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”
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!”