Independant on Sunday

WALES WATCHING, Independent on Sunday, Mountain biking in Wales

California, Colorado, Coed-y-Brenin– yes, incredible as it may seem, wet and windy Wales is now officially ranked up there alongside the best in the world when it comes to mountain biking.

At the end of last year the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) graded mountain biking world wide, and awarded Wales a ‘B’, the same as Colorado and California (the only place in the world to get an ‘A’ was Idaho).

The grading takes into account such features as the quality and variety of riding (obviously), trail sustainability and accessibility, and may in fact underscore Wales, for since the results were announced work has been completed on five mountain bike centres around the country that take the riding to new heights in both senses of the word.

Kilometre after kilometre of purpose built, waymarked single track, easy open fire roads, beautiful high country scenery and something to suit everyone from family groups to off road junkies combine to create five Welsh mountain biking nirvanas. The centres also offer apres-ride cafes and bike washes, all of which ensures that if you can ignore a climate that unfortunately comes closer to a grade ‘F’ than ‘B’, Wales is about as good as it gets as long as you don’t want the luxury of ski lift access (which is for nancies anyway…).

Most mountain bikers have heard of North Wales’ famed Coed-y-Brenin, which for several years has hummed to the sound of fat tyres hurtling around its magnificent forested trails and has recently seen some impressive new trail developments, but less known are the centres at Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia (with a superb 27 km route through a full-on mountain landscape); Nant-yr-Arian (high level wilderness riding in the Cambrian Mountains above Aberysytwyth); Afon Argoed near Port Talbot (magnificent single track less than 15 minutes from the M4), and Cwm Carn near Newport (17 kms of very challenging single track clinging to steep hillsides).

The Forestry Commission has invested some £400,000 to develop these sites, with one simple aim – “To make Wales into a world class mountain biking destination,” according to Dafydd Davis, the commission’s forest sports development adviser and an expert biker himself. He explained that the Forestry Commission, after some persuading, is now 100 per cent behind developing the sport in Wales and is the only major land agency in the world putting so much money into mountain biking.

And it’s not pie in the sky to consider Wales a ‘world class’ mountain bike destination. While no-one would claim it can compete with the likes of Colorado or the Alps in terms of climate, the scenery is much underrated, and if you put routes of the quality to be found at the five centres into the heart of that scenery then you’re well on the way. As Dafydd said “I’ve ridden in North Wales with professional US trail builders who described the route I took them on as one of the best they’d ever ridden – anywhere”.

This is echoed by British Champion Rob Warner, who has ridden all over the world and was tenth in the Mountain Bike World Cup last year and says, “Wales’ trails are as good if not better than the Alps. He also points out that unlike in the more elevated mountain ranges of the world “You can ride year-round in Wales as long as you don’t mind rain or wind, since the trails never get too wet and are rarely snow covered”. The trails are also designed to withstand erosion from knobbly bike tyres, with trail builders learning their skills through working in the USA and Switzerland with professionals.

Mountain biking is no longer the fringe activity that it once was – in fact it’s said to be the fastest growing outdoor activity in Britain, and the Wales Tourist Board sees it as a major money spinner for the Principality. Visitor numbers at Afan Argoed are expected to double at the very least since the creation of the latest trails, whilst Coed-y-Brenin Mountain Bike Centre brings some £5 million annually into the local economy – more than timber extraction from the forests in which the routes are based.

And it’s not just in Wales that mountain biking is now seen as a major visitor attraction. IMBA graded Scotland only slightly lower than Wales with a ‘B minus’ (dull and dreary England received only a ‘C’, but then that’s the South Downs for you) and here too mountain bike specific trails are springing up amongst the glens and moors. At Glentress Forest near Peebles there are a series of excellent trails for all abilities, and at Glen Nevis you can ride the only ski lift accessed trails in the UK, which may sound a bit soft, but the thundering downhills on offer once you’ve eased your arse off the lift soon put paid to any ideas this will be an easy pootle through the hills.

Describing British mountain biking as ‘world class’ might sound like yet more hyperbole from the over excitable world of ‘extreme’ sports, but after several weeks of riding in Idaho, Montana, British Columbia, the Alps and the Pyrenees in recent years I can genuinely say it’s well worth checking out what’s on offer in Britain’s hills. I have, and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised.

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British Columbia. From the terrifyingly technical trails of Vancouver’s North Shore to the desert trails of Kamloops or the gnarly mountain trails around Nelson, BC has enough world class riding to last you a lifetime.

Idaho. You’ll have heard of Sun Valley, but probably not Priest Lake, the Trail of the Hiawatha, Boise’s Front Range, the Owyhee Mountains, McCall, the White Cloud Peaks and a score of others. They contain, as IMBA has decreed, the finest trails on the planet.

Chamonix. Steep as hell, so if you can ride here you can ride anywhere. The backdrop of Mont Blanc and often perfect summer weather make the vertical challenge well worth while though.

Bagneres de Luchon, French Pyrenees. I once did over 50 kms of downhill in three hours here thanks to the ski lift which runs from the town centre, and if you really must ride up as well as down there are Tour de France passes to take on as well as the off road trails.

Lake Garda, Italy. Shuttle buses will take you to the top of tremendous descents if you can’t be arsed to ride up, and the combination of cross-country trails and downhills is unbeatable. Be warned, though, that the Riva del Garda Mountain Bike Festival in early May also sees 18,000 other like-minded souls on the trails (and partying) too.