If you thought mountain biking began in California in the 1970s, think again. It was born 100 years ago in North Wales when Walter MacGregor Robinson, aka the ‘Wayfarer’, decided to mark the end of the ‘off-season’ with a weekend ride. On 30 March 1918 Robinson and a group of friends rode from Birmingham to Liverpool. Not ones for taking the easy option, although they did very sensibly decide to “dispose of Wrexham” they embarked on a route that took them over one of the highest passes in Wales. In a snowstorm. Robinson never refers to Nant Rhyd Wilym as such. He prefers to call it ‘Over the Top’ and that was the title of the article he wrote for ‘Cycling’ magazine a year after his adventure the popularity of which spawned a new interest in off-road cycling and the mountain bike boom was born*.
This wonderfully evocative article is written in Robinson’s eloquent, rhetorical and often humorous style. It is also strangely prescient
“The road up the Glyn Valley for the first few miles has been “repaired” in a manner which suggests that the local authority wishes to discourage cycling and motoring visitors, upon whom the prosperity of the district in a measure depends.”
Robinson was a pioneer, encouraging cyclists to explore using mountain tracks, footpaths and byways as “some of the best of cycling would be missed if one always had to be in the saddle or on a hard road.”
His cycling exploits are all the more remarkable given that he was injured during the First World War and often felt pain in his leg. He rode a singlespeed Rover Light Roadster. He advised other cyclists to dispense with mudguards, probably because they would become clogged with mud or on his epic wayfarer adventure, snow. A perfectionist and fastidious in almost everything he did, he was not however a fan of cleaning his bicycle claiming that “cycles are for riding, not for cleaning”.
Robinson was an insurance clerk by profession but he was a remarkable cyclist and an inspiring writer. In the words of the great man himself “’twill be an adventure”
The first time I finished the 3 Peaks (in 2004) I said to myself “never again”. Then the last time I finished it, in 2008, I said “never again”. I had a long break from it, but then this year, when entries opened, I thought “go on then, I’ll have a bash”.
In theory, I was going to be fitter than ever for this year’s Peaks. On the 1 July this year I completed the Dragon Duathlon – riding and running the 300km length of Wales in a day including running over three of Wales’ toughest mountains. Well, the theory was good but I think it would be fair to say that I rather took my foot off the gas, and sat drinking ale, congratulating myself on my achievement.
And so I found myself on the start line at Helwith Bridge – fit but not tip top. And then it started – the horrendous lung busting ‘neutralised’ section to Horton. My god, I’ve done easier crit races than this. Then off left up through the farmyard towards the base of Ingleborough and a sickening crash just in front of me, as the bunch funnels through a gate. It was a nasty one – I heard later that there were broken vertebrae.
Then, up up and more boggy up, getting steeper as we go. I was making places on the grovel up Simon Fell. All my fell running was paying dividends. Dibbing at the top of Ingleborough I was starting to feel good, I was overtaking people on the descent and then…the almost inevitable flight over the bars. Peat luck if you will – an innocuous looking but extremely deep bit of bog swallowed my front wheel. Picking myself up I realised that I had managed to jam my brake levers full of peat with the result that my brakes were permanently on. Great, because this wasn’t hard enough already.
a little bit bent
And down – tora tora tora! – sinking, sliding, watching dozens of other riders flying off around me in a deranged display of improvised gymnastics. A friend of mine who is not hot on modern slang was trying to remember the term ‘face plant’ but instead came out with ‘head splat’ – she’d inadvertently created the perfect phrase to describe a 3 Peaks phenomenon.
Then I reached the road and I realised my legs felt terrible. There was a strong headwind and I was struggling to push even my smallest gear. I was taking deep sucks on my camelback which I had filled with energy drink. As the day wore on I realised I had made the drink too strong – or maybe I hadn’t mixed it well enough. It seemed to get stronger as I went on, and while it was giving me energy it was making me thirstier and making my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth. Excellent.
Whernside – there it is, the track stretching upwards for miles ahead. Lots and lots of high uneven steps. My legs were feeling distinctly dodgy and I was really wondering why I was doing this to myself again. Finally, the summit and we’re off again. I’m seeing lots of mechanicals and punctures all around. I get off the bike and run down to the top section of the steps with the big water bars – I’ve punctured there before and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. So there’s a man covered pretty much head to foot in black Pennine mud, wearing inappropriate footwear, running down a mountain with a bike on his back – and there’s a lot of bewildered looking walkers very politely/nervously waving me through. I can’t think what the average punter must make of this spectacle.
