NORTH WALES - NERVE CENTRE OF THE NATIONAL OFF–ROAD GRID | ELECTRIC MOUNTAINS
We run through the trails and interview the locals of the North Welsh scene...
It’s wet. And we’ve been lost on an open mountain in North Wales in dense cloud for about an hour. But now we’re ripping down a road that had turned into a track about fifty years ago. Across the valley a train smokes its way slowly up Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) with late autumn travellers. Deep underneath us millions of gallons of water are dropping from a high level lake spinning some big–dog GEC turbines, which in turn are powering up the national grid.
DIRT ISSUE 133 - MARCH 2013
Words by Steve Jones. Photos by Steve Jones and Laurence Crossman–Emms
We’re surrounded by galleries, stepped and sawn out of the mountain creating balconies from which slate has been extracted for over a century. At its peak this mountain had three thousand men working the Dinorwic slate mine, the second largest in the land next to nearby Penrhyn. The quarry worked up until 1969 before closing down.
It’s late autumn, the Alps have been shut for a few months now, falling leaves on the Cote d’Azur means that many of the trails have gone into hiding for a while. The nomadic mountainbiker now turns to closer pastures, familiar places, the two hour drive to landscapes which are essentially every bit as challenging as anything mainland Europe can offer.
North Wales is one of the oldest UK mountainbike destinations and is currently at the very forefront of progression, defiantly banging a marker in as one of the most hardcore riding areas in the land.
Obviously you might need to dig a little deeper than what’s published, after all mountainbiking has become backyard, underground even. Hidden in these ancient hills, and amongst some of the most complex geological structures on the planet, the British breed is fine–tuning fine tunes, making breeds within a breed (I’m sure there’s a word for it) fashioning flowing lines of Welsh carve. Handcut track reproduction is rife around here.
It’s not the only way. There’s the money build. Coed Y Brenin was the first in some ways. It was arguably the earliest of the modern day trail centres. It provided an all–weather trail in an all–weather environment. It came just as riders were beginning to exhaust the bridleway network, but slightly before handmade downhill beads started to multiply.
See, North Wales is wet. It’s wild. I’ve been riding here for 25 years off and on, certainly before surfaced trails and coffee shops existed. I remember clearly cutting through the debris near Gladstone rock on the flanks of Snowdon before cooking some sausage and bacon in the boot of my beaten up hatchback. For me north Wales is about the peaty damp mossy smell in winter, unpredictable cloud, difficult route finding, exploring hidden valleys and singletracks. It’s a place for pure adventure, a metamorphic landscape to escape and hide in.
Explore the dereliction of Dinorwic, Penrhyn, Rhosgadfan, Tremorthin, Penmachno quarry workings and buildings, mixed in with some classic old school rock bridleways around Llyn Cowlyd, then there’s the Snowdon Ranger (said by some to be one of the finest descents in the country) or some of the more pure cuts above, below and generally all around Betws Y Coed. These are intimidating and untouchable tests for bike and rider, historic and without the façade that comes with European cash. Yes, and always fully technical.
It’s no longer the past either. In a way we have come full circle. We don’t have to be told where to go, it doesn’t have to be one–way traffic, you can use your gears to go up. Mountainbiking has delivered a new type of rider, one that can mix the skills of motorcycle enduro and trials rider yet whilst doing it under their own steam – kind of freeride gone rambling, but more of that later.
Look at the beauty of where the likes of Dan Atherton, Joe Barnes and Nico Vouilloz are riding. Look at the natural terrain around which he Megavalanche, Italian and French enduro races are held. It requires a freestyle approach, heads–up riding without any rules or hitching a ride back up. We can now get to and race down that gnarled–out goat track.
It’s one way of looking at it.>>
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[part title="DAN ATHERTON | ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN"]
"I need to know the track"
One man who an generate more power than anyone out of the landscape - Dan Atherton.
