Or, how we nearly rode eight Welsh trail centre reds in 48 hours.
Words and pics by Chipps, from the forthcoming issue 82 of Singletrack Magazine.
Two riders, a nearly-big-enough car, and two spare days. Surely that’s enough to knock out the red trail of every trail centre in Wales? Or nearly every one? Or maybe a few? Chipps and colour stuntman Ben Washington give it a go.
Ben is eating some sort of dark brown bar made of compressed prunes. He’s been trying to cut down on the wheat. “It’s better for the flatus” he reckons, though I can’t see how his alternative is going to help either of us.
We’re sitting in the rapidly decomposing interior of his estate car, bikes and bin bags of damp riding kit in the back, listening to random rock music while negotiating a featureless, single lane, mountain road. In the rain. Our enthusiasm for riding mountain bikes has dulled a little, though that might just be the coffee wearing off. We still have a bit more to do in our self-imposed (and constantly evolving) quest to ride as many Welsh trail centre reds as we can in a weekend’s worth of time.
Before we do that, though, we should nip back in time to what in reality is only yesterday morning, but which feels like a week ago.
Early bird catches the coffee.
I’m good at getting up at 4.30am. Way better than 7am, or even 8am. 4.30am is ‘Time to go to the airport to fly somewhere sunny’ time and, as such, almost a pleasure to see. Today, however, it’s just the first piece of the puzzle.
The plan had been for my travelling companion, Ben Washington, and me to travel to South Wales on the Friday evening, perhaps getting a ride in before a pie and a pint, before embarking on our quest, on the Saturday morning. I say Saturday – it was actually a Wednesday, but neither of us had a spare weekend until October, so we improvised.
So that was the plan. The reality is that Ben had forgotten about some childcare obligations and our night-before drive was scrapped in favour of this now-morning drive in the pre-dawn from Yorkshire to South Wales to then start ticking off trail centres.
So, bikes in the car and away by 5am. Ben’s his tirelessly cheerful self, so much so that any thoughts of a pre-ride snooze are impossible… so we get down with the random iPod playlist and get our chat on.
So we get down with the random iPod playlist and get our chat on.
Our first destination is Cwmcarn’s Twrch Trail, where we’re meeting up with Alex, Ben’s colleague at Gore BikeWear. With the two of them proudly dressed in this season’s must-have colours, they are a riot of glorious shades and hues. It’s like riding with Team TicTac.
As we winch up the singletrack, Ben admits that he has some scores to settle here as he managed to knock himself out the last time he rode here. Alex too, seems to be a bit of a crash-magnet. Luckily, with them having to wait for me, my camera bag and lack of fitness, we’re not going to be setting any pace records on the trail.
The weather is that quintessential British ‘summer’ condition of ‘too damp for bare arms or just a jersey’ and ‘too hot for a waterproof jacket’. We alternately sweat and soak while being distracted by the vivid trail colours. It seems that this week is officially spring in Wales. The trees have all burst into leaf; the brightest, greenest leaves, enhanced in their ethereal glow by the dull skies above.
I’ve elected to go for a short sleeve jersey and a short sleeve waterproof. It works after a fashion, though it‘s still too warm for the mild, humid climb. The rocks are slick and the pace reasonably spirited. I can feel every mile of the over-indulgence of riding in the previous weekend’s great weather. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have resulted in great speed and fitness.
With the damp weather and grey skies, I’m beginning to wonder if this trip is a good idea after all.
With the damp weather and grey skies, I’m beginning to wonder if this trip is a good idea after all. However, when we get to the top, all is forgiven and forgotten. Keeping with our ‘ride the red routes’ idea, we skip the black option at the top, which from memory is a bunch of reasonably uninspiring tabletops. Instead we take the red descent. And what a descent! Sinuous and engaging. Enthralling. The trail is a sunken bobsleigh run with full-commitment corners that take a few turns to get into, but which reward with a blur of speed when you get it right as you take turn after turn of shoulders-down engagement. This is definitely the sweet spot of this trail. The ride continues through dark, dank woods and off-camber slatey slabs. Having ridden this trail when it first opened, I kept expecting to get the view of the village down past my left elbow, but the open view is shaded now by ten years of tree growth. The run back down to the car park is more of a woodsy, speedy experience, shielded from the civilisation just beyond the tree line.
Back at the car, we’ve only apparently ridden seven miles but we already feel that we’ve got it in the bag and it’s time for the drive to Glyncorrwyg.
The Secret Fleecy Pants.
One of the secrets of multi-ride days on the road is in your inter-riding clothing. It makes sense to get out of wet shorts as soon as possible, so Ben and I both have brought along our take on fleecy trousers. Mine are black. Ben’s are, well, tartan pyjamas. No worries though as we’re only stopping in mountain bike car parks among consenting adults… apart from when we desperately need diesel and Ben has to emerge from the safety of the car to fill up in his long johns.
