Well that turned out well!
When someone suggests to you a couple of days in Wales in March, you don’t expect to be basking in temperatures pushing 13° but that’s exactly how things worked out. Thank goodness for Kev, our lucky weather gnome.
This year has been a bit hit and miss riding-wise, with fitness seemingly an elusive luxury but things have improved since the acquisition of (whisper it) a turbo trainer. It’s not that I enjoy riding in the garage but at least it turns the legs when time and excuses are conspiring against you. A few rides recently in drying Surrey Hills conditions and good company have further helped to relight the flame so when an opportunity came up at short notice to spend a couple of days in South Wales, I grabbed it.
Last year we had a weekend riding Cwm Carn and the Gap Road which I thoroughly enjoyed but this time round the plan was to do some Afan trails and then Cwm Carn the following day. I was a little surprised to find I haven’t been to Afan since 2011 so it was certainly time for a return. The upshot was that come Friday morning, Kev and Jem turned up at my house to transport me and my bike down the M4 to South Wales, assuming the apocalypse didn’t arrive with the eclipse. We ended up with a better view of it than Surrey managed as Kev’s polarising sunroof and some patchy cloud were in our favour.
The gods were with us. Light traffic, sunny skies and a short, efficient service stop for coffee meant we were at the Glyncorrwg Visitor Centre and underway by 11:30. We decided our pre-lunch effort was to be Whites Level but it was a very different trail we started up to the Whites I first visited back in 2008. Mainly, no trees! In the past the hillside has been heavily wooded, which has pulled the ribbon of singletrack into a tight arduous climb. Now, the effort is the same (especially when chasing Kev or an e-biked Jem), but the hillside is bare. Consequently it feels like a less technical climb in the light breezes as you can see your way further up the hill.
Did I say it was hard work? Phew! Jem was Cubed up and that e-bike whirring is something that can haunt you on a steady climb! Kev was also in Springer Spaniel mode, setting a brisk pace. I was a bit worried about my freehub as it was running unnervingly quietly for a Hope hub, suggesting a pawl or two had retired. I was reluctant to put too much energy into it before lunch when the bike shop could take a look at it, so was concentrating on keeping the spin going at a consistent speed.
Soon we started to enjoy ourselves as we relaxed into the rhythm that’s so different to our Surrey Hills riding. It’s a long four mile pull up Whites and we were pretty warm by the time we reached the top, pausing to relax in the sun for a few minutes. We had to remind ourselves it was March!
Our enthusiasm to continue meant we forgot to hit the black section and instead we were soon headed for the first bit of descending fun from Windy Point, the trail empty of visitors as we headed down to the Energy Trail. I really like this part of Whites and found that while Jem disappeared at speed on his Cube I was happy to go with the flow, even getting a bit of mini-air off the table tops on Energy. Woo!
One thing that did spoil the flow though was dropping my chain over the rough stuff. In total this happened to me three times over the weekend, despite me running a thick/thin Raceface chainring and a X9 clutch derailleur. Looks like I need a chain device as extra security on my otherwise perfect 1×10 setup after all.
So Whites continued, we followed it and had a laugh doing so, with the flow helped by plenty of ‘bantz’ from the three of us. I haven’t laughed so much as I did this weekend for a long time, I don’t think the people I work with would recognise me!
We scampered, chased and hounded each other up and down hill until a final rest before the final descent gave us the chance to view the Afan valley from a lovely vantage point.
After that, I led the plunge downhill. I *think* I had things under control on the long drop down the valley, sadly delayed by a second dropped chain but otherwise flying. We were buzzing by the time we arrived back at the Visitor Centre.
I dropped the Five into Skyline Cycles who are based at the centre and explained my hub concerns. They did a great job of making it more noisy (!) and it turns out that it was basically a bit over-greased. I was delighted with the £12.50 charge which meant a) I hadn’t been ripped off and b) I knew the freehub was ok and could be removed easily if need be. And all done while I ate a slightly underwhelming lunch of a very literal sausage sandwich from the cafe. The coffee was very good though.
