Remains the past, present and future of UK trail centres.
Coed y Brenin, the original trail centre, is the newest enduro hotspot south of the Tweed Valley. Nothing ever stands still here – that’s why we love it!
Coed y Brenin: the trail guide
- The Foundry skills area
- GREEN – Yr Afon 10.8km, 1-3 hours
- Blue – MinorTaur 8km, 0.5-1.5 hours
- Red – Cyflym Coch 11.2km, 1.5-3 hours
- Red – Temtiwr 8.7km, 0.5-1 hours
- Red – Dragon’s Back 31.1km, 3-5 hours
- Black -Tarw Du 20.2km, 1.5-3 hours
- Black – mbr 18.4km, 1.5-3 hours
- Black – Beast of Brenin 38.2km, 3 hours
Sleeping and eating
We stayed at Old Skool MTB Accommodation, offering B&B for £40 a night or fully catered weekend packages for groups at £135 per person, oldskool-mtb.co.uk
Eat at the Coed y Brenin visitor’s centre or The Grapes Hotel, a 17th-century pub 10 minutes north of the trails, grapeshotelsnowdonia.co.uk
Fixing your bike
Get work done at Beics Brenin, or rent out a Trek Remedy for £75 (hardtails £25, kids’ bikes £10), beicsbrenin.co.uk
What to ride
Coed y Brenin is rough — a hardtail is fine but we were happier on a full-susser. Fast-rolling tyres with shallow lugs are a good option for keeping up speed, just put some decent pressure in there to protect the sidewalls of your tyres.
Best of the rest
Nearby is Antur Stiniog bike park and uplift, or there’s tons of natural riding in the area: try riding Snowdon or Cadair Idris. On the way in you might also have passed close to Coed Llandegla trail centre. Alternatively, for a great natural option, check out the Pont Scethin route.
Coed-y-Brenin, North Wales trail centre guide
Article originally appeared in MBR May 2015
The crushed stone has gone, worn away by over a million wheels or washed down the mountainside by dozens of winter storms. The rocks have cracked and tumbled too, churned by seasons of ice and sun into a technical nightmare. The trees haven’t been idle either, growing from clear-felled wasteland to dark young things dragging moss and fern with them, blocking the light and the sightlines we’d relied on to find this particular corner.
In the 13 years since our own mbr trail at Coed y Brenin was opened, since we shot the first pictures on film here, the level of change to this iconic Welsh trail centre is nothing short of astonishing. It’s easy to think of this kind of armoured, man-made trail as unchanging, but nothing could be further from the truth at this, the UK’s oldest trail centre.
The old cafe is long gone. The new one has just had its rotten wood veranda lopped off like some kind of diseased bow. The trails have been rerouted dozens of times, while new ones sprout from the rock like so much bracken. An enormous new skills complex has appeared and there are plans to radically change the face of riding here, as early as next spring. If the mountains weren’t made from granite they’d probably change them too.
Then and now
That one corner of the mbr loop then, the one which first appeared in mbr magazine some three months after the new trail was opened, takes some finding. It looks nothing like the original, something I was expecting — but I can’t hide my surprise at just how different it is.
It’s like looking through old yellowed photos of people or places, a now and then of mountain biking in the UK. The picture shows former mbr editor John Kitchiner, the height of sartorial elegance in Lycra shorts, riding a Specialized Stumpjumper with the latest and greatest SID forks, Mavic wheels, the mighty Moel Hafodowen in the background.
The trail looks smooth and easy. Today it is dark and close, a technical attack on the rider with shards of ice hiding any remaining dirt and grip. It’s brilliant, closer to riding nearby Snowdon or Cadar Idris than any trail centre.
All the trails here have been changed, either by man-made interference or nature, since Coed y Brenin first became a riding destination in the early 90s. It’s no exaggeration to say that trail centres were invented here at Coed y Brenin, built by the hard work and determination of Dafydd Davis and the local riders.
Working behind the backs of the Forestry Commission, then with the grudging approval of the powers that be when the new trails started pulling in riders and money to the local area, Daffydd Davis began the trail centre concept right here.
