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 footprintbooks.com

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: cwmdown.co.uk

Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
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
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick