DIRTY STOP OUTS
‘BROWN POW’ WITH KEV AND IANTO
Powder and the Black Mountains are hardly the two most likely combinations. The yet to be World and World Cup downhill champion Steve Peat came to this valley to race in 1999, for the opening round of the Dragon Downhill series. It was dark, horribly wet and one of the longest most technical tracks this country had seen to that point. Four minutes of root, rock and that cloying dark mountain soil, the kind that only happens up high, in deep, sucking all energy and momentum.
The new Black Mountain mountainbike centre sits at the base of that valley, in the Vale of Ewyas, of the river Honddu, the first and last hill in Wales as the A465 crosses the border into England. It’s a very different proposition to the complication of those aforementioned slopes to the north. Its lower, home to broad leaves rather than the spiky sitka. The soil here is red, deep red and with it comes all the things that red sandstone does so well – when its packed hard, this soil is rocket fast, and of all the things that this place can be considered for its high speed table tops.
This was day one of our trip around Wales attempting to cover all things mountainbike in one week but being Wales the swirling wind and rain meant we had to reconsider parts of our plan. Still, the National Caravan Council had us covered, well covered, as they had suggested we try out a motorhome if things were to get messy, which it already had done. Camping and shooting photographs would have been challenging on this extraordinarily wet week in August.
With the Swift parked up happily in the field keeping the sheep amused and a handy scratch pad I went up to meet Jo and Gwenda Binns who had set up Black Mountain a few years ago and offer a full uplift service and also some evening slots during the week. There are eight tracks to choose from all graded from blue to black and each presenting a different challenge. Even though the hill is pretty small at 279m its amazing they have got two and three minute runs etched all over its southerly facing banks.
So what can you expect out of this hill just north of Abergavenny? Shaun Bevan of Trailcraft had recently made a new addition to the beads off the hill – ‘Brown Pow’ as he or some of his mates had named it – little bit hopeful that we’d see any of that on this trademark welsh hill day. Together with Nikki Whiles we set off onto this new bead and immediately slid onto a root and then loose rock gully, which was fully unexpected.
After hitting the first road crossing the hill breaks its slope, and now steepens. To give an idea of how steep, the boys would have struggled sessioning this particular shot, with Ysgyryd hill lurking in the background. It’s a short sharp section and the corners arc beautifully. But then it all changes. Up a gear.
A bridge crosses the uplift road and the tempo rises. The track widens too and it becomes all about the jumps for the next half of this particular track. And they’re sizeable examples to it has to be said. There’s an alternative route to many of the senders but then as it settles a fork in the track sets the rider up for darker stuff ahead. Go left and its all relatively mellow “Boneyard” stuff but hang a right, the mountain ash slightly obscuring the name of this section, and the pace rises even further. And it was here in “Ninja Alley” that Shaun started skimming the berries of the mountain ash even on this sloppy day.
Nikki had by now got well into his trademark shoot position and it was with good timing that the tree cover changed again as the trail reaches its conclusion. And so did the size of the tables. In many ways the Ninja Alley trail plays centre court for this venue but there’s much more too it than that. With the enthusiasm of Shawn Bevan and the Trailcraft gang the number of lines will continue to grow.
The number of jumps has led many to say its like having “Whistler on your doorstep” but that’s a pretty strong piece of wording for a small welsh hill that in some years might not even see snow. What’s great about this place is the location, one which you can camp out in some truly stunning hills. Visit Llanthony valley, stay in the field near the priory for three quid a night and check out the cellar bar. Do a ride up one of the Black Mountain ridges, stay in the bothy and head back down the next day. The smell of bracken and wet grass, the sound of sheep.
On a rainy day it will be mud tyres for absolutely sure but unlike many venues the tracks are well drained with no puddles. On a dry day the tracks will be fast, real fast – maybe brown powder will be hard to find but it’s a powerful place – a truly stunning location to ride bikes.
We wrapped up and headed for camp one in the hills.