The first inkling I had that mountain biking was unlike toodling around Battersea Park on my Pashley was from the lovely Louise, owner of the Afan Lodge mountaining biking base and organiser of our bicycles. In a call before our visit, she initially had mused that perhaps our mountain biking coach could take us to the top of the mountain so we could have a nice ride down. In our second call, she had reconsidered.
“Your stepson hasn’t done BMX, has he?” she asked. Erm, no. Were we novices? Well, we do know how to ride bikes, I said, chuckling. She didn’t chuckle back. Her voice had the patient tone of a teacher explaining something obvious to a small child.
I was beginning to sense that she knew something material about the true rigours of mountain biking that was unknown to me. Something that pointed to the benefit of acquiring a little experience rocketing over dirt hillocks that might help when navigating some of the best mountain biking trails in the UK. Something that signaled we were going to be a long way from Battersea Park.
We were, in fact, going to Wales. As part of a trip organized with Visit Wales, my husband, stepson, daughter and I were going to the Afan Valley to learn how to mountain bike. Our challenge was to learn something new on the holiday, a quest that was right up our street. Trying something new makes a holiday that much more worthwhile, and it’s fulfilling to see our children push themselves and gain confidence and abilities they didn’t know they had. In addition to the mountain biking know-how, we were also learning about this striking part of the country.
The Afan Valley is a former mining valley in southern Wales. It’s a straightforward drive down the M4 from London, with a right turn at Port Talbot. We left at 3:30 right after school pick-up and arrived at 8pm, in time to have some grilled chicken, pasta, fish and chips, and shrimp scampi in the Afan Lodge restaurant.
The hotel has the feel of a ski lodge – casual, clean, convivial. It was packed with mountain bikers gearing up (sorry) for a day on trails that range from the Green one we would be doing to Red and Black ones for experienced riders. After eating we checked into 2 adjoining rooms (they also have family rooms that include a kitchenette) and prepared for our foray.
Learning the basics of mountain biking
The next morning, we started our session, with Ally of Campbell Coaching and her assistant 16-year-old Tom teaching us how to do an “M check” of our bikes to make sure it’s in good condition, setting the seats at the right level, adjusting helmets. Then it was on to stopping and turning on the loose dirt and gravel, with our pedals in the correct position. This sounds simple. It’s like the first time you try to rub your tummy and pat your head.
We were some of the first people to try out the new skills area behind the Lodge (the kids were dancing around in excitement when they saw it in the morning light). There are several small hills, some closely placed humps for learning “pumping” and a couple of high, banked turns. Or in the words of Ally: “jumps, gap jumps, drop off lines, pump track, rollers and berms”.
Soon we were going up and over the hills — excuse me, jumps — trying to remember to lean forward, toes down on the uphills; hips back, heels down on the downhills. “Am I really going that slow?” my husband asked while watching video playback of himself. “It feels a lot faster.”
The kids attacked the course with gusto, my husband looked like an old pro, meanwhile it took me four times to master the largest hill because my pedals – in the wrong position at the crest – kept scraping the ground. “I don’t want you to get air on the jumps today,” Ally had said earlier. Um, yes ma’am, I’ll keep that in mind.
Ally was the ideal teacher, running alongside my daughter to increase her confidence (and – ahem – doing the same with me) and giving the boys a quick lesson in pumping — giving a sharp push down on the bike in dips, to generate speed — while they tried out the smaller humps. When my daughter in her zeal took a spill and got a couple of scrapes, Ally was ready with a well-stocked first-aid kit and gummy bears to ease the pain.
Riding the new Green Trail
We were back on our bikes a few minutes later, headed out on the Rookie Trail. This trail, opened in 2012, is a 5.5km Green (graded similarly to ski runs) that has a combination of paved and single-track unpaved sections along with an optional 2.3km Blue section that includes a path down to the River Afan and thigh-burning climb back up. There is a Kids Skills area (also suitable for adults, I assure you) where they can practice going over large rocks, doing tight and banked turns and maybe eventually getting some air on the jumps, if Ally says it’s OK. You can follow the Rookie trail on your own or book Campbell Coaching for a guided ride, getting pointers along the way. (Here’s a video that shows the kind of a fun even more experienced riders can have on this trail.)
The trail takes in open fields with views of the mountains, goes over a bridge near Richard Burton’s hometown (Pontrhydyfen, pronounced to us Londonders as Pont-ree-difan), across the serene Japanese Garden which is twinned with a park in Japan, and via the Blue through more challenging wooded areas that give a taste of what’s to come as your riding advances.
By the time we were headed back to Afan Lodge for a burger in the pub area, we were tired but exhilarated. We are already plotting our return.
For more info about mountain biking in Wales check out the Visit Wales website: www.visitwales.com/things-to-do/activities/biking/mountain-biking
Afan Forest Park (Cynonville, Port Talbot, South Wales SA13 3HG, +44 (0)1639 850564) is home to the Rookie Trail along with Blue, Red and Black Trails that challenge riders’ technical skills. There is also the Railway path for less strenuous cycling as well as hiking.
Afan Lodge (Afan Rd, Port Talbot, Duffryn Rhondda SA13 3ES, +44 (0)1639 852500) is situated right on the Railway Trail. It’s a family-friendly place, and stays include a hearty Welsh breakfast, bike wash, lockup and parking. It’s clean and comfortable, with good beds. There’s a restaurant as well as a small pub that serves light meals. It’s also a great place to watch the rugby and meet locals, as we discovered after our ride.
Campbell Coaching (firstname.lastname@example.org +44 (0)1639 897945; +44 (0)7855 094570) provides mountain bike training for everyone from those who have never put bum to bicycle seat to seasons mountain bikers looking to improve their skills. They do female-specific coaching — I really liked having a female coach and they tailored our session perfectly to our riding level. They also offer guided rides.
Skyline Cycles (Glyncorrwg MTB Centre, Glyncorrwg, Port Talbot SA13 3EA, +44 (0)1639 850011) provided bicycles for our day. They were comfortable to ride and in great condition. Ours were hardtails; they also hire full suspension bikes, and hire includes helmet, tool-pack and pump.
The Afan Forest Park Visitor Centre (Cynonville, Port Talbot, Neath Port Talbot SA13 3HG, +44 (0)1639 850564) has amenities for visitors including paid parking, toilets, camping, gift shop, first aid station and café. They also hire Beamer Trampers – Class 3 all-terrain vehicles for the mobility impaired to enjoy 2 of the Park’s trails.
The South Wales Miners Museum (Afan Forest Park, Cynonville, Port Talbot SA13 3HG, +44 (0)1639 851833) is situated in the Visitor Centre and is a little gem. It contains a replica miner’s tunnel as well as exhibits about the role of children in mining, artifacts like gas masks and lunch boxes, a helmet with heavy battery pack that kids can try on as well as a dressing up box and much more. On our visit, the man at the front desk – who had worked in the mines for several years as a young man – gave us a personal tour, sharing insight and stories that brought the mining industry in the Valley to life. Look for my post on that visit soon.
Afan Valley Bike Shed, (3 Pentwyn Road, Cynonville, Port Talbot, Neath Port Talbot SA13 3HH, +44 (0)7811 951949) situated in the Forest Park Centre, hires adult cycles, trail-a-bikes, children’s bikes, infant seats and children’s helmets. They also perform service and repairs, provide secure storage, and offer instruction and guided rides.
Disclosure: We were a guest of Visit Wales. All opinions are my own.