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Wales big ride: Cav's stomping ground

In association with
In-depth
10 Feb 2015
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Words Mark Bailey Photography James Oaten

To battle up the ‘Leg Stinger’ – a punchy climb on a rural farm track in north-east Wales that kicks up to a venomous gradient of 27% – I am forced to adopt the zigzagging path of a Saturday night drunk, slaloming from one side of the path to the other in a futile bid to neutralise the sharp ascent.

The road is so steep in places that my front wheel leaps off the serpentine slither of tarmac like an agitated horse rearing up at the hiss of a rattlesnake.

I know I’m riding slowly. My Garmin keeps shaming me with flashes of 5, 6 and 7kmh, but the tragic reality of my climbing speed finally hits home when the car behind me – which until now has been patiently trailing me up the single-lane track – starts to choke and stutter, then promptly stalls.

I realise, through the fog of pain and panting, that I have reached a speed that a car engine no longer equates to forward locomotion.

The ascent perfectly epitomises the character of this gritty but glorious part of Wales. The alluring landscape may appear soft and fluffy, with its undulating hills, forested valleys and heather-clad meadows, but the region hides some ramps that will give unsuspecting visitors a kick in the backside.

In this atmospheric Anglo-Welsh border realm, history has piled up over the centuries like layers of sedimentary rock. As I journey through the rural landscape I pass the sites of Iron Age hill forts, Roman towns, Norman castles and modern country houses.

The dark hills are alive with Arthurian legends and the tales of ancient Welsh heroes, such as Owain Glyndwr, a rebel prince who instigated an uprising against the English in 1400 (think Braveheart with leeks and daffodils).

He would no doubt be delighted to know that the local geography is still capable of repelling invading Englishmen many centuries later – even if they now arrive armed with Lycra and carbon fibre, instead of chainmail and horses.

The enchanting valleys are also dotted with the visible remains of old industries, from quarries and mines to tramways, canals and water mills.

Amidst the bucolic Welsh beauty, however, there lurk some beasts. The Leg Stinger, as it has been dubbed by local riders on Strava, twists and turns through 124m of vertical ascent in just over a kilometre, averaging around 10%.

But its lower reaches feel as steep as the walls of the limestone quarries that erupt out of the surrounding landscape. It’s one of those harmless-looking climbs that barely raises an eyebrow when you scout the course profile but which leaves your eyeballs bulging when you find yourself huffing and puffing to the top. 

Cavendish territory

Such challenges seemed unlikely a few hours earlier when I was scoffing pastries in Chez Jules cafe in Chester, just east of the border with Wales, and plotting the day’s route with my ride companions, Luke, Kayleigh and Danny.

The 110km loop will take us through the hills and valleys of Flintshire, Denbighshire and Conwy, and showcase the iconic climb of Horseshoe Pass – a previous location for the British National Hill Climb Championships.

Our route is largely based on the course of the Rise Above sportive – the official sportive of Mark Cavendish – which takes place in August. The Manx Missile has been heavily involved in the planning.

‘Mark is keen to ensure this will be a tough and challenging ride that people will enjoy and remember,’ says Luke, who works for SweetSpot, organisers of the sportive.

‘He wants it to be a premium and well-organised event but he definitely wants people to know they’ve had a proper ride.’

Cav himself seems excited about the prospect, as he told me during an interview on a different day: ‘Seeing all these people ride their bikes around beautiful places like north Wales and Chester is going to be amazing for me,’ he said.

‘I used to ride in this area a lot when I was a teenager so it has some special memories. I would stay in Liverpool and train in Wales and Chester so I know the roads really well.

‘To see people testing themselves and enjoying a big challenge on the same roads that I used to train on is something I can really relate to and there will be an amazing sense of reward for me as well as for them.’

Panorama walks

On the day we ride, the weather forecast predicts heavy downpours, but there are no rain clouds looming overhead when we clip in and slowly weave our way out of Chester. The historic town, which can be dated back to a Roman fort called Deva Victrix in AD79, provides a scenic start to the day’s activities, with its bone-shuddering cobbled roads, ancient town walls and striking cathedral.