Unless you’ve been stuck in the Voronja cave then chances are that ‘Four By Three’ is a very recognisable film title. But Dan Atherton heads into the season as a very big contender for the World Enduro series title. We talked to him about both.
“I hate enduro", that’s what you said in Pete’s Eats…then you went and won the last super enduro round? Can I quote you on that?
Pretty much love/hate thing. Some races I think ‘what am I doing here, this is like going back ten years to when downhill was finding itself’, but then you get a race like Finale where I didn't stop smiling all day and it's the most fun I have had racing bikes.
You meant riding blind right? You prefer the comfort of track knowledge?
Yeah I really don't like riding blind, my riding style definitely lends itself to knowing where I can hop into a downslope or set myself up for something that's coming up, after 10 years of riding World Cup downhill I guess it's ingrained pretty deep to know the track inside out.
Did you get an enduro team mate (Belgium rider Martin Maes) so that someone could go to the races?
No, I hate social interaction, pretty happy to travel with just my mechanic, but Martin was kind of too good a kid to not help out. He is super chilled out and doesn't worry what other people are doing or what they think of him, just pins it everywhere and loves every minute.
Many teams are looking for the next world enduro star, but they are rare breeds.
I think it's a tough one, downhill is so exciting and cool that every kid wants to be the next Steve Peat, but enduro is maybe a little more about the actual riding so people usually come to enduro from downhill, this kind of gives the impression that enduro is for the guys who can't do downhill anymore. However as Clay Porter pointed out, Martin Maes is a definite sign of the times, a super fast 15 year old kid who has come straight into enduro and not even given downhill a chance.
Enduro looks set to take over as the blue riband MTB event?
No matter who you are you cannot argue that downhill will always be the pinnacle of our sport, it's where the technology has to be the fastest, the strongest, the lightest. However that's not to say that enduro might take over as the mass participation sport, maybe a way for people to get started in downhill.
Are you experimenting with big wheels?
Yeah for sure, 2013 will be a year where all the pissed off companies and designers who have been trying to guess the future of MTB wheels will finally find out what's faster and what works for each discipline.
Is your heart fully in Enduro?
For the first time in my life my heart is fully into just riding my bike. It feels like my whole career has been spent trying to find every second I can to get better, and in doing that sometimes I would forget why I was riding, but now suddenly I don't care anymore. Maybe it's cause I am older or whatever, but when I ride my BMX at the skate park or dirt jumps on my hardtail suddenly I am riding infinitely better than I ever have. I see a lot of kids these days taking their riding so seriously and worrying about every little thing and I just want to say, ‘chill the f–k out, enjoy what you're doing and it will come’, but that's exactly how I was and nobody can tell you, you just have to learn from experience…so I ignore them.
Or do you get more from creating/digging?
I bloody love digging, I have always enjoyed it but this last winter has reached new levels.
The quarry – took some time, and some vision?
Yeah it was a big project, but Gaz Brewin and The Revolution boys, James and Tim, formed a right crew. It was definitely not just my work, those guys worked super hard and didn’t get pissed of with me when I made us change stuff. I am sure there where other ways that we could have built the line but I think to get something that really works and flows you need one person who can ride what he is building and has a really clear vision of how he wants it to feel when it's done.
It’s an amazing example of what you do at X has an impact at Y. Each take off and landing is a potential power generator.
For sure, everything I ever build is about having flow, I hate one hit wonder jumps that people can roll into without needing to generate speed from the previous jump. It's really tough when it's on a hill like the quarry line because it’s so easy to get speed, but I guess you just make them bigger until you need every ounce of speed.
‘Four By Three’…some film. It’s pretty inspiring.
An epic Clay Porter, John Lawlor, Robbie Meade, slow motion, Red camera, 300 frames a second, eye shot, piano music, game changing fan–fare shot on five different cameras and that took Clay Porter seven days to edit.
What do Gee and Rach feel about enduro?
Are you fussy about spades and shovels?
