The 2016 Scottish XC mountain biking series is back in March and this year Dunoon will be the focus of one of the six races. I took a short ferry journey from Gourock to Dunoon, on the Cowal Peninsula, to find out more.
What is Scottish XC?
Scottish XC – SXC – is cross-country mountain bike racing. The series includes six races between March and September.
Mountain bike riders complete as a set number of laps (of around 6km or so each) and depending on their age. So a race might last between 1hr 30 mins or 2hrs depending on speed.
Mountain bikers of all ages (minimum age six) race fewer laps per event and there’s also a two-lap taster race for new-comers. In recent years the SXC scene has seen a resurgence in numbers and many more males aged mid-20s to 40s, women and kids are taking part in the series.
What to expect in an SXC race
This is not cyclocross, although it has similarities, nor is it Enduro or downhill racing. It’s almost like a mash-up (as the young folks would say!) of all these disciplines. However, cross-country mountain biking did come first (some 20 years ago) and it’s more of a straightforward race with courses comprising a mix of firetrack, singletrack, climbs and descent.
Some courses can be technical in places but organisers will normally try to plan in “chicken runs” or riders can get off to walk their bikes. The most competitive riders will have their fitness, strength and technical ability tested while novices can “have a go” in the two-lap taster category.
SXC on the rise again
While the SXC series has been running for a couple of decades, a resurgence in all-things cycling has seen a boost to entries in recent years. Steve Brown, SXC chairman, said: “There was a time when SXC was the only off-road series in Scotland and it naturally drew large numbers.
“Over the years, the range of races for mountain bikers has grown and now includes downhill, cyclocross, BMX and Enduro, as well as marathons and 12 and 24-hour challenges.
“Consequently, rider numbers were diluted from the SXC heyday but in the last few years numbers are on the rise again.”
2016 SXC Series Dates
Round 1 – Laggan – 27 March 2016
Round 2 – Dunoon – 1 May 2016
Round 3 – Cathkin Braes – 22 May 2016
Round 4 – Dalbeattie – 3 July 2016
Round 5 – Fife – 21 August 2016
Round 6 – Forfar – 18 September 2016
In July, the SXC association will be running the British Championships at Cathkin Braes in Glasgow.
More about the Dunoon course
For the first time, Dunoon will feature in the SXC race line-up. The outdoors activity scene close to the ferry port town on the Cowal Peninsula has been fast growing recently and mountain biking is a big attraction.
A stunning forested area on Dunoon’s doorstep, including Auchamore Forest and Bishop’s Glen, is the setting for a newly created SXC course. This area features a wide network of natural and man-made trails, some of which are waymarked and others that can be found with a little local knowledge.
Many of the trails have been built in the last few years. The local riders believe a lot of the credit should go to an avid trail-blazer Tomasz Chlipala. Keen local rider Scutts says: “Tomasz is legendary around here for building new trails. He’s always out there doing something in the forest. It’s been great to see the growth of mountain biking in this area.”
What’s it like?: New Dunoon SXC course
I joined a few keen local mountain bikers, including Stewart, Scrutts, 16-year-old Tormod, and Scottish Cycling development officer Morven Brown for a ride on the new 7km course.
Morven wanted to make sure the course would fit into the SXC racing stable. The local guys were keen to show off their trails. Meanwhile, I simply hoped to stay in my saddle for as much of the lap as possible and to avoid injuring myself by falling off.
I confess I am not a highly technical mountain biker although I do enjoy cross-country riding. I am a nervous mountain biker at best and a low-confidence rider at worst. As the group set off I stayed at the back and was kindly looked after by Tormod’s mum, Helen.
The first section, ascending a wide firetrack was fine and non-technical. The up seemed to go on and on and if you were doing multiple laps of this course you might want to pace yourself on this section.
Alternatively, I heard the others saying that this would be the perfect place for a spot of high-speed over-taking!
The singletrack sections felt very natural as they snaked through thick greenery and dark forestry with numerous small ups and downs. I found myself quite challenged by the terrain, including wet rocks, slippery tree roots and mud. Yet, the others zipped along and hardly seemed to notice so it was clearly just beginner’s nerves for me.
The local guys also pointed out a river crossing section that will most likely be included in the course. When we arrived at the crossing the water was quite high but by May it’s expected that some extra stones and less water will make it a thrilling – but not a dangerous – water feature.
The lap also includes some fairly serious downhill sections. This is when I decided to get off to watch – and walk. If I had practised the route beforehand I would have been more confident about riding longer sections of this trail but the steep descents, rocky drop-offs and tight bermy corners were more than my riding ability could cope with.
It was impressive to see how the technically skilled zipped down these trails, seemingly only gently feathering their brakes and showing no fear of the descent or speed.
Another advantage from where I stood and watched was the chance to look up at the surrounding scenery. The views across the sea are spectacular from the peninsula. On a clear day it’s possible to see both ways along the Clyde river and estuary and, over land, as far as Ben Lomond in the southern Highlands.
While the SXC riders might not have time to look around as they race, I hope they still enjoy the truly wild feel of this brilliant mountain biking location.
Notes from the experts
Morven reckons the course has everything that SXC should have. She says: “It’s a perfect mix of challenging climbs and fun descents with wider over-taking sections in between. It’s certainly going to be testing, but I think it will quickly become a favourite with the riders. The area has an amazing wilderness feel about it despite being less than an hour from Glasgow.”
Teenager Tormod lives in Dunoon and is also a keen SXC competitor. He is hoping his local knowledge will provide a performance booster in this year’s series. His sister Niamh, 13, is an XC rider, too.
Tormod says: “I love this area for mountain biking because the range is so big. There is so much to enjoy so close to the town. I am also really looking forward to the challenge of the XC course. I think it will be a great place to hold a race in the SXC series.”
How to enter the SXC 2016
Check out the SXC series website and enter the full series or your chosen races.
Photos thanks to Ken Clark Photography.
- I was hosted on this trip by Dunoon Presents.