The Coed-y-Brenin Tarw trail - not as good as Thirimont woods! [Mawddach estuary trail from Barmouth.]

Never meet your heroes.

I'm confused. I've built my PACE RC303 to do trail centres, hence the 140mm forks - they're pretty much redundant here in Surrey. Yet I've just come back from Coed y Brenin thinking that my rather native trail in Thirimont near Spa in Belgium is the better trail. Clearly it isn't, so why do I feel this way?

[Note: Since writing this I've since learnt that you aren't supposed to ride these places the same way as you'd ride your local trail. Your local trails have horse riders, pedestrians, cyclists coming the other way. They may be muddy or have multiple route choices. In other words you ride as fast as you dare but always with regard to other trail users; i.e. ride with a finger on each brake with a readyness to stop. I've since realised that - and it sounds obvious but my style of riding is ingrained - that you just go hell for leather as the trails will only have cyclists on, and each will be going the same way with the same intent. 20 years of riding bridleways means I live in fear of horses or elderly walkers with chaotic dogs! Coed y Brenin has none so I should have been free but instead applied my own restrictions. I apologise for my stupidity. But be aware such self imposed restrictions are indeed ingrained in us.]

Here's my story.

Well what is a mountain biker to do when on holiday in Barmouth? Coed-y-Brenin, naturally. Now I'd planned on driving to the centre, having a pootle about, then driving back. But once there I found the Mawddach trail that links Barmouth to Dolgellau, so a plan was hatched. Ride there, do a trail then get picked up. Driving to go riding seems so lame; a bit like driving to the gym. To be honest I should have ridden back as well as in the end being picked up made me feel a right loser in life. The Mawddach trail was lovely, especially with a tail wind and I did the 12 miles to Dolgellau easy and in under an hour, spotting en route some wild Samphire. From there, however, things went awol. I'd read that the route from Dolgellau to Coed was signposted using quiet B roads. So I didn't take a map. Bollocks is the route signposted. I knew where the centre was on the A470 seeing as how I lived nearby for 5 years, but the b-roads were a pain. The signage was poor in the extreme, mainly being non-existent and I spent a lot of time finding my bearings. After what seemed like ages I entered the Coed-y-Brenin forest and the signs stopped, meaning I'd no idea where the cycling centre was in relation to where I was. There was an information sign board, but this was for walkers so of no use to a cyclist. In the end I used the A470, which defeated the point of using the B roads in the first place. Boy did it take some time to get there; the 7 miles from Dolgellau took an hour also, mainly due to route finding.

Anyway, got there at 10:15 and it was open but dormant. There didn't seem any safe way to get to the cafe without leaving my bike unlocked and parked against a fence. The cafe is up two flights of stairs and seems to have made the assumption that people will drive there and so have their bikes locked up whilst having a snack. Honest, there was nowhere at all to leave your bike if you'd ridden there alone and I found that very poor form seeing as how it is a cycling centre. So having ridden 22 miles to get there I then decided to head straight out on to a trail, picking the Tarw trail at random. This is a black run for 'expert' bikers only, and was posted at something like 28km or such**.

Now within 100m I'd decided it was unrideable due to the rocky steps. I was on the Pace and got bounced down a set and plonked unceremoniously onto a road. Bugger thought I, this isn't going to be fun. But there I was so off I went up a massive fire road climb. Again this wasn't fun but en route I decided to drop my seatpost 5cm to see what difference it made on the drops. Whilst stopped some guy passed me on a Yeti full suspension bike and just nodded. He was wearing bits of body armour which made me think, but again I was half way up a Welsh hill so had no option but to carry on.

So off I set into the woods and soon realised that my little 100m boulder section was but a taster of what was to come. The trail is hugely artificial, just consisting of rolling boulder filled singletrack. It is challenging, but to be honest I had little fun. I was concentrating so much on not falling off and completing each section of boulder-track that I didn't find the flow of the place at all. As soon as I'd get the hang of the boulders, the trail would end and there'd be another fireroad granny ring climb. Indeed the most used shifter was the front one. Honest! Going up I was in the granny ring, second cog on the back. Going down middle ring, second cog on the back. The rear mech was redundant. All very odd.

Here's the rub; I did it all without stopping or falling off. And to my mind that's the problem. You know that it is meant to be ridden, and can be ridden, so you do. If you stop and look at a section, you think "no way" can that be done. But then reality kicks in and you just do it, putting your faith in the trail designer. Clearing each bit there's a sense of relief, but no sense that it was down to your ability or otherwise.

I felt a bit short-changed by it all to be honest. If I'd made a specific point of going there instead of it being a sideline to our holiday, I'd have been pissed off with the thing. I'm not saying here that I'm a brilliant rider so it was easy. Far from it. I'm a poor rider and found it bloody hard. But all the time it was as if somebody was guiding me through the hard bits. The little information board suggested a fast time of, well, the time I did actually. I'm a stone overweight, don't ride often and didn't know my way around the centre. A fit rider would whip around the thing in no time.