After lunch, a newly clicking Five and I decamped with Kev and Jem to the Afan Visitor centre from Glyncorrwg to tackle the Wall. This comes with some brutal climbing, some on fire-road and in the warmth of late afternoon and loaded with sausage and – in Jem’s case – a substantial amount of potato – it was bloody hard work. When you hear Kev say ‘just pull up for a breather up here in the shade’ in the middle of March you can imagine how warm it was.
The payoff is some lovely descents, with 373 and then the Graveyard being highlights. In truth I found Graveyard really started to show the limits of 26 inch wheels versus the larger 27.5 and 29er wheels Jem and Kev were running. We’d say arm-pump, the locals might call it vibration white finger, but I was feeling properly battered by the end of Graveyard. The Bike Park is now nicely bedded in since our last visit and we spent some time testing ourselves on the rollers and table tops (more mini-Woo!) which are huge fun.
I discovered I was out of water just before the final descent to the valley but didn’t have time to worry as another battering ensued down a very fast and rough Zig Zag descent. By the time we reached the bottom of the valley we were all pretty well-used and had to drag ourselves back the last couple of miles to the visitor centre having notched up 3,500 feet of climbing over 26 miles of riding for the day.
Kev still had a bit of driving to do as we headed off to Caerphilly for the slightly higher priced of the two Premier Inns available to us which got us off the main road and into Crossways Business Park. The staff were brilliant, letting us leave our bikes in their laundry room (not a euphemism) which was under lock and key for the night. We each had our own room with a Lenny Henry recommended bed, en-suite and TV/wifi which all felt very civilised to the three of us walking zombies. It also gave each of us the chance to have a hot bath and spend an hour and a half stretching our pains away with a number of yogic poses. Or falling asleep on the bed, each to their own!
The evening meal was in the adjacent Brewers Fayre which disappointingly didn’t show off Wales’ local fauna as effectively as I was hoping. I couldn’t even get a spotted dick (with custard) despite what was advertised, but we had an excellent evening refueling and scientifically carbo loading thanks to a Hobgoblin or two. Just one word of warning. 2:00am in a Premier Inn coincides with all three of us waking up in our respective rooms drenched in sweat from what is a very warm duvet on those beds! After a full breakfast we left Caerphilly for Cwm Carn with the Premier Inn very much on our approved list.
We were last at Cwm Carn on a very hot and humid Friday in July and the memory of the sweaty climb chasing Dandy’s Cafall trail finding will live with me forever. Consequently I decided that this time I wasn’t going to chase too hard as Kev and Jem pulled away from me in the first mile or two; this had nothing to do at all with the bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, two bacon slices, two poached eggs, one sausage, two hash browns and baked beans, a croissant and jam, two glasses of cranberry juice and two coffees that I’d had for breakfast… although that might have explained why I had to call for a time out shortly after to catch my breath!
Like the Wall, the Cafall trail has some brutal climbs through the first half, but unlike the Wall, they are more technical; more switchbacks and heavily wooded hillsides keep the cooling breezes at bay. It’s pretty hard work and relentless but not as technical and relentless as the climbs on the alternative Twrch trail (which incidentally will be suffering diversions soon as the Forestry Commission get into felling all the diseased Larch trees in the area). There’s another benefit in my view to riding Cafall – the descents are much better than the Twrch.
Whilst making our circuit of Cafall, we also bumped into a guy from MBR magazine who was out with a mate trying out the Sarma carbon rigid fatbike we saw at the Bike Show in London and with our mutual acquaintance being Pat from Ison Distribution we got chatting. They were very much enjoying the Sarma and as we bumped into them a couple of times, the smiles were getting broader as the descents accumulated. No question those fat bikes have a place on a wide range of trails.
Anyway, in our own way we too were appreciating our own bikes and the superbly put together descents of the Cafall. It’s one of my favourite Welsh MTB trails and as I burnt off some breakfast calories I felt better and better.
We finished with the splendidly rapid run back to the busy Cwm Carn carpark, with me following Kev as he hopped and skipped (some would say gambolled) in the spring sunshine back to base, a great way to finish 24 hours which had seen us notch up 36 miles and 5,500 feet of climbing.
I have to say that was a terrific weekend of great trails, great weather and the company of two very funny gents. Thanks Kev and Jem!
Lots of photos of our efforts can be found in our Wales trip March 2015 Flickr album.