A winning Formula at BikePark Wales
14 Jan 2014.
Date of Visit:
2 Jan 2014
If it’s this good in the wet, then it will fly in the dry...!
Since opening it’s trails in August 2013, BikePark Wales has already gained a stellar reputation on the UK mountain bike scene, with some claiming the purpose built bike park as the UK’s answer to Whistler! So to break in 2014 and attempt to ride off a lingering hangover that was already more than a day old (way too many Jägerbombs on New Years Eve…) I headed up to the valleys to take a look. Wales has a reputation for rain and true to the stereotype it was wet, windy and cold. These conditions usually turn the average MTB trail in to something of a muddy bog, so going in to their first winter of operations it would be interesting to see the capacity of the bike park to deal with the wet. And given the gale force winds, severe storms and flooding that the UK was experiencing at the time if they could cope with this then they could cope with anything!
The fantastic new welcome centre where all the magic happens.
In the Beginning
Only a 25 minute drive north of the Welsh capital Cardiff, BikePark Wales sits on the edge of the old mining town of Merthyr Tydfil. At the foot of the Brecon Beacons, the area is famous for it’s massive coal production in the late 19th century, helping make Cardiff the largest port in the world at the time. The bike park was the brain child of Martin Astley and former Welsh National Downhill champion Rowan Sorrell, who began the whole process 5 years ago, and with the help of their other halves Anna and Liz have finally realized their vision. Established using finances from a mix of private investors and government funding provided through Cognation, they have also personally invested in the project. As a dedicated purpose built bike park developed and run ‘by riders, for riders’ it stands out as a unique enterprise when compared to most other mountain bike trail centre around the UK. Opening day saw over 800 riders hit the trails, and with word spreading fast the park already boasts a full-time staff of 16 to keep things ticking over.
The bike park is super easy to find, located right off one of the roundabouts on the A470 that bypasses the town. Parking is free and there’s plenty of it, although on super busy days this might get more tricky. Once inside the main centre, the first requirement is registration using the iPad stations just inside the main doors. This is basically an acceptance of risk and safety. Fill in your name and address and acknowledge that you understand what you’re about to do - all standard stuff. You’ll only have to do this on your first visit though - if you’ve been before then you can head straight to the desk to pick up your pass - a paper band that wraps around your handle bars, different colour band depending on whether or not you have the uplift included. Will get to the uplift details in a moment but worth mentioning that a day pass to ride the trails is only £5 - incredible value for money when you see just what’s on offer!
The next step was a bike and there’s a fully equipped rental (and sales) shop on site if you happen to have left your wheels in another country! One of the main co-sponsors of the bike park is Trek, who provide an impressive line up of rental bikes so I got setup with one of the flagship technical trail bikes, a Trek Remedy 9. The process is simple and reassuringly thorough - I was talked through every aspect of the bike by Phil, one of the techs on hand that day. It was the most comprehensive intro to a rental bike I have had at any bike park - they will not let you leave without understanding what you have got and exactly how it works. Also need to say a massive thanks to Mark at the shop for lending me the SPD’s from his own bike!
Not hard to miss - follow the signs to get yourself to the uplift van!
And so to the uplift, which comes in the form of a buses, with the bikes on a rack towed behind. These run up and down a forest road, starting just down the hill from the bike park centre - follow the trail with the signposts to the uplift! Each vehicle has the capacity for 16 riders plus bikes on the rack. On the weekends there are 3 vehicles on the go to support the higher demand, and this reduces to 1 or 2 as required during the week. A day pass for the uplift will set you back £30 (which include trail access), and it is absolutely advisable to book your place via the BikePark Wales website well before your visit as places fill up fast. But if you decide on a visit at short notice and it’s all booked up, all is not lost. Whilst you wont be able to buy a day pass, there is the opportunity for single-run uplifts, £4 per lift paid directly to the driver. There is a separate queue for single lift riders right next to the main uplift queue, so if there’s space on the bus then the driver with take your money and get you on! And this can happen fairly regularly if people don't show up until later in the day, or as was the case for me, left early - very wet and very cold!
One of the 3 BikePark Wales uplift vans, each with space for 16.
