A volunteer-built trail centre in South Wales honours its young founder with every pedal stroke and with its quest for recognition
Ryan Bullimore had a vision. He wanted to build a bike park. It was Ryan’s birthday and his dad Jason was giving Ryan and his mates a day of uplifts, taking in some of the finest off- piste trails in South Wales. It was while riding some of the trails outside Pontypool that Ryan found a clearing on a hillside that lent itself to his vision. A few days after his birthday he returned with tools and set about building a bike park. Unofficially.
The piece of land Ryan had set his mind and tools on was a quiet area next to a nature reserve, frequented only by the occasional dog walker, or so he thought. The hillside might not have had huge elevation, but it was steep and the road back up to the top made doing multiple runs, either van or pedal-powered, quick and easy.
With so few people using the woods, it was a while before Ryan’s work was discovered. “There was one old chap with a Jack Russell who we met on the fire road and we asked him if he minded what we were up to,” says Jason. “He said, ‘Well, it’s different to what I thought was going on. There’s been cannabis grown here for years and I just thought you were going big!’” The number of vegetable grow bags Jason and Ryan had found on the hillside while digging trails now made a bit more sense. Nothing quite so illicit takes place any more, but the trails at Tirpentwys remain unofficial – at least for now.
Vision is one thing, but a plan is something quite different, and although there wasn’t a formal plan as such, a series of trails began to develop one after the other. Bob Gnarly, Grannies Fanny, Bob More Gnarly, Gnarlyness, all were built by hand over a three-year period by volunteers who bought into Ryan’s vision of a bike park they could call their own.
The perfect legacy
Tragically Ryan died in 2018, riding his bike in the place he’d helped build. His vision could have died with him, but thanks to the determination and hard work of Jason and the other volunteers, Tirpentwys Trails has grown in strength. And they now have a plan to match their vision.
I meet Jason at the car park at the bottom of the hill where he’s picking litter and making sure the area looks presentable. Most of the litter has nothing to do with riders using the trails, but it helps keep relationships with locals sweet and shows a sense of ownership. We walk up through the woods to an opening where the trails emerge from the dense bracken that covers the hill.
The first thing that strikes me looking over the jumps and berms is the quality of the building. These are not shady jumps built by enthusiastic amateurs. These are well designed and built features that really are worthy of a commercial bike park. As if to prove the point, a group of trail builders are having an animated discussion regarding the precise angle a berm should be banked at for the right amount of speed into the next section.
The second thing I see is a huge wooden ramp. “Yeah, we’ve not got permission to put that anywhere yet. We were going to put an air bag up for a ‘Ride For Ryan’ day but it never happened, thanks to Covid. Pity, we’d have had a damn good weekend,” rues Jason.
Ryan may be gone but his presence on the trails is still felt. There’s a small memorial area, a shovel with messages from friends written on it is hung from a tree and a row of benches give weary riders a place to rest and remember. It’s not depressing or mawkish, it seems a fitting tribute to a much-loved son, brother and friend.
Riders start arriving, there are nods and jokes with locals and warm welcomes to newcomers pushing up through the woods and, like me, staring wide-eyed at what’s on offer. Despite little promotion, word on the bike park is starting to spread and visitors come from all over the country to see what’s happening in the woods outside Pontypool. It’s not escaped the notice of pro riders, either. Manon Carpenter, Bernard Kerr, Tahnée Seagrave and Laurie Greenland, to name a few, regularly turn up, helping to bolster local pride. “It’s nice to think that these pro riders, who have ridden all over the world, can come to Pontypool and have a great day out, it’s what the place needs,” says Jason.
Pontypool, like many of the Welsh valley towns, has seen industry slowly slip away, leaving little in its place. Tourism is the obvious replacement, but it’s taking time to get everyone on the same page. Jason is keen to make sure the bike park works for everyone in the community, not just those who want to enjoy the trails.
The land that the trails are built on belongs to Natural Resources Wales. NRW became aware of the trails when this wood started to glow purple on Strava, and went to investigate. They bumped into a local rider and asked if he knew who was responsible for the digging. A message was passed on to Ryan to get in touch with the local NRW man.
“We rang up Bob Campbell on the number and said ‘I hear you want to talk to us’. He said ‘Boys! Got to give it to you, of all the people I’ve chased about trails, no one has ever come back to me within 24 hours. Now, how serious are you about what you’ve done up there?’” The answer was they were very serious. The attitude from both parties was positive and there was a feeling that there was scope to work together.
Talks are currently ongoing with NRW about taking on liability for the land and for the trail group to get planning permission for change of use. Looking at what’s been built, it seems incredible that these trails are still unofficial, but it shows just how serious everyone is about building and managing the site.
To help NRW and others understand and get behind their vision, the group has come up with a document outlining what they’d like to achieve and how they want to achieve it.
