Our man Nik Cook goes on a one-day whistle – stop tour of North Wales’ trail centres to see how trail building has progressed, if the older trails have stood the test of time and which are still worth paying a visit to.
As a mountain biker, I can remember the days before trail centres and GPS when mountain biking was as much an exercise in finding the bridleways, and painful stop-go navigation as actual riding. Living in the Peak District, I still love an epic “natural ride” but for point-and-play fun, guaranteed all-weather riding, and with so many now open, trail centres provide a convenient mountain biking utopia.
Like many big days out, the idea of a trip down trail centre memory lane was hatched one night in the pub. Over a pint discussion ensued as to whether it would be possible to ride in one day – in the chronological order of their build dates – three of North Wales’ iconic trails?
This region was the birthplace of UK trail centres, and with the Marin Trail, Coed Y Brenin and Coed Llandegla forming a neat triangle, it was a tantalising proposition. Tallying up the distances and ascents of the three trails, we were looking at 76 kilometres with 2,155 metres of climbing.
Definitely a big day of mountain biking but do-able, and with about 45 minutes driving from the Marin to Coed Y Brenin, and an hour and a half from there to Coed Llandegla, an early morning start should allow plenty of time.
Proper Prior Preparation
With my ride buddy and trusted photographer Paul’s slightly temperamental VW van packed, we headed for Betws Y Coed in the heart of Snowdonia and a campsite just minutes away from the Marin Trail.
Over a pizza and a couple of pints we produced a back of beer mat schedule for the day, however, having found out Coed Llandegla shut its gates at 18:00, we found our plans a bit more squeezed than we’d previously reckoned. We plucked estimated ride times out of thin air, giving little thought to fatigue, mechanical mishaps or the pesky matter of taking images for this article.
Buoyed by a couple of local brews and a great forecast however, we put our faith in the plan, walked back to the campsite and settled down with alarms set for 04:00.
Why, when and where?
Started in the late 1990s and finished in 2003, the Marin Trail was Britain’s first dedicated mountain bike trail and so had to be our day’s opener. Located just outside of Betws Y Coed in the Gwydyr forest there’s no trail head facilities, just a free carpark, plenty of trees and the trail.
Tale of the trail Four in the morning is very early but with breakfast forced down and the van packed up, we were ready to ride bang on our ETD of 05:00. After a couple of bleary eyed mis-starts, we found the start of the trail and accompanied by the sounds of a forest dawn headed off.
A long forest road climb was the trail’s opening salvo and this was interspersed with fun but fairly short singletrack descents which set the pattern for the ride.
Disappointingly there was also a long fire-road descent, I don’t mind gaining height on dull trails but to lose so much just wasn’t fair, especially as it spat us out at the foot of a brutally steep road climb.
What did make all the tedious climbing worthwhile though was the staggering mountain view. The singletrack was fun but on some of the rocky sections, alternative lines had worn and the Marin felt its age and seemed a little neglected.
The trail’s red grading was fair and probably a good thing for that time in the morning – there was nothing too technically challenging. The final three-kilometre descent was really enjoyable – particularly the more recently built bottom section which gave a taste of the trail building future with chances to get you tyres off the ground.
As a start to the day it’d been an ideal warm-up and having taken forty minutes less than our planned two and a half hours, we congratulated ourselves on being up on schedule.
What we liked: The views, wilderness feel, the final descent and free parking.
Not so hot: Too much fire road, both up and down, and some sections are feeling a bit past their use by date.
Worth a ride? Not on its own and you’d be disappointed if you’re one of the long travel, pads and full face helmet brigade. A fun XC blast but you’d have to double it with the nearby Penmachno trail or some natural trails to make a Betws Y Coed mountain bike trip worthwhile.
Beat of Brenin
Why, when and where? Located near Dolgellau, there’s been mountain biking going on at Coed Y Brenin since the early 1990s.
It was the first dedicated trail centre with bike hire, visitor centre and café. Legendary trail builder Dafydd Davis MBE was responsible for its first five waymarked trails which have been
continuously updated and added too.
With a new £1.6 million visitor centre built in 2006, and with constantly evolving mountain biking and running trails, it’s an outdoor Mecca. However, there was only one trail we could possibly choose, the scarily named Beast of Brenin. Anything else would have felt like a cop out and to be able to pass judgment on Coed Y Brenin, we had to tame the Beast.
Tale of the trail This was the trail that had us worried and had the potential to blow our schedule out of the water. We had a ride time of three to six hours and hoped to do it in four.
Although the Marin hadn’t taken too much out of my legs and we’d gained some time, a couple of flats and the spectre of photographs meant we were feeling the pressure.
