Thanks to Matt Simmonds and supportive landowner Ian, Mid Wales's DH tracks are taking on a second life.
Bike brands like to talk about evolution. Every model year brings tweaks and changes, increases – or decreases – in wheel size, suspension, weight and all the metrics that look good on a spec sheet. BNGs (Bold New Graphics) and some on-trend colorways (sic) complete the package. While the marketing departments might tell you their latest and greatest is a product of evolution, in truth there’s a lot of intelligent design. Engineers refine the formula, taking on board feedback from shops, riders and racers to build a better bike and the cycle circle starts over again.
As cynical as that all might sound there’s no denying that this evolutionary process has made for bikes that are far better than what has gone before. Survival of the fittest, and a bit of fashion, works for mountain bikes. But does the same thing apply to the trails we ride our highly evolved bikes on?
The town of Caersws in Mid Wales is best known for its downhill race tracks. The unassuming hillside just north of Caersws itself has been a staple of the DH race circuit for decades and still sees regular action on the racing calendar. Now, as bikes and riders evolve, this hill, or rather the tracks on it, is evolving too, becoming not just a racetrack but also the UK’s latest bike park.
One of the people behind this evolution is someone who has a long history with Caersws, Matt Simmonds. A hugely successful pro-downhiller, Matt has now retired from competing at the sharp end of elite level racing and now runs ProLine Mountain Bike Coaching, as well as managing the Madison Saracen Development Team. He’s a busy man, but he’s now taken on the task of opening up the tracks at Caersws to riders who are more interested in clocking up laps than racing against the clock. “I’ll have a break at some point, but right now is the time to go.”
The increase in the number, and popularity, of bike parks in the UK is arguably an evolution of the trail centre model – one venue, a selection of trails at different grades of difficulty, designed to cram as much fun stuff into a day’s riding. As with trail centres, Wales has led the way with bike parks. For riders who have been there and ridden that, places like Bike Park Wales, Dyfi Bike Park and Dirt Farm have taken over from Afan, Coed y Brenin and Gwydir as the go-to riding destinations.
“Bike parks are definitely getting more popular, I’ve seen it with the coaching side of things. I used to run an introduction to Revolution (Bike Park). I’d take people there for the first time, show them around and help them get over that fear of ‘Ooh, I’m going to a bike park, it’s going to be intimidating’.”
Our appetite for more challenging riding is increasing and as bikes and riders evolve to be more capable the way we see trails evolves too. Matt points out that just over the border in Shropshire, Eastridge, like Caersws, used to be a well known DH race venue, now it’s a trail centre. What was once extreme is now normal.
A downhill venue needs a few things to work. A hillside that can support a few tracks, an uplift road and vehicles, parking, maybe even camping and other facilities. A bike park needs those exact same things, in most cases the differences come down to the presence of some race tape and timing equipment. Evolving a race venue into a bike park doesn’t seem such a stretch of the imagination. In the case of Caersws Bike Park the idea to do just that came from the landowner – and chief uplift driver – Ian.
Matt explains that Ian has always been encouraging of riders. A full-time farmer, he still finds time to drive the uplift tractor at the weekends with his son Ross. “He’s totally behind the riding, which is what you need from a private landowner. He’s supportive and can see the passion and drive that we put into building the trails and he gives back by letting us use his land.”
After retiring from racing professionally to concentrate on coaching, Matt needed a venue to use for training clients. He’d been using Revolution Bike Park but they were only open on weekends so he’d been mulling over using Caersws instead. Then Covid hit. With coaching on hold, Matt started working on the tracks at Caersws with the aim of having them ready for when restrictions on travel were lifted. “To start with I just wanted it as a private coaching venue but Ian was keen to push to put on uplifts.”
When lockdown eventually lifted Matt and Ian found themselves in a really good position.
“Because we use an open air tractor uplift, rather than a Land Rover which is enclosed, we could open up straight after lockdown. In Wales you could only run events with a maximum capacity of 30 people, so that’s how we started. Everyone was buzzing for riding and we were selling out tickets straight away. I thought, ‘this is brilliant, people are coming to ride the hill we’ve spent the last year digging’. It just went from there.” One tractor became two, then three. The bike park was go.
Currently uplifts run two Saturdays a month. Riders are clamouring for more but as the uplift drivers have a farm to run and Matt insistent that they have a properly trained paramedic onsite whenever they are open there’s, currently, only so many days they can be open.
The shuttle from the Portakabin at the bottom of the hill to the top is a quick one, Matt’s Transit van scrabbles its way up the fireroad in a couple of minutes. Joining Matt and I in the van are (very) fast locals Joe Smith, Alex Storr and Corinna Brisbourne.
From the drop off point at the top of the hill there’s a stunning view onto the surrounding area. Today spring is treating us to equal parts sunshine and heavy rain, but at least we can see it coming as it rolls down the valley. The view quickly disappears as you drop into the trail. Barrelling along in a tree lined tunnel, occasionally the trees drop away revealing just how many sections of the trails are clinging to the side of the hill. Overrun a turn or stray from the track and you’ll find out just how steep the hill is. As you’d expect from a track built for DH racing there are multiple lines and rough sections but these are punctuated with beautifully built berms, jumps and rollers. It’s clear a lot of care has gone into their construction. “It’s nice to keep the trails up to the quality I wanted. And the more days we run the more work we’ll need and we can employ people”, says Matt.