Yeah, I got my shovel with loads of MTB stickers on and a MTB grip on the handle...ha, f–k no. They only last a few weeks before they snap, so whatever, as long as it's not one of them shitty long handle shovels that they use in America, them Aptos boys love them.
Does North Wales have it all?
Ask me in January when I am blow torching the ice of the take offs I would say never. Ask me on a summer’s evening when I am riding dirt jumps in the yard I would say for sure.>>
[part title="ANTUR STINIOG | ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN"]
Mountainbiking's past rolls through into present and future.
There’s another. It’s still many months before many of us leave for the higher pastures and braking bumps of the Alps. Up until recently the British downhiller has weathered on the south Wales slopes. Classics such as Mynydd Ddu, Gethin (Bike Park Wales in future), Rheola or Cwmcarn. It could be argued that the last decade has slowly seen a shift of focus north – Moelfre, Nant Gwrtheyrn, Bala and Llangollen stick in the mind more than the south Wales coalfield challenges of which the Dragon downhill series launched the first upliftable series on man’s tracks. But whatever the direction, Wales north, south or central is very much the proving grounds. And there’s money in two wheels.
The standard of terrain in north Wales is unquestionably world class. Little doubt that some of the topography used by the ‘Famous Five’ (or Atherton Racing as it was once known) is an ultimate test for many riders, yet out of bounds for most.
But more of that later, because really there’s something for everyone in this land of jagged peaks and swirling mist. And it comes in the strangest of places. Blaenau Ffestiniog, who’d have thought that these dark streets where men in dark wool suits, ruddied of hew and always on foot, would have been replaced by the ubiquitous VW T5 and Troy Lee.
South and west facing, the lower slopes of Moel Bowydd offer an excuse for anyone with an appetite for slashing some turns, an unparalleled environment in which to rip down a proper hillside. Immerse yourself in amongst some majestic views; lose yourself in a warren of twists and turns, before piling in to pie and chips and a night on the town you’re likely never to forget.
But how long before we see bigger rides linking in to Nant Gwynant to the north or Coed y Brenin to the south. It’s more than likely that with a bit of vision and Euros that Blaenau becomes the hub of everything two wheel. It has the infrastructure, now it needs those ancient beads opened up to offer a foil to Antur’s gravity. Even on the wettest day dullest day in Blaenau you can ride some killer singletrack.
ADRIAN ‘BUD’ BRADLEY AT ANTUR STINIOG
Racer, boss man of Antur Stiniog takes time out to split a few slates
So what’s your story, Bud? You ran the slate mine, right? And a hefty racing career – you’d have won that masters national title if it wasn’t for Nige Page (racer and Chain Reaction Cycles’ team manager)?
My story? Adrian Bradley aka Bud. 41 years young, swapped protein shakes for bikes in the mid 90’s and not looked back since! Been racing DH for around 10 years, can’t get enough of it, had a few podiums along the way – won the Welsh and English Champs in 2011, and third in the Nat Champs with a crash! A bad injury in 2012, so I didn’t ride all last year, back on it now for this year.
Have you always lived and worked in Blaenau?
Lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog all my life, worked in a slate quarry since I was 17, ended up managing it for six years. I now manage the Antur Stiniog MTB Centre and couldn’t be happier.
Here we are then, Antur Stiniog. North Wales seems to be quickly taking over from south Wales as the downhill centre of Britain?
Ffestiniog is a great base for riders with Coed y Brenin, the Marin, Penmachno all within 15 minutes of Blaenau, and Llandegla only 45 minutes away.
Is there a north/south divide in Wales then? Plenty down south and up north, nothing in the middle.
There seems to be a lot more MTB’ers up North, or down South, I think mid Wales is more of a motorbike enduro heartland than DH territory. Just an opinion.
Blaenau, and at the about to be built Merthyr – not exactly the quietest places for a night out, are they?
Blaenau is a great place, as I am sure Merthyr is, both have suffered social and economic problems in the past, but I have already seen the positive impact the bikers have had on Blaenau’s economy and things will only improve when more and more visit the area.
