Well the new bike has covered over 160 miles now and the last 30-ish of those were at Afan this weekend. Prior to this weekends trip to Wales, I had been trying the Spectral out on the tarmac where I had expected it to be dreadful. Oddly enough, I found myself taking massive chunks off my personal best times on fairly long and/or steep tarmac climbs riding the new bike. Partly because the rear shock has a “climb” setting which seems to work, partly because I’m getting a bit stronger, partly because the bike is lighter than the Ragley.
Bike resting at the start of Penhydd
As satisfying as it is to ride quickly up a road, that’s really not what I bought a full-sus bike for, so let’s focus on my return to Afan for the first time since 2009…
Since I was last at Afan, a lot has happened there. About 1,000,000 trees (I didn’t count the stumps, it just feels like huge swathes of woodland have been removed) have been cut down, one of the trails has been closed down, upgraded and reopened (Penhydd) one has been tweaked a bit (Whites Level) and they’ve added in a Blue route, a bike park and an extra red trail. The character of Whites Level and Penhydd has been changed hugely by the logging, they feel totally different as trails cutting through the side of exposed hills rather than weaving through trees deep in shade. True you get more far ranging views down the valleys, but who looks at the view when they’re caning it down rocky singletrack ? Personally I couldn’t see anything while I was riding downhill other than the 10ft of trail in front of me. If you’re riding it quickly, whatever that means for your skill level, you need to be totally focused or you’ll be off, and when riding large portions of these trails, you’ve got a pretty steep drop off on one side of the trail or other. Tumbling down a hill till I hit a tree stump aint my idea of fun.
About halfway up the climb out of Glyncorrwg looking towards Cymmer.
For those of you who’ve never been, what’s generally known as “Afan” is two trail centres about 3-4 miles apart with a cycle path linking the two along the route of a disused railway line. The Afan centre has a small, quiet cafe, a visitor centre and a few other “non cyclist” attractions like walks and museums and things. Penhydd, The Wall and the Blue trail “Blue Scar” start from here, as well as a couple of “family” cycle trails. Up the valley is Glyncorrwg which has a campsite and a cafe that is a lot more lively, stays open till 11pm and serves beer. The Glyncorrwg cafe is now called “Skyline”, last time I was here it was called “The Drop Off”. The Drop Off had the reputation of being one of the best trail centre cafes in the UK, the food and the vibe don’t seem to have deteriorated since it’s changed ownership and name. Both centres have bike shop/hire facilities unsurprisingly. Whites Level, The Blade and Skyline start from Glyncorrwg and all begin with the same, long, hard, technical climb up the hillside. Now the place has been deforested, you can sit in the cafe with a beer and watch everyone else slog up, perhaps taking bets as to how far a certain rider will get before stopping for a breather…
We stayed at the Bryn Teg House B&B, exactly the same place we stayed last time we came. What you get here is a warm welcome, excellent cooked breakfast, comfortable and very clean rooms, in a great location inbetween the two centres and just five minutes walk from the pub. You can hear the sound of the river as you lie in bed at night, it’s a lovely place to stay.
Taking a break near the start of Penhydd
On Friday we started off with The Wall which I think is the oldest trail here. Both times I’ve ridden The Wall I’ve found the climb seemed really easy for some reason. A mix of singletrack and fire road climb that never seems to be too steep or too technical. Then you hit a trail called “Piccadilly” you start going down hill and before you know it you’re back down at the bottom of the valley again. The reason time flies on the descent is that it’s just so bloody good. The Wall hasn’t been logged to within an inch of its life either so it’s still quite picturesque. At the end of the 2nd to last downhill section on the wall is a little bike park with tabletops and berms and drops and things. About 5 or 6 lines, all fairly short and sweet. Well worth a play. We spoke to some locals who said they headed there when it was raining as the trails there are under a thick canopy of trees that offer a lot of shelter.
