Downhill all the way in the Welsh Valleys

A new mountain bike park near Merthyr Tydfil aims to 'put a grin on everyone's face'. Christopher Wakling comes up smiling after a test-run

I have always liked the sound of the word "hooning", without knowing precisely what it meant. In the context of mountain biking, at least, I think I know now. When a mountain biker is "hooning" (present continuous of the verb "to hoon", clearly), he or she is flying down a big hill grinning like a loon.

BikePark Wales is hooning heaven. As the name suggests it's a bike park, in Wales. More precisely, it's a mountain biking park just outside Merthyr Tydfil. That's in the heart of the Welsh Valleys, 30 minutes to the north of Cardiff, an hour away from Bristol, two from Birmingham and three from London.

Merthyr Tydfil hasn't had a lot to grin about since the industrial revolution. Scientists discovered Viagra by accident here in the 1990s, but that lift aside, the story in recent years has largely been one of punitive unemployment rates and economic hardship. Once the biggest town in Wales, made prosperous by iron and coal, as recently as 2006 Merthyr was rated the third worst place to live in Britain.

The people at BikePark Wales aim to change that. The ironworks may have disappeared but the hills they dug the coal out of haven't, and hills and mountain bikes go well together. If you've not had your head in a hole of late, you will have noticed many more Lycra-clad cyclists on the roads. Less visibly, the mountain-biking business is also booming.

The Welsh have taken note. Over the past 10 years, trail centres have sprung up all over the country, catering for riders united by an urge to do their cycling off-Tarmac and car-free. In the past, I've ridden at Cwmcarn, 20 miles to the east of BikePark Wales, and Afan, 20 miles to the west. Both centres boast miles of beautiful cross country and challenging downhill trails. I've also ridden to the north in the Brecon Beacons, and there are further bespoke centres to in North Wales (Coed Llandegla), the Elan Valley (Coed Trallwm) and Snowdonia (Coed-y-Brenin), to name just a few.

BikePark Wales, which opened a fortnight ago, is perhaps the most ambitious centre of the lot. Five years in the making, the park has 23 trails graded like ski runs, from green – mild enough to roll along with small children – through blue and red for intermediate to experienced riders, to black and "pro-line" descents that are serious enough to challenge the elite/deranged.

To maximise hooning-time, there's an uplift service. For £30 a day, a minibus and trailer will take you and your bike back up to the summit as many times as you can handle. Book well in advance: the uplift service is already full until November.

If you prefer to earn your descents the hard way, then for £5 you can cycle up as well as down all day. I tried out the climb once – 25 minutes of scenic, lung-busting single track – and made use of an uplift pass as well.

Even so, I barely managed to cover half of the park's available downhill runs. And there are many more trails planned. Rowan Sorrell, the Welsh downhill mountain-biking champion and one of the park's directors, designed the trails, which are to be maintained by the only full-time trail-crew employed by a UK centre.

Fellow director Martin Astley stressed to me that the park has been developed by passionate mountain bikers keen to spread the fun as widely as possible. "It's not just about extreme downhill," he explained.

"The trails were planned with all-mountain riders first in mind. You can come with your kids [under 10s ride for free] and do as much or little of the difficult stuff as you like. We're aiming to put a grin on everyone's face, including our own."

To prove his point, Martin jumped on his bike in his lunch break, tore to the rain-soaked summit, then hooned back down. After that, as the sun cut shadows out of the fir trees again, he decided to come back to the top in the uplift with me. He had a route he wanted to showcase, a sequence of blue and red runs with names such as Melted Welly and Vicious Valley, headed for a black called Zut Alors. I was nervous. But Martin waited for me to catch up, looked the other way when I fell off and offered helpful tips about how I might stay on the trail.

Clearly impressed with my willingness to be taught, he further explained that a coaching facility is planned at the park. I can see this linking up with the tuition offered by outfits such as Pedal Progression – which kindly lent me a bike when parts for mine failed to turn up on time – in Bristol. It's a dangerous sport if you don't know what you're doing. The bullet points on the back of the trail map spell it out: "Do not ride trails beyond your current level of ability." It's worth picking up a few tips before trying the tougher descents.

Some 35,000 riders from all over the UK and beyond (they've already had a group from Italy) are expected here in the first year. As well as the trails, they'll find a huge bike shop/hire/repair centre, incorporating an airy café selling knockout bacon sandwiches. And many will go on to ride the nearby trails at Cwmcarn and Afan, I'm sure. They'll be impressed. Wales is positioning itself as the UK's mountain-biking heartland and its new epicentre is in the Valleys at BikePark Wales.

Travel essentials

Getting there

BikePark Wales, Gethin Woodland Centre, Abercanaid, Merthyr Tydfil CF48 1YZ (07902 589955; bikeparkwales.com) is reached from junction 32 of the M4; from there, take the A470 north towards Merthyr Tydfil. The nearest railway station is Pentre-Bach, one mile away (a 10- to 15-minute cycle). Bike hire starts at £30 per day for a basic trail bike; £100 a day for a top-of-the range downhill bike.

Further information

Cognation mtb trails South Wales (cognation.co.uk) was founded in 2010 to develop mountain biking across the region. See also mbwales.com for information about mountain biking in Wales. For accommodation and other activities, see thevalleys.co.uk

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