Reporter LAURA LEA gets on the back of a motorbike to discover the bikers’ paradise and the community that comes with it, on Gwent’s back doorstep.
ON the first dry and sunny Sunday of 2014, I couldn’t have picked a more perfect day for biking.
Less than 10 minutes north out of Newport, we’re on straight long roads bordered by luminous fields with grazing cattle set beneath the dramatic backdrop of the Brecon Beacons. It wasn’t long before we started to come across fellow bikers, who would nod or wave as we rode by.
David Lea 53, a rider from Newport and my chauffeur for the day said: “You’re in contact with everything rather than just observing it. On a bike you’re totally connected with what you are doing.”
Unlike a car, motor biking is often about the journey as opposed to the destination as the term ‘ride-out’ suggests.
But destinations asides, stop-offs are very important for bikers. And one of the most popular ones in this neck of the woods is Abergavenny’s bus station.
The Abergavenny bus station has long been a meeting point for bikers attracting up to 1000 bikes on summer weekends. It has the three vital components: lots of parking space, hot drinks and bacon butties.
The man responsible for the vital sustenance is Carl Hughes of the Oasis cafe - a simple set-up in the corner of the car park.
The car park has been a biking stop for the last 20 years. “You start getting a few and it just grew more and more,” Mr Hughes said.
“They come from all over the place. They often start here and come back a few hours later.”
When we arrived, there were at least 100 bikes.
“There are a lot of women and kids too. Some of them come out in their cars in winter. We know a lot of them by name,” said Mr Hughes.
And on Sunday, among the bikers were non-riders who had simply come down for a chat and to check out the bikes.
Glyn Powell, of Blackwood, was having a quick cuppa in Abergavenny before heading towards Storey Arms for the next coffee stop.
“You stop and have a chat – that’s what it’s about. You meet all sorts – doctors, dentists, policemen - lots of professionals,” he said.
The 63-year-old, who drives a car Monday to Friday, told me he had been out riding almost every Sunday since he was about 20.
The Steel Horse Cafe is the latest addition to the Abergavenny circuit, five miles from the Abergavenny bus station in LLanvihangel Gobion. Opened last year by 26-year-old Finn Mcloughlin, the old pub offers breakfast, lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Sunday.
On Sundays, hundreds of bikers gather in the car park. “It’s the busiest day by a long shot,” said Mr Mcloughlin.
A bike seller and chef by trade, the young businessman has managed to pair both his hobbies with his bike shop now just next door to the cafe in the car park.
The born and bred Abergavenny biker has been riding since he was 10-years-old and said: “I’ve always mixed business with pleasure.”
Backed by a dedicated team of staff, Mr Mcloughlin assures me a passion for bikers isn’t on the job description – although it’s likely to have developed by the time they leave.
“We have got lots of regulars and some bikes that come down a couple of times a week from Newport or the Valleys. People make an effort to stop by. We’ve had people come down from Birmingham just for breakfast.”
It’s not uncommon for Mr Mcoughlin to be fixing up a bike in the car park, while the rider enjoys a fry up inside.
“People on bikes will always help each other out. There’s instant common ground. It’s a nice group to be involved in.”
This sense of community and friendliness was something I not only became aware of but experienced myself.
“There’s camaraderie. You have a connection with other bikers because they are familiar with what it’s all about. It becomes very social and it’s a strange thing but people just talk to you,” Mr Lea said.
“Bikes when they pass each other will wave and if you’re stuck at the side of a road, a bike will stop for you. I think part of it is you are the minority opposed to car users.”
Looking around at the riders, most of which are middle-aged, clad in luminous jackets and drinking tea, it’s funny to imagine the wild hairy bikers some people are so wary of.
Only last year Monmouthshire councillors raised complaints after Mr McLoughlin was granted an alcohol license for The Steel Horse Cafe – despite the premises being a bar before he took over.
Brian Jones, managing-director at South Wales Superbikes store based in Newport, said: “A lot of charity events go on. People should focus on that not the Hell’s Angel stereotype.”
Mr Lea agreed. “The image might have been a long time ago of biker gangs, but the majority of bikers are probably similar to my age these days and do it for the love and joy of biking,” he said.
One group – the Margam Knights - who arrived at the car park had ridden down from Port Talbot and were sporting matching leather waistcoats blazoned with badges. But look a little closer and you see the embroidered patches detail numerous Help the Heroes parades such as the ones in Wootton Bassett, which the club have attended.
Ironically, many of the bikers I met spoke about their vulnerability on the roads. Despite being so popular with motorbikes, cars still aren’t as aware as they should be.
Despite puncturing both his lungs during an accident in 2008, Carl Whitcombe of Pontypool is still riding today. He admitted he had noticed a change in the way he drove his car since owning the bike.
“It needs more awareness. The roads are dangerous.”
But it’s easy to forget the risk on the serene stretches of road.
“It’s just the draw of the surroundings. Every direction you look, you can see mountains,” said Mr Whitcombe.
Store owner Mr Jones felt the same: “The scenery and the roads are stunning and just on our doorstep. Less traffic and open sweeping bends – it’s just ideal for motorbikes.”
“Welsh roads are just beautiful,” Mr Lea added and it seems Gwent may have the pick of the best.