140km, two wheel bearings, one rear mech; it can only be Afan forest bike park review 2014

Friday 12th December: Afan it is then.

There was never any intention on my part of going to Afan. It's miles away, and I'll never get the time off from family duties. There's also a bit of me that thinks that instead of riding around in little circles in a trail centre, I should be riding around big circles exploring an area new to me. I've never explored South Wales, and the mountains have always looked so tempting.

Except it was PP's birthday, and his wife bought him the weekend away. So on the 12th December we set off at 06:45 for South Wales. We got there not long after 10am, had a fry up at the Afan Lodge, and hit Y Wal as a taster.

As a taster this is a great trail. Mainly because straight away it smashes you in the face and stamps in your guts, then goes and keys your car just to rub it in how tough Afan is. You see at Afan you either go up for a long time, or you go down for a long time. And correctly all the trails start in the valley, so the end run is always downhill to a café.

Y Wal is 24km of up and down. Now here you'll expect me to write up about the trail in some depth. Many apologies but I cannot remember a single detail about it. I recall enjoying it at the time, but even a day later there's not a single memorable detail in my head. PP is the same; I asked him to remind me what it did, and he can't remember either.

Either Y Wal is a bit boring - it isn't - or the other trails are so good - they are.

Anyway, we did Y Wal and retired to the forestry commission café for a well earned brew just after 2pm. Got there and my Pike's were a bit knocky. Felt like the headset was lose, that kind of sensation. Took it down to the bike shop and they couldn't have helped more. Well actually they could. Indeed I'd say that the bike shop at the first centre are not totally on top of things customer service wise. He told PP off for looking at the t-shirts, and with my forks kept asking what model they were. Er, Pike's mate, nothing unusual there. In the end he said they need a service, which I knew; all I wanted to know was whether I should call it a day and hire a bike from him.

Leaving the shop I adjusted the travel to maximum and the knocking stopped.

Ah well, quick brew and cake upstairs. Walked in past two idle employees to the open café. 2pm remember, Friday. Out came a woman from the back "we're closed" was her cheery greeting, and off she went.

Essentially both the bike shop and the café, at 2pm, had told us both to sod off. I'll not be going back there again, and may I suggest that you avoid it as well?

Saturday 13th December: Y Wal, W2, Skyline, Blade.

Oh Dear, did we bite off something chewy today. Figure we did around 60km of hardness. Not helped that even at mid-day it was -1 degree C; no idea how cold it was when we started off, but "very" comes to mind.

The previous evening we'd asked some other cyclists which route they'd suggest? Skyline, W2, etc.. They suggested "Blade" which was not a route on any map known to mankind. New it was.

Now let me digress here. I like Afan, I really do. However the place is a little odd. You can't seem to get a map other than to download one. Naturally we were in Wales with no internet. So no maps. No worries there are markers all over the place, but it would have been nice to have had something with us, if not for any reason other than to make our own link routes up.

Secondly there are in reality three centres; Afan Lodge, Skyline bikes and the other, shall we call them useless tossers. Afan Lodge seem to be for the regulars, who meet up in the car park. Skyline cafe is nominally the start of all the trails, yet the forestry commission are a few miles down the road, where nothing seems to start or end. This seems odd seeing as how they own the land. It may explain the snotty attitude at the café and bike shop?

Thirdly Blade is not actually mentioned anywhere other than on the ground via signs and a big permanent map at Skyline.

Fourthly the Forestry website shows Skyline as being closed when it is patently open.

It's all a bit disjointed, as it, just if, Skyline and the useless tossers don't really get on with each other?

My advice? Download whatever maps you can before you go; drive past the first visitor centre, and stop at either the Lodge or Skyline. Start your ride from either of those.

Oh and if you are after any evening distractions other then the Lodge..... well there aren't any.

...back to the ride.

Y Wal, and Blade.

We used this to get to W2. It's a fair old slog up and an introduction to puddles. If there has been any rain at all, you'll be wet by the top. Suck it up, get on with it. At the top you meet W2 which takes you past the wind-farm and on to a bit of trail called Energy.

And now the fun starts as it is a bit of a cracker, chucking everything at you. It's also quite long so if you're not fit, you'll be huffing and puffing at the end. With a great big smile!

Word to the wise here. For some reason the start and end of each trail are marked by width restrictions. You have to lift your bike through. Easy enough? Except that quite a few are narrower than a bike. In other words you have to lift the bike over. You up for that? Hoik your bike over your head every so often? It's not a biggie, but does grate towards the end of the day.

And now we just followed the Blade signs. Seemed prudent to. hard slog uphill, cracking singletrack once at the top, really good. Described as a Red graded route, it's more like the Black at Llandegla, but not as extreme as Coed Y Brenin. It's hard but doable on an hardtail, easyish on a suspension bike.

The trail terminates at the Skyline café, and by then you'll need it. By the time we got there, we'd been out a solid 6 hours. Take food, take food!

6 hours? That's slow say all. Hmm, let me think.

The previous evening we saw a group go out on a night ride. They did Y Wal in two hours, which messed with our heads as it had taken us 3. How could they be faster at night on the same trail? They looked a fit bunch, so perhaps we are just slow.

The next day they set off ahead of us by a good thirty minutes, possibly forty. We caught them within two hours, passing them on a big hill that they made look like hard work. They kept stopping for breathers. No way, absolutely no way, did they do all of Y Wal in two hours.

