Trail centres have become the go-to for UK mountain bikers. Adele Mitchell looks to Wales to find out how they came about – and why they are such fun to ride, and a great even a great alternative option for road riders to explore during the colder and wetter months.
UK trail centres are now the place to go for hours of MTB fun.
It’s not difficult to understand why: you can enjoy miles and miles of purpose built and regularly maintained and mapped trails, graded like ski runs to match your ability, in some of our most beautiful and ‘wild’ areas.
You can hone your skills, find out what you and your bike are capable of, or just choose a comfortable pace and take in the scenery. You can ride for an afternoon, or stay for the weekend – it’s up to you.
And you don’t have to pay a penny to ride there (reality check – you do have to pay to park!).
There is the option of self-guided or guided rides, tuition and bike hire. Enjoy a mug of tea and a hearty plate of trail-friendly lunch at the visitor centre where you will also find bike shops, bike wash facilities and showers, and you can even make a weekend of it and stay nearby in mountain bike ‘friendly’ accommodation.
And it all began in Wales
Coed y Brenin, set within the Snowdonia National Park, was Britain’s first dedicated trail centre, and is the largest in the UK. It has evolved from natural forest trails to an extensive network of all weather (and a lot of rocks!) routes through densely planted forest. Six of the eight trails are graded red or above, and they range from 8km to 38km in length. C y D now hosts around 180,000 visitors per year.
To find out more about how Coed y Brenin came about I spoke to Sian Roberts, former GB XC and downhill racer (National Downhill Champion in 1992 and National XC Points Series Champion in 1993), and one of the founders of Coed y Brenin as it is today.
Sian currently runs a MTB bed and breakfast in the area but back in 1986 she started running a bike hire company with Dafydd Roberts and Sion Parri in nearby Betws y Coed.
Three years later the team were approached by the Foresty Commission to start hiring bikes – and take over the café – in the then very underused Forest Park at Coed y Brenin. Sian and Dafydd took up the offer and had a couple of local routes in the area waymarked for visiting riders. As more and more people came to the area to ride, the Forestry Commission appointed a full time Recreation Ranger – Dafydd Davies – to manage the recreational use of the forest. He, in turn, persuaded the Forestry Commission to create specific singletrack trails.
Momentum grew, and as a World Cup DH and XC rider, Sian was instrumental in persuading Red Bull to get involved with what was the first ever sponsored trail. It was only 11km long, but riders came from all over the UK to ride it.
Karrimor and MBR sponsored trails soon after that, and the first Trail Centre – now recognised world wide as a MTB destination – was born.
The financial benefit to the local rural community was huge, and as a result the Welsh Assembly secured European funding to build new singletrack and to also develop further trail centres in South Wales and also build the Marin Trail.
“For me, what makes a great trail centre is lots of choice, both in length of trails and technical standard,” Sian explained.
They provide year round riding no matter what the weather and teach vital riding skills that you need to ride the ‘natural’ stuff. Typically, a trail centre ride will be more packed with features than a natural trail, and as such it’s the perfect training ground.
“Over in the Afan forest in South Wales, Ralph Jones and his friends had started mountain biking in 1992, using many of the trails he had ridden as an off-road motorcyclist. “The idea of cutting trails belonged to Phil Lee and Julian Cram who liaised with the centre’s ranger to start the development.’ He tells me. “Dafydd Davies [from Coed y Brenin] provided the expertise and the first trail was built.”
From there, sponsorship came from MTB magazines, tools were purchased and trail building grew to such as extent that The International Mountain Biking Association described Afan as among the best 10 trails in the world. “
What’s more the centre’s café made a profit for the first time and the local council got involved with further funding. As a result the legendary Skyline trail was created.
‘Local businesses sprang up to cater for cyclists who wanted somewhere to stay, and bike and repair shops opened as well. The Glyncorrwg trail centre opened with a bias to bikers including The Drop Off café.”
Afan now boasts 230km of trails and a thriving MTB community.
There are currently around 70 trail centres in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Take a ride and it’s easy to see why they have revolutionised MTB and revived tourism in the areas where they flourish.
Of course it can be argued that natural trails – to be ridden as ‘found’ and often featuring unpredictable technical challenges – offer a more authentic experience, and can be more demanding (who knows what’s round the corner!). But they are also vulnerable to erosion if unmaintained, are often difficult to find and may lack the post-ride facilities that put the icing on top of your ‘mountain bike ride’ experience.
“Trail centres are definitely a huge part of the future of mountain biking – without them would there be as many people riding? I doubt there would be as there aren’t enough natural trails to accommodate us all,” says Sian. “They are a place to learn, to hone skills and to have a blast with your mates – and it’s all provided for us, usually for no more than a small car parking fee.”