Sam Dugon goes behind the scenes at BikePark Wales and follows the staff during a typical day.
Words & Photography Samantha Saskia Dugon
As with all great things in life, the more professional a venue, event or personality appears, the more work has gone in behind the scenes to make it that way. This series lifts the veil from some of the iconic British mountain bike institutions, showing just some of the backstage work that goes on to keep events and locations running smoothly.
This issue it’s the turn of BikePark Wales. Opened in 2014, it has become one of the UK’s hottest mountain biking destinations. It’s situated in the Welsh valleys overlooking Merthyr Tydfil, where, come rain or shine, the park always has plenty to offer with over 40 trails to choose from. However, there’s a lot more to running BikePark Wales than just keeping the trails smooth and buses flowing, so we headed to the centre and took a look behind the scenes on a typical Friday just as spring started to show.
After a long night shift on security, Darren packs up his things and waits to see who’s going to be first in today. Will it be Mike on the trail crew, or will Mark the mechanic beat him to it as there’s a large number of bikes to get ready for the day? With his jacket on, ready to go, he sees Mark heading up towards the building. Darren greets him and hands over the keys for another day. “I’ll see you tomorrow then!” he shouts as he gets into his car.
The trail crew arrives – piling into the truck and onto quad bikes, they’re the first to get up the hill to make some early morning repairs ahead of a busy day rebuilding Bush Wacker. Some stay behind as more colleagues turn up to do an early morning trail sweep. After a rather blustery evening, centre manager Tomo quickly puts a call out for anyone who wants to come in early to help with that – after all, it would mean that you’re getting paid to ride. The downside? Getting out of bed an hour earlier. All in the name of bikes, eh?
Back in the centre, the heating is on, the computers are slowly firing up and the light is breaking through the shutters on the windows. The pattern on the floor from the shadows is beautiful, made even more tranquil with the deep glow of the rising sun and stillness of the building. It’s a nice, peaceful way to start the day before the crowds arrive. Dai on reception grabs a coffee and takes a moment to sit and drink it before the computer finally wakes itself up.
The drivers arrive and head down to their designated vans for the day. A quick check to see that everything is running as it should. It seems that bus number twelve has decided it doesn’t like its side door and as a result, that won’t close properly. Derwyn takes the keys and heads to the centre, informing the transport manager that another bus needs some work on it. He heads back down to pick up his replacement for the day – bus number eight, which is running as it should. He detaches the trailer and heads off into Merthyr to fuel it up before returning for a long day up and down the hill.
It’s all systems go! Within half an hour the building has gone from a state of early morning tranquillity to chaotic business. The doors are opened and riders start piling in. Some head straight for a caffeine hit, others run to the loo after a long drive – the most eager riders are first at reception to collect their passes. Others take some time to let the crowds die down by mooching in the bike shop. It’s flat out from the get-go.
The morning rush has been and gone; the café team start recovering plates and mugs and think towards preparing lunch. Lauren heads over to Dai on reception. “How many have we got today, Dai?” “Ahh, well it’s looking like quite a busy one – about 350 at the moment.”
Lauren starts to sort out how much food they’re going to need, but not before getting the oven warmed up ready for the trail crew as they’ll be back down in an hour for an early lunch after their equally early start.
“Anyone want a drink? I’m about to head to the café.” Olly offers to fetch drinks for the rest of the bike shop and workshop. It’s the mid-morning lull – he’s been bringing out fresh stock for the shop all morning and needs to refresh his eyes and look at something other than yet another label. “I’ll have a Americano!” “Tea, milk, no sugar please!” “Ooh, can I have a flat white?” The orders keep coming in… Olly rushes to the café repeatedly muttering everyone’s orders and hoping he gets there soon enough to not forget anything. “Can I get two Americanos, one espresso, a flat white, two teas and uhh… one cappuccino please?”
Andrea the barista laughs at him. “You sure that’s everything now?”
Derwyn parks his bus and heads down for lunch. It’s been a busy day on the hill with the uplift queue full for the first run, but thankfully the sun has been shining throughout which makes it a lot easier than the miserable, harsh, grey winter days. Fifteen minutes later, Dale, another driver, heads down off the hill and they exchange stories about how it’s been running so far. “Ahh, it’s not been too bad. I had one poor boy who got a flat tyre just after he reached the top. I’ve brought him back down now, would have been a long walk if it had been five minutes later!”
