Heroes of Penmachno

There are no facilities. It’s totally different to the other stuff around it. Visitors are sparse. These are all great reasons to ride Penmachno.

What happens when local riders band together to build and run a trail centre like Penmachno? New trails, investment, enduro races and a glory hole.

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Penmachno: the trail guide

  • Red: Dollen Machno, 19km, 1.5hr
  • Red: Dollen Eryri, 11km, 1hr

Sleeping and eating

We stayed at oldskool-mtb.co.uk near Coed y Brenin — it offers catering and guiding too. After your ride, head to the Conway Falls Cafe (conwyfalls.com) for tea and cake. We also like the Rhug Estate Farm Shop, 20 miles away on the A5 — the cafe is excellent.

Fixing your bike

Head down the road to Coed y Brenin for your bike needs. Beicsbrenin.co.uk will fix you up. If you want to hire something go to Beics Betws (bikewales.co.uk).

What bike to ride

A hardtail is fine for Penmachno, although you’ll probably find the descents more fun on a short-travel full-susser. If you have a choice of tyre, go for something fast-rolling with shallow lugs — you won’t need mud spikes here as it’s all rock. Knee pads are a good idea, then.

Best of the rest

Penmachno, and the nearby Marin trail, will take you a day to ride, but after that there’s loads of choice. Coed y Brenin is just a 20-minute drive away — ride the Beast as an all day epic, or cherry-pick the mbr trail if you’re time poor. After that, you could head to Llandegla for more trail centre action. If you want uplifting, go to the Revolution Bike Park or Antur Stiniog. The closest natural ride is a cracker, go to po.st/SarnHelen for the GPS download.

Pick of the trails

Machno and Eryri complement each other nicely. Machno has more singletrack while Eryri has a real out-there feel with smashing views.


Penmachno, North Wales trail centre guide

Article originally appeared in MBR February 2016

There’s a gap in the weather and we’re going for it. The hail that had been driven straight down this corridor of conifers, and had forced us from the path like Hobbits from a Nazgûl, has taken a more vertical slant. It may even be turning to light rain, I think brightly. Now or never. We sprint from the trees, drag hastily-abandoned bikes back onto the trail and sprint off, giggling with a strange mix of joy and hysteria — I don’t think I’ve ever been wetter than this. It’s like being in a washing machine on rinse. Quickly now, we sprint down what’s left of the descent — which turns out to be a series of interlinked water splashes — and finish up at the bottom grinning, steaming and part drowned. On reflection, perhaps the doubters were right: it was unwise to ride one of the most brutal and exposed mountain trail centres in the immediate wake of Storm Desmond.


Fire-road climbing is a necessary evil

Vicky Barlow, in charge of the gang of volunteers who look after this trail, had started the nagging doubt in the back of my mind. “Are you still planning on coming up,” she’d asked the day before. “The trails took a battering and a stack of trees have come down… not sure if it’s the best time to ride them?” she asked gently. We’ll be fine, I said. It’s probably the best time to ride them, I countered, because we’ll get to see how Penmachno really runs — not the trails per se, but the local riders who exclusively manage, maintain and run this outpost trail centre in Snowdonia. What better time to see how the volunteers do their good work than after hurricane-force winds, I thought. mbr journalists always know best.


Money shot: place your pennies in the glory hole

My doubts increased: the BBC’s Carol Kirkwood, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales’s finest mtb ranger, Andy Braund, all tried to warn me off. And the final straw came when mbr Ed Danny gleefully told me to pack a snorkel. And that was that, I was determined to go, in spite of them all.

The fact is, Penmachno really can be brutal if the weather turns nasty, because it’s exposed, high and rocky. But it’s also the perfect foil to its nearby big brother, Coed y Brenin. Where CyB draws in close to half a million riders a year, and includes nearly 100km of trails, a beautiful cafe and a skills park, Penmachno is 21km of singletrack and a lay-by. There’s no trail centre, no fancy loos with rainwater-flushing toilets, and no oversized Manitou fork sculpture to ride through at the trailhead (Google it). It really is just a trail. Well, not quite — while CyB was getting its new £20,000 wooden bridge to access the skills zone, and the cafe was being renovated, Penmachno was getting a new bench for the car park. It’s no bus stop monstrosity though; this one is handmade by Jeremy McWilliam, local carpenter and trail volunteer, and comes complete with two beautifully sculpted bench seats and a roof that extends down three sides to keep out the driving wind.


