How I Got Into Mountain Biking

It is steep downhill on the mountain bike

The wild mountains of Wales are perfect for mountain bikers. Iestyn George has just started mountain biking and quickly finds out that cyclists of all ages and abilities are welcome in this sport.

The first thing you notice is the chatter. Mountain bike tours in Wales can take you into dense woodland or to remote mountain peaks. One might think that human voices are rarely heard in these places. But you are wrong.

Little Switzerland?

We start at Afan Forest Park in Neath Valley, South Wales. More than 100 km of cycle paths are spread over 64 km² of forest which clings to the side of this steep and narrow valley. It is easy to see why this area is also called “Little Switzerland”.

You can ride the 46 km long Skyline Trail with a gradient of 2,000 meters or several beginner trails, which are located in the middle of this adventure playground of nature. It is a place where visitors can feel absolutely free. Once you’ve fed the meter, you can do just about anything you want.

Visitors who would like expert advice can go directly to the Afan Bike Shed, where bikes can be hired and repaired, and where tours and lessons are offered. The man who has it all in him is Ben Threlfall, a friendly man from Portsmouth who has a truly loyal love for the place that can only come from having chosen it as his home for his young family.

Ben leads us to the practice area. And very soon I find out that even the slightest bend and the smallest embankment demands a lot of self-confidence from the driver. Mountain biking is NOT as easy as falling off a bike.

But Ben is very patient and drives ahead so that we can practice something on the single track. And here Afan Forest Park unfolds its whole spectrum. I feel millions of kilometres away from everything, although in reality we are only a few miles from the M4 motorway and less than an hour’s drive from the country’s two largest cities.

First lesson: In order to be able to drive down, you first have to drive uphill and single-lane routes uphill is a science in itself, with all the loose stones, tree roots and sharp bends you have to master. Others call it technology. I call it hard work and while the steam is already pouring out of my ears, I secretly swear to get my legs into some shape.

Ben’s other invaluable advice is that it’s not advisable to step on the brakes during a fast descent. “When I hear the brakes squeal, I know the rider has no control over the bike,” he says with calm authority.

We return one experience richer to Bike Shed. Ben asks us where we want to go next. He reacts to our answer with a knowing smile and the farewell sentence: “Good luck with that!

With a drink at the Afan Lodge Hotel, a beautiful mountain hut style hotel just a stone’s throw from the park entrance, I wonder what Ben might have meant by this laconic farewell greeting. Only a few days later this is more than obvious.

A real challenge

The slate mines in Snowdonia have covered roofs all over the world and the Llechwedd quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog is probably the most dramatic backdrop for a city you can imagine. Generations of people have worked hard here and played just as hard, and the single-track cycle tracks embody this lifestyle all too well.

They were built by Antur Stiniog, a local organisation that organises all kinds of activities including wild camping, fishing, kayaking and hiking.

For mountain bikers, there is an excellent practice trail, a very welcoming visitor centre and a café that provides all the carbohydrates needed to complete the four trails: Two black and two red (the tours are divided into black-red-blue-green categories, with black being the most difficult). There is also a transporter with a trailer to transport drivers and wheels to above Blaenau Ffestiniog, directly opposite the famous quarry.

And here you can hear a lot of chatter. Imagine the absolute opposite pole to a ride with the London Underground with people in full body armour and full helmets on their laps. The adrenalin concentration in the air is so high that I wouldn’t be surprised if the transporter was driven by it alone.

“For me, mountain biking is all about that,” says Ben from Lincolnshire. “Driving is a challenge from start to finish, the facilities are simply fantastic and everyone has a smile on their faces.

Within seconds he takes his bike off the trailer and is on the Y Du, a black track that takes him back to the Visitor Centre twice as fast as the transporter takes him to the top of the mountain. It’s fantastic to see these daredevil mountain bikers in action, shooting down on their descent and swinging back into the air like swallows.

Wild driving style

One of the country’s best riders, Gee Atherton, competed against a falcon on one of these tracks in 2013. Check it out on Youtube – you won’t believe it. A snail with arthritis would have a chance of winning against me as I descend the Drafft , the least scary track with tight, fast corners and lots of bumpy stone slabs, groaning and moaning.

One of the truisms about mountain biking is that the slower you try, the harder it gets. At least six times I leave a section and ask myself, “Did I really just do that? After all, I make it down to the bottom without any major damage and can watch from the safe shelter of Café Ben and his buddies as they chase the mountain up again in search of even more thrills. As an extra bonus for coming down in one piece, I treat myself to one of the legendary Kurdish pies from nearby Model Bakery.

Antur Stiniog was able to successfully adapt the hotels and guesthouses in Blaenau to the needs of mountain bikers – the most important thing here was a safe storage for the beloved (and often very expensive) mountain bikes.

We stay at Capel Pisgah B&B, a converted chapel run by Glenys Lloyd, whose father and grandfather both worked in the coal mine. I am warmly welcomed, given a front door key and allowed to come and go as I please. On any other day I would probably go to Cell B, a fantastic bar with art center and music venue in a former prison and courthouse. But tonight I have just enough energy to fall into my bed.