riders and spectators, but when he’s not helping keep the WC cogs turning he’s dedicating his spare time to organizing events such as “ Mole Race “ and “ Gravelanche “ and “ Hoonduro “ for riders through all seasons.
Winters are cold here, but lights are good and Jones has a way of getting riders involved “ Back when I was a postman, we were largely riding on our own as individuals, we then started going to watch a few NPS races at Innerleithen. It would be about 1996 that we started to riding together. The big thing about these little events is that away from races, it’s hard to get people together to ride. Doing the Commissaire thing has let me learn about organization and gives me a chance to put something back – and any money always goes back into the club to allow it develop further. The races are inclusive and I always try to give everyone a prize, no matter where they finish. It’s about fun in the local riding community “.
This inclusive format has seen the club have members race at every level and across the World – National Champions, BDS race winners, Maxxis Cup Podiums and World Cups – Not bad for a little known corner of England.
This comradely atmosphere has given members the confidence to visit riding destinations across the globe with friends from the same area and continues to do so, and Team-CHR are regularly seen acrioss the UK, though many people perhaps don’t realize the effort and affection that goes into making CHR work and gives the race top such credibility to its members.
It’s true that the club has changed with the times – while it is still fundamentally a facilitator for fun and creating friendships, technology has pushed the club into a slickly run body. Members can join the club only strava page, get access to timing poles for training purposes and the team gazebo and spares box is a blessing for those who race. As a BC affiliated club, insurances are offered and many are encouraged to take out individual membership.
Of course none of these things would have been achieved without the trail building ethic that exists in the club, with over the half the members carrying out trail maintenance and active in the creation of new trails. This is a key element that deserves attention.
Trails don’t make themselves and to me this is the club’s greatest asset, its legitimacy in being able to work with the FC in creating trails are both natural and sustainable in what can be a very wet environment.
Wooler Common and Thrunton Woods are both examples of how active dialogue can change perceptions and bring about excellent riding for everyone – none of which could have been done as individuals. The nuances of land ownership and management in Northumberland can be complex but through CHR things have became easier. Most trails are on the more natural side of things – there isn’t too much Whin dust around here.
The role of mountain bike clubs is going to become more important over the next decade as potential land and access reforms come into place. What CHR have quietly been doing over the last 15 or so years is creating a template for others to follow. It used to be seen as kooky to join a mountain bike club – perhaps in fear of stifling personality but that couldn’t be further away from where we are now.
If you’re struggling for places to ride, gaining access or have an idea to build something truly great, then CHR could be one of the best reference books you’ll ever read.
Thanks to all at “ Team – CHR “ who provided key information and images for this article. If you’d like to know more, you can visit Team-Chr.co.uk