Sign up for our newsletter

Wales big ride: Geraint's Tour de Wales

In association with
Sponsored
5 Sep 2018
Advertisement

Words Joseph Delves Photography Ben Read

• To view and download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/visit-wales

It took Geraint Thomas three weeks to triumph at the 2018 Tour de France, but it took many formative years spent riding in the Valleys and on the Brecon Beacons to lay the groundwork. 

The roads that Thomas grew up riding and training on are what we’ve come to ride today, and as we make our final preparations we’re just a few miles from Birchgrove, Cardiff, where Wales’ first Grand Tour winner was born. Also just down the road is the Maindy outdoor Velodrome, the place where Thomas first turned a pedal in anger.

Thomas would have had no choice but to begin most of his rides along the busy, main arterial A-roads leaving Cardiff, before getting into the much quieter rural valleys north of the M4 corridor.

We, however, are beginning our route in Pontypridd, which at this early hour is almost deserted, so we can get straight to the good stuff. It will also means our loop can be kept to a more manageable 135km. 

Splendid isolation 

As we head for the hills outside of Blackmill we get our first taste of the climbs that laid the foundations for young Geraint’s cycling ambitions. This is where he would play-act the role of a Grand Tour leader, imagining himself racing in the Alps and Pyrenees. Little did he know it would become a reality.

Our opening climb is Bwlch-y-Clawdd, which translates as ‘the gap in the hedge’. The road was built in 1928 to provide a lifeline to isolated valley communities, and Geraint describes it as ‘a long 20-minute drag’ in his biography, The World Of Cycling According To G. ‘Up through the village, across the cattle grid, into the forest. Clouds all around.’ 

You can tackle it in various ways but we approach through Ogmore Vale. Passing Nant-y-moel (‘stream from the bare mountain’), the climb begins in earnest as we leave the last of the houses behind. It starts with a straight and steady drag of around a kilometre, and we can see what’s coming up ahead before the pine trees crowd around the road. 

The gradient picks up as the road follows the fold of the hillside and passes below where the River Ogmore’s highest tributaries pour down into the valley. We’re pinned to the side of the hill as the view opens up down the slopes, taking in the multiple wind farms between us and the Bristol Channel to the south. 

We press on and find ourselves in a cleft cut through the top of the pass before reaching the summit. Stopping to take in the view of the upcoming descent to Treorchy we notice that someone has neatly painted a Welsh dragon onto the rock, along with the motto Croeso i’r Cymoedd – ‘welcome to the Valleys’. 

Considering we’re here on a weekday there seems to be a huge number of cyclists around, all greeting us with friendly smiles and a wave or nod. And it’s little wonder they’re so cheerful – the descent to the valley floor is wickedly fast and interrupted only by one huge sweeping hairpin. 

With eyes watering we’re soon at the bottom and crossing over the Rhondda. A series of villages (Treorchy, Ynyswen, Pen-yr-englyn, and Treherbert) nestle beside the river and blend into each other as the road passes through the Rhondda Fawr valley.

There are plenty of Baptist chapels, libraries and pubs along the way, but perhaps more surprisingly there’s also a handful of Italian cafes – perfect for a mid-ride coffee stop. 

Hero’s welcome

When Geraint Thomas returned to Cardiff following victory in France around 10,000 fans lined the streets to welcome him home. Yet while his achievement raised cycling’s profile here, he’ll have to win a few more before he dislodges rugby from its place as the national sport. 

It’s still the game here, and every other bit of flat space is given over to it. Turning off at the end of the valley, we pass Treherbert RFC’s stunning rugby ground, tucked above the village and below the slopes of the Rhigos climb. 

That’s where we’re heading next. This road is extremely quiet, and as we gain altitude and our breathing starts to labour the views open up over the valley. Once again it’s not long before it feels as though we’ve left civilisation behind. 

At just over 5km and with an almost constant 5% gradient, Rhigos is the perfect climb for measuring your fitness. It’s a case of picking your effort and sticking to it. In fact, Rhigos was one of the key training sessions used by the young Thomas, as he explained when we caught up with him ahead of our trip. 

