Where to Ride: Bike Park Wales – the story of success with co-founder Rowan Sorrell

Nestled away in the small Welsh Valley of the river Taff, in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons National Park, is the UK’s most successful uplifted Downhill MTB Bike Park by a country mile. Dug into the slopes of the old Gethin Woodland, former home of Welsh Dragon Downhill MTB racing, Bike Park Wales offers uplifted service to a full range of fast flowing big bermed trails as well as gnarly, steep, and technical trails, to keep riders of all abilities occupied for more than just a weekend trip. In May, we took a two-day trip down to the Merthyr Valley to 1.) See what all the fuss is about, 2.) Catch up with co-founder Rowan Sorrell to learn of the grand plan, and 3.) To ride bikes!Advertisements

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Downhill MTB at Bike Park Wales

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You’re going to need at least a full weekend to take in everything this place has to offer. With a full weekend of uplift, you might squeeze in a single run of all 39 descend trails on offer. Arguably, not every rider will want to attempt the three “no guts, no glory” pro Lines, or bother with the 1km long green trail “Badgers run”, but that still leaves your average trail rider such as myself with 11 Blue runs (~15 km), 13 Red runs (~14 km) and 11 Black runs (~7 km) to choose from. You’ll feel like a kid at Christmas, I promise.

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The vast majority of riders heading to Bike Park Wales aren’t going there to pedal up. However, if you are one such individual then you will have to tame the “Beast of Burden”. It is the one and only XC climb to the top of the Downhill trails. The 4.6 km singletrack climb starts in leafy deciduous woodland at the bottom of the valley, with fun rolling undulations to take the sting out of the elevation gain. It then enters the coniferous plantation forest where the climb becomes more rooty, tight and technical, before opening out into the last long slog over the exposed open-top mountain.

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Credit: Mary Macleod

More likely, you’ve made the trip to get on the Uplift and shred as many trails as your forearms and braking fingers can possibly manage. One of the best things about Bike Park Wales is that you get to start your day’s riding with a fast flowing descent to the Uplift Pick-Up Point. It is a wide smooth piece of singletrack with optional senders, and should get your head switched on and your legs warmed up for the day ahead.

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Matilda (as in Robot Wars) is the new addition to the BPW Uplift fleet, able to carry 30 riders and their bikes

The Bike Park has 13 uplift buses that run at full capacity on a weekend. It takes around 15 minutes to get you and your bike to the summit of Mynydd Gethin (Gethin Mountain), at 491m above sea level.

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A short pedal away from the uplift drop-off point is the trailhead for Vicious Valley, Blackadder, Dai Hard, and ACDC, with qualifying features
The top of Mynydd Gethin: View over the young conifers to a coal ‘slag’ heap, a typical feature of the Welsh countryside

The Uplift drops you directly at the head of 9 trails, with the trailheads for a further 5 just a short and flat scenic singletrack pedal across the top of the mountain. Every trail at BikePark Wales, save for the Blue runs, begins with a qualifying feature, often a rock drop. This sets the tone for the rest of the trail, letting you know exactly what you’re in for. If you can’t ride the qualifying feature, don’t ride the rest of the trail!

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Sending the qualifying feature of the Red graded flow trail, Vicious Valley. Credit: Mary Macleod.
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Sculpted berms of Terry’s Belly Blue Flow Trail. Credit: Mary Macleod.

My recommendation would be to start on Blue Flow trails, Sixtapod or Terry’s Belly. Bear in mind that while these trails are relatively tame, with no terribly steep gradients, obligatory drops and jumps, or gnarly rooty sections, you will probably still go faster on these trails than you will on any other trail on the hill. Sixtapod is 2.2km of fast flowing wide-bermed smooth singletrack that will have you grinning like a cheshire cat the whole way down – it will feel like your own personal rollercoaster. A couple of runs on this trail will likely see you peeling your fingers off the bars one-by-one. Terry’s Belly doesn’t get you up to quite the same speed as Sixtapod – its berms are tighter but more smooth and sculpted. If you want something that’ll give you a bit of air time, opt for the blue flow trail that runs parallel to Terry’s Belly, “Popty Ping”, the Welsh word for microwave, believe it or not. This “+” trail features tight carved berms that send you straight into a long series of tabletop jumps.

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The most interesting trails on the hill are the Blend trails, a combination of Flow and Tech. Fast sections of berms and jumps are combined with tighter, steeper technical riding to make the most varied trails in the park, suited to riders with a fully developed skill set. Watts Occuring, named with reference to the the popular Welsh comedy TV Series, “Gavin and Stacey”, is one such Blend Trail which has something of everything you could wish for from a Bike Park run.

