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Wales big ride: The dog of Snowdon

In association with
In-depth
28 Aug 2017
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Words Peter Stuart Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades 

As legend has it, there was once a famous duel fought out in the mountains of Snowdonia between a giant named Rhitta, and King Arthur.

Rhitta was a colossus of such fearsome strength that he wore the beards of kings as a cape. King Arthur, however, refused to give up his beard and ‘clove him in twain,’ atop mount Snowdon.

Academics are investigating whether the ‘Beard of Kings’ might actually be an ancient reference to an impressive collection of local Strava KOM segments, though the truth of the matter may be lost in the mists of time.§

Aside from questionable mythology, Snowdonia doesn’t have a rich history of cycling – a baffling phenomenon when you consider the undulating, quiet and often savagely steep roads that decorate the landscape.

On paper it seems too good to be true, even if you do have to be wary of the occasional angry giant. 

Land of legend

We’re sitting in famed climbers’ cafe Pete’s Eats in the town of Llanberis, a hub for visitors to Snowdonia, waiting for Richard, our guide for the day.

Having come across his website while planning today’s ride (rideguidewales.co.uk), we reckoned he would be well positioned to give us some inside knowledge on the region.

But Richard is holding true to the traditions of warm Welsh hospitality and, instead of merely offering advice, he has insisted on showing us around to ensure we see the very best of the area.

Before long, a mass of Assos pulls up to the cafe. Richard has brought Dan along with him, who’s astride a Cannondale Evo SuperSix, complete with Dura-Ace Di2 and Zipp 404s.

I soon learn that Dan has a sub 20-minute PB for a 10-mile time-trial to his name and is the current Welsh National Hill Climb champion, so my initial concerns about whether today’s pace might be too gentle are replaced by an anxiety over whether I’ll be able to keep up with these guys beyond the first climb.

Together with my fellow southern cyclist Charlie and photographer Juan we form today’s modest peloton.

After five-minutes of gently baiting me for my head-to-toe Rapha outfit, Dan and Richard talk us through the route.

‘We’re going to do the dog,’ Richard explains in his Welsh-Liverpudlian accent. I stare back with a blank expression, not entirely sure whether I’ve been tripped up by some obscure Welsh cycling dialect.

Noting my confusion with amusement, Richard pulls out his iPhone. ‘Have a look here,’ he says. The map of the route draws a near-perfect picture of a dog.

They both assure me, though, that the quality of the ride has not been sacrificed for the sake of Strava art.

Glancing at the GPS data, it strikes me that our route has just over 2,300m of climbing crammed into only 138km – a feat I imagined was nearly impossible in the UK. So with a mixture of dread and excitement, we set off into the mountains.

We head to the banks of Llyn Peris (Llyn means lake), in which the quarry opposite is casting a perfect reflection – creating a striking, albeit industrial, view that sets the tone for the day.

We skirt along the lake at a decent pace as the valley up ahead begins to reveal an enticing climb – the road snaking through Llanberis valley to a summit of 350m.

As we ascend in the shadow of Mount Snowdon to our right, the incline sticks to a consistent 3-5%, and we merrily spin near the 20kmh mark.

After 20 minutes of climbing, the road spikes up to more than 10% just before the summit, then gives way to a descent that takes our breath away.

Richard and Dan know these roads well enough to take them at full speed, and it becomes an ordeal to keep them in sight.

As we skirt down the side of the hill, we’re rewarded with a view of Snowdonia’s plunging landscape, with the scenic Llyn Gwynant lake glinting between two hillsides to our left.

Aside from the views, the roads are open and smooth enough for us to really let loose, and just as I think Charlie and I are catching up on the locals, we have to make an emergency stop as a previously unseen busy crossroads (the only one of the day) suddenly appears.

While the road continues to gently undulate, the overall gradient flattens, and Dan and Richard switch turns at the front to keep to a blistering pace.

I’m praying it can’t continue for too long. We’re racing past sprawling flat fields with mountains in the distance and the road stretching out indefinitely ahead.

Dan and Richard assure us that this is the least picturesque part of the ride, perhaps explaining their eagerness to get past it, but by our standards it’s as pleasant and inspiring as any road Surrey has to offer.

We arrive at Betws-y-Coed, a pretty village filled with pottering tourists. I take the opportunity to prop myself up on the village’s central bridge and feign confusion about the route in an attempt to catch my breath.

We’re about to sketch the ears of our dog as the route extends into the most northerly part of Snowdonia.

We snake up into more woody and hilly terrain and approach the Nebo Road climb, which takes us from sea level straight up to 314m, or 1,000ft in old money.

This is where Dan shows a glimpse of his true colours. He sets off up the 5% gradients at a pace I can barely hold onto, as Charlie and Richard fade into the distance.

In Charlie’s defence, it’s worth mentioning that he broke his hand in a bike crash only a week ago, and isn’t in the mood for competitive climbing – or maybe he’s just content to enjoy the ride.

Hedgerows and trees shelter the climb, but the forestry breaks occasionally for long enough to peek at the valley that extends to our right.

