The highlight of Summer 2020
It’s taken a few months before I got around to writing this one up – I rode in August 2020, in that narrow window of opportunity to actually ride in and out of Wales between the waves of the pandemic!
For a long time I’ve wanted to try riding to or from my in-laws in Wales when we’ve been travelling there. It’s never quite worked out, partly because it’s often in winter. However, in August last year it all worked out that I would have a chance to ride back home the day before Jo and the kids travelled back in the car.
The previous week I had done a couple of bigger rides of 190km and 160km in and around Wales; so while this added some fatigue, I knew I had the bike and body dialled in for good distances. The only potential problem? Storm Ellen. The storm was due to be coming up the coast into the evening, but the forecast was that the rain and worst of the winds would be hitting Ireland, not Wales. At best this would give me a big tailwind, at worst I’d be riding the end of my journey in the rain.With the logistics of getting all packed up and my stuff arranged to go into the car the following day, I didn’t make a particularly early start. I rolled out after 9am and even then I detoured down to the river to say goodbye to Jo and the kids who were out on a walk. The sun was out and it was looking good weather-wise as I rode over the Wye and started pedalling north up the A470 towards Rhayader. I have grown used to using the main A470 up to Rhayader despite it being quite a busy road; there are few alternatives, and all of them are longer, hillier detours and one is partly bridleway! The challenge for the really long rides heading this way is normally one of keeping the pace steady enough for the day ahead whilst having cars and lorries bearing down rapidly behind me. After the best part of an hour, I reached and carried on straight through Rhayader, only stopping to rearrange some food into more accessible pockets, opting to stick to the A470 once again. There is a gated road you can use heading north from Rhayader but on my last use it was strewn with sheep litter and tree debris and the constant stopping to open all the gates got frustrating so I tend to avoid it. After a short climb up out of the town I dropped off the main road and followed the beautiful Wye-side lane on the other side of the river for the next leg of my journey up to the A44 at Llangurig.
As you cross the A44 at Llangurig there is a sharp shock as you immediately hit 0.3km of 13% average gradient, staying consistently between 12 and 16% the whole way! Thankfully it’s short, and with that out of the way, it’s a little descent and then on into Llanidloes. My route didn’t require me to head into the town, but I was in need of water resupply before the next push over the mountains to Machynlleth. I’ve used Llanidloes Co-op for water many times, so it was a quick stop and top up of bottles and then I was on my way back out the way I came before turning off into the Hafren Forest. This was a new route for me, as I’d only ever come the other direction before, descending the main road down into Llanidloes from Staylittle via the Clywedog reservoir; this way is much better!
As I climbed gently up towards the forest I passed a group of lads on a bikepacking tour through Wales. They were taking each day a bit easier than my big day out, but carrying more luggage than me. It was nice to ride with them and chat briefly, but soon the gradient started to increase and as we entered the trees I bade them farewell and pushed on for the top. This quiet road through the forest was fantastic, and one I will definitely look to ride again in future. It pops out near the reservoir at the top, zig-zagging over a river before a short flat section to rejoin the main road. From there it’s a short distance before the left turn at Staylittle and the rest of the climb to reach the top of “Mach Mountain”.
You can’t beat the views, nor the descent from here to Machynlleth! You can see north into Snowdonia and across the rolling mountains – it’s an incredible view, and a great ride; plunging down, with new views around each bend and then long straights for high top-speeds – I topped out at 73kph. All too quickly I had to get back on the pedals to finish the rolling arrival into Machylleth where I headed straight for the Co-op and another resupply. At this stage I was 4 hours in and starting to think about lunch; I had a target for where I wanted to eat, but I was also aware that resupply from there onwards was a bit of an unknown. I elected to top up and continue in hope of my elected lunch stop being open and quiet!After an hour spent riding up the quieter side of the River Dyfi I rolled into Dinas Mawddwy as the rain started to fall. Impeccably timed, I stopped and dived into the “Crafty Cafe” for beans on toast, coffee and cake. It’s a friendly place, but clearly suffering from having the “Craft” side of their business affected by the Covid restrictions. I chatted to them briefly and they were very well aware of their local climb that I was heading towards! On a sad note, when I come to write this, Google is reporting that the Crafty Cafe is “Permanently Closed” which, if true, would be a real shame! I really hope they can be back post-pandemic.
