Deep in the woods of west Wales, there lies a network of ancient (and very modern) tracks waiting to be discovered. The hidden trails of the Dyfi Forest could be the best-kept secret in Wales.
Words chipps Photography james vincent
Dan Atherton, the legendary trail builder and architect of the Red Bull Hardline event, has got the bumpiest, most potholed driveway I think I’ve ever driven up. You know the way that car mechanics all seem to drive clapped-out cars because they’re sick of working on other people’s vehicles? That seems to be Dan’s attitude to his driveway. Behind his house sits 17 acres of woodland that hides countless marble-smooth, sculpted dirt jumps, but in front of it there’s just a potholed track. And in the middle of it all, between the potholes and the house-high jumps, we find the eldest Atherton, Dan – or Affy to his friends and family – sitting on his front deck, overlooking his neighbourhood of Corris, in the Dyfi Forest in westest Wales.
Dan is the least seen of the family, having retired from downhill and enduro racing several years ago. While he is still kept very busy as the team’s official trail builder, he’s happy to work behind the scenes without any fuss or publicity so having an afternoon to chat and ride with him is quite a treat.
Dan is tall and slab shouldered, with the Popeye forearms of a lifetime trail digger and dirt jumper. He’s quiet and thoughtful in a way that you might initially take for shyness, but he’s just very considered about what he says and the simplicity of his conversation matches the rest of his life. Although he bought this lovely house on the edge of the woods back in 2014, he actually prefers to live in the small, converted barn that was once the guest room, renting the much bigger ‘normal’ house out to some friends with a bigger family.
Here he lives a very simple life – a model of minimalism. If you want a cup of tea or coffee when you visit, you need to bring your own mug. And your own teabag. And plate if you’re stopping for dinner (which you probably need to bring with you too).
This seems a world away from the efficient glitz of the Atherton Racing machine, but it’s not Dan’s job to do the media liaison and press releases. That falls to Gill Harris, the ‘team mum’ (though she’d prefer ‘older sister’) who makes sure that the riders are in the right place at the right time and have the right sponsors’ sunglasses on their heads and aren’t wielding a tool that isn’t made by Silverline.
In the late summer when I visited, the team was in its final year of its contract with Trek Bikes, a relationship that had seemed to work out well for both sides, but as we now know, there were moves in the background to launch an eponymous bike brand and team under the Atherton Bikes marque. At the time, nothing was mentioned though that wasn’t the only secret that was being kept under wraps. But for now, that wasn’t why I was here…
The whole Dyfi Forest, and the small towns of Corris and Machynlleth have been undergoing a renaissance of late and I’d come to find out more.
Bring a lunch. And a fork.
Along with Dan and Gill, we had Dave Evans with us for lunch (Gill had brought him a plate too). Dave is a long-time resident of Corris and runs Bike Corris, a local mountain bike guiding company. It seems, though, that you can’t live here and not be involved in some way with the local community, so Dave is also one of the driving forces behind the Dyfi Mountain Biking Community Interest Company (CIC). This is a group of riders, landowners and interested parties who are keen to make sure that the Dyfi Forest and the surrounding area is put firmly on the map as a mountain biking destination.
Corris is a small place, fewer than 800 residents at the last census, but the hills surrounding it are rich in mountain bike history and mountain bike trails, both official and unofficial. Corris, unfortunately, is also a long way from, well, anywhere really and as such it’s too far for a day visit for most riders. In order to bring more riders (and more tourism and the fabled ‘muddy pound’) to the area, there needs to be enough of a draw to entertain riders for a weekend of riding. That then has a huge trickle-down bonus in terms of accommodation providers, pies bought in the shop, and beer sold in the Slaters’ Arms. Happy riders then go home and tell their mates and then more people turn up next time and everyone’s happy.
Around the turn of the century, the Mach 1, 2 and 3 trails were launched. These were simply existing bridleways, badged up and marked out for riders to follow. At the time, it was quite pioneering for a town to map out trails for riders and the slightly old-school cross-country feel of them matched the bikes and the riders of the time. As the years went on, those trails faded from view and the initial pioneers moved on. 2005 saw the ClimachX Trail launched above Corris, which brought a more modern trail centre experience, but as we know, a single decent trail doesn’t make a riding location.
The Dyfi Forest has many more trails in it, but some of them are hard to find, or unsanctioned, or sketchily built, or monstrously technical, but that is something that Dave and the newly revitalised CIC is keen to change. And that’s also where Dan comes in. As a local rider, trail builder and even landowner, what he can bring to the table is substantial.
Alone in the woods?
Dan is idolised by many backwoods trail builders. Watching his videos, it’s just him out on his own, with a mattock in the rain, in a hidden corner of a forgotten forest, sculpting out perfect lines. What most people don’t realise, though, is that in most, if not all cases, Dan is building those ‘secret’ trails with the knowledge, permission and encouragement of the landowner, along with a digger or two and semi-professional trail crew. Dan’s own garden features a perfectly built dirt jump playground that dwarfs those you see at Whistler. Every jump is meticulously crafted and mirror smooth, with crisp edges and perfect landings that lead you on to the next takeoff. Not that I tried – the jumps are many, many times above my pay grade. And while Dan doesn’t mind riders on his trails, most don’t even attempt the first drop-in. He sometimes finds motocross riders stuck in the bottom of some of the dips, lacking the momentum (or talent) to get out.
But what Dan builds for his own entertainment is nothing compared to what he can do for other people. It surprised me to discover that Dan’s first building gig was to make a four-cross course for the legendary Cheddar Challenge event back in 2000 and he’s gone on to build trails for the Red Bull Hardline (now 15 years old), national downhill courses, and the private trails that have helped siblings Gee and Rachel go on to such success on a world scale.
