Trail review: Afan Blade trail & Skyline

Blade trail at Afan.
Let’s ride around a bit.

The plan for the day was to visit Afan and check out the new Blade trail. I also wanted to address some unfinished business with the original Skyline trail. On the Christmas trip Gary Lee and myself had wasted an hour riding up a stream bed and through deep mud whilst trying to locate the trail. Since then I’d studied the google map aerial photographs carefully and a handy google map I’d made years ago (also available on the Afan Forest website). The status update there says “The Eastern section of the Skyline trail will be closed to riders during the development of Pen y Cymoedd wind farm. Please follow the yellow diversion signs from post 32.” Oops, I didn’t read that before riding.

I was originally supposed to be joining MBSwindon for the Penhyddiots club ride but I’d already ridden the  Penydd recently and I wanted to seek out the original Skyline trail.

I found a handy map of the new trails and had a good look at it the night before.

2014_02_16 Afan Blade Skyline Trail Map

New sections are shown highlighted in red. It’s the original White’s Level/Skyline climb up the White’s Level split and then the original fire road on top of the hill. A new section of trail cuts the corner and replaces a rather dull section of track. A new descent has been built down into the woods. The original descent is now the return climb back to the top. Two new link sections connect to the original Skyline trail (Joyrider). The rest is the original Skyline trail back to the trail centre. I didn’t spot the new link that cuts out a steep track climb (groovy gully) until I rode the trail. The descent now has an additional parallel trail. The good news is that the original Skyline descent is all intact.

The map also shows what has happened to the Skyline trail. The original trail has been retained all of the way to the highest point. The long fire road section to the south and the multiple return sections have all been closed whilst a wind farm is built (see my google map for clues). The diversion uses a section of bridleway along the top of the hill. I rode this at Christmas and it’s actually a good section of natural, rocky trail.

The day itself started very oddly. After a lie in I walked out of the house and realised that something was different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it though. Somewhere in the back of mind something stirred but I still couldn’t resolve it.

It was only when I saw a status update on Facebook that it hit me: there was no water falling from the sky onto my head! Happy days.

Skyline trail at Afan
Look – no rain.

Following a long trundle along the motorway I arrived at Glyncorrwg ponds and got moving in short time. The car park was rammed full and I could see lines of riders on the climb and the new descents.

The White’s Level climb is familiar ground for me. Over the years several sections of fire road on the upper trail have been replaced by single track. Last year a short section of singletrack was added just after the first fence and that was now all open again.

This was amazing! I could feel sunlight beaming down on me and warming my totally dry body. I’d forgotten how good this felt. It was almost Alpine.

The first section of new trail was fairly mundane singletrack uphill through the trees. This lead to the highest point where I found a large crowd of riders looking at the view.

Blade trail viewpoint at Afan.
Blade trail viewpoint.

I got stuck straight into the new descent. Sadly the damp conditions and popularity of the new trail had turned the surface into a sloppy mess. It clearly had masses of potential for a fast and fun section of trail but there was no way I was going to experience that with these conditions. Some riders muttered that the trail should have been left until conditions were better and I agree.

New Blade trail descent.
New descent.

Oh well, I was there now and my curiosity about the new route outweighed concerns about the trail condition. Selfish eh!

The descent through the woods looks promising. It goes down further than the old route and has a lot of big berms. I shed a tear for the original descent as I climbed up it. It was a fast, rocky blast along the edge of a steep bank.

At the top was more muddy singletrack which looped back to the top. That was followed by some muddy single track and a lot of very big, muddy berms that one day will probably be great. This delivered me to the top of the original Skyline descent.

A new (muddy) link goes out and connects to the Joyrider section. The final section reminded me of the Real Ale Wobble event – a big sea of mud with tyre tracks, puddles, clumps of grass and footprints all over it.  There was one slightly drier section where I started to sense the potential of the route.

It was a relief to loop onto some old trail and finally experience some rock under the wheels rather than slop. The set of rock steps reminded me of why I used to love some parts of the Skyline trail.

A new singletrack climb cuts out the last part of the track climb and this also looked like it would be good if it ever dries out. I was relieved to find the original Skyline descent is all still in place, particularly the rock steps.

At this point I sneakily cut off the Skyline descent and turned down a short link back onto the White’s Level climb. At the top I had a quick loop round the black section. This was definitely the most enjoyable bit of riding of the day. I recommend it.

Skyline trail at Afan
Skyline trail

My next activity was to ride the original Skyline trail.

I started by following the way marked trail to the view point. In the shadows on the hillside the air temperature was noticeably lower and there were patches of snow on the trail.

Past the viewpoint I followed the new trail signposts and then cheekily turned left at the next junction. After climbing round some fallen trees I followed the fire road south for several kilometres.It all came flooding back to me: this was the original, boring Skyline trail! Much criticised and unloved. I enjoyed it though because I was being an old skool trail bandit.

My google map homework paid off well and I found the singletrack start. It’s just past some guys on motorbikes should you need any tips.

I was encouraged when I found that the original signposts and stiles were still in place. There’s nothing particularly exciting about these remote Skyline sections in terms of technical trail. They make up for that in terms of location, ambience and fleeting views of the Glyncorrwg valley. Two or three sections of single track with some tight switch backs over river bridges eventually end on a very long fire road climb. This goes on for about twice as long as you think is possible and that’s already double what is reasonable.

Excalibur section at the Skyline trail
Excalibur trail section

Ask most people what they think of the Skyline trail and they will say that it just goes on forever. I used to think of it like that too. But then I warmed to it a bit more on subsequent visits. My thoughts on this ride were similar – overall it’s pretty good trail but it doesn’t have any major features to remember and there’s too much fire road linking it together. Now that it’s closed it’s got more appeal of course.

Glyncorrwg valley
Long forgotten Skyline trail

Light levels were falling by the time I made it back to the Blade trail and finished off my route. The original trail is sign posted as Skyline whereas the new options are Blade. I followed the old favourite since the new trail looked a tad muddy and I didn’t fancy any more of that.

Grand Canynon section of the Skyline trail
Grand Canynon

Verdict: The Blade trail has the potential to be a fun loop. Don’t try it until we’ve had a month without rain. I’ll let you know what I think then. See the review on mbswindon.

The official modified Skyline trail is worth following since it adds some interesting single track up to the viewpoint and a good bridleway return loop.

From what I’ve read the full Skyline will be reopening once the windmill wankers have finished (2016). Be a sensible person and don’t ride it until it’s open (or something like that). It’s worth riding just to say you’ve done it. You’ll probably moan about the fire road links though.

Map: Garmin connect | Strava | gpx

Distance  62 km Elapsed time  6:08 h:m Av moving speed  11.1 km/h
Elevation gain  1163 m Moving time  5:35 h:m Max speed  41.8 km/h
Energy  2340 KCal

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