Sheffield is THE place to go riding in the UK...

...thanks to Ride Sheffield

March 08 — 2023

Words and Photos by Tommy Wilkinson

Surrounded by a ring of hills, local legend suggests that much like Rome, Sheffield was built of seven hills. Indeed, this somewhat interesting “factual” observation serves two purposes - to highlight that Sheffield is incredibly geographically diverse, sitting on the edge of the Peak district, but also gives a nod to one of its defining characteristics - a strong sense of community and dry humor within that. 

Where there are hills, and rivers, of which Sheffield has a few, there is opportunity for mountain biking. Sheffield needs no introduction, nor do many of its favorite sons and daughters - World Champion’s aren’t uncommon around these parts as far as percentages go. While cycling performances on a global stage helped cement Sheffield's reputation as a hotbed of talent, it also highlighted the ingredients that lay behind these compelling stories - a myriad of trails that spread from the city center into the surrounding hills, moors and woodlands. It could be argued that Sheffield, England’s 4th biggest city, is widely regarded as THE place to go riding in the UK. 

As with any activity that grows and becomes popular, at some point in its timeline the need for a group to help manage its route forward emerges. These time periods can be exciting, painful, collaborative or divisive, what they are not, is easy. It is at this point that Ride Shefield enters the conversation, and like all good stories, it starts with a pub….. “Ride Sheffield came at a time when there was no real voice for riders in the city,” says Henry Norman, one of the key instigators of Ride Sheffield. “Changes were being made to rights of way, with routes being downgraded or smoothed over. I managed to get on the Local Access Forum, only to be told it was pretty pointless as mountain bikers were a disparate and voiceless bunch. Leave it with me I said…” 

Many groups will be familiar with this stage, where the 12” gets stuck on the needle, and the track repeats itself. However, Sheffield, the steel city, has a legacy of enduring movements that drive change, and Henry is a stubborn individual. ”Roll on a couple of months and we were gathered in the Lescar Pub (which has cemented its place in Sheffield MTB folklore) with over 60 riders. The demand was there, the plans were mandated, a core group was formed…. We were rolling!” 

This was back in 2009/2010. A lot has changed since then, not just in the core scene of cycling. The pastime has grown with the facilitation of a lowered entry bar, and no one can deny that well maintained, graded trails have brought a huge amount of positives to the simple act of putting rubber to soil, or rock, as can be the case in these hills. 

In the intervening years, Ride Sheffield have entered agreements with the council, wildlife trusts and more. They have built the “world’s biggest little race” in the Steel City Downhill, on a track that is managed and maintained by Ride Sheffield, and crowd funded the construction of a flow trail at lady canning’s wood. A paragraph is a disservice to the effort involved, but for most members, including Elaine Barber, this isn’t a burdensome, wearying task. “I enjoy riding the trails I’ve helped to build and maintain, and seeing other riders of all skill levels having fun because the trails haven’t been sanitized to death or eroded into a boggy mess. I also enjoy seeing people suddenly ‘get it’ on trail days, when they realize that trail maintenance can be fun as well as work!” 

Changing the narrative has been keen to Ride Sheffield gaining acceptance from other stakeholders around the city, and what were once unlikely alliances are now firm, collaborative working partnerships. The next step for Ride Sheffield is to build a new set of engagements - with a wider, inclusive and more diverse mix of people to help maintain trails. For Henry, the need has been clear. “We are lucky to have so many trails that are accessible from the city. But this creates some challenges. With so many miles of trail and a greater number of people using them, it is important to keep them in shape. Trail days have always been a core part of what we do, but have only been managed by a small number of people. We needed a sustainable solution to looking after our own built trails as well as reasonable chunks of the rights of way network too.” It is this part of the journey where PayDirt enters the prose. “A call out last year attracted almost 40 prospective volunteers, we have started training our first phase of 15 volunteers (hopefully with more to come in future phases). Each receives some clothing to help them keep dry and visible, training in the power tools that we use, first aid training as well as peer to peer support in sharing the best trail work practices and group management. When all are fully trained, this will quadruple our capacity. This means better maintained trails and the potential to expand our built trail in future.” 

Mountain bike trail worked on at the Ride Sheffield Paydirt Event
Young volunteer at the Ride SHeffield Paydirt Event
Volunteer raking a trail at the ride Sheffield Paydirt Event
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As anyone who has worked with or as volunteers, life has an uncomfortable ability to curtail well reasoned plans, so a deeper pool of committed, well trained leaders is vital for sustainability. People and cash are two things no organization can exist without. “Future hopes are to continue what we've managed to deliver as a few volunteers over the last 11 years, delivering more dedicated mtb trail projects and taking Ride Sheffield to the next level with more funding and more people,” says Steve Hardcastle, the groups treasurer. 

As part of this expansion, the first of a “super trail day” was held in April 2022, with over 40volunteers attending. Armed with all the tools of the trade, a complete upper section revamp of the much loved “blue steel” was accomplished. This is no mean feat, but further attests to the power of community, and the love for a favorite hobby. That said, this being a city of graftersand doers, a good helping of elbow grease, supported by pizza, will never go amiss.

Stoked volunteer at the Ride Sheffield Paydirt Event
Stoked volunteer at the Ride Sheffield Paydirt Event