The rain shower passed and I set off with no small amount of trepidation and glad of the flattish section of road for me to warm up to the bottom of the biggest climb of the day – Bwlch-y-Groes. A famous climb, steeped in history and a serious test of the legs with 2.6km at an average 13% gradient, not to mention that it is over 20% in places in the latter half – just when your legs are well and truly burning! I set off steadily, managing to set a good rhythm and try desperately to keep something in reserve, not only for the rest of the climb but also the rest of the day. Halfway up is a cattle-grid and a very slight let-up of the gradient (a mere 7%) giving vital moments to catch breath and try to get the heart rate back down a little. I admit it was a little nerve-wracking when a van came up behind me wanting to get past when it was just heading towards 20%, but thankfully, pedal-stroke by pedal-stroke, painfully slowly (8kph and <50rpm!), I made it to the top of the climb. I went right up to the car-park at the top to see the view before heading back down the very top part to take some pictures back the way I’d come and make the turn off towards Lake Vyrnwy.
I rolled onwards down to the lake, making rapid progress with almost no climbing at all right up to the dam at the far end of the lake. There had been some serious rainfall earlier in the month and part of the road around the lake was closed – thankfully not in the direction I was heading. By this stage I was definitely getting tired and very much into the unknown-territory part of my route. I had changed my route plan fairly late on during the preceding week and so I didn’t really have a good handle on the terrain I would now be following from here to Llangollen. It was nicely rolling for quite a while as I found my way across to the Tanat Valley which lulled me into a false sense of security, incorrectly believing that I only had one big push up and over into Llangollen.
As I crossed the main road in the Tanat Valley I pondered checking the local Post Office for water, but thought I would probably do ok. I’d topped up at the cafe earlier, including topping up a third bottle which I was carrying for this section of the route where I had few resupply options and many of them with unknown closing times – by now it was 16:30 and only some smaller shops would be staying open into the evening. I was a little surprised to find myself continuously climbing and seeing mountains on the horizon – I was sort of expecting to be crossing a large valley, but I hadn’t studied this section of the map properly at all. It kept on going and after a while I found myself climbing up through a small gap in the hills beside a river and into a high and open valley well up into some mountains I hadn’t foreseen! The temperature was dropping and I was regretting not having stopped off for more supplies.
Soon I was climbing even further on a remote and exposed road through farmland and wondering quite what I had got myself into. I was very glad for that third bottle I was carrying as I finally crested a ridge and started to descend again at last. I rolled into the village of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, glad to see civilisation again and not particularly surprised to discover that I still had no signal on my phone! It was now nearly 6pm and a lot longer since I had last messaged Jo with my updated progress than I had intended. I pressed on along a thankfully fairly flat valley road to get to Glyn Ceiriog, the village I had originally thought would herald the next big climb. This had definitely been one of the mental low points of the journey, but with stunning scenery the whole way.
Reaching Glyn Ceiriog I still had no phone signal, but I was pleased to find the local shop was open so I got in a long-overdue water top-up and some snacks. I was pleasantly surprised that I was doing pretty well fuelling-wise and had managed to keep up the routine of eating little and often. As I set off again my power meter started giving all kinds of strange readings, but I wasn’t going to stop and look at it now! I soon found myself on a smaller-than-intended back lane climbing up and out of the Ceiriog valley; the surface was terrible and littered with twigs and stones. My power meter was now definitely on the blink, reporting numbers anywhere from 600 to 1500W as I slowly churned my way up the hill. On reflection, I may have been better off sticking to the other route over this ridge, a much more major road! A couple of steep switchbacks later I was relieved for the gradient to lessen, but it kept climbing for what seemed like an eternity. I was rewarded with views in all directions, including down towards Chirk and Shropshire.
The descent from here into Llangollen was incredibly steep! I was able to keep the speed under control but I would have struggled to stop completely on my rim brakes. In no time I was down in Llangollen and sitting on the bridge over the River Dee. I stopped to message Jo to report on my progress (and to add to my Instagram Story documenting the journey!) and set up my battery pack to charge the Garmin. I had now been on the road for over 9 hours and at nearly 19:00 I knew it was not all that long before light would start to fade either. I moved on and, of course, started to climb again! When planning routes it is easy to add in “interesting” bits of road just because they are there; it would be a shame to miss them out and sit on a boring A-road after all, right? That same enthusiasm for interesting roads starts to wane a little when you get there on a long ride but, I must admit, once you get home and look back, it’s all worth it!
