Lately my castigation of something dubbed “a mountain bike lifestyle” has known almost no limits. That’s a good enough reason to why we tried a ride that didn’t have any either.
Now I accept that my Internet-Blowhard categorisation of two season Scalextrix riders who want it all sunny, dusty and expertly buffed hides a dirty little secret. I quite enjoy my trails riding like that too, but sometimes you just have to kick back against the hype, go lose yourself in scary mountains, to find out why you ever started riding on the lumpy stuff in the first place.
Exactly a year ago, a few riding buddies stayed over to sample those exactly perfect conditions, and the promise of much the same enticed most of them back this weekend. Anyone looking out of the window this past two weeks will understand why dry and dusty was to be replaced by mud and slop, with sunshine being backstaged by rain, snow and skies the colour of angry lead.
So my route was chosen with care. Not high enough to breach the snowline, not forestry enough to hide a million miles of mud, and not busy enough to ruin a big day out. The Elan Valley is a place I’ve been desperate to re-visit since we moved within a reasonable day trip of the start point at Rhayader.
Many years ago, some of my first proper days out revolved around the dams and reservoirs of this beautiful, wild and mostly deserted mid-Wales riding hotspot. 50k, a tad under 5000 feet of climbing, starting easy and picturesque, ranging high and bleak over a tussocked moor, and finishing on a couple of descents best described as steep, fast, shaley and potentially one bad line choice from a skin graft.
Things started well with the forecasted uninterrupted day-long drizzle staying away long enough for a little warmish sun to peak through the, er, peaks straddling the valley, but these were dwarfed by the Snow covered Brecons to the south, so the decision to stay low seemed a good one.
And that smugness remained for the first 6 kilometres with the flat cycleway pulling us into the ride, and depositing jaw dropping views of dams every so often. Amazing feats of engineering these, but we couldn’t help noticing the thundering volume of cascading water being driven over the dam wall.
No matter, soon we left the water for a while only to find it running down the first proper off road climb. We chose to walk the first super steep part before sliding about in the mud a little higher up.
Good spirits and being out in proper hills kept our spirits going the same way as the climb, and soon we were a little gobsmacked by the Arctic tundra lookalike stretching horizon-wards in every direction. There was some snow as well, and if you lifted your eyes from the amazing landscape, the nearest hills looked more than a little dusted.
No matter, a fast rocky doubletrack descent led into a techy-rutted section onto most of a bridge which was a fine spot for some bar-fuelling while Frank attended to a ‘not so smooth‘ snakebite in his rear tyre. Further muddy but perfectly rideable loveliness took us to another dam where we branched off again to follow the stony track circumnavigating the reservoir.
I’ve ridden this a couple of times and it’s been pleasant in a non-technical/big view kind of way. But I’d never seen it like this, desolate, pock marked and awash with cold water. The sun chose to hide at the same time as an unrelenting loop of “Manual”, “Splash”, “Dodge” played out on trail repeat for quite a few tough kilometres.
A second food stop outed the map and showed we were soon to be leaving this relative easy – if wet – riding to head over the moor, which I’d warned may be “a tad moist“. I was right. More than right in fact with energy-sapping sogginess dragging tyres into the peat, and a snowline barely 100 feet above the valley floor.
It was fun at first hike-a-biking through ankle high drifts and affirming our Mountain Man-ness in this fantastic, if desolate, landscape. “See” I theory-expounded ” this is proper riding, none of that on your plate nonsense, hard, worthy, difficult and rewarding“. There may have been grunts of affirmation from my riding pals, or just grunts as carrying and pushing replaced riding, and route finding in deep, brackish water replaced the track.
And my extollation of how good winter boots were compared to the disco slippers of my waterlogged companions had the fateful result of a deep water excavation of one of the very bogs I’d so far avoided. It was funny at the time, especially to those not knee height in cold liquid wondering how they were going to get out.
A further carry to reconvene with the trail opened up a view which should have been labelled “Welcome To Mordor“. We could see for miles, and that vista included no people and quite a lot of snow. And no obvious way of where the mooted downhill section was be.
It was in a river. I am not exaggerating here, we rode to a depth of 3/4 wheel which is 20 inches even in man measurements. When you’re on a bike and your bollocks are still essentially underwater, you begin to wonder at the sanity of the enterprise.
A couple of painful klicks further on, Jas asked me how my Mountain Man outlook was going right then. Since, right then, I’d just extricated myself from another hidden crevice, my response included two very rude swear words. Very close together as well they were, as I didn’t have much breath to waste.
From there it went from a bit difficult and lacking in fun, to properly unpleasant and a bit scary. Dave’s feet by this time could have belonged to someone else such was the lack of feeling from the ankles down.
It’d taken us nearly an hour to travel less than 4k and we had that and a bit more before any kind of respite became available. This is a bad time mentally and physically with endless carries, brief periods on the pedals and frustration with the never ending snow and non existent trail.
But it’s a good time to be out on a big hill with mates you’ve known for years and sharing the experience with people who are far more than fair weather friends.
Blissfully, the snow thinned out after a couple more k’s and suddenly we were riding more than we were walking, and that felt like a big win. There wasn’t an obvious way out into the lower valleys but at least we were moving, and occasional far away farmhouses promised civilisation might not be too far away.
It wasn’t, a rutted double track descent full of slick mud and challenges we were struggling to get motivated for saw us hit the road and I – for one – was bloody glad to see it, as it had started to get a bit scary up there.
And although conditions were pretty atrocious, the weather held, we had plenty of light, food and gear. Had Fog clamped the ground, wind and rain dropped the temperature and the day faded at the speed of night, I think we would have been in some trouble. Mountain Men? We really weren’t.
And we weren’t done yet, because our original route took us back over the moor to hit those fast descents we’d been anticipating the night before with a beer in hand.Since Dave could barely clip in and we were all cold and tired, a decision was made to roadie it home. A distance of 7-8ks according to our fuzzy map reading, but it ended up being more like 15.
A retreat into our own personal thousand yard stares saw pedals being pushed and cold extremities being ignored. When the rain started, I found myself laughing because clearly this was Mountain Biking schadenfreude at my big ideas showing me how small my resilience to proper difficulty really was.
We made it back in a convoy, shepherding a broken Dave between us, before ripping off frozen clothes in the municipal toilet. No idea what the locals thought about that, must have looked like some kind of extreme dogging convention. We fixed Dave with hot tea, sugary products and the car heater turned up to nuclear, before heading east back to England, hot showers and big dinners.
There is no denying that, at times, that ride was properly shit. Right in there with my bottom five times out on a bike. Climbing for ever, not much reward going the other way, off the bike every 30 seconds and stranded-cold on an endless moor.
But, on reflection, it was something I really needed to do because we don’t just ride bikes, we head off to wild places and test ourselves, we push into a zone where there are mental demons, we get scared, tired and exhausted. And then we use these experiences to calibrate our life.
There’s a phrase for that; it’s not some marketing bullshit, it is merely this – “Mountain Biking“.