Chasing the Dragon – Mountain Biking in Wales
It’s hot… really hot. I don’t remember it ever being this hot? We leave the greenery and shade of forest and ride into another clearing that provides zero protection from the uncharacteristically hot Welsh sun. Our eyes scan ahead and observe the rocky, dusty trail climbing its way up over another hill, on what appears to be its attempt to get as close to the sun as possible. A thought crosses my mind as I turn to Kat, my partner and semi-willing biking buddy for the week, ‘Since when were the trails ever dusty in Wales?’.
We’re in the Motherland, also known as Wales. A country that isn’t famous for a great deal, other than being commonly mistaken as a part of England. I’ve not been back to Wales for a number of years, now residing in Christchurch New Zealand. However in that time the Welsh biking scene has been quietly growing to rival the likes of Scotland and Northern England. Kat and I were back in South Wales on wedding business (not our own before you ask), so we decided to take the opportunity to ride some of mountain bike trail centres that had been developed over the last several years.
I grew up in South Wales, riding locally built trails at the nearby quarry. Due to the wet Welsh climate, the trails never really seemed to dry out, resulting in slippery routes (and roots), sketchy lines and if / when you did fall off, sliding uncontrollably down the hill side, much to the hilarity of your mates. I’d never been the biggest fan of riding at trail centres as the day seemed to solely consist of just turning up and riding a trail. Whereas I was used to spending the day messing about on a badly constructed tracks, spending more time hanging out than biking. So I was interested to see if the same enjoyment could be taken from riding professionally built, well made trails, while taking the opportunity to see parts of the country I had not visited before.
There are a number of points to note when arranging a bike trip to Wales. Firstly, when you have a world class biking destination next door in the shape of Europe, expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. Wales doesn’t have the altitude, chair lift access or mountain scenery. However it can offer difficult to pronounce place names, one of the largest steel works in Europe and a reliable climate of wetness. So it was a bit of a surprise when we arrived during a heat wave with temperatures in the low 30°C’s. This may not seem particularly significant, but in Wales they’ll be writing songs and telling stories about that heat wave for years to come.
The first stop on our mini South Wales bike tour was the Cwmcarn Forest. Located just over the border with England and easily accessed from the M4, the motorway that traverses along the bottom of the country. Cwmcarn is best known for its downhill trail ‘Y Mynydd’ (Welsh for ‘The Mountain), a 2km long track that flows and curls its way down 250m of vertical descent. A shuttle bus service is also provided, wittily called ‘Cwmdown’, which can save the tiresome cycle / push to the top. We opted to ride the ‘Twrch’ (Welsh for ‘Boar’) track instead, a Red grade, 16km long trail with approximately 300m of climbing.
After a bit of a cycle along a well formed, undulating trail, the route took on a more vertical, rocky nature, as we ascended to the top of the forestry park. It felt a bit of a slog at times and our effort was slightly undermined by a perfectly good, tarseal road that ran parallel to the trail, which ended at the same location. We battled on through the heat, my Welsh genes unaccustomed to such balmy weather and Kat not accustomed to this amount of exercise.
After an hour of cycling upwards, we finally arrived at the top of the trail and at the fork of two downward routes. We could either continue on with the Twrch trail, or take the alternative, Black Diamond graded route. I turned to Kat with a look of ‘please can we ride the black trail’ in my eyes. To which she responded with a silent rolling of her eyes, and so began our strange journey into the world of Welsh trail grading. The Black Diamond route essentially amounted to a gravel pump track, with a number of berms and table top jumps as it snaked its way down the hill side. We swooshed and whooshed our way down, all the while being cautiously mindful that at some point it was going to get a bit Black Diamond-y. We arrived at the point where the two trails merged, still expecting some large drop or unavoidable jump or something involving fire, but alas none materialised. Now don’t get me wrong, it was a fun trail and a more interesting route down than the Twrch trail. But we couldn’t help feel that it may have been slightly over graded. To put it in context, Kat is a very novice rider and she really enjoyed it!
Now at the bottom of the death defying Black Diamond run, thankful to be alive, we continued on with the rest of the trail. Now that the majority of the climbing had been completed, we were able to really start enjoying ourselves. The trail meandered through a number of wooded sections, all with a unique personality. One small positive of the regions high rainfall is that the forests are bursting with colour, with all the shades of green covered. The trail trundled through areas of dense ferns, mosses and smaller green, spikey vegetation things – which no doubt have a more elegant Latin name. The final section of the trail ended on an excellent piece of single track that twisted its way down towards the car park, via a 6 inch drop accompanied by two unnecessary hazard signs. Back at the car park where we started several hours earlier, we reflected on our introduction to Welsh trail centre riding. In fairness, for what the Twrch trail lacked in muddy, slippery, off camber corners, it made up for in variety of scenery, well-constructed and sign posted tracks and bargain parking fees of $2 for the day. The biking trip had started well, even if we did just turn up, ride and go home.
