Scene Visit | BikePark Wales, South Wales UK
Ever since the day it opened its doors, BikePark Wales has been exploding through the UK mountain biking media, fast becoming ‘the’ must visit riding destination. Born from the vision of passionate riders and an inspired community, the trail rich bike park has injected new life into a Welsh valley. BikePark Wales promises “lift assisted trails for riders of all abilities, offering the ultimate riding experience” so we simply had to go and check it out.”
In the early days of DH racing, it had to be said that most of the UK National tracks were a tad lame, known throughout the racing community as an easy option and nowhere near the brutal level as those found in other parts of Europe. We saw the fantastic pictures of gnarly steep and rough World Cup Tracks, where (back-in-the-day) 150-180mm travel DH bikes were put through their paces, we felt a bit left out, apart from the Scots that is, as it was just too far to travel to race or practice more than a couple of times a year.
Then in stepped Jason Carpenter, father to the now World Champ Manon, he hit the UK with a new race series called the Welsh Dragons, focussed around the decent sized mountains of South Wales. I remember the first one, it was insane, like nothing we’d seen before, uplifted (that too was a new concept in the UK at the time) steep, natural, techy, scary as hell and longer than any of the other English or Welsh DH tracks of the time. These tracks brought on the skills of many a rider; clubmen and elite riders flocked to these crazy races to up their game and seriously improve their skills. One of the tracks was called Gethin, overlooking the ex-miners town of Merthyr Tydfil.
Fast forward 17 years, way past the demise of the Welsh Dragon series, Gethin track was still there and being used for the odd British National and regional DH, but there was still so much potential in the hills above Merthyr. Mountain biking tourism was taking off and the Welsh Government seemed to be throwing money about left right and centre trying to invest in areas to bring back some life to the valleys. Two very fast DH and Enduro racers, Martin Astley and Rowan Sorrel saw what was going on and took full advantage of the situation, teaming up with a silent investor and their other halves, they had an ambitious project in mind, the creation of Bike Park Wales. With Martin working in marketing and Rowan being a track builder they were the perfect combination to develop the land and the name into the amazing place it is now. The most inspiring fact about the place is that it was created from start to finish in an incredible five months, a real feat of blood sweat and tears.
The central hub of the Park is a brilliant modern building, consisting of a café serving top-notch food and drink, toilet, showers, chill-out area with blazing wood burner and a bike shop with an impressively busy workshop full of friendly staff. Outside is an huge bike wash area and more seating for the warmer months. A quick blast down (that’s right, down!) a fun, jumpy, smile creating trail and your on the road to the uplift waiting area, where a convoy of uplift buses equipped with bike trailers await the riders who have paid the extra for an uplift pass.
As we were driven up the hill with Martin, I noticed the two meeting places where all the tracks converge, offering multiple trail options. Immediately I was impressed with the vast amount of work that has gone into this place. After an amazing morning ripping down the trails, blue, red and black, following Martin down at some serious pace, we were left with one impression, there really is something for everyone at Bike Park Wales. The blue trails are fast, a bit pedally here and there, with little easy jumps that just put a smile on your face. Red trails are more technical in places, with names like Rim Dinger, which really does what it says on the tin, with many a suspension and tyre testing rock strewn about the place. Bits of the original Gethin Dragon track still exists as one of the black trails, steeper with big sender jumps and drops taking me way out of my comfort zone, more for the DH riders!
We had an amazing day riding the trails and being well looked after by Martin and the crew, we never got to ride it all (the joys of doing photos!) Will we be coming back here to ride it soon, hell yeah! Before we left I caught up with Martin for some questions and banter.
So when was it you first came up with the idea of Bike Park Wales?
It was really a slow amalgamation of thoughts over a long period of time. Over the last 15 years both Rowan and myself have travelled the world’s best biking destinations either racing or just to ride. We were constantly taking note of the good and bad things about each destination, not necessarily with an end goal in sight at that point, just out of interest. 10 years ago Rowan and I worked together along with Phil Saxena, Duncan Ferris and a few others building the Cwmcarn DH track. That was a turning point for all of us; those three are now full time professional trail builders. I took a different path and now work in marketing within the MTB industry. About 7 years ago I was driving along the M4 corridor after a trip to Afan and it just struck me that it was crazy that the UK didn’t have a proper bike park. Rowan and I had kind of mumbled the idea once or twice over the years so I just called him and said “how do you fancy making it happen?” Turns out he had just starting seriously planning to do the exact same thing so we joined forces and formed Bike Park Wales in 2009.
What was it like on the first day of opening?
Crazy!! We were totally unprepared. We’d been under huge pressure just to get everything finished and get the doors open as the debts were piling up. We hadn’t had time to put in place all the processes we needed and it was carnage! There was a queue of cars half a mile long to get in to the park. Massive thanks to our family and friends who dropped everything and came to help us during those first few weeks as well as our staff for working so hard, you saved the day!
How much has the whole venture cost?
Financially, £1.8 million. Emotionally, everything we had to give.
How many grafters did you originally have building the tracks?
We had the full team from Back-On-Track here plus some extras drafted in, plus our own trail crew. There must have been about 10 trail builders on the hill at times plus all the other contractors working on the uplift road, underpass, visitor centre etc. I’ve also got to give all our volunteers a mention. We had loads of local (and not so local) people come out and help us get everything finished in time and for that we are eternally grateful. Local club Aberdare MTB were a big help. A few of our trail volunteers now work for us full time!
So how many tracks are there exactly?
At last count we have 25 plus we are about to open a new start section to Vicious Valley and the new top to bottom black trail “50 Shades” will open at the end of January (fingers crossed)
Have you ever worked out exactly how many options you have for tracks with the different combinations from the separate trail meeting points?
My maths isn’t that good! I think it’s about 20 billion!!
Tell me about the costs and options to riders.
First up riders have the choice to either pedal up using our singletrack climb or to use the uplift. If you want to pedal up the cost is just £6 per day. Uplift is £30 per day on weekdays and £32.50 at weekends for as many runs as your body will take. We also offer a variety of coaching sessions which are £75 including a full day of uplift and a fleet of pretty trick bikes from Trek available to rent.
How many riders have you taken in within the first year?
I think it’s about 70,000
Have you had many nasty injuries to deal with?
Personally no as that’s not my job. Our first aiders have had to deal with a fair few. Thankfully though our accident rate is amazingly low.
What about plans for the future?
Bigger and better really, watch this space!
Big Thanks to Bike Park Wales for a top day, we can’t wait to get back there to test some bikes out. We will have a full trail guide coming soon.
For more info check- www.bikeparkwales.com
Words: Jim Buchanan, Pics: Doc Ward