Bashing over another gnarly obstacle, I plunge down through the thick forests at speed. Neither the past nor the future have any space in my head. There is only room for the here and now as I test my skills against the precipitous red run, heart pumping, brain fully focussed on just taking the next berm; tackling the next jump. Welcome to Laggan Wolftrax, one of the most thrilling mountain bike centres in Scotland, an oasis that is thoroughly woven into the local community. It’s an attraction too where big things are afoot this summer whatever your skill level, whether you’re here solo, or with the kids in tow.
A Joyous Two-Wheeled History
Ironically given how popular Laggan Wolftrax is today, it came about by a happy accident. When the Forestry and Land Scotland and government were scouting around for sites for mountain bike centres that would benefit local communities – as a resource and through tourism - Glenmore near Aviemore was earmarked. But then nesting capercaillie were spotted and the plans were abandoned. Laggan stepped in and the rest is joyous two-wheeled history.
“We have a beautiful site here and it’s very valued by the community and mountain bikers. This year we’re expanding and we really want to welcome in both more locals and ‘temporary locals’ to our forest”, beams Cristian Pizarro, Business Development Officer at the Laggan Forest Trust.
The Laggan Forest Trust is a community-run organisation with charitable status. It was founded by the Laggan Community in 1998, and its aims are directed at conservation and environmental protection, community and rural regeneration, and the provision of recreation and leisure facilities. The Laggan Wolftrax Visitor Centre was opened in April 2015 with the support of the Cairngorm National Park Authority (CNPA) and Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) to provide permanent facilities for the established mountain biking trails. The Visitor Centre, run by the Trust’s trading arm (a subsidiary company), operates as a Social Enterprise providing employment for the local community. The Centre and Cafe are a social enterprise too, owned and run by the people of Laggan Community. The directors are unpaid volunteers, staff members are paid the real living wage and all the profits are reinvested to support the work of The Laggan Forest Trust (LFT).
Visitors to the trail centre are fundamental to the success and sustainability of the Visitor Centre and Café. Pizarro says bringing local produce into the cafe is a focus too – “We source meat for the café from a local butcher. Vegetables can be harder as some of the pre-Covid options have been slow to get going again, but we always strive to make our fresh food as local as possible.”
The Visitor Centre provides employment from the local community through the Laggan Wolftrax Cafe and other small forestry operations. They employ six-seven equivalent full-time staff, with seasonal workers brought in too. They are also very proud of their network of volunteers. Pizarro says, “We have very active volunteers helping out all over. Some of our volunteers are more mature, but many of these people are also still active riders. For trail work, we also work with groups who specialise in fixing up trails all over Scotland. We engage heavily with the local Strathspey branch: Badenoch and Strathspey Trail Association. Throughout our operations, we strive to give youngsters opportunities to help them learn new skills and gain confidence.”
Inclusiveness is the Key
The organisation also deliver cycling participation programmes, including mountain biking skills development courses. This year they are working with a number of local primary schools. Children are being offered four learning sessions to really give them a head start in biking. Primary schoolchildren are coming in for a four-session course, learning off-road cycling skills after a pilot last year surprised many parents. “The parents could not believe how much the kids really got into it,” says Pizarro, “They didn’t have to drag them here at all and they thrived with new skills they can go on to keep using and developing.”
Pizarro sees the inclusiveness of Laggan Forest Trust as key – “We want to facilitate an inclusive and inspiring mountain biking trail centre that enables and encourages people to engage with cycling in all its forms, regardless of their background, gender, age, ethnicity or ability.”
The first trails were opened as far back as 2004, then were joined by further trail openings in a second stage in 2009. There are currently a quintet of runs, which - after a recent re-grading - are marked as one easier green, three challenging reds and one very testing black. The huge news for summer 2023 is the opening of a new blue trail, the easiest of the skill level ratings.
Pizarro explains the rationale behind the new blue trail: “We really want to broaden our appeal to more families and attract less experienced riders. Everyone can come to Laggan and learn the ropes on this lovely new blue. It will be very family-friendly.” Work started this spring on the - as yet unnamed - blue run. Take your kids up this summer for the chance to help name the trail as they plan to find the name harnessing the imaginations of visiting children.
They already have a superb bike shop on site. Its e-bikes are back this summer too after supply issues during surging Lockdown demand. There are rental bikes and gear for all the family too. Also new this summer is tuition. “In the past, we’ve brought skilled freelance instructors in, but this year we’re establishing our own tuition set-up. So anyone can come here and learn how to develop and hone their skills,” says Pizarro.
The Value of Working Together
Tying very much in with some of the aims of SCOTO, Pizarro realises the importance and indeed value of working with other community groups and private businesses. “We want to see Strathspey as a whole develop,” he says. “When we do well, there are opportunities for the local bike shops and for other businesses working in the private sector. Our numbers are back to pre-Covid levels and as we keep on developing this can only be good for local restaurants and accommodation providers.”
The main focus and fame of Laggan swirls around mountain biking, but there is the opportunity to ride off-road trails on and beyond their land, as indeed I have done with a brilliant ride out over the hills to the beach at Loch Laggan. “We are always looking for ways to develop what we do and get people trying things like off-road cycling,” says Pizarro. “We can work on things that feed into the existing infrastructure. We are invested in the vision of Visit Cairngorms and the national park.
Not ones to rest on their hard-won laurels, there are more future plans too, as Pizarro concludes: “We have solid plans for developing campervan facilities. These are lacking in the local area. Then glamping is also on our radar. We’ve just revamped our website too so the local community and anyone wanting to be a very welcome ‘temporary local’ should check it out at www.lagganforest.com.”