Will Renwick spends two days fatbiking and mountain biking on the hills and dunes surrounding a town on the M4 corridor
I spent the first 23 years of my life living just outside of Bridgend, a large town in South Wales that’s slap bang between Cardiff and Swansea. It’s a place I’ve always associated with boring shopping trips, Friday night scenes resembling the Apocalypse, and worst of all, the place where everyone had to go for their driving test. I’ve never considered it as a place to head to for quality mountain biking, so when a person representing Bridgend Council told me that the town is a hidden gem for it. I had to see this to believe it.
The hill at the end of the road
The first location near Bridgend that was recommended to me was Blaengarw. I head there straight from London, driving for just over two hours down the M4 and then, after coming off at Bridgend, following an A road for about 15 minutes until the road quite simply runs out. It has to, there’s nowhere it can go. The former mining town sits right at the top of a valley where three hill sides wrap steeply around a few long lines of terraced houses. If you think of a quintessential South Wales Valleys town then you’re picturing Blaengarw. It’s the kind of place that instantly puts the hymn Bread of Heaven in your head and leaves it stuck there all day.
The coal seam here was first mined in 1860, and this industry continued right through to the 1980s. Throughout that long period all the wasted coal was piled higher and higher on the hillsides, blackening the valley and poisoning its river. I step out of my car in Blaengarw and try to imagine what it would have looked like before the big clear up, but it’s hard to. A good job has been done here to remove the scars inflicted by man.
One such clear up job by the local council has been the opening up of Parc Calon Lan. £80,000 was invested to create a lake, parkland, walking routes, and a series of mountain bike trails that criss cross a hillside called Darren Fawr which I’m about to explore.
As I peer up at the hill I hear a friendly voice from behind. “You must be Will.” A guy in his early thirties with shaggy brown hair and mud-splattered MTB kit introduces himself to me. He’s Karl Luxford, the warden and trail officer for the park. He’s been in the job for a number of years now and has volunteered to give me an introduction to the routes.
Wasting no time to get out and enjoy the sunshine, we begin pedalling our way up the hill to the start of the trails. We don’t get far before Karl suddenly halts and stares far up to the horizon. He’s looking at two figures far away, just two silhouettes. He then starts pedalling again. “Sorry about that,” he says, “I thought they were on scramblers but it’s OK.”
Kids on scramblers are the bane of his life it turns out. They come up from the surrounding towns and tear up his trails and rip down the fencing and signage. Basically, as Karl explains, they’re destroying his own handiwork, the trails that he maintains with his own bare hands. He can spend a day on a project on this hillside and it can be ruined in an instant.
I begin delving into Karl’s involvement with the bikepark. He tells me that he works here by himself “five or six days a week, rain or shine and all year round.”
There are two trails, one a blue rating and one a black. Karl was instrumental in their conception and he’s been the sole guardian ever since. His blood sweat and tears are in this park – it’s his baby, and he’s clearly very protective of it.
I’m not quite sure why, but despite my self-confessed inexperience Karl has suggested we jump straight onto the black run, and we can try the softer, family-friendly blue after if we fancy it. It takes a long and steep pedal up to the top of the mountain to get to the start of the descent and we both need a break before we can throw ourselves into it. I look down at the track as it twists and turns down the steep hillside. You can see almost the whole route, all the way down to the little town of Blaengarw. The trail only disappears briefly as it leads into a copse of trees only to shoot out of the bank end of it.
We watch as a young couple fly down ahead of us at impressive speed. It’s a Saturday, without a single cloud in the sky, and it looks like they’re the only other people we’re sharing the park with.
With our breath back we set off down the hill, Karl first and me following behind. The trail starts with a few neat berms with our tires spraying up the dry dirt on each turn. Then we dart into woodland swinging between the pine trees before bursting out the other side into the light.
On the tricky sections where there are steep drops from slabs I stop and watch Karl go first just to see exactly how I’m supposed to throw myself off a ledge without cracking my head open. Somehow I manage to avoid such a fate. The optional dirt ramp we stop at is a step too far for me though and I let Karl do the honours. It’s the first of a few that he’s planning to build here he tells me, with the next project on his list being a table top for fledgling beginners.
“The next bit is my favourite,” he says. It’s a boulder field at the foot of a handsome looking cliff surrounded by trees almost as high as the cliff itself. Apparently Karl originally thought it would be impossible to lay down a trail over the huge boulders here but a team had managed to piece together a pavement out of hulking slabs with the help of a JCB. It still takes some effort to negotiate through – take your eye off the track ahead of you for a second and you’re in for a bundling.
We’re a fair bit into the trail and I’m getting more confident and am able to pick up my speed. Then the inevitable happens. I take a corner slightly too wide, overcompensate and then spur off the trail where a rock brings me to a halt by turning my handlebar to the side and bringing my shoulder down to the earth. Luckily I’m able to pick myself up laughing and I carry on down to the end of the trail where, after taking a moment to rest we had back uphill again.