The climb up towards the ominously-named “World’s End” started steeply but well; it was nice to be in familiar territory again as I have previously ridden on the Panorama Walk and through Llangollen. However, before I reached the top of the first climb, the skies greyed and it started to rain. I was not impressed. I pressed on, with each kilometre now feeling that little bit longer than at the start of the day. The rain didn’t last too long, but long enough to be a little bit damp and cold. The sun came back out, but getting low in the sky and not as warm as I’d have liked! After quite a long and rolling but generally ascending road up through the trees I came to a sharp bend and World’s End ford. I knew it was coming and I hadn’t really thought that much about it; I grew up near to a ford and cycled through it a few times, and heatmaps showed that lots of people had ridden this way before me.
I set off through the ford steadily and without much anxiety; it was really shallow and trickling quietly. As I got past the halfway point I realised there was a small lip in the road at the point I was currently aimed at, so I thought I’d correct my course slightly to aim for smooth road. It turns out this was a bad idea… the road surface underwater was covered in algae, and I had opted to ride dead-centre in the road rather than the far more sensible option of riding in the wheel-tracks where cars would have travelled: my front wheel went out from under me and I went down like a sack of potatoes into the thankfully shallow water.
I leaped up, shocked by the sudden slip and the coldness of the water. I clambered out of the ford and quickly assessed the damage. To my surprise, no ripped lycra, only a small graze on my leg and a scuffed left shifter; I would later discover that I’d cut my arm under my armwarmer too, but was very glad to have escaped largely unscathed. My next, bigger concern was the cold: I had just been caught in the rain leaving me already feeling cold and after 10 hours on the road pedalling I was pretty tired. Wet kit when you’re cold can be serious and it was now around 15-16ºC and the sun was fading. So, I got back on the bike and set off up the hill, thankful for the gradient to generate some heat. This really worked and I soon got past the shock of the tumble and started to feel less worried about the cold. This was helped as the sun stayed out and I crested the top of Mynydd Esclys with beautiful views over Wrexham towards Cheshire and home!
Pressing onwards I descended to Wrexham and skirted the town. I don’t really like travelling through major towns or cities on long rides – I can’t really stop in them when riding solo due to bike security concerns anyway. As I weaved my way through the outskirts of Wrexham and ticked over the 200km mark I started to think about resupply again. I knew of a petrol station on the far side of the town, but as I went through Gresham I happened across a Fish and Chip shop! Alas, there was to be a wait for chips and I didn’t want to stop for too long and cool down, so I topped up with water and set off for the border and England! It didn’t take long to reach the familiar surroundings of the village of Holt. This is a comfortable ride out from home, so I have been here many times and was now firmly back on familiar roads. It was a great shame that Cleopatra’s, the favourite cafe for cyclists, was shut! I crossed Farndon Bridge over into England, 11.5 hours after I set off from mid-Wales.
From here on in, things became a bit of a blur; I was definitely tiring and just wanted to get home. This was of course compounded by the dark as the sun finally set and I was riding by the beam of my front light. On the plus side, Cheshire is very flat in comparison to Wales – I was able to get my head down and pedal, putting in a big final stint of an hour and a half at over 29kph in the dark, following a well-worn furrow up to Bruera, across to Beeston Castle, up through Eaton, Little Budworth and Whitegate and into Northwich. Finally, just after 22:00, after 250km and nearly 13 hours on the road (of which 10.5 were spent moving) from Builth Wells I finally got home, just in time to get a big pizza delivered before the shop closed for the night!
It felt fanastic to have cycled all the way home from Wales; there’s something particularly special about a point-to-point ride rather than a big old loop like most rides. I was exhausted and sore by the end, but I would definitely do it again! There were the inevitable highs and lows – like falling in a ford, but the sense of achievement made it thoroughly worthwhile, not to mention the memories made and the photos taken. It’s reaffirmed that long rides are my favourite kind of cycling and that my natural tendency is to ride solo: man and bicycle pitted against the hills, the wind and the weather.
Talking of the weather… you know I mentioned the storm? It didn’t rain on me again after Llangollen, and it turns out I spent 77% of the ride with a tail or cross-tail wind pushing me home – that doesn’t happen very often!