Mountain biking is a sport that loves to evolve, and one of the areas which has made the biggest impact on the sport is the arrival of the trail centre. I love trail centres, they allow you to rock up and go – I even remember the first one I rode, the Red Bull route at Coed y Brenin in mid Wales. It was a Bike Magic meet up, and the centre hadn’t been open long: no café, just a car park and a big sign over the waymarked trail.
I honestly believe trail centres make people better riders. They cram a huge amount of trail into the space they have available. The grading levels allow people to know what they are going to tackle and they give people enough warning when something is coming up, and the trails are maintained and designed to reward. They have everything you could need – toilets, bike shops, bike hire, bike wash, and most importantly, food! But they also take something away.
Its really rare that you are at a trail centre and wonder which way to go, Its rare to be riding at a weekend and not have another rider within 5 minutes of you, its also really rare to need to get out a map.
Now I like maps, I am old-school Duke of Edinburgh Gold type of guy, not Bear Grylls, more Ray Mears. I kind of like those wide open spaces. So when my mate Dan asked if anyone fancied doing a route that has been on his to-do list for years, which was only 2 hours drive and involved big hills, I foolishly said yes. He then said, oh it’s called the Black Mountains Killer Loop. KILLER!!!!
I have ridden in this rough area before, the Rough Ride is north of this area in the Welsh marshes, and my previous ride in the area was one never to be forgotten ( http://bikemagic.com/mountain-bike-events/torq-rough-ride-2011-bikemagic-ride-report.html ) and the more I looked into it the more worried I became. Naturally I am a kind of ‘be-prepared boy-scout’ person, as I was a scout, and so want to look at my map collection, (yes I have one). Bugger, wrong sections of the Brecon beacons. But Dan assured me that he would take care of all the route stuff, and after only us two being interested we picked a Saturday in June with dodgy weather and off we went.
With hindsight we were maybe not the best prepared. Dan produced a rather nifty waterproof pull out map from a bike mag, actually written by Mike Davies, ex Bike Magic editor, but it was rather out of date, and 2 pieces of A4 with a 1:50,000 OS map. Googled a slightly different route from a GPS on that one, but you work with what you have.
So now for some route details. I am not planning on this being a route guide by the way, Google it if you fancy doing this!
The route we did was 28 miles and just under 4500 feet of climbing. We started in Crickhowell, a nice small town, and has proper car parks, toilets and cafes/ pubs/ shops for last minute food supplies. It’s up to you, that’s the joy of natural trails – there are alternative car parks at Mynydd Forest which is right on the trail but is very isolated, more on that forest later!
So from Crickhowell we followed small roads to Llanbedr (think small village in the cleavage of big hills). Now the thing about natural trails is you have a choice, do we do the loop clockwise or anti clockwise? The route Mr Davies did was clockwise, the other A4 paper route was anti-clockwise. We went with clockwise. Now here is an important note: what do you want out of this ride? The basics of this ride are as follows: three climbs and three descents in total. That gives you two ride-able climbs clockwise, and three ride-able descents, or anti-clockwise gives you three ride-able climbs if you have the legs for them, and 2 descents. Really one is so technical it’s more of a DH track, but we will get to that.
So clockwise it was. We were heading for a saddle just South of Pen Trumau (spot height 617 meter and where we saw the only other bikers that day), via the hamlet of Bont. This first climb is on grass trail which just climbs and climbs. It’s all do-able, but you might want to take a breather and it’s not really a place for a double crank set, but settle into granny and just winch yourself up. For anti-clockwise riders this will be the best of the day, and the reward for the climb before. Full out fly down the track once the top hairpin is done, it will be very fast but watch out for a few small eroded streams towards the field end. Oh yes, notes on bikes. This really is a route for full suspension bikes, a lot of rock has been laid down on the trails which would really beat you up on a hardtail. I used my 150mm all mountain bike, and with the length of the DHs you need to make sure your brakes are spot on (unfortunately the night before I found my disc was bent, so did the whole ride with any annoying beep like a GPS lost signal every wheel rotation – oh for a bike shop!)
