Bespoken Word – Do the new gravel trails at Coed y Brenin complete the “it’s just old skool MTB” circle?

Riders on aGravel trail
(Image credit: GuyKesTV)

It was nearly thirty years ago when I first visited what became the Red Bull (now Tarw Du) trail at Coed y Brenin. Forest recreation ranger Dafydd Davies had literally finished cutting brash and rolling the last of the boulders into marshes the day before. Turning wild mountain forest into 11km of challenging, purpose-built, all-weather singletrack. And it was that ‘All Weather’ aspect that suddenly had mountain bikers driving from all over the country to ride a loop that you could blast around in an hour if you were really flying. But the fact you could properly blast around it – as it was an officially sanctioned MTB-only trail – with signage to keep you on track was a massive draw too. 

It was so successful that additional trails followed and the forest hut cafe and bike hire set up by Snowdonian MTB legends, Sian and Dafydd Roberts, was replaced by a purpose built eco ‘visitor hub’ on the other side of the valley. Walking, running and wheelchair trails were built to radiate out from the center and keep different users – and their relative speeds – safely separated. The whole surrounding area and the major travel corridors to Coed y Brenin saw a dramatic economic boost from the extra visitors and the model was rolled out in South and Mid Wales. Then Scotland followed suit with the Seven Stanes project, which formalized trail building that was already going on around the Tweed valley and eventually led to the marvelous things being done to integrate and mature mountain biking by DMBINS.

Gravel bike in rocky stream bed

They might be gravel routes but some sections of the new Coed y Brenin trails would be a real challenge even on an e-MTB (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Back to the future

The interesting thing is that the Red Bull wasn’t actually the first officially waymarked mountain bike trail at Coed y Brenin. Two fire road based trails – Red and Yellow – had been in existence since 1991, which is where we come full circle with the news of the new trails. Because what happened after Covid is that Coed y Brenin saw a huge increase in the amount of riders who didn’t want to ride on road, but didn’t want to have to cope with rough, challenging off-road riding. The only official trail in that category ‘Yr Afon’ is less than 10km long, which was fine for self-propelled families who wanted to ride for a couple of hours. More and more riders were turning up on gravel or hybrid e-bikes and even if they stopped to look at the stunning waterfalls, old bridges and remains of the gold mining industry that used to fill the valley they were back at the visitor center in less than an hour.

So in the same way as Dafydd cut more challenging trails into the forests, current Natural Resources Wales trail chief, Andy Braund, has worked with his team and the local Beics Brenin and Summit shops to create a network of longer and lumpier gravel routes. He cites e-bikes as basically removing climbs as an issue too, making it easy for any rider to climb up to the incredible views of surrounding mountains that are everywhere in Coed y Brenin. In the same way as the original MTB routes include some real challenges even for experienced riders, so do the new gravel routes. The longest 'Y Wrach Wen’ route I rode has some steep, long and rocky climbs, stumpy forest descents and rocky tech descents I’d be massively impressed if anyone rode on drop bars.

But as I slithered down techy singletrack with a twitchy 71-degree head angle and rigid forks at the limit of my skinny tire traction. Or grunted up a steep climb in my small chainring with my hands perpendicular to the bars like they used to be on bar ends, it really did feel like I’d come full circle from sketchy trips to Snowdonia in the 1980s.

Gravel and MTB rider on mountain fire road

Whatever bike you're riding, the views of the Rhinnog mountains and other scenery from the new trails at Coed y Brenin are stunning (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Don't call it a throwback

But interestingly, I didn't feel like what I was doing was stupid or a waste of time that I could have been riding more radical trails on a more capable bike. My heart rate and adrenalin surge was just as big on the techier descents of Y Wrach Wen as it was when I dropped into the roughest sections of the Beast trail on a full-suspension bike the next day. I was concentrating a lot harder, using more skill and getting more of a sense of achievement trying to ride up the 'hike-a-bike' sections on what's basically a swamper road bike too. 

Coed y Brenin gravel waymarker on post

Each of the seven routes gets it's own color coded waymarkers (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

So while some people seem to be massively triggered by the whole gravel bike trend, I’m all for providing more options for people to ride at existing trail centers. More people coming to trail centres means more reason to invest in them or at the very least keep them open. At a time when many government agencies are being accused of being very wasteful, creating over 100km of waymarked riding for just the cost of the signage and some map packs is super cost effective too. Kind of like making biscuits with spare pastry from a pie. Coed y Brenin is already on the gravel/bikepacking map as Cycling UK's epic Traws Eryri Trans Snowdonia route passes right through the forest on its way north from Machynlleth to Conwy.

Trail maps on bench

The seven routes get a printed map for each one with highlight notes too (Image credit: GuyKesTV)
Guy Kesteven

Guy has been working on Bike Perfect since launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg