At the top of a dual slalom mountain bike track, I grip the handlebars and prepare to push off. The course is about to unfurl beneath my tyres: two parallel tracks, around 300m long and riddled with banked corners, or “berms”, and rolling bumps known as “whoops”. In the lane next to me, my opponent appears calm and collected beneath his helmet and body armour.
Happily, this is just a friendly contest – a fun afternoon tearing down the trails of Parkwood Springs, the UK’s only inner-city mountain bike facility, on the edge of Sheffield. But this weekend (17-19 March), local international downhill pro Steve Peat will race in earnest down a dual slalom track through the heart of the city in The Howard Street Dual.
Sheffield is fast becoming a centre for outdoor activities and adventure sports, and is hosting its second Outdoor City Weekender. This three-day festival features an international climbing competition; a road bike race that takes in seven of the city’s toughest climbs (including the gruelling Côte de Oughtibridge, which featured in the 2014 Tour de France); city orienteering; yoga in the plant-filled Winter Garden glasshouse; and the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival.
The weekender is part of an initiative to position Sheffield as the UK’s first outdoor city. It follows a 2014 report by Sheffield Hallam University (Everything grows outside – including jobs and the economy), which found that the city has the highest household spend on outdoor equipment in the country, and that outdoor recreation in the city generated £53m annually and created more than 1,500 full-time jobs, with more than 200 outdoor equipment businesses.
“The proximity between city life, outdoor adventure and rural escapes can’t be replicated anywhere else in the UK,” says Leigh Bramall, deputy leader of Sheffield city council.
Sheffield is a gateway to the outdoors: one third of the city sits within the Peak District national park and it is one of Europe’s greenest cities. It’s also a hotbed for climbing, thanks to its natural crags and world-class training centres, The Climbing Works and The Foundry. Famous climbers and mountaineers, including Joe Simpson, Pete Whittaker, Steve McClure and Shauna Coxsey, choose to live and climb in Sheffield.
Within the city itself, the Sheffield Parkour and Freerunning group lists dozens of central training sites on its website, including Peace Gardens, Hallam Square and the dedicated parkour area in Endcliffe Park.
At Parkwood Springs, the 2km of manmade mountain biking trails were created in 2012 as part of an initiative to regenerate the area, which is home to the derelict slopes of the former Ski Village.
I get to discover just how good the access to the outdoors is the morning after my mountain bike race, when I run from my hotel to the edge of the Peak District. The 7km route wends its way west, through Endcliffe Park with its duck pond and picnic benches, and into the thick woodland of Porter Clough, where mud squelches underfoot. I spot a heron fishing in Porter Brook, before running up a series of bridges and arriving at Ringinglow, where the landscape opens up to fields of grazing sheep and swathes of moorland – all under an hour’s jog from the city.
I switch my trainers for cycling shoes to explore further afield on my road bike. Pedalling along the tarmac with the city skyline behind me, the earth begins to buckle into gentle folds of heather before rising to long craggy escarpments of exposed rock. I have reached Stanage Edge, hailed by the climbing community as Britain’s best gritstone crag. It’s still close to Sheffield (less than nine miles away) and, should rain put an end to your climb, is only a 25-minute drive back to indoor adventures at The Climbing Works.
Yet this rugged landscape, today almost devoid of people, feels like the wilderness. But, having reached it all under my own steam from the city centre, it’s a most accessible wilderness.
• The Outdoor City Weekender, 17-19 March