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Wales big ride: Natural wonders of Snowdonia

In association with
In-depth
12 Sep 2018
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Words Peter Stuart Photography Rich MacIver

We’ve made a pact – there will be no showboating, no signpost sprints and no Pantani-inspired mountain breakaways.

We’re at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park and it’s a day of blistering sunshine. The roads are quiet, the hills are steep, and the views are magnificent.

With that in mind, I’m determined not to spend a day chewing my handlebars. This is one ride we are going to take gently so we can enjoy the splendours of this beautiful corner of Britain.

Before we can fully appreciate nature, however, we have to get to grips with all our technology. Josh and Chris, who ride regularly in these hills, have a road race in Aberystwyth tomorrow so will be sticking religiously to a pre-set power output and heart rate.

They’re currently working out the specifics with some GCSE maths and a calculator app. I’m doing my upmost to get my new Campagnolo EPS electronic groupset working properly, while the last member of our quartet, Therese, is busy searching for a satellite signal on her Garmin. 

Luckily, Snowdonia and the sunshine are patient. Who needs scenery when you have electronic shifting, ANT+ and power data?

A segment of history

We set off from the town of Machynlleth, which is pitched between the bare, rolling hills of the Cambrian Mountains and the rugged wilds of Snowdonia.

The town has quite a history, starting off as a copper mine about 3,000 years ago, dabbling with the Romans a millennium or so later, and it was the site of an English Civil War battle about 1,200 years after that. 

‘We don’t have motorways out this way, so cars drive fast where they can,’ says Ieuan, a local cycling guide who recommends that riding is best kept off busy roads.

Thankfully, today’s route is mainly set to be on single-track roads, but the first section takes us along the A493, so I’m initially wary of fast-moving traffic.

I shouldn’t have worried, however, as the road turns out to be exceptionally quiet, and the few drivers we encounter are courteous enough to give us a wide berth. It isn’t long before we turn onto the tiny road that will take us to the coast.

We ease into our first climb of the day, resisting the temptation to attack its slopes. As we ascend, we move from a narrow tree-shadowed track to a more open landscape. It’s persistent, lasting over 2km at a 7% average, and it stings us with a savage 25% hairpin corner near the top.

It’s a sharp way to open the lungs, but with the sun shining and the views spurring us on, I strangely enjoy the struggle.

The climb gives way to a fun descent, but it’s technical so we keep the speed in check. We’re within sight of the well-known Panorama Walk path, which attracts many trekkers with its scenic offerings.

All around us are rolling hills bathed in sunshine, but the view is lost on Chris, who’s more concerned about the numbers on the digital screen beneath his nose. He’s realised he can’t calibrate his power meter as he keeps picking up the signal from Josh’s.

He orders Josh to wait behind while he sprints ahead to recalibrate. Josh shrugs as Chris disappears into the distance while fiddling with his Garmin. There’s nothing like getting back to nature.

We wind briefly through the seaside town of Tywyn, but instead of taking the beckoning coastal road, we turn back inland towards the undulating terrain of Snowdonia.

We’ll return to the coast a little later, but only once we’ve savoured the journey through the Dysynni Valley – a particularly beautiful spot of countryside once frequented by the likes of Charles Darwin and William Turner. 

It’s a mercifully flat stretch to the picture-perfect village of Abergynolwyn, sitting beside the Afon Dysynni river. Surrounded as it is by hills on all sides, it becomes clear that the only way to leave Abergynolwyn is to start climbing, and soon enough we hit a long ramp out of the town.

It’s a narrow road, perfectly set into the hillside – the stuff of cyclist dreams – and it’s worth the perspiration too, as we look back on a glorious view of the village nestled in the valley.

We make it to the top along the well-paved and deserted track, which twists onto a flat stretch along the steep banks of the river. 

As we undulate down to a quiet green plain, Josh points out the Castell y Bere wood to our right. From here it looks like a clump of trees, but concealed within is the medieval welsh castle of Castell y Bere.

I’m told it was built by Llewelyn the Great in the 1220s, and is well worth a look, but we’ll have to save the tourist visit to the castle for another day, as we’ve still got a long way to go on our route.

We continue on to one of the scenic highlights of the day – Craig y Aderyn, which means Bird’s Rock. It’s a tall craggy hill that once held a fort in the iron ages, and it’s so prominent that it dominates the horizon for miles around.

