Think of sport in Wales and a white, oval-shaped ball might pop into your mind. But while rugby remains something of a national Welsh obsession, another sport has been growing steadily in popularity in recent years – one that often requires even tighter shorts.
“Cycling has certainly seen a boom over the last decade,” says Dr Georgina Harper, Welsh Cycling’s National Development Manager. “Since 2014 the number of members in our affiliated cycling clubs has doubled, while the last school sport survey showed that nearly half of young people want to take part in cycling.”
The Welsh are fast becoming a nation of pedal pushers, a trend Dr Harper believes has been partially spurred by the recent success of Welsh cyclists on the international stage.
Elinor Barker and Owain Doull both won gold medals on the track at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, while Geraint Thomas, also an Olympic gold medallist, became the first Welshman to win the Tour de France in 2018, duly draping the Welsh national flag over the famous yellow winner’s jersey.
Something for everyone
Miraculously, all of these cyclists got their first taste of the sport at the same cycling club in Cardiff, the Maindy Flyers Youth Cycling Club. But for Alan Davis MBE, who helped found the club and was awarded an MBE for his services to the sport in 2017, it’s no surprise Wales is producing top cycling talent.
“Wales has everything you need when it comes to cycling. I honestly don’t believe there’s a better place to get out on your bike, to enjoy and to develop your skills,” he says.
Though Alan has helped nurture a number of up-and-coming stars for a career at the highest level, what he loves most about cycling in Wales is how accessible it is.
“Wales is rich with facilities,” says Davis. “There’s an even spread of facilities and great routes to explore all around the country.”
Some of our best facilities include the The National Closed Road Cycling Circuit at Pembrey Country Park, Carmarthenshire, and the Geraint Thomas National Velodrome of Wales in Newport, while dedicated routes range from The Taff Trail, which whisks cyclists from the centre of Cardiff into the forested valleys of Brecon, and the Ffordd Brailsford Way, a circuit that takes in some of Eryri (Snowdonia)’s finest scenery.
Many of these routes are also set on designated cycle tracks away from busy roads, making them ideal for families with younger riders.
“That’s the icing on the cake for me: there’s something on offer for everyone, no matter where you live and what your ability,” says Davis. “The scenery is also beautiful, which helps with motivation on an up-hill climb, I can tell you.”
Someone more interested in speeding down hills rather than crawling slowly up them is champion mountain biker Rachel Atherton, who grew up hurtling around the mountains of Mid and North East Wales.
“I feel privileged to be able to travel all over the world to compete in my sport,” says Atherton. “But it’s great to come home to our little corner of Wales, with the knowledge that the place you live in is just as amazing as any place you’ve visited.”
Just like road biking, Atherton has noticed an increase in popularity of mountain biking in recent times.
“When we moved here [Llanrhaeadr, in the north of Powys] there wasn’t really a mountain biking scene,” she says. “Now within an hour of this place there are four or five well-established tracks.”
Mountain bike parks and centres can now be found throughout Wales, with notable examples including Bike Park Wales in Merthyr Tydfil, Coed y Brenin (run by Natural Resources Wales) in the Eryri (Snowdonia) National Park, and Coed Llandegla (managed by One Planet Adventure) in Wrexham. All the parks have a range of runs to suit both wobbly novices and seasoned pros alike, with coaching and bike hire often available too.
Wales also plays host to a number of annual mountain biking events, including the Dyfi Enduro, which has been running since 2001, and Red Bull Hardline, which has been described as the toughest downhill race in the world.
A testing landscape
For all of Wales’ biking pedigree and achievements on the biggest stages, for most riders it remains the Welsh landscape that is the real star of the country’s cycling scene.
“Riding in the Dyfi area makes me feel like I am completely connected with the land,” says Atherton. “I can’t help but be grateful for the opportunity to experience [the nature of] our home country as it always has been – and having a bloody good time doing it!”
This sentiment is echoed by Alan Davis, who believes the Welsh countryside not only entices riders to get out on their bike to enjoy it, but is a secret weapon when it comes to building cycling stars of the future.
“People ask me if I think the success that Geraint [Thomas] enjoyed is down to the environment that we have here in Wales, and, to be honest, it’s hard to challenge that,” says Davis. “Our coastline, hills and mountains are forces to be reckoned with and I’d like to think that’s what’s built Geraint’s endurance – and his legs! – for competitive races like the Tour de France.”