The last two things you expect to find in Wales are sunshine and wallabies. As it turns out, there are plenty of both. Who knew?!
These wallabies are a particularly lively bunch, hopping around in front of the hotel where I’m on a weekend cycling break with friends. Three days, three tough mountain bike sites, including the long anticipated Bike Park Wales.
Scrambling around last minute panic packing, I’m only slightly disturbed to see that my bag mostly contains chocolate, tea bags and red wine. What else could I possibly need? Oh, bike, mustn’t forget the bike.
The plan (ish).
Day 1: Cwmcarn
Day 2: Afan Forest
Day 3: Bike Park Wales – a resplendent, purpose built trail centre with that holy grail of downhill singletrack riding…. An uplift bus service
The whole group holiday experience is a bit of a novelty but, following hot on the wheels of last month’s Snowdon adventure, a few of the gang are reassembling for a blast around some of the best of what the Welsh mountains have to offer. We’re a somewhat eclectic bunch sporting a range of bikes, abilities, accommodation preferences and ailments. The one thing that we do have in common however, the willingness to slog up and hurtle down mountains with abandon.
Two days in to the trip and we’ve scratched the surface (some of us literally) of both Cwncarn and Afan.
The former was another new experience, and one that didn’t disappoint. Cwncarn dishes up a long, steep beast of a climb at first but one which leads in to some spectacular downhill riding, technical but not – at my speed at least – impossible for those of us lacking in skills, finesse, competence etc…..
The descent is a real delight (and nearly worth the climb up), steep, berms and rocky chutes which funnel you down the mountain side, whether you want to go or not. Plenty of time though to hone those essential trail skills such as the handlebar death grip, rictus mouth, saucer eyes and prolific swearing.
There’s also a very musical commentary from the rider behind me in a series of screams, yelps and whoops as we crash down the trail. I’m constantly startled in to thinking something awful has happened to her, but when I turn round to check she’s laughing, high as a kite on adrenalin. I give up checking on her though when, taking my eyes off the trail to look behind, I veer heart-stoppingly close to the plummeting trail edge. Must focus!
My ‘brave quotient’ is definitely being put to the test here after last year’s crash but Bob, my new 27.5” full-suspension bike, is riding really well and, despite my fears, my rusty skills are re-emerging. Trail done we’re all a little high on single track addiction. Thankful to be in one piece though I opt out of a second run down (even though I now find out there’s an uplift service!!) and join the other deserters for post ride ice cream.
Having written extensively about the highs and lows of Afan in previous posts, both the trails and the bizarre attack whilst camping there, I won’t go in to more detail, suffice to say that day 2 saw White’s Level and Blue Scar completed without incident other than the odd rider-ground/rider-tree collision. I’m grateful that, for once, my only fall involved a graceful, slow motion leap after erroneously misjudging a rock pile. Fortuitously I somehow eject off the bike just before he rolls over the side of the narrow mountain track, the only damage being some paint work (and some pride).
Bob the bike however, was having less of a good time. Prior to Afan we’re merrily tearing down the motorway with the bike trailer behind a white van had pulls alongside, its occupants waving excitedly.
“Friendly people here” I thought, perhaps they’re keen cyclists.
Turns out they may well have been or at least didn’t want to be taken out by a flying bike. Glancing in the side mirror at the trailer my heart dropped through the floor on seeing that Bob was no longer on it.
Veering across 3 lanes of traffic before screeching to a stop on the hard shoulder, trucks thundering past I was expecting the worst, a flattened or completely absent bike. Thankfully, by some miracle from the karma-fairy, Bob was still on board, be it only just; held on by two thin wheel straps after the frame bar had detached itself. These two wafer-thin bits of rubber being the only things tethering him to the trailer at 70mph.
Giddy with relief the driver, also one of our group, sheepishly reattached the bike using multiple cords, locks and belts before resuming the journey at a decidedly more sedate pace.
One of the most enjoyable parts of a trip such as this, aside from the stunning riding, is doing it all with other people. A motley, but enthusiastic collection of people, cars and campervans roaming around the Welsh country side, looking for places to skid around on 2 wheels. What could be better? So far I’ve learned that groups are particuarly great for:
- Trail camaraderie (people to laugh at you/your mishaps), support and encouragement.
- Pooling previous experience (I’m sure I recognize this trail/tree/bush…)
- Help with mechanicals
- Sharing the highs and lows and dissecting the day
Things that work less well however mostly involve the process of collective decision making.