We dive beneath the Eastgate Clock (claimed to be the second-most-photographed clock in Britain, behind Big Ben) and over the sandstone arches of the 14th century Old Dee Bridge before venturing out onto quieter country roads.

Within a few minutes we’re whizzing past the quaint red-brick houses of Eccleston and the black and white Gothic revival cottages of Marford. Best not hang around here, mind – many of the houses are decorated with crosses that are said to protect inhabitants from the ghost of ‘Lady Blackbird’, a murdered local woman who taps on the windows of homes late at night.

We pick up the pace as we blast past Pulford, with Kayleigh, a natural time-trialist, leading the way. We pass a mound of earth that marks the site of an old Norman motte-and-bailey castle that used to guard the border between England and Wales.

Crossing the bridge over the Pulford Brook signifies our arrival in Wales, which welcomes us with a few short climbs, including Rhyddyn Hill, Cymau Lane (82m with an of average 6% but with jolts of 17%) and Mount Zion (at 101m, much smaller than its more famous 765m-tall cousin in Jerusalem).

Settling into a comfortable pace, we plunge under the canopy of the surrounding woodland and skirt the Ty Mawr reservoir before a climb up Bronwylfa Hill and another ascent through Black Wood.

As we head deeper into the rural landscape I feel my muscles relax. Around us are wooden stiles, stone walls and fields dotted with sheep. There are pretty villages with thatched roofs and red phone boxes, and narrow country lanes tattooed with the muddy tyre marks of farm vehicles.

After a short climb we arrive at the scenic lookout of Panorama Walk, where we enjoy a sweeping view of stark hills, rocky crags and dense forests. The descent back into the soft blanket of the valley leaves my eyes streaming with wind-lashed tears behind my sunglasses.

After a blast through the valley we arrive just north of Llangollen, on the edge of the churning waters of the River Dee, where we pass a 600-year-old water mill. We then head north, riding parallel to the boulder-strewn river, and arrow towards the most famous climb of the day – the Horseshoe Pass.

The climb curls around a valley (yes, the shape of a horseshoe) for 6.1km, rising 317m in altitude. Although it’s the sort of climb on which a rider can get into a steady rhythm, there are stabbing sections at 20% that cause lactic acid to rush into my legs.

The route here dates back to an old turnpike road from 1811. Open and exposed, it suffers severe weather in winter. The website for the Ponderosa Cafe, which sits at the top of the pass, carries a ‘road open/closed’ status similar to those seen on Alpine cols.

Today there is no danger of weather problems, but as we begin to ascend it’s easy to imagine the wintry chaos that comes with icy roads and raking winds blasting across the valley.

The climb starts with a gentle rise, but when we edge around a bend the gradient starts to increase. I can see the whir of Luke’s bright yellow shoes start to slow as the cumulative effect of the climbing so far begins to take its toll on all of us.

Except for Danny, the quickest of our group, who catapulted himself skywards some time ago and we conclude that he is probably downing a slice of carrot cake in the cafe right now.

The views are worth the sweat, though, as we climb past fields covered in red, brown and purple heather and glance down at thick forests of fir. It’s no surprise this spot falls within a protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

A stark ridge of grey slate rises up to the left of the road, a reminder of the abundance of slate in the region that is still quarried today. After cursing and swearing, we finally reach the cafe, which to our delight is stocked with chunky tuna sandwiches, sausage butties, steak pies and – gloriously – chip baps.

Today the cloud is denying us a view of Mount Snowdon so we construct our own mountain of food instead, which slowly disintegrates as we hungrily refuel for the afternoon ahead.

A sting in the tail

One look at the metallic sky above suggests we’ll be getting soaked at some point today, but while the weather stays dry we enjoy an electrifying descent along the A542, slowed only by the occasional rattle of cattle grids.

A rare flat section follows as we glide past the villages and towns of Carrog, Corwen and Tyn-y-Cefn and zip below the stone rampart of the Caer Drewyn hill fort, which dates back to the Iron Age. When we pause for a drink in the town of Corwen, Owain Glyndwr himself appears behind us, brandishing his sword.

