Monthly Archives: January 2015

Blade Trail

Trail centre: Afan

Grade: Red

Length: 24km (14.9miles)

Start point: Glyncorrwg trail centre.  Leave the M4 at junction 40 and follow signs for Cymmer.  Keep going straight on through villages, past the Afan trail centre and on.  Turn left down a steep hairpin into Glyncorrwg and continue on through the village.  Glyncorrwg ponds and the trail centre will be on the left.

Description: Much more of a sustained and technical challenge than most of the other red trails at Afan.  The singletrack climb is shared with Whites Level, and allows you to gain a lot of height without too much difficulty.  Then Blade leaves Whites and heads off into some technically challenging sections of singletrack.  Definitely a trail that will push you.

Good stuff: Every section of singletrack is something to look forward to.  The satisfaction of having ridden it and ridden it well would by immense, if somewhat beyond my current skill level.

Difficult stuff: Once you get into the singletrack sections specific to Blade, the difficulty level increases significantly.  The constant hairpins in Helter Skelter are a distinct challenge, and the rock that gives its name to The Rock section requires a level of technical skill that I am a long way from having.

Verdict: Excellent trail, but a distinct challenge for the bad mountain biker.

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Filed under Afan, Red, Trails, Wales

Whites Level

Trail centre: Afan

Grade: Red

Length: 17km (10.5miles)

Start point: Glyncorrwg trail centre.  Leave the M4 at junction 40 and follow signs for Cymmer.  Keep going straight on through villages, past the Afan trail centre and on.  Turn left down a steep hairpin into Glyncorrwg and continue on through the village.  Glyncorrwg ponds and the trail centre will be on the left.

Description: This trail is one of the two that ushered me back into mountain biking, and that I tend to use as a yardstick to judge other trails.  It’s nicely designed and for the most part completely rideable, although it has been heavily affected by forestry work at one time or another, resulting in diversions.  A largely singletrack climb gets a lot of height done without you noticing too much, and then a series of excellent singletrack sections will leave you grinning.  There’s an optional black-graded loop at the top which I’ll review if I ever ride it, and Whites can be combined with The Wall into the epic and black-graded W2, which again I’ve not ridden.  There’s two options for the final descent as well.

Good stuff: Every section of singletrack.  Energy is a particular favourite of mine, and Goodwood and Darkside provide some great and varied riding, even after the demise of the boardwalk in Goodwood.

Difficult stuff: Nothing hugely troublesome, though the occasional tricky feature might cause problems.  Take care with the bridges in Energy, and the dropoffs in Darkside.

Verdict: Excellent trail, perfectly designed.

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Filed under Afan, Red, Trails, Wales

The Wall

Trail centre: Afan

Grade: Red

Length: 23km (14.3miles)

Start point: Afan trail centre.  Leave the M4 at junction 40 and follow signs for Cymmer.  Keep going straight on through villages and eventually you’ll find the trail centre on the right.

Description: This trail is one of the two that ushered me back into mountain biking, and that I tend to use as a yardstick to judge other trails.  It’s nicely designed and for the most part completely rideable.  A long fireroad climb gets most of the uphill out of the way without too much difficulty or effort, and then begins a series of singletrack sections, each and every one worth looking forward to.  Can be linked to Whites Level to form the epic and black-graded W2, which I’ve never ridden.

Good stuff: Every section of singletrack.  Tramway and Graveyard are particularly fun.

Difficult stuff: Some sketchy moments at times – though most are fine with the right speed and planning.  The end of Tramway was the site of my one and only faceplant, so I’d advise picking a line that doesn’t end suddenly with a sudden dip, an unexpected log and a meeting of face and trail.  Keep right.

Verdict: Excellent trail, perfectly designed.

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Filed under Afan, Red, Trails, Wales

Gears

If you’ve read the ‘basic techniques’ page, you know that I’ve covered the basics of dealing with gears there.  Here it is in more detail.

