BikePark Wales
25.09.13. BikePark Wales, Dirt PIC © Andy Lloyd

Bike Park… it’s a phrase usually associated with a drawn–out fantasy about being on holiday somewhere like Chatel or Whistler. The sun is shining, the lifts are fast and it’s hard to choose from the plethora of trails on offer.

DIRT ISSUE 141 - NOVEMBER 2013

Words by Tim Wild. Photos by Andy Lloyd

Yeah, it’s a phrase that takes you somewhere more exotic than the office, and I don’t expect you thought of a small wood near Bedford or a chalky hillside in the Chilterns. The truth is bike parks are all over the place, there have been loads doing their thing in the UK for years, with or without the seemingly exotic label. It’s understandable that the name hasn’t been applied liberally in the UK with all the high profile examples flying the flag abroad. It may be expectations are too high when one looks for a bike park or simply that the owner doesn’t want the tag and wants to differentiate themselves from the Valnords and Leogangs.

If you are not clear what a bike park is look past the uplift, entrance fee, north shore ladders, jumps or surfaced trails. At its core a bike park will simply have trails that loosely run from A to B, rather than the seemingly more purposeful fixed loop of a trail centre.

Of course, your secret spot with a few A to B trails isn’t a bike park, well officially, anyway. You need organization. Think designated and managed trails – named and rated by difficulty – permission from the authorities to operate, and probably some kind of insurance and maintenance programme.

Layout defines a bike park, but many things influence what is on the trails. Business plans, area available, audience, money, resources, gradient, soil type, political restraints. Dull, but they will all play a part in what your wheels will be rolling over.

There are misconceptions surrounding them, naturally. They aren’t just full of jumps and ladders as some will tell you; they can feel natural and there is no reason why, by definition, they shouldn’t have world–class race tracks. If a World Cup track is too ‘bike parkie’ and doesn’t suit the speed of the world’s fastest, then that’s down to trail selection on the day, not bike parks as a genre.

Most examples in the UK are small scale, made out of passion rather than the pursuit of money. Some are founded to keep an unofficial spot open, some out of a desire to create a new place to ride or even emulate the great examples abroad. Some are more natural and race orientated than others. Chicksands, Gawton, Innerleithen, Esher, Aston Hill, UK Bike Park, Forest of Dean, Rays, Whistler. All bike parks play to their strengths and audience.

There is a new breed in the UK though, Revolution, Antur Stiniog and now BikePark Wales just outside of Merthyr Tydfil. These parks have invested heavily with the aim of becoming THE place to ride in the UK.

With BikePark Wales now completed I headed down there to spend some time with Rowan Sorrell (one of the main men) to get an insight into the UK’s newest bike park to get an understanding of what it takes to get a project like this off the ground>>

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BikePark Wales
25.09.13. BikePark Wales, Dirt PIC © Andy Lloyd

I’ve been following news on BikePark Wales with interest over the last couple of years; from his team winning the tender to lease the land and build and operate a park, through to planning permission being granted and work starting. While it’s been public knowledge for a year or two, planning started five years ago.

As consumers on the receiving end of a service it’s very easy for us to overlook this part of the project, but the amount of work required to get to a point where you can even think of bringing plant onto the hill is mind–boggling. Detailed plans of everything need to be submitted to the planners, including every trail you intend to build over the next few years.

Designing trails on the ground might sound easy (trust me, it’s not), but they need to work together, cross forest roads safely and start and finish at common uplift points. Not to mention survive the elements. Getting the most out of a hill as a whole is a task in itself and requires care; getting over excited and cutting a swathe down the middle of the hill will limit your options in the future as you don’t want trails to cross. Throw in the logistics of getting the materials and machinery on the hill in the first place and it starts getting really complicated.

Once the trails are designed the infrastructure needs to be looked at; the best place to start the trails doesn’t have vehicular access, so to save us, the paying public, having to push up a hill from an existing track a heavy investment was made in a new uplift road; not only saving a walk, but also cutting down on the time spent in a van to ensure value for money. Oh… ever planned and built a visitor centre from scratch? No? Well, me neither, but that’s a full time job in itself.

The scale of the operation is nuts, at its peak up to 50 people have been on site building trails, roads and a visitor centre. The day I visited, not long before opening, 13 diggers were on site, people were building a fully–fledged tunnel and of course, Billy (ex–Dirt web guru) was sculpting trails. Twelve people will be employed to hire you bikes, feed you and drive you up the hill.

Why is this a big deal? Well, this place is huge. And it works. The effort the team that brought you this facility cannot be overlooked, for they have seriously raised the bar for UK bike facilities. From securing private investment (40% of the funding is private, the rest is from grants) to project management, no detail has been overlooked.

Rowan describes each stage – tendering for the lease, gaining planning permission and building – as its own journey fraught with its own headaches and trials. Once the park is open a new journey begins, fine tuning operations and expanding on the trails.

Of course, like many new businesses financial plans will be put to the test and something of this scale needs money coming in. But it’s hard to see it not being popular, the trails look fantastic and while what is ‘good’ can be subjective, this place has the variety of surfaces, gradients and styles to suit most riders. When I pointed out a fun looking jump from the van Rowan pulled over and said, “wait till you see what it leads into". And that shows the enthusiasm driving this project; these trails have been sweated over and built by people that want to show them off, and as a result you will want to ride them over and over.

This hill feels quite moody and atmospheric at times; perhaps not the most inviting place on a dark night, but the spark and excitement a bike park brings makes this hill special. Rarely does a bike facility get under my skin, but from the moment I crested a hill on the A4060 and caught sight of the trails carved into the hill in the distance I knew this place would be a game changer.

Bike Parks. The UK is actually quite good at them. BikePark Wales is on its own level as a UK facility right now, but there are very few, if any, badly done bike parks in the UK. Most are aware of their limitations, be it money, geography or politics, but that wont stop the movers and shakers trying their hardest. If you meet someone who runs a bike park buy them a beer, they will have done more than you can ever imagine to get it to where it is.

www.bikeparkwales.com