‘The Bwlch and the Rhigos – they’re two climbs that we used to ride out and do. There was a big one-day race at the time called the Five Valleys, and back then as under-16s we’d go out and test ourselves on those climbs,’ Thomas told us. ‘They were only 15 minutes long but I always remember feeling like we were all riding in the Tour on the big Alpine passes.’

A quarter of an hour for Thomas is probably a little longer for me, so I settle down into a steady rhythm and try not to overcook it. Looking up from the bottom you can see the point at which the road is aiming, but it’s a while before it seems to get any closer as we climb alongside steep rock faces on our right and the valley sloping away to our left.

Marking approximately the halfway point of the climb is a melancholy-looking blue and white brick hut. It’s the former home of the road’s watchman, who was employed to ensure neither landslips nor errant sheep blocked the way over the pass. 

It was an important job, especially in winter when snow and long nights added to the dangers, and among its last inhabitants was George Cole, who built a brightly coloured garden replete with oversized flowers and penguins created using scraps of plastic. Now largely forgotten, you can just about see the last of his sculptures on the slopes behind the building.

Riding past the long-abandoned shelter, from here all that’s left is to hammer the final stretch until the road passes around the Iron Age settlement at Hendre’r Mynydd, cuts through the hilltop and emerges to overlook Llyn Fawr reservoir. 

If the weather is good you might find an ice cream van at the top, today though we’re keen to keep pressing on so we blaze down two sweeping bends to the reservoir and then on past the Tower Colliery.

The oldest continuously working deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, it was also the last to remain active in the South Wales Valleys following a buyout by its workers. Over 10 years later its huge headframe remains static as we ride by. 

The Beacons

We plug on up the road to Glynneath. From here it’s just a short stretch until we’re onto the Brecon Beacons, the wild mountain range that includes South Wales’ highest peak, Pen y Fan.

This was where Thomas started exploring by bike as a teenager, although his first expedition almost ended in disaster when he got lost in the hills. In the end, he returned to Cardiff through heavy snow so exhausted and with hands so cold he had to ring the doorbell with his forehead. 

Thankfully we’re here in summer and the weather is fine. We follow the River Tawe upwards for five kilometres to the Cray Reservoir, where we take a single-lane farm track off to the east. There’s little traffic to disturb us unless you count the humming of the quad bike and the whistling of the hill farmer working with his dogs on the slopes above. 

It feels very remote as we continue for a couple of kilometres up the hillside, and by the time we reach the top there’s a real sense of elevation. That’s lost in the blink of an eye, however, thanks to a steep descent to the hamlet of Heol Senni. 

This section is a continuously rolling ribbon of road so we decide to keep the power on, which makes it an absolute blast. Still, it pays to keep your wits about you because just as we’re about to swing onto the next climb – the Devil’s Elbow – we meet a flock of sheep being driven off the hill.

The road is momentarily a woolly river as the farmer and his sheepdog drive the 100 or so animals past. 

The Devil’s Elbow

Built upon the Sarn Helen Roman road that once spanned Wales from Aberconwy in the north to Carmarthen in the west, the Devil’s Elbow is a vicious little ‘z’ cut into the hillside. Like an Alpine climb in miniature, it manages an average gradient of 10% across its 1.8km length.

Building steadily over an initial 1km drag, the first hairpin hits a shocking 25% across its apex. Turning almost 180°, from here the road levers itself up along the side of the hill. The view would be beautiful but I can only see my own front wheel as I try to keep enough speed to remain upright.

This goes on for another half a kilometre before the gradient slackens just enough for me to set up for the final hairpin. Once around that, a minute or so out of the saddle takes us to the top. 

When we get there we’re greeted by a stunning panoramic view, making the climb up more than worth the effort. Our only company, as we stop momentarily to drink in the incredible landscape, is a couple brewing tea in the back of their camper van.

