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Komoot Ride of the Month No.7: The Gower Peninsula

In-depth
4 Aug 2022
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In a series put together with our friends at komoot, we’re showcasing some of our favourite rides from the UK and around the world. For instalment number 7 we’re off to the Gower Peninsula in Wales to relive a ride we first did back at the end of 2014. It’s an area that isn’t short of visual delights… just remember to take your climbing legs

Words Stu Bowers Photography Wig Worland

I shoot a glance over to my cousin Steve, who’s joined me for Cyclist’s foray into the Gower Peninsula today. His reciprocal look confirms what I’m thinking: ‘What have we let ourselves in for?’

I’m hauling on my handlebars, rolling from side to side in an ungainly fashion just to maintain forward propulsion on a climb more suited to spiders than bicycles.

We’re less than 5km from the start of the ride, so this is a very rude awakening for our cold leg muscles.

I’m beginning to think Jeremy, a local rider who’s kindly offered to show us around, may be trying to test us.

His Scott Addict is pimped out with some of the lightest kit available, so he’s obviously no stranger to the steep climbs around these parts.

There’s no official signpost, but Jeremy reckons the gradient is over 30%, and in his words, ‘It’s not like those little blips of 30% you get elsewhere; this one goes on for a mile or so.’

I have no reason to doubt him, and the way he says it gives me the impression that he is proud of the fact that his home town can produce such genuinely punishing climbs – putting those so-called ‘hard climbs’ you get in other places in the shade.

I repeat under my breath, ‘What have we let ourselves in for?'

Give and take

Llanguicke Road, to give it its proper name, is not only steep, it’s also in a state of disrepair. Potholes, gravel and even some moss for good measure mean that it would be tricky to ride at half this gradient.

I spot a national speed limit road sign, mocking us in the verge ahead. ‘Fat chance,’ I puff, but quickly realise my breath is far more precious for delivering oxygen to my muscles than speaking right now.

I can’t help feeling the sign must be there as more of a challenge for motorists as opposed to any kind of speed restriction. Only something jet propelled could be caught speeding up here.

Finally, to my body’s relief, the gradient abates and the top comes into view alongside a picturesque little church. As I come to rest, my arms are throbbing as much as my legs from the full-body effort required to keep the bike moving.

As we begin descending the other side of the hill I remark hopefully that it’s good to get the toughest climb out of the way first. The huge grin that appears across Jeremy’s face tells me all I need to know.

‘I like you, Stu. You’re so innocent,’ he says, still grinning. I can muster no reply, other than to focus on the next bend of this winding descent and ponder our fate in silence.

The next climb comes almost immediately after we reach the bottom, and I remember the route profile for this ride, which I studied last night and which looks like corrugated iron. These sudden changes from downhill to uphill are going to be a recurring feature.

This climb, compared to the first, is at a more manageable gradient and our group settles into a sociable pace. Jeremy takes this opportunity to ride alongside and reassure me, saying, ‘The best thing about this ride is there’s a lot of climbing at the start, then there’s a fair bit in the middle, and quite a lot near the end.’

I’m now convinced he’s not trying to test us – he’s trying to kill us. While the Llanguicke Road climb was almost claustrophobic, hemmed in by trees, on this climb a low stone wall is all that separates us from miles of open pasture.

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It’s very exposed so I’m thankful that today is warm and sunny, with only light winds. After the summit, the descent is a corker, with a couple of switchbacks to keep us alert, and as we regroup and head north towards Garnant, everyone is in good spirits. The ride feels like it is shaping up nicely.

The section we’re riding now is, in essence, a horseshoe that will take us up and around the hill we’ve just climbed and descended so we can tackle it from the other side.

Having barely brushed the southwesterly outskirts of the Brecon Beacons National Park the ascent begins just past Garnant. Before Ammanford we peel off left and begin navigating our path up into the hills once more.

It’s soon a barren and exposed scene once again with just occasionally errant cattle or sheep for company. Our panting and the swooshing of the giant wind turbines are the only things breaking the silence.

The climb kicks up for the final 100m but the sting in the legs is soon forgotten as the road delivers us to a summit with a fantastic panorama of the countryside.

The telltale signs of a landscape frequently battered by strong winds are all around, as the grassy tussocks all lay flat in the same direction. Jeremy points to the hills in the distance and tells us that’s where we’re heading. For some reason I’m not surprised.

The road is practically straight almost as far as the eye can see, and the obvious temptation is to let fly down the slope. Jeremy, though, is quick to remind us to be cautious, having witnessed a few sheep-related incidents over the years.

Avoiding sheep is better than dodging cars, however, and we’ve not seen one of those in ages. The road dips and climbs following the contours of the hillside and, with the exception of a more prolonged ascent after Felindre, the majority sees gravity on our side.

By the time we make it to Pontlliw, almost back on the valley floor, we’ve lost over 300m of vertical height.

Transitional phase

Unlike many of Cyclist’s rides, this route cannot boast uninterrupted bliss. There’s a price to pay for trying to link the dual splendours of the Brecon Beacons and the Gower Peninsula – dividing these two beautiful parts of southern Wales is the M4 corridor.

As Jeremy puts it, ‘a few miles of urbanisation’ is a necessary evil to transition us from one to the other. We know this minor sacrifice will be repaid in full when we arrive at Gower, with its renowned coastal bays and headlands that earned it the accolade of being Britain’s first named ‘area of natural beauty’ in 1956.

The peninsula is around 70 square miles, and is famed for its cliffs, sandy beaches, dunes, castles, farmland and marshes. As it’s mid-week and just ahead of the main holiday rush, we’re hoping to see it at its peaceful best.

