We’re still scouring the country for the best blue-graded mountain bike trail in Britain, Our first instalment saw us ride the best that England has to offer, the Verderers Trail in the Forest of Dean, but this time around we head across the Severn Estuary to Wales.
After hours spent pooling the BikeRadar and MBUK teams’ own extensive knowledge, reaching out to contributors and consulting our followers on social media, a clear Welsh favourite emerged at BikePark Wales.
We’ve got just two criteria to bear in mind. First, our overall winner has to be fun for both the people it’s designed for – classed as ‘intermediate’ cyclists, but really beginners in MTB terms – and more advanced riders. Pootlers and pinners, if you like. This means it needs to be enjoyably flowy at lower speeds but a corner-smashing, roller-manualling, gap-finding blast when ridden flat-out.
To judge this fairly, we sent along our newest team member, Julia, accompanied by experienced racer Luke.
Second, it has to be ridable as an entertaining loop – so the climb can’t just be a long, dull fireroad slog all the way to the top, and we’re not including bike park runs that can only be accessed via a push-up track or by hopping on an uplift vehicle. So, you may ask, what are we doing here at BikePark Wales?
Well, while you can sling your steed on one of the centre’s many bike trailers or pedal up the forest road, should you so wish, BPW also has a proper climb, Beast of Burden, which is primarily singletrack.
This means you can forgo an uplift ticket, purchase a pedal-up pass and turn the hill into a trail centre with a decent-length loop. There are no fewer than 12 blue trails to choose from, which can be linked in different combinations as you make your way down.
These vary in length from just over 300m to 4.6km, and are mostly flow trails, but with a handful of more technically challenging options thrown in for good measure.
Several could have made our shortlist – and in fact BPW’s longest continuous trail, Terry’s Belly, did – but the clear winner among our staff, contributors and readers was Sixtapod into Willy Waver.
So now it’s time to ride it afresh and see what all the fuss is about aboard our shiny new Saracen bikes!
This route is somewhat different to the Verderers Trail we featured last month, in that it’s a ‘winch and plummet’ affair, meaning you gain all your height in one sustained climb then drop in for a long descent back to the bottom.
The Beast of Burden climb certainly lives up to its name, rising pretty steeply on some doubletrack straight from the visitor centre. The sting is in the first few kilometres, but at least the most challenging part is out of the way early, when you’ve got the most energy.
Julia and I settle into a steady pedalling rhythm, trying to find the smoothest line and keep traction on the loose surface.
Crossing the uplift road, we get a glimpse of riders loading their bikes on the trailer, but that’s not our reason for coming here today. Our pangs of envy are soon replaced with deep breathing and strong pedal strokes.
Into the unknown
I’ve tackled this climb before so I know what’s in store, but it’s only Julia’s second visit to BPW and her first time pedalling up. I tell her it becomes easier as we go on, but she’s not comforted by my optimism.
The first singletrack section features a few steep kinks in the trail and some technical obstacles, requiring a strenuous effort. Inexperienced riders may expect to stall a few times, but these flow hiccups aren’t relentless and between them there’s a smooth trail.
The gradient is manageable but requires power as it hairpins through the undergrowth.
Once you clear this section and get into the dense coniferous woods, the climb becomes a lot more flowing.
It traverses the hill parallel to the fireroad, where you’ll see most non-uplift riders grinding up – if you’re looking to thrash out the laps, that’s probably the most efficient way to get up the hill under your own steam.
Pleasure and pain
After the Beast wiggles through the trees, and a few root steps try to catch us out, we regain our breath as the trail flattens.
The initial punch behind us, we cruise along the undulating, narrow path. Sure, it climbs, but you can take some time to appreciate the charms of the forest, and this middle section even gets verbal praise from Julia.
The last wooded part of the climb is a lot less ridden – the trail is covered in pine needles and the ascent steepens again as it shimmies between the dense trees.
However, it’s not long until it emerges near the top and we’re back into the sunshine. The final stretch to the summit is a long, straight track filled with sizable loose rocks.
Today, with the sun shining and dry soil under our tyres, it’s not a chore to complete the climb and we ride side by side, revelling in the knowledge that we’ve nearly made it to the top.
Time to have a quick snack and look at the trail map before the main event… There are so many brilliant runs starting from here, but we resist temptation and stick to our plan – Sixtapod into Willy Waver.
Dropping in: Sixtapod into Willy Waver
It’s wise to rest at the top after riding up because the first section of Sixtapod is fairly flat so demands a bit of effort.
