Wales on Wheels

Witness a singletrack revolution on the fresh trails of a land in transition

Get down: a rolling descent of Cader Idris Mountain, Snowdonia National Park     Photo: Steve Thomas

Darn Technegol. That's Welsh for "technical section," a fair description of the rock garden where I've just crashed. I've been brought low by Coed y Brenin, the mountain-biking mecca of Wales, a network of five twisting, burly trails curled into a forest in the southern reaches of Snowdonia. There's nothing like a solo fall on an unknown trail in a foreign country to make you recalibrate your sense of your own ballsiness. After a quick inventory—bruised chest, torn-up hip, smashed derailleur hanger (I inevitably fall on the expensive side of the bike)—I decide that a shorter trail I disdainfully passed a while back doesn't actually sound all that bad. I slink to the trailhead and find my hands full—it's devilishly designed stuff.

It's my second day of biking in Wales, during a supernaturally clear November. I've come to check out two things: the singletrack that the Welsh have lovingly hand-carved out of their forests, and Orange Mountain Bikes, a UK manufacturer known for swaggering downhill rigs and solid cross-country rides, like the lightweight, full-suspension Five. I've set up base camp in Betwys y Coed, a tiny town squeezed between the Conwy and Llugwy rivers, in Snowdonia National Park. Snowdonia—all craggy mountains and moody light—spreads across most of northwestern Wales, a bitty chunk of the British Isles smaller than Massachusetts and less than 150 miles in length. Diminutive as it is, and just two hours by train from London, Wales feels remote, a sensation intensified by the narrow, winding roads—it takes time to get anywhere in this place. The town of Betwys y Coed itself is an oddly appealing mixture of pink-and-green Victoriana and outdoor-equipment shops. Betwys has long been Snowdonia's hiking headquarters, and now on weekends it's also common to see riders pulling into town, bikes racked atop their microscopic cars. At The Courthouse, my guest house in Betwys, I breakfasted with a multigenerational family of casual walkers to one side and a tattooed young mountain biker, off from her job at a Worcestershire sauce factory, to the other.

Thursday, my first day out, I rented a workhorse Marin at Beics Betws, located in a shack behind the post office and next to the town church. Andrew Hughes, the genial madman who was handling rentals, ripped out his topos, eyes gleaming, and told me how to bike Snowdonia. He saw me off to the Gwydyr Trail, a 16-miler threading through the Gwydyr Forest, high above town. The trail was a treat—lots of uphill slogs and curvaceous downhills, stretches of forest so dark I hesitated before plunging in, and entrancing views of Moel Siabod, a 2,861-foot peak, startling me when I re-emerged. The trail is less than two years old, built by the Welsh Forestry Commission, which connected existing forest roads with freshly dug singletrack. The trail map has a nickname for each segment: "Sleepy Bear" marks where one trail builder used to curl up in his wheelbarrow for a nap; "Pigs Might Fly" memorializes a steep line of rollers where a local cop headered. Gwydyr, like Coed y Brenin, is a public woodland run by the forestry commission, gorgeous land balanced between resource extraction and recreation. Wales spent most of the 19th and 20th centuries as the raw-material reservoir for an industrial revolution mainly happening elsewhere; the country is slowly making itself over, but the trails still snake past logged patches and stacks of cut trees. It's something you can see well from a bike—this unfinished transition to a place where coal mines are tourist attractions and the debris from slate mining has been pushed back into the dirt for bike wheels to spin over.

After exploring Snowdonia, I headed about 70 miles southwest to the coast and Aberystwyth, a college town with a funky vibe and proximity to trails at Nant yr Arian and Rhayader. Joe Haywood, owner of Summit Cycles, had my loaner waiting: a brand-spanking-new 2004 Orange Five. It was love at first sight. The Five's got a sinewy, minimalist aesthetic—and I did my best to cover my swoon as Jimmy Haddon, a friendly shop worker, set the sag.

While technical junkies will prefer Coed y Brenin, there's plenty to love at Nant yr Arian. It's another forestry commission site, a scant ten miles inland from Aberystwyth, and its Summit Trail, sponsored by Joe's shop, is a mix of forest road and hairpinned singletrack slicing through woods and across high, sheep-riddled moors. As at my previous stops, the trails were spectacularly well marked (to the point of condescension, in the opinion of some locals, but visitors will appreciate the hand holding).

If you time it right, you can be back at the Summit trailhead, drinking tea and eating scones at the visitor center's café, in time to watch the kite feeding. The Welsh have been cajoling the red kite back from the brink of extinction, and every afternoon at Nant yr Arian, some guy wanders out with a bag of raw meat, sprinkles it around a small lake, and then walks away as one, then two, then ten, then 30 enormous speckled birds wheel out of the trees overhead.

The next day, my last, I drove an hour inland to Rhayader, little more than a crossroads near the Elan Valley. Joe had set me up for a ride with Francine Powell, who runs Elan Cyclery and the Clive Powell Mountain Bike Centre with her husband. We left from the shop—originally a 16th-century pub—taking a paved cycle path. After a few miles, the path turns to gravel, then narrows into dirt, and finally becomes a soft, grassy climb to crest a barren hill. At the top, we rode right into a cloud. Francine, ghostly in the thick mist, stopped me at the edge of a bog—she's seen it swallow front wheels—and we gingerly picked our way across the marsh. Back on the bikes, we slithered past the remnants of a Roman fort. After a bit more scrambling, we reached our reward: a deeply rutted road descending headlong through abandoned golf links. The Five ate it for lunch. It's the kind of surefooted bike that makes you think you could no-hand a descent. I furtively patted it at the end of the road, guiltily repressing the memory of my beloved Stumpjumper, a few thousand miles away in Wyoming.

Back at the shop, I warmed myself by the woodstove while Francine served tea. I replayed the links in my head. Disgyniad da, I thought. Good downhill.

Access and Resources

A two-hour train ride from London gets you to Cardiff, the Welsh capital, where you can pick up a rental car—the most convenient way to get around, especially with bikes. For cozy lodging and great breakfasts in Betwys y Coed, try The Courthouse, also called Henlly's, a converted courthouse on the Conwy River (011-44-1690-710534, www.guesthouse-snowdonia.co.uk); in Aberystwyth, the Richmond Hotel (011-44-1970-612201, www.richmondhotel.uk.com) has sea views. The Welsh tourism center (011-44-8701-211256, www.tourism.wales.gov.uk) provides maps and info; visit its mountain-bike-specific site, www.mbwales.com. For quality rentals in North Wales, go to Beics Betws (011-44-1690-710766, www.bikewales.com/main.htm). For repairs and maps of Nant yr Arian, visit Summit Cycles (011-44-1970-626061, www.summitcycles.co.uk). Clive Powell Mountain Bike Centre (011-44-1597-811343, www.clivepowell-mtb.co.uk) has Elan Valley maps and can provide anything from a bike to a guided weekend.

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