Words and photos by Tristan Kennedy
It’s the tail end of November, it’s cold, it’s dark and the first thing I hear when I wake up is the rain spattering against the windows. I fumble for the snooze button on my phone alarm and check the temperature. It’s minus one. It’s a Saturday. I do not want to be awake at half past 6.
My phone beeps again, interrupting my slip back into slumber. It’s a message from my colleague Chris: “Got the sat nav sorted, it says I’ll be with you in 20 minutes."
I’m still half asleep as I roll my bike up to the all-new Ford S-MAX that is our ride for the day. “How are we going to fit this in there?" I say, eyeing up the suspiciously compact-looking car. “Shall I take a wheel off?"
"It’s got heated seats. Short of climbing back into bed this is surely the next best thing - it’s so comfortable."
“Nah, that’ll go in fine," says Chris, with a breezy confidence. I’m unsure, but he’s right. With the seats folded down the boot space is cavernous, fitting not just my full suspension bike but also a fat bike in easily.
But it’s as I clamber into the passenger seat that I spot the real game changer. “Oh yes, it’s got heated seats." Short of climbing back into bed this is surely the next best thing - it’s so comfortable.
It’s just as well, because Chris and I have a long drive ahead of us. Our destination is Bike Park Wales, three and a half hours away according to the touch-screen trip computer.
Once there we’ll be meeting Alfie Bacon, one of the winners of our ‘Live Life to the S-MAX’ competition, and his friend David. Alfie’s winning photo entry - of himself hitting a big old gap at his local trails - has earned the pair of them a day’s riding in the legendary Methyr Tydfil location.
Having never been to Bike Park Wales, I’m pretty excited myself. I’ve heard a lot about it, not least from Ed Leigh after he and Phil Young visited earlier this summer. My excitement grows when the rain stops and the weather improves.
The S-MAX eats up the miles and in what feels like no time at all we’re crossing the Severn Bridge - by this point there’s barely a cloud in the sky. As we pull up the rough dirt track to the bike park we spot a dusting of snow on the surrounding hills. I’m buzzing. “We couldn’t have picked a better day for it," I say to Chris.
“We couldn’t have picked a better day for it."
Alfie and David are similarly excited when we meet them in the café; even more so when we give Alfie the fat bike. But although he’s stoked to get his hands on it, he won’t be riding it today.
His chunky Giant downhill rig is more appropriate ride for the dedicated downhill tracks of the bike park. So after a quick whip around the carpark, it goes back in the boot of the S-MAX and we get geared up - we’re all eager to hit the trails.
Arriving at the top, we’re almost faced with too much choice - the trail map is an embarrassment of riches, with multiple options to suit all ability levels.
After a bit of chat about how much riding we’ve each done and how confident everyone’s feeling, we decide to kick things off with a blue - if nothing else it’ll be it’s a chance to warm up and get our riding legs in.
It soon becomes apparent that Alfie has been modest about his mountain biking ability and is in fact an excellent rider - as the trail drops into the woods he steps on the gas and disappears quickly.
David, while less experienced, is nothing if not up for it. An army man, he met Alfie through climbing and is apparently “the most competitive person I know." He hoons it off after Alfie, while Chris and I struggle to keep up.
If we start off a little slower however, that first ride certainly helps us warm up - at 4.6km long, Terry’s Belly is Bike Park Wales’ longest and by the time I’m half way down my legs are already burning. “Bloody hell, that’s hard work," I say.
“Yeah, I think I’m gonna get claw hands from gripping too tight," replies Chris. But as we roll into the next section - fast, banked berms lit up by the flickering winter sunlight filtered through the trees, any aches we feel quickly pale into insignificance. It's just beautiful, and so much fun to ride.
We all have huge grins on our faces by the time we reach the bottom. Not only is the trail well-designed, it’s incredibly well-maintained. Bike Park Wales are the only outfit in the UK to have a full-time professional trail building crew and given the amount of snow at the top and the rain that’s fallen earlier in the week, it’s amazing how dry the run down is.
The best thing about the set-up though is what comes next - it’s just a short ride back to the pick-up point, where a fleet of vans with bike trailers are waiting to carry the steady stream of bikers back up to the top. This system is incredibly efficient.
The park is fully booked on the day we’re there (weekend slots regularly get booked up months in advance) but we never wait more than about five minutes before we’re back in a van being whisked up to the top by a friendly member of staff - usually with a thick Welsh accent.
We spend the rest of the day happily lapping the park - well, more or less happily. At one stage David, following Alfie closely again, guns it off a drop that’s bigger than he’s expecting and flies forward over the handlebars.
It’s a nasty slam and he’s lucky to get away with a bit of bruising. But he’s quickly back on his feet and grinning about it, laughing it off with his trademark infectious chuckle.
It would be hard to feel down for long here in fairness. There’s just so much to explore - in our day there we barely scratch the surface. And although we’re knackered by the time the sun sets, I’m left wanting more.
Alfie’s the same. “Usually coming here is the kind of thing I do maybe once a year as a treat with my mates," he says as we sit comparing bruises and sipping Bike Park Wales’ own homemade ales at the end of the day. “So this has been awesome."
As we climb back into the S-MAX for the drive home the thought crosses my mind that we should have got up even earlier. It’s hard to believe after my reluctance this morning, but after all, what’s an hour longer in bed when there’s fun like this to be had?