With that episode over, we’re on our way again. Ben drives with the ease of a professional road warrior and sales rep. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the merits of each motorway services, as well as the ability to drive, talk, change lanes in apparent safety while putting toll road receipts into the wallet in his back pocket. I am, however, disappointed to find that his brand new Audi doesn’t have heated seats. How are we supposed to dry our gloves now?
We meet Alex in Glyncorrwyg again and suit up. It‘s windy and mild again. The staff in the caff reckon we’re lucky with the weather so far. We’ll see. Due to recent tree disease, much of the previously forested slopes of the initial hillside have been clear-felled and some of the routes have been rerouted. We now climb up the old downhill, with the climb top now in view for the whole thing, thanks to the bare hillside. The little rocky rollers and steps that once gave joy to riders on their way home for pie are now cruel obstacles to our upward progress. Saying that, the climb is mellow enough and we soon earn our height.
So far on the long climb, it’s been dry and mild, but after leaving the woods about halfway round, I start to feel the patter of heavy raindrops. Here it comes. Fortunately, the trails don’t change much in character – they’re still fast and flowy and the grip is still great, with much of the dark woodland still dry and peaceful.
Our final climb puts us at the top of the last descent, stretching its way down the bleak and naked hillside. There, snaking its way down the hill is the recently built final descent. It’s a lot more open and fast than the previous one that was our climb today. It’s also faster; much faster, with a better chance of things going wrong very quickly. As the boys tear down the hill, I fire off some shots and play catch up. The rain is really coming down now and I’m pretty much soaked to the skin through my jersey. Knowing it’s the last descent of the day, I don’t bother putting my jacket on. Nevertheless, I find my reactions slowing slightly with each subsequent bend and increase of speed. It doesn’t help that I can’t see much through my rain-streaked glasses.
Safely at the bottom of the hill, we spin up the valley and do the car park streak again, as no one appears to be around to offend and head to the café for some savoury food to keep us going. A huge beans on toast later and we say goodbye to Alex while Ben and I head off to Brechfa, our third trail of the day.
As we rejoin the M4, the skies clear and the road dries. Perhaps we’ve had our rain for the day. We’re running low on dry kit now too.
The drive to Brechfa is scenic and uneventful as we run out of motorway and plunge into the interior. The sun comes out as we pull into the car park and continues to improve. It’s even short sleeve weather for me. Ben, with his chiseled abs and 3% body fat is still in a softshell.
The sun comes out as we pull into the car park and continues to improve. It’s even short sleeve weather for me. Ben, with his chiseled abs and 3% body fat is still in a softshell.
The Brechfa trails can loosely be grouped into three: there are the mellow fire road climbs which aren‘t too steep for conversation and then there are the mossy, cool, dank – almost primeval – peaceful woods. The third trademark section of Brechfa has the Rowan Sorrell-inspired berms and rollers. Steep roll-ins and committing berms. They can only be ridden fairly fast and with some commitment. Even though Ben and I are feeling the early start and the cumulative climbing in our legs a little, we attack them with some gusto. The final run into the bottom of the valley is particularly challenging as the years of weather and panic braking have taken their toll on the trail surface. Ben, with a fading rear brake, is having to take the corners wider and wider and with increasing sketchiness. We’re all smiles and intact limbs at the bottom though and ready for the next challenge.
It’s already half seven, which will put us at Nant yr Arian at dusk. We have lights, but with the stupid early start and the fact that we’ve been talking about food for the last half an hour, the ‘executive decision’ is made to skip our final trail goal for the day and head towards Coed-y-Brenin, which we won’t reach until 9.30pm as it is.
By the time we get to the Old Schoolhouse in Bronaber, a couple of miles north of the forest, the forecasted ‘weather event’ is kicking into gear, with blustery gales and dropping temperatures greeting us. Luckily the smell of cooking and the clinking of beer bottles also greet us. Sian and Dafydd Roberts used to run the café at Coed-y-Brenin and now run this impressively renovated old schoolhouse as a mountain bike-friendly B&B. Despite the late hour, we get a warm welcome, a good chat and a great meal before collapsing into our beds.
We wake up to a howling gale and grey skies. Our 7.30 breakfast request had been graciously accepted and we’re soon tucking into bacon and eggs while trying not to look out of the giant windows at the rain hammering on the window.
Andy Braun, the ranger for Coed-y-Brenin pops in for coffee with news of the weather forecast. Heavy rain and big winds. We put on a brave face. We’re not without faff though and take a while to get bags and cameras packed. Sian’s dried our shoes and gloves overnight which helps our morale a little.
Parking up we quickly get the bikes out and get on our way before we falter at the first coffee hurdle. Our original plan was to ignore our reds-only rule and do the MBR, seeing as it fitted our 19km length, but Andy has offered us a ‘best of the reds’ local’s route so we’ve taken him up on it. Dafydd has joined us too and we’re treated to two fresh-legged, fit, old giffers trying to beast each other. We’re just casualties in the fallout.