“The vision is to keep the trails as they are. For them to generate an income, to employ people and fund a race team and sports within the area. I’d like to see the money going into promoting the riding talent we have here. Not everyone can be a winner, but to be taking part and enjoying the sport is important. Once the CIC [Community Interest Company] has a kitty, it could also go into other social ventures within the area. Oh, and to keep getting five- star reviews on Google Maps!” laughs Jason.
The local council is aware of what’s been going on in the woods. They’ve seen those glowing reviews, but they’ve also had complaints about the number of cars in the car park and on the road. Part of Tirpentwys Trails’ plan is to work with the council to try and build a larger car park in an old quarry at the bottom of the trails. Then they’d like to install a drag lift system on the hill, allowing riders to session the trails without relying on vehicles running up and down the road. Neither are cheap and the group has been looking into various grants that may be available. “It’ll have to turn into more of a business to sustain itself. Yes we’re looking for a big handout, but it’d have such a huge kickback into the community. Plus it could employ, say, 15 people directly.” They might have been serious before, but Jason is under no illusion that things will have to get a bit more serious if the bike park is to continue to grow and attract the funding needed.
It’s not just about money, though. After losing Ryan, Jason says the bike park became incredibly important for his mental health. He wanted to ensure that Ryan’s vision endured. “This lot have been a prop for me as I have been holding them all together and stopping this place from being bulldozed. When you talk to people you find a lot of us have mental problems and social difficulties. We’ve talked about it a lot here, as you can imagine. But this place helps.”
The trail crew are keen for me to see what the bike park is all about, so we bundle into Jason’s van for a few runs of the trails. The trailhead is marked by a sign: “For what we are about to ride to Ryan we are forever grateful”. Dropping into the woods on a rooty piece of singletrack, the trail then splits. The nature of the hillside and the inclination of the trail builders means that the trails here are, unapologetically, aimed at more proficient riders. “The trails have progressed with the trail crew’s riding,” explains Jason, “As they’ve got used to the trails things have got bigger and faster, and as their trail building skills have improved, they’ve seen ways to add in features and make things work better. Both have evolved.”
The seven trails that make up the bike park have been built by, and for, those who ride here. “If we enjoy riding them then hopefully other people will too,” reasons Jason. More established bike parks have provided a lot of inspiration. After seeing a video from Whistler of a back-to-back berm, Ryan decided he had to build one “We moved the trails around just to put in this berm,” says Jason. “Ryan just had to have it.”
Built by feel
With no initial plan, the trails evolved organically. “Up until now, the trails have been built by feel. We’ve gone back and altered trails, tried to improve flow and improve drainage. We’ve learnt as we’ve gone along. But it started with Ryan’s vision and what he liked to ride.”
What Ryan liked to ride is pretty obvious. Tight and steep berms are the trademark feature, helping cram in as much action into the hillside as possible. All are exceptionally well sculpted and once you learn to trust them you can let go of the brakes and put yourself in the hands of the trailbuilders. Jumps and drops of all sizes and descriptions keep you on your toes and with a run from top to bottom being over in a couple of minutes, you finish buzzing and ready for another go. In the future, new trails will have to be built less by feel and more by the book to keep the authorities happy, but that doesn’t bother anyone. They know they are up to the task of building to commercial standard.
It’s not too surprising to see that a lot of the regulars are on e-bikes. As a way of making the most of the trails here they make a lot of sense. One rider reckons he can do four laps in half an hour if he’s trying. That’s quicker than we manage with a van.
As exciting as the riding is, there’s a general chilled-out vibe that wafts in the air. A train of riders come down the trail whooping and laughing; those patting down earth on the now perfectly angled berm, cheer them on. Kids practise on some of the smaller jumps with encouragement from more experienced riders, newcomers are welcomed and locals are given respect for their work – there’s a real sense of community.
Having a vision and following through with it is not straightforward. Ryan’s vision has now become his legacy, and thanks to his dad and the rest of Tirpentwys Trails crew, that legacy is bringing people and joy to the area. Jason is hopeful talks with NRW to make the trails official will be completed soon, and then the next stages of the group’s grand plan can be rolled out.
Leaving the bike park, I’m already looking forward to coming back – I’ll definitely be leaving a five-star Google Maps review.
More info at tirpentwys-trails.co.uk
About this Trail Blazers series
One of the most exciting things about mountain biking is that it’s always changing. From the bikes we ride, to how and where we ride them, things never stand still for long. And here at mbr we’re convinced things are getting better.
The Trailblazers series is our look at the people, places and events that are behind these changes; helping to define and improve riding in the UK right now. From behind-the-scenes volunteers out digging trails in their spare time; people lobbying for more access to trails; those working to get more people from all backgrounds out riding; grassroots race organisers making events happen, through to the riders who are changing how and what mountain bikers ride; we want to tell the stories and give recognition to the people who are changing mountain biking and making riding better for all of us.