It all started with a Jack Russell called Zak.
Back in 2005, when all mountain bikers rode 26ers and everyone had inner tubes, Cannock Chase was mainly known as a forest where you might go for a family walk on a sunny day. With the exception of a few ‘off-piste’ bike trails that only a select handful of locals knew about, mountain biking wasn’t really a thing at Cannock Chase.
Fast forward to 2022 and Cannock Chase has just hosted the cross-country mountain biking event of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, an event that was watched all around the world and showcased exactly why Cannock Chase is one of England’s top MTB locations.
So how did Cannock Chase become so synonymous with mountain biking despite the lack of hills and mountains, who are the volunteers that made it happen, and just what has a Jack Russell called Zak got to do with this?
A local rider called Gary Galpin was one of the first people to see the need for a more structured approach to mountain biking at Cannock Chase.
Along with some of his regular riding buddies, he formed Chase Trails, a volunteer group with the goal of creating a properly constructed and signposted route within the forest. With the permission of the landowners, Forestry England, Gary set about trying to encourage local riders to give up their Sunday mornings to start building trails.
“The lowest points were in the early days when I would turn up on a Sunday morning and no one else would arrive. I’d end up just walking through the forest looking for the best places to mark out the trail. It was slow progress in those days; it took a good 18 months before we got four or five volunteers who would turn up regularly”.
It was on a morning like this when the trail was named, as he walked through the forest with his Jack Russell, Zak, for company, Gary simply ‘followed his dog’ in search of the best location to build the trail. After that, the trail became known as Follow the Dog and the name has stuck since then.
Trail building became an art form for Gary and the rest of the Chase Trails volunteers, this wasn’t just a case of heading into the woods with a couple of shovels to make some jumps. They set out to build a seven-mile-long loop that made the most of the gentle undulations of the landscape. But more than that, they set out to build something that worked in harmony with the surroundings, building sustainable trails that didn’t have any negative impact on the forest.
“We tried to use materials that are indigenous to Cannock Chase. I’ve always opposed the use of surfacing materials that aren’t natural to the area. I wanted the trails to feel like they are just natural forest trails but with added sustainability. Cannock Chase is an area of outstanding natural beauty so a mountain bike trail should never risk changing this, there are things to consider when choosing a surface material, if we started using limestone, which isn’t natural to the chase, eventually it would change the pH balance of the soil and in turn could eventually affect what grows out of the soil. We wouldn’t want to be responsible for changing the landscape.”
" I’ve always opposed the use of surfacing materials that aren’t natural to the area. I wanted the trails to feel like they are just natural forest trails but with added sustainability."
As the trail building progressed and word spread, more and more volunteers began arriving on those Sunday mornings, eventually leading to a series of ‘Big Build Days’ in which volunteers were organised into groups to tackle certain sections of the trail and were rewarded for their hard work with a barbecued lunch in the forest.
A local sand quarry donated much of the surfacing material after Chase Trails approached them to discuss their project. This subsequently led to 60 tonnes of sand and gravel being moved hundreds of yards using only wheelbarrows; a prime example of the generosity shown by both local industries and the volunteer trail builders.
Follow the Dog turned out to be a massive success. In the months and years that followed the initial opening, Cannock Chase grew progressively busier, with hundreds of mountain bikers turning up to ride the trail every weekend.
It was a commercial success too. Those hundreds of riders paid their parking fees to Forestry England, bought post-ride coffees and bacon sandwiches in the trail centre cafe, and eventually there was enough of a demand for a bike shop to be opened right there at the start of the trail, offering bike sales, parts and servicing.
But you could also argue that the trail became a victim of its own success. The more people that came to ride it, the more work that the Chase Trails volunteers had to put in to maintain the trails. Wet winters with heavy use meant that sections of the trail suffered from erosion, forming deep ruts full of mud. Put simply, it became obvious that another trail was needed to share the load.
