If your town decided it was going to promote itself what would it do? A parade? Some pointless plaque above a door to celebrate a long-dead poet? When local businesses, local government and communities get together to give a boost to an area the results usually have little appeal to anyone without a senior citizen's bus pass. Blaenau Ffestiniog isn't like other places though. For a start most people can't even pronounce the name properly (it's bly-ny feth-tin-iog, sort of). The last few decades can't have been easy for the town, as the mines closed around it, work for the people living there got harder and harder to find. In 2009 a group of local people saw the way the world was heading for the town and clubbed together to form Antur Stiniog. The plan was simple: to promote the town as an outdoor centre. They had seen North Wales rise to prominence as one of the UK's most popular outdoor sports destinations, but Blaenau had missed that wave. They knew the town was surrounded by some of the best terrain in the UK and could see the benefits mountain biking could bring to an area. Eventually a plan was formed - a bike park...
They didn't aim small. The European Union has a fund for supporting developing areas (the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF) and Antur Stiniog successfully bid for £1.5 million. With that kind of investment they went big, even cutting in a new, direct access road to the summit of the mountain for the shuttle. Their very own Simon Williams got to work designing the trails, calling on the help of Mei Black of Xtreme Track and Phil Saxena of Architrail to bring them to life. What this adds up to is a bike park that is unmatched in the UK right now. Nowhere else has this combination of infrastructure and trails (yes Fort William has a chairlift, but they only have two tracks). That direct road means the shuttle is quick and you can easily manage fifteen runs in a day. Ranging from blue to double black, the trails have something for everyone and they are properly designed so they should stand up to traffic day-in, day-out. Ex-World Cup downhill racer Neil Donohue summed it up best - "I bought some of my coaching pupils here as the blue run is suitable for everyone, but that doesn't mean they have watered down the black runs. There's some big stuff up there if you want it."
What makes Antur Stiniog even more special is that fact that the town is behind all this. People seem to understand that bringing bikers into the area could be a good thing for them. The bike park park itself only employs people from the local area, it trains local people, and in a town with a past like Blaenau's, that is a great thing. And it's only just getting off the ground, standing at the top with manager, Bud, he proudly points out the lake out across the valley and sketches out with his finger where the cross-country loop will run. It looks like riders are going to need to figure out how to pronounce Blaenau Ffestiniog in the next few years...
| Even though it's only been open a few months, they are filling their minibuses every weekend and wondering whether they need to buy another one to keep up with the number of people wanting to ride here|
| At the top of the mountain it's surprising how far out from the world a minibus can take you in ten minutes. Although it's only a few hundred metres above the town, you feel like you're on at the summit of a wild, unforgiving mountain, which isn't too far from the truth.|
| People overuse the phrase "suitable for riders of all levels." Here they mean it though, and the range of riders booked over the weekend was huge. Neil Donohue opted to bring his group here so he could choose a trail appropriate to the riders he was coaching. Just because less confident and experienced riders can have fun here, don't think that means the harder trails are soft. Open the gas on anything red-graded and up and you can get yourself into a lot of trouble very quickly. The new double black run was still in construction when we were there, but it's a big track with some seriously manly lines.|
| High speeds are the order of the day for all the tracks. Once he was done coaching, Neil Donohue cracked out the V-10 and full-facer to show us how to get loose on the hardpack corners, but it was local pinner Iwan Griffiths who was the surprise of the day. He rarely bothers to ride a mountain bike these days, but still pulled huge, flat moto-style tables out of the bag.|www.anturstiniog.com
| Bud (top), Med and Nige. Manager and drivers. They managed the classic Welsh trick of making us feel incredibly welcome by utterly ripping the piss out of us. Cheers guys.|