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Wales big ride: West side story

In association with
In-depth
25 Sep 2018
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Words Stu Bowers Photography Wig Worland

It feels strangely like we’re taking an early tea stop as we pull in to The Mill cafe in Trefin, but glancing down at my Garmin I see we’ve already covered 55km of our planned 130km so I’d say we’re about due a cuppa.

It’s testament to how enjoyable the riding has been so far that the past few hours have flown by.

The ride hasn’t been short on visual delights either, taking in a good chunk of the coastline along St Brides Bay in this south-westerly tip of Wales.

Pembrokeshire’s coastline – all 420km of it – is renowned for its rugged cliffs, beautiful beaches and charming harbours, dotted with pastel-coloured houses and currently, as it’s mid-June, plenty of rich greenery as the icing on the cake. Talking of cake…

‘Come to think of it, maybe some cake to go with that?’ I propose as the waitress takes our order. Neither Steve nor Tom, my two riding companions, shows any resistance.

In fact Tom ups the ante by swapping cake for a full cooked breakfast, claiming his current training regime for an Ironman makes him ravenous all the time.

Coffee, then, has just become brunch. After all, it has been nearly three hours since we hoovered up most of the breakfast buffet at the Wolfscastle Country Hotel, where we stayed last night.

A short while earlier we’d passed a castle that Peter, owner of Pembrokeshire Bikes and our guide for today, informs us was until recently owned by Led Zeppelin.

This far-flung corner of the Welsh countryside seems a million miles from where you’d imagine famous rock bands would choose to reside, but I guess even they need solitude sometimes.

As we take a moment to bathe in the warmth of the sun that is currently sitting high in a cloudless blue sky, Peter’s next nugget of local trivia is that Cerys Matthews of Catatonia lives just down the road from Trefin too. ‘Oh, and there’s Griff Rhys Jones’s place,’ he adds.

I hadn’t expected such a star-studded tour, but Pembrokeshire is a serene place. The roads are far better explored by bicycle than car.

A point in case is that only a short while before we reached our cafe stop we came to the aid of a stricken lady who had got her car stuck in a ditch while trying to pass an oncoming vehicle on a particularly narrow stretch.

When I say ‘we’ what I really should confess is that as ‘knights in shining cleats’ we were about as much use as a chocolate kettle in this particular rescue situation, but luckily our support van, with Peter at the wheel, heroically towed her out.

A quick resumé

Up to our impromptu brunch stop, the journey has so far been pleasantly devoid of traffic.

In this coastal region the roads have a delightful habit of swooping down into picture-postcard bays, but just as quickly as they direct you in, they turn and climb steeply back out.

So far we’ve been treated to panoramic views of the coastline, descended to pebble beaches at Newgale and passed through the tiny fishing village of Solva.

In the bay, fishing boats and dinghies bob up and down against their moorings on crystal-clear water like a perfect scene from a holiday brochure.

Approximately 30km into the ride, we passed through St David’s, which has the distinction of being Britain’s smallest city, thanks to the stunning cathedral that sits at its centre.

It was here that we decided to add a short loop that saw us descending down steep twists and turns to Porthclais, yet another pretty little inlet, before re-entering St David’s from the other side to get a different perspective of the cathedral.

Leaving St David’s again, this time heading north west, we hugged the coastline once more for another 15km or so until we arrived at the café where we are currently devouring large chunks of homemade cake. 

Knights of the road

Fully satiated, we rejoin the road in the direction of Abercastle to the familiar tune of Garmins chirping back into life as the GPS senses our movement once more.

We’re not done with coastal riding yet so we continue to track a route that keeps the sea close by and head northwards, with the tarmac rolling like a sine wave in the general direction of Fishguard.

There might not be any 2,000m cols around these parts – in fact Pembrokeshire is often described as being flat – but the continual ups and downs of the landscape have a fatiguing effect on my legs.

I’m learning to respect the challenge presented by a day out on a bike in this corner of Wales.

As we crest a high point of the headland, we are confronted by two female walkers, who flag us down.

It seems that, despite being decked out in sensible hiking gear and carrying a map, they’re in need of some help. They’re lost.

It’s Peter, once more fortunately close by in the support van, who comes to the rescue.