The early trails were built with no funds, by volunteers shaping the singletrack by hand and stringing them together with old tracks and sometimes even footpaths. “Fire road is the legacy of building a trail centre on no money,” says Andy Braund, current mountain bike ranger for North Wales, who’s showing us round the trail.
There are great bits of singletrack on the old trails, he says. “Coed y Brenin is like a listed building — we’ve got to preserve the old sections and build new ones.Take the Adam and Eve section we added to the old mbr trail. It’s a flow trail and it looks out of place with everything else here — no rocks and tabletops. So it was taking a risk, but we had to modernise… and the reception to it has been great.”
Nothing here was ever easy. The build-up to the grand opening was beset by problems — there was no money to get the project off the ground, then no way to take the trail under the daunting A470 that bisects the forest. But a way was found.
An old, unofficial trail called the Pink Heifer (the official Coed y Brenin trail was then known as the Red Bull) was reworked and became the new mbr trail, complete with bone-jarring rocks armouring the ground for 20km, waymarkers and a tacky giant suspension fork to cycle under as you began.
We’ve returned to Coed y Brenin then, to see where the next decade of development will take the trail centre that started it all. Towards trail runners, it would seem — the centre now has the UK’s first waymarked running trail, complete with singletrack and, presumably, route map. In a strange twist, those running tracks are appealing to riders as another, softer and less armoured trail to ride, while riders have also come across runners on the mountain bike trails.
Passing under the famous forks, we’ve also recruited local riders Sian and Dafydd Roberts to show us round. The couple ran the original trail centre cafe before it was relocated to its current position, and they now run a nearby biking lodge called Old Skool MTB Accommodation, where they host weekends for big groups of riders. The building is a converted school house, the kind of place you could imagine Kevin McCloud padding round and marvelling at the fusion of new oak, glass and old stone.
“We basically built the place off the back of Coed y Brenin,” Sian says. “We only take in mountain bikers because they’re like us, and they’re a lot more fun.”
The couple began with a more modest bunkhouse in the local town of Dolgellau, offering B&B to groups of riders coming to the trails. “Nobody really understood mountain biking then. The other places wouldn’t take all-male groups so we got all the business. But mountain bikers just want to eat and fall asleep in the evening. And maybe get drunk.”
Transforming the area
Slowly though, businesses emerged and adapted. Sian and Dafydd developed their schoolhouse, and every kind of outdoor accommodation cropped up in the town.
Google says that there are bunkhouses, pine cabins, converted mills, 16th century farmhouses, big hotels, small inns, the list goes on, all vying to attract the outdoor trade. From bike shops to restaurants, the area relies on Coed y Brenin to draw in business from across the UK. Dolgellau is about to get £1.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the twisty, slow A470 up through Snowdonia has been upgraded over the past year to improve access to the area.
And they come for the trails, of course. Probably the most beautiful and varied trails in Britain. The first section of our ride is up the mbr trail, on a section that Sian and Dafydd remember as the final descent back in the day. It was rerouted many years ago to add a fast, rollercoaster finish.
The climb now is rocky and fairly uncomfortable but it has been re-armoured to cope with the traffic — 21,000 sets of wheels last year on the climb for the mbr, Beast, Dragon’s Back and Temtiwr trails, according to ranger Andy. The singletrack climb looks down on the newest trail here, the Minotaur, which opened in 2011 after five years in the planning and is already clocking up more riders than the former trails combined — 29,000 rides in 2014.
“Coed y Brenin needed something for beginners to ride,” Andy explains. The blue-graded MinoTaur added a smooth, short loop that beginners and four-wheeled bikes can access. “Before then we struggled because there was nothing easy for the kids to ride here in the school holidays. It has really opened up Coed y Brenin, but we’ve got more to build. We want to add about 5km as an extension to the trail, building in loops so people can ride as much or as little as they can handle.”
Big loops of berms stretch out below us in a clearing that looks like it’s been savagely felled — a view that’s become all too familiar for riders in South Wales in recent times. Afan had to fell much of its tree cover to combat a fungus-like pathogen mulching its way through the forest. But not here, says Andy, where storm damage and boggy ground ripped through the grove before work began.
