Blurs the lines between downhill and trail riding

Antur Stiniog blurs the lines between downhill and trail riding. Wales’s newest bike park boasts the promise of 25 uplifts a day on six different trails.

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Antur Stiniog: the trail guide

  • Y Du – Double Black – Flow gives way to steep rock rolling gnar
  • Black Powder – Black – Less intense but with jumps and rocks
  • Bendy-G – Black – Unsurfaced, natural, bendy, unpredictable when wet
  • Wild Cart – Red – Steep but fun
  • Scrubadub – Red – In a word: jumps
  • Drafft – Red – A toned down Wild Cart
  • Jympar – Blue – Smoother, sweeping turns, flowy trail bike fodder
antur stiniog

Getting ready to be uplifted

Visitor centre

Fully equipped with showers, changing rooms and a café. Address: Antur ‘Stiniog Downhill Centre, Ceudyllau Llechwedd, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd LL41 3NB

Uplifts run from 10am-4pm and a pass is £29.00 midweek and £32.50 at the weekends. On-the-day bookings are possible but they aren’t guaranteed and it’s always advisable to reserve your spot well in advance.

Sleeping and eating

Blaneau Ffestiniog and the surrounding area is packed with B&Bs so finding a place to lay your head shouldn’t be a problem.

Fixing your bike

The visitor centre stocks essentials but it’s well worth taking a selection of spares; mech hangers, tubes and even tyres are worth having to hand, along with a basic toolbox.

What bike to ride

A full suspension trail bike with 140mm of travel is fine for the majority of the trails. More importantly, fit sticky tyres with a thick carcass — slate is very slippy when wet and you don’t want a flat tyre spoiling your fun. Don’t be shy of strapping pads or armour on, because rock hurts and if you’re doing things right you’ll have at least one close shave. A full-face helmet is mandatory on the black runs and advisable for everything else.

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Antur Stiniog, North Wales trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR November 2015 | Words and photos: Sim Mainey

There’s no easy way to say it so I’ll just get straight to the point: I’d lost my balls.

A few stupid crashes, mostly involving pulling the right-hand chicken stick when I shouldn’t, had seen me retreating deep into my comfort zone and becoming reacquainted with my riding demons. Rather than taking on anything new or challenging I was sticking to familiar trails with their tried and trusted lines, playing it safe.

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Wales and sunshine: not mutually exclusive after all

Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t like I was some kind of freeride god before all of this, but I definitely felt my ability to get my head around technical downhills had taken a bit of a battering, along with my ego, and I wasn’t happy about it.

They say the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. After getting back from one particular ride where I just couldn’t get down the hill without clenching my right hand involuntarily, I’d had enough. I knew there was something wrong, and I knew I had to tackle it head on.

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Not all red routes are created equal

Going up

Despite admitting to myself I had a problem, I didn’t want to go as far as admitting it to anyone else. So, while going on a skills course with an instructor would be an obvious first step back to ball-ownership, I thought I’d try and sort my head out with some self-medication. I decided I needed a day of riding unfamiliar trails, the kind that would force me to face my weaknesses and leave nowhere to hide. I needed to book myself onto an uplift.

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A bermed lip offers extra bite on the corners

With five trails of varying difficulty all accessible by a van uplift, Antur Stiniog seemed to be the perfect place to tackle some personal demons. To give me a bit more of an edge, or rather confidence, I packed a full-face helmet, plenty of body armour and a long-travel bike I’d borrowed from a friend. I also brought Dan, mostly because I needed someone to egg me on/pick me up off the floor, depending on how it went.

Antur Stiniog’s visitor centre sits above the town of Blaneau Ffestiniog in North Wales. Despite being slap-bang in the middle of the Snowdonia National Park, the town and the surrounding area aren’t part of it. It’s possible that the officers at the National Parks committee decided that gutted mountains with their slate entrails sprawled across the valley weren’t quite in keeping with typical ideas of beauty and conservation. But though the mining-ravaged landscape appears quite brutal, the rugged mountains transformed into heaps of slate, it’s actually quite beautiful in its own apocalyptic way.

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Breaking through the wall of fear

Trail centres are sometimes seen as an easy option. You have to really try to properly scare yourself, the trails are consistent in all weather conditions, and you can get round them on any old bike. But Antur Stiniog really isn’t like that at all. For a start, Antur is more like a bike park than a trail centre, and the gradings are adjusted accordingly. The blue trail is certainly the easiest, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated with respect. If you are a trail centre stalwart then proceed with caution — you might need to adjust your expectations.