En route around I came up some guy walking his bike down the trail. Now this was a rocky section with 20cm drops, and I was doing it at cycling speed. In other words I was making some noise. I called out to the guy four or five times - by the end I was shouting for him to move over. But he was completely oblivious to me, only moving over when he actually saw me. It was clear he was out of his depth and was in panic mode. Back at the cafe I pondered on this guy and others around me. I'd got there not too far behind the Yeti guy, so had not made a bad fist of the thing in the end. Looking around it seemed to me that myself, the Yeti guy and Mr Panic were perhaps the only ones out of perhaps 300 people there who'd actually ridden a trail. Some had no bikes and were just there for the cafe. Some had really flash bikes and just rode the kiddy trail for 30 minutes then left. Others were on shonky pieces of crap, rode the first 50m of the Beast then left. Very few even looked as though they had any intention of riding an actual trail in it's entirety as few people had trail packs. Some were dressed up in the gear just for photo calls on little bits of trail. What's the point of loading your car up, driving for four hours to the place, then farting around for half an hour doing nowt?

It'd be interesting to know how many of the riders rode a trail at all. I suspect, from my admittedly short experience of the place, that less than 10% of visitors do. Most seem to go just to say that they've been. In the cafe the loudest gobs were those that had ridden a little bit of the kiddie trail.

I got a bit bored of listening to the crap so decided to play on the Beast whilst waiting for my unfortunately redundant lift home. Again it was the same as the Tarw; steep fireroad climbs followed by thin ribbons of rock through the woods. It had rained, but my semi-slick Aspen tyres were fine suggesting that any tyre would do.

In the end I rode for perhaps 40km of Coed-y-Brenin trails and didn't really enjoy it a huge amount. I don't think I was under-biked as the Pace did well. OK the 34km ride in didn't help my mood, or my legs, so that may have been a factor. But overall I'd say that the general falseness of it, or rather the people there on the day hacked me off. I'd ridden to the site, ridden one trail and a bit of another, yet there I was in the minority sitting amongst people gobbing off about how well they'd done but very few of them had gone more than 50m away from the cafe [which serves excellent food by the way at very reasonable prices]. It was all a bit odd and alien and I felt out of sorts. I'll go back, but next time I'll ride there and back from Barmouth and try and avoid the wannabees. I'd also avoid the place on a weekend. The guy who baulked me was a lone event, but I could imagine more of these people being out and about which would spoil it for me. And to be fair, I wasn't exactly thrashing the trail so I'd also be a rolling obstacle for other faster riders during busy periods.

I can see the point of it, and perhaps if I rode it more often I'd get into it. But the silent guiding hand, the route markers defining where you go, plus all the bullshitting cafe bastards left me cold. If it was closer to me, and I could just nip in and out of the place as part of a normal ride, it'd be brilliant. Utterly, utterly brilliant. The technical sections would make me a far, far better rider and I'm slightly suspicious of that guy on the Yeti. In my mind I followed him around the entire trail yet on the fire road climbs there was no evidence of his passing; no wet tyre tracks as there was with the pushing guy. Clearly Mr Yeti had contrived a route all of his own. He'd managed to avoid miles of fireroad climb and one suspects knew where the proper singletrack was / is. Come on! You know such a thing exists. You Dear Reader can look at a map of the Surrey Hills and put a route together. Get a local in as a guide and you'd never know it was the same place. I'm convinced that the posted trails are just a taster of what is there and if you put the effort in the place would be so much more rewarding.
Of course I could just have been in a negative frame of mind right from the off. My family were in Barmouth doing family things and I missed out on that. The signage in Dolgellau was shite and I do so get annoyed at placing my trust in idiots. On the b-roads to Coed y Brenin at one point I needed a wee. Found a quiet spot so started to empty my bladder. Heard a car coming so stopped.... or tried to as a strap from my Camelbak had wrapped itself around my Old Man, so as I went to put him away I got 10cc of wee down my shorts. Then at the centre, after my ride I noticed that the sole of one shoe had come away from the cleat area, meaning that I had to throw them away. I hate buying shoes at the best of times, let alone MTB ones with their random sizing. And the last thing was my Camelbak Mule. Why? Because it was just to darn small for jacket, shorts and food. Forcing that lot in meant it was not only uncomfortable, but the bladder leaked resulting in my running out of water 1km into the Tarw trail. I was ridiculously dehydrated at the end with a bad headache. Note to self: ditch the Camelbak, get a bigger pack and take spare water in a bottle.