However, Dan is keen to put something back into where he now calls home. As a youngster growing up with an ambition to race World Cups, he discovered that there was no pathway to success mapped out for aspiring riders, like there is in football, rugby, and even road cycling. Although pioneers like Peaty helped bring on younger riders there was no advice on training, nutrition, or where and how to ride. Most of the trails that the Athertons trained on in their early years were illegal trails scratched into the woods. Now at least, with facilities like Revolution, Antur Stiniog and Bike Park Wales, there are places that aspiring riders can go to train and test themselves.
Dan’s ambitions seem to tie in nicely with Dave’s plans to reinvent the valley, but he has always been aware that these ‘new’ Athertons just moved to town (five years ago) and still need to prove themselves as outsiders. Dan, Gee and Rachel have made great efforts to help bring on the next generation of young rippers from the area. From after-school ride camps, to helping design and build a pump track for the town (which will open within the year), and starting the Atherton Academy for young promising riders, they’ve been working towards getting accepted by the community. And that’s where Dyfi Mountain Biking comes in.
But enough chat (and lunch), it was time to see the fruits of this partnership.
Atherton shuttle services.
With Dan as both our guide and uplift driver we sped to the top of the ClimachX trail. This once pioneering trail had fallen into a sorry state over the years, with holes and blown-out berms. One of the new CIC’s first jobs was to commission Dan and his trail crew to help love it back up, and as we took in a couple of fast top-to-bottom runs, the subtle touches of the trail builder were evident. Corners flowed and little pops and hips were everywhere. Elsewhere in the forests, though, there are plenty of other trails that need the same treatment. Some have often been included in events like the Dyfi Enduro long-distance ride, and others have been used in enduro racing. Others still are ‘locals-only’ secrets – that’s if you can still have secrets in our modern world.
Dave Evans has ambitious plans afoot, though. Working with National Resource Wales (NRW) he has plans to map out many of the forest’s ‘off-piste’ trails and ratify them as ‘event trails’, which is NRW’s label for tracks that aren’t part of a waymarked route. This will also need some of the bigger features (or shonky exits onto forest roads) looking at, but the plan is to map them to Forestry standards and to then signpost them top and bottom. Riders would still have to seek them out and, by inference, take on a bit of responsibility for riding them. By communicating where to ride (and, importantly where not to ride – and why), Dave hopes that riders will take seriously their responsibility for looking after themselves and the forest they ride in.
Dave has also reasoned that it takes as much form-filling to apply for a £300,000 council grant as it does a £3,000 one, so some of the plans for the future of the valley are grand indeed. Given that the Forestry’s land agent would still need to sign off the plans, there’s great effort going on to make sure that everything is done correctly and at the slightly glacial pace so beloved of councils and national bodies.
Our next stop was to see some more natural trails that Dan has had a hand in. These are on land owned by one of the local pro-bike landowners. Many of these landowners are realising that welcoming bikes and events, or in some cases, building trails themselves, can help bring tourists and pod-camping clients in for weekend visits. Bridging a gap between the edge-of-wilderness trails that the new Mach 1, 2 and 3 trails will offer to the new generation of gravel riders, these offer natural-feeling twists and turns, with enough challenge to keep both Dan showboating and my own wheels mostly on the ground.
And then we get to the real elephant in the valley: Dan’s private hilltop of trails. This collection of multiple lines down an anonymous-looking hillside all bear the perfectly sculpted Atherton signature. While some of the narrower tracks are off-camber and deliberately unpredictable, the main line that we ride is a flawless rollercoaster of big tabletops – all rollable by a mortal like myself, and all flyable by a talented rider. These trails are the Athertons’ secret training weapon: a World Cup downhill course can hold no fear if you have a virtual replica of it back home.
We ride down in unison, watching Dan effortlessly launching off the precise arcs of the takeoffs. And there seems to be an endless roll of waves coming at us, as we make our way down the hill. Surely this place can’t be that unknown? But it seems that those who know are careful not to let on where it is. There are plans to eventually open it up to a wider audience, which will bring the influx of visitors that Dave and his fellow Dyfi CIC mountain bikers are keen to attract, but there’s also a great sense of responsibility – to the area, the villagers and the other trail users – to make sure it’s done right, and also to make sure there’s enough information and facilities to keep future plans for the area pressing onwards.
With nearly all of the local landowners behind the push to make Corris and the surrounding forests a major mountain bike attraction, there’s a noticeable mountain bike slant to this small town. The local shop and café is already set up for hungry riders (and it’s somewhere Dan visits regularly as his remote house doesn’t warrant a postal delivery).
There are more and more bike-friendly B&Bs, lodges and campsites appearing and it’s no coincidence that Andy Braund, NRW’s mountain bike ranger for North Wales, lives in town. Dave reckons that there are at least three couples who have moved there purely down to the draw of the riding. And while it doesn’t hurt to have an Atherton (or two – Rachel lives over the hill from Dan) nearby, it’s clear that there’s something else afoot.
The town of Corris swelled to 3,000 people in the late 1800s with slate mining and quarrying fuelling the development, but by the 1960s the town was virtually dead. The 1970s brought the alternative lifestyle crowd, which helped sustain it while not really making it attractive for anyone else, but – as is the way – the town has slowly been gentrifying and in the last ten years there has been an influx of residents and enthusiasm. Art galleries and residential studios have opened up, along with bike-focused holiday lets, while the local pub has just won a regional CAMRA award.
With a pro-bike community and supportive landowners getting on board, Corris is looking at other small mining and logging towns around the world that have reinvented themselves as mountain bike destinations and it’s not an exaggeration to say that great things are coming very soon.
While it’s a long way from just about anywhere, the plan is to make sure that when you do arrive here, you’re not going to want to leave again.