Words by Ed Leigh
Despite the popularity of mountain biking, for years the UK suffered a dearth of decent uplift facilities. All this changed with the opening of Bike Park Wales. It’s the ultimate mountain biking playground and an incredible place for Ed to get properly stuck into the sport for the first time. Perhaps a bit too incredible…
I have religiously avoided going Mountain Biking for more than a decade because I knew what would happen. I knew I would love it and would end up buying a bike and all the gear, which would be destined to become another very expensive (and more importantly dangerous) toy in the garage. It turns out I was right.
As we finish surfing in Cornwall my old friend and guide on this action sports-themed road trip, Phil Young, reveals to me that the next stop is the mountain bike equivalent of Las Vegas: Yes, it’s Merthyr Tydfil in Wales.
The opening of Bike Park Wales in 2013 represented the culmination of a five-year battle by two couples, Martin and Anna Astley and Rowan Sorrell and Liz Scaife, to turn their vision into reality. In Canada bike parks were a raging success and yet for years in the UK, where mountain biking is the country’s most popular action sport, there were very few uplift facilities.
It took a lot of perseverance and persuasion for the four to convince the forestry commission to give them some land above one of Britain’s most deprived towns.
But the unlikely marriage has proved an unmitigated success for all parties and the Bike Park has become a talisman for scores of facilities that have popped up all over the UK.
From Cornwall we follow the M5 North and turn left over the Severn Bridge. The S-MAX has transitioned effortlessly from narrow country lanes to motorway cruising and the spacious and flexible interior comes in handy for a bit of man napping.
This is the mountain bike equivalent of Las Vegas: Yes, it’s Merthyr Tydfil in Wales.
I’m am woken from my reveries though by Phil saying:
I’m not sure who he’s talking about and give him a confused look. Then the car says.
“Call Martin Astley?”
Wow. Not only can Phil talk to the car, but it can actually understand him and talk back. Apparently it’s all down to something called “the smart Ford SYNC 2 system” but I’m blown away. How a car computer can comprehend Phil’s languid cockney drawl is beyond me and the ridiculousness of a talking car gives me the giggles.
The scale of the Bike Park’s influence on Merthyr Tydfil becomes apparent when we arrive at the Premier Inn to see the car park rammed with bike carriers and people wandering around in body armour carrying helmets.
The pub over the road is no different with people settling down to pints of Brains with mud speckled on their faces and shin pads on the floor. Phil and I start trying to gauge our ability level and how we’ll handle the following day’s riding.
We start off quite humble. Phil is the king of understatement. However by pint three we’re both pretty convinced that we’ll be fine handling a black run and Phil wants to have a go at table topping his bike (twisting the handlebars so that the frame of the bike is twisted up horizontal by the gyroscopic force of the wheel). This is very obviously not going to happen.
There is a special category in the book of tiredness reserved for the lack of energy you feel post surfing. Add in a long drive followed by three pints and a hearty meal and you have the perfect recipe for a good night’s sleep.
It’s just as well, as we need it. We arrive at Bike Park Wales to find our guide for the day already waiting for us – none other than Kye Forte.
Kye is a legend in the world of BMX. He was crowned Dirt World Champion in 2005 and broke the high jump world record 2012. He is also a very tasty motocross rider, but two years ago decided he needed new challenge and started trying his hand at mountain biking.
Despite his laid back nature, Kye is very competitive and it wasn’t long before he was wrapped up in the British national circuit. After a year learning the ropes he came back in 2014 and won. His goal now as an elite competitor is to make it to a World Cup event.
By pint three we’re both convinced that we’ll be fine handling a black run. This is very obviously not going to happen.
Kye hands over the bikes he has picked out for us and to start with I’m pretty sure he’s having us on. They are called Fat Bikes, but they look like something you’d see in a cartoon. The tires are huge – monster truck size but for a pushbike.
I’m even more shocked when I notice that the bike he has given Phil doesn’t have any suspension. Phil hasn’t noticed, ever the aesthete he is wrapped up in the brown wall tires and the fact that his jumper matches the frame.
I decide not to burst his bubble and using the wonderfully convenient second and third row seats, which fold flat via the touch of a button, we make space in the boot as if we’re playing Guess Who.
Like the talking car feature the novel folding seats are great fun and we all have a go before the ample boot eventually swallows our fat bikes and we set off up the hill.
The real coup though is the fact that Kye has procured a key for the gate. Traditionally there are only two ways up the hill either you pay the £25 for an uplift pass – which means you jump in a van that drives up the hill with your bike on a trailer behind – or you pedal up.
The park is a victim of its own success in this sense because places on the uplift are booked up months in advance, even on weekdays. So being able to drive the Ford S-MAX up and down the hill whenever we want is The Bike Park Wales equivalent of a private jet.
The hill is laid out in exactly the same way as ski resort. You have the aforementioned lift (albeit a van instead of a chair lift) and runs that are colour coded to tell you their difficulty. There is one Green for absolute beginners, a ton of blues for beginner-intermediates, reds for more adventurous intermediates, blacks for advanced riders and then a couple of pro lines for the likes of Kye.