The bus will wait ‘a reasonable amount of time’ for riders at the bottom so will set off up the hill without a full load if there are no other riders in sight. It only takes about 10 minutes to get to the top, and a couple of minutes to unload before it’s on the way back down again for the next load. On average, it will beat most riders back down the hill. Supposedly it’s possible to get up to 15 runs in during one day - would be interesting to know if anyone has set a record yet!? And don’t forget that the drivers stop for a lunch break from 1 to 2 every day so suggest you time your own breaks with that.
Once all the practicalities are out of the way the serious stuff can begin. The trail network boasts a total of 25 ‘named’ trails, with an approximate equal split of intermediate (blue), advanced (red), and expert (black) trails. These all drop down from the top of Myndd Gethin (the name of the mountain) at 491m altitude, down to the lowest trail point just below the visitor centre at 230m, giving roughly 260m (853ft) of vertical descent to play with. It was all created by UK trail design specialists Back on Track (one of Rowan’s other ventures) and the work that has gone on here cannot be overstated - every inch of trail appears to have been lovingly designed and built to ‘fit’. The bike park has a professional trail crew for maintenance and new trail building, 2 full-time and 1 part time. Billy and Stewart make up the full time crew and obviously start early. It had been super wIndy overnight so the guys conduct trail sweeps to check for fallen trees and other debris, and I ran in to Billy coming off the hill on his quad bike when I arrived at about half 8 in the morning. Their biggest challenges are draining and ‘armouring’ - basically using rocks, gravel etc to toughen up the trails to protect them from weather erosion and general erosion/damage from repeated sets of bike tires shredding down them. Managing sustainable trails for high frequency use in this climate is most definitely a full time job! Make sure you check out Billy’s entertaining BikePark Wales blog, the Wackerplate, as it will keep you up to date with trail closures and new trail developments.
Trail Crew guru Stewart at work on the Beast of Burden singletrack climb.
One of the locals looking worried. What? We're in Wales! Got to mention sheep somewhere in here...!
For those interested in an ‘all-mountain’ experience (or if you missed the uplift), the first trail you’ll hit is Beast of Burden, a 4.6 km climb starting just behind the visitor centre and running right to the top of the hill. It starts on an old double track which opens up in to a wider fire road, before entering some tight, twisting purpose built single track in the woods. Near the top it opens out again for a straight line blast up to the peak. The whole thing takes between 20 and 40 minutes depending on your fitness and hangover state. Not particularly fun on a downhill bike, although not impossible, and there’s a section of gradually climbing fire road running parallel to the tight single track which makes things a little easier. On a bad weather day, it’s bleak at the top. It’s pretty exposed when you come out of the tree-line and when there are high winds you don’t want to hang around long. The SAS train in the Brecon Beacons about 15 minutes north of here so it’s tough-people land and not to be messed with!
With a trail name like that you probably should think about the question!!
From the top, all trails lead off from the same point and you have 5 choices to start with - 2 blue, a red, and 2 black, but numerous other trails lead off these main ones as you head down the hill. The general rule is that the blue trails are machine built, flowy, gravel based, not so steep and suitable for all rider abilities. The red ones are more technical, based around natural single track with rocks and roots. And then the blacks are more of the same but generally steeper and with some big hit features thrown in the mix.
In the open near the top - one of the many little drops on the fast and fun Wibbly Wobbly trail.
The recommended trail to hit first is Sixtapod, a classic rolling trail with berms and jumps - the longest trail at Bike Park Wales and a great one to start a day of downhill. This turns in to Willy Waver which leads you back to the uplift pickup point, but if you’re climbing back up you can forego the last bit of descent and rejoin the Beast of Burden trail to start the climb from a little higher up. Wibbly Wobbly is a cracker and lightening fast too, especially at the top with machine-built berms and small jumps, before turning to more technical single track when you hit the woods. BonnyVille is a great little section of trail with some steep technical twisty sections which are tricky in the wet. Rim Dinger must have been named due to the obvious risk of banging up your precious wheel-set as it’s littered with jagged rocks of all shapes and sizes, but it feels great to pick your way through them at speed and come out the other side unscathed. Towards the end of the day I ran in to a couple that had travelled from Scotland for a week’s mountain bike break in the area. Dave and Tania were busy taking a few holiday snaps so I joined them and we got a few good shots of those guys coming through the rock gardens of the Zut Alors trail.
Dave Stocks on the rocks of the Zut Alors trail just below the uplift road.
