We head back to Afan Forest Park, one of Wales’s first trail centres, to see if its tracks still deliver the same thrills
We head back to one of Wales’s irst trail centres to see if its tracks still deliver the same thrills
“I t’s bloody raining!” are the first words we hear when we step out of the van to meet our guides for the day. Normally this would be no great surprise in Wales, but Arron ‘AJ’ Jones – a rider from Risca who’s been tearing up the South Wales hills since the beginning of the old Dragon Downhill series in 1999 – seems genuinely taken aback. “Sorry for the weather – it hasn’t rained in two months,” explains Cai Grocott, a talented young enduro racer from Rhondda, who’ll also be helping to show us around the trails. Today, we’re not only joined by these two locals, but also Sarah Gamsjaeger, an Austrian who’s made her way to the UK to study, but also to explore the riding scene.
Variety is the spice of life
While our luck with the weather has been lousy in typical MBUK fashion, we’re definitely in luck with the location we’ve chosen. Afan Forest Park was one of the original UK trail centres and has been a popular riding venue since the early ’00s. It’s seen plenty of development in this time and continues to impress, not only with the huge number of miles you can put under your wheels, but also with the grin-inducing riding it provides. Fortunately for us, the trails hold up well in bad weather. Indeed, in some places, they offer more grip in the wet.
The forest is far too large for us to cover all of it in just one day, so we make a plan to hit a few of the best spots. Climbing out from the Glyncorrwg Ponds Visitor Centre – one of Afan’s two MTB ‘hubs’ – AJ and I reminisce about the days when we used to race the Dragons together. “Do you remember the pink motocross kit I wore?” he asks. I don’t, but I do remember some of the races being as challenging as this climb feels. Fortunately, it intersperses sharp technical efforts with a few well-placed smoother sections where you can catch your breath again, and serves as a good warm-up for the entire group.
When we finally get to the top, everyone is eager to start ripping the descents. We jump straight into the optional black run that forks off from the red-graded White’s Level trail. AJ and Cai rocket off down the trail, Ed follows in hot pursuit and, not to be outdone, Sarah chases them, leaving me wondering where everyone has disappeared to, as I still haven’t even found time to drop my saddle.
Trying to hang onto the back wheel of other riders is always exciting, because, even on a manmade trail centre descent, everyone reads and interprets the trail differently. It’s cool to watch Cai and AJ as they find ways to carry speed and alternative lines that help them smooth out the rocks. This not only comes from
talent, but also from knowing the terrain you’re riding. That’s why it’s great to have some locals to follow. By the time we get to the bottom, we’re in awe of the guys we’ve just tried to chase down the hill.
We climb back up and ride the red Blade descent back to the car park, stopping in a couple of places where the scenery and colours make for good photos. “I might jump off the rock on the right and land on the bank on the left,” suggests Cai. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the bank could be used as a landing. “If I cut inside and hit the rock step at an angle, that might make a cool shot,” AJ shouts. The inventiveness and enthusiasm of these two are infectious, and soon Sarah, Ed and I are all trying to find our own take on how to ride the trail, turning it into a playground rather than just ploughing down the well-worn line in the centre.
A. J. AND CA I’ S INVENTIVENESS AND ENTHUSIASM ARE INFECTIOUS, AND SOON SARAH, ED AND I ARE ALL TRYING TO FIND OUR OWN TAKE ON HOW TO RIDE THE TRAIL
An old ’un but a good ’un
Back at the bottom, we jump in the van and head down the valley to the Afan Forest Park Visitor Centre. We ride out on the red Penhydd trail, which includes a long fireroad climb. I have a quick chat with Sarah to see what she thinks about her first time here. “Afan has something that’s non-existent in Austria,” she says. “Back home, we’ve got either bike parks or forest roads, none of these free-to-use, mixed-terrain trail centres. It offers so much variety, from flowing forest trails to rocky climbs and descents out in the open – and I’ve only been here half a day. There’s so much to explore here!”
While there’s a considerable variety of riding at Afan, these are some of Wales’s oldest purposebuilt mountain bike trails. The plus side to this is that they have more of a natural feel than some trail centre tracks, but they’re also a little rougher
in places, so it can take a little extra effort to keep your speed on some of the shallower descents.
Last but not least
Feeling shattered but not wanting to stop just yet, we drive up to the Afan Bike Park, an area full of jumps, berms and runs where you can practise some essential bike skills. Our man Ed is in his element and we all head over to the big line. The first run through is to scope out the jumps – all are safe and fun, even if some of the lips aren’t as kicky as they could be. Despite this only being Sarah’s second summer of riding, she’s soon hitting the big line fearlessly. AJ, Cai and Ed start with the whips and tabletops, pushing to get as much airtime out of the jumps as possible.
With time running out and energy fading, Afan has provided an awesome day of riding. We look forward to returning to try out some of the loops we never even got a chance to start.
Cai (left) and AJ take some pretty imaginative lines on these well-worn trails!
Out of the woods, the moorland trails are beautiful but exposed
Cai lets loose high above Glyncorrwg
Ed lays it flat as a pancake on Afan Bike Park’s pro line
Luke skims through the heather during a break in the rain