by Stephen White
Having not touched my bike for almost a decade, I’m apprehensive about how suited I am to visiting MudTrek. I’ve minimal skiing experience, so the company’s tagline, “Think of a ski chalet...for mountain bikers...in Wales”, only inspires images of my exhausted body being airlifted off a Carmarthenshire hillside and back to Cardiff.
Getting to MudTrek is an experience in itself. Just five minutes off the M4, I plunge into the winding roads of mid-Wales and the countryside closes in. It’s hard not to get distracted by the tranquil scenery and picturesque villages. A bronze buzzard glares down at me from a lamppost as I drive past; it reminds me of how my fitness is soon to undergo similarly intense scrutiny.
An hour later, the sat-nav’s chirpy announcement “Go off-road” is barely audible above the suspension as my car bounces along a dirt track, and I consider turning back. However, I park up at MudTrek and am cheerfully greeted by Jason, the tour guide. Within ten minutes I’m sitting in a cosy farmhouse kitchen, drinking tea and chatting to his wife, Nikki, whilst a trio of excited beagles clamour for my attention.
Situated between Llanllwni and Brechfa, MudTrek Mountain Bike Breaks offers fully-catered mountain biking weekends and holidays incorporating guided rides. In addition, they offer non-residential tours around the trails of the Carmarthenshire countryside. The graded trail centre at Brechfa is on their doorstep but MudTrek specialises in "back country" riding from the door - a chance to see some of the best natural single-track in Wales in the safe hands of a qualified guide who knows the area inside out.
For guests staying overnight, two adjoining chalets offer separate accommodation for up to 6 and 8 people respectively, but these can be opened up into one grand lodge for larger parties. These renovated barns bear all the mod-cons and chalet comforts you'd expect, with a farmhouse solidity. Sky lights supply spacious kitchens and open lounges with natural light. Low beams and pine furniture add alpine notes to the bedrooms, though a distinctly Welsh quirk lies in the possibility of there being a sheep staring back at you when you open the curtains in the morning. The menu is varied and supplies all you need to get ready for, or recover from, a day on the trails; reviews suggest guests come as much for the food as for the biking.
As I listen to the couple’s story, my eyes are drawn to the view outside: grassy fields fall away to the Preseli Hills, and beyond a ribbon of Irish sea blends with the horizon. It’s the kind of picture you hold in your heart as you work to turn dream into reality. The one-time singers in Somerset took a leap of faith to combine Jason’s love of mountain biking with Nikki’s obvious instinct for hospitality, and - to the delight of Mudtrek’s guests - good cooking.
Guests are welcome to bring their own, but full-suspension hire bikes are available at £40 per day. After I’ve changed into a make-do of old shorts, running top and running trainers, I am presented with my “steed” for the day. When I try out the Bionicon for the first time, I’m glad I left my own “mountain bike” at home in the shed where it belongs. The yard is empty but external developments tell of a business on the up. “We’re having a new bike shed built with a workshop, extra bike storage and wash-down”, J explains through a plume of dust drifting over from a disc-cutter reducing concrete blocks to size. As we leave we pass a field where J is building a skills course for guests to use.
I grew up mountain biking at Cwmcarn in south Wales, but my experience and knowledge are firmly in the 90s, when bar-ends were fashionable and toe-clips were common sense. J explains that he prefers flat pedals because in the event of a tumble you can “kick the bike away from you”. I feel my throat tighten fractionally.
Five minutes out of MudTrek and I’m following J’s advice to “let the bike do the work” as we head down a toboggan run of slate and small timber. The suspension systems come alive and I soon develop a rhythm akin to the ‘shwoop’ of skiing or the glide of surfing. Soon my fears are all but gone - I am one with the trail and I leave J far behind. He catches up to find me pressed into the mud, my bike five metres to my right. Succumbing to the temptation of going faster is only natural and being brought back down to earth with a thud is all part of the learning process. Before getting back on my bike, I re-adjust my helmet and pause to listen. Above the tinkle of a nearby stream, not a synthetic sound to be heard. “I suppose it gets a bit busy during the weekends” I say, knowingly. J looks up and reflects, “Apart from our groups, I’ve never seen anyone else here, ever.”
Isolation is one of the selling points of this place. Beyond the far-reaching established Brechfa trails are a warren of runs which only J knows - genuine secrets which mean a searing downhill section or a gentle wooded path are only ever a short pulse away. The company is also on its own in being the only one-stop-shop for mountain biking in the UK.
As we progress, J rapidly builds an idea of my profile as a rider and adapts the route accordingly. The fact that I have a breathtaking ride and make it back in one piece shows his appreciation of the fine line between putting a client out of their comfort zone and putting them out of their depth.
Of course, it’s not just the big kids who like biking adventures. As we go, I’m pointed towards a variety of track choices. “See that small hill over there? That’s great for building younger riders’ confidence going downhill”. Children are very welcome at MudTrek and are sure to have a blast on the green and blue trails at Brechfa which were designed for families and less experienced riders.
Safely back at the lodge, I take a hot shower, the sweet relief of which nearly draws me to tears. In line with the chalet experience, the importance of après-vélo is not lost on MudTrek. There are a few good pubs nearby which guests can be given a lift to (and back from). Perhaps not the trendy bars of Tignes, but what these taverns lack in continental cool, they make up for in provision of authentic essentials: open fires, real ales and great memories to yarn over. In between stirs of a large pot of Bolognese sauce, Nikki chats about the social side of things. “If guests are up for it, we have them round for a drink and to look at the photos taken during their ride. It’s not mentioned in the package but the option’s always there”. It’s one of several indications throughout the day which suggest that, beyond the great customer service Nikki and J offer, they know what hospitality means, and this hospitality is always on offer but never imposed.
Driving away from MudTrek, my worst fears are realised: I’m exhausted. But it’s a happy exhaustion and as the website forewarns, I wish I could take my bike home. I gaze at the lengthening shadows and a buzzard carrying the sunlight across the valley. Despite my cold feet, there was a very warm welcome in the hillside. I'll definitely be coming back to MudTrek.