Sign up for our newsletter

Wales big ride: Breaking the Brecons

In association with
In-depth
11 Sep 2018
Advertisement

Words Peter Stuart Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelette,’ says Paul Rees, chairman of the Bynea Cycling Club, as we plan our route for today.

It’s a slightly worrying statement and makes me wonder what we’re letting ourselves in for while we prepare bikes and kit outside a public toilet in the tiny village of Resolven, about 25km northeast of Swansea in South Wales.

My fears aren’t allayed any when Paul informs us that we will be heading to the Black Mountains, which sound like something from the Lord of the Rings, and tackling a climb called the Devil’s Elbow.

A few weeks ago I contacted Paul through his bike club to get some local knowledge about the best rides in the area.

However, my complete inability during a 45-minute phone conversation to understand or locate any of the Welsh place names on a map convinced Paul that we shouldn’t be allowed onto his favourite roads without adult supervision, so he has kindly agreed to be our chaperone for Cyclist’s day in the Brecon Beacons.

Paul is probably one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, and as good an advert as any for the friendly demeanour of people in the region.

‘We’re all on first name terms around here, and everybody knows everybody,’ he assures me.

Dressed in a baggy tracksuit, he isn’t exactly the archetypal cyclist we’d expected, but he’s an ‘encyclopaedia of the region’ according to his club-mates and a fanatical lover of all things cycling.

‘Trouble is there’s too much choice here,’ he says. ‘We could go north and do a great ride in the hills, or we could go south for a flat ride along the coast.’ 

Today we’ve opted for the hills, so the only choice left to make is whether we’d like to descend or to climb the Devil’s Elbow.  We vote, of course, to climb it. 

Bolt from the blue

We’re a little late in heading off, mainly because we couldn’t resist an early lunch in the nearby village of Hirwaun, which set us back the princely sum of £6.25 for three people.

Charlie, my ride partner for the day, and I saddle up and set a quick pace out of Resolven, while photographer Juan and Paul climb into the Skoda that is acting as back-up vehicle.

We’re straight into a shallow climb of around 3%-5% and the conversation revolves around the contrast in meal prices between here and London (where £6.25 buys you a sandwich).

We’ve only been going for about 5km on the climb to Coelbren when disaster strikes. We’ve stopped for a breather to let the car catch up and Charlie has seized the opportunity to tamper with his seatpost height.

As he fiddles with the clamp there’s a mighty bang as the bolt shears. Charlie clearly doesn’t know his own strength.

As we stare at the broken bolt, Charlie tells me that only two weeks ago he wrote off both of his road bikes on the same day and broke his thumb in the process (which is currently bandaged and still very broken).

I’m beginning to think he’s rubbed up the bike gods the wrong way.

Paul and Juan arrive. Paul takes a glance and exclaims decisively, ‘We need an M5 bolt and a washer – I know a place.’ They pop the bike on the roof rack and leave me to battle the icy headwind up to Coelbren’s 215m summit alone.

It’s a deceptive climb where the summit seems to constantly linger around the next corner.

Eventually the road tilts downwards again and leads into a 20km flat(ish) stretch of A-road heading for Brynaman and the start of the Brecon Beacons proper.

In a big group these roads could make for a fast-paced chaingang. Alone it’s more punishing but, unknown to me, Charlie and the others are having a more dramatic time a few miles down the road.

As I pass through the small town of Brynaman the road begins to head upwards towards the national park and, just as I’m digging in for the climb, the Skoda races past.

Charlie leaps out and lifts down his WyndyMilla with a hideously crude bolt now affixed through the seatclamp. 

I ask about the repair. Charlie explains that they spotted a Michelin sign from the 1960s above what looked like a disused shed in a nearby village.

Although the doors were shut, Paul burst in shouting for attention, rousing a slightly confused, heavily bespectacled elderly man from the basement, who was a little shocked at the intrusion into his currently closed bike shop.

A repair looked doubtful – on inspecting the damage to the WyndyMilla, the shopkeeper said, ‘Let me see, I don’t think we stock that brand of bike.’

But after raiding the workshop, Paul and Charlie found a suitable bolt and negotiated a reasonable price of 25p.

Ups and downs

We ascend into the Black Mountains, the sight of which would surely have every cyclist salivating. The surface is recently paved and silky smooth, with gentle undulations that allow glimpses of the road snaking into the hills ahead.

