The first thing that hits you is the chatter. A few days of mountain biking in Wales can take you to dense woodland and remote mountain peaks. You’d think that these are the sort of places you’d rarely hear a human voice. You’d be wrong.
We begin at Afan Forest Park in the Neath Valley, South Wales. There are over 62 miles (100 km) of trails across 39 square miles (64km²) of woodland clinging to the side of this steep, narrow valley. It doesn’t take long to work out why they call the area Little Switzerland.
Your ride can vary from the 29 mile (46km) long Skyline trail, featuring a 2,000 metre climb, to a couple of rookie trails right in the heart of this natural playground. It’s the kind of place that allows total freedom for visitors. Once you’ve popped your pound in the parking meter you’re pretty much free to go as you please.
Visitors who want a bit of expert guidance can head straight to the Afan Valley Bike Shed, which offers bike hire, repairs, tours and tuition. The living embodiment of all these useful skills is Ben Threlfall, a genial gent from Portsmouth, who has that evangelical love of the place that comes with choosing to make it home for his young family.
Ben leads us to the practice area. You soon realise that even the slightest undulation or the smallest berm (a banked piece of track) requires confidence to negotiate.
Ben is patient, and eventually leads the way for some singletrack action. This is really where Afan Forest Park comes into its own. It feels a million miles from anywhere, even though we’re just a few miles from the M4 motorway and less than an hour from the country’s two biggest cities.
First lesson: in order to go down you must first go up, and riding up singletrack trails is a skill in itself, with lots of loose stones, tree roots and sharp turns to negotiate. They call this technical. I call it hard work, and while exhaling through my ears I quietly vow to get my legs in some kind of order.
The other priceless piece of advice from Ben is that when you’re on a fast descent, it’s not advisable to jam on the brakes. 'If I hear the squeal of brakes, I know the rider is no longer in control of the bike.'
Mountain biking, as it turns out, is NOT as easy as falling off a bike."
We return to the Bike Shed richer for the experience. Ben asks us where we’re heading next. When we tell him, he responds with a knowing smile and a parting: ‘Good luck with that!’
Over a drink at the Afan Lodge Hotel, a wonderful Alpine-style retreat just a stone’s throw from the park entrance, I wonder what Ben meant by that laconic farewell. A few days later it’s vividly apparent.
Pure challenge, from first to last
The Slate Mines of Snowdonia are famous for roofing houses the world over and the Llechwedd quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog is as dramatic a backdrop to a town as you could imagine. Generations of people have worked hard and played hard here; and the singletrack trails here are the embodiment of that way of life.
They were set up by Antur Stiniog, a dynamic local organisation that puts on all manner of activities, including wild camping, fishing, kayaking and walking trips.
For mountain bikers, there’s a superb practice track, a very welcoming visitor centre and a café providing all the necessary carbohydrates to tackle its seven trails: three black, three red and a blue run (rides are graded black-red-blue-green, with black being the toughest). There’s also a van and trailer on hand to offer an uplift service high above Blaenau Ffestiniog, right opposite the famous quarry.
This is where a lot of the chatter happens. Imagine the polar opposite of a London tube journey featuring people wearing body armour with full-face helmets sitting in their laps. There’s so much adrenelin flying around it would come as no surprise if the van itself was fuelled on it.
“For me, this is what mountain biking is all about,” says Lincolnshire Ben. “The riding is a pure challenge from first to last, the facilities are brilliant and everyone’s smiling.”
Within seconds, he whips his bike off the trailer and he’s off on Y Du, a black run that leads him back to the visitor centre about twice as fast as he got to the summit in the van. It’s fantastic to watch these daredevil mountain-bikers in action, swooping and soaring like swallows on their way down the trails.
Wild riding skills
An arthritic snail might have fancied its chances against me, as I grunt and gasp my way down Drafft, the least daunting of the four trails, with tight, speedy twists and carpets of uneven stone slabs.
It’s a truism of downhill mountain biking that the slower you negotiate these kind of runs, the harder it is. There are at least half a dozen times points at which I exit a section and wonder to myself, ‘Did I really do that?’ Still, I make it to the bottom without any collateral damage and I’m happy to watch Ben and his mates head straight back up the mountain in search of further thrills and spills from the safety of the café, where an added bonus of making it down to the bottom comes in the shape of the legendary Kurdish pasties from nearby Model Bakery.
We stay in a converted chapel run by Glenys Lloyd, whose father and grandfather both worked in the colliery. I’m given a warm welcome, a key to the front door and an invitation to come and go as I please. On another day, I’d be heading out to Cell B, a brilliant bar, arts centre and music venue in a former jail and courthouse. Tonight, though, I can just about muster enough energy to make it to my bed.
Antur Stiniog had succeeded in switching on the hotels and guest houses of Blaenau to the needs of the mountain biker – chief among them a safe place to store their beloved (and often very expensive) bikes."
The Welsh Whistler
The latest addition to the must ride list in UK mountain biking is less than 30 miles from the centre of Cardiff, where a handful of people have been quietly working away in the dense Gethin Woods above Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales Valleys. The result is the most comprehensive array of singletrack routes and family friendly trails in the UK. It’s been called the Welsh Whistler, a nod to the revered mountain resort in British Columbia. But BikePark Wales will do just fine, thanks.
Again, the chatter is very loud and very friendly. I can spot accents from the far side of London – nudging into Essex. There’s a gang from Somerset, another from Northampton and a bunch of well-spoken gents from Surrey. Dave, the OAP biker, lives in Newport, just 30 miles away. He goes out three or four times a week and takes monthly trips to North Wales during the summer months. "You’ll enjoy today,” he smiles. “This place is special.”
BikePark Wales offers an uplift day pass, or you can pay just a few pounds for a park entry fee and ride up to the top of the mountain by road or on the uphill trail, Beast of Burden. From the top you can take your pick of the downhill routes.
What’s particularly smart is that there are several points along the trails where blue, red and black meet up, so you can swap according to your level of confidence (and they’re also hotspots for even more chatter).
Even at 9am the place is buzzing with people pulling bikes from vans and roof racks, making refinements with complicated-looking tools and diving into the visitor centre for a quick coffee before the first ride of the day."
The facilities at the visitor centre match the fantastic trails. Where else can you hire a £3,000 bike for a reasonable daily fee and enjoy a massive slab of carrot cake at the same time? I sit outside and soak in the atmosphere, as infant school kids buzz around the practice track with their bright, shiny helmets on.
It’s small wonder that people love this sport. Whisper it, but this mountain biking thing could you catch on you know.