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Wales : Big Ride

Peter Stuart
27 Oct 2015

Wales has a reputation for its beautiful scenery and devilishly challenging roads. Cyclist explores the Cambrian Mountains.

They say the Devil himself built these roads. Legend directly links him to at least one stretch of today’s ride, the Devil’s Bridge, but his fingerprints seem to be all over the rest of today’s steep and undulating profile. We’re riding in the Cambrian Mountains, south of Snowdonia and north of the Brecon Beacons, and often nicknamed the ‘Green Desert of Wales’. Because of this, I had mistakenly thought it was going to be a flat plain of serene countryside.

So when I’m told by Ieuan, our guide for the day, that it’s a 10-mile climb out of Machynlleth, I genuinely think he’s joking. He knows the area intimately and is unlikely to be wrong, but I hadn’t heard of any UK climbs outside the highlands of Scotland that could claim this duration of incline. But here we are, 30 minutes into a 10-mile climb out of town. It also seems to have all the trimmings of a fully fledged Alpine mountain road, except that in place of a consistent 5% incline we’re being given back-to-back hits of 15% gradients, interspersed with false flats and fleetingly short descents. Therese, a keen time-triallist who is riding with me today, is already a little thorny as a result of my promises of a flat countryside cruise.

Machynlleth has vanished into the valley behind us and, as we emerge from the more forested slopes of the climb into open grassy hilltops, the steep 17% incline that will deliver us to the summit is just ahead. The road winds to the right around the hilltop and we’re hopeful that it conceals no further unseen ramps.

Cycling near dam in Wales

When we crest the final ascent, the view of the road ahead is mesmerising. It’s a perfectly surfaced and open descent that snakes just enough to keep things interesting. Yet we don’t seem to be losing all the altitude we’ve just gained so I’m confident that our gravity-defying efforts will be repaid in full later on.

Were not far from Dylife Gorge – considered by many to be the best viewpoint in all of Wales, if not the UK. Sure enough when passing along its banks we can’t help but stop to appreciate the scene. Welsh poet WH Davies once wrote, ‘A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’ He could well have been at this very spot with his notepad and pencil. The gorge forms a perfectly symmetrical V-shaped valley winding down hundreds of metres in front of us, with hilly banks covered in heather making a contrast with the grassy plains below. It’s as British as a good view can be and we munch on a couple of flapjacks as we take in the panorama.

The undulating path

The approach to Llanidloes offers some striking scenery and thrilling descents. On any other day I would stop to snap pictures, but after what we’ve already seen and what Ieuan promises is ahead, it feels surplus to requirements. The descents are worth savouring, though. As we fly down to a bridge over Llyn Clywedog I see my speed hit 80kmh, but it’s quickly wiped off by the ramp that lurks on the other side, which rises straight up to 20% and makes my legs creak. Mercifully it’s only 700m long.

The rest of the journey to Llanidloes is easier going, with a long and fast descent into town, taking us to 170m above sea level, which will be the lowest elevation we’ll see for the rest of the day. It’s one of the few towns on our route so we take the opportunity to have a look around, with the highlight being the Market Hall that dates back to 1600 and looks more like a thatched cottage than a place of commerce.

Dam in Wales

It’s a pretty town but we don’t treat ourselves to a coffee, fully aware that we’re only 30km into today’s 142km ride. Predictably, the only way out of town is up. It’s a rolling ascent, but delivers a 2km stint at 7%, spiking up to 20% at its hardest points. Already the character of today’s ride is becoming clear.

We find some relief on the descent towards the tiny town Tylwych, where high hedgerows make for a nervy but exhilarating blast. A sharp left takes us over a bridge and into another 15% ramp, and this begins to feel like a theme park ride. As we climb out of the trees and hedgerows, the valley around us comes into view, with a steep mossy hillside facing us across the river. 

Panache and Elan

It’s now that we enter the Green Desert. It would be stunning if it was part almost any other landscape, but in such exalted company these beautiful rolling fields and pastures are a little underwhelming. Not that there’s much chance to stop and stare, because there seems to be no end to the 15% ramps and descents. But there is a carrot dangling just ahead.

The Elan Valley is home to a collection of vast reservoirs framed by some striking landscapes. In contrast to the rolling Cambrian hills we’ve just passed through it feels as though we’ve entered another continent. Surrounded by sharp cliffs and dramatic valleys, we decide this is a good place to pull up for lunch.

Elan village has a rich history. In the Historia Brittonum, written in the ninth century, it was mentioned as one of the ‘Marvels of Britain’, and is closely tied to the legends of King Arthur. In more recent history, the dramatic curves of its valleys were seen to offer ample opportunity for water storage, and in the 1890s they provided a water source for the heavily expanding industrial city of Birmingham. To this day the water still flows there along aqueducts.