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Credit: Mary Macleod

It starts out with an open section of 2-3 ft rock drops, before sending you into a big sprawling rooty section (thank the lord it was dry that day). It then goes into super flow-mode with big carved berms, hip jumps, shark fins, step downs and rollers, before its character changes abruptly, pushing you out into several hundred metres of gnarly rock garden with drops requiring 100% commitment.

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Credit: Mary Macleod
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Credit: Mary Macleod
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The seemingly never-ending rock garden on Watts Occurring. Credit: Mary Macleod.

Luckily, we visited the Bike Park in May, the driest and prettiest month of the year in the Taff Valley. Red-graded tech trail Surfin’ Bird starts mid-way down the hill, in the less densely packed deciduous woodland and offers beautiful views up the valley towards Pen-Y-Fan, the highest point in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Despite being labelled as a tech trail, this trail offers superb flow if you’re happy to hop over the short rocky sections. The trail welcomed us with carpets of bluebells – it was difficult to put the camera away on this one!

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Credit: Mary Macleod
Uplift Downhill MTB UK BikePark Wales Surfin Bird
Credit: Mary Macleod
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Credit: Mary Macleod
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Credit: Mary Macleod

BikePark Wales also caters for those of you partial to more enduro-style trails. The 2.5 km Red/Black Tech Trail, Root Manoeuvres, is the Bike Park’s closest thing to enduro. It is for the most part unsurfaced, and therefore likely to be the muddiest and wettest trail on the hill.

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This dark woodland section on Root Manoeuvres has 5-6 line choices, all of which require a committed drop off. Credit: Mary Macleod.

This trail is narrower than most, taking in rock slab sections, gnarly rooty sections, and plethora rock drops, with enough line choice to keep you interested for several runs. This is one of Rowan Sorrell’s favourite trails in the Park.

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Root Manoeuvres Red/Black tech trail offers some fun line choice. Credit: Mary Macleod.

Forking off of Root Manoeuvres, half-way down is “50 Shades of Black”, another of Rowan’s favourites, and the longest and gnarliest black trail in the park. The 1.8km trail starts with a steep rock garden, sending you into a series of small gap jumps. You’ll also be challenged by huge boulder fields, roots, jumps and plenty of dirt. BPW say this one is for experts only, thus I just glanced at the entrance and continued down Root Manoeuvres.

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Fork in the trail: “Root Manoeuvres” leads you into “50 Shades of Black” (right) if you’re so inclined

Top Trip Tips

  1. You’ll likely need to run much higher tyre pressures than you would elsewhere in the UK – we ran 25 psi front, 30 psi rear.
  2. If you can bring a spare wheel with you, then definitely do so – they don’t call it “Rim Dinger” for nothing. And tyres, bring tyres.
  3. Just wear a full face helmet. It isn’t obligatory at BikePark Wales, but it is likely rockier and faster here than anywhere else you’ve ridden in the UK – so it might give you comfort to do so.
  4. Book your Uplifts and Bike Hire well in advance!
  5. You’ll not get a Fat Bike on the uplift, the current max tyre width the trailers can take is 2.8″.
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Three trails converge on the tunnel which takes riders safely under the uplift road. Credit: Mary Macleod.

Interview with BPW co-founder, Rowan Sorrell

Rowan Sorrell and Martin Astley launched BikePark Wales in 2013, and the Park was an immediate success. You’d have to book 2-3 months in advance to get a weekend space on the Uplift. Times have changed with the park now offering almost twice the number of trails it opened with, and capacity now up to 350-400 riders on a weekend. During our trip, we sat down with co-founder Rowan Sorrell for a quick chat about the past, present and future of Bike Park Wales.

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BIKERUMOR: How did Bike Park Wales come to be? 

Rowan: So we launched in 2013 but the work to start the project started in 2009 – 5 years of planning, and we had to tender for the opportunity because it is on public land. The tender process took around 18 months. Natural Resources Wales own the land – they undertook a large feasibility study on Mountain Biking in South Wales in 2010. They were looking at the surrounding trail centres such as Cwmcarn and Afan and trying to figure out what the scope for them was. They ear-marked this location [Gethin Woodland] as a potential location for a private Bike Park. Around 2009, myself and Martin Astley, one of the other founders, and our wives got together as a team and tried to create a Bike Park. It worked out quite well, the timings, that when we were pitching our business ideas, we became aware there would be an opportunity to tender for developing a Bike Park here.