Sumptuous singletrack is softened by a carpet of pine needles

“Look, there’s even a glory hole in it,” says Pete Catterall, who manages the group with Vicky. This one’s for posting money through though; the trail runs partly on donations. Penmachno asks for £2 per rider and gets between 20p and £20, Pete says, with more people donating each year.

The old metal donation box was raided a couple of times by oiks, but there’s no getting into this cache without a chainsaw and a log splitter, it’s buried deep in the shelter and protected by a chainring entrance. Penmachno put most of the money that comes its way into building and maintaining the two trails, but not all of it: 10 per cent of its donations filter back to the community through various projects. Not because they want to be liked, or to curry favour with local residents, nor because they’re contractually obliged to, but because mountain bikers really are part of the local community here.


Left to right: Pete, Vicky, Alex, Sam

“It just seems like the right thing to do,” Vicky says. They are community-managed trails, so the local community should benefit from them.”

“Last Christmas the bike trails paid for the pensioners’ Christmas dinner,” Pete says. And this year, mountain bikers are funding the football team’s kit, Machno United.” And if you’ve ridden and donated at Penmachno, you’ll also have helped re-cover the Youth Club’s snooker table.


Preparing to get air on that, erm, section

So Machno

Penmachno is the trail centre without the centre then, built and run by, and for, the local community, whether they ride mountain bikes or not. It’s nothing but raw trail, which can really only be a good thing, given the small roads and fragile village life the trail loops round. It’s neatly split into two red-graded loops that can be ridden separately or combined to make a big 30km day out. The 19km Dollen Machno loop is the pick of the trails, with the most technical singletrack and fastest descents, while the Dollen Eryri is shorter and more exposed but with great views out into Snowdonia. Ride both and you’ll probably have enough time in the day to tackle the nearby Marin trail, but don’t hang about, as they’ll take you four or five hours to get round and there are few places to refuel those aching limbs around here.


On our ride, we opt to tackle the Machno, as what few trees are left standing after the storm should protect us from the wind. We huddle in the shelter, hoods up over helmets, and wait for a gap in the rain… not for the first time today. When it eases, the Penmachno loop starts us off with a fire-road climb zig-zagging up from the valley. It’s amazing how, no matter how cold and grumpy you are when starting off on a foul weather ride, five minutes of pedalling improves the mood. The sun glows through the clouds and, below us, the snug little village of Penmachno looks timeless, the valley is flecked with little oxbow lakes as the excess rainwater reveals how the river has meandered about over the millennia.

Vicky and Pete moved here from Kent in search of the bucolic lifestyle and good riding, while Sam Beesley — also showing us round — grew up in the village. His partner, Alex MacGregor, commutes to Bangor to finish off her post-grad degree course. “People are starting to move here just for the mountain biking, there’s a growing knot of riders,” Pete says. “We’ve just moved up the valley — it’s only taken us 12 years to be accepted by the locals,” he says with a grin at Sam.

When Penmachno was planned and developed, there was plenty of opposition from local people, though, Pete says. “It was sold to them as a new Coed y Brenin, with the promise of a quarter of a million riders. That really isn’t what people want here!” In fact, from the village it’s hard to tell there’s a trail around here at all — you can’t see it and the roads remain uncluttered. In fact, only around 8,000 riders came to the place last year, despite the new sections of trail and an enduro event.

The limited number of riders really shows on the trail, the new section we get to at the top of the climb looks pristine, despite being a year old. Alex calls it the “erm section” — “they’re berms you can jump out of, but we just call them the erms, because they make you go ‘erm’ when you’re trying to make a shape.”

The erms are one of two new sections here, totalling 1.5km of new stuff that cuts out some of the less exciting fire-road sections. People started riding them in October 2014, but the ribbon was officially cut for the enduro in November, that raced people down this wide, flowy trail: it’s extremely modern, designed to carry speed, and let those who want to jump get air easily. I’m surprised by the width of it though — as a community run trail centre, I’d been expecting handmade trails, put together by muscle and good spirits alone. Like Gisburn or Stainburn. Instead, everything that’s legal to ride here is bigger and constructed by an excavator.


