The rebirth of Coed y Brenin.
This article first appeared in issue 92 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
Words and photos by Chipps.
Back in 1995, there was no such thing as a British mountain bike trail centre. There was barely such thing as a marked mountain bike route, outside of a tour of the fire roads. But in late 1996, the UK’s first dedicated, public, free, legal and purpose-built mountain bike trail opened at Coed y Brenin, a quiet forest park in North Wales.
Since then, the mountain bike landscape in the UK has changed forever and trail centres have become as much a part of the mountain bike scene as dedicated ski-resorts have to skiing.
Coed y Brenin was the first place of its kind and its success snowballed at an incredible rate. Land managers and tourist boards from across the UK saw a huge influx of big-spending mountain bikers going to North Wales and took the idea back to where they lived, using Coed y Brenin’s example to get funding to build their own trails. These areas used Coed y Brenin’s stone-pitched trails as inspiration, but improved both the riding and the infrastructure, adding skills areas, berms and bacon sandwiches to the mix.
It then seemed that CyB got a little left behind as riders were distracted by the swooping jumps of Spooky Woods in Glentress and the singletrack climbs of Glyncorrwyg’s Wall, as well as a dozen other centres around the country. Even as little as five years ago, it looked like Coed y Brenin might sink back into obscurity, overtaken by the new centres built on the coat-tails of Coed y Brenin’s success but with major population centres and motorway corridors on their doorsteps. Snowdonia is a hard area to get to; it’s sparsely populated and there’s no denying that the mountain biking there is hard work. Other trail centres had smoother, more flattering trails, easier access and could be reached in an hour or so by millions of people.
However, a few years ago, we started hearing stories of major new sections of trails being built in the forest and others being sympathetically renovated. Over a period of three or four years, the place has been expanded, improved and brought up to date, to the point that riders who’ve not visited for a few years have been shocked and surprised on their return.
The way-back machine.
Sian and Dafydd Roberts will always be inextricably linked with Coed y Brenin. Back in the early 1990s, when both were successful racers, they worked at Beics Betws, a bike shop in nearby Betws-y-Coed. The Forestry Commission asked them if they’d like to start hiring mountain bikes in the forest, in an attempt to boost visitor numbers. Those numbers were so low (under about 15,000 a year) that Coed y Brenin was on the verge of losing its ‘forest park’ status and being forced to go back to being a commercial harvesting forest again.
Since the early 1990s there had been some singletrack trails in the forest used by riders and for local races, built by the North Wales Mountain Bike Association but not widely known. Dafydd Davis, a Forestry Commission Ranger for the park, started trying to promote Coed y Brenin to the wider mountain bike community in an attempt to lure more riders to the area.
The Forestry Commission was largely disinterested, but Sian brought in Patrick Adams to the project, now best known as the organiser of Mountain Mayhem but then closely involved with a new brand called Red Bull which was keen to further itself in the action sports world. Somehow Red Bull was persuaded to put up some money for trail materials and signage and the Red Bull trail was created.
To get an idea of what an impact this first trail made, consider this: it was about seven miles long and took just over an hour to ride for most people – and yet riders were driving from as far away as London, Bristol and Glasgow to do a lap, passing iconic natural riding on the way. It wasn’t even all singletrack, starting with a seemingly endless fire road climb and then progressing through a terrifying tumble of relatively short singletrack sections armoured with intimidating Welsh rock, another climb and then more singletrack before popping out at the visitor centre for cheese on toast and a coffee. It’s hard to see the appeal now, but back then we rejoiced in the fact that this trail was just for mountain bikers; we could ride it as fast as our RockShox Judy forks could carry us without getting lost, having to get a map out or bumping into irate dog walkers. The other defining feature was that the trails were truly weatherproof – you could ride there in the pouring rain and not end up hub-deep in a bog.
By the turn of the century, the Red Bull trail had been joined by the Karrimor and mbr trails. The car park was extended, then extended again. In the Foot and Mouth lockdown of 2001, Coed y Brenin was one of the first places to reopen because of its self-contained nature. Riders continued to come from all over; riding a couple of trails on the Saturday, staying in nearby Dolgellau and then doing a quick lap of the Red Bull before heading home on the Sunday. It seemed that a mountain bike centre of excellence had been created.
The time of distraction.
However, by 2001, a trail centre had also opened in Afan Forest Park in South Wales. Soon, the trail crews started work at Glentress, Dalbeattie and other locations in Scotland. Trails appeared at Nant yr Arian and Cwmcarn, as well as nearby Llandegla and Betws-y-Coed. The trail centre was now ‘a thing’.
Many of Coed y Brenin’s early trails were initially built with raw manpower; sometimes RAF officer-training exercises, sometimes volunteer groups, often BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) groups. Work could be painstakingly slow, especially given the boggy (and midgey) nature of the forested hillsides. By contrast, the new generation of European-funded trail centres were able to use contractors with machines, greatly speeding up the trailbuilding process.
By the mid ’00s, it seemed that Coed y Brenin was lagging behind in terms of excitement and contemporary trail design. And while there had been money to initially build Coed y Brenin’s trails, little was put aside for their ongoing maintenance. Slowly, parts of the Karrimor, Red Bull and mbr trails eroded from red grade riding to flowless blacks.
Ironically, those tough and tricky reds were another issue that hampered Coed y Brenin. It only had trails for experienced mountain bikers and not much for anyone else. Great for mountain bikers riding the first wave of the sport’s popularity, but after ten years, not a great place for them to bring their new-to-riding partners, or children, to ride.