Shifters: The things on the handlebars that you use to change gear are called shifters.  There are various different types of these, but they all work in generally the same way.  They control the tension on cables that control the gears themselves.  Generally they work either by twisting something that is wrapped around the handlebars, or by using the forefinger and thumb.  The shifter on the left hand grip controls the chainrings, and the shifter on the right controls the sprockets.

Derailleurs: At the other end of the gear cable is the derailleur.  Both front and back derailleurs are mechanisms that guide the chain onto a new ring.  Once the cable is tensioned correctly and the indexing screws adjusted the chain should shift cleanly onto each ring and run on it easily.  The derailleurs are balanced between springs and the tension in the gear cable, as controlled by the shifters.

Chainset: The set of chainrings – often three of them – mounted between the right pedal crank and the bottom bracket.  These are controlled by the left shifter, and are really for broad strokes.  The higher chainring is for high speed.  The lower chainring will be for power, like when you’re going steeply uphill.  The middle one is for everything else.  See below.

Sprockets or cassette: These are the set of sprockets mounted on the rear hub.  These are, broadly speaking, for fine tuning, although you’ll find you generally shift two or three at a time, as moving one gear is often too subtle to handle a change in terrain.

Chain line: Much as a bike will be described as having twenty-seven gears when it has nine sprockets and three chainrings, this is not strictly true in terms of usable gears.  On the middle chain ring, you can use all the sprockets.  On the others, however, the chain will only reach just over half of the sprockets without slipping out of gear and eventually damaging itself, the sprockets and the derailleur.  So on the higher chainring, you should only use the higher half of the sprockets, and on the lower chainring you should only use the lower half of the sprockets.  The way the gearing on a mountain bike is set up, however, the higher end of one chainring’s range will feel much like the lower end of the next, so the ‘lost’ gears are not missed.  For example 1-5 and 2-1 will feel similar, as will 2-9 and 3-5.

Anticip…

For the chain to switch onto a new gear, you need the chain to be moving forwards, so you need to be pedaling.  However, changing gear with the chain under heavy strain will cause problems.  The chain will not shift cleanly but will grind on the gears, and sooner or later this will damage the chain, the gears, the derailleurs, or all of them.

…pation:

So the solution is to anticipate changes in the terrain.  Changing up for speed is less of an important difficulty, because changing late will still work smoothly, but you’ll lose a few moments of speed or control.  It is still better to anticipate, just in order to get the most out of the ride.  Changing down to climb is much more important.  Failing to do so will mean a massive effort to ride, grinding the gears horribly, or possibly stalling completely.  So read the trail ahead of you.  If you see a climb approaching, build up some speed, change down in enough time that the chain has space to move before you start to climb, and then pick up the pedaling as your speed starts to drop on the hill.

If you should find yourself in a position where you’re in completely the wrong gear for the hill you’re trying to climb – if you grind to a stop and can’t see how to get going again – then lift the back wheel of the bike off the ground, switch down a few gears (normally three sprockets at a time will work ok) and turn the pedals with a hand or a foot until the chain moves.

A final point on gears: For all that mountain bikes have a huge number of gears, you might well not need all of them.  Personally, I only use the middle chainring – at all times.  The higher sprockets are plenty to give enough speed to propel the bike at speed down singletrack fun, and the lower have enough power to get me up the vast majority of climbs.  Given the tension on the chain, it is easier to change the rear gears than the front, and so remaining on only one chainring makes a great deal of sense.  However, don’t take my word for it.  Ride more, experiment with gears, and find what suits you, in terms of which gears suit your riding and are most economical to change to.

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Filed under Other stuff, Technique

Blue Scar

Trail centre: Afan

Grade: Blue

Length: 7km (4.5miles)

Start point: Afan trail centre.  Leave the M4 at junction 40 and follow signs for Cymmer.  Carry straight on through villages and eventually the trail centre is on your right.

Description: Wonderful but short blue graded trail.  Gentle singletrack climbing leads up to a short section of descent that leads into a longer fireroad climb.  Helpful section names ‘Just Around the Next Bend’ and ‘The Top’ let you know how you’re getting on, and then an awesome long section of singletrack begins.