It was another Welsh scorcher the following day and this time we were aiming for Afan Trail Centre. Located depressingly close to the Port Talbot Steel Works, which legend has it was Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the Blade Runner world, are two trail centres on either side of the valley; Afan and Glyncorrwg. Both locations are more cross country based and provide a huge amount of varied riding with Green, Blue, Red and Black graded trails. Due to the continuing heat, we opted to ride at Afan on a short, Blue graded trail, called ‘Blue Scar’. A 7km trail that, according to the trail details online, provides ‘progression for riders who are very competent on Green trails who want to start looking at getting out on more remote and challenging trails’. So it was thought a little odd when we cycled past a Skull & Crossbones warning sign at the beginning of one of the sections. The warning sign appeared to allude to two bermed corners about half way down the track, which I felt may have instilled a certain level of fear into a novice rider, as opposed to providing a useful heads up. I doubt calling one of the sections ‘Widow Maker’ is particularly helpful either.
Although the sun had his hat on and the trail was completely exposed, with no forests to take shelter in, there was thankfully a nice breeze to help us through the ride. The dry, gravel topped track passed old ruins and provided plenty of opportunity to take in the view over the Welsh valleys. The trail then turned to an almost cobble like texture, presumably joining onto one of the old existing access roads in the area, as the trail began to climb. Our morale was kept topped up on our way to the summit with markers named ‘Round the Next Bend’ and ‘The Top’. Arriving the trail apex, there was the option to extend the trail by riding the ‘Penhydd’ (Welsh for Head Heart… or something), however we opted for some more Skull & Crossbones action as we headed down the hill side on a trail that wasn’t that dissimilar to the Black Diamond we had ridden the day before. Adding to the confusion of the Welsh trail grading system.
With the mornings ride completed and some lunch devoured at the local pub, the original intention for the afternoon was to explore the Skills Park just around the corner at Bryn Bettws Lodge. The park boasts multiple downhill tracks of various grades and a jump track to hone your skills on. However, something that I had failed to appreciate growing up in this area of the world was just how quaint it all was. We were deep in the Welsh Valleys now, an area steeped in mining history. Small villages dotted the hill sides, made up of narrow streets and even narrower terraced houses, all lined up as they followed the contours of the land. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves getting side tracked, exploring all the viaducts and abandoned mine shafts that littered the Valleys. The day coming to an end with a new appreciation of Victorian architecture, but no skills honed.
An enforced rest day was implemented on Wednesday by Kat. Not being an avid bike rider, she wanted some time to ‘actually enjoy the sunshine!’. The following day we opted for the more adrenaline fuelled and lazier option of an evening of shuttles and downhill riding at Bike Park Wales. BPW is the UK’s premier bike park, with a range of well-built trails covering everything from novice green tracks to Downhill Pro Lines, with very Welsh sounding names such as ‘Dai Hard’ and ‘Coal not Dole’. The park is the flag ship of trail centres in Wales and due to its popularity, day shuttle tickets book up months in advance. Luckily we were there during the summer and tickets were available for the Thursday evening sessions.
Here we were introduced to a new set of trail grading, based on the fact that we were riding at a ‘Bike Park’ as opposed to a ‘Trail Centre’. There was a noticeable difference in difficulty between the Blue and Red graded trails, and the Black trails were not for the faint hearted. Riding in the evening meant that the heat from the day had dissipated and with a complete lack of uphill riding to deal with, the evenings shredding was excellent. BPW was far more my thing, with an opportunity to chat amongst ourselves as we rattled around inside the mini-bus that was shuttling us to the top of the park. On the descent there were various features and sections that we could play around on with fresh legs from no upward cycling nonsense. A cheeky post ride beer and pie provided us some time to reflect on the evenings riding and it was easy to see why this place was so popular. If you are riding in Wales, or even in the UK for that matter, BPW is definitely somewhere to include on the list.
As the week was coming to an end and BPW had given me a taste of how we used to ride, minus the convenient shuttle service, I was after a dose of nostalgia. It had been years since my mates and I had ridden together up at the local quarry, so I arranged a final biking session before we flew back to NZ. The Welsh weather obliged accordingly with the heat wave coming to an abrupt end and being replaced with torrential rain. The bike trails quickly became slick to the point of almost un-rideable and any features turned into death traps – this was the Wales that I remembered! The rainy Sunday afternoon was spent riding the old downhill track we built as kids, with berms in the wrong place and jumps I remember being a lot bigger and scarier. With no mini-bus to take us to the top after each run, we were reduced to pushing our bikes up the slick, muddy slopes. Slipping and sliding everywhere in a slapstick fashion, as arms were waved frantically in an attempt grab the nearest tree branch for stability. The forest was drenched, amplifying the green colours of the foliage and the mist providing an atmospheric tinge to the afternoon. On reflection, very little riding was actually done, but the most fun was had, as we reminisced over the various crashes we had witnessed over the years and destroyed bike parts as a result. Finishing our day wet, muddy and smiling; it became apparent that the experience on the bike was less to do with the quality of trails, and more to do with the people you ride them with.