Birthdays have gone down the route of Stag dos in as much as they no longer orbit around getting absolutely slamming drunk. My birthday falls at the end of October which is not really road bike weather, so I decided it was time for us to visit the grandfather of trail centres - Coed-y-Brenin.
For those who don’t know, Coed-y-Brenin in the Snowdonia National Park is the reason why we now have trail centres all over the country and Coed-y-Brenin exists thanks to the tireless work of Dafydd Davies (a cracking Welsh name). With no budget available for what he believed would be an incredible opportunity, he instead worked to build the trail in his own time, enlisting help from volunteers from youth organisations, local people and also the armed forces. The result of this was the Tarw trail (Bull in Welsh) and the trigger for funding into other projects that have now enabled mountain bikers to access some of the best riding (and easy access to delicious cake afterwards) across the country. He truly deserves the MBE his efforts earned him and I know for a first-hand how good this trail centre is!
It was 2012 and with 10 people chomping at the bit for some trail action I booked two log cabins in the Trawsfynydd holiday park close to the trail centre. To be honest, birthdays for me are still a little bit about drinking so as well as being close to Coed-y-Brenin this place also tempted me by having a boozer at the centre of it.
The crew was for once a combination of two of my social circles. In one cabin we had the original wolf pack – me, Dan, Mark, Baz and Paul. In the second cabin were my snowboard buddies, Peter, Jim and Milo as well as some sound buddies of Jim, Dr Wellsy and Mr Cunningham. Amongst the ten we had some awesome two wheeled talent so I knew it was going to be fast and furious, but I also knew it was going to be side splitting good fun.
The Challenge I set was to conquer The Beast on Saturday 27th October – my actual birthday, but I set out for North Wales with Peter and Paul in my car early on Friday morning. Traffic treated us well and we found ourselves at the beautiful trail centre hub by early afternoon. With many of the party not arriving until late we had an opportunity to dial in, but more importantly, it gave Peter a chance to experience a trail centre for the first time.
Of all of us, Peter – aka Crackhead – had the least experience of MTB. In fact, the only experience he had gained was during the few months running up to the trip I had planned. I had taken him on the heath a handful of times and coached him on some of the things I wished I had known before starting, such as drops, berms, attack position and hanging off the saddle over the back wheel when it got steep. These sessions had gone pretty well, albeit sprinkled with a few crashes that had left minor pieces of Peter along my regular circuit, but he really is a tough cookie. His reaction to a crash is to carry his bike back up to before it happened and come back down to prove to himself he could do it. For this reason alone I knew there wouldn’t be anything that could phase him here.
Our little trio set off from the car straight into the Blue run, Minotaur. Starting with swooping berms and rolling paths along the side of the hill, we were quickly seduced into what the weekend was all about.
Crank felt great beneath me, skipping through the trail surface and leaping up on command when required so that I opened huge gaps between myself and the other two. Then coming through a tight forested piece of single-track my mind wandered, my right hand slipped off the grip and the front wheel hit a tree. I flew away from the bike and landed in the dirt on my neck and shoulder, feeling a sudden burst of fire from the base of my skull all the way down to my tail bone. I lay there motionless as my mind whirled into panic. I had crashed before, on many occasions, but never had I felt this sensation. I dreaded the worse; a broken neck.
As the sensation faded I realised I could feel stones digging into my legs, so gingerly began to move. The more I moved the more confident I felt, until I was at last on my knees and the relief sweeping through me set me off laughing like a loon. It was at this point that Peter and Paul finally reached me, seeing Crank tangled in the bushes to the side and me laughing on my knees. I only realised how lucky I had been when turning to retrieve Crank. Where I had landed in the soft peat there was now a large Tony shaped imprint, but just a foot back from this was a very unsympathetic slab of slate. Had I been going a touch slower and fallen a touch shorter…
Despite the crash my enthusiasm was not dampened and the three of us, after a coffee and cake, took on the mighty black MBR trail which is a piecing together of other trails to create what is believed to be the best of all. If nothing else, it was brutal in both technicality and required effort with some of the climbs setting our legs on fire, but my heart swelled to see Peter hitting rock gardens and bomb holes like a long term pro.
We arrived on the campsite close to 5pm and took the keys for the cabins. The rest of the group, except for Baz who was expected a lot later, arrived and followed me to the pub. Once Baz arrived it was pitch black on the campsite and I had already put down a few pints. The groups gelled, excitement levels lifted and we all knew that Saturday was going to rock.
Saturday 27th October – The Beast
We were up early. Control freak that I am, I had equipped both cabins with breakfast stocks and before coming I had already cooked a batch of chilli for our dinner that night. Full of coffee and nicotine, I loaded up the car and led the way back to the centre.