Good stuff: The first descent section Jim Crow is a blast, and a taste of things to come.  Later on, Widow Maker (ignore the name!) and Hitchers and Ostlers are just as good, just as blue graded, and just as fun.  Very fun and achievable ride.

Difficult stuff: Not much at all.  Climbs are tiring at times.

Verdict: Excellently designed and great fun.  Good when ridden immediately after Penhydd or one of the other red trails.

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Filed under Afan, Blue, Trail centres, Trail grades, Trails, Wales

Penhydd Trail

Trail centre: Afan

Grade: Red

Length: 15km (9.3miles)

Start point: Afan trail centre.  Leave the M4 at junction 40 and follow signs for Cymmer.  Keep going straight on through villages and eventually you’ll find the trail centre on the right.

Description: This trail kicks off with a pleasantly gentle singletrack climb (gentle because it shares it with the blue graded Blue Scar), and then a short section of descent before a longer, and surprisingly rough fire road climb.  Reach The Top and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d reached the top.  Nope.  Another kilometre and a half of climbing still to go, but after that you’re into singletrack, that sweeps back and forth across the hillside and makes you feel like a proper mountain biker, although you may quickly be disillusioned by the more technical sections later on.

Good stuff:  Early on, Jim Crow is an excellent section of blue graded descent (again, shared with Blue Scar) and is an absolute blast – all big bermed corners and simple jumps.  Later on, Sidewinder is the genuine payoff on this route – a wonderful long section of singletrack that has you feeling like you’re miles from civilisation and at one with the bike.

Difficult stuff: The climb is tiring, but not as bad as some.  Late on, Rocky Rebellion is a surprisingly technical short section that can catch you out, and Revelation features some awkward rock gardens and some vicious dropoffs.  The surface is rougher and looser than some as well.

Verdict: Excellent, and generally more straightforward than The Wall or Whites Level.

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Filed under Afan, Red, Trails, Wales

On-trail issues: tiredness

Issue: You start up a climb that you’re assured has some excellent riding at the top of it.  Five minutes later your thighs ache terribly.  Ten minutes later you can’t breathe.  Fifteen minutes later the bike’s barely moving and your front wheel’s wobbling all over the place.

Damage: Feeling like hell.  Giving up.  Being very sore.

Remedial action: Received wisdom says – push through it.  I say – take a break.  It’s not a race.  Supposedly pushing through tiredness like this gets you fitter, faster, but personally I think that riding at all will improve your fitness, and there’s really no point in pushing on until you’re miserable and exhausted when five minutes to look at the scenery, have a drink, and gasp for breath will work wonders.  It’s a good idea to have a break at the top of the climb before the fun bits, too, since otherwise you can miss them or ride them badly because you’re so knackered from the climb.  Take it easy.  Have fun.

Ways to avoid: Quite simply, ride more.  The first climb after a period of not riding always kills me, but a couple of rides later I’m wondering what I was complaining about.  As you ride, your fitness will improve and your body will get more used to doing what you’re asking of it.

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Filed under On-trail issues, Other stuff

Challenge vs. Fun

If you’re like me (and it has been pointed out that this entire guide is based on the assumption that you are, indeed, like me) then you get a lot of other, better mountain bikers telling you what you ‘should’ do.  You shouldn’t ride blue graded routes.  You shouldn’t use flat pedals.  You shouldn’t use clipless pedals.  You should ride this dropoff.  You should ride this jump.  You should ride this trail.  You should get a better bike.  You should ride faster.

This is all very well.  Sometimes it’s good advice.  Sometimes it’s got good solid reasons behind it.  Sometimes it’s absurd.  If I try to ride something that a better mountain biker finds great at speed, chances are I’ll lose control and injure myself.  If I ride a technical feature that I’m not sure of, I’ll take it badly, fall off and injure myself.  If I ride much much further than I have before I’ll exhaust myself, begin to make mistakes, and injure myself.  If I get a better bike I won’t ride any better, it won’t be any easier, and I’ll (financially) injure myself.