Has the nightlife…erm…changed since the arrival of mountainbikers? Have they integrated well with the locals?
We have had groups of riders (10–20 strong) have a great night out here and integrated well with the locals with no problems, even getting away with calling the locals bro’ and dude! Happy days.
Antur Stiniog isn’t the usual UK trail centre. Not as much natural stuff, like roots and mud. Does slate and rubber mix?
It is a unique venue, a mix of hardpack trails and gnarly rocks, but it also a great place to learn and improve your riding. We have four trails at present (with planning for another two) and there is a good progression to be made from Blue trail to Red, Red trail to Black and so on. So we cater for everybody, from trail centre boys to full on DHers. It is also the best all–weather track in the UK, and rides well in the wet, and more importantly it drains well in no time. It is a testament to the great work from track builder Mei Black from Xtreme Track, and Simon Williams from Antur Stiniog, who has been involved from day one on the project.
How’s the hill bearing up to rubber abuse? We’ve seen some heavy wear on some new destinations.
We have been open now for six months, and the trails are coping well with the crazy weather we have experienced this year. Only minor repair work has been required and we plan to add some features to the trails over the winter ready for this coming summer.
Riding locations seem to be moving away from ‘trail centres’ towards ‘bike parks’. What do you think about that? Any ambition to upgrade to ‘bike park’ status?
I think that Antur is already seen as a bike park rather than a trail centre, with four trails of various difficulty, the jump park is now open and it’s great fun, we will have a 9km XC loop for later this year and the visitors centre will be completed for the end of March.
What bikes are people riding here at Antur Stiniog now?
We have a mix of riders, say 60% are all–mountain bikes/XC bikes, and the other 40% DH rigs. Not one bike stands out as being more popular than others. It is the usual suspects, Trek, Spesh that seem to lead the way.>>
[part title="WILD | ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN"]
Al Bond, the feral landscapes of the North Wales landscape.
Which kind of nicely drops us at the foot of the north face of the future. Of which Al Bond is an exemplary figure – the South Walian who went north – the man tarred with the same brush as the great rugby union stars of the seventies and eighties. You haven’t really Al, and you did a marvellous job of winning the national series a year back. Sad that us, the media, didn’t make more of it, but hey, let’s make up for lost time. Al Bond. One of the most stylish riders in the world (to be continued).
It looks like you’ve found your perfect spot in north Wales. Is it the ultimate mountain biker’s playground?
There’s the variety of riding that you have within a relatively small area. You can go out and smash out a loop at any of a number of amazing trail centres. Or if you're feeling adventurous, there’s epic wilderness moorland singletracks, which can easily take up your whole day if you forget spare tubes! You can ride DH on a bunch of great tracks, Llangollen, Llangynog, Betws y Coed, Blaenau Ffestiniog for starters. With secret tracks as well, there really are tracks all over the place! But for me probably the most important factor is having a good bunch of mates to ride with that are close by. The MTB scene up here isn't massive, but it’s a good, pretty tight–knit bunch of dudes that are always keen to ride.
So you’ve won the BDS, but the media coverage doesn’t seem huge. Are you OK with that?
Well I went from pretty much an unknown at races, to winning the series in the space of two years. So not having much media attention is not new to me. To really make a name for yourself in this sport you have to perform at World Cup level. You get your average DH MTB fan and they're only interested in who’s top five on the results sheet.
Do you prefer to have lots of media attention, or is it better to avoid hassle when you’re racing?
I reckon that if you asked any racer they would want the media attention. Maybe a few of the top pro’s would say they don't want the hassle, but they're probably lying!
World Cups seem to be a massive step up from national rounds. They seem to have been more elusive to you results wise.