Trying to get a consensus out of a dozen different, outspoken humans is not easy. Doing so without losing one’s sanity, hmm. Such fine examples include the making of any plans for any of the following…….trail preference, the time to meet for breakfast, whether to stop for coffee/snacks/toilet/bananas, the time to meet for dinner, whether to go out for dinner, whether to stay in for dinner, what to have for dinner, when to start riding, what you do when you are riding, when to stop riding and go to the bar. Somehow though we muddle through with all of us adults managing to eat, wee, vaguely get up on time and even cycle. No mean feat at times I can assure you.
The other great function of groups of course is to generally lead you astray. Thus it was I found myself on the evening of day 2 cheerfully pouring copious amounts of red wine into tea cups (being the only receptacles available) and toasting our riding prowess well into the night. This wasn’t going to end well……
Inevitably it didn’t and I start the next day with that predictable jaded feeling. Not quite a hangover but a combination of too much exercise, too much wine and too little sleep. I vow never again (as always) as I tether Bob to the car and say a heartfelt goodbye to the wallabies, who unsurprisingly couldn’t care less.
There’s a palpable air of excitement though as our eclectic convoy draws in to the car park at Bike Park Wales, disgorging a disparate collection of (somewhat hungover) riders and bikes. Everything is heading out on the trails today from hardtails to full-sus’s, 26” to 29ers, cheap knock arounds to full carbons and a rented downhill bike built like a tank with front forks so big it was more like a Harley Davidson than a mountain bike.
Now, there can be a fair bit of snobbery around purpose built trails/trail centres but for my part I can’t think of anything better. From experience they are usually beautifully and lovingly crafted, well drained for all weather riding and designed to give maximum enjoyment. What’s not to like. And in this case BPW contained the crème de la crème, an uplift service meaning, big fanfare please, no riding uphill.
After 2 days scaling the Welsh mountain sides I could have cried with joy.
The end result? BPW did not disappoint. Right from the off, even the trail down to the uplift was exhilarating. Taken at speed whilst following in convoy I was getting air (jumping) without trying or even wanting too. After a particularly perky bump launched me into the air at speed and off the pedals I had to make a concerted effort to slow down – this was new.
To be fair, with trail names such as Melted Welly, Bush Wacker, Willy Waver and Terry’s Belly?!!, how could we fail to enjoy ourselves. On this occasion I stuck to the blue trails, rather than some of the more extreme reds. Even the blues though, taken at speed were thrilling.
Kilometres of steep, flowing berms (banked corners) corkscrewing down the mountainside and plunging through forests, over roots and stony paths. Jumps mid-trail could be rolled over or tackled with minimal effort (or skill), given any speed you were flung into the air without trying. Hurtling down after the other riders also gave the opportunity to push faster and harder, I was riding on the edge of my skill limit but loving every moment of it.
Some of the descents were controlled, some less so. One especially hair raising moment came after someone suggested I try cornering higher on the berms, to use more of their natural momentum. Pedalling enthusiastically I of course completely misjudged the edge, sailing straight to the top, precariously teetering on the lip, a steep drop below and no means of control.
Fate mercifully let me off with a caution this time and at the last second the bike nosed round and down rather than over the edge into oblivion.
I’d assumed the uplift service would make things easier riding wise – and it certainly helped cutting out the 45 minute slog to the top – but the amount of adrenalin generated by the trails ate rapidly through any remaining energy I had, especially after the previous 2 full days of hard riding .
A lunch stop gave welcome respite but also a frustrating wait for the afternoon uplift service. The park runs a 2 tier queuing system for the lift, those with Gold passes (which sell out online, months beforehand) and my one, the Standard ‘Proletariat’ buy-it-on-the-day-and-take-a-chance pass . This it seemed entitled you to mostly stand in an adjacent queue watching jealously as the gold guys took priority on the buses. Us proles were only loaded once all gold passes were cleared. There were a lot of gold pass holders.
Frustratingly the queue after lunch was particularly slow moving and we could only watch with envy as the gold queue hogged the buses, some of the pass holders were even re-joining the queue for their second or third afternoon runs by the time we finally got going again.
After an hour of waiting however I finally scored a bus seat and the afternoon flowed with the trails once again.
5 runs down in total and I’m exhausted but with the biggest smile ever etched on my face. And this is why I love the sport. After the crash that took me out for so long I was doubtful if I’d ever get on a mountain bike again, but it’s like a drug. That adrenalin hit keeps you hooked and when it goes well, when you feel yourself improving and riding better, harder, faster it’s the best feeling in the world.
Heading home, exhausted, bruised and stupidly happy I’m buzzing with contentment. Time spent outdoors, time spent cycling and best of all time spent with friends, is the best combination in the world. Now I just need a month or two to recover!
Banner photo credit to: http://pixelperc.com/the-brilliant-bike-jump-wallpaper-intended-for-invigorate-desire/