By Hannah Arndt, Swyddog Mynediad, Cyngor Sir Ddinbych | Access Officer, Denbighshire County Council
(in Volume 26)
Thousands flock here each week for the thrill of the trails, dust, mud, lung-busting climbs, breath-taking descents, for the thrill of the tales over coffee and cake and for the grin factor. But why is recreational mountain biking so popular across Wales?
For nearly twenty years Wales has been developing dedicated trails designed for modern MTB riders to much critical acclaim, which help build world-class destination status. For the hundreds of thousands to come once is a great achievement, but what is the magnet pulling them back and what keeps the locals coming week after week, rain, shine, snow and hail? What makes people’s eyes light up when you tell them you are one of the lucky ones who lives only six miles from Llandegla?
The earliest incarnation of MTB business in North Wales was the development of businesses such as bike hire at outdoor hubs like Betws y Coed. Agreements with Forestry Commission Wales to use tracks in the Gwydyr forest and Coed y Brenin started the drive to develop dedicated routes. Substantial investment has been made to strengthen the mountain biking sector in Wales in the past 20 years. Trail centres have seen huge financial input from Welsh Government supported by European funding initiatives leading to the first dedicated trail centre at Coed y Brenin, which opened in 1997, followed closely by the development of other forestry sites and MBWales.com. Successful private enterprises such as Oneplanet Adventure at Llandegla took off and recently celebrated its 10th birthday. These centres have become the definition on which Wales bases extremely high standards for Mountain Biking and has seen visitor numbers grow exponentially to place Wales high up as a destination to take notice of. With great options for food, drink and accommodation, Wales is an easy place to stay for the day or even longer. The great rail, ferry, air and road links connect Wales easily to the rest of the UK and beyond to Europe making travelling six or 306 miles nice and easy.
Further investment by Natural Resources Wales to improve and extend the visitor facilities and trail offering at Coed y Brenin and by Dŵr Cymru to extend their visitor offer at Llyn Brenig has paid dividends, with a healthy increase in visitor numbers since the new facilities opened. The collaboration between Dŵr Cymru and the North Wales Cycling Centre of Excellence project, not only resulted in the extension of the café and provision of bike hire, but also led to access improvements to take the ten mile route around Llyn Brenig off the main road. In challenging weather conditions and on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a beautiful crushed slate path with natural culverts, and raised boardwalk section, cut through the heather and bog sections like it’s been there for years. It is a great route for families and the bike hire centre offers trailers too. A 45% increase in bike numbers on the path in their second year indicates how popular this site is becoming within the cycling community.
The hubs are without doubt a huge draw; when you’ve given everything you have on the trails it’s time to relive the calf burning climb and the gnarly descent and where better to do that than in the café?! The trail centres know that these visitors want to spend their money on quality food and quality gear, and accommodate this with some excellent retail facilities and bike servicing workshops. This is something the mountain bike media encourages as part of the sport’s culture, as much as the rides themselves.
When a day at the trail centre no longer quenches the mountain bike cravings and a longer mountain bike adventure is essential then exploring the fresh, quiet natural trails is an obvious move.
With interest in mountain bike activity in Wales growing through the 1990s, Denbighshire county council worked extensively with landowners and user groups to develop a network of natural trails on bridleways and byways through the Ride the Clwyds project and the rights of way improvement plan. Ride the Clwyds was new and innovative as it was the first project in Wales to map, improve and promote a range of natural trails, graded like trail centre routes around technical skill and fitness. Long before the days of GPS on the handlebars or phone tracking applications, riders could grab a route card and follow some of the best singletrack in one of Wales’ finest landscapes.
The way information is displayed and disseminated has changed a lot since mountain bikes first came to Wales. In a technically advancing world, which largely takes for granted instant access to information at our fingertips, the mountain bike sector has led the way with websites such as mbwales.com and ridenorthwales.co.uk, the trail centres, bike hire and bike shops all use apps and social media to promote their services and we’ve seen examples of information sharing in relation to trail diversions and publicising cycling specific events.
Ride the Clwyds and its sister site Ride Hiraethog were great for local riders, visitors, and even for local businesses who benefitted from overnight stays and lunch stops. As with lots of technology, the websites advanced and Ride the Clwyds was superseded by Ride North Wales, a merger of Ride the Clwyds and Ride Hiraethog and a collaboration between Conwy and Denbighshire councils through the North Wales Cycling Centre of Excellence project and the rights of way improvement plan. Now offering gpx and kml file downloads, an app, but still the trusty route cards, Ride North Wales uses OS mapping and an extensive facilities section covering anything from where to source inner tubes to eating out at Michelin star restaurants.
Collaborations with mountain bike magazines and most recently adventure publications sees further promotion of the wild and wonderful trails that North Wales has to offer. Singletrack Magazine visited North Wales last spring to cover a classic, natural route, just a short distance away from Oneplanet Adventure and the trails at Llandegla, in an article entitled “Llandegla…ish”.
This led to Ride North Wales, in partnership with photographer and film maker Chris Davies and world explorer Manu Bustelo creating “A Mountain Bike Adventure: Wales” for Sidetracked, a magazine devoted to adventure, expeditions and exploration. Chris and Manu made a film documenting the five day adventure exploring the best natural trails North Wales has to offer, starting from the North Wales coast near Prestatyn to the west coast at Barmouth, brushing the tops of the Clwydian Range and Llantysilio Mountain, finishing by ascending and descending the magnificent Cadair Idris. The film is available to watch and the routes can be downloaded at ridenorthwales.co.uk.
The days ride was in and out of the hanging valleys, crossing the ridge line a number of times. We were rewarded for the long steep climbs by fun, twisty singletrack descents. The whole day was spent in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it’s easy to see why, the landscape the views, the trails were all beautiful and the route we took through was amazing, a lot of fun on the bikes.
Manu Bustelo, world explorer, describing his experience of day 1 of A Mountain Bike Adventure: Wales
Interest in cycling continues to increase and it is evident that mountain biking and similar adventurous activities are unlikely to disappear. Huge effort and investment has made Wales a world-class mountain biking destination, with enthusiasts and professionals spoilt for choice amongst the selection of trail centres and natural routes. Public and private sector investment has built an industry worth a great deal to the local and national economy. Keeping Wales as a mountain biking destination and attracting domestic and overseas visitors is important for local, often rural economies, with overnight stays boosting the tourism growth and contributing to Welsh Government’s Tourism Strategy.
In short, Wales needs to continue with the high class, high quality approach in developing trails, trail centres, and world class riders. The mountain bike industry is well placed to contribute to Visit Wales’ theme for 2016 ‘the year of adventure’, and to inspire new and existing mountain bikers to visit. Providing the information and facilities these visitors need to carry out their adventures is a really important role. Further, seeking wider access for bikes in the countryside, to reflect the changes in usage of rights of way since the definitive maps were drawn, could provide endless new possibilities for exploration and adventure.
Encouraging wider participation for enjoyment, health and wellbeing from family rides along the sea front to developing new clubs for women and children is another area where mountain biking can contribute. This is something which has already started through Welsh Cycling’s initiative the Breeze network, popular ladies training sessions at Marsh Tracks in Rhyl and local ladies social clubs at trail centres and needs to continue to encourage wider participation in the sport.
Further information about mountain biking in north Wales
Cited in this article
- A Mountain Bike Adventure: Wales https://vimeo.com/135641616