There’s a knock on the back door of the workshop and a deflated sounding voice says: “Uh, hi, I’ve, uh, got a puncture, can you help me?”
Mark the mechanic replies: “Hey! Yeah, sure thing. Just bring the wheel round and we can get that sorted in about 15 minutes for you, is that OK?” After a quick look around the shop and a toilet break, the rider gets his bike back. He considers having lunch, but after he sees the café queue he decides to eat later and take advantage of how quiet it will be on the hill.
The trail crew take a shorter lunch break than usual – they’re eager to get back out as they’re thin on the ground and haven’t got long left until the trail is due to reopen. With some Welsh cakes in hand, they crack on moulding and crafting some more segments of trail perfection.
Some of the team have brought their bikes to work, anticipating the nicer than usual weather and eager to get in a quick mid-lunch ride. As soon as lunchtime comes, Dan jumps straight into the back room and emerges fully kitted and raring to go. He sprints towards the uplift and prays that there won’t be a long queue. He’s in luck! With the sun out, people have headed back to the centre to top up their water and get some food to top up their energy levels. He arrives back with a couple of minutes to spare – just enough time to quickly grab some chips to eat at the shop.
The phone rings at reception. It’s not just about an amended booking or something easy, but unfortunately someone on the hill is calling because their friend has taken a nasty tumble. He says his mate’s arm is all cut up and badly bleeding. “OK,” says Dai. “Where on the hill are you?” He’s told that they are “just near the end of Zut Alors, by the rock garden”. Dai grabs his first aid kit and some water and heads up to the pair. When he gets there the rider is sitting by the side of the trail, the arm of his jersey ripped open and blood running down his forearm. Dai gives him some water and checks that he’s feeling OK to walk down to the centre where Dai cleans out the wound and bandages it. It’s already the end of the day for this rider so he spends the rest of the afternoon chilling in the café while his mates grab in a few more runs – after all, they’ve driven three hours to get here.
Pro rider Taylor Vernon had arrived a couple of hours earlier to get in some quick testing on his new team bike. Seeing a chance for some great photos, Nick, the bike park’s marketing manager, had put forward the idea of getting some quick shots with him later on in the day. Taylor had agreed, so they meet out the front where Nick runs through his ideas for a shot. Armed with an abundance of tech they head up to some large jumps near the centre and Nick straps a GoPro to Taylor’s wrist to get some cool angles of him mid-air. After a few runs and a go at a couple of different features, the sun dips behind the trees, casting some shade over the trail and the centre, which suffers from being on the wrong side of the hill.
Riders slowly trickle back down to the centre as the day comes to a close, but it’s nowhere near done for those who are working. As more and more riders arrive back, the bike shop and workshop prepare for their end of day rush. With hire bikes being returned and riders looking to get their loose headsets and squeaky brakes checked over, it’s the busiest time of the day. When they are returned, hire bikes are put straight into the wash queue and then into the queue to be serviced and repaired ready for tomorrow’s riding. Sweaty rental kneepads are thrown in the washing machine, helmets cleaned, sprayed, and put on drying racks. It’s a big and busy mission to get everything back in, cleaned, repaired and ready to go all over again the next morning… but, by now, the team have consumed an unhealthy amount of coffee with enough sugar and caffeine to power them through.
It’s a different story on the other side of the centre, however, as it’s a chilled affair compared to the morning’s raid of riders. Dai takes the opportunity as this day winds down to prepare for the next. Printing off passes, he clears emails and makes sure that everything is in order.
The cleaners arrive, ready to tackle all the dirt and dust left throughout the centre. Dressed in optimistic white cleaning attire, they won’t look that fresh when they leave in an hour.
The workshop is still battling against the clock, knowing they’ve got under half an hour left. Some of the reception staff get stuck in to help with washing and putting away the bikes, which is both helpful and chaotic as people traipse in and out of the workshop pushing bikes through an already busy space.
For the final time, the café team set out to collect all the plates, mugs and beer bottles from the tables. It’s been the first glimpse of summer and more beer has been drunk than hot chocolate, which means it’s easier for them as there are fewer mugs to wash at the end of the long day.
Finally, the bike shop is all done and cleared away for another day. Dai closes up the shutters and stands at the front door waiting for the last person. As they get ready to leave, Darren arrives for yet another night shift looking after the buildings, bikes, tools and vehicles, and places his bets on who will be first in tomorrow.
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