Heading off to Wales for a week of mountain biking, it began to get a bit disconcerting after the 11th text message which said
“Have fun, don’t hurt yourself too much”.
I don’t know if these concerned messages were indicative of my (lack of) skill or just the perception my nearest and dearest have of the sport.
However as it turned out, the very real danger was to come from somewhere wholly unexpected.
[For explanations of MTB terms see Glossary at end of post!]
With Britain as close to summer as it ever is, it was definitely time for a holiday, so a friend and I decided to squeeze mountain bikes and camping equipment into my tiny car and head off to the left hand side of the UK for a bit of off road adventuring.
After doing practically no research, we’d decided to head to Afan Forest Park in South Wales [Link], a mecca for mountain bikers from around the UK hundreds of kms of trails and single track, much of it purpose built.
Set in the glorious Welsh countryside, the park utilises the many soaring and precipitously steep hills to full effect to provide technical, challenging routes and terrain.
After a supposedly 3 hour drive which actually took 6, we were glad to arrive at the campsite situated at the trail head for 3 of the main routes.
Pitching the tent we were flummoxed to hear what sounded like heavy rainfall only to be looking at clear blue skies?
Then the plague descended. Hundreds upon thousands of midges (small black flies) which swarmed towards all things human. Within seconds we were engulfed by clouds of the little b**tards which flew up nostrils, down ears, crawled in hair, all the time biting away.
Swatting and cursing we dived for the tent, which turned out to be only a brief respite as the midges exploited the smallest holes in the fabric to join us inside. Needless to say a fairly miserable night ensued.
With no respite the next morning we made a pact with another ravaged camper who helped us hurl our gear into two cars and head for another camping spot at the main park centre.
A good start to Day Two!
Fortunately, and somewhat bizarrely, despite warnings of similar critter mobs the new campsite was midge-less. It was also pretty much just a field which is by far my preference. Tent re-sited we couldn’t wait to just get out on the bikes, which we did under darkening skies.
All the trails at Afan are classed as ‘difficult, only suitable for experienced mountain bikers’ then further graded from blue (easiest), to red and black (hard core).
Not certain that my few months of MTB riding on heathland wholly counted as ‘experienced’ but I was game to find out as we tackled the category red 14km Penhydd trail.
Some exhausting climbs were forgotten when replaced by steep, twisty downhill sections of slippery single track. Flying through berms, hopping off rocks and quite frankly holding grimly to the handlebars, the descents were hair-raising, pure adrenalin.
This completed in one piece it was time to tackle the The Wall, 23km, red trail climbing steeply up the side of the valley through misty forests, rising into the clouds before some near vertiginous downhill and single track littered by rock gardens, bogs, boardwalks and many other obstacles. All with a precipitous drop down the side of the valley if your wheels strayed just inches from the track. Getting to the bottom of each section of single track was a strange mix of elation, muscle strain and utter disbelief that all limbs were intact.
Day one of riding duly completed with just one wipe-out, a few more bruises and a big sense of accomplishment.
Day Three dawned wet but thankfully midge-less and with a great opportunity to try out some serious bike kit. The Marin brand were offering free one hour trials of some of their top end bikes. I couldn’t believe that, in exchange for one paltry driving license, I was being allowed to cycle off with a Mount Vision, £3,000 worth of beautiful Full-Suspension mountain bike. The rep at the bike stand assured me none had been stolen…..so far!
After riding my hardtail bike, the full-sus was a springy, cushioned revelation, weighing in at an equal/fractionally lower weight it was also surprisingly light. The killer brakes were a unique experience too, leaving me literally stopped in my tracks. But by far the best feature, for me, was the wonderful dropper seatpost. This nifty piece of kit works in a similar way to your office chair, using gas compression to raise/lower the seat at the touch of a button. True, one had to press the ‘Up’ button with caution or the enthusiastically propelled saddle flew upwards at an eye-wateringly lethal rate, but this great device saved a huge amount of time and wasted leg power by allowing the rider to quickly adjust the saddle for all terrain whist on the move.
When I next have £150 to spare I will seriously consider one.
Reluctantly returning the bikes afterwards, a rest afternoon beckoned, time to relax after such a thorough, adrenalin based workout. What I didn’t know was the fear and danger I’d felt on the trails was about to seem like a holiday compared to what was to come next.
Settling down in the tent that night the campsite was peaceful and practically deserted excepting one other, as yet unseen, camper. With a rain storm setting in and sleep approaching we were suddenly roused by the staccato sound of shouting and swearing.
It sounded like the prelude to a fight yet the only other camper was definitely alone.
Assuming it to be a one off we again settled but the shouting returned. Over the next 30 minutes the bizarre episodes continued in intensity and frequency, full of vitriol and menace but mostly incomprehensible.
It is at this point you realise how being in a tent can really disorientate perception, sound, spatial sense having no sense of where this person was in relation to us.
At the sound of smashing glass the situation became alarming enough to start gathering together a few things and preparing to leave but that opportunity never came…….
Moments later the threats were coming from directly outside the tent, a male voice, threatening, swearing, telling us to get outside.
Scrabbling for car keys and a phone, adrenalin coursing through my entire body, heart hammering, a survival instinct kicked in.
In the past I’ve worked a lot in secure mental health units and addictions centres. All my professional training is to remain calm, not agitate the situation, appear compliant, non-threatening, and where possible – to get away!
Just then the front of the tent caved in, kicked to the ground by the attacker outside who kept on pummelling the sides.
Crawling through the entrance now pinned to the floor we emerged to a dark, rain-swept night and a stocky, muscled, middle aged male ranting and throwing wild punches.
He wanted us gone, for some inexplicable reason of his own, Hands and arms spread wide in a gesture of placation, we backed off quickly, assuring him we were leaving we headed for the car parked nearby, me shoeless, just in shorts.
Locking the doors we drove the short journey to the main car park, the centre was deserted at this time, no staff on site, but the first call was an 999 emergency one.
The police who responded couldn’t have been more lovely. On the scene within 10 minutes our assailant was swiftly arrested. There then followed a lengthy night of statement taking at the town police station. Finally completed it was near 3am when we pulled back into the centre car park.
The adrenalin had long worn off but I was beyond exhausted and at the thought of returning to the tent the shock set in, shaking and tearful I refused wholly to get out of the car – which is where we stayed, listening to the rain and waiting for dawn.
TO BE CONTINUED……….
Berms: banked corners which make you fly and go “wheeeeee”
Full-Sus (Suspension): Springs on both ends
Hard Tail: A bike with front suspension only, or a sore bum.
MTB: Mountain Bike
Rock Gardens: Annoying lumps of rock embedded in the ground which spoil a perfectly good trail, or a technical challenge depending on point of view.
Single Track: A narrower bit of path to fall off on
Technical Section/Ascent/Descent: Multiple opportunities to fall off
Wipe Out: Parting company from one’s bike
Pinnacle Evolution hardtail mountain bike.
Frame: Pinnacle A6 Alloy Custom Butted
Forks: Suntour XCM with 120mm travel
Derailleurs: Shimano Deore M531
Shifters: Shimano Deore
Chainrings: 44/32/22 tooth Chainrings
Cassette: Shimano HG50 9spd, 11-34T
Brakes: Hayes Sole
Rims: Mavic XM117 32 hole
Front Hub: Shimano M475 Disc Hub
Rear Hub: Shimano FH-M495A-L Disc Hub
Tyres: Continental Explorer 26×2.1″