In our morning of riding, we must’ve only seen about three other people. I get the feeling this place hasn’t quite been discovered yet. Perhaps there aren’t many people who know what exists at the top of this long valley. Instead, I suppose they head to Afan Argoed, a hugely popular park to the west of here, or they’ll go to the even busier BikePark Wales a few miles to the east for its world class trail network. The big secret however, as Karl tells me, is that the trails here above Blaengarw were designed and built by the same company behind BikePark. Blaengarw’s Darren Fawr might be a fraction of the size and it hasn’t got all the facilities, but at least you still get some quality, crowd-free riding without the £8 entry fee.
Swapping dirt for dunes at Merthyr Mawr
My next location to scout out is further south of Blaengarw, on the other side of Bridgend.
Believe it or not, but walk less than three miles from the coffee shops and clothes stores of Bridgend High Street and you’ll find yourself in a place that resembles the North African desert. Merthyr Mawr is an area of about four square miles that’s filled with sand dunes reaching some 40m high, in fact Europe’s second largest inland sand dune resides here (don’t ask me where the first largest one is). You might already know Merthyr Mawr as the place that Sir Ranulph Fiennes came to train for his run through the Sahara on the Marathon des Sables. It doesn’t sound like a place for cycling though, does it?
Well it turns out it is.
Fed up with a life behind a desk working a sales job in Cardiff, Corum Champion decided he’d had enough. He packed it all in and moved down the road to Porthcawl, the town where he spent his summer holidays as a child and where he’d escape to every weekend for a surf. With this move his plan was to ride a different wave, he’d noticed the growing interest in fatbiking and reckoned the dunes between Porthcawl and Merthyr Mawr made for the perfect playground for it.
I meet him at the bike shed he’s just started operating from which is just on the edge of the Coney Island pleasure park, so close that I can hear the sounds from the amusement arcade and can smell the fish and chips. The shed is full of brand new fatbikes, so full I have to climb over them to get in to shake Corum’s hand. Each bike looks almost identical to a standard mountain bike, save for one thing. The tires – they’re huge.
I’ve never tried fatbiking before, and I’ll admit to not being interested in trying it either. On a hiking trip in Scotland the previous summer, I remember seeing a couple of people fatbiking up the same hill that we were walking up. They were struggling massively and I remember thinking I’d never have it in me to pedal something so cumbersome looking. It looked a bit of a gimmick – a fad.
But once we get going here I immediately realise my misconception. On tarmac, the bikes don’t feel that much heavier than a standard mountain bike and then on sand it’s phenomenal how easily the wheels move over it – the bouncy tires absorb any lumps and bumps so that the bike seems to almost glide.
Considering he’s out doing this most days, you’d think Corum would be a little bored of fatbiking. The smile on his face suggests otherwise though. “You must be living your dream,” I say as we pedal our way across Porthcawl beach over towards the sand dunes. “I do love all this,” he says, “but we’ve only just got it all up and running so there are hard aspects, as there are for most small businesses.” In fact, as Corum goes on to explain to me, he’s been working as a pizza delivery driver at night to help him get by as he invests in new bikes and furnishes his shop before his first summer season. It’s clear that getting out on the bikes is his only downtime.
After 15 minutes riding across the beach we’re heading into the dunes. I’m following after Corum as he winds his way through a narrow gap between the marram grass, cutting left and right spontaneously.
“Do you know where we are going?” I ask him. “Not really, I make it up as I go,” he shouts back. “I don’t want to overuse a track and damage it so I just go with the flow.” We are near a nature reserve full of bird and plantlife but Corum has done his homework and apparently we’re free to roam, just as the many horseriders who visit the area are.
Corum seems to be making his way towards a huge dune. I can’t see how he thinks were going to get up there, it would be hard enough on foot.
Yes, we are in fact going up it. I drop the gears right down and pedal hard expecting to blow out quickly, but the smoothness of the bike surprises me once again and we manage to get ourselves up the 30 metre climb, much to the astonishment of a man and woman watching from the top. We’ve fully earned what’s about to follow.
After taking in the views over the hundreds of cresting sand dunes and the coastline leaning over the still Bristol Channel it’s time for the fun bit. The slope of sand below us is wide at the top but the tall grass eventually funnels it down to a narrow gap. We need to get our aim spot on here. Corum flies downhill and disappears into the gap between the grass as if he’s just launched himself into a time portal. With reluctance I follow after him. Braking seems a lost cause at this speed on sand so I shoot down through the gap and desperately try to keep my balance along the path through bracken almost over my head. I manage to reach Corum who seems surprised I haven’t arrived with a mouthful of sand.
Next up we head to what could be defined as the sand equivalent of snow moguls – lump after lump and a few little jumps as well. This time I do fall off and at a reasonable pace, but it couldn’t have been a softer landing. Again it’s a bit like skiing: fall the right way and in the right stuff and you can get off scot-free.
When I make it back home I reflect on the two days of two-wheeling I’ve just had on the hills and sand dunes around Bridgend. Until the trip I had no idea about these two experiences and the accessibility of both of them. Just like my misconceptions about fatbiking being a bit of a gimmick, I realise I had also gone into the weekend with misconceptions about Bridgend, particularly in regards to what it offers as a place for off-road cycling.