As is often the case in the British countryside, the climb is hidden by the surrounding landscape, so it’s difficult to gauge how long or steep it’s going to be, but over the next 6km of ascent it becomes apparent just how gruelling this route is.

About 3km in, Charlie turns to me and says, ‘Do I look low to you?’ His knees are fairly bent at the top of the pedal stroke and it’s true that his position on the bike looks less than perfect.

We stop and I examine his seatpost with its bodged repair job. I suspect that the seat is gradually slipping down, but any kind of readjustment is impossible without another trip to a bike shop, and that could mean a premature end to the ride, so I reassure him that everything is fine and it must be in his head. I secretly cross my fingers.

The Black Mountains climb isn’t the steepest, but at 6km it’s surprisingly long – an uninterrupted climb of this length, and of this quality, is rare on British soil.

It requires a lot of effort, but without tipping us into the territory that would render the scenery invisible behind a mist of pain. More importantly, though, it gives way to a dazzling descent.

As we crest the summit, the road flows down gentle undulations at a 4% gradient, which allows us to hit top speed without any fear of blind corners or rough surfaces catching us unawares.

Exchanging the lead over 9km of descent, we’re touching 70kmh throughout and enjoying the type of hairpin corners rarely seen outside of Europe’s big mountain ranges.

Despite the barren and exposed nature of the Black Mountains, there are spots of real beauty too. Mid-descent we come to a stop by a babbling brook, partly to take in some of the scenery and partly because Charlie’s broken thumb has turned fairly blue.

I don’t have the heart to tell him that his seatpost has probably slipped down another centimetre. From here, the ravine below us stretches out to green fields in the far distance.

After Charlie generates yet unheard-of swearwords while trying to re-introduce blood circulation to his hand, we set off once again.

We swing straight back into some fast descending, which reaches an abrupt finish as we plough over a cattle grid at 50kmh, marking the end of the mountain road.

The road narrows and we drift through rocky hedge-rowed lanes. At one point we stumble upon a local country fair where farmers are showing off their sheep. ‘We call them swinging parties round here,’ Paul jokes.

We can’t enjoy the pastoral charm for too long, though, as we start our ascent into the woodlands of Glasfynydd Forest. Since our initial meandering into the Brecon Beacons national park, there has not been a single moment of flat riding.

The road into the Glasfynydd Forest is a persistent but rewarding climb, averaging just over 4% for 5km. Much like the other climbs of the day, it’s not a leg-shredder, but taking close to 20 minutes to reach the summit, it lops another sizeable slice from our energy reserves.

Charlie is edging ahead and I struggle to find the gear to keep up. As I squeeze alongside, masking my discomfort, Charlie once again confronts me on the height of his saddle, which has now slid down to a mildly ludicrous height.

I’m forced to admit that there’s definitely been some movement, but suggest helpfully that this should pay back in aero gains on the descent.

Thankfully we meander our way to the summit quickly enough – this time surrounded by sparse overgrown fields as far as we can see, and, of course, thousands and thousands of sheep.

The descent begins, but unlike in the Black Mountains the local sheep prove menacing. Descending at 60kmh on these narrow roads, Charlie lets out an alarming roar as a sheep nonchalantly trots across the road in front of him.

A minute later the same happens to me and we shave off some speed in order to avoid collisions with the kamikaze livestock.

Woolly obstacles aside, the Glasfynydd Forest presents a near-perfect descent. With a rocky stream to our right and a vista of one of the Brecon’s many lush valleys ahead, it’s almost too picturesque to miss by focusing on the road ahead, but we’re in full racing mode, jostling for the racing line around tight corners.

Dancing with the Devil

Another cattlegrid separates us from our next climb, on the larger A4067. Although it’s a big road, it’s surprisingly quiet.

Having tackled four successive climbs, our speed up through the valley is embarrassingly low, and as we reach the top Charlie stops to once again encourage bloodflow through his hand and grudgingly remarks on the seatpost slipping down a further centimetre.

Once we jolt back into motion, we’re treated to a rare stretch of flat with a stunning view of the Cray reservoir to our left.

Before long we fork right onto another quaint country road, and say goodbye to anything with more than a single lane for the rest of the day. It’s here that it really feels like we’re in deepest, richest Brecon countryside.

After a sharp right turn, we descend yet again and wind our way toward the Devil’s Elbow, which we can see curving upwards ominously ahead.