The weather is reasonably wet and woolly, but the woods feel relatively dry under the trees. Our starting loop round the Minotaur is a great warm up for our tired legs and good pumping practice, but Andy soon has us climbing. The trouble with his best-of route is that all of the shortcuts are designed to miss out the nicely graded, singletrack climbs that there’s much of here. Instead we get to grovel up slippy fire roads on our way to the next fix of singletrack downhill delight. There’s a very manicured feel to many of the trails here at CyB. They get a lot of traffic and so tend to either be very ‘constructed’ and stone pitched, or regularly repaired to keep the feeling of flow.
And we’re definitely feeling the flow today. Despite some tired arms and legs, and frankly appalling weather, we’re really enjoying ourselves; brakes squealing and locals outdoing each other, we whip along. I’m reminded why I love trail centres like this; they’re so consistently great. You know that they’re not going to get impassibly muddy, there aren’t going to be any unannounced 4ft drops after blind corners and, quite often, speed really will be your friend.
Our steep shortcut has put us at the very top of the Addams Family series of singletrack descents, and we take in Pugsley, Lurch, and Sian’s favourite singletrack in the whole world, Uncle Fester. It’s steep, committing and old-school riding, especially in this weather. We all remember riding these same trails on rigid hardtails in the 90s. The trails don’t seem any easier on our state-of-the-art, fancy machines, but I’d like to think that the speeds are a little higher now.
Another wet car park streak and another essential stop for food while we consult the weather. It’s not looking any better (it’s getting worse, if that’s possible…) and we still have three more trail centres on our list for today: Penmachno, Gwydyr for the Marin Trail and Llandegla. I can already see extending cracks in our schedule, but we press on to see if the weather and fatigue will overtake our plans and enthusiasm.
We drive the tiny B-road over the Migneint in driving rain and into the back end of Penmachno. We’ve already voted that Penmachno, at the moment, is going to be too exposed and simply too dreadful weather-wise for photos and riding, so we go another few miles up the road to the Marin Trail in Gwydyr Forest. This feels more sheltered and, despite a temptation to sleep or find the nearest café, we suit up again, digging around in the bottoms of bags for dry clothes. Ben’s got his full waterproof suit on again. I’m down to summer gloves and slightly splattered baggies and my second pair of riding shoes.
Setting off on the Marin Trail, the initial climb doesn’t seem too bad and the trees keep us well sheltered. There’s the threat of sunshine at one point, but that doesn’t last. We’re treated to the best palettes of different greens of the trip though; from the super-real fresh colours of the new leaves, to the richer, older mosses and muted greeny-browns of the heather and ferns that line the trail. The scenery again has changed from when I first rode this trail, back when it was under construction (Singletrack, issue 6, 2002). The freshly cut trail then has now grown in to look like it’s always been there. Even the stone-pitched, bermed corner that the trail pixies were so worried about (it was the first bermed corner in a Welsh trail centre and it wasn’t in the plans) is now overgrown and almost part of the hillside now; stones still firmly in place.
The final descent of the Marin Trail has to rank as one of the best ever feel-good trail centre descents. Getting faster and faster, with previously intimidating drops taken easily in stride, the trail feels at once both natural enough to challenge and man-made enough to ease you on to the right track.
Another buzzing finish. And another decision. It’s now 6pm and we’ve only done two trail centres today. We’re missing Penmachno and Llandegla off our original wish list. A quick stocktake of our dry kit shows little left that’s not sodden and we know that the bacon sarnies will be shut up for the day by the time we get to Llandegla. So that means 19km of the Penmachno trail… Or it doesn’t. Why are we doing this? To ride lots of Welsh trail centres and have a great time. We’ve certainly done that, so we’re going to miss out Penmachno too and quit while we’re still buzzing from the Marin. We could bang out another one, in damp gear, for the sake of (semi-) complete-ism, but we’d rather quit while we still love bikes. After all, we’re not going for records today. And we’ve already got to come back and do Nant yr Arian, the Cli-machX, as well as countless other little centres we’ve missed in our generalising.
So we pull the card, get the fleece pants of comfort out once more and set a course for home, full of the joys of Welsh singletrack. And now we have a cast-iron reason to return soon.
The Croissant of What?
We got the map out and put a pin in all of the Welsh trail centres we could think of, generally describing an arc that curved from Cwmcarn in the south-east of Wales, through to Brechfa and then Nant yr Arian near the west coast and back again to Llandegla in the north-east of Wales. It was as good as a plan as many others, so we went for it. The shape described a rough crescent, or croissant, we preferred to think, and so the Croissant of Pain was created.
This feature appears in issue 82 of Singletrack Magazine. To get your hands on all 132 pages in real paper or your choice of digital formats, go to our subs page to subscribe or to our online shop to buy a single issue.