Welsh cafe stop

For us the reservoirs offer a different kind of elemental relief in the shape of some pan-flat riding on the roads that border them. But our temporary reverie is brought to an abrupt end by a frame-bending 20% hairpin on the other side of Craig Goch Reservoir. Thankfully, with the road visible ahead of us, we can see that it’s a only a short stretch of climbing so we attack it in defiance of our full stomachs.

We’re rewarded soon afterwards by some of the easiest terrain of the day. We roll up and down alongside the River Elan through a lush valley. Constant undulations mean it’s not a fast road, but it has none of the savagery of the day’s previous gradients. We know, however, that the Devil’s Bridge is not far over the horizon.

Take it to the bridge

The renowned Victorian travelogue writer George Borrow is famous for his descriptions of Wales. ‘Though not very extensive, it is one of the most picturesque countries in the world, a country in which Nature displays herself in her wildest, boldest, and occasionally loveliest forms,’ he eulogised in Wild Wales.

Until today I would have dismissed that as exaggerated nationalist zeal, but riding out of Elan Valley I’m completely seduced by Wales’s unique charm. A low, golden light seeps over the rolling hills and the scenery has evolved from a grassy moonscape into a varied and intricate mix of conifers, deciduous trees and hills covered with purple heather.

Stopped while riding

We’re finally enjoying the rewards of our hard climbing, as some of the altitude we laboriously invested in this morning is being returned on a slow repayment plan of descent. The road cuts along the hillside with a mountain river flowing down to our left. The tarmac is immaculate and the rolling gradients and tight corners make the riding technical yet enjoyable. But the pleasure is tempered by the knowledge that the road will soon present a new test for the legs.

The descent flattens out and quickly turns upwards once again. A glance at my Garmin triggers a double take because I’m staggered that we’ve already clocked 2,000m of climbing in only 90km of riding. As we crest one lump after another, I keep assuring Therese that the next summit is bound to be the last, but I have a feeling her patience is running thin.

As we finally reach the highest point of our latest series of climbs the outline of the Cambrian Mountains ahead suggest we still have some work to do before the day is out. But for now we’re on the steep descent to the famous Devil’s Bridge, where three bridges have been built over one another, and all three remain in place. Legend has it that the first bridge was built by the Devil himself in the 11th century. The story goes that an old woman had spotted her only cow on the other side of a valley. The Devil appeared and offered to build a bridge to unite her and her cow, on the condition that he would take the soul of the first creature to cross his new bridge. But rather than give up her own or her cow’s soul, the crafty grandma hatched a plan, as described in folklore thus:

‘The crust over she threw, the dog after it flew, Says she, “The dog’s yours, crafty sir!”

Animal rights advocates may debate the ethics of her choice to sacrifice the soul of her dog, and philosophers may well question whether a dog has a soul, but it’s a nice tale nonetheless. As we descend at speed towards the bridge, it appears that the ‘crafty sir’ has played a trick on us too, as the smooth single-track road winds extremely quickly to a sharp right and a junction with the two-lane road that crosses the bridge. After the high drama of some screeching brakes and an elevated heart rate, I safely manage to bring my bike to a dead stop.

Wales cycling

Crossing the bridge, we take in the view of the striking waterfall that cascades down into the river Mynach beneath. It looks more like the sort of natural feature you might expect to see in deepest Borneo, and it’s an ideal spot to momentarily rest our fatigued legs. Predictably, our relief is fleeting, and as we set off straight back into a 12% incline it feels as though I have the devil on my back.

From here we tackle a series of undulations that average out to a 3% incline up to the Nant-Y-Moch reservoir, with sapping peaks of up to 15% gradient. When we reach the reservoir all the effort seems worthwhile. In a trip with so much scenery, yet again we’re presented with a breathtaking panorama. Nant-Y-Moch has all the beauty of the Elan Valley, but with a rugged Welsh character reminiscent of a Scandinavian coastline. We ride beneath pine trees that cover the side of the mountain, while the other side of the reservoir is barren and bare. I comment to Therese that it’s the sort of landscape painting I’d quite like in my living room.

Moots VaMoots RSL

While the scenery is exceeding all expectations, the ride has become gruelling, but Ieuan promises that a fast descent to the coast awaits us just around the next ridge. Once we crest the final lump of Nant-Y-Moch, the Irish Sea slips into view, although we wouldn’t necessarily know, as a low sun has turned it into a pool of golden light. I feel compelled to stop and take a few phone snaps, even though I know our photographer is just behind with an arsenal of cameras. There are few other occasions, anywhere on Earth, when I’ve seen hills, sea and sky come together quite so perfectly, and I’m filled with a feeling of patriotism for our craggy British Isles that, until now, I had thought myself immune to.

Rarely have I ridden such undulating and challenging terrain in the UK. It even challenges the savage gradients of the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales – today’s profile looks like the jagged ramparts of a castle wall. Yet descending towards the coast, the sunset is reflecting off the sea, and I’m squinting to make out the contours of the road. I’m completely exhausted by the savage terrain, but also a little sad that this amazing day is drawing to a close.

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