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BikePark Wales now employ 8 full-time trail builders, 9 if you include trail dog Loki

BIKERUMOR: What is the history of Gethin Woodland as a Mountain Biking destination?

Rowan: Gethin Woodland had one track here. Dragon Downhill built a trail which we have vaguely followed the line of with the “Enter the Dragon” trail, which we are remodelling at the moment. So i’ve been racing here since 2000, so I knew the site along with a bunch of other ones in South Wales. I always knew it was a good site but we had a few on our radar. It became clear that if we really wanted to go forward and make something happen for real then this was the location.

BIKERUMOR: Has it always been a dream of yours to have a Bike Park?

Rowan: Yeah, to some extent. I think, the first time I went to Les Gets, when I was 18 or 19, it blew my mind. The scene in the UK was nowhere near as developed – to go somewhere where there are uplifts, and everyone is riding downhill bikes – it made me think “this is awesome” but why can’t we have something like that in the UK? That was a long time ago. I then got into trail building – I had a company called “Back On Track”. We were building trails for the Forestry Commision or the local council. It was great and I enjoyed the work but I always found it a little bit frustrating when leaving the project – you’d hand it back over at the end, and you’d be proud of the work that had been done but you’d come back two or three years later and it would be a bit depressing to see how it hadn’t been maintained and looked after. They certainly didn’t develop things – they struggled to even maintain them. Martin and I had worked together in Cwmcarn on a trail building project in 2004 – that’s how we met. We kept in touch and hooked up again, found we both had the same view that it would be nice to have control over something and actually put a whole package together, create a mini-resort I guess. So yeah, the seeds were planted from that first time I went to France, and they remained there ever since until 2009 when we said “OK, we are going to do this”. We committed a lot of time to it from that point.

BIKERUMOR: What is your favourite trail in the Park?

Rowan: Depends on the mood. “Root Manoeuvres” is for sure one of my favourites, and “50 Shades of Black”, because I like natural rough technical riding, but equally I love jumps and berms as well, so yeah, after those I’d say “Enter the Dragon” and “Blackadder”.

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BikePark Wales has some serious Pro Lines on offer

BIKERUMOR: Why did you take the decision not to install a chair lift in the Park?

Rowan: We looked at it, when we were doing our own feasibility study of how we would develop the site and put plans together. We looked at all different uplift options, we looked at second hand chair lifts, new chair lifts, we looked at uplift that runs on a track, where you’d actually get into carts, drag lifts, a funicular, spoke to quite a few of the ski companies. It came down to the cost – the cost is huge. That hasn’t changed. The cost is higher than most might think. To have a lift that would actually serve a purpose, you’re looking at £6M+. It is a serious amount of money and investment. We felt that having buses was scalable, and something that we could respond to the market with. We didn’t know when we launched that it would be really popular or not. We hoped it would. But no one had done it at that point, so it was a best estimate. And another thing on that, I think when people ask about a chair lift, I think they are thinking of their holiday experiences, Morzine in the summer time for example or Whistler. It is different here – we are open 12 months of the year, every day in the wind and rain, and the bus gives people a respite. I genuinely think the experience wouldn’t be that pleasant a lot of the year here, because it can be quite exposed on the top. People tend to picture that idyllic day where they are cruising in a chair lift but the reality is people shivering in a chair lift. We have thought about all these things a lot, vehicles give you flexibility and it isn’t a bad experience.

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BikePark Wales offer bike hire on site – we took a Trek Remedy to shred the Park

BIKERUMOR: What are your plans around E-Mountain Bikes?

Rowan: We are watching the space at the moment. When we were planning out the original trails, there were quite a few spots that had really cool terrain but the shape of the hill meant that if you went down there it just didn’t quite work – you’d end up with a horrible climb to get back out or you couldn’t get back to the centre. So there are a few spots on the hill that I know would be good to build trails in but we haven’t so far – that is where I think the E-Bike trail will come in. We’ll make something that goes out to the corners of the park that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to.

BIKERUMOR: When are you going to host an Enduro World Series event?

Rowan: I think me and Chris [Chris Ball, co-founder founder of the Enduro World Series] will have a chat about that. We are riding together this Summer at Trans Provence. Don’t get me wrong, we’d absolutely love it. It is something you can’t take lightly. I understand how much time and energy is involved in putting on a good event. We’ve hosted events here – nothing on that scale but we know how much it demands of the team. We don’t want to do something badly. If we do it we want to do it right, with a bit of backing behind us to do it, from the Welsh Government or local government. We’ve always said we’d love to have international level events here.

