Derwen Green trail
Grade Green (easy)
Derwen Blue trail
Grade Blue (moderate)
Grade Red (difficult)
Grade Black (severe)
Brechfa Forest is one of Wales’s less well-known MTB destinations, but over recent months it’s been gathering trail mileage at a prodigious pace under the direction of Rowan Sorrell and Brian Rumble. Brechfa can boast 51.4km (31.9 miles) of purpose-built trails catering for pretty much the whole skills spectrum. We thought it was about time to give Brechfa a go, and hooked up with local B&B owners (and organisers of the Brechfa Enduro) Carl and Ivy for a spin around what’s on offer.
At the gentle end is the Derwen trail, a Green-graded loop with an optional Blue extension. With generally smooth surfaces and sweeping curves there’s nothing here to scare the beginner, but unlike many entry-level trails the Derwen has the capacity to amuse more experience riders too. We only had the chance to ride a couple of sections, but crank up the pace and they were a lot of fun. Reassuringly, the sightlines are good enough to give you plenty of opportunity to back off if you encounter other riders ahead.
That said, with a day to fill we suspect that most intermediate riders will head straight for the Red-graded Gorlech trail. This has been in place for a while now and seems to have matured well. Unlike the likes of Afan or Gwydyr, there’s not much in the way of indigenous rock at Brechfa, so the trail surfaces are generally pretty smooth. What they lack in bumps, though, they make up for in corners and other features. With a fairly small number of trail builders operating in the UK, it’s getting to the point where you can tell who designed a trail by riding it, and the Gorlech is signature Rowan Sorrell – lots of berms, lots of jumps. It’s a trail that needs a degree of attack to get the most of, but if you can’t clear the tabletops then, well, that’s something to work on.
It’s not all descending, though. Topographical reality dictates that some climbing has to take place, and with Brechfa featuring several valleys within its borders there’s plenty of up-and-down – over 1,000m of climbing, if you’re counting.
Despite being fractionally shorter than the Gorlech trail, and having substantially less climbing, the new Raven trail is considerably harder work. There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, on our visit we relied on the local knowledge of Carl and Ivy to start the Raven from Abergorlech rather than its official start point at Byrgwm a couple of miles down the road. There’s an official Gorlech/Raven link, but you encounter it most of the way around the Gorlech so if you’re not actually planning to do both trails back to back it’s not the best option.
The alternative start added a substantial extra climb, but we were soon hitting the descents. The Raven is very much the Gorlech on steroids, with a similar kind of jump/berm/rollercoaster feel but with substantially bigger amplitude. A lot of the trail is very overtly constructed, with built-up switchbacks and berms that expert dry-stone wallers would be proud of.
Other features include a smattering of low-level log rides, one of which is quite long but fairly straight. There are a couple of river crossings on impressive single-log bridges – they’ve got rails either side, but they still take a degree of confidence to ride.
With all of this construction on the trail, it was something of a disappointment to encounter some extensive stretches of wooded singletrack that were very sticky indeed. The Raven trail incorporates some sections of formerly “locals” trails that weren’t built with heavy traffic in mind. Chuck in the rubbish weather and the fact that TransWales passed through a few days before our visit and it’s not surprising that these non-armoured sections had started to disintegrate. We’re told that diversions have been put in place to let the iffy sections recover, but given the nature of the rest of the trail FC Wales is really going to have to do a proper job on them. The actual lines are great, but the surface isn’t up to it. It’s a shame, given how much work has gone in to most of the trail, and it leaves the Raven with a bit of an unfinished feel.
We don’t want to be too negative, though. Most of the Raven trail is splendidly gung-ho, and we’re sure that the boggy bits can be brought up to scratch. And with the reliably fun Gorlech and Derwen trails in its armoury, Brechfa has a whole lot to offer. You’re never going to be able to imagine that these are anything other than purpose-built trails, but there’s something very agreeable about blatting around a loop, then dropping into the village for lunch at the pub before heading out again. It’s easy to feel a bit ghettoised at some centres, but not at Brechfa.Find out more at www.mbwales.com. We stayed at Bike Brechfa‘s excellent B&B in nearby Llansawel – there’s also self-catering accommodation at Gifach Wen Barn in Brechfa itself.