It’s hard to imagine, as I spin up the first climb of the Twrch trail in Cwmcarn, that just over two hours ago I was leaving the concrete and congestion of London village. This South Wales forest park may only have a third as many trails as Coed y Brenin, but the accessibility offered by the M4, just seven miles down the road, could make it just as popular as its more northerly relative.
The lack of motorway and rail access can make Wales a tiresome destination for riders looking for a quality day ride, but by building just inland from the M4 corridor, ripping round some primo singletrack is now within access of a huge MTB audience. Along with the nearby trail at Afan Argoed, South Wales now offers a glut of purpose-built off-road action to riders from all over southern Britain.
The Twrch trail is tucked away down one of South Wales’ old mining valleys, luring money and visitors to an area long abandoned by traditional industries. Two year’s ago, Russell Burton approached the forestry about building a Red bull-style trail at Cwmcarn. Last November, following the huge cash investment into developing Welsh mountain bike centres, Russ was handed the cap of project co-ordinator at the site and the diggers were brought in. By Easter 2002, the 17km trail was cut, and since then minor work has continued, including finishing the trail and adding signage.
The Cwmcarn experience begins well; like the smell wafting across from a kitchen before sitting down to a feast, the final dog-leg descent at Cwmcarn sets your anticipation on edge as it cuts a highly visible ‘mark of Zorro’ across the hillside above the visitor’s centre.
But before the sweet delights of the desert trolley, comes the three-week old steak that is the first climb. Even broken up, as it is, into bite-size chunks – Mabinogian and Giant’s Finger – the climb is tough. It’s one of those mouthfuls that you chew and chew but just can’t swallow. Most riders can tough it out in the middle ring, but there are plenty of rocks and switchbacks to keep you on your toes, as it follows the path of the Nant Carn river upstream.
What sets the beginning of the trail apart from other purpose-built tracks, is how natural it feels. The raised rock bordered by drainage ditches that many Welsh veterans will be used to, is replaced by naturally surfaced, bench-cut singletrack bordered by ferns and grasses. The downside of this is that things can get slippery after rainfall, although continual upgrades will improve this. The other killjoys to the proceedings are the anti-motorcycle gates. These v-shape barriers are a necessary evil to keep out the throttle-twisters, but their over-zealous construction does break up the flow of the trail. There are plans to remove/widen some gates, but most will have to stay.