Gripping onto my handlebars for dear life, I lean forward nervously and gaze down the steep drop-off from the top of the large sand dune I’m standing on. Below me, a wide and beautifully smooth beach extends away into the distance, but to reach it I must descend a 50ft, near-vertical slope that is covered in fine, treacherous-looking sand.
It wouldn’t be so bad if I wasn’t straddling the solid iron frame of a large bike. I’ve still got a few scars to remind me that I wasn’t a particularly successful two-wheeled stuntman as a kid, and I have very little faith that my skills have magically improved over the past 20 years. But as I stall at the edge, the reassuring voice of Corum Champion, a local outdoors guide, comes from behind.
‘Go for it, mate,’ he urges with a soft Welsh drawl. ‘You’ll see it’s super easy – there’s really nothing to worry about.’
I must be mad but there’s something trustworthy in his short vowels. ‘I wonder if I’m insured for this?’ I think, before setting off...
We’re in the Merthyr Mawr, a village near the holiday resort of Porthcawl in southern Wales. Astonishingly, this is home to Europe’s second largest sand dune: it’s called the Big Dipper and, at 200ft tall, it’s only bested by the giant 377ft Dune du Pilat in France. The dunes here are so mighty that they even appear in the 1962 film Lawrence Of Arabia, effectively passing as the Arabian desert. However, despite such a claim to fame, the nature reserve remains relatively unknown among all but a handful of nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, who are unhindered as they explore this haven for wildlife.
This amazing landscape, with its 840 acres of wild dunes, is inaccessible on a regular bike but is the perfect terrain to ride ‘fat bikes’ – special machines that enable riders to tackle all types of surface. The frame of these machines is roughly the same as a standard mountain bike made of tubular metal, but they have giant, almost comical, tractor-like tyres measuring nearly four inches wide.
The principle is simple: these large tyres are inflated to low pressure so that they absorb bumps, rough surfaces, snow, sand and mud. And it works. Midway down the slope, I’m delighted to discover that, instead of the front wheel digging in, it remains light and the bike is pretty easy to control. It’s also exhilarating, and you can do controlled skids to direct the bike. The sensation is a bit like surfing.
‘Once you try fat biking, you generally catch the bug,’ says Corum, who first got into the sport after trying a friend’s bike. ‘People sometimes think they’re a fad, but they change their tune once they see how good they are. I think they’re a real tool to develop the area.’
This is why, a few years ago, Corum moved from Cardiff to Porthcawl with his wife and children, and opened up a shop specialising in bike hire. He is keen to help develop the sport, and encourage more people to visit this special part of the world.
‘I think fat-biking is going to grow and grow,’ he explains. ‘People seem to love it, because the bikes enable them to do so much more than a regular mountain bike, while being just as practical to maintain and transport.’
Corum proves his point by showing us how to mount the bike to the roof of our Audi A3, which is equipped with the Audi Bike Rack. Made from aerodynamically formed aluminium, it’s sturdy and simple to use. The bike is lifted up onto the roof and then held in place by the articulated frame vice. It’s been city crash-tested for safety, and is also fully lockable.
‘Some bike racks can be a bit of a fiddle, but not this one,’ says Corum, surprised at how well it works. ‘It’s impressive kit.’
The car still handles perfectly with a bike on the roof, and even at speed there’s no wobble from above. Despite the fun we’ve been having on the bikes, it’s a relief to be driving off with a wheel back between my hands, rather than handlebars...
Words by John Silcox. Photographs by Juan Trujillo Andrades. With thanks to Saif Chaudry from Audi West London.