Penhydd trail, Afan Forest - MBUK Wrecking Crew report

Is this revamped XC loop still a South Wales classic?

The eagle-eyed among you who've picked up the latest issue of Mountain Biking UK (309, November 2014) may have noticed a printing error in the Wrecking Crew report, where the text from the first page has been repeated on the final page. Apologies for that – here it is in its full glory!

Wrecking Crew: Penhydd trail, Afan Forest – in association with One23

Words: Jake Ireland Pics: Russell Burton

We'd picked the wrong day to head to Afan. Obama had just arrived for the NATO summit in Newport so police lined the motorway nearly all the way there, and when we arrived at the forest there were even more rozzers milling around. Surely Barack couldn’t be keen to smash some KOMs?! 

Katy Curd and I wandered straight past the police and into the cafe, to be greeted by a couple of very surprised catering ladies. It turned out there was a royal visit too, and the cafe staff had needed their passports to get past security. Just shows how far confidence can get you! Either that or they recognised the 4X world champ...

Bring it on

Not long after, Doddy pulled up and we didn’t waste any time in getting cracking. He told us just how good Penhydd used to be and that he was keen to get out and see the changes they’d made in order to get this former South Wales classic reopened.

Straight up the first climb out of the centre, singletrack switchbacks get you gaining height fast, though they’re not at all technical, being shared by the Blue Scar trail. The climb doesn’t last long though, and a fast traversing section soon drops you down into the valley and on to a fireroad through some big, fast flowing berms. Across the valley, a bermed, jumpy tabletop run looks like the heaven we’re chasing, and we can’t wait to get there.

A fast traversing section soon drops you into the valley and some big, fast flowing berms:
A fast traversing section soon drops you into the valley and some big, fast flowing berms:

A lengthy fireroad climb soon ensues, with the only good thing about the next 20 minutes being the ability to have a natter with everyone on the way up the hill. The ascent is a proper slog, nothing like the technical singletrack climbs at most other trail centres – and on Afan’s own White’s Level loop – and the fireroad’s rough surface just makes it more of a pain. The ‘Just round the next bend’ sign doesn’t make things much better, when the climb still has a couple more turns and a quarter-mile straight before reaching the point where the blue trail turns right and the red heads left. 

Wot, more fireroad?

At the junction, we share our frustrations at the sheer amount of fireroad boredom, assuming that it’s all over – only to be met with yet more fireroad climbing, heading up a steeper incline at what already seemed to be the top of the hill. On finally reaching the summit we have a five-minute sit-down, which is the cue for a quick munch. We demolish what seems like enough flapjack to feed the 5,000, before embarking on the first section of singletrack proper. 

Disappointingly, it’s uninspiring to say the least, following a straight line down a fire break for less than a minute before popping you out on to another fireroad heading along the hillside. By this point, we’re chatting away about life, bikes and Doddy’s insane meat-based meal the night before, and itching to ride some trails that’ll keep us on our toes. 

The long climb gives you a chance to catch up with all the latest from your mates:
The long climb gives you a chance to catch up with all the latest from your mates:

Turning into the first piece of actual downhill, some flowing turns and fun, fast straights get everyone smiling. I follow Katy, and her smooth riding style really isn’t complemented by me blowing out turns and head-nodding hucks to flat, but there’s only so much a washed-up rider like myself can do! Smiling is enough though, and hitting the fireroad again we blast along to the next section of singletrack. 

Chasing rainbows

Traversing the hill, we eventually reach Sidewinder and Dead Sheep Gully, which were favourite sections on the original Penhydd trail back in the day. Sidewinder is several minutes of fun, old-school skinny singletrack descending, and Dead Sheep Gully is a natural-feeling traverse.

We end up at the corner of the valley, looking down on the road we drove in on. It dawns on us that the berms and jumps we were gazing so longingly at earlier probably aren’t on this trail at all but on the Blue Scar route instead, and we’ve been chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  

The trail may only be 14km long but you get a good workout:
The trail may only be 14km long but you get a good workout:

Then comes Rocky Rebellion, with a warning to drop your saddle. We head into what can only be described as a technical flat section that you really need the saddle up for, skirting alongside the fireroad for a real ‘kick in the balls’ feeling. Thank God for my dropper post though, because after crossing the fireroad Rocky Rebellion’s gradient does turn negative and the surface becomes truly rough. 