The climb is the perfect climax for the day, contrasting the characteristically long shallow climbs with a short sharp stinger. Time has caught up with us and the sun is beginning to set behind the neighbouring hills.

Charlie, with his broken thumb and seatpost half a dozen centimetres below where it should be, resigns himself to doing the entire climb out of the saddle and tells me to shoot ahead. I do so, in no small part to protect my ears from the obscenities emerging from his mouth.

The Devil’s Elbow undulates, gently at first, through a picturesque valley before reaching two switchbacks, between which the gradient spikes to north of 20%.

Despite being only 1.5km in length, it’s easily the hardest climb of the day. Approaching the final switchback, my heart rate is flirting with the 200 mark.

Almost out of impatience to end the ordeal, I decide to empty my tanks completely, standing on the pedals to carve a path around the final switchback, where I spot Juan busily snapping away at my pained expression with glee.

At the top my vision is laced with shades of green and black, and I decide to take a breather and wait for Charlie.

With the evening chasing quickly on our heels, we don’t stop to appreciate the view for long, and set off on the final descent, the best of the day, topping 70kmh from the off.

From here we can see the valley snake down back to civilisation, and the home straight is a welcome sight, especially for Charlie, whose knees are now millimetres from pounding his elbows.

We blast through the village of Pontneddfechan and then ease off the pace to meander through Glynneath and onto the ‘Old Road’ that runs alongside the busier A-road.

As we return to Resolven’s glamorous public toilet, it’s completely dark and we’re thankful for not lingering too long atop the Elbow. After 120km of riding I’m feeling suitably exhausted.

A glance at my Garmin reveals that the day has seen just short of 2,000m of climbing and I can feel every metre in my legs.

The Brecons have given us tough climbs, thrilling descents and great beauty, and I’ll be sorry to leave them behind, despite broken bikes, broken thumbs and a couple of broken eggs.

Back to black

Cyclist’s route through the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons 

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/16brecon. We started in Resolven, which is about 25km north-east of Swansea on the A465. Head north on Glyn Neath Road. On reaching Glynneath fork left toward Abercrave. Continue on the A4109 to Abercrave and then turn left on the A4067.

At Ystradgynlais take a right at the roundabout towards Brynaman. Once there, turn right onto the A4069 and enter the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Continue through to Pont-Ar-Lechau and turn right over a river bridge and right again, doubling back towards Trecastle. Just before Trecastle take a right signposted for Cray.

Going through the Glasfynydd Forest, turn left on the A4067, turning off right after a few kilometres onto the Heol Senni road. Past Heol Senni, take the first right after the bridge back south toward the Devil’s Elbow.

Remain on the same road until you reach Pontneddfechan and then follow signposts for Glynneath and head down the Glyn Neath Road to Resolven to complete the route.

 

The rider’s ride

Specialized Tarmac Comp, from £2,200, specialized.com

The Tarmac sits alongside the Venge as Specialized’s top carbon road race frame, and is the favourite ride of most of its pro riders.

The Tarmac Comp is the entry level to the line and is based on the SL2 frame platform that was the flagship back in 2008. For the purposes of our trip, we decided to slot in a pair of Shimano RS80s to complement the bike’s potential for high-end speed.

Comfort is a major draw of the Tarmac, in contrast to the priority given to aerodynamics on the Venge, and it does indeed manage to roll over rough stretches of road undisturbed, a nice feature on some of Wales’s less well-maintained roads.

Shod with RS80s, instead of the DT Swiss wheelset provided as standard, the Tarmac is injected with  an extra level of speed to add to the frame’s already quick nature.

For a trip like this, where keeping pace is as important as enjoying the ride, the Tarmac was a near-perfect companion. 

Do it yourself

Accommodation

We stayed in the Nant Ddu Lodge in the heart of the Brecons, five miles  north of Merthyr Tydfil. The hotel offers an excellent starting point for a ride, and is cycling-friendly – allowing us to store our bikes in a locked storage room.

Food came in huge portions and the desserts were the perfect post-ride treat. Go to nant-ddu-lodge.co.uk, or call 01685 379111.

Thanks

Thanks to Paul Rees, chairman of Bynea Cycling Club (byneacc.co.uk), for devising the route and providing support, entertainment and local knowledge in copious quantities.

Anyone interested in riding in the region can get in touch with the club, which is also planning some appealing road races in the coming year.

Thanks also to Visit Wales (visitwales.com) for its assistance with accommodation and advice on cycling in the region.