Once at the top you can choose where to go. Head off west downhill and it will take you to the hamlet of Cwmfforest, and close by a pub if you choose. North west will contour around and down Pen Trumau and onto the flanks of Twyn Mawr. Somehow we missed this trail, and ended up doing a loose rock-and-pebble decent, where at one point my rear wheel did a huge and very quick sideways slide on grass and I did a great speedway dab, Dan was amazed I got away with it! Onto the road above Cwmfforest, so a quick diversion via an ancient hill fort and a lunch spot, and we were back on track heading north. We now had a road section to take us to the base of the climb up Y Das, Now if there are any DH stars or bike editors looking to test all mountain or mini DH bikes this may be the trail. For anti-clockwise riders this will be the descent they remember after a long climb, if they can ride it, and for clockwise riders this will be the push that they remember. The trail has been heavily worked on, with huge drainage channels – think eight-inch curb stones running across the trail, and large step downs with lots of fine gravel, but it’s a 300 meter-plus drop in under 1km, these trail obstacles are every few meters, and it’s relentless so take care. (although there is road access at the bottom).
For the clockwise rider it’s a bugger of a climb, but the views are amazing. We had a glider catching updrafts level with the summit and raptors (birds of prey, maybe red kites) linking talons and tumbling out of the sky. For a biker I think you would need to be a trails rider of Chris Akrigg’s skill to clean it, and fit as a whippet.
For us the weather now started to close in, rain started just as we reached the top, and so with a slightly down trail of 7kms to ride, on went the waterproofs and down towards Grwyne Fawr Reservoir. The trail here is stony loose track, fist sized rocks and large boulders that have been used by the parks commission to prevent damage to the trail. It’s fun to ride, loose, and easy to end up going a bit too fast. It’s also very long, with only a gate at the reservoir, the trail then becomes a more mature trail with fewer loose rocks but still a hard stone surface. For anti-clockwise riders this is going to be a very long climb. It’s not particularly steep so very do-able, but the loose surface at the top half is really going to make it hard to keep momentum.
You will now find yourself at Mynydd forest, so possibly where you parked your car, if it’s still there! And for us where it stopped raining. There are two car parks, one lower one upper, the upper one is next to the road in an open field the lower one just off hidden into the woods, it’s easy to miss. So for clockwise riders you will enter the woods on the trail down from the reservoir, then onto the road, it’s quite a long road section through the woods until you come to the lower car park tucked into the first main forest road on your right. For anti-clockwise riders, it’s the start of the long climb!
For us, our trail guide said, just head towards the top south of the woods, (cheers Mike!). For details it’s past the car park up the forest road, dog leg a bit, then follow the forest road on your right. The signage here is rather hard, plus we got lost and had to ask a friendly runner, who went, ohh the Black Mountain Beast, the best bit is just coming up. To the saddle of Crug Mawr, for anti-clockwise riders the drop through the woods may be more fun on some of the bridleways that run down to the road, but look out for a surprising number of what appear to be forest sheep!
For the clockwise rider you now have a 250 metre drop over 3kms, the last bit being hang-off-your-saddle steep, it’s not yet been armoured, its moor-top single track and grass trail, and apart form the 40mph winds to our side it was great fun, the last section was into some woods with a straight steep drop on black muddy trails, just hang on to the brakes and keep it straight. I failed, and had to do an emergency stepping over the bars when it all started to go wrong. For anti-clockwise riders it’s another long climb which will be hard to clean. We then hit the road again and so, with tired legs, we headed towards Llanbedr and Crickhowell.
A really nice ride, long, 6 hours by our pace, which was more take it easy then kill yourself, 28 miles and 4417 ft by Dans GPS logger, but with loads of choice for alterations and relatively easy to navigate, watch yourself if you do this in the darker months, weather comes in quick but realistically the route has roads on three sides so should be easy to bail with a long road ride home if required.
So go on choose your own path and direction! It’s up to you out on the hills. Have fun.