The Wall descent was the first time I’ve ridden the Spectral on a “big boys” trail, I was staggered at how much better it felt than anything else I’d ridden in the past. There’s a lot of talk about 29ers having more “momentum” than 26in wheeled bikes which I thought might be relevant to people who test bikes for a living, but not to mere mortals like me. Not a bit of it though, I found the bike flowed up and down and through and round the trail like it was alive. If it was alive I’m sure it would have given me a “Why not just leave the bloody brakes and let me get on with it?” look. Made me feel like a better rider, what more can you ask from a bike ? It was a joy to batter it through the rocks where last year, on the Ragley hard tail at Coed Y Brenin, I’d been grimacing and wondering if I really wanted to ride mountain bikes after all. I love this bike.
After the Wall, we paused for some food, then set out on Penhydd. Penhydd has a hideous climb. It’s just horrible. You start off on a little switchback trail shared with the “Blue Scar” blue route. Fairly tame, just plodding back and forth up a hill on some hardpack. Then there’s a short, sweet, swoopy descent that robs you of about 30m height gained and you’re on a fire road. This fire road goes on and on and on and on and on. It’s deathly dull, even more so now the hillside has been logged and the scenery is a bit of a moonscape. However, despite this climb, Penhydd is still probably my favourite trail out of any I’ve ridden in England and Wales. The best bits of the “old” Penhydd “Sidewinder” and “Dead Sheep Gulley” are still there but new bits have been added in. It flows and flows and flows till you find yourself back at the trail centre with a big smile on your face. If there had been an uplift I would have gone straight back to the top and come down again.
On the way up Penhydd you can see the Blue trail descent. It looks bloody good. We didn’t ride it in the end, but it did look like a fast, swoopy, bermy run down the hillside. A few less big rocks and drops than the red descent but this is no boring family trail. Looks similar to the better stuff at Swinley but much longer.
So, once Penhydd had been tackled, we rolled back along the “low level Cycleway” to the B&B for pre-pub showers, looking forward to getting stuck into more of the same the following day.
Saturday didn’t start well, woken up at 5am by a thunderstorm, feeling a bit like I’m coming down with a cold. The rain hammered down all through breakfast though fortunately the lightning moved off eastwards. We had planned to tackle the new Blade trail on Saturday but locals we’d met had said if it was wet, Blade would get very boggy and might be slow riding and not so much fun. As it rained fairly torrentially on and off between 5am and 10am we decided to go for Whites Level instead.
Lovely, isn’t it ?
The rain cleared as we set off and we were lucky enough to have a dry day the whole time we were riding. Well, I say dry, but of course, the ground was saturated. In places, there were streams of rainwater running down the singletrack. All routes out of Glyncorrwg start with the same climb, it’s tough, but unlike the Penhydd climb, it’s not boring. It’s rocky, rooty, technical and very long, a good 4 miles. Last time I was here, I pushed the bike up most of it, this time I was determined not to. I rode solidly for an hour uphill, which got me about 3 miles along and roughly 1,300 feet up, by that point, I needed to stop for a drink. I drained a bottle of lucozade and had a 5 minute rest, then set about forcing myself up the remaining mile of the climb.
Once Whites Level starts going downhill, it’s much like all the trails here, rocky, twisty, flowing, snakes of singletrack slithering along the side of the hills. If there were trails like this within 20 minutes drive of my house I wonder if I’d ever see my family. When we got to the final descent we were presented with a sign telling us there were two options, the original Whites Level Descent “Darkside” (Tho this would no longer be all that dark since there would be no trees) or a new downhill option which claimed to be 1,700m in length. We had a crack at the new option. After a little bit of fairly flat trail and a little bit more slightly uphill trail, it started to go down with a vengeance. Long, steep, loose, undulating trails with switchback turns. A couple of the steep bits were hairy, one nearly did me a mischief when I neglected to drop the saddle and the front wheel went a bit awry on a rock with my weight a bit too far forward. Fortunately I managed to regain some composure and rode it out, but there was a split second where I thought I was going over the bars and I could almost taste the hospital food.
How can you not love this ?
Before you could say “Blimey that was good” we were back down at the bottom of the Valley and headed to the Cafe for some food. As I said, Saturday saw me wake feeling a bit under the weather and by the time I’d ridden Whites Level, I was feeling pretty rough, sore throat, starting to lose my voice, headache, etc etc etc. Due to this we gave up on the idea of riding the Blue Route in the afternoon and hung out in the cafe watching other riders struggle up the hill.
33 odd miles covered and about 4,000ft climbed. Afan was great, can’t wait to go back.