As the road tilts up to 10% again, I ask Dan how far we have to go to the top. He smiles and says, ‘Oh we’re about halfway up.’

A moment later he’s sprinting away from me at a speed that I imagine is touching on 35kmh, and my spirit drops. Edging around the next bend, I see Dan smugly waiting at the summit – I’ve been had.

Some winding, technical descents separate us from the biggest road of the day, the A5. Despite the name, it’s surprisingly quiet (by southern standards).

Dan moves to the front to make sure the road’s monotony isn’t too drawn out, and we tick over at a hearty speed once again.

Turning south toward Penmachno, we make our way to the second sting in today’s route, a 300m climb on the B4407.

A cattle grid marks the beginning of the ascent, which has taken us into a narrow single-lane track that winds through dense forestry.

The loose gravel road surface makes it quickly obvious that this is a section that’s better to climb than descend. With the views over the valley to our right, I hardly notice that the road has spiked to 20%, but I’m thankful of my 28-tooth sprocket nonetheless.

I make a cheeky attack to see if I can bring the score sheet level and Dan lets me sneak a few hundred metres ahead, but as we near the top he bridges the gap and comes past once again. I just manage to hang on to his wheel as we crest the summit.

Making our way down, the track begins to resemble a road and we silently form a chain gang and build up some serious speed as we work in unison.

We sweep through the historic mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which despite its industrial purpose has a rugged and scenic charm. From here, we’re only a stone’s throw from the highlight of the ride. 

Climbing the dam

The climb up to the Llyn Stwlan Reservoir could well be the best-kept secret on British soil. It’s a 3km gravel road that averages at 10%, with spikes of 20%, en route to the impressive dam that forms the eastern edge of the reservoir.

The ascent serves two purposes, first as the queen climb of the day, and second its curves sketch out the rear ankle of our dog.

The mere existence of this tightly winding, steep and thin road is a little baffling in this part of the world, but it’s as good a proof as any that this region was destined for cyclists.

The Stwlan climb boasts the type of tight switchbacks that look more like the Stelvio Pass than anything you might expect in the backroads of Wales, and a view that will leave you breathless.

The start of the climb is marked by an industrial gate, as the road is actually intended as a route for maintenance workers for the dam.

Once we tentatively slip through, we pick up an eager pace. Dan sparks up a lengthy conversation about Zipp rim-shapes while I desperately pretend not to be completely breathless, but my increasingly terse responses give me away.

This is without a doubt the hardest ascent of the day, with persistent gradients that force my lungs to near bursting point.

But with the switchbacks and dam in view throughout, coaxing us on, it’s easy to stay motivated.

Set amid craggy rocks, the climb gives way to an open view of the valley below, with the arches of the dam standing ahead of us, luring us forward. It’s steep enough that we quickly find ourselves looking over most of Snowdonia.

On a clear day, Richard assures us, you can make out the coast. ‘Is that a castle out there in the mist?’ Charlie asks, peering out into the distance.

‘No,’ Richard says to our disappointment. ‘It’s Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station.’

As we near the final bends we see Juan clambering up a watchtower, trying desperately to get the best photographic vantage point to capture the drama of the switchbacks.

We reach the Llyn Stwlan Reservoir, and despite its grey cement bulk, it possesses a natural presence that complements the mountainside.

In spite of the no entry signs, our schoolboy mischievousness takes hold and we attempt to cross the Dam to take in a little more of the view.

But our efforts are thwarted when a security van pulls up and we scamper away.

The road to the dam hits a dead end at the summit, so we double-back and shoot down the incline, which proves almost as challenging as the ascent.

Rain has begun to fall, and descending on the occasionally loose surface proves more intimidating than I had imagined, especially on these mirror-smooth carbon rims.

Having survived the journey down we gladly take shelter in the Butterchurn Cafe at the base of the climb.

As the rain begins to intensify we order a pile of jacket potatoes and Cokes and settle in until things dry up. Dan, as well as being a hill climber extraordinaire, works for the water board to fund his cycling habit.

‘That sounds like an interesting job,’ I offer, without really knowing what it might entail. ‘It’s not,’ he quickly responds, turning that conversation avenue into a cul-de-sac.

‘But the riding around here makes up for it.’ He goes on to tell us about Richard and his current project – offering local tours at weekends.

With our legs stiffening up slightly and the rain finally subsiding, we decide it’s time to get back on the road.

The following 40km are the most picturesque of the day, as the sun begins to win out over the dark cloud that’s dominated the last few hours.

The road undulates gently providing enough of a challenge to keep things interesting as our speed rises and falls in harmony with the dramatic topography.

The most dramatic sights come courtesy of a series of lakes dotted along the journey home. First comes Llyn Mair, where a glass-smooth road surface hugs the banks of the tranquil lake with a rich forest opposite.

Richard explains that the lake was created by William Edward Oakeley – the founder of the Oakeley quarry that we passed in Blaenau Ffestiniog.