The new £1.6 million visitor centre opened across the road from the old centre in the middle of 2006. The rather tired-looking original trails were all rerouted to start and finish there, which did require some new linking trails to be built. The trailheads gained funky artwork, new names and cute trail markers, but still the draw of Glentress was stronger. Glentress had berms and jumps and drops. It had a remarkably fun blue trail, some very natural-feeling rides and some expert-only trails. This corner of North Wales only had its reputation.
Turning the supertanker.
Behind the scenes, though, things were happening. New trails need funding and that funding takes time to apply for and secure. By the time that Andy Braund, the current Coed y Brenin Ranger, started work in 2009, a year’s worth of work had already gone into planning the next chapter. It was recognised that the area desperately needed a blue grade trail and a really good skills area. The tiny bike shop, Beics Brenin, needed more room. The mechanics had to literally unpack their workshop every morning and spread hire bikes and incoming jobs outside in order to have room to work. An extension to the existing centre was planned, with meeting rooms and the kind of spaces that council officers like justifying, but it would come with a large new downstairs area for a bike shop too.
Andy was constantly reminded by the centre staff that Coed y Brenin was more than just a mountain bike centre. There were walking trails, a playground and a couple of running trails too. But it needed the popularity of a successful mountain bike centre to get the buzz going that would keep the regular tourists coming to visit.
Messing with our trails.
There wasn’t a single bermed corner in Coed y Brenin’s three original trails. There were few (intentional) drop-offs, and little flow. Some early trails had unintentionally been built right over public footpaths. All of them were rock-armoured in defiance of the wet weather; built to resist water, rather than more modern (and less noticeable) trail design methods that keep water off the trail in the first place. In fact Andy is proud of some of the early trails still in use: “A lot of stuff in the forest is real classic ‘retro’ trail centre.” Retro – that’s how old some of those trails now are.
He presided over a long-term plan to improve some of the singletrack. ‘Adam and Eve’ was a new section built early in Andy’s reign, in order to bypass a footpath. Given its position right next to a forest road, it was easy enough to sculpt this new trail with machines and so a pump track-style section was created. At the time, there was confusion and consternation among riders. Why replace tricky singletrack, an hour’s ride into the forest, with whoopy motorway? All new trails show their scars too visibly though and now, a few years later, it’s a smooth, narrow and eagerly anticipated part of the trail.
New sections of trail popped up; other sections were fixed and redesigned to deal better with water. Some were quietly retired. This was all done by the growing band of mountain bike-specific trailbuilding contractors – workers who were as handy at spotting a sweet line as they were with a digger’s bucket. There are even berms to be found on the trails of Coed y Brenin now.
The new MinoTaur trail was built over a couple of years to be wide, smooth and fun; a true-blue beginners’ trail – and also one that was wide and shallow enough to accommodate mountain bike wheelchairs and other adaptive machines. Yet it was still flowy enough to appeal as a gentle warm-up loop for experienced riders, too. Ten kilometres in length, it was a major part of the half a million pounds of European money that had been applied for before Andy joined. The other major spend was in developing the Foundry skills area.
The Foundry was designed to have sample trails of all the different grades you’d find deeper in the woods. A rider could try an easy green or blue grade trail and see about tackling a red or a black before committing to a big loop in the forest. The Foundry has several different sets of these graded trails, plus a downhill pump track and a couple of try out/show off areas like the Lemming Stone – a rocky drop into a graded, shallow bowl that flatters bad landings. There are also a couple of features harder than anything you can – currently – find out in the woods. Perhaps a sign of things to come… And all of this can be ridden within sight of the car park.
You’re my only hope.
I’ve been to Coed y Brenin several times in the last year now, having drifted away from it over the years. Every time I go, I find something there that delights me: whether it’s trying the skills area, or enjoying the new, smoother, faster sections of the classic trails.
There are already young kids turning up, week after week, to play in the Foundry. There are hordes of school children on hire bikes, rented from the new, extensive bike shop – still run by Beics Brenin. There are families on bikes and enduro types in full faces and pads. Even Dan Atherton’s bought a house not that far away. There are local, bike-specific bed and breakfasts and guiding companies. There are even venison burgers in the cafe, made from the forest’s deer. The old bike shop is now a trail running shop, with shelves of off-road shoes to try before you buy. And the other riding in the area has had a boost too: Betws y Coed has been revamped, Penmachno has some new surprises and there’s Antur Stiniog just up the road for a day out on the big(ger) bike.
It seems that there’s a buzz in the forest again. A visit to the, long-disused, old visitor centre on the other side of the road shows what might have happened if things had gone differently. Brambles now grow wild in the car park. Some of the less popular older trails grow green with moss (and yet still ride perfectly). If Coed y Brenin had rested much longer on its laurels of being ‘Trail Centre Zero’, as someone put it, then it might have all been quietly swallowed up by the forest, remaining known only to the locals.
Now though, the trails there seem built for modern mountain biking; custom-made for trail bikes and riders with a few more skills than we used to have back then. There are berms and drops, narrow slivers of brown singletrack in mature green woods and everywhere there’s that hard, intimidating Welsh rock.
Although, perhaps, it now seems a tiny bit more welcoming.
Thanks to: Andy Braund, Joe Hayward, Steve, Tegid, Reece, Ben Washington, Sian and Dafydd Roberts (and Racsyn) at oldskool-mtb.co.uk