I'm super fortunate to live in South Wales because it's a brilliant natural hot spot for mountain biking. We've got some stunning landscapes with natural trails carved into the mountains of Brechfa. We have some technical and challenging trails at Afan Forest, and then in the heart of South Wales, we have BikePark Wales. Since I started biking, BPW was the holy grail which I had heard nothing but great reviews about. Gnarly downhill trails, intense features and uplift services that allows you to just keep going all day long, without the hellish climbs. Now if I'm being totally honest, the notion of going to BPW was a scary one. I didn't know if I was cut out for it, and even though I was confident on the blues and reds at my local trails, something about BPW made me nervous.
I decided to stop being such a ninny, and bloody go for it. So I made the hour drive to Merthyr and headed upto the bike park where the excitement started to get the better of me. I rolled to the front of the centre on my Canyon, and immediately I was faced with what can only be described as the most glorious bike porn I've ever seen. Santa Cruz, Orange, YT, GT, Nukeproof... my eyes couldn't get enough! Desperate to not make a total tit of myself, I wandered somewhat aimlessly, to the front desk. A lovely Lapierre owner must have seen the lost look on my face, and he helped me get signed in and get my passes for the day. Thank you Mr. Can't-remember-your-name!
My first time at BikePark Wales was a total blast! I made my way down all the blue trails, before attempting some of the reds. The uplift service was quick and efficient, the drivers were friendly and helped me get my bike onto the trailer, thank God! I'm not the most graceful of people when it comes to picking my bike up vertically and throwing it onto a rack. Imagine a turtle on its back, flaying its limbs around trying to get up...now imagine that turtle wearing bright pink shorts and a bike is tangled in its flaying limbs,... and that would be me. After a whole day there, I was pooped and I rewarded myself with a nice cuppa in the centre's cafe (great brew). Whilst re-living the day in my head, I felt utterly stupid. I couldn't believe I was afraid of this place, of the trails and the pro-looking riders there. I probably saw about 2 other women in that day and I had a nice chat with them, but the men were wicked too, making me feel welcome and "a part of the cool kids". The staff were amazing as well, and more than helpful with my newbie questions.
I feel that it's important for me to review the park and write about my experiences there in case there are others out there who are a little nervous about going to the big kid bike parks. Anna Astley is one of the five directors of BikePark Wales and she was kind enough to meet with me to chat about the park, and about women in riding. But first, I wanted to know about Anna, as a rider herself and how the park came to be.
Anna tells me she's been mountain biking for several years. Her husband, Martin who's a high level rider, wasn't too keen on having biking wife, but Anna showed him what she was made of and progressed to a level that won him over. Now Anna and Martin bike together, and like many of us ladies, it's a great hobby to share with the significant other.
The bike park began as a simple concept between two avid mountain bikers wanting to build a park in South Wales that would rival any other bike park in the world. The determination of Martin (Anna's husband), and Rowan saw their concept evolve into plans. After many years of discussions and preparation, Martin and Rowan, along with their wives Anna and Liz, applied for funding to build the park. The dream soon became a reality when permission was granted, and construction began. Each of the directors are responsible for their own area of expertise; Anna is a qualified accountant, transport manager and coach so she is in charge of the uplift services, park finances and coaching. Liz is the face you see first at the park, as she is in charge of the centre itself, the cafe and the staff. Martin is the marketing guru and bike shop man, and Rowan is in charge of the tracks, as he also owns "Back on Track" a trail building company. It's impressive to see such a strong business structure compiled of two "power couples" and it looks as though they well and truly have all their bases covered! Anna tells me that more recently they have had a fifth director join forces, and that's Ian who also runs Pedalabikeaway centre in the Forest of Dean.