One of the key things here is why we ride, and to a certain extent it’s a good idea to have a good clear grasp on your main motivation for riding quite early on.  It changes the decisions that you need to make.

If you’re mostly riding to get fit, then it’s best to push through tiredness, to set personal challenges, to increase speed and distance.  Consider buying gadgets to monitor not just your route, time, speed and so on, but also your heart rate, breathing and anything else relevant.

If you’re mostly riding with a view to getting very much better, then pushing yourself to ride more and more technical challenges would be great.  You should see rock gardens and look for the perfect line through them.  You should see dropoffs and back off up the track to take them perfectly.  Similarly with jumps.  You should try to ride every surface imaginable, and master technique.  You should buy progressively better gear, and look into the best bike, the best components, the best helmet, the best gloves, the best shoes, the best clothes for the task.

Personally, I ride for fun.  I’d like to get gradually better, but I’m ok if that progress is slow.  What I’m looking for in the trails is something that’s a little bit challenging but is that I can ride.  This is why I like to ride a combination of blue and red routes.  Blue routes typically are not terribly challenging, but are generally an absolute blast to ride at speed.  Importantly, they don’t generally feel like they’re going out of their way to try to kill you.  However, they are ultimately unsatisfying.  I get to the end of them feeling that I haven’t achieved anything at all.  My legs don’t ache for the next day or so.  Red routes, on the other hand, are generally a challenge.  Normally I’ll find at least one bit that I don’t think I can ride, and plenty that’s a bit tricky for me.  However, I come away from them feeling a little bit pushed.  I know there’s work to be done, and that next time I ride the route I’ll see if I can ride more of it, or do the tricky bits better.  But to tell me that I shouldn’t ride blue routes is like telling me that I shouldn’t have fun mountain biking.  Perhaps it’s a guilty secret, but I sometimes ride green routes too.  I enjoy them.  I wouldn’t want to stop there, but they’re fun for what they are.

The important thing here is – ride for yourself.  There’s no doubt that riding with a better or more experienced rider occasionally is distinctly helpful, but don’t let anyone else’s opinion of what you want to ride affect you too much.  One of the beauties of mountain biking is that you can do it at your own pace, at your own level.

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Filed under Other stuff, Technique

Family Trail

Trail centre: Forest of Dean

Grade: Green

Length: 17.5km (11miles)

Start point: Cannop Ponds cycle centre, Forest of Dean.  Head for the mid-point between Coleford and Cinderford and follow signs.  The centre is on the B4234, North of the B4226.

Description: Sweeping and gentle ride round the Forest of Dean.  Surface is entirely on broad tracks and gradient is gentle for the whole ride.  Short apparently blue graded sections flank the trail at times, but rather than being at all challenging they instead just provide a brief respite if you find the gentle smooth tracks monotonous.  Links can also take you into the towns and villages around the route.  Nothing about the route really constitutes mountain biking, although attempting it on a proper road bike may not be wise.

Good stuff: Excellent for families, very gentle ride that feels satisfying due to the amount of the forest seen from it.

Difficult stuff: Nothing.  Some of the short blue sections may require you to pedal.

Verdict: Excellent gentle ride.

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Filed under England, Forest of Dean, Green, Trail centres, Trail grades, Trails

Freeminers Trail

Trail centre: Forest of Dean

Grade: Red

Length: 4.5km (7.25miles)

Start point: Cannop Ponds cycle centre, Forest of Dean.  Head for the mid-point between Coleford and Cinderford and follow signs.  The centre is on the B4234, North of the B4226.

Description: Beautifully designed but short trail.  Makes a great ride when combined with the Verderers trail.

Good stuff: Excellent and beautifully designed singletrack trail.  Very fun and achievable ride.

Difficult stuff: Not much at all, though the initial dropout that takes a moment to stare blankly at when you ride it cold.  Climbs are tiring at times.  Some bits and pieces of tricky surface.

Verdict: Great, fun, rideable and brilliantly designed.

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Filed under England, Forest of Dean, Red, Trail centres, Trail grades, Trails