Old and new
Back on the mbr trail, and after the first singletrack climb on a section called Pinderosa, the route takes on a whole lot more climbing, on old doubletrack. It’s not the most inspiring piece of trail but it’s not taxing, and it does feel pretty natural as the seams of bedrock push their way to the surface.
After we find ‘our corner’ we ride the new Adam and Eve section, modern in style and running right alongside the original and now largely disused singletrack descent.
The old trail looks great to ride, slick rocks buried in dirt rather than the armoured stuff we’ve been on all day. Andy says people mostly use it as a push-up but you can still ride it — I’d be sorely tempted to ride the old and then push back up and ride the new next time I visit.
Riding with the ranger does have some advantages, although I feel bad every time I lock up my back wheel… or suggest an uplift from fellow ranger Iori, who we bump into half way round. Iori is a legend here.
“Our local hillbilly,” Andy says. He’s the man who mass-starts the Coed y Brenin Enduro by firing a double barrelled shotgun into the air, the man who shaves his hair off once a year (but never his two-foot-long beard), the animal ranger for the forest park. He might be speaking Welsh, it might be English, I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Still, it’s enough to know there are still people like him working the forest.
Andy Braund is no slouch at working here either. He’s got big plans for The Beast Trail, a massive 38km route that takes in the mbr trail and extra bits too. We duck onto a descent from the Beast, easily accessed if you’ve got the local knowledge. (Want the cut-through?
Look at the trail centre map for the Beast and cut from point 73 on the mbr, down a fire road to point 127. Just don’t say we told you so.) The Beast is plagued by fire road, forcing you to crawl up the mountains away from the centre and then fly back down again, in some places on more fire road.
Andy wants to cut in a singletrack climb up to the summit and build a 360-degree shelter at the top. “We’ll see how long that’ll last in the Welsh weather,” he says. “There used to be a foresters’ hut, but all that’s left is the door.” From there he’ll also put in singletrack down to the old, fun section called Gomez.
Back on the mbr trail and we roll down the Beginning of the End section, which of course takes us to the end of the trail. It’s not the end of the Coed y Brenin experience though, as the last corner sweeps us down a rooty chute and under a wooden bridge. We double back and cross it into the Foundry skills area.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a skills zone as elaborate as this one, nor as fitting as a training ground for the trails here. From the rocky steps and drops of the black skills runs to the flowy and smooth tabletop line, you really do get a taster of things to come.
It’s not come cheap though — the trails cost something like £200,000 and the maintenance here must be constant. Together with the MinoTaur it represents around half a million pounds of EU investment. The bridge itself cost £20,000 — that’s extravagant given the entrance could have come straight off the fire road above without the need for a bridge at all, but the result is an amazing entrance to a skills area that every other trail centre would die for.
Andy isn’t done yet, either. We follow him in the van up a fire road on the other side of the A470 to the ancient side of the centre and the Tawr Du, the UK’s first trail centre route. The trail counters don’t lie, and they show Andy that fewer riders are tackling the old stuff, preferring the newer routes over the road. It’s understandable really — there’s great singletrack here, close in, rocky and natural-looking, but you have to tackle plenty of fire road to get to it.
The plan is to redevelop this side of the forest and create more natural-feeling trails for gravity enduro riding and events. Mud, roots, steeps, the stuff modern riders really want to see. It’s an ambitious plan, catering for hardcore mountain bikers rather than newer recruits. But Andy insists that the blue and red trail will remain and leave something here for everyone.
“We’ve already got the forest divided by the A470, so we can just close one side of it,” he says. “It makes complete sense to develop the old Red Bull side. We want to put in trails for enduro stages and make it more accessible for racing. And who knows, we might even put in some downhill tracks — the hill is big enough.
“It’s like slab city up here, so we can add rock rolls and steep chutes like at Dalbeattie. I want to put in the step-down too. “
So the pace of change is about to hot up once more. Funding has been applied for, and we should see something emerge by spring 2016. The little valley in north Wales that brought us the first trail centre and developed the first full-sized skills area, is about to bring us the first dedicated enduro stage trails in the UK.
The revolution started by Daffyd Davis continues to evolve. Time waits for no one — and Coed y Brenin remains the past, present and future of UK trail centres.