Trail name:Beast of Brenin
Centre:Coed Y Brenin
Time:3 – 6hrs
Centre:Coed Y Brenin
Time:3 – 6hrs
The Beast lived up to its name. Starting off with a quick descent down rocking slabs of slate, it led us straight into the first climb which instantly divided the group. It was steep, rocky and tight. We were all gasping when we finally reached the top to regroup and regardless of bike, all of us expect Mark had suffered. As with all climbs at trail centres, fortunately a climb is quickly repaid and The Beast had plenty of treasures to offer.
The vast array of surfaces, ranging from root ensnared rollercoasters to rocky, teeth chattering drops into oblivion kept us all in the zone. Stone fly offs tested us, often pre-warning with a death sign did no more than to encourage us to go faster and harder. Jim and Milo, slow on the climbs, proved untouchable on the descents and no matter how hard I tried to hold their wheel it was impossible.
We polished off the Adam & Eve rhythm section, whipped the rear wheel through the turns and twists of the Serpent’s tail and for each of these sections suffered a gruelling climb. The Serpent’s tail took us up into the forest and at points, due to roots and gradient, I found Crank at a standstill. Cunningham chuckled behind me, waiting for a foot to go down, but I am pleased to say it never did.
Almost halfway around The Beast we climbed on a road to a café. The time of year made itself known as we sat down on a bench to eat our cake because the wind held a chill that cut straight through our layers. For this reason more than anything else, we rushed the stop as much as was possible when 10 people ordering coffee and food, although we did have an opportunity to gauge how people were doing.
Dan was finding the technicality of the trails a little daunting, as was Mark, but Mark was loving the climbs. Paul was loving trying to catch Mark up the climbs whereas Jim and Milo (and me) were loving the descents the climbs rewarded us with. Wellsy and Cunningham, evenly matched and both very comfortable on their bikes, seemed to take everything in their stride and Peter, the least experienced, was a beaming bundle of smiles that had proved his reserved ran very, very deep. Baz was the big surprise for me as his legs were not holding out too well (after weddings and life had denied him any training prior to coming) and the Beast was after his soul.
A little longer after any of us really had wanted to wait, we returned to the trail proper. After much of the same as we had enjoyed before the café we then came to a crossroad in both literal and metaphorical sense. A short ride down the hill led to the start of the Adam’s Family section which heralded the beginning of the end of the Beast. Up the hill was a loop that led to the same place, but made up a good 8 of the 38 mile trail and took the riders to the highest point.
With hindsight I have to say that Baz, Milo, Peter and Dan took the better option down the hill as the extra miles proved to be no more than fire-roads. This meant we completed it quickly and re-joined the rest of the group, but aside from knowing we had completed the full Beast in terms of experience that section was pretty bland.
The Adams Family certainly made up for it. The Lurch stone slab corkscrew in wet conditions certainly got the blood pumping and we passed through Uncle Fester like a rotten curry. The Pink Heifer and Big Dug trails linked up to bless us with almost 3 miles of unbroken single track weaving between majestic Douglas Firs that blotted out the sky.
The final section was a short, sharp climb and then a left hand turn over an incredibly short section called glide. We all took it, but did not all survive. Paul was slammed into the ground and carried his bike back to the car afterwards – therefore not defeating the Beast at the final stage. Those that missed the bland fire roads were also denied the right to claim they had defeated the beast, but those of us who had truly earned it over the rooted web that made up Glide. The holes between the roots were like chasms waiting to bite a wheel and once over this we flew (because brakes prior to this would have brought about our demise) under a low bridge and out onto the end of the trail.
Chilli that night was well received and we drank like men newly introduced to the wonders of alcohol. I was also presented with a home cooked birthday cake, maybe slightly against other peoples taste, but an absolute chuckle for me.
With a brief jaunt to the pub, but quickly realising that most people would prefer to stay in bed, we returned to the huts and the hard core contingent drank me into a new day, with push-up displays from Paul, sharing of Go-Pro footage from Milo and Jim, hand-stand push up demonstrations from me and a long chat with Wellsy about the Christchurch earthquake and randomly how smoking was almost like taking EPO.
The next day we departed out cabins with sore heads and headed for the centre again. Cars had been packed as we would be disbanding at midday to our various locations all over the country – Nottingham, Bristol, Cumbria, Godalming, Farnham, Bedford and Northants. The rain also decided to make a show, but we still managed to fit in another run of the Minotaur and the Red Coche.
Peter was full of beans and even went off for a second run of the Minotaur while some of us abandoned ridding in preference for showers in the centre followed by coffee, although Baz had attempted to lure me down Glide for a final time before this decision was made. Had it not been hammering it down I might even had said yes…