Afan for life

Mix of groomed and natural trails that lie deep within the Afan Forest offer a full weekend of riding for enthusiasts – or a lifetime for the adventurous.

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Afan Forest, South Wales trail centre guide

  • Green: Rookie Trail 5.5km, 30min
  • Blue: Blue Scar 7km, 1-1.5hr
  • Red: Blade 24km, 2.5-3.5hr
  • Red: Skyline 46km, 6hr
  • Red: White’s Level 17km, 1.5-3hr
  • Red: Y Wâl 23km, 2-3.5hr
  • Red: Penhydd 14km, 1.5-3hr
  • Black: W2 44km, 6-7hr
  • Black: Afan Bike Park 0.5k

Getting there

Afan Forest Park Visitor Centre is 15 minutes drive from junction 40 of the M4, just outside Port Talbot. Parking is a £1 per day, which makes it one of the biggest bargains in mountain biking.

Sleeping and eating

Afan Lodge is less than a mile up the road from the Afan visitor centre and is outfitted with mountain bikers in mind. A good bar, with food that ranges from the basic and filling to gourmet, and spacious rooms make it a popular haunt for visiting riders, Bryn Bettws Lodge is off the beaten track but its proximity to the trails, in particular the Bike Park, mean that it’s a hidden gem,

Fixing your bike

Afan Bike Shed is located in the visitor centre. As well as the usual spares and repairs it can also guide you on some of the lesser-known trails in the Afan area,

What bike to ride

With such a enticing spread of varied trails on offer you’ll want to ride something that can take the rough with the smooth. A 140-160mm trail bike is perfect for the majority of trails, and really lets you make the most of the red and black trails in particular. Tubeless tyres are recommended — there are plenty of sharp rocks lurking on those trails.

Pick of the trails

Each trail has its own highlight so it’s hard to pick just one. But, Y Wâl is one of the defining Afan trails, offering a lot of variety along its 23km length.

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Afan Forest, South Wales trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR October 2016 | Words & photos: Sim Mainey

If you were to choose one place to chart the history of mountain biking in the UK, Afan Forest in South Wales would be a good place to do it. Afan may not have been the first trail centre, but it’s arguably the one that has seen the greatest number of changes over the years. These changes, or in some cases the lack of them, provide an insight into the evolution and development of trails, bikes and ultimately riders, giving a clear view of where we’ve come from and a hint as to where we’re going.

I’ve come to Afan to meet up with someone who knows the trails here better than most — Rowan Sorrell. Now owner of trail-building outfit Back On Track, Rowan’s trail building career started and developed here in these valleys. From fixing ditches to creating trails, Rowan has certainly left his mark on the forest.

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Rowan Sorrell: trail-building supremo and trail-riding badass

Despite a heatwave toasting most of the country, the valleys of South Wales are playing to type today, and shrouding themselves in cloud, squalls of rain ensuring the potential for dust is kept at bay.

A quick look at the maps in the visitor centre car park is all that’s needed to realise that Afan is a monster. The combination of the trails here at Afan, and those down the road at Glyncorrwyg, add up to somewhere in the region of 155km, easily enough for three days of solid riding. Don’t come here expecting to polish off the lot in a weekend, let alone a day. With so much trail, and a limited amount of time, Rowan has an idea for piecing together some of the sections that have come to define recent eras in mountain bike history, and best show the evolution of Afan — the advantage of riding with someone who knows the trails inside out.

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Mist opportunity: wet Wales is a dust-free zone today

As has been said many a time, the UK pioneered the trail centre idea, but being a pioneer isn’t easy — it usually means you’re the first to make mistakes. When the first trails were built here, the leading trail building resource was IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association). Its trail building guides and recommendations were used as the foundation for a lot of the work at Afan, guiding everything from materials to gradients and cambers. With a smooth, hardpack surface and a mellow gradient, the trails were a perfect match for the 100mm-travel hardtails and 1.9inch tyres that were de rigueur at the time.

Those same trails, with their shallow gradients and smooth surfaces, have eroded, and are now hard work to ride — rough but without enough of a downhill drop to allow you to freewheel.

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It looks like a horror movie but rides like a dream

To a degree these early trails were experimental. With few existing trail centres to act as a guide, there were plenty of question marks over how the trails would stand up long-term to weather, use, and riding fashion. With the knowledge gained over time, new trails are built with a steeper gradient, allowing them to remain fun when the fresh, fine-graded rock has been washed away, and wear and tear have taken their toll. A trail builder like Rowan has to be part visionary and part pragmatist, knowing the trail will likely not be maintained to the same standard it was built to. It has to be designed to work even after years of use and abuse. A degraded trail isn’t always a bad thing though, and what can start off feeling quite artificial can wear in nicely and give a more natural experience. Often this can be the plan from the outset, using time, rather than shovels, to add the final finishing touches.