‘Where have you come from?’ he asks. ‘Boulder, Colorado,’ comes the eager reply. ‘Ah, that’s not what I meant,’ Peter says, ‘but OK, where are you heading?’ he quizzes. ‘We’re not sure,’ comes the response.

After a few seconds of hesitation, one of the American pair puts forth, ‘I think we need to get to a railway station.’ ‘Well that’s a fair walk from here,’ says Peter.

‘Fishguard is the nearest. Not to worry, there’s room in the back of the van. I’ll give you a lift. You boys will be alright without me for a while, won’t you? I need to get some fuel anyway. I’ll see you in Fishguard then.’

And with that, quicker than he could say, ‘By the way, enjoy the descent – it’s a fast one’, the ladies are invited to make themselves comfy in the back of the van and Peter is off doing what it seems he does best: rescuing damsels in distress.

Around 6km later, having watched Peter and his cargo of slightly bemused ramblers disappear in a dust cloud ahead of us, we start to descend.

Rounding a left hand hairpin on Goodwick Hill, still well above Fishguard, we’re treated to a superb view of its harbour, and it soon becomes apparent that this must be the fast descent Peter was talking about.

The road is practically straight with a good line of sight and we pick up speed rapidly. I tuck in as tight as I can on the drops and let off the brakes for as long as I dare.

My eyes are watering behind the protection of my glasses, such is the rush of wind in my face as my speed increases.

I can barely risk taking my eyes off the road long enough to check the Garmin, but a quick glimpse says I’m past 80kmh. A few seconds later it’s 85kmh.

I’m running out of road so I sit up and start to slow, with Steve and Tom on my tail as we all sail straight past the turn we were meant to take, carrying far too much speed to make it safely, and we eventually come to a stop some distance further on.

The familiar waft of burning brake pads on carbon rims fills my nostrils.

Skirting around the town and heading out of Fishguard, we now leave the coastline that’s been such a feature since the start of the ride and head inland into the heart of the Pembrokeshire National Park.

The A487 main road out of Fishguard is not overly busy today, so we ride side-by-side up the slope.

We’ve still not been rejoined by Peter, so at the top of the climb we pull over for a short while.

It’s a chance to catch our breath and gaze back down over Fishguard, which looks even prettier from this side. 

Into the Valleys

Turning right off the A487 and now well within the National Park boundary, the roads are once again narrow, high-hedged and winding.

The steep switchback descent towards Llanychaer almost catches me out on one corner, reminding me to keep my wits about me.

As we make the left turn off the B4313 and descend all the way to the valley floor en route to Cilrhedyn Bridge the road narrows even more, but the riding is superb and the backdrop lush.

Peter, now back in tow, tells us there is a pub down the road that he says, with a glint in his eye, we simply must visit.

I was thinking a cold bottle of lager might not be such a bad idea, but what we find when we arrive is not at all what I was expecting.

The Dyffryn Arms in Pontfaen is not so much a pub as it is someone’s house where the owner, in this case an octogenarian called Bessie, will sell you Bass from a jug, served through a hatch in what looks like her living room.

There is no bar. It’s a strange yet rather pleasant experience, and gives us a glimpse of what pubs all round the country must have been like a century or two ago.

We down our drinks, say our farewells and get back on the bikes. Being on the valley floor means we ride straight into a climb, and it’s a brute, made no easier by the fact that our legs have been sedated by the 15-minute pub stop.

The road points upwards steeply, leading to several switchbacks that do little to alleviate the gradient.

After a while, the slope relents in the later stages of the climb, but continues to gain altitude steadily for some distance.

Eventually we crest the summit and begin the exhilarating descent that will take us all the way back down to the coast and the small town of Newport, the most northerly point of our loop.

By now we’re about 100km into the ride, and it seems like a good idea to stop at another pub, so we pitch up outside the Golden Lion Inn at Newport.

We opt for coffees on this occasion, mainly because there is still the small matter of the highest point on the ride to be negotiated.

Tom has ridden the Bwlch (pronounced Boolch – and is the Welsh word for ‘mountain pass’) plenty of times before so he knows what’s in store and suggests we might want to stock up on calories before we start.

