When it comes to mountain biking, the tracks and trails that run through Wales are more than a match for the best
It’s not often that the modest mountains of Wales can compete with giants like the Alps and the Rockies, but when it comes to mountain biking the trails that run through the craggy peaks of Snowdonia, the high moorland of the Cambrian Mountains or the deep, green valleys of South Wales are more than a match for their loftier counterparts.
Over the last decade or so Wales has seen the development of a series of purpose-built mountain biking centres throughout the principality, providing world-class riding for everyone from rank beginner to potential world cup downhiller. From easy, gently undulating trails along former rail lines that served the heavy industry of the south Wales valleys to steep, rooty, rocky single track through the cloud-shadowed high country of north Wales this is mountain biking at its finest.
Then and now
This is all a far cry from my first forays into the Welsh hills way back in the late Eighties, when, with a bunch of like-minded mates, we’d get hold of an Ordnance Survey map, scope out a few bridleways then head out to see if they were rideable. Many were, and took us to majestic corners of the country that we’d never otherwise have seen, such as the whaleback hills above the Elan Valley in Mid Wales. But some routes would occasionally peter out into nothingness (bear in mind that some of these areas were probably last mapped in detail on the ground over a century ago) and saw us lugging our bikes on our backs across interminable miles of moor and bog.
Such a hit and miss approach to riding in Wales is now long gone - indeed, the Colorado-based International Mountain Biking Association once rated the country one of the planet’s top biking destinations and, as Rob Warner, former World Cup racer and British champion says, “Welsh trails are as good as, if not better than, the Alps”.
Take a centre such as Coed-y-Brenin in Snowdonia National Park. You can ride all day here through deep pine forests, beside tumbling cascades, alongside open pastures that reveal vistas stretching from the blue-green water of the Irish Sea to the misty mountain tops of the Snowdon range.
At the opposite end of the country you’ll find more modest hills (which means less demanding climbs!) at relatively little known riding Meccas such as Brechfa Forest near Carmarthen, where there’s every chance you’ll have the trails to yourself, especially if you ride mid-week.
Or head across to Port Talbot, the industrial heartland of Wales – smoking steel mills and iron grey skies are not something you’d associate with mountain biking, but hey, hold up as you zoom past on the M4 and detour inland a few miles to Afon Argoed for arguably the best and most varied selection of trails in the country. The first time I rode here it was like discovering hidden treasure and 15 years later that treasure shines even brighter thanks to regularly updated trails and facilities.
There’s stacks of riding for everyone from complete beginner to expert, not to mention marvellous high level views across most of South Wales, the Brecon Beacons and even as far as England on the opposite side of the Bristol Channel. Of course, you’ve got to ride up here first to enjoy those views, but that’s all part of the fun – although not as big a part as hooning back down afterwards.
What’s more, all these trails have been designed to be ridden year-round – Wales is, of course, known for its rain (and occasionally snow) but Welsh trails, like Welsh riders, can deal with this, and the routes generally remain rideable in any conditions. Even so, try to hit them when the sun is shining to make the most of the views, the atmosphere and some of the finest mountain biking on earth.
Most mountain bike centres have bikes for hire, along with refreshment facilities, bike washes etc, and can also provide info on where to stay in the area.