Singletrack Magazine Issue 119: Returning To The Dark Side

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The former Red Bull trail opened in 1996 to wide acclaim as the first purpose-built trail in the UK. Chipps argues that it’s still one of the best trails anywhere. 

Words & Photography chipps

Stepping off my bike, I look a little closer at the terrain I’m riding over. The rock slabs that vary in size between laptop and tabletop are sunken into the damp ground as if they’ve always been here, mossed-in with the growth of ages. There’s no sign of recent human intervention and this path might well have been here for centuries. 

Listening, there are few sounds in the forest; the creak of a warming tree in the sun, the buzz of an insect. In the far distance I think I can hear a car, but then it’s gone again and all is quiet and peaceful; primeval even. 

But I’m not in the New Zealand rainforest, or in a remote Scottish glen, I’m within a mile of one of the busiest trail centres in the UK, next to the A470 on a sunny bank holiday Friday and the trail I’m on singlehandedly created the whole trail centre phenomenon that we now have in the UK, to the envy of much of the mountain bike world. 

Just as today’s college students can’t imagine that there was a time before mobile phones and before the internet, so it seems that mountain bike trail centres have always been with us. They feel like they have always been around, with their waymarked, colour-coded routes and their reliable, predictable, all-weather terrain and rideability. It wasn’t long ago, though, that a dedicated trail for mountain bikers seemed a ridiculous thing to have.

I’m riding the Tarw Du (roughly, the ‘Tarroo Dthee’), but you might know it better by its original name: the Red Bull Trail. Opened in 1996, it was the first ‘modern’ waymarked mountain bike trail in the UK. Initially measuring 11km in length, it boasted a long, stiff fire road climb out of the Coed Y Brenin visitor centre and then a succession of rocky singletrack trails, more climbing and then more technical singletrack before you appeared back at the centre perhaps an hour later. 

Such was the draw of this one trail, back in the day, that riders (myself included) would drive for four or so hours to ride it, stop for some of Sian’s cheese and beans on toast, and then ride it one more time before heading home again, delighted at having sampled a technical, walker-free, one way, just for us, mountain bike trail. 

As the trail rose in popularity, so more riders came, as did sponsors like Karrimor who wanted their own piece of North Wales mountain bike heaven and who sponsored their own trails. And so the draw increased. Visitor numbers soared from just over 10,000 a year to nearer 100,000 in a few short years. The addition of more trails meant that the visitors stayed over and made a weekend of it, paying to camp or B&B it, eating out, and filling up in the Dolgellau petrol station before heading home again. And that pattern of local benefit was measured and quantified and used as a template for every mountain bike trail centre that came after it. Build some decent trails, no matter how remote or undesirable your area and mountain bikers will travel to you and spend money. 

At the time, European money was becoming available to redevelop areas hit by the downturns in mining, in forestry, in industry, but turning the wooded hillsides nearby into recreation centres was a left-field idea that took a while to catch on.

The rapid growth of the trail centre at Coed Y Brenin saw new trails and, eventually, a new trail centre on the other side of the main road. And, although a new path under the road linked up the two halves, the ‘old’ side has fallen out of favour with riders since the new centre opened back in 2006. The trails are still there (some sections, like Pins and Needles were still fresh when the new centre opened), but they’re less ridden than the new side.

And they’re fantastic. 

And like me today, you’ll have them to yourself. But I’m getting ahead of myself… 

A tale of two Dafydds.

There are two Dafydds (and a Sian, a Simon and a Sion) who are mainly responsible for the creation of the original Red Bull trail. Dafydd Davis worked for the then Forestry Commission in the ’90s and part of his job was to manage recreation in the forest at Coed Y Brenin and the modest numbers of visitors who came to walk in the woods, maybe look at the waterfalls and leave again. 

Dafydd Roberts and his wife Sian were both successful mountain bike racers who ran the visitor centre at Coed Y Brenin as well as maintaining a small fleet of bikes that visitors could rent and ride around several marked trails in the forest. Trails then being mostly wide forest tracks.

Dafydd Davis is widely credited with making Coed Y Brenin what it became, but he is the first to admit that there were already mountain bike trails in the forest when he started as the Recreation Manager for the Forestry back in the early ’90s. Although he spends much of his time these days travelling the world as a freelance trail consultant, he’s still happy to talk about the trail that sent his life off on a tangent: “Everyone thinks that the Red Bull was the first trail but it wasn’t. There were three loops marked out in the forest before then – the Fun, Sport and Expert. The Expert became the Karrimor route and the Sport mostly became the MBR.” 

However, the original Red Bull trail was the first trail that Dafydd got some cash to develop. A modest £2,500 was given by energy drinks giant Red Bull, via Sian and Dafydd’s cycling links with sports supremo Patrick Adams, who was helping the new brand establish itself in the UK mountain bike scene. Most of that money was used in creating the waymarkers and signing for the trail, with a mere £700 being left to spend on stone for the trail.

In those days before walking diggers and mechanical wheelbarrows, the lion’s share of the work was done by hand, with pick and pry bar, spade and mattock. To build the route, Dafydd Davis and co-worker Simon Williams took inspiration from a race route that had been used by the North Wales Mountain Bike Association cross country races in the early ’90s, a route that had been forged through the empty forest, cleaning and surfacing those trails and adding new sections, while attempting to weatherproof them with hand-laid stone pitching. Old, abandoned tracks through the woods were cleared out, dressed with stone, and fitted with drainage. 

Much of the trail design was influenced not by thoughts of flow and features, but of water management. North Wales gets a phenomenal amount of rainfall, with Snowdonia averaging more than three metres of rain a year. Dafydd’s thoughts weren’t about creating a flowing journey, with ‘hips’ and ‘pops’, they were mostly about creating a durable, permanent mountain bike trail that wouldn’t wash down the hillside every year. 

Dafydd Davis admits that this first commercial ‘built’ trail was probably far too technical for the bikes and riders of the day and would possibly even be deemed too risky today, but, back then, it was what it was. Very few people in the Forestry Commission understood mountain biking, or what Dafydd was trying to do. Many thought that it ‘wasn’t a legitimate use of the forest estate’, while others hoped that by building a trail for mountain bikes, riders would keep off the bridleways in the rest of Wales. 

At the opening ceremony of the trail in 1996, Dafydd watched, a little incredulously, as the then head of Snowdonia National Park officially opened the trail with the hope that now mountain bikers had a dedicated place to ride they would stop wanting to ride on mountains like Snowdon. 

Parabola of success.

Even that lack of enthusiasm for bikes couldn’t stop the appeal of the Red Bull trail to normal mountain bikers around the country. Within a year or two, tens of thousands of riders were driving across Wales, past great natural riding, to sample this ‘just for us’ trail, and numbers soared. The appeal of a mountain-bike only trail (and the trails that followed it) was strong, and this self-segregation proved to be very important in the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, where the Coed Y Brenin trails were among the tiny part of the UK countryside that remained open to ride, due to controlled access and lack of livestock interaction. 

By that time, though, the Forestry Commission had big plans for these increased visitor numbers and a new forest centre was planned across the A470. Sian and Dafydd Roberts were given a month’s notice of the termination of their contract and plans were made to tender out the café business. However, a huge and angry response to the story run on Singletrack’s website about the Roberts’ plight caused a surprised Forestry Commission to delay its plans and the café continued to be run by Sian and Dafydd until the new centre opened, some 18 months later. 

Despite a newly created tunnel access that took the trail from the new centre back under the main road to the ‘old’ side, all of the focus was on the new Forest Centre, with its dedicated trail starts, complete with supersized metal sculptures, and the old visitor centre was emptied and left to decay. 

Riding with ghosts.

Today I’m on my own as I ride under the main road and head off into the old side of the woods. The weather is mild and I’m already warm as I follow the Tarw Du markers towards the old centre. I can’t resist a nose into where the old café used to be. Leaves are stacked against the old loo doors and the centre itself is (badly) fenced off to deter mountain bike history tourists like me. It seems that the old centre is too broken to restore, but not worth knocking down either. As I head up the original climb from the (extended and extended again) old car park, I’m reminded just how hard a pull this first climb was. No mercy, straight from the off. 

The gradient eases a little, but keeps adding height as I head upwards. Across the valley I get a great view of the new centre, all Ewok village-like with its round roof and expansive parking. The climb isn’t over though, so it’s head back down and up to the top of the trail. As I top out, there’s a sign on the left of ‘Heart of Darkness’ which, in its day was a tough and technical section. Then it got logged and the darkness was no more. It remains marked, but it’s not for me today… there’s a new section to explore. 

It’s ironic that the oldest trail in the country also features the newest section. ‘The Slab’ (or amusingly, in Welsh, ‘Y Slab’) was opened barely eight months ago and it features some very challenging, steep, slabby (but immensely grippy) pitches to ride down. Andy Braund, the current mountain bike ranger, recalls discovering these giant rocky outcrops after this section was felled, and literally rolling the moss off them like he was putting an AstroTurf™ display away.

It’s fitting to the character of the trail, then, that these new sections only require old-school bravado to ride. It doesn’t matter what travel your bike has or what size wheels you have, riding these five slab sections requires guts and balance, nothing more. 

Which is more than can be said for the new singletrack that follows them. Even if you ride around the very committing drops at the start of the trail below the slabs, the new section is very much in keeping with the Red Bull trail of old. TV-sized rocks are buried at odd angles, requiring a very active riding style that preserves momentum while hopefully retaining balance and forward motion. A good rider can make these bits look easy while an inexperienced or hesitant rider can make every move look like a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily I’m joined on these sections by Joe Hayward, who runs the Beics Brenin bike shop at Coed Y Brenin and he dances over the rocks with the skill and finesse of a rider who cut his teeth on these trails. 

And now?

They say that if steel were invented today as a frame building material, it would be hailed as a new wonder metal due to its strength and ease of working. In the same way, if the Red Bull trail opened tomorrow, I reckon it’d be hailed as the best new trail in Wales – technical and rewarding in equal measure.

As we ride towards the latter sections of the Tarw Du (and arguably the finest trails here), Joe and I swap notes on those early days. How it was groundbreaking for British mountain bikers in those days before GPS to be able to turn up at a location with a bike and be guaranteed an excellent trail to ride, without having to refold a soggy OS map 15 times, constantly stopping for trail forks and identical forest road junctions. And then, when you consider how much bikes have changed over the past 25 years, it’s a real testament to Dafydd Davis’s creative trail building that it’s still such a blast on a modern bike. 

Dafydd’s legacy was the low impact way in which the singletrack was built back then. The subtle creativity of shovels (in conjunction with a team of apprentices from the RAF, Ford, Rolls Royce or the long-term unemployed of Drive For Youth) over today’s walking excavators allowed the trail to merge into its surroundings. Contemporary construction, where trails are imposed on the landscape, can lose this local individuality, and that is what can make them feel so generic. 

This is brought into focus when we get to tracks like Pins and Needles, Flight Path and R74, tracks that look like they’ve been there for centuries, not 10 or 15 years. The rocks are mossed over and sunk solidly into the land. The green and grey colours of the rocks and the bare earth match the tones of their surroundings and the snaking singletrack looks like it has always been here. Without diggers to shape the landscape to the builders’ vision, the builders had to work with the contours, easing the trail through the jumbled mess of glacial moraine, rather than forcing it.

What will they think?

As we ride the chunky dark sections on our return to the centre, barely 500m from a major Welsh main road, I wonder how these trails will fare in the future. They were built tough and weatherproof and are now literally part of the landscape. Here and there are scrape marks on rocks made by the big rings of long-replaced triple chainsets. Might these trails end up like the bikes that made those marks? Once loved and now put out to pasture. Not forgotten, but no longer used. 

Is a future generation of riders, already used to the ease of uplifts and the flattery of flow trails, going to want to climb for half an hour on fire roads in order to ride these tough descents that demand skill, poise and effort? Even on a modern trail bike, they demand respect. 

I think so. In the same way as we still have manual shifting cars, cameras with tactile knobs on and printed books and magazines. Not everyone wants the easy way out and not everyone wants to be flattered. Some riders want to challenge their fitness and handling skills and to reward the time they’ve put in to earn them. 

For the riders who want mountain biking to be more like a gravelly BMX track, there will always be trails to ride (near a car park and an uplift), but for riders that want to hone their skills and who want a sense of achievement from a ride – a knowledge that today’s ride was better than yesterday’s – then I think that these hand-laid stones will always have their disciples. And I will always count myself as one. 

Thanks to: Dafydd Davis, Joe Hayward from Beics Brenin, Sian and Dafydd Roberts and Andy Braund from NRW.

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