On Martin’s advice we take the newest Blue trail on the hill Terry’s Belly. At 4.2km long it’s the second longest.
As soon as we set off I realise the bikes are completely different to anything I’ve ever ridden before. The tires are soft and wide so soak up a lot of the bumps, but they don’t roll as quickly as normal width tires so there is a kind of passive braking effect, which I have to admit I’m quite pleased about.
Straight away the tracks swoops and dips in front of us, testing our bike control and focus. The track itself is smooth, filled with crushed rock to take away any surprises. But the surroundings are not.
The land is part of the forestry commission so either side of the track is littered with tree stumps and fully formed rocks. So although the ride itself is easy the stumps and boulders act as a constant reminder of the consequences of a mistake.
However as we stop and start to ride each section of the track multiple times for the video camera, the confidence rises and so does the speed. Phil and I have made a pact before we set off that we’ll end the day in one piece, but as the adrenaline and false sense of security that following Kye gives us grows the pact becomes a distant memory.
My fears have become reality. I am loving every minute of this.
After an hour and half of stop-start filming it is decided that we have enough close ups of the action and we set off for a top to bottom run with GoPros. All bets are off, the game has changed completely.
We are throwing ourselves at unknown corners and jumps, near misses start to become normal. Worse still, my fears have become reality. I am loving every minute of this.
After the first run we jump back in the car and load up the bikes. Phil is complaining vociferously that his arms feel like he’s been working a pneumatic drill for the last hour. Luckily he is saved the ignominy of fumbling with his keys to get the boot open with a simple kick under the tailgate. Some hidden genius at Ford has got his back and the boot glides open hands free.
On the way back up the access fire road the all wheel drive kicks in, giving extra grip and stability. It’s clever, this car.
I talk to Kye about technique as we go, and he mentions soft elbows, knees out to offer stability and above all looking towards the end of the corner. It seems like common sense, but it’s amazing how easily you can forget and stare at the lip of a berm only to find yourself magnetically drawn towards it rather than the exit.
I ask him how wrong things can go and he tells me the story of a crash he suffered recently in Andorra on particularly steep section of track. He was flying through the top section of the track but lost it in one steep turn and was fighting on the back foot as he entered the next even steeper turn.
This continued for another six turns, each one becoming more and more ragged until 500 metres later he finally exploded. He learned the hard way that one small mistake at speed is like ignoring a credit card bill and watching the interest pile up. At some point your skill level is going to declare you bankrupt and foreclose…
Kye has decided we are now ready to tackle a red, so we ride into Vicious Valley. I take off just behind Kye and after a couple of hundred metres pull up like I’ve just ridden a penny-farthing over a cobbled street.
There is no smooth crushed rock, instead we are hammering over sharp uneven slabs. As I stop I realise that I have front suspension, Phil has nothing. His face looks like he’s just been subjected to electric shock treatment, he looks a little bewildered and confused, shaking his hands and looking at them. He does not look happy.
“Is it like this all the way down?” he asks Kye.
“No not all the way, we can cut onto the A470 where there’s smoother trails and some jumps”
And sure enough a hundred metres down we cut right, but instead of smooth trails we find some small drops offs into even more jagged rock gardens. I decide Phil will enjoy my pity even less than the rocks and instead try to match Kye’s speed into the jumps.
I imagine I must look like a drunk turkey trying to fly.
It’s a pointless task, Kye is floating effortlessly over the jumps, while I thump down just before the landing transition on every one. I imagine I must look like a drunk turkey trying to fly. But lower down the jumps get smaller and just for a second I measure it right.
I match my speed for the landings and pump across the flat and up the face of the next jump. I sail through the air, turn the handlebars just a little to try and add some style and then float almost gracefully into the landing.
I have watched Kye ride jumps many, many times, he makes it look too easy. And when you see it, it is impossible not to want to feel that graceful sensation of flying on a bike. And for a couple of seconds I have it. They’re not big jumps, but they’re big enough for me and I feel ecstatic – like I’ve ticked something big off my bucket list.
Phil on the other hand is not, he’s looking at his thumbs like they are about to fall off. I feel genuinely sorry for him… but not sorry enough to lend him my bike.
Eventually, we both decide that four hours of riding without serious injury is a decent stint and that the odds of survival will drop rapidly now that we’re becoming tired.
So instead we take a seat in the woods and watch as Kye turns on the Ritz for the cameramen. It’s a humbling experience as we realise just how leisurely his pace has been to let us keep up. It’s ridiculous how quickly he can travel on the bike over rough ground.
It’s like it’s an extension of his body, lifting the back wheel, gliding through technical sections and then floating 10 metres only to land, pop 12 metres land again, crank the bike over on its side and disappear out of sight, high lining around a huge berm.
It’s thrilling to watch and for me it’s the final nail in the coffin of my resolve. I’m going to have to buy a bike.
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