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Wye Valley : Big Ride

Susannah Osborne
22 Jan 2016

The Wye Valley provides a serene landscape, a chance meeting with pros and the soundtrack to a ride.

The local radio station in Abergavenny is called Sunshine Radio (106.2 – 107.8FM). Broadcasting ‘songs that make you feel good’, the DJs are bright, enthusiastic and their energetic tones sound uncannily like a well-known Norfolk broadcaster. Toe-tapping classics by Sister Sledge, Dire Straits and Phil Collins blare out of my clock radio – it’s a seamless playlist suited to an over-60s disco but, despite the infectious fervour of Sunshine HQ, outside the weather is far from bright. In the hills that surround Abergavenny it’s lashing down and I’m struggling to find the motivation to get on my bike.

As Foreigner starts to play, I flick through a local guidebook and read that this centuries-old market town is considered the ‘Gateway to Wales’. We’re actually well across the border and the landscape behind The Angel hotel, where we holed up for the night, is typically Welsh. It’s wild and dramatic and dominated by a rather sizeable hill called The Tumble, which is to be our immediate, post-breakfast challenge.

I want to know what love is

We have a packed day of riding ahead, but our group is feeling a little sluggish as we stand in the car park of The Angel – a stylish yet affordable and bike-friendly old coaching house in the centre of town.

Wye Valley hills

A gentle warm-up to the ride would be welcome but Dave Harwood, our guide for the day, is pointing towards the hills on the horizon and explaining how our route will navigate them, with the climbing starting straight away. Dave spends half of his year organising bike holidays and training camps in Mallorca, and the other half in Ross-on-Wye, so he’s used to climbing and he knows these roads intimately. London-based James and I can’t say we are blessed with this kind of local terrain, which puts us on the back foot. I’m also acutely aware that we are currently in the Brecon Beacons National Park and to get to the Wye Valley we have a long ride west.

The Tumble is the name of the road that snakes up Blorenge mountain, which despite sounding like blancmange is far from soft and wobbly. It’s a testing climb that some (slightly deluded) cyclists call Wales’s Ventoux. Nevertheless, it’s a 6km ascent that averages around 10% and is a favourite testing ground for the pros. The climb was included in the 2009 and 2014 National Road Race Championships, and Stage 3 of the 2014 Tour of Britain ended with a summit finish.

As we roll out of town and towards Govilon on Methyr Road a layer of fine mist coats my arms, legs and face. The air is fresh despite it being July. We turn left onto the mountain and the road ramps up through a tunnel of lush green trees. A tight hairpin gives an indication of what’s to come and as we push on I hear Dave shout, ‘It’s 10%…’ but his voice trails away, masked by my heavy breathing.

Wye Valley climb

The road bends sharply to the right. This is the point that author Simon Warren, in his book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, describes as being ‘a long abrasive slog’. We slog it out for a couple of kilometres, until we cross a cattle grid and the road flattens as the landscape opens up into a vast, gorsey moor. The popular sportive Velothon Wales came up here and as we near the top James points out the word ‘Kudos’ painted on the road. For once I feel I’ve earned it. As warm-ups go, this has certainly done the job. At the top it’s windy and wet – it is Wales after all – but the views south to the Severn Estuary and north to the Black Mountains are spectacular.

The descent is fast and the tarmac is surprisingly smooth, despite being regularly battered by the harsh Welsh elements. I’m keen to get going but we’re flanked by sheep and wild horses playing chicken across the road. Judging by their erratic behaviour they appear to have had more than Weetabix for breakfast and their skittish moves have me hanging on the brakes.

Dropping down into Blaenavon we cruise alongside the River Lywd. Tucked in behind Dave it’s an easy ride and we spin along to Pontypool, a town famous for its rugby heritage and its industrial past. The grey drizzle is heavier now and does no favours to the appeal of the forlorn high street, where the only bit of cheer is the flashing lights of the amusement arcade.

Wye Valley church

Leaving the slot machines behind we wind our way cross-country. The landscape morphs from moorland into rolling hills and Llandegfedd Reservoir comes into view. Our photographer James and his driver Paul have been popping up in the most unexpected of places and I half imagine the next shot to be directed from a boat in the middle of the expanse of water. Instead he’s standing precariously on the reservoir wall wildly jabbing his finger at a hairpin. From his windmilling arms I guess he wants us to tackle the corner at speed and so we do, until we come face to face with a tractor armed with a five-foot hay spear attached to its grill. We stop, abruptly.