So don't listen to people claiming to do it fast. They don't. The fast boys around there keep quiet and just get on with it. By the looks of things the majority of people suffer just like you and me. The fast people are, by and large, scary fast. We didn't see any people walking sections, like you do at Coed Y Brenin, so Afan must be hard core only?

The End.

The trails all end on a big hill overlooking a dumpy town. There are three distinct routes down, and we did the first over on the left. Lots of rocks, drops, jumps and cut up berms. PP got ahead, I suffered, clattering down with no gears. Turned out not only had the cable clamp come lose (been on there five years no problem!), but I'd bent the mech AND hanger. All a big 'S' shaped mess. Got to the bottom and bashed it into 75% acceptable working condition. It'll do. Whilst fixing it noticed that the front wheel bearings had gone. Superstar wheel, bound to happen. Not much I can do about that.

Or was there? Sitting at the Skyline Café I wondered if the cycle shop below was that busy? popped down, asked if they could fix it? No worries, it'll be done by the time you finish lunch.

And it was. www.skylinecycles.com are the biz.

The ride back to the Lodge was a very cold affair, and showed that gears at 75% acceptable would be shite on the hill. Spent an hour bashing them, removing the bend as much as I could. Got to the point where on my 20 speed bike, I had 16 working gears. Proved to be enough, so I spent two hours playing on the little skills area.

Sunday 14th December: Skyline, Blade. Another chewy day.

Avoided Y Wal and W2 today, instead doing a bit more of Skyline and the best bits of Blade. This did, however, mean a long and slightly arduous ride up the valley to the head. I'd guess on any given Sunday we'd blast up this, not today though. Essentially we winched our way up to Skyline some miles distant.

The weather closed in on us. Down in the valley floor it was wet. On top it was both windy and wet. we got soaked. It didn't matter what you wore, so I elected to get wet and save my rain jacket for later on if I got cold. At times the wind lifted a wheel away from the trail. We never seemed to get a tailwind. All over the valley head was a slog.

So we stuck at it for almost 6 hours. Blade, Skyline and W2; elements of all morning. We did bermed trails, we did woodsy trails, we did open to the elements trails. We did some rock work, I did Jet Lag.

Ah Jet Lag, the only trail to scare me. All the time we've been here, on the steep slopes have been trees. Trees hide the nasty, the nasty being a big drop to the valley floor. Jet Lag is void of trees. On any other day the drop wouldn't be an issue. Today, with the howling wind it was. I did it without stopping, but by heck was I glad to be down.

On Saturday the trails were packed. On Sunday we saw two other riders out.

Overall; good and bad.

  • Multiple personality trail centres.
  • Lack of maps, and trails that don't have maps.
  • Weather up top!
  • Trails that eat bikes.
  • Climbing.
  • Forestry commission centre.
  • The sheer amount of drops.

  • The sheer amount of drops.
  • Skyline bikes.
  • Afan lodge.
  • Weather up top - you have to experience it!
  • Signposted trails.
  • The trails.
  • Varied terrain.
  • Being self reliant.
  • Friendly people.
  • The views.

What, if anything, would I change?

I took a 140mm hardtail, PP a full suspension bike. He had an easier time of things, that's for sure; you do get a little more beating on the hardtail. However, there's a lot of fire road climbing, and a lot of singletrack. It's not all downhill. In essence any bike will do - just like a normal Sunday ride with your mates then. We even saw a fatty out and about.

Luckily before setting off I fitted a dropper to the PACE RC303 hardtail. It wasn't essential - you could clatter down it all with a normal seatpost. However it made it all so much sweeter. My Nukeproof OKLO performed faultlessly all weekend.
Take either a hot drink in a flask, or some means of making a brew. Once out there, you're on your own. Some form of water filter / purification tablets would be a good idea. Even at -3 degrees C we drank all of our water within the ride.

I'd check my bike for lose screws and bolts a bit more often. Also if anything on your bike is marginal before you leave home, it'll fail for sure at Afan. Your bike has to be spot on. Funny, at any other trail centre, or indeed mountain, I've had no issues - Afan seems to vibrate the hell out of everything. Even PP's bottom bracket died.

We didn't suffer any punctures, luckily. I'd suggest trying tubeless though, as the rocks are prevalent.

Some form of self-catering accommodation if there for more than an evening. A cooked breakfast at a B&B is fine one day, but by the third one you're a bit tired of them. Self-catering may also mean you are closer to shops, pubs, restaurants, so have some choice of entertainment come the evening.

I'd seriously consider taking spare base layers on a ride. We both got very wet, even with waterproofs on. It would have been heaven to have been able to put dry clothing on at some point.

Print off maps prior, and think about an OS as well. If you blindly follow, say Blade or Y Wal, you'll have no idea where you are other than the signs. By day three we'd started to spot the short-cuts - and some of them were considerable. Considerable as in a 500m or 1km ride on a fire-road saves 45 min.s to an hour's toil in places. The valley ride to the top half of Blade saved two hour's ride time [double edged sword that one though; meant we missed Energy out]. On Blade itself, a lot of the uphill, singletrack routes run parallel to the Skyline fire-roads. I'm not one to avoid singletrack normally, yet here it seemed sometimes odd to spend an hour going uphill through the trees, when ten minutes on a fire-road got you to the trail head. It's nice to have the choice.