Julia and I power into it, getting up to speed quickly and appreciating the berms that help carry our momentum before the trail points downwards after the first sweeping left-hander.
Here is where the pace picks up, and so does the fun. The track makes good use of the hill as it fires us down steep ramps into catch berms that shoot us out the other side, rising slightly to help control speed.
If you’re brave, this section can be ridden brakeless and you get a real sense of speed. The track is pretty wide, but there’s a main line that’s mostly clear of loose stones.
It’s not super-smooth today, but decent tyres with good volume help take the buzz out. Just off this line is looser gravel, which is fun to ride in if you like drifting turns – the long, sweeping berms are ideal for this if you hug the inside lines.
As we approach the treeline, I slow down and pull over to the side expecting a rest, but Julia comes straight past and darts into the woods. Maybe it’s just me who’s feeling the strain then?
I jump on her rear wheel as we round the first berms, and manual the three small doubles to catch up as Julia pumps through them. In the woods, the trail meanders through the moss and trees, and the tempo picks up again, with plenty of little gaps to jump if you’re going fast enough.
All the features are rollable so you know there’s little danger, it’s just about giving a little pop to get some air.
The trail breaks out of the trees as it splits into a red and blue option. Fortunately, Julia feels this is the right place to take a break, and we step off to the side of the trail to catch our breath.
The last section of Sixtapod traverses the hill with a few curving arcs, continuing to dish out heaps of fun before popping you out onto the fireroad.
All killer no filler
Willy Waver starts just across the fireroad and raises the game to another level. Its smoother surface and slightly steeper gradient boost the flow and thrill down this rollercoaster trail. The linking turns are well supported, letting you lean the bike over to some serious angles.
Julia has a rowdy drift around one turn, after picking up more speed than expected and getting a little too keen on the rear brake. Locking the wheel, she starts skidding sideways but does precisely the right thing and lets go of the brake to regain traction.
However, the loose surface means she continues her drift. Following behind, this looks awesome, like it was completely planned. It’s only her squeak – a mix of fear and joy – that gives her away, and makes me chuckle at her unintended showmanship.
Just like Sixtapod, Willy Waver is a decent length, which makes the ride up the Beast well worth the effort. Plus, the trail just keeps on giving, flowing from one cool feature to the next, keeping you engaged and entertained the whole time as you flick the bike from left to right through its perfectly-linked berms.
The track finishes with a flourish thanks to a small kicker on the exit of one of the turns, your last chance to get some air.
We roll out the bottom wearing huge grins – this loop is a banger. It’s tough, but tough to beat, too.
A short pedal up the fireroad and we’re back at the visitor centre for some lunch and well-earned rest. It’s not long, though, till we feel the call of the mountain beckoning us up the hill again…
Beast of Burden; Sixtapod; Willy Waver
Where: BikePark Wales, Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales
Trail length: 8.4km (4.5km/2.2km/1.7km)
Get there: CF48 4TT
Paul Haigh – MBUK reader
“Willy Waver’s the best blue trail, hands down – perfect flow for the average Joe.”
More info: BikePark Wales
“The clue is in the name, but the Beast of Burden climb isn’t truly beginner-friendly… Overall quite technical, it demands good balance and strong pedal strokes to get to the top, and the first metres of the ascent can be discouraging.
“Sixtapod then kicks off on the flat, however, once you get your momentum the flow is incredible throughout the descent, and into Willy Waver.
“I particularly enjoyed the woodland section with small tabletops, trying to get split seconds of airtime.
“After months of being closed, the trails were feeling a bit loose under the tyres, but this shouldn’t be an issue any more.”
“If you’re willing to put the effort in, you’re in for a big reward. Sure, the climb is no easy feat, but there’s no time limit and no danger if you have to dismount for some features. Plus, over half of it is really enjoyable. Also, there’s something to be said for the ‘type two’ fun it provides once you’ve conquered it!
“The top is very exposed, so dress appropriately. Sixtapod and Willy Waver are both outstanding runs with an excellent entertainment factor.
“Their blend of speed, quick direction changes and varying gradients make them really fun to ride. They’re safe for most ability levels, and the faster you go, the more speed it’s easier to generate from the jumps and pump bumps. Win-win!”
