Meet our members: Phil Lewis

Llanwonno forest, part of one of Cycling UK's Tales of the Trails routes
Cycling UK's engagement officer for Wales, Gwenda Owen, caught up with member and Valleys Regional Park lead Phil Lewis to ask what he loves about cycling in the Welsh valleys

Living in Cardiff, many of my bike rides involve heading up into the valleys of south Wales, along former railway lines and old roads to explore, to tackle some glorious climbs and enjoy the well earned views at the top. 

Last year we spent some time with two valleys communities in Ynysybwl and Clydach Vale, and, with Heritage Lottery funding helped them tell their Tales of the Trails, creating routes that allow the rich heritage to be discovered by bike.

These communities sit within the Valleys Regional Park and I was lucky enough to meet Phil Lewis, the man who is leading this exciting regeneration programme, whilst working on Tails of The Trails. The first time I met Phil in person was when he cycled over the mountain from Merthyr to visit our Bike Week event in Clydach Vale.

A short while after, we met up again at Parc Bryn Bach, one of the Discovery Gateways, where we chatted about what we both love about cycling in south Wales and about how we might be able to work together to enable many more people to explore the region by bike. Phil told me a bit more about his love of the valleys, cycling and what he's doing to enable many more people to enjoy both.

Tell me a bit about where you live and work and what is special about the area?

My name is Phil Lewis. I live in Merthyr Tydfil, about 200yds from the Taff Trail (NCN 8) on the edge of the Brecon Beacons and with access to some of the best cycling in the country across the south Wales Valleys.

I have the privilege of leading the team that is working across the region to develop the Valleys Regional Park through funding from the European Social Fund and Welsh Government.

The Valleys Regional Park covers the area of the old South Wales Coalfield which has gone through a remarkable recovery over the last 50 years, with the coal tips and pollution being replaced by stunning landscapes and linked by an excellent network of tracks and trails.

The Valleys Regional Park includes 12 iconic sites that act as gateways to discover all that the Valleys have to offer. This covers the superb cycling hubs at Afan Forest, Cwmcarn and Dare Valley Country Park.

I am extremely lucky to live in the Valleys and to have the opportunity to help more people experience this beautiful region. I take every opportunity to work from one of our park locations with a number of them within riding distance. There is no better place to work than in a country park and getting there by bike.

Have you always ridden a bike?

I have always ridden a bike and will never forget getting my first drop handlebar bike for Christmas. Over the years, I have owned all types of bikes from early mountain bikes to my latest steed, a Cube Reaction Hybrid electric hardtail mountain bike. For a number of years I was more focussed on road cycling and have completed Ride London three times including the infamous year in 2014 where we rode through the remnants of hurricane Bertha, an experience I’ll never forget.

I’m a larger cyclist, built more like a prop forward than the typical image of the road cyclist. I love and promote the fact that cycling is for everyone and do all that I can to encourage people of all backgrounds and abilities to experience the freedom of a bike ride.

What difference does an e-bike make to you?

At the end of 2020, I developed numbness in my right foot which turned out to be nerve damage as a result of a disc problem in my lower back. I’m currently on a very long waiting list for an operation. As a result, I was devastated to find that I was no longer able to ride my gravel bike.

After an initial period of feeling sorry for myself, I started to look around for a solution that would help me to continue riding. It took a few months with the impact of coronavirus and import issues, but in April 2021 I managed to get an e-bike and it has been a real lifeline for me.

It's allowed me to get back on the trails and has taken me to places that I had never explored in the past. In the past nine months I have ridden almost 4,000 miles. In June 2021 my father passed away after a difficult couple of years suffering from dementia. The benefit I got both physically and mentally from cycling was invaluable. Time to think in stunning surroundings and riding to places that held fond memories of my father.

I hear and read all sorts of comments around the use of e-bikes, but for me what is important is that we all get to experience the thrill of cycling and recognise that everyone has different abilities and needs. I see lots of people around the local trails that would never be out if it wasn’t for their electric bikes which is amazing.

For people who have never cycled in the valleys, what would you say are some of the main attractions?

The south Wales Valleys have a huge amount for all types of cyclists. There are the iconic hill climbs such as the Maerdy, Bwlch and Rhigos linking the Cynnon and Rhondda Valleys; world class trail and bike parks like those at Cwmcarn, Afan Valley, Barry Sidings and Bike Park Wales; a huge network of forestry trails and gravel riding; and many family friendly, relatively flat, cycle paths largely using old railway lines. There is also the new green trail and pump track at the gravity park at Dare Valley Country Park with coaching and an uplift. The Valleys is also the gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park.

With all this great riding there are an increasing number of businesses with a focus on attracting cyclists. We have some superb local bike shops and more and more options for accommodation - many with bike lock ups and bike cleaning facilities.

What prompted you to start volunteering with the Active Wheels cycling project in Merthyr Tydfil? 

During the coronavirus pandemic I have been volunteering as a support rider for Active Wheels, an inclusive cycling group with the aim of encouraging people of all abilities to get out on their bikes. However welcoming the traditional cycling clubs and groups are, there are many people who are not looking for the sorts of activities that they offer.

In Active Wheels, we offer one to one support, tailored to the ability of the rider, to build their confidence to get out on their bikes as well as social rides mainly on traffic free routes. 

We also have access to the new John Selwood sports track at Afon Taf high school which is an ideal building block for new or nervous cyclists to develop the skills and confidence in a safe and supportive environment. Through my work with Active Wheels I have now qualified as a ride leader.

We are early in the development of Active Wheel so will be looking to increase the number of riders as well as volunteer support riders and ride leaders. With so many great routes close to everyone across Merthyr Tydfil there is a huge opportunity to help our communities to use cycling to improve their physical and mental health and to see cycling as a lifestyle rather than a sport or fitness training activity.

Why did you join Cycling UK?

I am a member of Cycling UK and love the fact that the focus of the organisation is to help to make cycling more accessible to everyone. I see the great work that is going on in our communities to support each other and that has become even more important during the coronavirus pandemic.

We have a huge opportunity to learn from challenges of the past two years, building on the community cohesion and the increased connection with our environment and local green spaces that have helped us through the pandemic.

There has been a big increase in the number of people cycling during this time which presents us with a great opportunity to continue to develop a culture where cycling is a normal activity and part of our daily routine.

Through organisations such as Cycling UK we can come together to share solutions to problems and overcome barriers that we all encounter as we try to make cycling more accessible and develop a cycling culture.  

Most important question - What is your favourite ride?

There are loads of superb rides on my doorstep. The Taff Trail runs through Merthyr Tydfil with links north to Brecon or south to Cardiff. I really am spoilt for choice.

Since getting my e-bike, my favourite ride has been to head north on the Taff Trail to Ponsticill Reservoir before taking the forestry trail known as ‘copper canyon’ to Torpantau and dropping down on the gravel trail to Talybont on Usk.

On a good day, I may extend the ride along the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal before returning home following NCN route 8 in the forestry on the other side of Pontsticill and Dolygaer Reservoirs. It’s a stunning area to ride and it’s amazing to access these gorgeous places so close to home. An important part is the opportunity for a refreshment stop at the Star Inn or White Hart in Talybont or the Butchers arms or Red Cow in Pontsticill.

There are similar rides easily accessible to everyone across the Valleys. I feel extremely fortunate to be a cyclist living in such a beautiful region.