This imposing statue has been constructed to commemorate the rebel hero but it proves to be a fitting warning for what’s ahead.

When we reach a sawtooth ridge of sharp climbs and tight, swirling descents I realise that I had made a big mistake in assuming that Horseshoe Pass – the most well-known climb on the route – would be the biggest challenge of the day. There are tougher obstacles to come.

For the next hour we battle through a series of short but explosive climbs that rise slyly out of the tranquil farming landscape and heathland. There is the Treddol climb, which has jolts at 16%, and the Betwys climb, which rises 101m at an average of 9%. Then comes the Leg Stinger.

At the bottom of this one, long tree branches dangle over the road as if trying to tickle us. By the time we reach the top it feels as though they are trying to throttle us. 

The hills in this area are all similar in character: single-lane farm tracks surrounded by trees and hedges that block any view of the top, ensuring you’re lost in a bewildering battle for an unknown summit. Our mood continually oscillates from one of hope to horror as we think we spy the top of the climb only to face another stretch of tight bends curling upwards. 

Surfing an endorphin high after the streak of short climbs, we push on through flower-strewn grasslands and past limestone crags and damp riverside woodlands. We hurtle over stone arched bridges and pass striking white farmhouses. Rocks tumble down the riverbank into the gurgling water of the mountain streams.

The light starts to dim as we are greeted with a fierce headwind and some light drizzle. Danny and I take it in turns to ride at the front to share the workload but we’re both fading faster than the light. We arrive at the eerily quiet Llyn Brenig reservoir in the heart of the Denbigh Moors just as the rain comes down.

We could then have enjoyed a speedy dash to the town of Ruthin and passed the stark cliffs and wooded valleys of Loggerheads Country Park before arriving back into Chester. But, quite frankly, we’re all cooked. Finishing the ride amid the fir trees that rise up either side of the silver water feels like a fitting end to the day.

As we savour the twilight views over the reservoir and reflect on the day’s ride, I can’t help but imagine Mark Cavendish smiling at the sight of a small gaggle of tired cyclists chattering about testing climbs and epic memories.

 

Hills and valleys

Relive Cyclist’s route through Chester and Wales 

To download the route go to cyclist.co.uk/37chester. In short, head south out of Chester to Eccleston and west to Belgrave. The B544 takes you to Pulford and into Wales to Rossett. Follow the River Alyn to Rhyddyn Hill, and from Bridge End go to Ffrith, then go southwest.

Head for the Ty Mawr Reservoir to Tref-y-nant brook, and on to Panorama Walk and Llangollen. From here it’s north to Horseshoe Pass, and on to the Llyn Brenig reservoir. Then head to Cader, Ruthin and back to Chester via Tafarn-y-Gelyn and Lavister.

 

The rider’s ride

Specialized Venge Expert, £2,800, specialized.com

For a ride with connections to Mark Cavendish, it seemed only fair to ride the bike he is most associated with: the Venge. Being stiff and aero, it was always going to be fast, but the question was how it would feel on a long hilly ride.

Sure enough, on the flats everything felt crisp and the handling was pin-sharp (Specialized claims this bike will save you 22 watts at 40kmh compared to the Tarmac). But even when the climbs came thick and fast, the bike excelled.

Despite being a sprinter’s bike, the Venge can climb like a goat, and I often stayed in the saddle to drive up and over the climbs. This bike is about all-out performance but I’d be happy to use it for a hilly century ride too.

Do it yourself

Travel

The town of Chester is the best base for the loop and is easily accessible via Chester train station or a short drive from the M6, M62 or M1.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the Best Western Westminster Hotel in Chester, which cost £59 per night plus £10 parking. There was a solid breakfast buffet to kick-start the day, nobody seemed to have a problem with keeping the bike in the room, and there is free Wi-Fi for double-checking Google Maps before you ride.

Sportive

You can tackle much of the same route at Mark Cavendish’s official Rise Above sportive, which offers distances of 50, 105 and 153km. The event includes a closed-road departure on the cobbled streets of Chester. The 2018 event has just taken place, with Cav himself having again taken time out to but you can find out more and keep posted ahead of the 2019 edition at riseabovesportive.com.