It may also be the case that living right on the doorstep of the excellent Surrey Hills I've been spoilt. Not for me the weekend slog away from somewhere like Manchester or Birmingham and up some motorway to a distant trail centre a few hours drive away. I'm on the trail within ten minutes from here and it's all good. So forgive me Dear Reader if I'm being petulant; it's because I know no better. I've no need to put my bike on to a car, so the concept left me grumpy, wishing I'd cycled back to barmouth.

Note to Coed y Brenin; go cycle from Dollgellau and try to follow the signs in. Go on, do it. Once on site try and find somewhere to leave your bike safely. There is space to do so by the Welsh speaking bike shop but no facility. Some sort of floor mounted Thule clamp would do nicely for a modest 50p or so. I'd also look at trying to develop the site further so that it is integrated with the local area more. As it stands once on site you could be anywhere, and there is no real sense of it being in Wales. I've not looked at the local maps [lost my OS one] but it would be interesting to plot an off-road course from Harlech, Barmouth, Dolgellau or Trawsfynedd. The Mawddach trail to Dolgellau worked for me, but then it all lost the plot and I can't see anybody taking their kids along that then thinking "hey I'll now use the dangerous A470 with my 5 year old in tow!"

Of course there are positives, of which there are many. The centre has excellent facilities, even a bike shop on site that stocked some rather decent gear. The cafe serves good quality food at reasonable prices, and in an MTB environment. Even prices for parking are low. There are easy trails to learn on, and the challenge of the black runs is actually good once off the fire road climbs. Naturally the views are stunning and the air fresh. And the major bonus being that the trails can be ridden all year around on relatively modest, but large volume tyres. And you don't need a fancy bike to do it. Plus if you are like me, and have a family in tow, they are certain to find something fun to do in the area. If they come to pick you up later, and you're late back, there's enough to keep them happy on site for a good hour or so. And really if you are a mountain biker, and don't give it at least one go, well you'll never know will you! Don't take my miserable word for it; most people come away happy so Mr Grumpy here may well be in the minority. At least the centre is doing something positive for mountain biking which when all is said and done is more than I've ever achieved with my bitchy little blog and t-shirts.

Digressing a bit. I had to change some Euros in Llandudno Post Office. The queue was massive and slow moving. I had cause to observe it. The staff were nice and friendly, but not overly chatty. They dealt with people fast. So why was it slow? Because each time a person was called to a counter the announcement was in Welsh. It must take a minute before the English speaking people know where to go; that's an additional minute serving time per person in my view.

And Barmouth for a holiday? Excepting the fact that my eldest came back with a Brummie accent it is a lovely place. Note that I'm from Wolverhampton, so I'm not dissing the accent by the way! That's how I speak but she's from bloomin' Surrey. The town centre is probably best avoided to be fair as there isn't much there. Best order food in from ASDA or pop over to Porthmadog. Couple of nice restaurants by the harbour, or Tony's out of town. Fish and chips poor to indifferent quality, so best avoided - although the shop near the harbour does a child's portion for £1.80 which would be ideal for an adult if eaten with a bap. Less fat all the great taste as they say. We had a great time, but our kid's are still happy crab fishing or pootling around the little pools once the tide is out. Indeed we spent three days crab fishing. Nice to walk across the bridge [traditional to moan to the attendant about how much it costs] then cut over to Fairbourne to catch the train and ferry back into town. A reasonably hike of some 2 miles but well worth it, although the steam train is suspiciously expensive as is the ferry at £2 one way. But not too onerous an expense for one day out.

We also popped over to Shell Island. Again this is a dump if you have no kids, but a fantastic place if you do. Ours were occupied finding and catching crabs, spotting a dead seal or finding rare shells. We also found a WWII used rocket casing. Just take your own food as theirs is a bit horrid and basic.

The cafes in Barmouth are oddly expensive, and one suspects they make their money whilst they can as the season here is short. We didn't object, even when the owner of one pulled up in his Porsche Turbo and another his Ariel Atom. Don't for one second buy into tales of financial hardship here [one camp site owner pulls £5m profit out of his field every year, and there are any number of such sites]. We noticed that often the camp sites were full of people in their classic VW T2 campers; one I spotted had to be worth £50k as it was not only immaculate it was tricked out in period accessories. Barmouth may look at times down at heel, especially right in the centre at night, but it makes many of the businesses more money than if they were otherwise employed as bankers in the square mile. Don't be fooled by looks folks; some serious money to be made here from nothing more than a field. One site changed hands for £2m, and it really is nothing more than two narrow fields. Imagine the profit margin if every night you were able to rent out your lawn in £30 increments for every six square metre plot.

If you want to eat out, try Llandudno for a day. That's gone really foodie.

One big fly in the ointment though is getting there. From Shrewsbury onwards you're at the mercy of old age pensioners and ditherers. They want to do 30mph through the twisties, then by heck you'd better want to as well. On the outward journey I was literally foaming at the mouth in a queue of ten people behind one ditherer. In the end I barged past the whole lot in a series of frantic moves. On the way back I was in a queue of a good 50 cars for two hours. One assumes that at the front was some wanker doing 25mph to 35mph, then accelerating along the straights in a manner designed to preclude any overtaking by the followers*. It can easily take as long to get from Shrewsbury to Barmouth, as it does South London to almost Crewe or Chester. Nightmare when behind the wrong crowd, but as our Atom owning friend knows, get it right and boy are they good roads up there. Oh and the locals don't help. At one point a farmer pulled out in his 4x4 pulling a trailer. He did no more than 25mph, so I overtook. He gave me a wanker sign out the window and swerved slightly. The speed limit at the time was 60mph and I was on a 2 mile straight with no approaching traffic. Lovely man. And people wonder why many, many people do not like Wales? As stated, I lived there for five years, have family still living there, had Welsh parents, and have taken up to three holidays there per year, yet I can fully appreciate why some people hate the place. But honestly, the place is worth it if you can see past the odd miserable tosser. And come on; in Wales you get the odd prick but the place is still fantastic to look at and visit. Compare this to your daily hour and half commute by train into the smoke. I know which I prefer. Pity the economies of life mean the smoke is it for moi.

Anyway, next time we're in Beddgelert for two weeks for our summer holiday and I fully intend on avoiding the trail centres in favour of 5am starts up Snowdon so as to be off by 10:00. Sounds more like it. We'll also be using the A5 which at least has the odd overtaking place, so I'll arrive less stressed. Quite possibly I'll injure myself on Snowdon as well.

Interestingly I've just read a report that suggests 50% of people in some parts of Rhyl are unemployed. I can well believe it but the contrast with Barmouth is interesting. Rhyl, easy access to the Midlands, poor. Barmouth, out in the sticks, rich. Mind Rhyl has always been a bit of a dump. I can remember going clubbing there in my 20's and even then in my addled state thinking that there must be more to life than a shed load of beer, a quick grope with somebody 50% heavier than me, a quick tactical vomit, more beer followed by a big bag of chips for the journey home.

Ooops, off tangent again.

Of course all isn't as it seems, as these poor unfortunate people found out. Regards to the families.

Caravan fire kills two in Snowdonia National Park

Two people have been killed and two others were seriously injured in a caravan fire, police say.
Officers were called to the Sunny Sands caravan park in Talybont, near Barmouth, Gwynedd, shortly before 0200 BST on Saturday.
Two people were confirmed dead at the scene, and "an elderly woman and a young girl" were airlifted by police helicopter to Ysbyty Gwynedd hospital.
Police said an investigation into the cause of the fire was continuing.
A North Wales Police spokeswoman said: "On arrival at the site the caravan was well alight and two people were confirmed to be dead.
"Two females were also airlifted by police helicopter to Ysbyty Gwynedd. The females are an elderly woman and a young girl.
"The investigation is continuing into the cause of the fire. There are no further details at present."
Bosses at the caravan park, which is set in the Snowdonia National Park, were unavailable for comment.
The park, owned and operated by the same family for more than 45 years, features a seafront club house, indoor heated swimming pool, children's play area and amusement arcade.

*but then it seems to me that often the followers are just as bad, being content to sit in the queue following blindly. At least then they don't have to make a judgement call regarding corner speeds themselves. Here I'm a prat as fundamentally I want to be seen as fast a driver around the twisties as the locals in their Minis are. And in Wales the fast boys always have an old Mini to thrash around in, usually a van or pickup. You get your Scoobies and ST's, but they are too sensible a driver to engage in hoofing through blind twisties. It's not good being a passenger in my car when I'm on one..... How I never lost my licence when I owned a motorcycle is beyond me. 135mph through Trawsfynedd anybody?

**I've checked; it is only 20km or 12 miles. No wonder it felt the same as the route I'd developed at Waimes in Belgium - that was also 20km. 20 bloomin' km! Wish I'd checked before setting off that it was so short, but then my lack of water would have been more of a problem than it was. Looking at some of the videos on line I'd have been mid-pack on a group ride so I did OK. The rocky sections are a struggle for everybody as it's all a question of momentum over balance. I suspect that The Beast is the one to do, so next time that is my plan - to do that. I'll also look at getting a map as it looks as though one can cut and paste between the trails. If you're a regular rider of any ability, the Tarw trail could be ridden twice in a single morning.

And yes, look at Thirimont in Belgium [Thirimont Subversive on my i-GotU maps page]. There's a trail through the woods there that is very similar in many respects to the Tarw, but without any artificiality. Harder, longer and completely natural. Just no trail centre and I broke a rib on one section. Comes to something when I say that a natural trail in a little no-name place near Spa is better riding than the Tarw trail at Coed y Brenin. Makes me want to go back right now.