BIKERUMOR: How do you think an EWS event would benefit the local economy?

Rowan: I think it would be positive in the sense that it would create more international tourism. I think that would probably be our main benefit. Most riders in the UK are aware of Bike Park Wales or have been to Bike Park Wales. We already add that benefit to Merthyr and the surrounding area. With something like that [an EWS event] the benefit would be more about rubber stamping it on the world map. That would be the great thing.

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BPW host an annual women’s weekend: The Q&A session with Katy Curd, Veronique Sandler and Tahnee Seagrave

BIKERUMOR: Where do you see the Park in 5 years time?

Rowan: Quite different from what it is now. Hopefully with the same core values and feel to it, rider focused, but with much better facilities. We have really focused on the trail network over the last 5 years, done what we’ve had to do to keep going. But over the next few years we are looking to invest in the facilities, with a second building which will be the new check in area and bike hire. We will have a separate toilet and shower block. Bigger Car Park. The biggest change will be adding accommodation. Not on a big scale but we will have some glamping options on the side. Someone can then come to Bike Park Wales and have the whole experience here. If it is what they would like they could stay here, eat here, have beers in the evening… And we’ll keep developing the trail network. We want people to feel as though, if they come for a day they can’t ride everything here. That’s the objective. We want to make it somewhere that people can come to and have a holiday. In this area, there is so much other good stuff around here. South Wales could become a genuine 1-2 week riding destination. Spend time at Bike Park Wales, then you’ve got Cwmcarn, Black Mountains, and stacks and stacks of off-piste trails and the Brecon Beacons.

BIKERUMOR: Are you planning to put in any other facilities or activities in the Park?

Rowan: No immediate plans for anything too activity based. We would like to put in a play area, so that if people are bringing up younger kids then parents can alternate between looking after them and riding their bikes. We’ve got our hands full with the biking development really. There is no shortage of things we could do to make it better. That is what keeps it exciting for people who work here.

BIKERUMOR: Any plans for new trails in the near future?

Rowan: Yeah, we are just going through the permissions and consenting process at the moment. It is actually quite an involved process to build a new trail . It is not the case that, because we’re here, we can just go ahead and build trails. I think it is a common misconception. We have to go through all the usual environmental and conservation heritage checks, as well as work with the foresters. This is still a commercial forest and we have to co-exist. It is challenging at times but both parties need to make it work. We plan this summer to build a couple of new trails, a blue and a red section. That is the plan.

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BIKERUMOR: There are a few other groups in the UK looking at plans for a Bike Park, there is potential for one to go into the Tweed Valley, and Gravitate Northeast in Aberdeenshire for example. Would you have any advice for these groups?

Rowan: I guess, don’t underestimate the business planning required prior to breaking ground. For us it was frustrating. We wanted to do it quicker. It took us 5 years and in hindsight, I think it was the best thing that could have happened. It made us really mull over some important decisions, and I think the Bike Park is better for it. But other than that yeah, I think as long as they know there is a market there, give riders what they want and listen to riders – something we tried to do all along. We had a few occasions where we learnt a hard lesson – where we thought we were doing the right thing and the public has told us they want something different. Sometime you have to back track and go a different direction. That is important – understanding what people want.

BikePark Wales Need to Know

If you’re going to propel yourself to the top of the mountain you can access the trails here for £10. If not, you’re looking at £36 for an uplift pass during the week, £38 on a Friday, and £42 on a weekend. £80 will buy you a full weekend uplift pass. During the summer months, BPW offer an evening uplift pass running from 5-8 PM for £20.

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The Park has a team of dedicated mechanics on site to keep you rolling, and a well stocked shop. Bike Hire is also available at the Park – they run a well maintained fleet of Trek Remedy trail bikes and Trek Session Downhill Bikes. The cafe on site serves up lunch and decent coffee, and has an amazing log burning fire for those cold soggy winter months!

Bike-Park-Wales-CafeBikePark Wales Records – Can you beat them?

The average number of uplift-serviced runs in a full day is 8-9. We think Rowan Sorrell himself has the record for most completed in one day – around 20 runs! As for pedalling up, it takes the average rider 35 minutes but the fittest riders will do it in 20 minutes. Team Rider James Heaton holds the record for most climbs in one day – he squeezed in 15 laps in just under 7 hours, with a lunch stop!

BikeParkWales.co.uk

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