An unofficial trail known to locals as the Monkey Trail had been built by some local riders in an effort to move away from the busy official trail, and this proved to be a great starting point for a new official trail. Only this time, Chase Trails weren’t going to be completely reliant on volunteer man hours to get the bulk of the building work done. This time around, Chase Trails took more of a back seat approach, advising on the route and flow while Forestry England picked up the project, securing funding from Sport England and employing a trail building contractor to get the trail built quickly.
“Having money from the grant meant a totally different approach to building the trail, it meant we could employ a contractor to machine build much of the trail. Follow the Dog took 6 years to build; people wouldn’t wait 6 years for phase 2.”
If mountain biking was becoming popular after the opening of Follow the Dog, it exploded after the Monkey Trail was completed. The trail was built as an extension of Follow the Dog, adding another loop that could be completed as a figure of eight, along with the original trails. With added technicality and steeper ascents and descents, the Monkey Trail took it up a notch for the local riders, adding black-graded features to challenge and develop their riding.
"Follow the Dog took 6 years to build; people wouldn’t wait 6 years for phase 2.”
It didn’t take long for word to get out about what an incredible offering Cannock Chase now had for mountain bikers, and its central location with nearby motorway links made it a quick and easy adventure for mountain bikers in a catchment area of millions.
From humble beginnings and a handful of dedicated volunteers, Cannock Chase was suddenly a key location within England’s mountain biking scene.
With Cannock Chase becoming such a hub for mountain biking in England, it started to become apparent that there was nothing aimed at the entry-level rider. The existing routes were graded red and black, with nowhere specifically tailored to new riders looking to improve their skills. That’s when another Gary comes in, this time Gary Kelsey, the site manager for Forestry England at Cannock Chase.
“In 2015 I started planning what is now the new blue trail. We got all the agreement and had that plan passed, but we had no money to build the trail”.
Then, when Birmingham’s bid to be the host venue of the Commonwealth Games was successful, Cannock Chase was immediately earmarked as the potential venue for the cross-country event, and that opened up the options to secure funding, as Forestry England’s Recreation Manager, Andy Harvey-Coggins pointed out.
“We have wanted to further develop our cycling offer at Cannock Chase Forest for a long time and being selected as the mountain biking venue for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games really was the catalyst to make our dreams a reality. The funding from Sport England allowed us to develop our mountain biking offer and make the forest a cycling centre of excellence for the West Midlands.”
In the early stages, the Commonwealth team wanted to build a small section at Cannock Chase, specifically for the games. But Gary and the rest of the Forestry England team were set on having something that would last well beyond that one-day event.
“We needed new trails that would be a legacy, not something that would just be forgotten about. So we went away as an organisation and got funding from Sport England and British Cycling. Because we were hosting the Games our application had a bit more gravitas”.
What was built due to that funding will be around long after the Commonwealth Games have ended, but more importantly, it will ensure that the next generation of mountain bikers will love Cannock Chase too. As part of the funding agreement, a small Pedal and Play section for children was built near the trail centre, designed to encourage young children to improve their bike skills before they progress to the newly built Perry’s Trail.
“We needed new trails that would be a legacy, not something that would just be forgotten about."
The trail was named after the Commonwealth Games mascot, a bull called Perry, and will always serve as a nod to the Games and their help in developing Cannock Chase. The trail itself has already become a firm favourite with locals. Whereas Follow the Dog and the Monkey Trail are steep and technical in places, Perry’s Trail flows with ease around a series of berms and rollers. As an introduction to cross-country mountain biking, this trail will provide endless hours of fun for newcomers.
The games themselves created an incredible one-day event that was watched worldwide, showcasing the trails and the surrounding areas, highlighting the fact that anyone can visit Cannock Chase and jump on a bike for an afternoon of pure joy. It was a proud moment for Forestry England, Chase Trails, and all of those volunteers who broke ground and started turning this small forest into a world-class venue.
And to think, it all started with a Jack Russell called Zak.
For news, event updates, stories and more.