Limestone trails offer sweeping views of Snowdonia

The erm section was used in the first Penmachno enduro, which took place in 2014. Vicky says it sold out within 24 hours. The local council paid for it, hoping to promote the new sections of trail, which had in turn been paid for by a grant from the Rural Development Plan (Penmachno’s other great source of funds).

Vicky says: “Last year we had around 250 riders from across the UK… although it was won by a local rider.”

“It was hilarious. We were thinking, beforehand, that there should be a special category for older riders because otherwise the young women are going to win it… then Sian Roberts won,” Alex says. Sian lives just down the road and rides at Coed y Brenin and has been winning XC races for decades. This year, the Penmachno enduro was part of the Welsh enduro Series, and Sian won all three rounds. Better still, the Forestry Commission — which owns the trails here — waives its usual event fee because the trails are community owned, while Borderline Events, which runs the series, matches the figure with a donation to the trails.


Dense, dripping pines blot out the light in a tunnel of tree

Hitting the Fasties

Halfway round the loop, we are forced off the trail in search of shelter as the weather takes a turn for the worse. It’s not that we mind getting wet and muddy, just that the hail is making everyone’s eyeballs hurt. Stopping makes me feel like I’ve missed out on something, though, because the descents on this section have great flow to them and really feel like you’re riding a natural trail in the forest. After years of use, the moss and ferns have narrowed the once-wide descents to strips of rock, and thousands of wheels have dug out the corners and compressions into a rocky jumble. There’s a lot of standing water, but Pete tells me it’s always pretty wet here as the trail holds onto the rain. Under the trees, the trails feel surprisingly soft, as it’s covered with downed pine needles and leaves. It just takes the edge off.


All downhill from here: sampling new singletrack

When Pete mentions that the pasties are just around the next corner, I’m surprised, but delighted, that an enterprising soul has set up catering for passers by. I’m bitterly disappointed to find out I have actually misheard his announcement, but cheer up when he reveals that the ‘Fasties’ are three sections of high-speed singletrack that create a leg-pumping 3.2km of downhill trail.

Two old sections have been stitched together with a new descent to create this mega-run: the first two parts are fast and littered with rocks to rattle through. Vicky says they had most of the crashes from the enduro on this section and, after riding it, I can see why — it’s easy to go very fast down here, and the bus-stop sections seem to want to throw you over the edge of the trail. It’s great fun, though, and really easy to session these two sections, as the fire road loops you back round in no time.


It’s diverting work for trail volunteers Pete and Alex

The third section is impassable: lines of trees have flattened themselves across the trail in some divine work of vandalism, closing off the final section. It’s impressive how perfectly aligned they are, and easy to imagine how one powerful gust alone could have wrought the damage. Worse though, big cracks have opened in the trail. The loss of stability from the roots has had an instant effect and is starting to wrench the thin singletrack into double track.

It’s too steep to skirt round above or below, so Pete and Alex zip-tie a yellow diversion card to the entry post. I hadn’t realised these guys were working today, but Pete tells me it’s up to them to check the trail over and keep it running. It’s the Forestry’s responsibility to clear the trees if they block the trail, just as it will be up to them to fix the landslip section, caused by the felling of nearby trees that destabilised the ground. “They’re usually pretty quick once we tell them where. Just a couple of days to clear trees,” Vicky says. It’ll take longer this time though, because there are so many fallen trees across the area, some of which will be blocking access roads.


Follow the red triangle to reach the trailhead

We take to the fire road as the new diversion recommends, but it’s not much better; three hundred yards in and the path is blocked once again. The singletrack is still tantalisingly close though — just down the bank to our right — and if we have to resort to clambering over trees, we might as well do it on singletrack. Slithering down the slope, we hit the trail below and begin laboriously diverting above and below the storm’s wreckage, before we’re dumped out into the middle of the village, and back to Sam’s for coffee and toast.

Penmachno is a wild place to ride. There are no facilities, and even the nearby cafe is closed part of the week, as well as over Christmas. It’s totally different to the other stuff around it, and visitors are sparse. These are all great reasons to ride Penmachno.


The information centre is low-tech but effective

Dig deep and donate at penmachnobiketrails.org.uk

It’s also vital that all mountain bikers support community projects like this — the volunteers have busy lives, jobs, pets, children, but they’re still able to manage, plan and develop the trails. I leave thinking that more trails around the country should be in local hands. As we walk out the door, the volunteers are drawing lots to decide who goes out again to check the Dollen Eryri loop for damage.