A wonderful racetrack of a road takes us into the Wye Valley proper and as we rip across to Usk the lush, green river flood plain takes on a more familiar British feel. It’s a delightful town with a rich history, peppered with tea shops and antique sellers, and it has a talent for burying the dead – the Usk Natural Burial Meadow won Cemetery of the Year in 2008 and was nominated again in 2014. Had I been speared through the heart by the tractor I could have tested the facilities myself.

Another day in paradise

So far it’s been a rolling ride but here is where it starts to get lumpy. A hard slog away from Usk on the B4235 has us in the red but we’re rewarded with view of the old Severn Bridge and a chance meeting with NFTO, the UK UCI Continental team who are based in Hereford. The boys whip past in a tidy two-up formation and we roll on through Chepstow looking decidedly amateur. As the road snakes alongside the lush banks of the River Wye, Dave tells me the river is effectively the border between Monmouthshire in Wales and Gloucestershire in England.

Wye Valley Pit Stop cafe

We keep on the west bank, firmly in Wales, until we reach Tintern and Tintern Abbey. The chants of thousands of monks must have echoed off its walls, the exposed shell being one of the best-preserved medieval abbeys in Wales. But it’s our stomachs rather than a higher being that’s calling and we dive into The Filling Station, a roadside cafe that’s popular with cyclists.

As we sit outside, Vin, the owner and an avid rider, fills us in on some celebrity cycling gossip. Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas and his wife Sara are ‘rumoured to be buying property just up the road’. Vin’s pitstop, where you’ll find a track pump, spares and ride fuel alongside sandwiches, snacks and darn good coffee, is on the route of Land’s End to John O’Groats and he gets ‘around two or three LEJOG groups coming through each day’ in the summer. It’s a super friendly place and now the sunshine’s broken through we could easily hang out all day talking shop were there not another 50km still to ride.

Skirting the Welsh bank of the Wye we stop at Brockweir to check out the view. Fat, round bales of freshly cut hay lie on the banks of the slowly drifting river. It’s a view right from a Constable painting – the freshness of the summer light, the lush greenery and the cotton wool clouds that bring sudden patches of shade. Turning off the main road we start to climb along a narrow lane banked with wildflowers and ferns. It’s strange to imagine how this tranquil landscape was so significant in the industrial revolution. Iron and brass were made here, watermills whirred and the river was an important means of transport, trade and communication. A cacophony of sound echoed along the valley, furnaces were ablaze on its banks and the smoke of heavy industry enveloped what’s now an unsmudged, immaculate valley.

Brothers in arms

Wye Valley bridge

After the climb up through Llandogo we stop to regroup. According to Dave there are two more ‘lumps’ to contend with on the way back to Abergavenny. One of these is the climb up to Trellech, a nondescript village that’s rumoured to be the real life Royston Vasey in The League Of Gentlemen. During Norman times the villagers of Trellech allegedly lost their grip on morality and the village became the largest community of alcoholics in the whole of Medieval Wales. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant lived just outside Trellech for some time and Stairway To Heaven has been adopted as the village anthem. For somewhere so small, it’s a fascinating place.

Our musically themed tour continues as we descend into Monmouth. Rockfield recording studios, on the outskirts of town, has a visitors’ book crammed with comments from music’s glitterati – Oasis, Coldplay, The Stone Roses, New Order all recorded here, and Queen penned Bohemian Rhapsody at Rockfield.

Our route, which on the map looks like a head of broccoli, is almost done. The sun is out and suddenly after 100km my legs are feeling good. There’s one last sting in the tail of this ride though, as a fierce wind whips up. Freddie Mercury may have sung the line, ‘Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter,’ but it’s bothering me no end and I’m thankful when we reach Abergavenny. Back in town we jump off the bikes and into the car heading north for another adventure. James turns on the radio, familiar tunes begin to play, but rather than join in the singalong I promptly fall asleep.

Thanks

Every Cyclist trip is a group effort and should be rewarded with plenty of thanks, so these go to Megan from InsideMedia for her seamless organisation of this trip and to Dave Harewood from Sun Velo, who designed our route and shoed us the Wye Valley - check out Sun Velo's year-round cycling holidays and training camps.

Thanks to The Angel at Abergavenny for the stunning, bike-friendly bolt-hole and superb food and to Vin at the Filling Station, Tintern, for providing us with great sarnies and coffee to satisfy any caffeine snob.

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