From issue 101, we bring you Joe Murray’s take on the 2015 Epic Cymru.
Words: Joe Murray
Photos: Anthony Pease
Fuzzy off the flight to Manchester, we’re soon headed down the M56 motorway. The steady rain turns to a torrent, visibility down to zero. I’m here thanks to Chipps. “Welcome to the UK!” he quips. For a somewhat oblivious Yank, there’s likely nobody better to tag along with. His local knowledge and all things cycling alleviates my apprehension about the possibility of camping in chronic dampness. I will come to realise the definition of a UK summer does not mean ‘dry’ yet really ‘not cold’. Cold and damp is no fun, yet, just ‘damp’…? Well anyway I came for singletrack and adventure. And that includes that real ales, fish and chips, teatime, quaint stone-built villages and garden-like countryside.
The Epic Cymru, [say ‘come-ree’] was plugged as a five-day event in a “new modern Enduro” format with the Enduro-ish timed sections, yet emphasising both cross-country and downhill. Matt Page and his team at A Cycling, seem to be keen on doing things differently. For instance, they put on the event ‘Battle on the Beach’ – the course description reads: “4km on the beach (all hard sand), 4km singletrack, 4km doubletrack on forest roads. Only 100 metres is in soft sand on the beach entrance.” Among those who attend is a debate on what type of bike is fastest, accounting for wet and dry beach, singletrack and overall rollability: fat bikes or plus sized bikes perhaps? I’m guessing this inaugural Epic Cymru could be something different too.
The glow of the other midnight sun.
We arrived late on a Friday night to a dark (and seemingly closed until you try the gates) Margam Park with nothing visible of note except the glow of the oppressive Port Talbot steelworks just over the M4, lighting our midnight tent assembly.
Saturday morning and, lo and behold, it was joyously clear. “This will not last,” I told myself, somehow thinking this mindset could prepare me mentally for the inevitable weather turning bad. That afternoon was the Prologue, the weather continuing to remain ‘summery’ and forecast looking good. I pulled up to the timer and then ground out a 30-minute lung and leg burner loop around some short hills. Notable was one short downhill gully called the “Chute of Doom”, more like Chute of Assume. OK, surely it had to get better than this…
Day two would dispel my reservations from the Prologue. As with Enduro(TM), there was a casual roll-out and the pack spreads out as riders go their respective paces. The course moves along smooth, civilised forest roads though hilly, picturesque Welsh countryside. It was nothing close to race pace so I found myself at the front. A pattern would emerge each day, as the same group of riders would be ‘up front’ for the next four days; perhaps in defiance of the gravity enduro ‘tactic’ of going easy, saving it for the next timed section. This non-pressure cooker programme was really great. Yet I did not come all this way only to be gunning for the timed sections. Admittedly, the idea of enduro is still not a concept I fully buy into. I can’t soft-pedal and pushing is only what happens when it’s unrideable. Yet during this event I did not see one rider pushing, unlike other enduros I’ve been.
We come to Sidewinder, a trail on the first timed section of the event. This is what I was hoping for: a swoopy, rocky, bermed-built beauty of a trail. It required some stern pedalling as well. This section done, it’s down into the pretty Afan Valley where we then make our way up to The Elevator. It’s an un-timed, enjoyable singletrack climb up to some more timed sections. All the next sections run at somewhat higher speed, often built to flow, yet at times twisty and rock peppered. There was enough crank-work required all around. The final timed section of The Graveyard was my favourite. It was fast and tricky, asking to be pushed hard and of the need to be on your toes. It was back up the valley retracing the scenic and cruising forest road. There was a short and sweet steep drop (that I thought should’ve been timed) before rolling back into Margam Park and the finish. Three and a half hours, 5,640ft of climbing, with first-class singletrack made for a great day. The next three days would be similar in climbing, length and time. Each day seemed to ratchet up in quality too.
Big days out at the pointy end.
Day three was back though the Afan Valley repeating the Sidewinder descent and The Elevator, all untimed. The next timed stage was likely one for the climbers. I was feeling even more enthusiastic today and diggin’ on the course, so I took the 30-second slot behind Jason Moeschler. It was a delusional idea that I could somehow follow him, much better approached at my own pace. I put myself through the meat grinder until my body protested and I realised my folly. It was a steady uphill packed with rock, a stone stair-step section, wet and mud, about a 30-minute time trial. Fortunately I managed to keep from blowing. The luxury of the enduro, especially after this section, is the gift of not having to go balls-out anymore. So I soft-pedalled onward, catching my breath, pondering my tactics.