After five long years of blood, sweat and (possibly) tears, BikePark Wales opened its doors in August 2013 with 24 trail lines, a fully kitted bike store and repair shop, and a super café for that much needed post ride cuppa. Since opening, BikePark Wales has added another two amazing lines to the already impressive list, a red jump line called the A470 and a black line called 50 Shades of Black. Anna tells me the trails are ever growing and that BPW aims to add another 1-2 new lines each year! What else could keep you wanting more? Earlier this summer, they open a new top-to-bottom blue line, Terry's Belly. This is the longest continuous blue descent in the country, and it's just as gnarly and brilliantly built as the other 20+.
The park is a pay-to-ride centre where you pay £6 entry fee by signing in and getting a band for your bars. This gets you access to the park, but a day's uplift pass will cost you an additional £25 (Mon-Fri) and £28 (Sat-Sun). It's advisable that you book these day passes online in advance so you can get priority queuing at the lifts, and unlimited rides for the whole day. When I met with Anna, she informed me that 100% of the £6 entry fee goes into trail maintenance and building. That doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that BPW welcomes over 60,000 riders per year, that £6 amounts to a lot of pounds and it's great to hear BPW investing that back into the trails. There's nothing worse than the lip of a jump eroding away, or a berm crumbling apart!
So, not only does the bike park boast the best network of downhill tracks in the UK with an uplift service, but they also offer some superb coaching sessions for all levels of ability. All the adult coaching sessions are £75 which gets you three hours of lesson time and a full day uplift pass so you can practise the techniques you've learnt. They even do women's specific courses which are perfect if you don't feel like mixing with the dudes. I took a women's Core Skills course in March and I found it really useful. There were so many little things I didn't realise were so important to riding more effectively and efficiently. Griff, the coach, has a great way of communicating techniques and offers superb demonstrations to really help you get to grips with the fundamentals of biking. It was also a great chance for me to meet some fellow female riders, something which was very rare for me at the time.
2016 is set to be the year of Adventure in Wales, and BikePark Wales are turning their attention to Women's mountain biking. Yay, just what I like to hear! After reviewing the visitor statistics, Anna and the directors noticed that female riders make up for a mere 8% - 10% of annual riders and it was agreed that action needs to be taken to promote mountain biking, and get more women out on the trails. To kick it all off, BPW have introduced more women's specific coaching which now goes beyond the Core Skills, and into the realms of drops and jumps. These courses are running throughout August, and if the Core Skills course I went on is anything to go by, it will be well worth it! Anna's got some other ideas in the pipeline for women's events and days, and I'm really keen to see them develop in the future, so watch this space because I think it's just what we need to boost the sport and women's involvement.
I asked Anna about her experiences in mountain biking as a woman, and what she felt was the biggest problem...
"My personal issue is with kit! It's so frustrating to have such a limited supply of women's specific mountain bike clothing and protection available. A lot of what is out there have poor material choices, ill-fitting cuts and tight necklines which aren't comfortable. I'd like to see more attention given to women's clothing and I feel that can only be achieved in a big way if larger manufacturers start producing a solid and stable range of kit. I'm hoping that by organising women's events and coaching at BikePark Wales, more companies and distributers would be interested in setting up pop-up shops at the park for women to try on and feel the clothes for themselves. We tried to stock women’s kit in the shop, but it’s a bit chicken and egg at the moment - we need more women riding the park to justify it, so we are working hard to get more women on bikes and hopefully can stock more kit for women".
I couldn't agree more with Anna on that point. Women's clothing is seriously lacking and a majority of what is out there, isn't appropriate for what you want out of it. I too hope that larger companies launch a wider range of women's MTB clothing which is varying and stable in production. I hate finding a perfect jersey, only for it to be discontinued the following season and you kick yourself for not buying 3 of them when you had the chance!
I love riding at BikePark Wales, it's my local park with amazing and well built trails and after meeting with Anna Astley, I kinda love it even more. Their passion for promoting women and their dedication to building and maintaining trails has given me a renewed respect for all the hard work of the directors and staff. I'm excited to see how the park develops in the upcoming years, and their involvement with women's riding. The needs of the mountain biker are truly understood by the BPW team and it's brilliant to see a successful bike park, built by riders, for riders.