The thought of a cuppa makes my mouth water, and come to think of it I’m feeling pretty peckish too, so we decide to push on and look for somewhere to stop for a snack. Rolling down and through open moorland, we soon pass the Maen Llia standing stone, which sits within sight of the largely straight road. 

With my stomach literally growling at me, we spot Laura’s Diner in the distance, like an oasis in the desert. Sitting just inside the national park a little way north of Penderyn, this movable shack serves treats using local ingredients along with ice creams and cakes.

Open year-round, it’s the perfect place to hide out mid-ride and as if on cue, the rain starts pouring down as we pile inside. Those 18 years in Wales and more than eight in Manchester have made Thomas adept at riding in the wet – a skill that’s served him well in the early-season Classics. 

By the time we’ve sunk a round of sausage sandwiches and a few cups of tea, the sun is back out. From here we have just a punchy little climb to muster the energy for, before we cross over the river and enjoy 10km of almost uninterrupted descending. 

The final climb

Dropping down through Penderyn and out of the national park, we find ourselves in the smaller of the two parallel valleys, the Rhondda Fach. We head east at Hirwaun and ride on through Penywaun, then Aberdare, all the time closing in on the final climb, which I’ve been warned by locals is a toughie.

Eventually, we turn off the main road onto Monk Street and I’m confronted by one of the steepest bits of tarmac I’ve ever seen in the UK. The initial section of the Bryn-Du climb is hemmed in on both sides by houses, and with gradients in excess of 20% I’m tempted to ring a doorbell – any doorbell – to borrow a sofa for a while. 

Soon the road swoops right to pop out into the trees above the town, and thankfully the gradient eases off, although not by much. As the sign by the roadside warns, we’re still in for slopes of up to 16% for the next mile and a half. Despite being little known outside of the Valleys, there aren’t many climbs harder than this in the UK. 

‘Araf’ is the Welsh word for ‘slow’, and I am it. The word is daubed on the tarmac as a caution to drivers, but there’s little danger of me being anything else. Picturing myself as Thomas sprinting to either of his consecutive Alpine victories at this year’s Tour gives me a little extra inspiration, although it’s late in the day and I don’t have much left in reserve. 

We emerge from the trees just as the sun is starting to wane, and suddenly the road is broken by two switchbacks in quick succession. Both give excellent views over the town below, and I have plenty of time to drink them in as I crawl towards the summit.

A few hundred metres beyond the second hairpin we’re at the highest point between the two valleys. It’s an exposed spot, and the impression of being out in the wilderness is only interrupted by the occasional 172 bus heading to Porthcawl. I’m almost ready to hail one. 

Luckily, all that’s left to do from here is to cross the high ground between the valleys. There are a few rolling kilometres through open landscape dotted with huddles of conifers, and then we’re sweeping around the last bend and down towards Maerdy. 

Along with Geraint Thomas, green energy and water are now two of this wild landscape’s most important exports, and we can hear the wind being sliced by the turbines as it races up and over the valley. We pass the wind farm and head down alongside the modernist reservoir tanks outside Ferndale.

With the day’s climbing now behind us, I can admit that I won’t be ready to take on the Tour de France any time soon, but what I have got is a better understanding of the upbringing that allowed Thomas to.

Like him, the climbs around here are tough and scrappy, the type that breeds both great Classics riders and riders with the fortitude to survive and win a three-week Grand Tour. I can’t help but think that with Geraint Thomas now known around the world, it won’t be long until the roads that made him are just as famous. 

How we did it

Travel

Cardiff is only 10 miles from our starting point so it’s easy to reach via road, rail or air from most parts of the UK. Trains run to nearby Pontypridd, or you can start the route in Treorchy.

Accommodation

We stayed in nearby Caerphilly at the Premier Inn, from £60 per night, but if you fancy something more typical of the area then Visit Wales offers a cyclist welcome scheme with recommendations for many bike-friendly places to stay.

http://www.visitwales.com/

Top tips: check out the impressive medieval castle and Volare restaurant if you get the chance.

http://www.visitwales.com/things-to-do/activities/biking/cycling