Exploring North Wales with Hans Rey
Rocky singletrack is a characteristic of Snowdonia in northwestern Wales.
Hans Rey & Steve Thomas have been infrequently riding and working together since the early 1990s. This time around their trails aligned during midwinter in the forests and mountains of North Wales. Hans was midway through his UK talk tour, while Steve was on a rare visit back to his homeland, so they decided to spend some time together re-discovering the great riding and scenery of the Snowdonia region.
Lowly glowing and all silky smooth, the winter sun dazzled through the rising midday mist, just above the remote and forested Welsh ridgeline. This was a mere 400 meters away from a place that I had called home for a huge chunk of my life.
Only an hour earlier, we had been experiencing the kind of rainstorm that makes Wales so lushly green and also so very wet at times. The autumnal colors were in their last full blaze of annual glory, and through the collage of reds, golds and greens, it truly was picture-perfect.
I’d been away far too long, and things had changed some. I had only been back two or three times in the last dozen years. This is a place I had often referred to as one of the most spectacular places on planet dirt, and a place that comes with the epic riding to match—yet now it seemed even wilder, brighter, and blessed with more riding than ever before.
For most of my adult life, I’d done all I could to avoid the wrath of a full Welsh winter, although now I was just starting a threemonth stint of traveling around the region, spanning from autumn through the brief but punchy snows of mid-winter. I was now seeing things in a whole different light than before, a far more appreciative one.
When I say that there seemed to be more riding than ever, well, it’s true. I stood taking photos in a downhill bike park (Revolution Bike Park) on the opposite side of the valley from where I once lived. The park was built between the forests and quarries I used to ride through every day. Those two or three virgin trails only ever ridden by me had blossomed into a maze of world-class downhill runs.
The iconic water tower at Lake Vyrnwy in the Berwyn Mountains.
A few months or so before I left the country, the Atherton (downhill racing) family moved into our tiny two-pub and no-shop village. Although they had no part in the bike park’s evolution, their presence did create something of a stir among the downhill community, and many of the country’s and world’s top riders migrated to this once-secret haven of mine, seemingly in search of that brown gold that had given the Athertons such worldly success.
Fast-forward through that decade and things have moved on some (although I’m still riding the same 26-inch hardtail bike). The potential I always knew Wales had has seemingly been recognized globally, with riders from all over the world flocking here to ride these hallowed trails.
Bike parks were born in Wales, with the nearby Coed y Brenin Centre, and now they can be found all over the region, offering the opportunity to pin together an amazing week-long road trip of spectacular riding year round.
Most of these centers are forest-based, meaning that they lean towards great riding over great vistas. This is just as well, as having re-ridden a couple of these trails, the technical level has gone up a gear or three over the years, which is perfect—although I did find myself gagging for an extra shock at the rear and a little more front-end travel. Maybe I’m just getting old and soft.
Llyn Ogwen in Snowdonia is truly dramatic, especially when the peaks are snowcapped.
Over the last three decades, I’ve shot and written many magazine guides and books on the natural trails of Wales, which is why I have such a passion for the riding and scenery here. One such guide was also for the tourist board, and based on all-weather riding, for which much of the north is great (it has good slate and rock drainage), although my distaste for the wet stuffraised some eyebrows at the time. Now, after spending many years riding in places that become quagmires at the mere hint of a rain shower—well, I really do get it, in bucket loads.
During this extended stay, I renewed my vows with some very special trails, and they somehow seemed to mean much more than they ever did before. It can take a breakup to make you realize just what you’re missing, faults and all. I can hand-on-heart recommend that any mountain biker pay a visit to the bountiful north at some point; you will not regret it.
Be it man-made or natural, long and epic, or short and scary, the north of Wales has great riding for everybody, and it’s all very accessible once you’re on the ground. Oh, and don’t forget to look up when the going gets slack, as the views will blow your mind at times.
Sheep on a lonely hillside during winter.
The best gateway airport is Manchester, which is just 1 1/2 to 2 hours by road from the region, while Birmingham is around 30 minutes farther away, and London is around 4 to 5 hours away by road.
From there, the best option is to rent a car, as public transportation is sporadic here. Most major rental companies have outlets at the airports (book online beforehand), and you can expect to pay around GBP £15+ ($19) a day for a car.
Bikes and trains don’t always mix too well in the UK, and there are not many stations in this region, either. If you do decide to go on the rails, you must bag your bike and check out bike space availability in advance.
Gobowen or Chirk are the best rail gateways for the Berwyns and Llangollen. You’re into the mountains within about 10 kilometers (about 6.2 miles) and 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from their heart. There are also trains running along the west coast, and a line offshoot to Betws-y-Coed (a village in the Conwy Valley).
For details, check out www.nationalrail.co.uk.
Sheep are a definitive feature of Wales, hiding in the bracken during early winter.
WHEN TO GO
The weather in Wales can be pretty fickle to say the least. By far the best time to visit and ride is between April and October, although it can rain at any time.
Springtime (April to May) sees varying wildflowers, and the Welsh daffodils are also briefly in bloom, while October/November is simply amazing for autumnal colors.
That said, I just spent the winter here, and on good days it’s truly spectacular, although you do need to be prepared to factor in some horribly rainy days. Even in winter, the trails are great for riding, as there’s a slate base to many, and, of course, they are less crowded.
Bank holiday weekends (Easter, the first and last weekend in May, and the last weekend in August) are crazy times for travel and rooming in the UK. Avoid them, and go midweek for the best road conditions and room rates.
The Revolution Bike Park is a virtual maze of slate based trails.
EAT, SLEEP, DRINK
The GBP (British pound sterling) is in turmoil right now (thanks to Brexit), so expect to pay a little less than at home for rooms and consumables in the UK, although in the more remote areas of Wales (such as the Berwyns), things will be much cheaper, while in Snowdonia and on the coast they will be slightly more.
There is a distinct shortage of lodging options in the central area of the Berwyn’s, too, as so few people visit. There are many small pubs and B&Bs dotted around, and the best areas to stay are Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, Llangynog, Glyn Ceiriog, and the well-facilitated lakeside towns of Bala, which also has a number of bunk houses and campsites.
Descending at the Revolution Bike Park, Llangynog.
Llangollen also makes for a good base. It’s quite touristy and has many lodging and eating options. Llanberis, Betws y Coed and the coastal towns all have loads of options.
Camping is also a great choice during the summer. There are some great sites with amazing views and facilities, and they cost around £6–15 per night. There are plenty of outdoor shops in Betws y Coed where you can pick up a budget tent and gear.
The entire north of Wales is littered with old slate- and lead-mining structures.
Beics Betws can be found in Betws y Coed (www.bikewales.co.uk), while there are also smaller shops at trail centers where you can get most spares you’ll need and often also rent bikes.
Sunset over Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.
THE WELSH TONGUE
The Welsh language has almost nothing in common with English, and is widely used and also now heavily taught as a first language in schools. Most road signs have place names in both Welsh and English, but everybody speaks English (except when they choose not to).
Winter colors on the trail between Capel Curig and Llyn Ogwen in Snowdonia.
WHERE TO RIDE: THE MAIN TRAIL CENTERS
Coed y Brenin (Dolgellau): The original and still one of the best. Loads of forest-based trails and good trail-center facilities (www.beicsbrenin.co.uk)
DyfiBike Park/Trails: There’s some epic riding to be found in the hills and forests around Machynlleth (famed for the Red Bull Hardline event). The XC trails are spread around the area (www.dyfimountainbiking.org.uk), while Dan Atherton is also building a downhill bike park (www.dyfibikepark.co.uk)
Llandegla: Some sweet trails to the north of Llangollen (www.oneplanetadventure.com)
Antur Stiniog: Downhill oriented and based around the old Blaneau Festiniog slate mines (www.anturstiniog.com)
Revolution Bike Park (Llangynog): Open weekends. Downhill oriented with uplifts. Some trails can be ridden on longer-travel XC bikes (www.revolutionbikepark.co.uk)
Wales is renowned for the rain. Luckily, the trails are exceptionally well-drained, making for great year-round riding.
NATURAL TRAIL HOT SPOTS
There are loads of great natural trails to be found all over North Wales; you just need to be aware of the rights-of-way legalities (and to get hold of local OS Landranger maps or use the OS app).
You can ride on white roads, BOATs (Byways Open to All Traffic), bridleways (horse paths) and permissive bridleways—of which there are many—but you cannot ride on public footpaths. Trails are usually well-marked, but do be aware of the regulations, as access can be a sensitive issue. That said, it looks as though Wales will now be starting to open up many more trails and footpaths for general use, which will be awesome.
Climbing on a well-surfaced trail towards Beddgelert, which has hosted many national series races over the years.
Snowdon Mountain is a classic ride that most visitors wish to scrub off the bucket list, but please note that it involves a very long bike push or carry and a really technical downhill. Even though it has a number of bridleways on its slopes, they can be very busy with walkers, so a voluntary ban on riding here is in place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between May 1st and September 30th.
Head into the Berwyns (northeast), the Clwydians (far north) or out of Machynlleth for more open riding and great scenery, too.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION
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