Two reds, two blacks
There are currently four tracks at Caersws, two reds, Freeride and The Outsider, and two blacks, The Dragon’s Tail and Scorcher. Three of these started life as race tracks and would be familiar to those who’d come to Caersws to compete. Matt and Joe Smith are responsible for some of the earliest tracks at Caersws. They helped build the English Champs course, now cheekily named The Outsider, back in 2008. To keep the trails running properly, and to get a professional trail builder’s eye on how to develop things further, they’ve enlisted the skills of Danny Bateman. With six years of experience working at Revolution Bike Park he’s perfectly qualified to help take Caersws to the next level.
Unlike trail centres, it’s almost expected for bike parks to be works in progress, with new trails being added every year. Having evolved the existing tracks the question is what comes next at Caersws? “We’re not sure which direction to go in right now. A lot of parks have big jumps. The majority of people do like jumping and getting airtime, but I think we’ll also try and keep it to its roots in terms of technical downhill.” These kinds of trails require more maintenance than a jump line but, in Matt’s opinion, they suit the hill’s character and history.
These days riders still come on DH bikes, but you’re just as likely to see trail bikes on the tracks. “A lot more trail bikes are turning up. They are so capable. Bikes like my 160mm travel Ariel can take everything in their stride. So, in that respect you can ride everything here.” There’s no replacement for (suspension) displacement though and watching World Cup winner Matt Walker, who is here preparing for the race season, come down the trail is a reminder that a downhill bike will still have the edge for those seeking out ultimate speed.
By the end of the day Walker reckons he’s clocked up 20 runs thanks to how quickly they can get back up the hill. This makes Caersws not just a good place for training but also for bike setup, allowing changes to be tried out without wasting time waiting for the next shuttle.
While World Cup champs are catered for, what about riders at the other end of the scale?
One request that Matt often gets is for a blue trail, something more suited to beginners to the bike park concept. “We’re going to struggle to build a blue. A blue takes a lot of digger work to put a big bench cut trail in. We’re limited on space, so it’s difficult to make work. I can’t see it.”
Whatever kind of trails do get decided on there are no plans for rapid growth, this will be evolution of the more measured kind. First they want to make sure that the trails are up to weekly use, and any increase in rider numbers doesn’t have an adverse effect on the park’s neighbours. Progress is inevitable though, “Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have another trail or two”, says Matt cautiously.
It’s understandable that Matt wants to make sure things happen the right way, not just quickly.
Having raced here since he was a junior he has a lot of himself invested here, and he’s not the only one. “The hill has provided for a lot of elite racers for many years. We’ve had nationals here for several years. We’ve seen the likes of the Athertons race here, Peaty, Warner – I remember Warner’s antics in the camping field when I was a youth…”
Crowdfunding the future
Caersws is part of mountain biking’s collective consciousness. It might be evolving and adapting to what riders are after today but it also has one eye on what riders will want in the future.
The two big e’s of mountain biking’s current stage of evolution are enduro and e-bikes, both of which fit in well with what’s going on at Caersws. Given the number of e-bikes that are turning up at the park Matt thinks there’s the possibility of running e-bike specific days, allowing riders to make their own way up the fire road. The hill also lends itself to enduro racing, especially the mash-up format where riders can lap the tracks with their fastest time counting towards their result.
Caersws’ growth has come from evolution, but also thanks to Revolution. Revolution Bike Park closed at the beginning of the year due to larch disease. It was a devastating blow not just to the team at Revs but to mountain biking in Wales. There are plans for a comeback but in the meantime Revs’ legacy lives on helping Caersws improve. “Tim from Revolution Bike Park has helped a lot with things like insurance and risk assessments. I never thought about risk being a professional downhill rider. You don’t want to think about risk!”
For everyone involved in the recent work at Caersws it’s been a steep learning curve but there are no regrets so far. “The opportunity now for this place is huge. With Revs closing… as bad as it is for those guys it’s good for us I think. We were running alongside them anyway at a good capacity but now we’ve maxed out at that capacity and we need to expand. And that’s why we’re asking for help.”
Matt and the team at Caersws have recently launched a Crowdfunding campaign to finance the next stage of the bike park’s development. Money is needed to help with infrastructure, like signage, fencing and getting electricity up to the venue. With power in place, jet wash facilities, computers and a defib can all be installed, allowing the venue to grow and giving riders the kind of facilities they’ve come to expect from a bike park.
To some Caersws will always be a race track, while others will come to know it as a bike park. The evolution of the sport hasn’t taken away any of the hill’s history, or indeed tracks, but has made it more sustainable and given it a way to grow and improve.
For more information on Caersws, including videos of each track and details of how to book onto an uplift, check out:
Words and photos: Sim Mainey