Where: Byrgwm car park, Brechfa, Carmarthenshire, South Wales
Trail length: 14km, including Derwen Green
Get there: Use ‘Brechfa’ in sat-navs
Siobhan Kelly – MBUK contributor
“For sheer riding pleasure in a really beautiful and remote-feeling environment, this is a firm favourite. It starts off on the green trail with an undulating climb through the mossy oak forest, punctuated with fun flowy descents, then the blue peels off for an extra 5km loop. This takes you higher up, so you can enjoy a great descent with rollers and switchbacks.
“The last section (back on the green) is a fast and super-fun line of rollers that’ll have you whooping with joy. And because they finish at the car park, you can just loop up the fireroad to ride them again!”
More info: Mountain Bike Wales
Where: BikePark Wales, South Wales
Trail length: 9.1km (4.5km+4.6km)
Get there: CF48 4TT
Will Poole – MBUK workshop manager
“Accessed via the same climb as Sixtapod, Terry’s Belly is the longest continuous blue descent in the UK, at 4.6km, with something to keep everyone entertained. Every feature is rollable, so it can be ridden at any speed. There’s enough going on that there’s a rest area part way down, which the majority find necessary.
“The faster you go, the more lines open up, so you’ll get just as tired as someone less confident. At the top there’s the option to divert down Popty Ping (a ‘blue +’ trail) to get some jump practice in, and the whole way down there’s flow aplenty.”
More info: BikePark Wales
Where: Cwmcarn Forest, South Wales
Trail length: 3km
Get there: NP11 7FA
Andy Lloyd – MTB photographer
“The newest addition to Cwmcarn’s trail network (for now), the Pwca is a fun bonus loop if you’re riding the other delights of the valley or a great place to start if you’re relatively new to riding.
“There’s a short, punchy climb from the car park to get to the start of the descent, then 2.3km of jumping (if you dare), pumping and railing berms. The more you ride this trail, the better it gets. There are features all the way down, which can all be rolled, but the fun comes when you start to double or triple these to maximise speed and flow. Just stay off the brakes!”
More info: Mountain Bike Wales
Where: Coed-y-Brenin, North Wales
Trail length: 12km (can be ridden as a shorter 3km, 5km or 9km loop)
Get there: LL40 2HZ
Max Darkins – Rough Ride Guide MTB route guru
“This popular trail is made up of four loops, each continuing off the previous one to offer progressively harder riding. The smooth but loose surface weaves gently between the trees, its undulations providing a good warm-up for legs and skills, with a couple of small (rollable) drops before the ‘Slipway’. This is the section everyone talks about, with 10 wonderful big berms in quick succession.
“The fourth loop offers more remote, narrow and rough singletrack, and visits beautiful waterfalls. Although not a technical ride, this fun, fast-flowing trail will entertain riders of all abilities.”
More info: Mountain Bike Wales
Other blues worth a bash
If you forget about the ‘fun loop’ rule, the super-flowy Rabbit Run descent at Black Mountains Cycle Centre has got to be one of the best blue runs in the UK.
Sticking with uplift-accessed bike parks, Antur Stiniog has three great blues – Jumper, Shaft and Detonator – filled with berms and opportunities for airtime.
Want to earn your turns? Nant yr Arian’s Melindwr trail is made up of two short loops, with a natural feel and some fun, flowy descents.
Afan Forest Park’s Blue Scar has some enjoyable singletrack too, but starts off with a fireroad grind that can be offputting for newbies.
Coed Llandegla’s blue route is okay for absolute beginners, but came in for a bit of flak on our social media with some people complaining about the long, dull climb to the start and the trail’s lack of exciting features, although others were big fans.
The Mach 1 trail near Machynlleth is a long (16km) loop out into the wilds with a correspondingly lengthy descent.
We’ve not yet ridden Coed Trallwm in Mid Wales, but it’s got a 4km blue trail with challenges including a stream crossing.
Saracen Ariel 30 Pro
Julia rode Saracen’s new trail bike, the Ariel 30 Pro (you can read our Saracen Ariel Pro 30 review here).
Sporting 130mm of travel front and back, aggressive reach numbers and wheelbase lengths, plus a stable 65-degree head angle, this bike is ideal for building confidence and won’t hold you back, no matter what you throw at it.
Saracen Ariel 60 Elite
Luke rode the enduro-focused Ariel 60 Elite.
It rocks 160mm of suspension front and rear, and is capable of spicing up your line choice, whatever trail you ride, but without it ever feeling like it rides heavy.
Its stable mountain bike geometry means you can carve your own path down the hill.