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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day 11

In-depth
3 Aug 2021
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We’ve come a long way since leaving John O’Groats, but Day Eleven in southern Wales offers little respite for weary legs – especially when it includes an ascent of the brutal Devil’s Staircase

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

I knew this moment was coming ever since I set off from John O’Groats. That doesn’t make it any easier, but short of somehow shedding 30kg instantly, there’s nothing I can do to make the impending 30% gradients more manageable.

A few hundred metres from the foot of the Devil’s Staircase I reduce my pace, as if the extra seconds of respite will help me once the road soars skyward.

For all of the many climbs that have peppered my route down the length of the UK, not to mention those still to come, it’s this one, tucked away at the end of a strikingly beautiful valley in mid-Wales, that has left me with a sense of foreboding every time I have thought about it.

It’s ‘only’ a kilometre long, but as those who have ridden it will know, that kilometre can feel like ten as you haul yourself up what feel like near-vertical ramps, the addition of two tight switchbacks only adding to the ordeal.

At least I won’t have to suffer alone. This part of the route is relatively close to my home in Monmouth, so just for today I have been joined by my friend Nick. He arrived at our campsite yesterday evening, full of energy and raring to go.

I, by comparison, am an exhausted wreck after cycling 2,000km in ten days via every major climb the country has to offer. Nick will just have to be patient with me.

At least I won’t have to suffer alone. This part of the route is relatively close to my home in Monmouth, so just for today I have been joined by my friend Nick. He arrived at our campsite yesterday evening, full of energy and raring to go.

I, by comparison, am an exhausted wreck after cycling 2,000km in ten days via every major climb the country has to offer. Nick will just have to be patient with me.

The Welsh connection

Much of my desire to detour through Wales revolves around today’s route, which starts near Llandidrod Wells and saunters southwest via the Devil’s Staircase before swinging eastwards through the Brecon Beacons.

These are my local roads, as much as you can call climbs 100km from your front door ‘local’, but everything’s relative. Given that I’m not averse to the odd 200km jaunt, they remain local in my eyes.

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After so many days alone it takes me a little while to adjust to having a riding companion. I’m something of an anomaly in that cycling has always been a solo endeavour for me, a chance to escape the world.

That’s why I’m a little tentative about spending an entire day alongside Nick, despite being good friends. Although I needn’t have worried; we’re well matched on the bike and he provides great company.

Not that the opening kilometres afford us much chance to chat, as the road from Newbridge on Wye across to Beulah is a series of steep, rolling hills. Nick, being lighter than me, pulls ahead on the climbs, only for me to come barrelling past him on the descents, propelled by my weight advantage. 

Nick’s presence reminds me I had forgotten how, with the right riding partner, the shared experience of cycling is often far more enjoyable than riding alone.

Granted, there are times when I might not notice all of the details of the world I’m riding through, but that’s countered by sharing what I do see with someone else, and for them to share the same experience as seen through their own eyes. In such a state the kilometres slip past far more easily, even when the gradient slows us, which happens a lot.

Devilishly steep

The road out of Abergwesyn is flanked by gnarled trees whose exposed roots twist around rocks that jut from the earth’s surface, offering an insight into what lies ahead. The 18% gradients here are little more than a loosener for what lurks at the far end of the valley.

It’s there that the Devil himself awaits, or at least his hellacious staircase that, in rising towards the heavens, sucks you deeper into your own personal hell. It’s this one stretch of road above all others that I have been fearing since the start of my journey.

The approach to the foot of the climb is at odds with the torture that awaits our legs. The road across the lower flank of the valley is very much the beauty to the climb’s beast.

This is virgin territory for Nick and I leave it as late as possible to warn him of what’s to come, instead content to listen to the babbling waters of the river Irfon alongside us as my eyes feast on the most picturesque of valleys, resplendent in green and the occasional patches of autumnal gold.

The first indication that it’s about to get a lot harder is a small but steep rise that sees us both out of the saddle. It’s now, once we’re back on the flat, that I ease my pace and let Nick know it would be sensible to drop into the lowest gear.