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Slate-strewn Antur Stiniog is the grit in Snowdonia’s pearl

The wind is whipping harshly into our faces as we pull our bikes from the trailer. Behind us, people in red jumpsuits and white helmets clip into harnesses and disappear, screaming, down a zip wire that stretches across the valley and down to a point hidden away among the piles of slate. Seems this is the place to get your kicks, bike-related or otherwise.

Being sensible folk (mostly), Dan and I decide to warm up with the blue trail, stretching out muscles that are stiff from the drive and giving me a chance to get acquainted with my borrowed bike. But what follows is not pretty as we wobble, skid and generally make a mess of getting down the hill. We figure that having got one horrendous run out of the way we can find our groove and start riding like people who actually know what they’re doing. We lash the bikes to the trailer and hop back in the van.

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Push your limits without having to push your bike

First cut

Hsssssssssss. Yup, that’s definitely a puncture.

We stand and stare impotently at Dan’s tyre as it burbles white sealant onto the trail, both of us hoping it will somehow heal itself, like tubeless tyres are supposed to. That is until we see that the new-that-day tyre has been sliced open by Welsh slate in two places. We’re a third of the way through the descent and, being downhillers for the day, neither of us is riding with any spares, so it’s a roll back down to the car park on the rim to see what can be done.

This is one of the occasions where not having mega-long runs is a definite plus — even with a flat rear tyre it doesn’t take too long to drop back down to the car and wrestle an inner tube into place. The uplift van comes and goes as we faff around with rubber and pumps. Rather than sit around twiddling our latex-covered thumbs waiting for the next uplift we spend 15 minutes playing on the jump line that they’ve managed to squeeze between the visitor centre and the road.

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Air time isn’t mandatory but it is recommended

Stood back at the top of the hill, I take a few moments looking at the other riders and bikes we’re sharing the mountain with. A box-fresh downhill bike sits next to an old hardtail complete with frame bag and what are probably its original tyres, now quite bald. Troy Lee full-facers jostle next to battered peakless helmets that probably should have been retired a long time ago. It’s fair to say there’s a real mix of kit and abilities here today. The majority of bikes are 140mm full-suspension bikes with riders, much like me, clad in unfamiliar levels of padding and protection to push their limits a little.

The downhill bikes all head towards the black run, which starts next to a sign that reads ‘Red Bull Personal Best.’ The idea is that you time yourself on this run and then compare yourself to the likes of Gee and Rachel Atherton. I’m not ready for that level of demotivation quite yet, so we decide to take on the red trail instead.

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Flowing descents allow the old skills to bloom again

Hard rock

After the smooth, twisty flow of the blue, the red is a bit of a shock. The trail cuts through the grassy side of the hill and then straight across, or down, sections of wet, raw rock. There are enough sharp edges and awkward gaps to take your front wheel where you’d rather it didn’t go and put holes in your tyres.

Dan is now riding with a definite lightness, the fear of another puncture playing heavily on his mind. I’m starting to get warmed up — the bike feels more familiar, I now know how much grip to expect from the tyres and trail, and I’m beginning to enjoy myself. For a moment I’m in that magical zone where things just happen, seemingly without my input. The bike and I go exactly where we need to go, everything is effortless and speed just comes. I loft the front wheel over a rock section with my eyes on the next corner when I get a sensory kick back into reality. The front wheel has cleared the rocks but the rear has made contact with the wet slate and stepped a foot sideways. Adrenaline kicks in as the bike slews sideways mid-air. I instinctively grab the back brake, which makes things worse on landing. I’m on for a real tank slapper. Somehow, the part of my brain that was once used to help fight off lions and other prehistoric threats does a good job of stepping in. Accumulated knowledge and instinct see me through the danger. This is what I came here for. I got myself into trouble, I scared myself and I dealt with it. I can do this stuff.

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The Spectre lurks as the last run approaches

It’s the final uplift of the day and I can tell I’m sharing the van with the Spectre of the Last Run. To even acknowledge its presence is a guaranteed way of ruining the day — it means an almost certain crash or terminal mechanical. Never make eye contact with the Spectre of the Last Run.

In truth I’ve probably pushed my luck for today already. New trails on an unfamiliar bike were always going to be a gamble, but we’ve both survived so far. I’m determined to make this run down in one piece — mostly because there’s no way I’m letting Dan drive my car back home.

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The panoramic sweep of the valley inspires a full-throttle attack

Despite my earlier adrenaline hit, I’m now riding more cautiously than I’d like. My arms are getting tired and I’m overthinking things. Time to back off slightly and get down the hill; the Spectre is hanging on my back wheel along with my demons and I’m trying to shake them both. There’s a sense of relief as I hit the last corner, bike and body intact, but also a bit of disappointment that I can’t go back up for another go. I’ve spotted a line I’d like to try… but it’s probably for the best that I can’t.

My trip to Antur Stiniog hasn’t shaken all my demons from my back wheel but it’s been the perfect first step on the trail to recovery. It’s also been a lot of fun, and that’s half the battle. If you’ve become a bit jaded, a little wary of pushing yourself or just need a bit of a quick adrenaline fix, then Antur Stiniog is the place to get yourself back in the game.

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Riding light is a big ask when the trail gets rocky

>>> Another new uplift for North Wales: Nant Gwrtheyrn

The Antur Stiniog story

By Danny Milner

It looks as though the skin of the mountain has been peeled off, exposing the black and grey sinews of slate that lie just below the thin scrapings of topsoil.

Water trickles from every exposed gash in the hillside and the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia steams as the exposed layers of slate spoil — testament to the town’s history of industry — warms up in the weak September sun.

The mines and quarries in this North Wales town are things of the past, but above us a new industry has been hewn from the rock.

The place is loaded with expectation. Wales’s newest bike park boasts four trails and the promise of 25 uplifts a day (although the website modestly says 15). Usually we like to earn our descents, but when offered the chance to get all the gain of a speedy descent with none of the pain of ascent we’re hooked.

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The new bike park sits above the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog (pronounced Bligh-now Fess-tin-eog), the centre of what was once the biggest slate mine in the world. It’s like looking into a history of industry, broken slate lying in mounds the size of small hills. When the old industry disappeared, the town was left with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

But if this is a story of decline, the local community was having none of it. They decided to fill the void with a mountain bike centre — an ambitious project, with four trails now open to ride, and plenty more in the planning including an eight-mile XC loop, pump track, jump trail and visitor centre.

The uplift

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In the uplift van we see the jumps and drops at the tail end of the black trails as the shuttle speeds us up the hill: they look big, fast and fun. It takes just 10 minutes to reach the top.

At the drop-off point, we have four colourful choices: two red trails, a black downhill run and a double-black track. All are surfaced with small gravel sized chunks of local stone, compacted to make smooth and fast-draining trails.

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Step off the track and as you slowly sink into the bog it dawns on you just why it’s surfaced this way. Photographer Roo plonks his bike down to take some shots and when he turns back to it the Alpine is being slowly sucked under.

The easier red trails swoop you down the hill in a series of brilliant little berms that keep your speed through the turns beautifully. The trail throws in the occasional rock garden or rocky slab — slippery as an eel and just as repellent — to mix in with the smooth-rolling trail and keep you on your toes.

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The more technical red has tabletops and drops thrown in for good measure, and starts with a steep chute and a couple of steeper corners to really test the mettle.

Everything is rollable but as you get faster throughout the day you can start getting your wheels off the ground. It’s a blast, you couldn’t get to the bottom of the trail without a grin like the Cheshire Cat.

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This is a challenging place to ride, but a modern trail bike is more than capable of tackling 75 per cent of the trails, says Adrian ‘Bud’ Bradley, who runs the DH centre here. “The uptake has been better than we ever thought, and the feedback has been fantastic too. Everyone who rides here seems to love it, from kids to 50 year olds.”

The downhill trails are harder. The double black is best ridden on a DH bike with super tacky tyres, as it’s very steep and traction is limited.

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The other, easier black option is fine on a trail bike though — just make sure you take it easy on your first run or it’ll come back to bite you. The jumps are bigger and the trails steeper, but if you’re a skilful rider it’s fast and adrenaline packed. The rocks are still slippery, but with less gradient to the trail you can afford to let them off and keep your traction.

Paradigm shift

Ten years ago, a venue of this size dedicated to uplift-assisted riding would have died on its arse. There just weren’t enough downhill riders within two hours drive of Blaenau Ffestiniog to make it work. Today, with an increase in skill levels from most trail riders and the competence of new trail bikes, Antur Stiniog is an exciting development for trail riders. You can’t help but boost their skills over the course of 25-odd runs.

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The project owes its existence to a £1.5million grant from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), and it already looks like money well spent — the town is bustling with people when we drive through. When mbr last visited five years ago, it seemed like a ghost town. It’s smartening up too, with a town centre development and slate monuments to the past.

Bud is delighted with the initial response. “We’ve been open since July [2012] and up until yesterday [mid-September] we had 1,400 cyclists using our service,” he says. “And to think we’ve only got half of what we’re going to have up and running!”

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Downhillers coming here looking to get themselves up to speed for racing will ultimately be disappointed: the trails are too well groomed for that.

But for the rest of us, Antur Stiniog has just returned North Wales to the map as a proper, multi-day riding destination. This place is going to be huge.