And so to Ribblehead and I’m starting to feel OK, but then I hit the road again and it’s as though the lights go out. A small boy (I mean he was about 7) on a mountain bike cycles past me giving me a smile. Struggling into the headwind and internally bemoaning my plight I’m suddenly rescued by a little group of riders and I’m able to sit in the wheels and rest a bit. And with that help I find myself at the foot of Pen y Ghent. I’m managing to cycle up the lane, keeping out of the way of the leaders who are hurtling down towards the finish. The support is tremendous, generous crowds shouting encouragement and lovely marshals offering motivation.
the art of brake finessing
And so it’s through the gate about a third of the way up Pen y Ghent and the track steepens and seems to stretch endlessly upwards into the sky. It’s another dark moment – and now dozens of people are walking past me. There’s just nothing in the legs. Slowly slowly I make it to the top. Some new steps have been laid and they are pretty gruelling. And then the descent – I’m annoyed with myself for feeling like such a slug and so I absolutely leather it down. The crowds were oohing and aahing as I went. I was on the ragged edge, but I made it down in one piece with bike intact overtaking about 20 riders as I went. Then just the short road section to Helwith Bridge – made bearable by being nearly home. And then I’m there – the finish line. What a relief.
And then I say to myself that I will probably not definitely almost certainly be back. Possibly.
As pick I the bike up to put it in the car I notice my saddle bag is gaping – not sure exactly when it unzipped itself, but I’d lost my two spare tubes and my co2 inflator. Ah well, I’m just glad I didn’t need them – I’m happy with the offering to the Peaks gods to get round unmolested. My Vittoria XL tubeless tyres pumped to 60psi held up well to my 80kgs, but they didn’t half feel draggy – but that could just have been in my head.
an empty sack
What I learnt (or was reminded of – yet again) is that the 3 Peaks finds you out. The boggy ground conditions this year left me feeling well drained (unlike the bogs) and If you’re not feeling great there’s nowhere to hide. What also struck me was the brilliant support from spectators and fellow riders – someone gave me a little push as I was struggling to get going after a remount and I did the same for another rider. For a super fit few this a real race, but for me and, I think, a lot of others it is a battle with yourself and the terrain to get to the end.
And later, in the pub, we wonder how we could do it faster next year… shall we never learn. I hope not.
A few weeks ago I decided on a long distance ride over the Berwyn, following in the tracks of the very first offroad cycling journalist – Wayfarer. He regularly travelled the same roads and tracks that I do today, though he did it 100 years ago. Whenever I find that the going is getting tough or I click for a lower gear and find there isn’t one, I think of him and just how punishing some of his rides must have been (although, unlike me, I believe he was just as happy pushing).
I managed to pick one of the hottest days of the year for my expedition, which started by riding to the small village of Llandrillo in the valley of the River Dee. My goal was to go over the top first to Pen Bwlch Llandrillo and down into the valley of the River Ceiriog on the other side and then back over the Berwyn (to my side of it), have a beer in my local beer shop and grovel the last 4 miles uphill back to my home – the last section of our drive being a particularly unpleasant 20% gradient.
A small homage to a big man. ‘Wayfarer’ was an insurance clerk from Liverpool. His name was Walter Macgregor Robinson and he was famously tough and cheery. He wrote his account of crossing Bwlch Llandrillo in 1919 and it was published in Cycling. One of Wayfarer’s mottos was ‘Cycles are for riding, not for cleaning’. In my neglectful way I am keeping his spirit alive.
Like many people who ride a bike, especially when that riding is solo and in a remote spot, my mind tends to wander. I often wonder what thoughts that Wayfarer, a veteran of combat in the First World War, must have worked his way through whilst crossing these hills.
Anyway, back to the ride. Having climbed out of Llandrillo up an initially very steep track which turns into just a steep track, I crossed the pass at Pen Bwlch Llandrillo, where there is a plaque to commemorate Wayfarer – describing him as ‘a lover of Wales’. I inadvertently disturbed some other lovers of Wales who were having al fresco sex behind a 4×4 next to Wayfarer’s plaque. A cheery “p’nawn da” (good afternoon) seemed to take them by surprise.
From there I descended the rocky track into the Ceiriog valley and to a small village called Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. There are two lovely pubs in the village but despite the heat of the day I resisted the very strong urge to stop at either of them. The last time I came by this way with a friend on a bike, we were riding through a snowy landscape and being continuously washed clean by meltwater, and it was much easier to resist the thought of a beer. As so often when I am tempted by a mid-ride beer the thing that helps me resist is the thought that it will taste EVEN better at the end.
From Llanarmon DC it’s a steep haul up out of the valley whichever way you go. I chose to do the first bit on the road towards Llanrhaedhr ym Mochnant (where I believe one or some of the Athertons might live). From the top it’s down into the Tanat valley and into tiny lanes that have hedgerows so high that all you can really see is a strip of sky. The lanes are cool on a hot day. It’s through Llanrhaedhr and along the Tanat, this time on rough tracks high above the main road and then a plummet down a sunken lane that is so overgrown it makes me feel I must be the first person along it this year. This brings me out near the village of Llangynog – the location for so many of my childhood holidays. Even 15 years ago this place had two pubs, a café, post office cum general store and a petrol station. Now it’s just got the one pub – well, that and the Revolution Bike Park.
From here I could take the ‘easy’ route out of the Tanat valley which is to say the three mile road climb back to the top of the Berwyn. But I’m in no mood for that – I feel I would be cheating myself. By now almost of all my body is tingling with nettle stings from the sunken lane and like the weird pervert I am I don’t want this ride to end. So, instead of the road climb I opt for what I know to be an horrible slog along the rough track that descends right to the valley floor before heading steeply up and essentially gaining the same elevation as the road but having lost a load of height before and then making it up with a savage, loose rocky grind back to the top. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As I crawl the last few hundred metres to the top I can just see some riders on the road. As I get to the road I can see it’s my clubmates from Clwb Beicio Bala on their Wednesday Social. As I stand there covered in blood (my own), sweat and excrement (mostly not my own) they beetle past me in their neat kit and shout for me to come with them, but by this stage I have nothing on my mind except the five mile descent into Bala and a cold pint of beer.
I am writing this a few weeks after the event. We have turned a corner into autumn and the dusty days of summer feel distant now. That day I went out in shorts and a short-sleeved jersey and I came back covered in a mix of sweat, dust, dead flies and what felt like 100 nettle stings. Just how I like it. I’m sometimes not sure why I do these rides. I think maybe it’s for the sheer pleasure I have when they’re over. One thing I do know though is that as long as I can ride a bicycle I’ll carry on.
As I said, it’s autumn now and I love this time of year but that memory, like the memory of a dream, of a hot, dusty ride and of lying in bed that night with my legs and arms tingling will keep going through the winter.
I’m not sure what Wayfarer would make of my bicycle and my attire (or of people having sex next to his plaque), but I’d like to think that he’d appreciate my (and their) endeavor. Another few miles under the belt and another few thoughts worked through. Why take the easy way when you can make things harder and much more unpleasant for yourself in pursuit of long term private glory? As in all things, as an old friend and I used to say “Maximum Endeavour!”
I don’t like putting the bike in the car to go and ride, so for me a cross bike is great. It extends my range from the doorstep, allowing me to eat up the road miles and access cross country epics. This was certainly true when we lived in South London but is even more the case since we moved to North Wales.
I just decided to rebuild my old Brodie, having managed to replace the bent mech hanger. Me and this bike have seen some action, from the Three Peaks to London League cross races and to the other day when I found myself thigh deep in a bog with the old bike on my back. Moments of elation when it feels like you’re flying, to despairing times when you wonder why you thought this was a good idea.
One boozy evening earlier this year, cajoled by an old friend (and Three Peaks stalwart), I applied for the Three Peaks entry. I didn’t get a place, but I decided to get myself fit like I really had to avoid wallowing in the mid-Peaks trough of misery. Well, I’m some of the way there in spite of a bad ankle sprain and whilst the fitness is lagging a bit what I have (re)discovered is my absolute love for the cross bike.
I’ve spent many evenings over the last few weeks poring over maps, identifying circuits of bridleway and byway that take me out over remote moors. And, when I go out the next day to track these routes on the ground I’ve been about 95% pleased with the riding. There I am spinning along an old drovers’ road, on a trail so ancient that the rocks have grooves cut in them by centuries’ of wear from cartwheels. I stop to look at the map and I see that the bridleway carries on over the mountain into the next valley and from there back down to the main road some five miles further on. I’ll be sitting down with a pint in an hour… And so I bowl down the hill and the bridleway so prominent on the map isn’t anywhere to be seen. And there you are suddenly ‘transitioning’ from firm ancient trackway to thigh deep in blanket bog. So I ask myself: is this a bad thing? And I don’t have to think long to decide that yes, it is a very bad thing and this feeling only grows as I carry my bike two miles to firm ground. Did it occur to me to turn back though? Of course not.
Then about two hours later when I’m finally sitting in the back room of the world’s greatest beer shop, I reflect that it is that familiar sinking feeling (5% displeasure) that makes so many of my rides round here great. Embrace the bog, knuckle down for a slog and then hail the grog. Exertion, stupidity, reward and REPEAT.
Like the first time I did the Three Peaks, I swore at the finish line “never again”, only to find myself in the pub a quarter of an hour later wondering how I could do it faster next year. STOOPID but FUN.