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Gritfest: A unique challenge on the gravel tracks of the Welsh countryside

25 Jul 2019

Words Juliet Elliott Photography Anthony Pease

On a wide woodland track in the Tywi Forest a fire has been lit inside me. Where moments ago, I’d been gently pedalling along a dirt road and chatting to my friends, now I’m a crazed masochist willing to suffer and struggle my way to victory. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Motivation comes in the form of a Lycra-clad blonde woman zipping up the gravel ascent. It’s a relatively mellow gradient in a peaceful woodland and probably a pleasant ride were I not engaged in battle. But I can’t take the time to look around, I’m focusing on breathing and dealing with the lactate pooling in my limbs.

At Gritfest, a two-day gravel stage race in the heart of the Cambrian Mountains, these moments of intense competition inject a spike of exquisite pain into a day that’s otherwise incredibly pleasant.

Making use of an enduro format, where only designated segments count towards your finishing time, at Gritfest you can spend the rest of the day exploring at a sociable pace. There’s ample time for chatter, the chance to ride with people you might not keep pace with over the full day but still that element of competition.

The landscape around Llandovery is quite simply superb. Since leaving our base at Cilycwm, our first taste of the Welsh mountains has been eye-opening. The first climb was a monstrously steep hill strewn with rocks and loose gravel that made its 20% plus gradient nigh on impossible; an ideal way to get the heart racing.

Up the hill – dubbed K2 by locals – a gravel road unspooled across green and russet moorland, a buzzard flying overhead. With no habitation in sight it stretched out ahead, a fast rolling, gently undulating paradise track under a never-ending blue sky. The gift from the gravel gods very briefly silenced the incessant chatter of my friends.

A fairly steep descent with a lot of loose rocks took us into a hidden valley and a farm road. It was all so enjoyable I decided I didn’t even need to race the timed sections, I was satisfied just to be in a part of Wales I’ve never visited before, on my bike and in the sun. Then I saw Blonde Woman smashing it through segment one and felt a primal urge to race her.

Once at timed segment two - the Brooks Behemoth - I’ve decided this is to be a day of contrasts. There will be lush, dreamy moments with friends in the sun enjoying Carmarthenshire’s extensive network of forest trails and mining tracks and there will be dark moments where I question why I’m pushing so hard that the scenery doesn’t even register.

With what feels like endless climbing (but is actually only 560m) the segment becomes a gravel TT. Tywi Forest’s charms are lost on me once again. Luckily, there’s still plenty of time left in the day to drink in the unspoilt landscape and continue the conversation I’d paused 40 minutes ago.

We descend towards Soar y Mynydd Chapel, reputedly the most remote chapel in Wales, and the start of the climb towards Llyn Brianne dam, at 70 metres the highest dam in the UK. The gravel road is typical of the kind of tracks we’ve been following all day – just the right size of gravel to make things fun without impeding your progress too much and wide enough to ride side by side.

Heading towards a reservoir we hug the hillside, a mix of pale golden grasses swaying above coarse green grass and rough grey rocks. The area is one of the few remaining remote wildernesses in the south of Britain and bathed in sunshine, is as attractive as anywhere I’ve been on my travels.

We take our time to enjoy the views before recommencing battle on timed segment three.

Day two begins with a short tarmac section before we hit the forest trails and singletrack around Pen Lifau. Timed segment four is a shock to the system, being predominantly uphill but it feels good to see another side of the area. It’s followed shortly after by an absolute beast of a climb – untimed, thankfully.

At Pen Craig Alltyberau the gravel road leaps skywards in a frankly astonishing way and it isn’t long before conversation turns to the savage beauty of our surroundings. A photographer perched high above us on a switchback indicates we’ll have a great view back down to the valley if we can just keep turning our pedals. We dig in, remaining seated so our wheels don’t spin on the gravelly 14% gradient.

These Welsh hills are small but fierce, the area the very definition of unspoiled. Away from the idyllic green valleys and their stone cottages it feels like a wild and powerful place. We all agree that the sense of adventure is heightened by how few buildings, cars and people we have seen and start discussing moving to Wales.

We know we’re seeing it at its absolute best but it still seems like a very tempting prospect. There are very few places in the UK that are so rich in natural assets without being overrun with visitors.

To finish our day we head into Cwm Rheaedr to tackle some singletrack in the forest. With small berms, rocks and narrow twisting segments the trail demands fluid, flowing movements and the ability to descend confidently.

With route planning, support and logistics taken care of I’ve enjoyed having the area laid out on a plate for me, much like it would be at a sportive. We’ve had the best of both worlds – a long, sociable ride peppered with incredibly demanding timed segments.

I briefly allow myself to admire the cool, damp forest and its calming tranquillity. Then I remember Blonde Woman and put the hammer down until it hurts.