The road winds towards it, twisting around the contours of the mountainside. As we cycle into the shadow of Craig y Aderyn, the smooth empty roads, blue sky and warm light on the rocks make it feel as though we’re in a cycling-themed amusement park. 

Tracking our way back to the coast, the road is mercifully flat. We’re cruising along comfortably, and Chris seizes the opportunity to try once again to calibrate his power meter. While he focuses on his screen, the rest of us take in the endless view over the sea that has appeared in front of us. 

The Welsh Riviera

After a few kilometres of a tiny stonewalled single-track road, winding along the coast, we join the bigger A493. Mindful of Ieuan’s warning, I keep a sharp eye out for speeding cars, but once again the road turns out to be quiet, perfectly paved, and a joy to cycle along.

We’re faced with a warm, salty sea breeze as we snake along the edge of the Irish Sea. With temperatures in the high twenties, and the sea a deep blue, we could be forgiven for mistaking the scene for the Mediterranean coast.

The road undulates as it tracks the shoreline, and our speed flicks between 15kmh on the hills and 65kmh on the descents. After 5km of this I notice it’s approaching 2pm, and as we arrive into the pretty town of Llwyngwril it seems like the perfect place to stop for lunch. 

We settle in for the athlete’s choice of a solid pub lunch, and soon the conversation turns inevitably to power figures, FTP thresholds and disc brake standards.

Again I start to worry that we may have our cycling priorities mixed up, and I’m certain our conversation is bafflingly incomprehensible to the other pub patrons.

But then it occurs to me that we look so out of place in our lycra that they have probably marked us as weirdos from the moment we walked in, teetering on our cleats.

Once lunch is finished we set off back along the coast. We pass a footbridge that stretches across the harbour in Fairbourne, and Ieuan is eager that we pay it ample attention.

‘That’s the Barmouth Bridge footpath, probably the nicest bit of path in the UK,’ he says, ‘and it’s going to be closed because the council can’t afford to maintain it. It’s a shame, as with a low tide it makes for a bleak and beautiful vista.’

By now we are around 65km into our route, and my legs are starting to ache with each pedal stroke. Every kilometre in Wales seems to be like two or three from flatter areas such as the south of England, as here the road is always twisting and undulating.

It makes for a perfect cycling venue, but it doesn’t stop it being tough.

After passing through Ynysgyffylog (don’t ask me how it’s pronounced) we approach Arthog. There’s a right turn just ahead, Ieuan tells us, that leads on to what may well be one of Wales’ hardest climbs, a 250m ascent over only 2km.

Thankfully we slip past the turning and opt for a slightly easier but considerably prettier climb a few hundred metres further along.

Before we reach it, however, I realise that I have made a bit of a hash of trying to adjust my EPS shifting on the fly, and now the control box is displaying an alarming array of red and green lights, and my chain has become stuck halfway up the cassette. 

I announce an unscheduled stop so I can figure it out. ‘Perfect, I can do a manual zero,’ says Chris, who’s still struggling with his power meter. So, in the middle of a stunning forested climb, with views stretching over Snowdonia’s finest countryside, Chris and I go through all manner of technical experiments while Josh reads aloud to me from a PDF of the Campagnolo EPS manual on his iPhone.

I sometimes feel that the wonders of technology have spoiled the natural joy of riding, but soon enough I see a steady green light and a full range of gears and we’re back on the move.

The summit of the climb is guarded by a steep hairpin that forces us all to get out of our saddles and grind the pedals. After that, the road enters an open landscape of stone and moss, and we easily sweep up into the mid-sixties as we enjoy its downward slope.

We skirt around the Cregennen Lakes and stop briefly to take in the views of Pared y Cefn-Hir, a rocky hill that dominates the landscape. After a few technical bends, the road turns a corner to reveal a long, straight descent that slices through the valley ahead.

The tarmac is perfect and the view uninterrupted, allowing us to stay clear of the brakes and just enjoy the feeling of speed. 

The descent finally flattens out about 9km later in the town of Dolgellau, where we turn south and immediately begin to climb again. For the first time today our truce seems to be broken as Josh sprints up the incline ahead and we all set off in pursuit.

And the winner is…

Despite my breathless exhaustion, it really is a fantastic climb. At 2.3km with an average gradient of 9% it’s just hard enough to feel like an achievement but not so strenuous that it ruins your legs for the kilometres ahead.

