Berwyn Up (Part 1)

From our house we have a good view of one side the range of hills known as the Berwyn.

 

I spend a lot of time staring at these hills, watching as they change by the second with the passage of clouds over them and noting how they change with the progress of the seasons.  This year I have also spent a lot of time riding over them.  There is one metaled road across the top of the Berwyn, which in itself makes for a beautiful road bike ride, but, as I am discovering, there are many old green lanes and drovers’ tracks that cross the tops, dipping in and out of steep-sided blind valleys.  You know that if you descend from the tops you are going to have to work to get out of the valley.Road cycling Berwyns

My father’s family is from a small place called Froncysyllte at the northern end of the Berwyn, made famous by Thomas Telford’s aqueduct which carries the Llangollen Canal across the River Dee.  My paternal grandfather was born there in 1917 and met my grandmother there when she was visiting her family in the valley.  He only left the place when World War II dragged him away.  Subsequently he became a vintner and went on in the 1950s to invent and name the drink ‘The Snowball’ (for which he won some shopping vouchers and bought an highly fashionable studio couch (sofa bed to you and me).

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying that I have some connection with the area.  In fact, and this may be sentimental mumbo jumbo, I would say I felt a profound sense of homecoming (something akin the fulfillment of the Welsh sense of hiraeth, which refers to the longing for a place, tinged with sadness for the departed) when my wife and I decided to move to near Bala just over three years ago.  I have since then been learning Welsh and also my way around the area.  As a child I spent many holidays in the area and before I was really aware of notions of longing I was conscious that my heart used to lift as we crossed the border into Wales and the hazy outlines of the Berwyn would start to emerge.

The main venue for my childhood holidays was a small village in the Tanat Valley, called Llangynog.  I used to ride my Raleigh Burner round the disused quarry there, and drag the heavy little bike to the top of the steep hills that surrounded the area, then descend with no meaningful form of braking as the flexy calipers failed to grip the yellow plastic ‘mag’ wheels. There was literally no stopping me.  The same disused quarry is now the Revolution Bike Park and the obstacles created there by the Athertons are well beyond the capabilities of me and my Burner or indeed of me on any bike.

More to follow as our small boy becomes a man (of sorts) and reacquaints himself with the Berwyn.

Cadair BerwynBerwyn cyclocrossBerwyn mountains

Re-visit the Wayfarer (again and again)

The ride up to the Wayfarer memorial on the Berwyn has become one of our regular rides.  A mini epic of about 24 miles with 3,300 feet of climbing.  The classic Wayfarer route starts in Llandrillo and goes over the Berwyn and down into Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog.  It’s an epic ride with lots of climbing and some interesting descents but finishing in Llanarmon DC means that there’s a long and hard slog home, unless you can persuade someone to pick you up.  We’ve created a shortened version which starts and finishes at Ty Beic and doesn’t require a car.

Our route starts from the back gate and up to Caer Euni along the ridge before dropping down to Bethel and crossing the A494.  There’s a much quicker route along the road if you want to avoid a testing grassy climb and some would say an unnecessary off-road slog.

Once across the main road there’s a bridleway through Ty’n Fedw and up to Mynydd Mynyllod.  During the winter months parts of this can be very boggy but a dry spring and early summer means that it is still relatively dry even after some recent downpours.  The track across the moor is difficult to find but we do have a GPS/Strava file we can share.

singletrack

there’s a track there somewhere

wind turbines

windy

Wind turbines

From the wind turbines at the top of Mynydd Mynyllod we drop down to Cwynyd and take small back roads to the start of the climb proper up to the Wayfarer memorial.  This is a hard slog up a tarmac road.  Once the tarmac runs out the gradient easies a little as the track follows the contours.  During the holiday season you may see the odd group of walkers and a few green laners but the track is wide enough to accommodate everyone and there’s never any conflict.  And choose a day during the week you’re unlikely to see another soul.

before the crash

The climb takes about an hour.  Once at the top take time to enjoy the views and sign the book in the metal box by the memorial.  It’s then a fairly fast and fun descent down a rocky track to Llandrillo.  Don’t do what I did recently.  Hit a loose rock, not hold on to the bars properly, impromptu dismount, trashed helmet and damaged hand.

arty rock and sky pic

time for a picnic

Dulwich Paragon

Looking smug and not for the first time

top of Wayfarer

quick check of the map

gates to slow the descent

If it’s open we’d recommend a quick pint in the Dudley Arms before bashing along the road to Llandderfel where it’s possible to have another quick pint and a bite to eat in the Bryntirion before the ride home.  The beer will help numb the pain for the *testing* climb from Llandderfel to Cefynddwysarn and the final haul back up to Ty Beic.  There’s another off-road route home through Ty Uchaf if the road doesn’t appeal.