He intended it as a source of water, and as a gift for his debutante daughter. We take the opportunity to absorb the views while keeping a tight chain gang to speed the voyage home.

As we skirt two expansive lakes, Afon Glaslyn and Llyn Gwynant, none of us wants this part of the ride to end.

The big ascent to Pen-y-Pas is greeted with tired legs. The road winds around from the south through a grinding climb that joins up with our first descent of the day.

Predictably, Dan slips away from the group. I stay with Charlie and Richard, who merrily enjoy their reasonable pace while I muster my strength for the final challenge of the day.

Dan looks around and notes us giving chase, but is happy to sit 80m ahead, luring us on like a dangling carrot.

The climb takes us back to 350m altitude, and although it’s a consistent 2-4%, the snaking of the road along the hillside makes it hard to determine the gradient, so I keep questioning whether we’re on the flat, or if I’m being deceived by a shallow upward slope.

My speed hovering around the 20kmh convinces me that it must be the latter – I hope.

Reaching Pen-y-Pas, I roll up to a beaming Dan. ‘Great way to finish the day, eh?’ he says. I agree, but in the attempt to mask my panting I burst into a fit of coughs.

Judging from his expression, I suspect that Dan has sniffed my attempt at deception.

Once we gather up, we begin to roll our way back to Llanberis, with Richard and Dan once again exhibiting impeccable local knowledge as they carve their way down the valley with complete precision – slowly drifting out of sight.

We come into Llanberis at such a speed that I nearly tangle myself up in a set of railings as I take the turning off from the lakeside road toward our B&B.

As we pull in, the heavy feeling in our legs doesn’t detract from a day that will stay in our memory for a long time as a dramatic, challenging and thoroughly beautiful ride.

Packing up their car, Dan and Richard ask us where we’re shooting off to next. We explain that we’re headed to South Wales to sample what their roads have to offer.

‘It won’t be as nice as the dog,’ Richard says, bluntly. ‘But then, nowhere really is.’

Do the Dog

Take Cyclist’s lead through Snowdonia 

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/20northwales. Starting from Llanberis, take the A4086 to Pen-y-Pas, then take a left onto the A4086. At Capel Curig turn right onto the A5 to Betws-y-Coed, where you turn left onto the B5106 that skirts along the River Conwy.

Turn right towards Llanrwst, right again after the bridge, then do a left-right shimmy onto the B5427 towards Nebo. Continue until the junction with the A5, then turn right.

After about 7km turn left onto the B4406 towards Penmachno. Stay on this road for almost 15km until a junction where you turn right to Ffestiniog. In Ffestiniog follow signs to Blaenau Ffestiniog and once you get there turn left at a big roundabout (signposted Porthmadog) onto the A496 until a right turn to Tanygrisiau.

Follow signs to the power station, which lead you past the Tanygrisiau reservoir. Just before a small bridge, turn left up a hill on a track to the Stwlan reservoir.

Retrace your tracks back to the A496, turn right and continue to the junction with the A487, where you turn right towards Porthmadog. Shortly after, take a right on the B4410 towards Rhyd.

At Garreg, turn right on the A4085 towards Beddgelert. Take a right on the A498 to Capel Curig and follow it for 11km until you see signs for Llanberis to take you back to the start.

 

The rider’s ride

WyndyMilla Foo Fighter, £2,950 fully custom (frameset only), wyndymilla.com

WyndyMilla has been described as the Billabong of bikes. It’s a quirky and audacious company specialising in custom bike builds.

The Foo Fighter sits alongside the Massive Attack as one of the brand’s top racing bikes, and was ridden by the MG-Maxifuel Pro Cycling team last year.

The Foo Fighter is the aero road model, and new versions will offer the option of a Forza Fast aero fork and a direct-mount concealed brake.

This early iteration of the bike certainly sets the tone – it’s incredibly stiff and fast. The Foo Fighter slipped ahead of the pack on descents, always handling with precision.

With the SRAM Red groupset the weight was kept low too. The USE wheels were fast and stiff, but in wet conditions the braking surface proved slightly precarious.

The bike’s rigidity does reduce comfort on rough roads, but with a set of 25mm tyres and Fizik Kurve saddle, the ride was never unpleasant.

 

Do it yourself

Accommodation

Llanberis is a great starting point for any ride in Snowdonia. We stayed at the Erw Fair Guest House, which has dedicated secure bike storage and the owners, Martin and Sally, are tolerant of Lycra-clad messiness.

They provide a hearty breakfast, but for a decent lunch or evening meal, the neighbouring Heights is great for a burger, or if you’re in the mood for something slightly fancier then the Peak Restaurant is a good bet.

Rooms at Erw Fair start at £58 for a twin, incl. breakfast (erwfair.com, 01286 872400)

Thanks

Thanks to Dan Evans and Richard Morris from Ride Guide Wales (rideguidewales.com) for hosting our ride. These guys know all the best routes (both on and off-road) in Snowdonia, and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area.

Special thanks to Visit Wales for their support. For more information on cycling and accommodation in Wales, see visitwales.co.uk.