It’s hard to get up to speed, but once you’re going it’s a fast one, with rock slab turns and drops galore before you cross another fireroad and go into more flowing berms, where our hands get a welcome break. 

After the next fireroad crossing, it appears as if the trail building budget must have been used up, because the berms disappear and we all overcook the flat turns pretty effectively, as I almost monster-truck my way down the hillside. A fireroad descent drops you right into the bottom of the valley before a short climb and some token berms deliver you back to the trail centre. 

The trail is pretty tame on the whole, but there are still some possibilities for airtime:
The trail is pretty tame on the whole, but there are still some possibilities for airtime:

Red not rad

We were left slightly confused by Penhydd. Its red grading seems barely merited due to technicality – apart from the full-on Rocky Rebellion – and must be more down to the sheer amount of climbing involved. As a social ride with a bunch of mates it’d be a good trail because it’s scenic and you can chat easily most of the way round. But we couldn’t help but feel as if it never really got going – not enough for us to want to ride it again any time soon. You win some, you lose some…

The Lowdown

Distance: 14km

Climbing: 550m

Time: 2 hours

Grading: Red

Why ride here? A good social ride with some fun, flowing sections

Rad... Great for riding with mates, the views are pretty spectacular and the climbing gives a sense of achievement at the top!

Bad... A lot of fireroad climbing and the trail lacks flow, with too many disparate sections

Once you're going, rocky rebellion is a fast one, with rock slab turns and drops galore: once you're going, rocky rebellion is a fast one, with rock slab turns and drops galore
Once you're going, rocky rebellion is a fast one, with rock slab turns and drops galore: once you're going, rocky rebellion is a fast one, with rock slab turns and drops galore

Local Knowledge

Locals do... support the cafe and trail centre, ride more than one Afan trail in a day and take water and clothing in case the weather changes.

Locals don't... drop litter or ride alone.

There's lots of singletrack but it's not very technical: there's lots of singletrack but it's not very technical
There's lots of singletrack but it's not very technical: there's lots of singletrack but it's not very technical

The Directory

Getting there: The Penhydd trail starts and finishes at the Afan Forest visitor centre. Leave the M4 at junction 40 and head north on the A4107 for six miles. The visitor centre is on the right and signposted with brown tourism signs.

Facilities: Bike hire, bike wash, cafe, toilets and showers 

Contact: Afan Forest Park (www.afanforestpark.co.uk) / Cognation (www.cognation.co.uk)

Nearby bike shops: Afan Valley Bike Shed (www.afanvalleybikeshed.co.uk)

Other riding nearby:

Y Wal: Starting from the same centre, The Wall is technical and tons of fun.

Blue Scar: A fun blue run that shares some of the Penhydd route.

White’s Level: From the Glyncorrwg centre a couple of miles away, White’s Level is a true Afan classic.

Verdict: 2/5 – The reworked Penhydd is great for a social ride but not so good if you’re expecting a true red-graded technical blast.

One thing penhydd does have in spades is great scenery: one thing penhydd does have in spades is great scenery
One thing penhydd does have in spades is great scenery: one thing penhydd does have in spades is great scenery

The Wrecking Crew

Jake Ireland: Jake spends more time on two wheels than on two feet.

Katy Curd: 4X world champ Katy is fast and has style for miles.

Doddy: MBUK's features editor is on a never-ending quest to find the ultimate trail.

Wrecking Crew Wisdom

Jake Ireland: "Being up in the Welsh hills, the weather can change super-fast. Although we got lucky with our day out, it’s always worth taking a waterproof and a warm layer with you, as well as a good amount of drink – chances are you’ll slurp right through it with all the climbing! Penhydd is a great social ride, and if we did it again we’d take some sarnies and stop for a proper break to take in the great views and let our legs recover!"

Freelance Writer, UK
Jake comes from a downhill background but now spends most of his time smashing shorter-travel trail and enduro bikes down those same downhill trails. He's well known for pushing components and gear to their limits, and a little further.
  • Discipline: Mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Any type of razzing, anywhere, on any bike!
  • Beer of Choice: Cider! West country, like.
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