Big mountain descents without the gruelling climbs. We head out around Rhondda, a former coalmining area in South Wales, for a fully guided and uplifted adventure.
“The right line is death,” Will Warren calmly tells us. “The left line is just… horrible,” he adds. “Take your pick.” Not the words you’d usually expect from a guide halfway up a mountain, but he’s not wrong. As the riders in front of me creep into a chute ahead I’m not exactly filled with confidence, and there’s an alarming amount of squeal echoing backwards too, brakes and riders.
Up until now the trail’s been on the nervous side of technical, boulders the size of softballs roll and boil under our wheels, greased with a liberal dash of mud. The gradient’s been steep but not ridiculous and it’s given us 500m of trail to settle in and get a feel for the grip. Of which there is nowt.
“In the summer it’s lovely on this trail,” Gareth Sheppard tells me with a giggle and shake of the head. He’s another of our guides for the day. “There’s tons of grip and you can get up onto the high lines.” It’s mid-August today so I’m not exactly sure when summer will start in this high and hidden fold of Wales, but everyone expects it to arrive any day now, just as soon as the drizzle lets up. We’ve come on Wye MTB’s latest adventure ride, a big-mountain epic called the Rhondda Raid, taking in multiple hills in some of the best riding country in the UK.
It seemed like a great idea at the time, swapping the groomed, high speed tracks of the trail centre and the man-made and purpose built trails in my local woods for something more natural and wild. I’ve gotten pretty soft in recent years, never summiting a proper mountain and barely poking my head above 500m in altitude, and of course usually with an e-bike underneath me. The Raid would be a jolt to the system, reminding me of the good old days when friends would trudge round hills soaked to the bone, but grinning from ear to ear.
I’m not grinning now, and my soggy knees are wobbling a little, I’m not ashamed to admit. I creep in, release the front brake and hope. It’s fine, I load the bike over the cascade of rocky drops and miraculously find grip, stay bike side of the bars, and sweep round the right hander at the end with a landslide of rocks chasing me down. And Jesus it feels good! Now it all makes sense, I’m so glad to be here. “That is a proper mountain,” I say to Dan when we break for a stream crossing and a celebratory fist bump. “You just wait,” he replies.
Wye MTB has been thrilling us for the past five years with its adventure days, shuttling a group of friends via Land Rover to the top of the best descents around. First came the Wye Valley off-piste around the Forest of Dean, before adding more trips around the Black Mountains, Brecon, and now one skirting the Rhondda Valley. Gareth has promised us at least eight different descents off the tops of the mountains, 45km mostly downhill and a ridiculous 1,550m vertical. If we get a wriggle on.
The first drop is off Bwlch Mountain and we roll through the last few tree-covered corners into Pentre for our second uplift of the day, load the bikes and rummage around for bananas and Tussocks. It’s the next mountain where things get really spicy though, Gareth says, with a skinny trail and a big drop to the left that you absolutely mustn’t crash on. I want to know more about this exposure of course, particularly as I’m scared of heights, but like a history teacher with logorrhoea he’s filling us in on the industrial heritage of the valleys, pointing out the vast washing machine-like hoppers used to wash coal and the slag heaps turned campsites. It is really interesting, particularly because Gareth’s grandfather worked in the last mine to close here, in 1985. Miraculously, snapper Andy Lloyd has a picture from the showers from the last day of mining, and Gareth’s really keen to see it, he’s routed to this area and the coal seams run through him too.
History lesson finished, or at least gone for lunch, we’re onto the second descent, and true to form there is a decent amount of exposure. We’re skirting round the side of a cirque, hollowed out in the last ice age by the slow drag of millions of tons of ice and rock creeping down the mountain. It’s a breathtaking view for sure, beautiful and otherworldly but also frightening and dramatic. Sights like this should in all right demand payment in days of travel or perhaps hours of hike-a-bike, but we’re barely an hour from Cardiff and I feel pretty honoured to see this. I also feel pretty daft not to have known years ago that cwm is the Welsh word for cirque, putting famous mountain bike honeypots like Cwmcarn and Cwm Rhaeadr in their place.
The way off the mountain finishes in a wide, rutted and grassy chute that’s not to be taken lightly. In the days of coal, trucks were winched up this escarpment to return laden with the black gold, and there are still the remains of the buildings and machinery at the top that once did the heavy lifting. Today we’re letting gravity pull us down, and it’s easily the sketchiest part of the ride so far. The ruts and loose rock are keen to snatch the front wheel, and it’s the kind of descent where slowing down is not an option, you can only go faster.
The ride’s not all about big natural stuff though, on the list of possible descents to hit on the Rhondda Raid is Mountain Ash, host to a round of the Dragon Downhill series back in the day. It’s firmly in the enduro category today, and Gareth and Dan will take you there if you like, something I twig half way round. If you’re enjoying the natural bridleways you can stick with that. If you want something more groomed they’ll gladly show you the way.
Our last run finishes in the Dare Valley Gravity Bike Park, a kids and new rider-friendly spot we visited back when it opened in 2021. Council owned and operated, it’s not quite the perfectly groomed pump track of two years back, but it’s still ridiculously good fun and an easy fast finish to the day.
Days like this are good for the soul. They let you catch a glimpse of something bigger than yourself, and the ancient rocks and old industry firmly put you in your place in history as a pebble on a mountain. The riding is spectacular too, raw, unpredictable and fun. Yes uplifting to the tops of these mountains is definitely cheating, but there’s no way you could tap into this much riding without it. And besides, the devil plays the best tunes.