Moving with the times

As well as helping to future-proof the trails, steeper gradients and more challenging features match what riders are looking for and what bikes are now capable of. Trail centres, more than anywhere, should surely reflect what people want to ride now, and what people want now is a place to exploit their long-travel trail bikes. The grim weather means Rowan and I have the trails to ourselves, but the few riders we do meet are all on long-travel trail bikes; we don’t see a single hardtail. These step changes in desires and abilities can be seen in the trails, from the green route looking to encourage kids into the sport, through to the black trails looking to push riders forward. Each change leaves behind a legacy, some of which survive, while others are swallowed up and disappear, or are altered to suit the current zeitgeist.

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Rowan gets up to speed with all the latest developments

As much as the trails here show various epochs of off-road riding, they also show the styles of various trail-builders. Russ Burton, Hugh Clixby and Rowan have all had a part in the trail network here over the years, each bringing their own style and character to bear. This could, one would think, lead to quite disparate and clashing styles of trail, but Rowan says that’s not the case. While each builder will have their trademark style, Rowan says he was keen to keep to a theme started by Russ, and rather than replace it, to complement it and to adapt it with what he’d learnt from the earlier trails. The descent to the Glyncorrwyg centre, he says, is a modern nod to some of the first trails built there. The responsibility of history and needs of the present guiding the outcome.
Interestingly, thanks to the way public sector contracts are handled, just because one party designed a trail, doesn’t mean they actually built it, making a lot of these trails more of a collaborative effort than you might think.

Rowan started his trail-building days here with hand tools and a loaned forestry van, rattling round fire roads scratching out new lines and maintaining the existing trail network, filling muddy patches with rocks and learning a lot about the effects of water and tyres on a trail.

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Scenic switchbacks are enough to turn any rider into Afan

Afan has helped provide the platform and schoolroom for professional trail-builders like Rowan, but also for those looking to build trails in their local woods. Trail centres like Afan showed what could be achieved to a new breed of trail digger, providing inspiration and some know-how. The result is that the forests in this valley, and all along the south coast of Wales, are teeming with home-grown trails with more being built weekly. “I could take two months off work, and even if I rode every day, I still wouldn’t be able to tick off all the unofficial trails in this valley,” says Rowan. Even if a lot of these trail diggers never ride here, the influence of the trails at Afan is not to be underestimated.

While the trails and riders coming here have changed and developed over time, so has the forest they sit within. Tree felling, both for commercial and disease management reasons, has had an impact on both the scenery and the feel of the trails. Sections that Rowan had designed to have you weaving through a crowd of towering trees, are now open to the surroundings and the elements, dulling the feeling of speed and excitement. Timber by the side of the trail, and freshly constructed wind farms, all a sign that nothing stays the same for long here.

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It’s worth pulling up a chair to feast your eyes on this tabletop

If Afan provides a look at where we’ve come from, it also gives a sneak peek at where things are heading. The bike park shows that the art of sessioning a section is becoming a staple on the trail-riding menu. Where previously you’d encounter an obstacle or feature, ride it, and carry on, bike parks have encouraged repetition and practice, going back and trying things again, allowing you to improve quickly. With large, sculpted berms and big jumps, the bike park is in stark contrast to the first trails that were built here. But could the original trails, now comparatively tame and overlooked, be reborn?

As e-bikes have become increasingly popular, the old trails that have become hard work and dull under regular pedal power, might now provide the perfect match to pedal-assisted bikes. Plus-sized tyres could be the answer to smoothing out trails that can’t be economically repaired — new technology making old trails feel fresh again.

Hitting Y Wâl

In the quest to demonstrate the history of trail- building here at Afan, Rowan has ridden the legs off me, and even he admits to being in need of a hot chocolate. Wet through, and pretty tired, we have one last trail to get us back to the car park. The last descent of Y Wâl trail has lost none of its potency over the years. While once it was just quick, now it is roughened with a raw edge, one that really allows you to make the most of your long-travel trail bike, carrying speed and driving into corners. A trail that’s improved with age or just moved with it, it’s hard to tell. What isn’t hard to tell is how much fun it is.

Getting your head around Afan’s place in the history of mountain biking is equal to riding it — it’s a multi-day affair. The breadth and scale of its influence demands respect. Afan’s ability to move with the times, adapt and continue to be a draw are a testament to the work done here by the likes of Russ, Hugh and Rowan. Where it goes next is going to be interesting to see.