We passed under the giant forks that mark the start of the trail and the first section soon became a baptism of fire. It was fairly flat but had multiple rocky steps – my legs were soon burning and my focus had to be 100 percent. It was rapidly followed by a loose techie climb, which by the end of we were both questioning whether four hours was going to be possible.
It’s actually a genius bit of trail building, tough and technical but without any real hazards, and a safe way to test if you’ve got the skills and the fitness for the challenges to come. We ploughed on, and straight away the singletrack came thick and fast, rocky and technical, fast and flowing, tight and twisty – within the first 10 kilometres we’d had it all.
The four-kilometre non-stop singletrack of Pink Heifer and Big Dug was the trail highlight but it’s not all gravity fed and our legs were singing by its end. Yes, much of the height gained on the trail was on fire roads but there were also some challenging technical climbs too, however, these were more than compensated for by the fantastic and varied singletrack.
Black sections were pre-warned by an ominous skull and cross-bones and did indicate sizeable and unavoidable features such as some fairly chunky drop-offs. Enough to get the hard fluttering, adrenaline flowing and create some big grins that were thankfully not wiped off.
The middle section of the trail had some long fire road climbs which Paul started to flag a bit on but he did have to lug his camera kit with him. With some cheeky map work you could easily skip this section but we were committed to the whole thing. This route, along with a puncture and photo ops, was eating into our schedule so after a rest, refuel and reboot, we resolved to up our pace for the final third.
It was a singletrack onslaught, with a punishing final climb that really squeezed every drop out of our legs. The technical challenges didn’t ease one bit with roots and rocks seemingly poised to get you around every sinuous twist of the trail.
With mind and body tiring, I paid with a few spills. I was bruised, battered but still smiling. We dipped in just under our four-hour bar. Treating ourselves to a slap up feed in the café – which had been accounted for in the schedule – and leaving with our hour buffer still intact, we were shattered but happy.
What we liked: The sheer variety, fun and technical challenge of the singletrack. Brilliant facilities at the visitor centre and a range of trails for all ages and abilities.
Not so hot: The middle section of the trail is a soulless slog but it can easily be cut out and is sandwiched between singletrack nirvana.
Worth a ride? Yes, yes and yes. You can’t call yourself a mountain biker until you’ve tamed the Beast. A true black graded trail in terms of distance, ascent and technicality. It’ll test your skills and fitness in equal measure. Ride the Beast in the morning, have some lunch and then, if you’ve still got some energy, have a blast around a couple of the shorter trails.
Why, when and where? Opened in 2005, the privately owned Coed Llandegla is only seven miles from Wrexham, making it popular with mountain bikers throughout the North-West.
With the income from the award winning café and carpark fuelling continuous trail building, it offers fast flowing and jumpy modern mountain biking.
Tale of the trail During the hour and a half drive, it hit us just how tired we really were but with the Beast vanquished at least we’d broken the back of the day. However, we were both dreading what we knew lay in store at the start of the Coed Llandegla Black route.
The five-kilometre fire road grind to the start of the trails proper is bad enough when fresh, and as we wearily rode away from the van for the last time, heavy, stiff and aching legs were going to make it truly awful. In determined silence we grimly toiled through the forest, it wasn’t as bad as we’d built it up in our heads but as we whipped round the double berms that marked the start of the fun, we both let out an audible sigh of relief.
From then on it was just a blast. Smooth, fast, flowing, it was like being on a roller coaster. Even though I’m a dyed in the wool air-phobic XC rider, I couldn’t help but unweight my bike and enjoy some flight time. It was nowhere near the technical challenge of the Beast, and with all features rollable, a black grade is on the generous side but it was still a hell of a lot of fun.
Boardwalks, berms, jumps – it was that gratuitous two-wheeled fun that modern trails are all about. Yes, there were
some tough climbs but they were either enjoyable forest switchbacks or steep but short ramps. We gained the height but were always rewarded by gravity-fuelled fun. My whole body was aching by the final descent but more than an hour and a half up on schedule, we knew the day was in the bag and enjoyed the insanely fast final run in. To the victors the spoils and we were rewarded by excellent cake and coffee.
Shaking hands with Paul, I reflected on a very successful day.
What we liked: The sheer speed and off-yourbrakes- fast-and-flowing-forest trails. Amazing cake and coffee and a potential money pit of a bike shop.
Not so hot: The frankly tedious opening five-kilometre slog. Either get your head down and just pedal to get it over with like we did or use it for a bit of a warm-up and chat.
Worth a ride? As a standalone trail, one lap of the black isn’t quite enough to justify a visit but get in a second lap and you’ve got to ride that opening five-kilometre section again. I’ve done three lap rides at Coed Llandegla in the past and it does take some resolve. That said, with a massive skills’ area and pump tracks, there’s plenty of post lap fun to be had and with the constant trail building, the lap will keep getting bigger and better.