Yeah I have struggled a bit so far when it comes to World Cups. I had put it down slightly to lack of experience (I only raced three years of World Cups). But then you look at the top junior racers who are first year and they’re getting great results. So then I thought maybe it was a mental thing. Why could I beat some dudes at nationals then get smoked by them at World Cups? But in the end it was simpler. I have always suffered with arm pump, I crashed in my first ever race from it and I crashed in the last World Cup from it. I tried training different ways to sort it, tried every potion, supplement and old wives tail. Nothing worked, so two months ago I got in contact with a surgeon who is the boy in the UK for arm pump surgery. He invited me up to do some tests and two weeks later I had the operation.
And in the Worlds rounds, it seems there’s a huge gap between the top 20 and the rest of the pack. How do you break through this?
I think that was the case up until a couple of years ago. But now with everyone training harder, I think it’s become a more level playing field. You have 80 guys who are all pinned and times are close. There are the consistent top ten racers who seem like they're kind of ahead of the rest slightly. I'm not sure there’s an easy answer to how you break into those consistent top ten results. Experience, persistence, adaptive training, more hours on the bike, confidence? I think it’s a bit of all of those.
Is there an argument for downhill racing being a part time profession now? Shorter seasons and fewer rounds than there were 15 years ago?
When you look at a calendar and you see four months of racing it looks quite a short timeframe. But then you add in two months of national races, three to four months solid training pre–season and you're only left with three months off. It still ends up being quite full–on. That said though, I still think they could put a few more races into the schedule, back to back. You look at the SX dudes and they’re racing week in week out for like three months.>>
[part title="REVOLUTION BIKE PARK | ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN"]
REVOLUTION BIKE PARK...
Revolution wouldn’t be what it is without the tireless work of James, Tim and Susha
Revolution Bike Park. The very woods where the Athertons have prepared for World Cup action, correct?
The woods have been used in the past by the Athertons, but there are very few hillsides in the area which don’t bear their tyre marks. A small section of one of our tracks follows the same line as a track they built a long time ago, but we’ve added to it and completely rebuilt most of it before we could open it up to the public. We’re lucky to have the Athertons nearby and we’ve got a couple of projects in the pipeline that we’ll be working together on.
You’ve bought the woodland and opened it up to the public, at the moment it’s still a medium–to–hard location, isn’t it? Not for beginners?
Owning the woods rather than renting etc. gave us the freedom to build what we wanted rather than what a landowner would allow. Initially we wanted to provide tracks for more experienced riders as there are lots of places out there for beginners. We are working on a Red graded freeride track which will be surfaced and more rollable for the less experienced rider whilst still providing features to challenge the more extreme. We’ve also finished linking the Far Side track to the start area, which is ready for this coming season.
What makes Revolution a ‘bike park’?
For us a bike park should have a number of tracks, be open every week and be constantly evolving, and that’s what we provide at Revolution. We have a lot of ideas for the future and plan to build, build, build and eventually have trails for all abilities to open the park up to more riders.
Has the ‘bike park’ got a big future in UK?
Uplift assisted biking, particularly DH, is growing every year in the UK with more and more quality sites opening up. Wales is fast becoming the place to be for biking and we’d like to think that we will become a big part of that.
‘The quarry" is part of Revolution. It’s pretty big…well not really…it’s MASSIVE! Is this open to anyone? Surely it’s only for looking, there can’t be many riders in the world able to hit that line?
The quarry was an exciting joint project we undertook with Atherton Racing and what came out of it is pretty insane. The video really doesn’t do it justice; the jumps are huge with very little margin for error. A puff of wind and you could be off the edge of the 100 foot cliff that lines most of the course, so it’s not open to the public. Whilst some riders may be able to do certain parts of the line, it takes someone of professional level to ride that whole line and anyone who looks at it realises that pretty quickly. We hope to use the line for events in the future though, maybe Wales’ version of the Red Bull Rampage!
I guess riders have mellower options here?
We do have something a bit less extreme underway in the quarry which will open to the public later in the year, keep an eye out on our Facebook page for updates on that.
And back in the woods, mud and roots is what riding’s all about, surely?