That stem is too short

there is a lot of climbing

This ride is not for everyone.  There’s a lot of climbing and the descent off the Berwyn is slightly spoiled by the number of gates.  But if you like cycling out of the door without having to use a car, non-technical cross country riding with epic views and being able to earn your end of ride pint, then this could be the ride for you.  It is rideable all year round but in the depths of winter I’d probably take the car to Cynwyd and ride from there.  If you fancy the complete Wayfarer to Llanarmon DC and back then a cross bike would be Richard’s steed of choice.  He’s written about such a ride here.

wayfarer off road

and here we are again

Enter the Dragon by Mistake (sort of)

Somewhere in the dark depths of January, in the full grip of a Snowdonian winter I was hunkered down by the fire enjoying a glass of wine when my phone pinged.  It was my good friend, who had just drunk a bottle of wine, suggesting that the two of us should do the Dragon Duathlon.  In an utterly uncharacteristic move I went straight to the Dragon website and entered.  £150 lighter, I then messaged him to tell him that I had my entry and received back from him a stream of shocked expletives.

The Dragon Duathlon involves cycling and running from Swansea to Beaumaris on Anglesey in a day, which is approximately 300km – or like cycling the length of a country the size of Wales.  For extra masochism the three running stages involve climbing three of Wales’ largest mountains: Pen y Fan, Cadair Idris and Snowdon – and the cycling isn’t flat either.

What followed now appears to me like the recollection of a confusing dream.  I went and bought some fell running shoes (lovely Walshes) and some weather proof winter cycling boots and off I went. There were 15 mile runs up mountains through knee deep bogs in freezing rain, bike rides that hollowed me out and left me asleep on the kitchen floor because I was too tired to walk upstairs. In a word – beasting.  There was one immensely long ride where my 80kgs were bodily lifted off the road by the wind and dumped on the verge. Right up on top of the highest parts of mid-Wales there followed about ten miles of the most frightening cycling I have ever done.

Lots and lots of very hard effort gradually, gradually started to bring rewards. Hills didn’t seem quite as steep or as long as I remembered them being, I had an extra gear or two left at the top of steep climbs and I could run and ride a bit further without too much effort. I still had no idea whether I could keep moving for as long as I would need to to do the Dragon.

It’s about ten years since I last rode the 296km Tour of Flanders sportive – the only similarly long ride I have ever done regularly. I really had nothing to which to compare this undertaking. So, I devised a series of the most testing riding and running that sought to simulate the Dragon.  I’d set off on my bike, meet my support vehicle (thank you Karen), run over a mountain, collect the bike the other side, ride to another mountain, meet my support, run over the mountain etc etc.  Even then, my confidence only began to grow very slowly.

 

I’m not someone who would describe myself as an athlete and I am not generally confident in my ‘athletic’ abilities.  I consider myself to be very lucky to have a good and robust physiology, despite the neglect I have heaped on it over the years.  And yet, when I found myself standing on the Dragon start line at 5am on Saturday 1st July 2017, on the Swansea waterfront, I knew that I would do this thing.  And so I did.

I wouldn’t say any of it was easy, and there were definitely times between the riding and running legs when I didn’t want to leave the car. After a wet ride to the foot of Snowdon I sat in a warm car and looked up at the cloud surrounding the summit. It was getting dark and cloud was getting lower. Leaving that warm car was probably the hardest part of the whole thing, but I did get out and I got over that mountain. It was grim and dark and lonely, but I got to Llanberis – then a quick 15 miles to Beaumaris. And then what? Well, I suppose there was a sense of relief – and then a massive sense of disappointment to find that all the pubs were closed.

