With my new full suspension mountain bike (did I mention it?) I really wanted to do something we have been promising ourselves for some time. A visit to Bike Park Wales.
This is a large mountain bike park just outside Merthyr Tydfil. It has a wide range of man made trails designed to test your downhill mountain biking skills. If you have any that is. After our visit I’m not entirely sure I do.
Finding a campsite near Bike Park Wales
We didn’t have to stay nearby, we could always drive up each day, but ideally we wanted to be within cycling distance of the bike park so we wouldn’t have to move the van. It was extra effort we knew we could do without after a day of physical exercise.
Search for Sites didn’t come up with much, so we cast our net a little wider and ending up finding somewhere called ‘The View’ on P4N (Park 4 Night). A small campsite that had set itself up very much as the campsite for Bike Park Wales.
Further investigation found their facebook page. Reviews were mixed to say the least, but in this case location was everything. We decided it would be the best option, largely through lack of alternatives.
The View Camping
We liaised with the campsite via facebook and email to book a pitch. When we turned up we found the entrance blocked with a truck and a new tarmac drive being laid on the steep-ish slope up to the campsite. We had a chat with the guys laying the drive who asked us to come back 3 hours later to give them enough time to finish laying the drive and allow it to cure so we could drive on it.
So we pootled off to find a park up for a late lunch. Three hours later we returned to find that no additional tarmac had been laid since we had left and the drive was now blocked off. There appeared to be no one on site or at the owner’s house next door but we did find a phone number on the facebook page and after a few garbled text messages we established that we were ok to move the cones and drive onto the site.
We never did meet anyone who claimed to have anything to do with the running of the campsite. All correspondence was via text. But that was fine, we had found an available pitch and the site was small enough that it was easy to find all of the facilities. A code for the secure bike store was provided, a nice touch.
The site is definitely a work in progress. Paul described it as a builders yard and I could imagine this was a site being gradually improved and upgraded by someone in the construction industry using left over bits and pieces from other jobs. The glamping pods are swish and modern but the facilities are in containers or old static units that have seen better days.
The A470 runs directly above the site, but the noise didn’t seem as bad as we expected, I think because the weather was warm and we were slightly below the road the sound carried above us. Some reviews had complained about the buzzing noise from pylons overhead but this mostly impacts the camping area and we couldn’t hear anything.
From our pitch we couldn’t see the view that is implicit in the site’s name, but there is one; across the River Taff valley to wooded slopes.
All of this may sound a little negative, but actually everything worked well enough, the price wasn’t extortionate and we were close to BPW. That was good enough for us.
Getting to Bike Park Wales
On the afternoon we arrived I decided to walk to BPW from the campsite.
I had mapped it out and it looked like a 2km walk/bike ride. I had to exit the campsite through the camping area and down a steep dirt slope that looked like it had been bulldozed down to the access lane. Another work in progress I’m sure.
From the access lane the route was on tracks – uphill into the staff car park at BPW. It was steep enough to get the heart pumping when we cycled it the following morning. When we returned later that day there was no way we could cycle up the final access to the campsite. It required a firm push.
Mountain Biking at Bike Park Wales
Well this was a lot harder work than I was expecting.
We have been to quite a few mountain bike centres but they have all been of the Forestry Commission variety where I would usually be happy to warm up on some Blue trails (which I think of as easy) and progress to Red trails (harder). Here we started on the blues (intermediate) and were not tempted in any way to ride the red trails. We even retreated to the Green trail when we got a bit tired.
We turned up and bought our ‘pedal passes’ to give us entry to the park. We were given tags to wrap around the handlebars of the bikes so everyone knew we had paid our way. To buy these passes we each had to complete an acceptance of risk form which was a bit of a faff as there was a long queue and we ended up going back to the tail end of it after signing our lives away. In hindsight I would have bought our passes online and completed the risk form that way. There would have still been some queuing to pick up our tags but it would have been a lot less hassle.
For some reason we thought that we would bike both uphill to the top of the park (a trail known as ‘beast of burden’ which should have been an indicator of the pain factor) and then down the trails AND then keep doing that all day.
We managed it once. After one ride uphill and then our first blue trail we realised there was no way our bodies would manage to do that again. We had severely over-estimated our cycling strength.
So we decided to buy some uplift passes. These give you access to a minibus pulling a mobile bike rack that drives you from the bottom to the top of the park. Before arriving I had viewed this as a bit of a cheat. Now I was very happy to take the ‘easy option’.
To take the uplift you can either buy an unlimited day pass or purchase a Pedal Pass plus a number of pay-as-you-go uplifts. It would take 6 uses of the uplift to make the unlimited day pass worth while and having now wasted some of our time riding the Beast of Burden we figured we should buy 4 uplifts each and see how we got on. With gravity on our side, doing just the downhill trails would be easy, right?
For starters I had to get my bike onto the uplift rack. That was my first challenge. I managed it eventually but it took a bit of practise. Paul, being a lot less clumsy than me, and having more arm strength, found this straightforward. Squeeze the rear brake, lift the handlebars so the front wheel is in the air and the bike is in the upright position, then release the rear brake, roll and pop the bike up onto the rack. Once this is done you just need to select a couple of handlebar straps to secure the bike in position. I was always the last to complete this task and had a few offers of help, to which I replied ‘no, I’m going to do this myself’. Something that will no doubt take my mum back to my early years when ‘Becky do’ was a common refrain.
Then we had the trails to contend with. Fast flowing trails with multiple berms (banked corners). More technical sections with drops and bumps and jumps. And such loooong trails (fortunately they had rest points where you could pull of the trail to rest and/or let more confident riders through). Every bit of the trail tested my strength and ability to control the bike. We had to focus at every point to observe the trail ahead while at the same time staying aware of the next few meters. It wore out my brain and body very quickly Paul, with his hardtail (no rear suspension) and rib injury was being jolted around and needed frequent rest stops.
Despite this we loved every minute. Speeding downhill and brief moments of getting some air gave us such a thrill. We giggled as I tried out my nifty dropper post but, rather than standing up on my pedals, still kept my bum firmly glued to the seat. Shrinking down so that I felt like I was riding a child’s bike. At one time I hit a jump a bit fast and sat down in shock, lifting my feet off the pedals only to realise this made things a bit tricky when trying to find the still rotating pedals in time for the next feature. We really felt like we were learning and picking up new skills. Being pushed out of your comfort zone is such an important thing and it’s been a while since we’ve done that in such a fun way.
Our second day on the park was similar. We knew we wouldn’t make the most of an unlimited pass so yet again opted for four uplifts each. This time we planned our route a little better, following the trails to halfway and then cycling back up again, trying to get as much trail time as possible out of each uplift.
After two days we had been well and truly pummelled by our time on the slopes. We needed a rest and anyway we had weekend plans. I was keen to show off my shin bruises in the dress I planned to wear.
For some reason I have always just assumed that being able to ride a bike qualifies me for mountain biking. Since visiting Bike Park Wales I have reconsidered. I’ve spent a fortune on skiing lessons over the years, why wouldn’t I take some coaching for downhill mountain biking?