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. This is the most exciting trail development in Wales for years: Antur Stiniog.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 21 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!”
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 — get there before the rush.
Need to know
Uplift: 10am-4pm, Thursday-Sunday. £26.
What to ride: Most trails are fine on a trail bike. Super tacky tyres are a must though as the rock is very slippery when it’s wet (it always is).
What to wear: If you’ve got a full face helmet, wear it. Kneepads and elbows are probably a good idea too as it’s rocky.
How to get there: Antur is on the A470 just north of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. From southern England take the M54 then A5 around Shrewsbury. From the north take the M56 then A494.
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of MBR.