One of many stunning trail views from Skyline
|After an appalling week of night shift and a diabolical performance at the Dyfi Enduro last weekend, there was only one thing for it: spend a week camping in the Welsh Hills – just me, my Surly Singlespeed, and the open countryside. After reading an article on the trails at Afan Argoed in Singletrack magazine, it sounded the perfect choice!
I knew Monday was going to be a fairly long day, but nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead. Leaving work at 7.30am I dashed home to pack. I hadn’t been camping for some time so it took a while to gather all the necessities. To say my bags were rather heavy was an understatement; but time was pushing on and I had a train to catch. Considering I was using the British public transport system, things went rather well. The first train was on time, no problem getting on the tube with my bike, plenty of room in the Guard’s van – with a bike stand! Then, my luck ran out. My train to Cardiff was delayed en-route that meant I missed my connection and had to wait an hour. The connecting train was also delayed, putting me well over an hour behind schedule now. Tiredness was starting to kick in and my already over-heavy bags were becoming more and more unbearable… Arriving at Maesteg station around 5.30pm, I asked to directions to Afan Visitor Centre and the young couple took a second look at my baggage, double checked my destination and stared at me in disbelief. “You’ll never make it up Cymmer Hill with that lot” was the response. “That’s as maybe I replied, “but it’s a pleasant evening and I’ve got to get there somehow.” Cymmer Hill is a very long, fairly steep road, climbing off the valley floor and up over the hill. The sweat was pouring off my forehead and dripping down my back as I reached half way, pushing my bike. I took a moment of rest to admire the glorious view behind me. Fortunately, after this arduous ascent, I only had to descend down to the next valley floor to reach my destination at the forest centre. At 7.30pm, after 8 hours travelling, an 8 mile ride/push, carrying at least 40lbs, I reached the camp site – I’ve got to get a car! To my surprise I heard the familiar voice of Kluster (another Singletrackworld forum regular) resonating across the car park. A brief exchange of greetings and a summary of my long day (which was all I could manage by then) and a ride was arranged for Wednesday. All I wanted to do now was get some food and sleep. The evening suddenly picked up as I sat in the deserted campsite cooking dinner. As the sun set over the opposing valley side, the birds sang their evening song and all of the days events disappeared into the clear blue sky. The steep lush green valley stretched out before me and I remembered just why I’d made all that effort – the anticipated week of glorious weather, stunning views and fantastic riding were within reach… Tuesday started exactly as I’d hoped – glorious sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. I took the opportunity for a spot of early morning sun bathing before the visitor centre café opened for breakfast at 10.30. Then it was off onto the Penhydd trail. I decided to start with this one as it’s supposed to be the easiest, and having not ridden off-road for such a long time, my bike handling skills were a little rusty. After the long fire road ascent of “To the Top parts 1, 2 & 3”, came the first swoopy section. This gave me a real kick start and soon I was flowing down the trail: that feeling of ‘going light’ yet never actually leaving the ground; the rear wheel gently flicking around behind me as it skipped over some of the larger rocks; it felt as if I’d ridden every day of my life! Some more fire road climbing and a gentle traverse along the ridge allowed me time to take in the stunning view before the switchback fun of the “Hidden Valley” began. My confidence was growing as quickly as the smile on my face and the tight, rocky, narrow descent was over all too soon. One last big climb up to “Sidewinder” and then more rocky, flowing singletrack, winding it’s way through the trees down the hillside. As I hit the last fire road stretch, I thought it was all over, only to be delighted by the rolling “Bubble & Squeak.” And then it was all over. Two hours of heart pumping, bone shaking fun had flown by; it was time for a cup of tea and some Welsh cakes. The afternoon saw me tackle The Wall trail on the north side of the valley. A gentle spin along the valley bottom was a nice warm up before the real start. On a singlespeed, it was quite a tough double track climb, but most of the height was gained here meaning everything else should be pretty much downhill. I wasn’t far wrong either and once I reached “Piccadilly” the fun really began: Lots of swooping trails cutting into the hillside; tree-lined, rooty, rocky shadow-covered sections spitting you out onto an exposed hillside with a jaw dropping view – the day just kept getting better! “The Quarry” and “The Graveyard” speak for themselves, strewn with large rocks and boulders (and the odd sheep’s skull). There are some very limited line choices as well unless you really enjoy leaving the ground and clearing the lot in one go! Finally, the infamous “Wall” section itself, with it’s tight switchbacks and narrow trail, more fun than you can shake a stick at. Back down on the valley floor and my forearms were screaming, my heart was pumping and I suddenly realised my grimace of concentration had now become a large smile. With the evening sun casting a golden glow across the landscape, I made my way home along the old railway line, pausing for a moment on the old bridge high above the river to savour the joy of a full days riding. Wednesday had a slower start whilst the morning cloud burnt away. Not having any phone signal on the campsite I didn’t want to stray too far in case Chris showed up. I decided to go for a run round some of the many way-marked walking routes, exploring some of the bits cyclists are never allowed to see and I wasn’t disappointed with the views. After tea and Welsh cakes, again, Chris still hadn’t appeared so it was off to the White’s Level trail. This is a slightly newer trail than the other two and they’ve used different trail building techniques, allowing for more ‘off-trail’ jumps and drop-offs to be used for those with a bit of body armour. This trail starts near Glyncorrwg, further up the valley, but can be easily accessed from the visitor centre with roughly a 6km, way-marked ride along the disused railway line, across the river and along a tarmac road. At this point I thought I might have gone wrong, having not seen a marker for a while, but sure enough, one appeared. Unfortunately it marked the start of a very long, singletrack climb up through the trees to the top of the hill. And once again, it was well worth it. I see what they mean when they say it may be the shortest route, but it does have the best views. Some of the more exposed sections are breathtaking. It’s a good job there weren’t any other riders around, or there may have been some accidents as they came hurtling round a corner only to find me in the middle of the track with my camera out! (Irresponsible I know, but it’s so quiet you can hear people coming a mile away and I knew there wasn’t anybody else in the vicinity.) This trail is similar, yet somehow different to the other two – in fact all the trails at Afan seem to have their own distinct character. I soon started to notice the built in jump spots and large drop-offs just at the side of the trail and decided against it – I was riding in the middle of nowhere by myself with no phone signal! But the trail was enough fun in itself, plenty of bits and pieces to keep me on my toes and a few close reminders not to let my concentration slip whilst admiring aforementioned glorious views… The last descent came all too soon (though once again, my forearms wouldn’t agree) and I safely negotiated the last section of rocks, stones, drop-offs and switchbacks with a great deal of satisfaction. So much so that I decided to treat myself to a pub dinner and a pint at [[name of pub!!]] before going back to the campsite. The food was fantastic with huge, reasonably priced meals and very friendly service – though it doesn’t open until 6.30 and food starts at 7pm, well worth the wait though.