Active Traveller

Mountain biking: Thrills, spills and cake

Mountain bikers are flocking to the hills (and cafés) of South Wales. By Chris Moran

After a leg-burning 45 minutes I finally reach the summit, 340m above the level of the Bristol Channel. I'm out of breath, knackered and I've got a thirst Oliver Reed would have been proud of. After a few glugs from my bottle (Vimto, not vodka) and a couple of bites on a muesli bar, I'm ready to take in the view.

With the sun approaching the horizon, the hills are bathed in a beautiful glow that's half sunset, half forest mist. I feel incredibly lucky. I'm riding a full-suspension mountain bike in one of the best trail centres in the UK. No matter which way I go from here, it's all downhill. I feel like I've earned the next bit of excitement, and set off with a little celebratory wheelie.

I'm 36-years-old. My location is Afan Forest Park in South Wales, one of a growing number of purpose-built mountain biking destinations in Britain. They offer a broad range of riding terrain, but all deliver stunning views.

The first was Coed y Brenin on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park: a hand-built track through its forest opened in 1999, and mountain bikers were lured with a visitor centre, café and bike shop. It was an environmentally aware, locally focused project long before such things were fashionable. Most of the centres it helped to spawn are in areas of outstanding natural beauty. After the success of Coed y Brenin, the Forestry Commission concluded that a similar trail in South Wales might attract some 200,000 cyclists to the region, generate an annual £18m and create 550 jobs.

Afan Forest Park's cycle trails were given the green light, and a select crew of expert trail-builders moved in; the results of which I was about to test. Flying through trees on a finely tuned mountain bike combines the thrills of downhill skiing, the grace of snowboarding and the child-like brilliance of skid-pulling. It's addictive stuff. For men of a certain age, there's a hint of Evel Knievel in the riding, and enough high-tech components and gadgetry to raise even James Bond's eyebrows.

There are obvious dangers of course – colliding with trees, large rocks or bobble-hatted ramblers to name just three – but the rewards are worth it. Where else can you get a full-body workout and that scream-at-the-moon rush lacking in daily life? Add in the fact that most runs feature a café stop (cake being the staple diet of most mountain bikers) and it's easy to see why the sport is often referred to as the fastest growing in Britain.

To meet demand, Afan's second visitor centre opened in 2005, and the £1m Glyncorrwg Mountain Bike Centre now houses the Skyline Bike Shop, Drop Off café, showers, and a bike wash area. With trails connecting it to the original visitor centre, riders depart safe in the knowledge that there's a snack waiting half-way through their run.

Along with the grub, diversity also helps. Like Alpine ski runs, Afan's trails are colour-coded. Purple runs are family-friendly roads rambling through the forest and take in strategic stops for picnics and views. Red runs are trickier and feature steeper, more technical descents, jumps. Black runs – as many skiers will recognise – are for experts only. Of the six trails on offer at Afan, one is purple-graded, four red and one black.

I chose the Penhydd trail, a 17km red trail starting at the visitor centre, that ascends Mynydd Penhydd and loops back to the starting point. In between, a series of tough climbs and thrilling descents keeps the heart rate in triple figures for the estimated course time of two to three hours.

The Penhydd path is easy to follow and its makers have gone to extraordinary lengths to tease every bit of energy from the available downhill, so that the track twists and turns down the steeper sections, and straightens out on the flatter parts. For a rider of my low-skill level it's perfect.

In places, the track narrows to near shoulder width, with a sheer drop on one side. The forest here has a magical, eerie quality, and the trail weaves through spectacularly remote sections. I slalomed past stumps, ducked under branches and steered around some devious boulders.

The trick is to read the terrain ahead, lean through the corners and only brake on a straight section. Mountain bike riders call this "flow", and it requires complete concentration. Exhilarated, I finished one downhill burst by plunging through a beautifully clear and surprisingly deep stream, parting it like a 30km/h Moses.

For those looking for even more excitement, nearby Cwmcarn has a permanent downhill track with death-defying jumps and terrain, and a shuttle service so you don't have to ride to the top.

Personally, I prefer Afan's approach. The riding is more like a very energetic ramble. The downhill rewards seem more worthwhile after having earned them with some tough uphill sections, and like all great mountain destinations, there is something about Afan that adds up to more than an inventory of its facilities. Perhaps it's the regeneration in this once-derelict ex-mining valley, now experiencing a tourism boom. Or maybe it's the ancient, welcoming forest. Either way, there's magic in them hills. Magic, and some spectacular cake.

Chris Moran is the author of Mountain Biking Britain, a guide to the best trail centres and riding spots in the UK, available now from

Travel essentials

*Afan Forest Park is 8km north of junction 40 on the M4 and around 20km east of Cardiff. Cycle hire is available from either the Afan Forest Park or Glyncorrwg visitor centres from around £20 per day. The trails are free to ride and open 24 hours a day year-round.

Cwmdown bus:

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape