Lon Las Cymru – Day 5

Watching the sun set over the marina the previous night, it was hard to believe a storm was coming. The sea was flat calm and the air warm and dry as we ambled- in my case ambling in a state or random perambulation after discovering Rhubarb gin – back through the twilight.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

7am the following morning confirmed what every weather app had been grimly forecasting for the last 24 hours. Heavy rain driven eastward by string winds mapped closely to our route for the final day. There looked to be a few dry-ish windows mid morning, so we packed bags for the last time, readied waterproofs and watched the rain radar.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

At 10am, we abandoned meteorological analysis and fetched bikes into a panorama of steel grey. The low cloud occluded the water in the bay, but delivered almost as much from  the sky. Remember my crowing over gear selection earlier in the trip? Now it was my turn to covet both Adam’s expensive and – more importantly – waterproof jacket and neoprene seat pack. My own inventory was at best showerproof – untaped seams on the packs and a five year old cheap jacket retrieved from a dusty corner of a Camelbak.

As whinging over this mismatch failed to improve the inclement conditions, we decided to make a run for it. Adam’s tyres continued to disappoint- the first slick pavement crossing had the rear step out in an alarming/amusing manner. Select option depending if you were riding or following 🙂

Some relief came from yet another disused railway – Lon Las Menai – running to the old slate harbour of Port Dinowig. This one was shaded by mature broadleaf trees granting us respite from the continuing hammering of the rain. Nature’s umbrella lasted four miles before we broke out into the open. Routing through an industrial estate, we were soon crossing and re-crossing the main Bangor road. The old slate harbour is now a rather posh marina which would have been a nice place for a sit had the rain continued to pulse from underneath leaden skies.

The route in and out of Penrhosgarnedd was all a bit frustrating stop/start. It did eventually lead us to the first proper climb of the day on a pavement mirroring the A55. This was neither steep nor long but both of us found it surprisingly tiring. I countered this by the now standard ‘stat check’ this time explaining we’d not be climbing any higher today. Yeah that thing about lies and statistics….

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

I was looking forward to capturing the Menai Suspension bridge from both sides. Once on this side and one from the Island taking advantage of a railway station with the made up long station name. This proved entirely pointless with the clag and the rain auto-titling both images ‘Unrecognisable grey thing backlit by grey in a grey landscape’

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

We settled for a couple of quick shots on the bridge before the reality of wet fingers and touch screens had me shouting angrily at the phone. This failed to fix it, so I stowed it for about 20 miles before trying again. That’s not the reason we failed to stop at Llanfair Pwllgwyngll (of -gogogoch fame)- no a) we never actually saw it even through we passed right by it and b) stopping would have given the rain a target to zero in on.

My rain jacket was now just that. It had given up on its primary purpose and pivoted to welcoming moisture straight through and then holding it sweatily against bare skin. Through gritted teeth I checked with Adam on the efficacy of his garment. As expected, I received a cheery reply from the dry and warm person that used to be my friend.

The guidebook encourages a stop here to enjoy ‘expansive views of Snowdonia‘. We pushed onto hoping for an expansive view of cake and coffee, but even in this limited ambition we were to be disappointed. Anglesey – admittedly in our brief experience – seemed to have most of the closed and dilapidated parts of Wales we’d seen, and not much of the open hospitality we’d enjoyed.

Plan for refuelling switched to a quick energy bar by the reed beds of Malltrath Marsh, before heading up the valley to, er, RAF Valley. Nothing quite as uplifting as sodden barracks built in the aesthetic 60s cheap concrete style to raise the spirits.

Nothing like a 30 MPH headwind to knock them right back again. It’s only a straight mile before turning away from the base, but God it was bleak. Took an age as well before finally crossing the bridge, failing to take a picture of the Hawk Trainer (phone dampness ongoing) and passing the runways where nothing was flying.

Finally it stopped raining and we could see both bits of Snowdonia we’re crossed and the Holyhead Mountain we had no intention of climbing. The shared path by the A5 was a welcome relief- shielded from the wind and with an easy gradient to click off the distance. Regardless of improving conditions, we both wanted this done now. Half of me was sad for the trip to be close to finishing, half wanted my own bed and a couple of days of not riding bikes.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

First though we had to finish. The Phenros Coastal Park was a fine way to enter the last town on the route. An off road path past the impressive looking Holyhead cricket club had the distance down to less then 3km. Two of those were through uninteresting urban landscape before being pitched out by the railway station. Where the rain started again.

Having followed the GPS for 424km, we decided now would absolutely be the right time to strike out on our own. The result was a heave through the station concourse, a ride over the fantastic if somewhat out of place modern bridge (a cross between a game of Mousetrap and a Waterpark slide), a blast through the centre of Holyhead and a damp descent to the sea.

The GPS pinged we were done. Finished. At rides end. It was – frankly – a bit shit. The town centre was pretty horrible, the weather had turned grim again and we were tired from having ridden 65km/3.5 hours without much of a stop. Or any cake. We were also 4 hours early for our booked train. The original plan had been to ride gently to the lighthouse and take valedictory pictures, basking in the warm sunshine, with all of Wales laid out behind us.

The reality was significantly more underwhelming,  A bus shelter held together with peeling paint and a view of a sea being thrown about by a summer storm. After a huddled navigational conference, we struck out for the lighthouse anyway. I was hungry and a bit grumpy and my legs were done with riding. Which made the next 5km to the South Stack the worse part of the whole trip.

Especially as we ended up climbing another 150 metres because the lighthouse was – of course – over the top of Holyhead mountain. The clag increased to the point where I couldn’t see Ad’s rear wheel and barely make out my front one. The prospect of paying £6 each to carry the bikes down a rocky path back to sea level so we could take photos in front of something that might be a lighthouse didn’t appeal. At all.

Lon Las Cymru

Lon Las Cymru

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

Hence these images of damp riders and no views. Still, it felt good to have come as far as we could without falling into the sea. Going further could only be countenanced as dogmatic pursuit of purgatory.

So we flipped the bike around and made great time back to town, now with a welcome tailwind. Adam found a great café away from the horror of the high street. It served wholesome food and cold beer. It also hosted a large ground floor toilet serving as a changing room to swap damp riding gear for my last set of dry clothes.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

Lon Las Cymru - Day 5

Beers drunk but still feeling slightly deflated we made our weary way to the station. Where we hopped onto the tiny two carriage train, stored our bikes and planned to sleep the 3 hours home. Friday night though this is party train and the minutes passed slowly as shouty happy people got increasingly pissed.

This wasn’t the reason Ads and I didn’t talk much. We’d got good at comfortable silences and – for me anyway – I was thinking of what we’d done and what we might do next. We both knew we’d ridden the route ‘well‘ in terms of navigation, speed and companionship.  Clearly this was helped by decent weather for four of the days and great accommodation each night to rest and recuperate.

This left me with both a sense of achievement and a lament for re-engaging with the real world. Most riding holidays don’t finish like this. I’m usually just happy to be alive and not missing any vital organs. This felt very different.

The following day I cleaned the bike before taking it for a very quick test ride. The unloaded bike felt light and I felt fit. It seemed like we both wanted to go somewhere else, discover new places, ride new tracks.

The Lon Las Cymru is an amazing experience but, for me, it’s way more than that. it’s opened up a whole side of cycling I’d previously considered as boring and pointless.

Not a bit of it. Find some stunning scenery and ride into it. Do it for a number of days until you run out of land. In between enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing a beautiful country on the best form of transport ever devised.

Five days that changed my view of cycling. That’ll do as a legacy. Until next time.

Lon Las Cymru – Day 4

Pub talk is cheap. Here’s how it goes: ‘Day 2, total bastard, day 3, yeah we probably underestimated that, but tomorrow has less climbing that yesterday and less distance than Tuesday. We’ll smash it‘. While my brain was subdued by alcohol, my legs were clambering for attention. In the anatomy edition of Monopoly, they had definitely not passed go nor collected £200 of freshly rested muscle.

What nearly broke me on Day 4 wasn’t the maximum elevation, which we’d already pegged as being only a little more than half of what we’d done so far, it was the sustained climbing of multiple lower summits. Before all that though we were going to the seaside.

Barmouth is pretty much the Wikipedia citation for ‘God’s waiting room‘. But I can’t love it any less for that. It was one of the original tourist towns. With ‘holiday specials‘ transporting factory staff from grimy industrial works to clear skies and clean air. Bodies pressed to tiny steam train windows catching first sight of something never seen before. The Irish Sea must have looked like Mars. And while we’re back into faded glory, what a thing that is.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

We’re 10km away from sticking our toes in the sand.  I’m weary and so is Ads. He’s ten years younger than me so clearly I’m suffering more. Therefore it seems fair he takes point on the fantastic path out of Caernarfon hugging the river before arcing towards the sea.

The track is wide but the wind is brutal. It’s blowing spitefully in our face so we’re nose to tail pushing hard and missing out on a vista that’s more New Zealand than North Wales. It feels properly wild even in sight of towns on the headland. We’re in and out of coves, sylph like bridges appearing close are snatched away as we hove to port or starboard.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

We’re giving it plenty even on day four legs and I misjudge my turn on the front and wrap my seat bag strap on Adam’s brake lever. That was two seconds of excitement I’ll remember for a while.  Calming down a bit we merged onto the old railway running parallel with todays single line bridged over the water. It’s fun to ride until the raised sleepers get a bit tiring but the views across the bay are worth the discomfort.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

The town itself is a bit of a disappointment. The weather isn’t helping. The beach is storm tossed and the ice cream booths hard shuttered against the wind. We peer into a hotel, last updated in the 70s, and see an elderly couple sipping tea because there is nothing else to do. Because I’m old I start humming Phil Collins’s ‘Home by the Sea‘. I feel this cultural reference is lost on Adam.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

We climb out on a steep pitch reminding us our legs are not really up for what’s coming. Not just legs, but – for me at least – other vital skeletal accessories primarily shoulders. Not ridden a dropped bar bike much, and certainly not for four consecutive days so there’s some unpleasant crunching replacing smooth rotation. Other body parts are also clambering for attention but I’m ignoring those on the grounds there’s nothing I can do to improve their lot.

Can’t do much about the road out of Barmouth either. It’s as close to a main drag we have to do all week and it goes on far too long. We eventually hook right where – after careful consideration of the guide book – we manage to  miss the easier route to instead climb for about ever to the summit of Moel Goedog. This does give us some fantastic views of the Llyn Peninsula and across to Cardigan Bay.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

It also gives us the opportunity to descend briefly on some slick moss covered roads with all the grip of polished glass. The climb is almost a relief until it isn’t with its false summits, 360 degree headwind and hard earned metres. Every little climb feels way more difficult that it was even a day ago. The metres click agonisingly slowly off the total and suddenly this feels as hard as everyone told me it would be.

Even at the summit I’m feeling a little disgruntled. A bit ‘seen it all before‘, a bit more ‘how much more of this is there?‘ and then we REALLY crest the summit opening up the view of Porthmadog and the Snowdonia crescent. It is beyond awesome. I’ve ridden up Cadair Idris and Snowdon. I’ve climbed big hills in this part of Wales and looked down into the valleys but I’ve never seen it like this. If it was CGI, you’d dismiss it as too damn perfect.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

The pictures are fine but they don’t capture what you feel. That is better saved on the organic image store in your mind. We mucked about a bit trying to turns shapes into sense, but 2D is not the right medium. If you ever think abut riding this route, then this is the one reason you must. There aren’t many bikes up here and it feels like a privilege.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

Photos done, we head down to Porthmadog, get a shot of the steam train before diving into a café on the main street serving ice creams to damp tourists at 16 degrees centigrade. Only in Wales 😉  We don’t tarry as it’s really not warm and we’ve a long way to go. Even after dealing with the biggest climb of the day we’ve still a few lumpy hills to clear, and the weather is not doing us any favours.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

This confluence of these mildly unpleasant conditions hosted a debate on whether we should ride the optional loop out to Criccieth. Eight miles of down then up which felt like making up the numbers. We both knew though, if swerved, this would be something living long in regret. It wasn’t really a decision as individually we’d decided it was going to get done. Definitely the right choice, even after the long climb out, as we were rewarded with blue skies breaking out over the sea.

That’s where we’re going I thought. And we did on another disused railway. An easy gradient first climbing and then descending with barely any appreciable variation in speed. With a tailwind at last, sustained 30+ kph felt ridiculously easy. It was good to see the odometer roll over 90km with the shining sea calling us. It’d called us around the impressive exterior of Caernarfon castle and into the Anglesey Arms where we drank overpriced beer looking out to our final destination.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

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Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 4

I toasted Adam ‘only 65km to go and bog all climbing, a day on easy street‘  How bloody hard can that be?

I think you probably know the answer.

Lon Las Cymru – Day 3

A day of two summits and some miscalculation. This was always going to be a wild day through the Cambrian mountains. Adam and I know that terrain well from a biblical Trans-Cambrian back in 2017:  The twin summits of Foel Fadian and Myndd Y Waun blocked our way to the safety of Machynlleth. It was a hell of an effort to get there fighting the rain and sleet driven on by gale force winds.

So a happy memory then. Today we had some of that headwind and a lot less of the rain. The bits wondering whether a helicopter might be the Gentleman’s transport of choice bridged the two rides. We started on a climb apparently designed to remind your legs this was day 3, and no it wasn’t going to get any easier.

In fact it got a little harder as we headed into Hafren Forest. Familiar to mountain bikers – we spotted singletrack heading deep into the woods and considered an early coffee in the visitor centre. While the need for the bean was strong, it wasn’t worth trading hard gained height for.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

We’d lost the sun but not the humidity. So I was happy for a sit on a mossy bank off the road while Ads attempted to fix his squeaky cleats. This chain lube based procedure gave me sufficient time to munch on an energy bar, and consider if this was the right time to explain the noise was coming from his pack. Since he was clearly having so much fun trying to diagnose the problem, I thought probably not.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

We remounted – squeak still in attendance – to grind up the summit sporting a viewing point. This is where the Ospreys were re-introduced a few years ago. We took some pictures of wild scenery entirely absent of said Ospreys

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

After some dithering it was apparent the climb to Foel Fadian wasn’t going to happen unless we actually got back on the bikes. The guidebook characterises it as a ‘gentle climb‘. I’m not a confrontational man, but I am taking issue with that.

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

It might have been the headwind swirling in our faces. It might have been the fact I’ve driven that route many times (waved at The Star on the way past. Wondered about a pint. 10:14am. Thought best not), it might be the weather fronts rolling in promising rain now and maybe hail later. Whatever it was, it wasn’t bloody gentle. Especially the top section where I felt the urge to go ‘Full Strava’ leaving me dragging in litres of clean Welsh air while hanging over the bars.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Finally it was done and we could see it was all downhill from here. From the highest point on our route (if you were tending to masochism you could really hurt yourself by adding many more summits. The route tends to skirt the western sides of mountains where it can. Thankfully) we had an 8 mile descent into Machynlleth. The top section of which is simply epic.  A wild juxtaposition of panoramic landscape and steep, dangerous corners. Hard to keep your eyes on both.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

I’ve never been much of a road descender. Always looked down and wondered where the rest of the tyre might be. Followed by a concern that rim brakes and slick rubber can’t offer much in the retardation stakes. Now though up front I’ve most of a 2inch knobbly tyre arrested by a proper hydro brake. Same out the back although I’m not leaning on that much.

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Taking a bead on Ads,  I give myself a stern talking to re: worrying about skewer tightness and chance of tyre explosion and instead swing the bike through a patchwork of glorious scenery grabbing my eyeballs when I should be grabbing the brakes. The bike is amazing – even heavily loaded – super stable and giggly fun pitching into the corners. We hit over 70kph which might not be much for a proper roadie, but for me it’s pretty much light speed. As the gradient backs off both Adam and I are gabbing away filled with adrenaline and a bit of relief.

We see pack-laden riders toiling up this climb and we wave and we smile. And inwardly we think ‘you idiots, why ride it this way?‘ In about two hours, we get a reasonable idea. 20 minutes later though we’re in Mach. Mach being Mach has a market cheerfully selling everything from old furniture to New Age tat and shit.  I love the place, it’s a refreshing change from so many Welsh town trading on fading industries.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

We have cake and coffee. And because we’ve loads of time, wander about a bit until the big tower clock strikes midday which is the trigger to eat  more food. We leave reluctantly – in my case very reluctantly as during our meandering I’ve lost my riding glasses –  and head over the Millennium bridge, built to save the squashy from the tin cans racing along the A487.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Which brings us to  the base of the afternoons climb. A quick scoot on the B4404 then over the bridge to start 9 miles of ascent.  There is no way to say that which doesn’t immediately chuck synonyms at your brain with ‘hard, tiring and what the fuck?‘ being the three I remember most.

The first part  though is mostly easy, as it’s adjacent to the old Corris slate railway, which brings us into that town where – unsurprisingly based on our trip so far – everything is closed. We press on to Aberllefenni built entirely of slate. Walls, roofs, garages, patios – a legacy of the mining here which defined much of the history of this Welsh landscape.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

The old slate works are another sad cipher for heavy industry long gone. Quite sombre heading up the climb, where the gradient increases to the point where I’m wondering if my dismissive view of the front detailer as yesterdays technology is a metaphor for what we’ve just ridden through.

Whatever, it’s a tough climb going on a little too long. I’m trying to estimate the summit by charting the marching telegraph poles holding close to the road.

So tight is my focus I almost miss the five riders heading down- all big grins and hearty hellos. They are clearly the camping types with luggage clinging to every tube. A couple I notice have those old school rim brakes. I cannot help but think dark thoughts regarding their ability to stop at the bottom. Still on the upside they’ve 8 miles to climb up over Foel Fadian. That cheers me up a bit.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

Topping out, I grab the phone and catch Adam with far less gears fighting his way over the top. We have a moment to catch our breath. Then ‘Well that was a total bastard. Beer do you think?‘ I do indeed and after a quick nod to Cadair Idris to our left, we make haste into the strengthening rain. It’s mostly downhill and we’re definitely relieved as today has been harder than expected. It’s not the miles it’s the elevation. I don’t feel the weight of the packs, but it definitely has an effect.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 3

That effect me being desperate for sustenance as we roll into Dolgellau. A tip from my mate Dave (who runs Bike Corris MTB guiding company) has us diving into the legendary TH Roberts. An old Ironmonger turned awesome cake cafe, it has all the fittings of a Victorian shop and a selection of so many fantastic looking confectionary, it’s all I can do not to demand ‘one of each right now‘ and ‘another of the same to take away‘.

Today has been tough. Legs starting to really feel it. Sun has mostly been replaced by headwinds. The climbs are longer and harder. The landscape continues to be breath-taking, and the simple pleasure of getting up to turn pedals is a gift not to be underestimated.

Tomorrow we conclude will be easier. To that end I go full nosebag in a fantastic local restaurant adding Gin and Wine to my recovery drinks. It’s not like 100km and 1200m of climbing is going to be hard is it?

Will we never learn?

Lon Las Cymru – Day 2

Before diving into day 2, permit me a sidebar to discuss mechanicals. Specifically Adams’ as I didn’t have any. Other than a strap on my ancient MTB shoes making a break for freedom before we’d officially started. Which doesn’t count. Ads had stuck rigidly to a servicing regime that could charitably termed ‘looks good from a distance, pass me a beer’. While his cassette didn’t actually quite fall apart or his rear brake completely fail, they were definitely both in the red zone.

His tyres however were something else. Barely vulcanised for a start. Do people really race these things? There’s more tread on my ancient Five-Ten’s which were mostly slick to start with. Even with about a pound of sealant slopping at each end, any air at the start of the day was long departed by the rides end. After three days of desperate pumping, they finally gave in and mostly sealed. Unless you touched them. Adam blamed my rubbish pump for his woes. I was keen to point out that I wouldn’t know not having had to use it.

Anyway as you were, Day 2.

Pre-trip this was the day worried me most. A bucket load of climbing spread unevenly over a bit north of 100km. The guidebook suggested this would take eleven hours. No way was my arse co-exisitng in the same space as a saddle for that length of time. Our plan – a somewhat ambitious term for gin based hand waving the night before – was to get it done in 6. Including a stop for lunch. Which on reflection was another planning oversight. We’ll be back to that.

First though we had to get to lunch. Climbing out of Brecon was all the fun a steep pitch the far side of a big breakfast can be. It’s odd as my bike only really felt heavy when I had to fetch it over a gate or suchlike. So riding it uphill wasn’t that much of a trial once accompanied by a smidgen of mental fortitude. Ads bike was lighter and, he had less kit which should have made it easier. However, in a moment of team spirit he’d handed over his spare 11-46 cassette to the old man whose need was clearly greater*.

Half way up that first hill I could feel the want.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

After getting that done, we switched back to grass-middled roads distanced from morning traffic. The NCN8 is an amazing route. Sure it meanders up and down valleys flatly breached by the main roads. This is the price of riding through stunning scenery with almost zero risk. Short of being mowed down by a tractor or terrorised by a bike hating dog, it’s a million miles from my normal horror of road riding.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Sometime though there is no option but the main drag. After testing all my gears again on a couple of nasty pulls, we turned onto the main road heading to Builth Wells. A slight tailwind, a freshness in the legs and the aforementioned ‘destination anxiety‘ (heightened as the second half of the ride with the bulk of climbing), there was what passed as a 2 man chain-gang for men that cherish their ignorance of all things road riding

Well this one does, but I also love the speed even of these loaded bikes compared to the glacial thrumming of a 2.6 MTB tyre. We hit some short hills and they hit us right back, but we still made good time to Bulith.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Bit early for lunch. Stop for a coffee? Not this pair, we were on a mission. Not sure where to due to continued navigational uncertainty, but the sun was out and the internal GPS was hard coded for an ‘early finish and cold beer‘. Switching direction to due north as we crossed the bridge, there was a lovely river ride out of the town.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

So much of this route is on old railway tracks (which is pretty sad when you think what they used to be here for) and river paths. We crossed the Wye and numerous other rivers so many times I eventually stopped taking pictures.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

I’d also stopped eating. Not sure why, but it was timely when our vaguely planned stop at Newbridge-on-Wye hove into view as the munchies had taken hold.

You kind of expect any town ‘on-Wye’ to be a picturesque place full of tourist cafes, fresh coffee and a excellent selection of cakes. It’s not like that at all. It was more disappointment made real by brick. Three pubs, two closed, one mostly falling down but being painfully slowly restored by tired looking owners and surly teenagers.

Still the kitchen was open and after all the time it takes to hunt down a difficult to find tub of chicken, we were mostly sated, and keen to be on our way again.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

50km in which was good but still with 840m of climbing to do. Which wasn’t. Having all of the stats projected onto phones and GPS’s is great. Until it isn’t. Sometimes I’d rather not know, but we’d looked at the profile often enough to accept the next few hours were going to be a bit chewy.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

The road climbed steadily on much patched tarmac before merging into a gravel trail that – again – wouldn’t be much fun on a racer road bike. It was ace on ours including a short rocky downhill section I’d fancy a crack at with a MTB.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

This is the old coach road and it wouldn’t be something I’d want to tackle in a coach. Or after rain. But today it was a welcome distraction to the almost endless climbing. It was certainly better than what followed – the might-be-a-road which skirted the slopes of Carn Gafallt. 20km of sheep shit basically. Not much of a view either. Unless your idea of a great vista is sheep shit and endless conifers.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

We got that done where the route sadly bypassed Rhayader. I have many happy memories of that town. Some of them rather drunken. Today tho we needed to crack on via the Aberystwyth mountain road. Well named and annoying in that down a bit, up a bit,  down a bit more, up IS THAT A CLIFF? Sort of way.  Cresting that pass at 350m, it was mostly downhill to Llanidloes.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Mostly not being entirely. Ads was asking for the ascent numbers. 150m, 100m, 75m, 60m, nasty little climb, legs tired, little tweaks of hamstrings, 30m, 15m, 12m.  I went ‘metre by metre’12, 12, 12, 11, no sorry 12‘. If nothing else it made us laugh.

We finally rolled into Llanidloes at 1530. By 1531 we were in the nearest pub chatting to two old fellas heavily laden with sufficient camping kit to suggest they were on a ‘Shackleton Tribute Tour’.  They’d come the other way and spoke wearily of the climbs we’d be descending tomorrow. Again I was smug in our choice of route direction. It didn’t last.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 2

Carol (my long suffering wife) and daughter turned up from a day walking the Elan Valley dams. They brought with them a resupply bag into which Adam cheerfully abandoned about half his kit. For reasons still somewhat opaque, I added a few bulky items to mine.

Very happy to have smashed the ‘big day’,  we intended to celebrate with a slap up feed and possible an assault on a Welsh cheese board. Less happy to find the only food being served were pub crisps and not very good fish and chips. Still on the upside, tomorrow was an easier day.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

*I loved that 11-46. The 46 especially. And as the week went on, I loved it even more. The fact it was Adam’s and he could have fitted to his bike made it just that little bit sweeter 🙂

Lon Las Cymru – Day 1

This series of six entries was originally posted in a single thread on STW

The problem with that web site is its’ lack of editing functionality. And a MaryWhitehousen tolerance for profanity. The former showcases my lazy proofreading and questionable grammar, the latter cramps a writing style essentially scaled out from the word ‘Fuck’.

So here we are. At sea level with 425km to go. Before embarking on our epic-lite journey, let’s take a moment to remember how we got here. Read that? Right, we’re almost ready.

From the header image, the navigationally proficient will have correctly identified our direction of travel as South to North. This is unquestionably the right way, even though it is uphill*.

As neither Adam or I have those navigational skills, we made extensive use of GPX files and an old school guidebook. Adam further invested in one of the Sustrans maps which provided valuable only in lining his seat pack for five days.

Bikes:

Alex – PlanetX Tempest, 700cc wheels, Schwalbe tubeless G1 tyres. 40/46 gears.  Weight: 18.5 kilos or about double the weight of the unloaded bike.

Adam – Ibis Hakka with 650B wheels, Schwalbe Thunderburt tyres allegedly running tubeless. 42/40 gears. Weight significantly less. He had added lightness, I had added gears.

Gear:

Adam – a mahoosive Lomo 13L waterproof seat pack and a small bag hanging off the bars. Alex: Alpkit seat pack with Exo-Rail, Alpkit frame bag, Alpkit top tube bag. No camping gear as we’re not mental.

Here we go, some actual travelogue content…

The day finally dawned. After much worrying over a deteriorating forecast and my lack of any useful preparation, the waiting was over. Dropped off by the Wales Millennium Centre, we dodged the University graduation ceremonies to snap the obligatory ‘start here‘ photo.

First objective achieved and by pure luck we stumbled onto the route after excitedly pointing out the NCN8 sign. All went well for about 3 minutes until predictably we got completely  lost. This despite a verified GPS route loaded into Ad’s Garmin 800 and the sam present on my phone via the ‘BikeGPX’ app.

Over the week we became pretty skilled at hunting out blue and white signs or interpreting what the map was trying to tell us. Today however was a voyage of discovery. Sometimes discovering the same bit of car park from a number of different directions.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Having run out of alternatives, we transited under the A4232 to enter Hamadyad Park. Well this was unexpectedly lovely. Away from the traffic, we relaxed a bit enjoying the sunshine reflecting off the river. With no idea how fast we had to ride, there was limited time for hamming it up over the first bridge before passing behind the stadium and Cardiff Castle.

The Taff trail is fantastic way to exit the city. We shared it with (mostly) cyclists beyond pensionable age enjoying the sunshine and avoiding cars, other than a few well signed road crossings. Passing under the M4,  we joined the old railway track and had our first experience of ‘how fast dare I ride through these shoulder high barriers‘. Not as fast as I thought apparently as I bounced off the second one.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Time for a break then after riding for about 2 hours. Forecast suggests today is to be the sunniest of the week, so we’re determined to enjoy it. While still having a bit of ‘destination’ anxiety’ meaning stops soon become starts.

Now though we had a different problem – where to find a much needed coffee hit. Pontyprid was not that place. Blimey it’s a bit depressing especially when you consider its hayday in the age of coal. We quickly scooted back onto the disused railway line until the equally dispiriting Merthyr Tydfil appeared on our right flank.

Rather than descend into that madness, we popped out onto a minor road looking for a local café. Found one only opened six weeks previously, which might explain why the till was something of a mystery to the proprietor.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Sustained through the magic of a chicken baguette and impressed by the 80+ year old fella we met who was still cyclng every day, we started the first proper climb near the Cyfarthfa ironworks. Another relic of a different age where heavy industry dominated these valleys.

The scale of it was such it proved almost impossible to get your head around how vast the site must have been. Although that distraction didn’t last long as we headed into the Brecon Beacons – a landscape I know reasonably well from many years campaigning  mountain bikes up and down these hills.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

We came at it a different way but the two reservoirs (Pentwyn and Talybont) were familiar. The riding wasn’t familiar at all –  being  a combination of long gravel tracks and shorter punchy road climbs. Here I suffered the first loss of the trip – the light off the pack on the 5 mile shallow descent (on the old Brecon Railway) line past Talybont dam.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

The bikes for this kind of terrain are  brilliant, really glad I wasn’t on super narrow road tyres pumped up to 100PSI. We were comfortable descending at reasonable speeds with marble-y gravel pinging off the frames.  Looking across the dam, I  recognised the trail we climb on the classic gap loop over the other side of the valley. Strangely I wasn’t that bothered to be missing out on a mountain bike ride.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

 

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

After those amazing views, it was a bit of easy road work to reach our first nights stop via the Brecon to Monmouth canal.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

At the end of which my thoughts could be summarised as ‘bloody good fun, glad first day is over and I’m still able to pedal, but my arse hurts tho and I really need a beer’.

Lon Las Cymru - Day 1

We sorted the beer at least, toasting our first destination under a still hot sun. This was just the warm up though. Tomorrow was going to be far tougher. So let’s not go mad on the beer.

We didn’t. Because we were staying in a hotel knocking out double gin and tonics for not much cash. So we drank quite a few of those instead.

*I was asked which way climbed more. Even after gently explaining the start and end points were both at sea level, my questioner still refused to accept I’d provided sufficient detail in my answer 😉

Have bike, might as well travel

Welsh C2C - Test pack

I consider myself moderately numerate. Much of my day is surfing the line between causation and correlation. I kind of know how numbers work – although someone will be quick to point out this mathematical rigour applies not at all to my notorious bike buying policy.  True enough, that’s why the maxim ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ is rooted in truth.

Next week the numbers ride off the page and onto the tarmac. 237 miles, somewhere north of 20,000 feet of ascent, two mountain ranges, climbs too numerous to count but a single 8 mile instance is sticking in my mind. 35 pounds of loaded bike, 11 gears*, 5 days, 2 wheels, 1 mate and no bloody idea at all how it’s going to go.

How’s what going to go? Ah that’s where the numbers don’t tell the story, they merely act as chapter headings. The Lon Las Cymru is the ‘official’ route for those wishing to transit the country of Wales from coast to coast. Start in Cardiff, finish in Holyhead taking in the Brecon Beacons and the national park of Snowdonia.

This idea was dreamed up by my mate Adam with whom I suffered partial drowning back in 2017 on the Trans-Cambrian adventure.  Deciding it couldn’t possibly be any harder – or wetter – than that mental and physical challenge, he then essentially handed the whole thing off to me to organise.

Logistics planning has gone well. Instantly sacking off any idea of tentage, my  accommodation criteria was a Google-Venn of twin rooms, large breakfasts and a pub no further than a drunken stagger away.  If possible located within the same building.

I have prepared myself equally well. Adding a bike to the ShedOfDreams(tm) and half a stone to my age-ravaged body. The first was merely the intersection of a shiny new thing on sale and a credit card, the second a combination of hotels, boredom and a wearingly consistent lack of willpower.

This laser focus on athletic perfection has led me to believe that I must – contrary to the screams of the aesthetically demure – go full MAMIL, so exchanging my grungy MTB wardrobe of baggy shorts and shapeless tops for figure hugging lycra. I demonstrated my commitment to ‘pudgy aero’ to Adam a couple of weeks ago. It’s fair to say his reaction was not quite what I was hoping for.

This after I’d bought two new pairs of shorts in a ambitious medium size. I intend to grow into them. Or stitch them together to make one al-sized pair. Anyhow that’s as far down that particular rabbit hole I think we need to go, so let’s talk bikes instead.

When I bought the Tempest, I disparagingly compared it to a crap 90s mountain bike. Having now ridden it properly off road, I’ve half changed my mind. It’s actually a bloody brilliant 90s mountain bike. It’s not some hard-charging six inch slack full suspension monster swapping out technique for bravery.  No you actually have to ride the sodding thing properly.

The 2in tyres have hilariously little grip, descending on dropped bars narrows your view to a fuzzy middle and flashing periphery. The brakes are fantastic but the tyres are not, so unexpected sideways movements get normalised pretty quickly. You can have as much fun at 10mph on some non technical singletrack, as you would on a death-tech rocky steep on my other bikes.

I like that. And I like the bike. I’ve enjoyed riding it these last few weeks. Returning home from a holiday in a hot country serving much cold beer, I really had to get some miles in. Every one of them have been fun, either exploring interesting looking trails, slithering on off road tracks or testing out the luggage pretending I’ve ridden 200 miles not 20.

Whether I’ll like it a week Friday is another matter entirely. Each day ups the climbing until the crux of that bastard climb above Machynlleth**. At that point I expect my forensically packed kit to be strewn carelessly behind me in a fit of rage at finding the shifter has no more clicks.

Packing has been an amusing confluence of want and need. Ads and I have traded shared items. His latest ‘first aid kit done, one plaster, one small bandage so don’t fall off second’ was possibly a response to my suggestion that a single tub of chamois cream between us would be absolutely fine. Frankly I think he’s still holding the lycra incident against me.

An experienced bike-packer*** may frown over my selection of random items. Picking through mandatory foodstuffs – such as a full cheeseboard and a choice of desert wines – they will wonder aloud if the concept of ‘you can stop packing before the bag is full’ has passed me by.

It has. I have tools for removing stones from horses hooves. Other essential items include fresh shorts for every day because washing sweaty ones cramps my beer drinking riff. I have also packed sufficient outer clothing to ensure my lycra clad torso doesn’t trigger riots in some of the smaller Welsh towns.

So not very fit. Bit fat. Too much kit. Not enough gears. Navigationally useless. Never ridden a road bike for that long on one day, never mind five. Yeah but weather looks pretty good – sure we’ll get wet it’s Wales after all, but flooding is now only a remote possibility – great accommodation booked, a mate who didn’t try and kill me last time things got difficult, and a whole load of stunning countryside to ride through.

Oh and a re-supply mission from Carol half way through. Come on that’s reasonable. No way that cheese is going to last five days.

Ready? Laughably no. Excited? Oh fuck yes.

* I’d like a few more. Specifically extra big ones at the back and a smaller one at the front. There may be some engagement of the pushing gear.

**I have my own versions of the ‘Hors Cat’ categorisation. ‘Shit, Bollocks, Bastard, Total Bastard and Fuck me,  you have to be joking

***Apparently according to the experts, we’re not bike-packers. Bike-packers are not credit card lazy arses staying in comfortable B&Bs. Being a serious student of taxonomy and the importance of categorisation, I’ve given this some thought. That thought being ‘Go fuck yourself cockwombles’.

Final Exams

Finale MTB - May 2019

I started writing this over a month ago. It was never finished because of the last thing I posted. Started as a riff on Jess taking her ‘A’ levels and me off riding to Finale. Both final exams if you consider you’ve spent a whole lot of time working up to that.  There’s a bit more in the last issue of www.cranked.cc on why Finale is considered a destination at the end of a journey,  which hopefully is worth a read.

So how did it go? Well Jess’s finished her exams without quite exploding through stress and worry. She’s mighty relieved in a way that might be shading the indubitable fact that at least three more years of similar await at University. As experienced parents, we’ve decided that’s a trifle best left unmentioned until we get past the next worry-stone that is results day.

Finale was – in no particular order – fun, scary, really scary, balls out terrifying, wet, very wet, a bit less wet, drunken, more fun right up until the point someone broke a leg. We’ll be back to that. Although I don’t think it in any way ratchets down the tension if I reveal right now it wasn’t me who ended their holiday in ankle to thigh cast.

Finale Ligure sits close the Mediterranean sea. It’s a two hour drive from Nice – a city renowned for almost endless sunshine. Bit hot for your average ‘pale to angry lobster in sixty minutes of direct sunlight’ Brit in the summer months. May though, perfect. Dry and warm. Trails not blown out, town not too busy, guides happy to see paying customers and cheaper everything.

Yeah right. Rhetoric versus reality. It was never – aside from a couple of epic downpours – really wet, but it categorically wasn’t close to dry.  Driving through the alps we pointed at cloud formations dumping increasing wetness on where we thought Mount Blanc might be. Finale wasn’t much better so – honed athletes as we are – we hid in a bar until it became clear that at least one of us wanted to go riding. Again I don’t feel I’m giving too much away to say that rider wasn’t me.

Writing about riding in a way that doesn’t follow the ‘we did that and then we did that’ homage to yawning boredom isn’t easy. Let me say instead it’s an amazing place to ride a mountain bike. Somewhere near the best. Different to eveywhere else Ive been. In so may good ways. Some of those it not being France 😉 The people and culture are just wonderful. The old town a delight. The uplifts superbly organised. The guides really engaged and passionate. The beer not too expensive. So yeah not like France at all!

It’s not a trail centre. it’s a linked set of riding locations each with their own character. They race EWS here so some of it, well most of it really is challenging. And not without consequence. It’s not a place to be tentative. I’m sure it’d be easier in the dry. That’s my excuse for being tentative anyway.

The riding then. Let me go with vignettes.  Trail: Toboggan. After a first day of ever increasing rain. Now it’s lashing it down and we’re on sight dealing with slickness of rock and root. Matt is loving it, he’s a sick individual who gets off on these kind of conditions. I’m more shitting it, mostly in limp home mode. More so after nearly going out the front before arresting my forward motion by dragging pedal pins up my left calf*

I couldn’t help thinking what a brilliant trail it would be if there wasn’t a river running through it. Two days later it dried out a bit and was even worse! Then there was the iconic Rollercoaster. Top section is mentally fast popping off rocks and ploughing through chop. Some of the later guide-stopped features tho has me wondering if him explaining ‘Attentione, wet roots, 15 metres, do not brake’ was helping much.

Bottom sections. Steep and rocky. Those terms do not do it justice. Let’s go with FUCKING HELL WHERE DOES THE TRAIL GO? and REALLY, DOWN THERE, RIGHT NOW? OH FUCK. I watched Matt literally disappear down a feature. I assumed he’d been teleported to another dimension until I rolled over what felt like a vertical face before accelerating into a river exchanging water for fat, loose rock.

Rode so much of it. Walked a few bits. Just commit and believe. Especially if you’re dropping into a loose, steep steppy entry with about thirty Germans pretending not to watch. The fact that day we were in open face helmets made it just a little bit sweeter.

The bikes though are brilliant. This is what they are built for. If you let them go, they will save your arse and pump endorphins at dangerously high pressure. Tim and I loved one section on my favourite trail (Engineer) where you exited a rocky corner and – if you were brave – basically doubled the stump and a vaguely perceived rock. I may have whooped. There was also some panicked calls of ‘CODE BROWN’ which had nothing to do with the mud.

A 1000 words can’t do justice to an amazing week. And it certainly can’t document Tim’s journey from ‘can I borrow the spare bike to six pins in his Tib’. Like I say we’ll get back to that.

Was it as good as everyone who has been there endlessly bangs on about? Maybe. It was close. Exiting a damp minibus onto the freezing concrete of a cloud fogged NATO base wasn’t really selling it. Riding with my best friends in a brilliant location did so more successfully. Tim monging himself put a bit of a downer on the whole thing.

Will we be back? I think so. I’m not sure I did the bike justice. A bit too scared sometimes. Never felt totally dialled in.  Maybe I’m just not a good enough rider and too damn old to get any better.

Best do a re-sit then.

*this was quite nasty. We didn’t fancy the hospital** so the boys sherri-stripped it and handed me a cold beer. It looks okay now a month later. For a given value of ‘okay’

**there was time for this later in the week.

Gap Analysis..

FoD - Mud, Sun and Smiles ride

… is traditionally defined as the process of identifying the breadth, scope and reach of activities to transition effectively from the current state to a desired future state. Sounds dull? It is, and I should know with it representing about 25% of my work right now.

It serves us here on the Hedgehog rather niftily as both a synonym and a metaphor.  The current state has been fixed for at least five years, the future state sees me the far side of something scary and the activities to get there can be summarised as ‘jump over that bloody gap you spawny git’

If only it were so simple. Or more pertinently so much shorter than the physical reality in front of me. It’s a whopper. Already over 3m if you’re measuring the great big bloody hole ready to swallow up ‘Alex the Timid’ and nearer 5m when including entry and exit ramps.

Speed is definitely your friend. Unless you come up short in which case it really isn’t.  Next stop massive cartwheeling crash, with potential non-optional visit to hospital.

All of this has been a bit moot until recently. I’ve never imagined myself clearing it, while images depicting splattering myself all over the forest fill my hindbrain whenever the gap hoves into view.  So I’ve taken the sensible option of giving it the chicken-swerve.

The problem is bloody progression. I seem to be riding quite well lately – other than crashing myself silly which shall form the cornerstone of the next www.cranked.cc article – so what was really never more than pub bullshit ‘yeah I’ll get that nailed one day’ has now become ‘sober-doable

I’m a coward tho, so just because I can absolutely does not mean I will. Then all my riding buddies crossed the bloody Rubicon – firstly Cez but that’s okay as he’s a way better rider than me and, helpfully for this situation, fairly bonkers. Next up is Matt – again a far more skilled rider but a little more considered in terms of risk/reward. He was followed over by Alex W, another who is definitely handier on a bike….. hang on let’s just save time and assume EVERYONE is a bit better than me.

Right, we can move on. Only I couldn’t. Perfect conditions in late Autumn meant this was going to be ‘the day’. Just Matt and I so no friendly haranguers pointing phones at my imminent demise. The key to the gap is actually the jump before. Clear that by landing fully on the transition, and you’re at the perfect speed to hit the ramp of the MONSTER ABYSS ATTEMPTING TO DRAG ME INTO OBLIVION.

I really need to work on my positive thinking.  Any road, we hauling a fair lick on grippy dirt and I’m right behind Matt as he sails over the qualifier. Somehow tho –  because I’m a Doofus – I manage to fuck that up and drop my rear wheel short of the transition. I lose speed, and Matt’s rear wheel as he comfortably flies over 10 feet of fresh air to kiss the down ramp.

I come to a shuddering halt and swear.  Bollocks, we’ll go again. This time I hit it a little sweeter and I’m in a great position to conquer my personal nemesis. Only somehow I’ve grabbed a shitload of Shimano and scooted into the chicken run. Matt looks round ‘Did you….’ but he can see I did not. And he can hear it as well. I’m grumpy for the rest of the ride. And the rest of the day because now it’s November, meaning it’ll be Spring before I get another chance.

Except this exceptionally dry spell has left the trails mint-y mint. We’re on a long ride and the gap is close to the last descent. I’ve been going well and Matt asks if I fancy a crack at it. I mull the idea up a 10 minute climb, before deciding I’m basically out of excuses and it’s either Shit or Get Off The Pot. Hopefully not thinking too literally here.

Did I want another look at it? No I fucking did not. I’ve looked at it a 100 times. Mainly from a ground based position riding around the blighter. Right then,  we’re straight into the trail and it’s feeling good until Matt slows down. What the hell is he doing? Before the relief we’re not doing it washes through me, he’s off again heading for the qualifier.  Oh we are doing it then. Super.

I have never hit that jump so well, hardly felt the landing, and we’re accelerating hard down the slope past the point of no return. Not for one microsecond was I going to bottle it. My mind – as it does at such times of stress and worry – shut completely down and I handed the whole thing off to muscle memory and Newtonian physics.

You do hit it fast and there’s a real feeling of being in the air for a while. Then you’re not, and I’m a little nose heavy on landing but nothing that’s going to throw me out the front door. I totally fail to make the corner as I’ve chucked the bike away and am running around gesticulating wildly and making senseless noises*

Cez asked if I wanted another go for the camera. I decided probably not. I’m so wobbly from all the adrenalin and relief, I can barely stand up never mind poking the monster again. But next time will be a whole lot easier.

So the picture up there isn’t me. It’s Pete from a few years back**. It doesn’t really show the full horror of what’s going on. Obviously I’m making it sound WAY harder than it is, but when I moved here at 40, I couldn’t jump over a log and at 51 I’m still riding harder and scarier stuff.

This makes me feel like a five year old. And that’s risk/reward right there 🙂

*apparently no one noticed anything different to normal.

**and it’s longer than that now. Honestly, ask anyone!

Three wise men

Classic Gap Ride

This post could have worked a whole lot better had it been published during the season of the Sky Fairy. Especially as any lies – sorry mis-statements as we now seem to be calling them – would barely register against the nonsense of the  plastic believers making one-off pilgrimages to their local churches.

That’s quite enough of that. Let’s talk bikes.  Three men – let’s lose the wise tag based on what’s coming – appeared through the miracle of internal combustion at a mythical location we’ll call faff-central.

One brought sandwiches, another a massive hangover, the third a bunch of excuses and a non functioning rear brake. As gifts, these scored barely one out of three. The one barely scraping in due to two kinds of pickle and home made bread*

Classic Gap Ride

Van packed, driver navigationally confused, not very wise man one making unhelpful suggestions, definitely unwise man two still looking drunk. An inouspicus start. No stars, just winter solstice gloom and the desperate need to do things outside to avoid further incidents with cheese and brandy.

Ninety minutes later, we’re checking packs and worrying about the weather. In a ‘B’ movie kind of ‘it’s too quiet, something must be about to happen’ kind of way. Last year we slogged through snow, other years offered up rain, hail, gale force winds and assorted meteorological misery.

Best crack on then before Fate notices. First climb is fine. Easy even with no hangover and an absence of frost and ice. Easy for me, Cez however was rocking a skin colour I associated with either a) dead already or b) dead soon.  He man’d up and we got it done in a little under the baseline. I’ve ridden this route so many times, there’s a rhythm and a cadence to it, so you know if you’re ahead.

Classic Gap Ride

Or in Alex’s case, underneath it. On cresting the tricky last climb to the ridge, he’s chosen poorly with a route best marked summer, and essentially bog snorkelled his way out the far side. As close to wise as any of us get, I’ve skirted that obstacle and barely dipped a toe in the clay, while Cez has gone full ‘chubby tyre paddle steamer’ through the middle.

Classic Gap Ride

The ridge top is still a hundred metres of climbing away. Last year we were woefully under-provisioned in the area of ice climbing equipment. Today it was a breeze because neither snow, nor the bastard head wind, long associated with this climb, was attempting to throw you back into the valley.

Classic Gap Ride

It almost felt too easy. Which made me a bit suspicious. Rightly so, as the first descent upgraded my understanding of a rear brake from ‘that’ll pump up nicely’ to ‘no it’s totally fucked’. For the look of the thing we threw in a new set of pads which achieved nothing other than wasting a new set of pads.

The next descent was interesting. Exciting even. Momentarily terrifying. Once or twice eyes were closed. Wet Welsh rock asks a lot of tyres. The front one especially doing all the steering and – in my case – braking. Not much traction-pie left for actually ‘gripping’, so reducing my choices to rolling the dice to score breakneck speed into what’s essentially an abandoned quarry, or the strong potential of sanding myself down with some razor sharp slate.

I picked a middle way. Wasn’t pretty but got it done. Was quite happy to be heading back up hill. Before which Cez somehow managed to fall into a heap while not actually moving. The fact he’d been taking the piss about my inability to open a gate a moment earlier made this just a whole lot sweeter.

Climb then. Up the Roman Road. Sandwiches at the top. The Bird doesn’t climb as well as my Ibis but it’s nowhere near rubbish, and I was feeling pretty good so made a decent stab at hurting myself for the seventeen minutes your heart rate is bouncing agains the rev limiter. Was ready for a sit down and the burgeoning worry that I was essentially uni-braked heading into a shit-load of rock-chop and steepness.

Excusing myself, I headed out first and minced my way down the steepest pitches, especially those with loose rocks all seemingly labelled with my own personalised grim reaper motif.

Thew the bike down in relief and fired up the camera. To see Alex riding the stuff I’d found somewhat challenging in the manner of a semi-pro. Fair play I thought, that’s going somewhat and not lacking commitment. As he passed the lens, I heard the hiss of a tyre pushed far beyond it’s performance boundaries.

Classic Gap Ride

Classic Gap Ride

We heard this twice more on the same descent. Alex used the exact number of spare tubes we had. I’ll be honest one more puncture and we’d have stolen his van keys and left him there. It wasn’t just the repeated faff of dragging the tyre from the rim, it was the painful re-inflatement process with a wheezy pump he’d clearly inherited from his grandfather.

Classic Gap Ride

We eventually got it done and descended to the canal which lacked the ice cold puddles of previous years, then latterly the car park where the van was parked. In some ways I was relieved at not crashing myself stupid riding a single brake**. In others this felt too easy, not the hard bastard ride we’d talk about for months afterwards.

On reflection though, it was a brilliant day out and I’d successfully dodged a magazine of bullets. Sometimes you just have to accept that you’re not in control of a whole load of variables and that’s okay.

As a wise man once set. Not me, obviously.

*we’re not savages. A man has to eat. Artisan-ally in this case.

** every time I ride this route, I remember my mate Russ breaking his back on the final descent back in 2003.

Turning a corner

Slippy FoD Fun

Much of this blog is dedicated to cataloguing my pervasive rubbishness of all things bike related, with much general life stuff also taken into consideration. Some would hypothesise this is simply the self-depreciation of a man uncomfortable with his entirely un-English aura of awesomeness. Others – who have actually met him – would consider it purely as a restatement of fact.

Riding in mud is an excellent retelling of the oft misunderstood maxim that ‘it is the exception which proves the rule’.*  When the days are short and the mud is long distanced from the hardback of summer, I find all sorts of interesting ways to fall over, fall off and generally fail to make any kind of discernible progress.

There are reasons for this, but we’re not going there. I’ve been there so often to review that pantheon of uselessness, the boring bits get fast forwarded in my head.  This year though something has happened. An old dog may have learned some new tricks or at least not relearned the annual ‘how to be crap’ lesson once the trails aggressively posture their ‘moisture first’ strategy.

I’d love to say this epiphany is somehow skills based. Conquering mental weakness, performing flashy brave stuff, playing what’s in front of you, that kind of thing. Any such proclamation would be a big fat lie though because we all know old dogs really don’t learn new tricks at all. No instead they go tyre shopping**

A mountain biker without a rubber fetish is merely an amateur astride a dandy steed. The professionals amongst us are fully paid up members of the Durometer club. We are at home with threads per inch, we carefully study tread patterns, and the complex language of compounds being nothing more than an open book.

The outcome of which was a tractor derived monster tread fetching up on my front rim. A slightly less aggressive companion migrated to the back. The Internet smugly dismisses plus tyres as pointless for mud. Now my SolarisMax was shod with chunky 2.8 inch tyres at 12PSI, it was time to go rule proving and myth busting.

Onto trails which had had some rain. And then some more rain. And then downpours sweeping spitefully over leafless terrain. Not quite enough though to saturate the hardpack baked solid over that endless summer. So wet over hard then. My absolute favourite.

To ride in the winter, you must create an entire belief system around your front tyre. Regardless of the mud splattering your eyeballs, the uncertain balance from going sideways, and the unceasing wetness spiking your peripheral vision. These are for nothing if you keep the faith.

A decent bike handler knows what grip feels like. A really decent one knows how hard they can push beyond that. An average Joe like me can get all Newtonian with opposing forces and trust in R&D over marketing.  These tyres will hold a line if you weight them properly while showing a bit of commitment.

And when they do its glorious. A whole world opens up in the damp and dead forest. Narnia is out of the closet. You can push, push, slide, push a little more and then back off before disaster strikes. Even when it does, speeds are low and a full body mud immersion is the only real collateral damage.

Do this a few times and now there’s a bloke wondering if we should have a crack at another trail. Even when the pub is open. This hardtail is the perfect winter tool – it’s direct, consistent, not wallowing in pointless suspension and – afterwards – bloody easy to clean. It’s the tyres which make it tho, tempting grip from slick surfaces so egging the bloke on top to make a proper dirty protest.

There are limits of course. Steep and muddy. That’s Mr. Crashtastic gunning for me on every corner. Freshly cut trails offer nothing but wheel swapping and significant opportunity for a little lie down. Polished roots are winter snipers patiently waiting to take you down.

The last of which had me throwing shapes after taking line liberties no tyre could save me from. I threw the bike away, as it wasn’t offering much help, to slide into a bombhole on my arse. After checking myself out and foraging the now camouflaged bike from the surrounding shrubbery, I found I couldn’t actually get out. That’s how good the tyres are- you can ride even when you can’t walk.

Crashing is fine. Punctured hubris is not a new sensation. For a few corners before though, I felt I’d finally got this mountain biking thing dialled. The bike was turning and drifting at the same time which felt absolutely fine. I’d exchanged my normal tentative wafts at the bar for confident full limb prods to ride the slide. That’s the dirt talking to you right there however pretentious it sounds.

In the pub all I wanted to do was get back out there. For the past ten years all I’ve wanted is it to be April.  Sure it’ll get old before it gets better, but right now our half of the planet just spun its face to the sunny side. We’re on the long road to Spring.

Before that though I’m going to have some fun playing in the mud.

*’Proves’ as in tests like in baking, not as in law. Otherwise it’d just be statistical nonsense overplaying the importance of outliers.

**I appreciate this is stretching the metaphor a bit. But hey throw me a bone here 😉