Blaenau Ffestiniog has a challenging aesthetic. Dwarfed by scarred mountains, cut deeply by a hundred years of slate mining, and diminished by the slow decline and eventual cessation of all such activities.
Many times we’ve skirted its grim and grimey centre on our way to softer landscapes unscathed by such obvious commercial activity. Most of those days the buildings appear huddled together against the incessant rain and wind. There’s little to stay the traveller looking for the wide open spaces in these wild, Welsh mountains.
Rather than give up like so many tragic mining towns, the community had a good look round a the slate heaps and vertical geography before deciding ‘you know what, we should have a crack at that tourism thing‘. With some success.
Hidden between the monster zip lines and underground experiences lies Antur Stiniog – five trails cut sensitively into an already battered landscape and served by a super-efficient uplift service. This is not Bike Park Wales snaking between unharvested forestry and gentler landscape – no here we find no nonsense ribbons of rock the making best use of the local geology augmented with all sorts of extra stuff to test the stoutest of defences.
Another birthday that most men of my age would spend stiff in unwelcome new jumpers stuck between unwanted extended family instead packed Matt’s van with what – on first sight – appeared to be an explosion in a plastics factory. Full face helmets of dubious vintage rolled over body armour apparently last deployed during a vigorous struggle with a tiger.
Three hours later we met up with an old mate of mine who being a bit more organised has already managed a couple of runs: ‘Blue? Fine, good fun. Red? Shit myself‘. Right then, we’ll start on the blue, then but first a comedy assemblage of riders and clothing putting me in mind of Cluedo: ‘Ah Yes, Mr James Upside Down in the Van being strangled with a Helmet Strap‘. Nick looked on mildly bemused but because he’s known me a long time not entirely surprised.
Eventually we rocked up to the windy summit before arsing about a while longer to ensure the proper riders wouldn’t be held up by #ukminceontour* First run is always much compromised by stiff muscles, unfamiliar trails, a touch or more of fear and mostly not wanting to mong oneself on the first run of at least ten. The picture up there is about one minute in. I’m the one in the middle looking as if he’s decided to have a poo. Taken me years to perfect that stance.
With only five trails and great signage it’s impossible to get lost. We got lost. Diverting accidentally to a red trail that ensured proper technique and commitment was pretty much hard wired into our minds as gradients steepened and rocks embigened**
Arriving shaken and a bit stirred back at the uplift truck, we were immediately whisked back to the top in less than five minutes. More runs increased confidence that a) there was nothing here that was trying to kill us and b) these bikes really are quite amazing aren’t they? How can a chassis that’ll happily flatter you on some all day yomp across local trails be quite so bloody awesome on stuff that is mostly occupied by downhill bikes, mirrored visors and riders who can apparently reach low earth orbit off every lip?
Elven magic clearly. Even so by lunchtime we’d progressed to the reds and loved the technical difficulty split between some reasonably committing drops and fast open sections where the bike would just float above the rock crust. Assuming you could stay off the brakes. I had a brilliant run chasing Rex for the best part of three minutes – letting the bike run, trusting my technique when the going got steep and the bike when attempting to land on downslopes out of your eyeline. Then I got cocky and crashed. Wasn’t a big one but bruised the only part of me not fully armoured up.
BPW you can ride on a hardtail with minimum protection if that’s your thing. Not here, I was happy with the heavy breathing full face and neck to toe plastic reinforcement. The consequences of getting it wrong had smashed limbs writ large. As we found out after a quick lunch of carbs and liquid. This not riding uphill is tiring stuff.
“Black then. Shall We?‘ Three of us in the affirmative with the group splintered by punctures, tiredness and an understandable reticence to risk trails we barely dared even look down a few hours earlier. Cez and Rex set off with the kind of confidence I dream of leaving me properly positioned as tail gunner. I saw Cez disappear down the first insanely steep step down with barely a pause. One second he was there, the next gone, disappeared some 30 feet below. Oh fuck. Like that is it?
It was. Rex was next and his heroic commitment wasn’t matched by similar success. His bike kicked out on the rock step half way down propelling him upwards and backwards in the kind of rotational parabola normally suffixed with ‘and Pike to finish’.
No water just rock. Rex hit it hard and tumbled down the slope in a confusion of arms and legs. ShitShitShitShit that doesn’t look good ‘Rex, you okay mate?‘ I shouted hard braked from the top. A second passed. Then ‘Yeah all good, landed on my backpack, not sure about my spleen tho‘
This was an ongoing joke from my Slovenia bike park experience. So thankfully he was both alive and lucid. I picked an easier line down to find Rex back on his bike, grin firmly back in place. Legend. I’d have been calling for the helicopter. He then sent me out first – being understandably a bit reticent to hit obstacles blind – but the rest of the trail harvested fewer demons.
We found Matt and Mike fixing punctures and the not very famous five made it to the bottom without further incident. I rode a couple more times and few tougher lines including the ‘chicken line‘ avoiding the terrifying double black crux move. Even that line had me mainlining my inner chicken. Happy to get down that unscathed. Style? Speed? Technique? Er, no. More an internal telling off for following Cez off anything blind.***
I quit about then. Physically all was good, but mentally totally frazzled. Ian and I shared a coffee while the rest of the boys hit the uplift truck for a couple more runs. Fast ones as well by all accounts. Fine by me, I was happy to mirror the same physical approximation as earlier in the day, and happier still Rex hadn’t done himself some serious injury.
We said our goodbyes to Nick, got back in the van, got back to Ross a few hours later and got pissed because a birthday is as good excuse as any. Forty Eight years old and riding black graded downhill trails with my friends .
That’s not a birthday, that’s a blessing.
* I speak for myself here. And maybe one or two others. As ever I positioned myself as ‘rear gunner’ but had to fight for that station!
** what do you mean that’s not a word?
*** Appropriate noun. Had my eyes closed.