The course headed, untimed, though a hobbit forest trail, interrupted by pre-industrial-type narrow wooden fence walk-throughs. Then the course rises up to The Edge upon a large open grassy bluff with great views. Our tour continues though a wind farm and eventually to our last timed section. It’s a ripping no-brakes run-out right down to the finish line. Our finish is at a new venue, our gear having been trucked to a nice campground in the town of Aberdare. A thoroughly agreeable day, shower and enviable beer are waiting.
WTB brought in 1,000 bottles of local ale that lasted until day four. I’m in a land where, to an American, bad beer does not exist. Often right off the bike – it could not have been any better.
Day four begins with another courteous roll-out as the weather remains basically perfect. In my opinion, today was arguably the best day’s racing because of Bike Park Wales. Where I live in the Western US we are fortunate to have large amounts of public land where the majority of single track riding is. Even so, it’s now a no-brainer for ski areas to build bike parks. The rest of the infrastructure is already there and the trails allow the ski industry to not just rely on often unpredictably winter snow. As a stand-alone venture, Bike Park Wales was my first UK bike park experience. Our route today comes over the hill down into the park on Rim Dinger. To me it appears a quarter-mile long stack of rocks all arranged pointy end up. I get back over the rear of my bike and let the suspension do its thing. More rocks the better, I always say. We dump out at the base area of the park where there’s a bike shop and restaurant. Then it’s a timed climb to the top of the park. The next timed DH section is called Enter The Dragon. Some tabletops, rock slab-armoured berms at the top and then steeper tighter and faster berms at the bottom. I’ve been told there is much more and better stuff here in the park. Makes me want to come back.
How about that enduro?
This enduro format allows for a much more relaxed atmosphere. Easy roll-out starts and lots of cruising in-between the timed sections. A friendly camaraderie prevailed here. And after pedalling each day, I found myself putting down a few more brews than seemed sensible for a stage race. Perhaps there were less repercussions as it could be ‘burned off’ on the transitions? Another extracurricular activity included a tug of war – unsurprisingly competitive given the crowd. As mentioned, WTB-sponsored Jason Moeschler was in attendance and, like Batman and Robin, self-made redneck Mark Weir was at hand for superlative shredding skill and event celebrity element. WTB brought in 1,000 bottles of local ale that lasted until day four. I’m in a land where, to an American, bad beer does not exist. Often right off the bike – it could not have been any better. The night of day four had even a classic rock band, which all made for a socially agreeable experience.
Epic Cymru included both overall classes and a King and Queen of the category for best on the DH sections. Although Jason won the overall he didn’t win the King of the Mountain, which went to local Bike Park Wales rider James Heaton. And ex-England women’s rugby pro, Sophie Hemming edged out overall winner Nicoletta de Jager for Queen of the Mountain. I believe Matt and crew are on to something here. Racing can be a grinding, stomach-knotting experience that eventually burns out even the most grizzled competitor. I not only had a great ride every day, I also pushed myself as hard as anything when the clock was ticking. A trail bike seemed to be well suited for everything [Joe rode a Yeti SB5c – Ed], yet I also noticed many riders with hardtails as well as heavy, all-mountain type rigs. This enduro thing is popular for its more friendly, yet competitive format, although not everyone wants to push it downhill only. Some of us like to crank it up the climbs too. The Cymru is an event that offers a race for more riders and could well be a way to get more riders to participate. I hope the mountain bike world takes notice.
As the final day arrived a storm was approaching. Fortunately, the rain held off until after the start. The route basically made its way back toward our original venue at Margam Park. The rain turned to a steady soaking. We descended down the rock-embedded track that was our timed climb two days earlier. This was the same trail of my quixotic attempt to follow Jason. Instead of the grind up, it’s now pure fun jamming the switchbacks down. Then it’s the long forest road back to Margam. Rain continues, becoming soft and sloggy, fooling me into checking my bike was seizing. I trudged with no worries whatsoever knowing this was the last day. Our last timed run down the final trail, with the rain now a rapidly flowing canal. It was fast, dipping into unseen watery holes and, with bow waves coming up over my top tube it made my Welsh experience more complete.
Epic Cymru in a box.
The Epic Cymru is partly a five-day cross-country stage race, partly an enduro race and partly a tour of the singletrack of South Wales. Organised by ‘Battle on the Beach’ Matt Page, the 50-60km courses each day promise timed stages (both up and downhill), neutralised and long linking stages, feed stops and plenty of climbing – even sometimes in the downhill timed stages. Prizes are awarded for the lowest overall timed ‘time of the day’ and ‘overall’, plus the mostly downhill stages also get their own Trail King and Queen classification.
Accommodation is in own tents and campers, event-provided tents, or hostel accommodation. Breakfast and dinner (from a film location catering company) is included in the £475 entry fee, as is chip timing, bike wash and event T-shirt.
See epiccymru.com for details of this year’s event.