It also offers some stunning views of Dolgellau through the treeline on the way up, and when the crest of the hill comes into sight, it spurs us into a four-way sprint for the top.

After much debate about who won and the request for a formal photo finish analysis, we gradually pant our way back into movement. We reach the A487, which is enjoying an early afternoon quiet spell, and the shallow descent makes for an extremely quick ride.

We form a tight chaingang as we blast down the valley and take in the views of Tal-y-Llyn lake up ahead.

As the road bends left, we hit a gradual and sapping incline, but Ieuan assures me it’s the last of the day. The 80m of ascent takes its toll at this late stage of the ride, but rewards us with a pleasant downhill coast on the other side.

Ieuan suggests we can either carry on along the A487 or shoot up into the hills for a slightly lumpier return. None of us fancies the prospect of a 10km team time-trial along an A-road, so we side for the casual scenic route.

I’m just relaxing into the final few kilometres when Chris and Therese sprint off ahead. I put my head down and before I know it I’m in the red trying to keep in touch. Josh takes pity on me and slips in front to provide some wind shelter.

We descend through a maze of forest and hills with a series of thrilling sweeps and bends.

When we regroup, my legs feel heavy and worn out. It’s been a tough ride but worth every metre of ascent and each aching muscle. We’ve been in thick forest, sprawling valleys and sunny coastline all in a little over 100km.

On a sunny day, I believe Snowdonia can hold its own against any of the cycling havens of Europe.

As we emerge from the forest, road signs reveal that Machynlleth is just ahead. Inevitably Chris and Josh stand on the pedals for a sprint to the finish, but for the first time in my life I decide not to take up the chase.

Instead I leave them to it and take in a final drink of the view.

The Wild West

Follow Cyclist’s route on the hunt for the missing vowels 

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/47wales. Head west from Machnylleth on the A493 and turn right in Cwrt. When you reach the A493 again, turn right. After Tywyn turn right onto the B4405. In Abergynolwyn, turn left at the Railway Inn, then cross the A493 and continue toward the coast. You’ll meet the A493 again – turn left. Past Arthog turn right towards Creggan Lakes. Head east to Dolgellau and Tabor and take the A487 to Corris Uchaf. From here stay on the A487 heading south back into Machynlleth.

 

The rider’s ride

Focus Izalco Max Disc, €5,999 (approx £4,680), derby-cycle.com

This bike, ridden on this trip by Therese, has been with the Cyclist team for a few months, and has proven to juggle disc brake compatibility with an aggressive racy feel and light weight in a way we’ve rarely seen.

Coming in at 6.81kg it’s perfect for the supremely steep inclines of Snowdonia. At the same time, the disc brakes provide enormous confidence on the descents.

The Zipp 202 wheels also do a great deal for climbing prowess given their low weight, and it’s nice to know that with the discs they can still stop hard even in the wet.

The wide rim bed, 25mm tyres and proprietary Focus CPX seatpost do a lot for the ride quality, and the Izalco Max manages to tread an impressive balance between stiffness and comfort.

 

Do it yourself

Travel

Machynlleth is about halfway between Dolgellau and Aberystwyth, and 150km west of Birmingham. If taking public transport, the train station is about two and a half hours from Birmingham. By car, follow the M54, which turns into the A5 and then a series of smaller A-roads. It’s worth finding specific co-ordinates for accommodation, as GPS systems can become confused in the area.

Accommodation

We stayed at Llwyndu Farmhouse, a grade II listed farmhouse dating back to 1581. Owners Peter and Paula are extremely hospitable and offer a special lock-up for cyclists.

When we let them know we were stuck in traffic, they served us much-needed food at 10pm. Based in Barmouth, this B&B offers quick access to this ride, which could easily start and finish in Barmouth, as well as more northerly routes towards Porthmadog.

Visit llwyndu-farmhouse.co.uk for more information.

Thanks

Thanks to Ieuan Stevens of Road Cycling Wales for guiding our ride and planning the route. Ieuan offers tours and support for road cyclists in the area. Visit roadcyclingwales.co.uk or call 07828 639998 for more info.

Many thanks also to Bethan Smith and Visit Wales for providing accommodation and guidance for riding in the area. Go to visitwales.com for more info.