The tracks have matured a lot over the last year and now run pretty fast in most conditions. It does rain a lot in North Wales though so don’t expect dusty trails! Ultimately the current tracks are black downhill tracks, and roots, mud and slate are a big part of DH in North Wales. As we say round here, sometimes the wetter the better.
What about Llangynog? Could you be accused of re-awakening a sleepy village?
The village has welcomed us and our riders with open arms. Llangynog has a lot going on and a real community spirit so didn’t really need waking up. As with any rural location anything that brings in more visitors is always going to be a boost. The bike park provides a steady stream of punters for the local B&Bs, campsites, pubs, etc., so everyone is a winner.
Antur Stiniog and the about to be built Merthyr offer something a bit ‘different’ in terms of night life, do many people camp over in Llangynog?
Nightlife in the countryside is generally what you make of it. Llangynog though has everything you could want; whether it’s a great meal and a good night’s sleep after a tough day on the hill or drinking into the night and ending up naked in the pub at 3am (to protect the guilty we will say no more!). If you want to make a weekend of it there are loads of options in the area, from camping to B&Bs and a great bunkhouse for groups.>>
[part title="LLANGYNOG | ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN"]
Super industrial flow.
Which brings us to Revolutions, landing, thudding onto the keen edge of twenty first century riding. Flow on a grand scale, danger by the tractor load, a place to set it down smoothly, if you could, but then not many can. The centrepiece of film maker Clay Porter’s Four by Three masterpiece. Menace by design, the quarry that had the world tweeting its tits off, f–k me this was good.
But it came from hard work, and not before considerable vision too. Fashioning the angles in the right places to get the relevant power. Boosh. It was the British bite–back to Rampage, a heady homecoming for bother Gee after the perils of a remote American desert. Double jeopardy? “Gee just tail me into this. It will be fine." Team mates Taylor Vernon and Marc Beaumont, not exactly low on skill, went down hard, but not after a good go. And shortly after that came the now famous line, “I’ve never been through woods so fast" shouted Dan as he and his brother realised one mother of a line.
No place for the feint–hearted, Llangynog by way of Revolutions and Athertons proves that the UK can compete with both west and east. The badly judged rulers in the land of the rising Utah dust aligned, but no match for the GT emperor in the land of the wringing wet – North Wales late 2012 was a place of mountainbike power generation.
But let’s not for one minute forget the omnipotent Welsh conifer woods too. Of rut and radicle they are the unstoppable works of art that anyone with an appetite or insight into the subtleties and minutiae of track building will understand.
They are not new lands. The tree sucks up the water, whilst the wheel unearths that most precious of mountainbiking surfaces – root systems. And here in Revolutions and Atherton territories they have been preserved, each one guarded and protected, the pick–me–up for anyone who’s spent a day on the road.
It’s not like Whistler because it’s Welsh and it’s way smaller. But it has in abundance, like its North American counterpart (if you can compare), the ubiquitous root. These woods can be dark, frequently the problem with planted versus indigenous, yet conifers are mountainbikes pride and joy in many ways. And lets face it, there’s an element of familiarity to a rough–cut track in a Sitka woods every much as recognisable as a surfaced trail centre. And that’s how it is.
Until that is when you peel into the finish area and gaze east, and there up on the southern slopes of Llangynog a brave new world. Dan Atherton’s world, a massive landscape, every bit as jaw dropping as the galleries of Dinorwic, comparable in power, and no place for the fragile. A gathering of ups and downs within a capricious, fickle microclimate of winds that render any attempt at hitting the downslope futile, serious stuff – 15 foot up with a sidewind and bleating sheep cutting loose is no place to be.
From Dinorwic slate mines to Revolutions, Coed Y Brenin to Antur Stiniog, they have all have put Wales on the world map. In Dan Atherton, that rare breed of rider who has drive and vision. For the time being you cannot help but think that it’s Llangynog that is now skyscraping its way into the mindset and fantasy of every rider in the world. A castle in the sky. Homage to Farmer Jack and co naturally, but this is bike territory now.