In an effort to explore properly, and of course to work off the Christmas turkey, I actually rode the climb 3 times before using the uplift. What I started to realize was that you feel like you get much more descent than you earned on the climb up. This is obviously brilliant! I don’t particularly like climbing, and when out on general all-mountain rides I always get a niggling frustration that the downhills are over far to quickly and sometimes don’t justify the hard slog up in the first place. But here, you’re actually descending for quite a while. The trails have been built to flow, feel fast, and yet still make the most of the altitude and not bring you back down too quickly. And at the same time they’ve achieved a gradient that doesn't feel too gentle, frustrating you with a desire to go faster.
On top of this, the UK had been experiencing some of the wettest and miserable weather ever on record - a sustained few weeks of storms, gales, rain showers etc that had caused widespread flooding, property damage, downed trees etc. And yet, out on the trails there was very little evidence - no muddy quagmires to be found. Sure it was wet - there were a few puddles, but drainage was excellent and there were just no deep mud-baths to clog up your rear mech and stick to your tires. So if it’s this good in the wet after the weather they’ve had, you can be sure the trails will be bat-out-of-hell fast in the dry!!
The pump track and the jet wash. No more explanation required here...!
Keeping you moving
The general facilities of Bike Park Wales are on a par with the trails - they give you everything you need! The Woodland Cafe is the place to hangout, recharge, re-fuel etc, with an alpine-chalet style wood burning stove in the corner to dry off if you get caught in one of the regular downpours. There’s a great selection of grub available throughout the day thanks to Ryan and Morgan, who run the show there. Fry-ups, baked potatoes, sandwich selection etc. and of course a wide choice of cakes and other goodies to get your energy back. Most are baked by Ryan himself. You need to check out his signature flapjacks - these seem to fly off the plate and he basically can’t bake enough of them, so get one first thing in the morning and carry it around the hill to avoid missing out later in the day. Main meals stop at 3.30 but you can get sandwiches right up until they close at 5. And you can even grab a beer at the end of the day! The bike shop is well stocked and designed to keep you moving. They are happy to work on road bikes too, so if you’re there as a mixed group of riders and others want to explore the miles of mountain roads in the area then no problem. There are no changing rooms on site but there is a shower in the gents so it is possible to get cleaned up post-ride. I didn’t personally check the ladies as I’ve got in trouble for that sort of thing before but I’m reliably informed there’s a shower for the girls too! Finish the day off with a few laps on the obligatory pump track right outside the front of the centre, and of course there’s a jet wash round the back to clean up your bike before throwing it in the car. Outside of the bike park there are plenty of other activities to keep you entertained. Wales has a reputation for some pretty serious all-mountain riding and there is plenty of riding to explore in the Brecon Beacons, as well as any other outdoor activity you can imagine. And it’s also close to the bright lights of the capital Cardiff, so bring your town-shirt just in case you feel the need to hit the bars.
Clockwise from top left: The bike shop, the Woodland Cafe, Mark, Rowan and Phil talking tech, and Ryan in the kitchen baking cakes!
A Winning Formula
BikePark Wales was created with the clear goal of providing the mountain bike community with professionally built, maintained trails, with an uplift service. It did not grow from an original industry like many ski resort bike parks, and is not an ‘add-on’ to activities at a more general outdoor activity centre looking to cash in on the growth of mountain biking. It was created specifically to do a job, and it does it superbly. The whole setup - from process, to facilities, to trails etc, is excellent. Given that this is their first winter of operations you might expect some teething troubles - repeated days of torrential rain are likely to reveal issues not previously considered. It is a year-round bike park, and with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, they are open every day, so dealing with whatever weather comes along is fundamental. But by the looks of it there’s not much that would bring things to a halt - they’re ready to deal with anything! And at only £5 for trail access, it’s also incredible value for money. There is plenty of further development planned for the future, with an expansion of the trail network and a number of new trails already scoped in full. And naturally there will be an increase in car parking to accommodate the increasing visitors! Expect some big events to be hosted this year too.
Huge thanks to Martin, Anna, Billy, Stewart, Tom, Dave, Morgan, Ryan, Mark and Phil for showing me around. Get down to BikePark Wales when you get the chance.
A slick professional operation that gives you everything you need.
Just a bit too much rain but that can't be helped!