In an instant we are riding 20% inclines. I find myself silently cursing Nick’s presence next to me. Not only is he struggling less than me, but because he’s matching my pace I’m unable to zigzag across the road at the steepest parts, so have little choice but to head straight up the thin ribbon of tarmac that nudges 30% in places.

I try to tell myself that at least the suffering will be over sooner this way, not that it helps much as I search for an extra gear that deep down I already know isn’t there. Locked in our own personal battles we gradually wrestle our bikes upward, until finally the road relents a little, the final few hundred metres at an altogether more manageable 12%.

No sooner have we crested the summit than we’re catapulted back down into the valley towards the Llyn Brianne reservoir. It’s here that the road twists, turns and coils itself around the contours of the land, as if it’s an old bootlace flung into the valley by one of the many giants that dominate Welsh mythology.

The hills leading up from the edge of the reservoir are blanketed in a thick carpet of dark green trees. The road weaves in and out of dense woodland, ethereal shafts of light penetrating down onto the moss-covered floor.

We slowly gain height, which affords us views down the length of the reservoir, before a long, gradual descent takes us through quaint villages to Llandovery and a much-needed breakfast.

Beacons of hope

Our route across to Brecon is arduous. Sticking to a series of small country lanes might keep us off busier roads, but the process of doing so bleeds the energy from our legs with a barrage of short but testing slopes.

All the while I keep telling myself there are only two more big climbs to get over and then it’s all downhill to Cornwall. Or so I think.

Every passing kilometre brings us closer not just to those final two climbs but to an unexpected family meal, with the stage ending at my parents’ farm where, unbeknown to me, a family gathering has been arranged.

However, first there’s the small matter of one of Wales’s most formidable doubles: Llangynidr Mountain followed by The Tumble. These are climbs I have been over countless times, but never with such levels of fatigue in my legs.

Llangynidr lulls you into a false sense of confidence, at first meandering up between farmsteads and verdant fields of grazing sheep before suddenly tilting upwards and traversing around an exposed rocky mountaintop.

The road then levels off, at which point you think the climb is over, only for it to cruelly snake back on itself and kick up towards the true summit, where the views back down into the valley reveal just how much height you have gained.

On the descent there’s little time to recover before we arrive at the bottom of The Tumble, arguably Wales’ most famous climb and easily one of its toughest.

Believing that this is the last big climb of the entire ride I push hard from the very bottom, Nick sticking by my side as the road cuts back on itself and heads steeply through an imposing tunnel of trees.

There’s no talk, at least not from me, as we cross the cattlegrid that signals the start of the steepest section of the climb. It’s here that I get the sense Nick is holding back a little to keep me company, which only serves to spur me on to ride harder still.

Ultimately I don’t have the power to maintain such an effort so I sit up and savour the view back across to the Brecon Beacons. My mind wanders back through the countless mountains I’ve traversed on my journey down through the length of Britain, as if riding across the scaled back of a giant slumbering dragon; the toil and the strain, but more memorably the endless views over our green and pleasant land.

The descent from the last of these peaks feels as if I’m sliding down the dragon’s tail and onto the open plains that lead back towards England and the start of the final chapter of this remarkable journey. But not before a welcome night at home and some of Mum’s cooking.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

Mapping powered by komoot

Komoot tips to stay on track

No11: Find somewhere good to stay

With komoot Premium multi-day planner, you can see accommodation options near the end of each day’s route, from campsites and huts to B&Bs and hotels. You can adjust your route to end at your chosen accommodation with one click.

Essential JOGLE kit


No.11: SunGod Vulcans sunglasses, £125-£170, sungod.co

I know that sunglasses are the ultimate pro accessory, but I’ve never really got on with them, finding them either uncomfortable over long periods or misting up when I get hot. Thankfully there were no such issues with the SunGod Vulcans.

They sat comfortably on my nose without slipping, and allowed for plenty of airflow to prevent fogging. Admittedly for much of the time in Scotland they doubled up as goggles to protect me from the rain, but by the time the real summer weather came they were priceless for offering pinpoint clarity in bright sunshine.

One of the best features is that you can customise the Vulcans, picking from a wide variety of colours on the frames, logos and lenses, ensuring you get a bespoke look. This is in addition to a conversion kit that allows you to either ride with half or full frames, depending on your preference.

Thanks

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.