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

Mountain Biking UK - - CONTENTS - Words Luke Mar­shall Pics Andy Lloyd

“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.

Lo­cal knowl­edge

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

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