It’s all the excuse we need to overload on iced buns and pastries from the local shop (the pub is out of cake).

The sun is still warm despite it being low in the sky as we start the ascent that bisects the National Park and points us back towards our starting point.

Finding ourselves once again in the shelter of high hedgerows and trees for the early reaches of the climb, the humidity feels uncomfortable.

Thankfully, further up we’re launched into wide-open moorland where the breeze can reach us with a pleasant cooling effect.

The downside is that we’re left in no doubt about what lies ahead because the remainder of the long climb is visible all the way to the summit.

Cresting the high point of the ride at just over 400m we’re treated to a 360° view of the county.

It’s reassuring to know that it’s practically all downhill from here, and on a road that’s straight and visible for long stretches there’s plenty of opportunity for eye-watering speeds.           

Steve darts off ahead down the slope while Tom and I give chase, but it’s too late in the day for this kind of effort, so eventually we give up the pursuit, sit up and enjoy a gentle cruise to the finish.

Steve however, presses on, obviously keen to set a good time. But his enthusiasm eventually gets the better of him and by the time we catch up he is straddling his top tube by the side of the road, clutching his leg and grimacing in pain. Cramp has set in.

He’s still rubbing his sore leg 15 minutes later as we pull into the car park of the Wolfscastle Country Hotel.

It’s a lovely evening and other hotel guests are enjoying drinks in the garden, so I try convincing Steve I recently read a science paper that proved lager is the most effective cure for muscle cramps, and far superior at numbing pain than electrolytes or recovery shakes.

But it takes little to sway him so, unzipping our jerseys to display our appropriate beer-drinking string vest base layers, we down tools and down the sweetest of pints.

Going for broke

Your guide to the best roads to ride in Pembrokeshire

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/27pembrokeshire. Head south on the A40 in Wolf’s Castle and after about half a mile turn right at Ford. Continue towards Hayscastle Cross, then turn right on B4330 and left towards Roch.

Cross the A487, then turn right on Welsh Road through Newgale and rejoin A487 towards Solva. Follow A487 to St David’s. Go through cathedral grounds, then exit the town to the south west on Waun Isaf to Porthclais.

Make the loop back to St David’s and head north west through Berea and Trefin. Hug the coastline to Fishguard, then head east on A487 towards Dinas Cross. After 3.5 miles turn right towards Llanychaer.

Turn left onto B4313 and take the left fork through Clyn Wood and Pontfaen. Before Cwm Gwaun, go left on Ffordd Bedd Morris and rejoin A487 to Newport. Continue for two miles before turning towards Tafarn-Y-Bwlch.

Join B4329 to Tufton. About 1.5 miles beyond Tufton turn towards Letterston to the A40, then turn left for Wolf’s Castle.

  

The rider’s ride

Canyon Aeroad CF 9.0 Team, £5,199, canyon.com

As deputy editor of Cyclist I admit to (very) occasionally calling in a bike I know will give me an advantage. The Aeroad CF 9.0 Team’s frame is abundantly stiff, yet somehow very sympathetic to its rider too – no small achievement.

I think this is as much a reflection on the success of the VCLS seatpost as the frame itself but, regardless, I was comfortable even after a long day in the saddle.

With a dreamy spec that included Mavic’s latest Cosmic Carbone 40 C wheels, and a full Dura-Ace Di2 grouspet I was left wanting for nothing from this bike that flatters my every input. 

 

Do it yourself

Travel

Wolf’s Castle is on the A40, about eight miles north of Haverfordwest. There are frequent trains to Haverfordwest station (via Swansea) and it’s then just a short cab ride to Wolf’s Castle. 

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the excellent Wolfscastle Country Hotel between Haverfordwest and Fishguard on the A40. As well as being very friendly and accommodating with secure storage for our bikes, it also served up a delicious home-cooked breakfast spread. The restaurant is excellent, too. Double room, B&B from £120.

Thanks

Our gratitude goes to Peter and Tom Walker of Pembrokeshire Bikes (pembrokeshirebikes.co.uk) – Peter for organising the route based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the region and for driving the support vehicle to make sure the day went off without a hitch, and Tom for joining us on the ride.