Having skirted around Swansea, we pop out onto the seafront close to Swansea University and head along Mumbles Road. The midday sun is warm on our skin and the sea, lapping at the shore just a few metres away on our left, is calm and dazzling blue.

With 70km under our belts, this feels like what we came for. Passing the famous Mumbles lighthouse we make our way along the coastline and a network of lanes that appear perfectly suited to cycling.

Caswell Bay is the first of many sheltered coves with award-winning beaches that make it easy to understand why the Gower Peninsula is such a popular retreat. The sea looks inviting and I’m tempted to take a quick dip, but we’ve still got a fair bit of ground to cover so I return my focus to pedalling as we track the coastline west.

The sea air fills our lungs until we turn off onto narrow roads, where the aroma changes to that of the hedgerows, with bracken warming in the sunshine and occasionally the scent of wild garlic too.

As we round a sharp corner in one narrow stretch after climbing out of Oxwich, there’s a breathtaking view back across some of the bays and headlands we’ve just dipped in and out of, which has us scrabbling to find our phones for a quick picture.

Back on the A4118 and heading out to the peninsula’s westerly tip, we are now considerably past the midpoint of the ride so Steve and I decide it’s time for some cake and caffeine.

It’s a ritual of Cyclist rides that Jeremy is none too familiar with, and he once more takes the opportunity to harangue us for apparently being softies for needing to eat.

It’s not long before we reach the pretty village of Llanmadoc. It sits at the crest of a short climb accompanied by panoramic views to the north, where wide expanses of marshland reach out to meet the Loughor river, which feeds into the Bristol Channel.

As we arrive at the array of white cottages in the village, there, right on cue, is the Britannia Inn. Before Jeremy has time to object, Steve and I have parked our bikes against the stone wall and our backsides on the picnic benches in the sun-drenched pub garden.

Jeremy realises he’s lost this battle, and ultimately seems as happy as the rest of us once the cold Cokes and Welsh cakes arrive. 

Marsh mellows

The marshes we saw from the top of the last climb are our next destination. Aside from offering a different landscape to the more rugged southern side, these marshy expanses also provide one of the only flat sections on the ride.

Aside from offering a different landscape to the more rugged southern side, these marshy expanses also provide one of the only flat sections on the ride.

As we head out of Llanmadoc, full of cake and all complaining of heavy legs, it’s clear we’ve moved away from the tourist hotspots and beaches of the south, and this side of the peninsula is more geared towards farming. Weobley Castle comes into view above the hedgerows to our left, and we slow down to take a closer look as we pass.

After a short spell on the B4296 beyond Llanrhidian, we take a left turn onto a single track road (aptly named Marsh Road) that provides us with a traffic-free passage across the marshes.

Not for the first time today I’m grateful for having such fair weather. Riding across here being blasted by a block headwind would be a bleak proposition.

Leaving Crofty we return to the B4295 towards Gowerton, which marks our return to the M4 corridor. Once again we will have to accept a few kilometres of urbanisation to deliver us back to the Brecon Beacons on the other side.

Conversation ceases for a short time as we instinctively drop into single file formation and take turns sharing the pace to get through this busier section more promptly.

Beyond Pontarddulais, heading north on Garnswllt Road, it’s again pleasant to be surrounded by high hedgerows as the road rolls gently uphill past quaint stone cottages.

I ask Jeremy if I can now legitimately say we’ve put the worst of the climbing behind us. ‘That depends,’ comes Jeremy’s reply. ‘There’s one more climb we could add in…’

Wern-Ddu Road, he tells us, heads north from Ammanford up into the National Park. It’s another substantial climb after which we can loop back via the A4069 to Upper Brynamman.

I’m feeling fairly exhausted, and my Garmin tells me we’ve already done 140km. A glance at Steve tells me he’s not excited at the prospect either. I take the executive decision to give it a miss.

‘We’ve had a superb ride. Let’s call it a day and finish on a high,’ I say to Jeremy, fully expecting him to berate me for wimping out of the challenge. To my surprise the retort doesn’t come.

I take this as a sign that Jeremy too is slightly relieved to avoid the climb, although I doubt he’d ever admit it.

With that agreed, it’s all downhill from here. The final 10km is a blast down the A474 to Pontardawe, which is not quite as stunning as the terrain we’ve experienced on our loop around Gower, but by the time we arrive back at the leisure centre car park I feel satisfied we made the right call.

With a final tally of well over 150km and packed with good memories, I don’t feel the ride was in any way a lesser experience for having declined the additional loop.

Jeremy though is unequivocal about the fact we’ve still not completed the full ‘pilgrimage’ in his eyes, and is already planning when would be a good time for us to come back to make amends. 

How we did it

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at Cwmbach Cottages in Cadoxton in the next valley across from Pontardawe. This part of Wales is also a popular destination for mountain biking, so the guesthouse is very used to taking groups of cyclists.

Cosy rooms, secure bike storage and more importantly a hearty home-cooked breakfast to fuel the day make this an ideal base, with a good pub within walking distance for a beer and an evening meal.

Thanks

A huge thanks to Jeremy Rees and Dylan Morris, whose combined local knowledge and experience helped us complete the ride without a hitch. Thanks also to Visit Wales (visitwales.com) for recommendations and assistance with finding our accommodation.

Finally we want to say thanks to Skoda for the use of a Yeti, which proved the perfect vehicle for tackling the Welsh countryside full to the gunnels with people, bikes and camera gear.