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UK ride: Bikepacking in Llandovery, Mid Wales

Matthew Page
14 Nov 2017

We head into the Welsh wilderness on a two-day ride over roads and trails

Where: Llandovery, Mid Wales
Day 1 distance/elevation: 57km/1,325m
Day 2 distance/elevation: 83km/1,386m
Total distance: 140km
Total elevation: 2,711m
Difficulty rating: 6/10

If you’ve been yearning to get involved in the current trend for bikepacking but don’t know where to start, this ride might be ideal.

We took three riders, gave them three of the latest adventure bikes, designed to satisfy the cyclist’s urge to explore both on and off-road, loaded them up with our kit and packed them off into Mid Wales to tackle a two-day route around the Cambrian Mountains and Elan Valley.

The chance to escape the stress and bustle of modern life and head into the countryside for a mini adventure is one of the biggest draws of bikepacking, and Mid Wales is the perfect place to try it, being one of the biggest true wilderness areas that still exists within Great Britain yet also surprisingly accessible.

Less than an hour’s drive from the end of the M4 motorway is the small market town of Llandovery that sits on the border of the Brecon Beacons – it’s also just south of our destination for the next couple of days, the Cambrian Mountains.

Along for the trip is a local rider and someone who isn’t shy of a big day in the mountains, Huw Thomas, who is also acting as our guide, and James Heaton, a pro mechanic for Team Wiggins, also an expert mountain biker and something of a secret roadie.

The real ace up our sleeve, though, is regular BikesEtc photographer Anthony Pease, who also happens to be something of a bikepacking expert.

The four of us meet up in Llandovery, where we give our kit a final check over.

Once we’ve got the thumbs up from Anthony, who provided a suggested kit list, we discuss the planned route with Huw over lunch, making sure we eat well with the knowledge that we may not see another open shop all day and will have to rely on what we’re carrying.

Leaving the town, the early miles fly by with ease as we head up the stunning Towy Valley. Surprisingly, the heavier bikes, laden with full bags, don’t spoil the fun or slow us down too much.

The biggest climb of the day up to Llyn Brianne reservoir is gradual and never feels above 10%, and the bikes handle the gradient with ease.

Once we get to the top, the views over the water and the slipway are worth a quick stop as we catch our breath.

Llyn Brianne also marks the start of the off-road riding as we make our way around the undulating perimeter track.

A few locked gates mean a bit of extra strength is needed to lift the hefty bikes over and then we are into a long, fast downhill to Soar-Y-Mynydd, which starts what will be a recurring theme for the day of ‘The most remote … in Wales’ as we pass the early 19th-Century chapel – which holds the title of most remote chapel in Wales, apparently.

A brief road section, passing the most remote phonebox and letterbox in Wales, is made more interesting by a pig on the edge of the road (even by local standards an unusual sight!) before the next off-road section takes us into Tywi Forest, close to the source of the river.

As we chat amongst ourselves through the wild terrain, it dawns on us that we haven’t seen a person, house or vehicle for hours.

We’ve been lucky with the weather, too, and can enjoy a fantastic view at the top of the forest of the shining Irish Sea.

Another long, fast descent takes us past the ruins of Strata Florida Abbey, which dates back to the 12th century, giving the ride a feeling of history and another scenic spot on our whistle-stop tour of the most remote things in Wales.

Just a mile beyond the Abbey, we pass through the only village or town on the menu for day one, which mercifully does have a shop.

That said, while it could be a useful stop if you’re running low on something, it's not one we would recommend relying on.

From the village, we start the final road climb up into Teifi Pools with the sun low in the sky it makes for an incredible backdrop.

The turn off to our overnight stop is almost hidden, so it helps to have someone who knows the way.

Our accommodation for the night will be at Claerddu Bothy – an old stone hut originally of a type that provided somewhere for travelling farm workers to live temporarily while doing a job which are now used as mountain shelters for hikers and adventurers such as ourselves.

Being off the beaten track helps it remain secluded and well-kept (for a bothy).

We all have camping kit with us, just in case it’s already occupied, but with just two others staying here, it makes for a quiet and comfortable night.

After a stunning first day, we wake up to grey skies, but luckily it’s still dry as we start heading east into the Elan Valley and around the Claerwen reservoir.

The circuit of the reservoir takes some time as it is one of the biggest bodies of water in Wales.

It ends with a spectacular dam that was made famous by Richard Hammond of Top Gear, who scaled up it in a Land Rover – helped by a winch, of course.

The next climb could be classed as optional, with a bridleway that takes us above the lakes and to a rough, single-track descent that’s loved by mountain bikers in the area but surprisingly good to ride with drop handlebars too – albeit a little slower.

Cabin Coch reservoir at the end of the Elan Valley has a visitor centre and café, making it a good place to stop for refuelling.

From Elan village, the majority of the route back sees us leaving the trails behind and returning to the tarmac, firstly following Sustrans Route 8.

There is one more short off-road section, but that’s part of what makes these bikes so great – if we’d been on road bikes, we’d have been forced to take the alternative way round on the major A473 trunk road.

Instead, our off-road shortcut enables us to use much quieter roads. Back onto slightly wider roads at Newbridge on Wye and the B4358 which is a tough, constantly rolling strip that’s hard enough with a lightweight road bike, let alone bikes with full bags, not to mention the miles in our legs.

Huw and James still seem to be flying along, though, zipping up the climbs with relative ease, and it’s a relief to reach the village of Beulah.

From here the roads get less hilly and quieter again as we pass through Llangammarch Wells, avoiding the A-roads again.

The quiet, gentle rolling roads skirt the edge of Mynydd Epynt before the final long road descent and the four miles back to Llandovery, which is the only section of A-road on the whole trip.

Mid Wales is an area that’s always wowed us on the roads with its network of quiet, unspoilt areas, but its appeal is only enhanced when you add the hundreds of miles of forest trails and old mining tracks to the mix.

If we needed any more persuading of the merits of the new form of adventure bikes, this ride has totally convinced us.

In fact, we’re already planning our own next mini adventure.

How we did it

To see the full GPS route on Strava, head to cyclist.co.uk/38midwales

1 Starting from Llandovery, head north to Rhandirmwyn, then follow signs for Llyn Brianne. At the reservoir go across the slipway bridge and continue around the reservoir to Soar y Mynydd chapel.

2 A short road section to an old red phone box marks the start of the next off-road section. A long but gradual climb into Tywi Forest, ending with a very long downhill to Strata Florida Abbey.

3 Continue to Ponyrhydfendigaid, turning right through the village for a few hundred metres before turning right to Pontrhydygroes.

4 After a few kilometres climbing and reaching Ffair Rhos, turn right and continue on the single-track lane until the (easily missed) turn for Claerddu, which is the night stop.

5 On day two, continue back to the road, but turn left and follow the road as it becomes unsurfaced and follow the long off-road section around Claerwen Reservoir. At the base of the dam wall make a turn left onto a short section of bridleway and climb up on forest track to a mast. A rough, single-track descent to Cabin Coch reservoir then across and around the cycle path to Elan village.

6 Continue on minor roads to Llanwrthwl, then follow signs on Sustrans Route 8, a mixture of off-road and single-track lanes, eventually reaching the B4358 south west to the village of Beulah. Turn left, then after a brief few hundred metres on the A483 before turn right onto minor roads.

7 Follow signs for Llangammarch Wells, then turn right and follow minor roads through Tirabad and after a fast, long downhill back onto the A483. Continue here back to Llandovery to finish.

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