On a slightly odd note, completing this event marks a return to my full enjoyment of road cycling and through that a return to fitness. It was eleven years ago this weekend (a week after finishing the Dragon) that the rider immediately in front of me on the Dunwich Dynamo was killed outright by a freak head on collision with a van. For many years I didn’t really want to cycle again, especially in SE England where there is so much aggression on the roads. It’s taken a long time, but I feel like I’m back and I’m enjoying it again.

When I mentioned to Karen that I thought I might do it the next time it runs in 2019 she told me I would have to find a different supporter – anyone?

 

Trail Builders Are Go

Yep, it’s started, we’ve begun work on the long awaited Ty Beic bike track.  Take your mind off politics for a few moments and have a look what we’ve been doing in our field (the very steep one).

As most things do, it’s starts at the top and then goes quickly downhill.  Before you know it you’re at the bottom of the field and hitting a berm which in theory should propel you towards the top.  Hmmm.  And then the fun really starts with a tight and twisty climb.  The test pilot did discover that maybe some of the turns are a bit too steep and a bit too tight or maybe a 35mm stem really is just too short.  There’s work to be done here.
We are full in June but we still have gaps in July and August if you fancy giving it a test ride or even lending a hand.  Prices per cottage are £80 a night or £475 a week and there are discounts if you are a Singletrack Subscriber.  We don’t charge for digging.
bike track building Ty Beic skills track

The end of the road: or ‘Only glove can break your heart’

In cycling, as in life, you develop relationships with people and things that you come to depend upon. Well, for me, and this sounds flippant, one of those things is a pair of winter cycling gloves that have finally become so worn as to be unwearable. Indeed, they are dangerous: last week on a steep descent I had a sticky moment when the end of my brake lever got caught in one of the gloves between the outer shell and the liner.

I bought these gloves about 12 years ago when I started training properly (or if not properly then at least hard) as a road cyclist. Rides were often long and, in winter, cold and wet.  My combination of old cycling mitts with woolly gloves underneath was not up to the job. My hands were getting so cold I could hardly hold the bar. I went into my local bike shop, Edwardes of Camberwell (home of some of the most vindictive, hostile, rude customer care (in the very best sense)) and asked them for the warmest gloves they had. What follows is pretty much verbatim:

“I need a pair of very warm gloves please – what are the warmest you have?”

“You’re not going to f*****g want them, you’re too much of a tight f*****g c**t.”

“I see, may I at least have a look at them?”

“Get him (me) the f*****g Assos gloves” (boy fetches gloves)

“Hmmm, they’re very nice. How much are they?”

Anyway, they were about £50 and because, at the time, I had become a mature student I didn’t have much money and I remember paying for them in installments. That was the kind of thing Edwardes would do for you if (believe it or not from the above) they liked you.

I’m not sentimental about objects generally, but I have loved these gloves. I must have ridden 20,000 miles in them over the years. I remember one particular Tour of Flanders sportive, where I set off at 6am in the snow in the dark from Brugge – 294km later the only bit of me that wasn’t cold were my hands (we took it in turns to lie down on a huge heating pipe at the end just to try and raise our core temperatures). There was a London-Battle and back ride that we did in the snow. At the road junction at the bottom of the long descent of Toys Hill I tried to unclip and I couldn’t because my feet were frozen into my Speedplays. Again, my hands were warm. An icy chaingang ploughing down Polhill, reaching for a drink at the bottom only to find the bottle frozen. And so on. As they got more worn out I have tried other gloves, but none have been anywhere near as good.  The closest I’ve ever found in terms of warmth are the Gore lobster claw things – but if I’m honest THEY JUST AREN’T RIGHT.

I’ve looked at the modern Assos gloves and, whilst still reassuringly expensive, they don’t look up to much. And also Assos seems SO much to belong to a brand of snotty, grabbing, aspirational types these days rather than to the stock room of a slightly grotty SE London bike shop where the owner calls you a c**t whilst blowing cigarette smoke in your face. All of its original charm is lost to me now.

…so if anyone out there has a pair of Assos Thermax XL gloves from somewhere around the early 2000s please let me know. There is some money waiting, possibly in installments.

Berwyn Up (Part 2)

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.

wayfarer off road

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.

sunken-lane

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.

spooky-gate

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.

spooky bikes

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!”

tanat-valley-spooky

Unrepentant in the shadow of the cross

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.

Cyclocross Llyn Celyn

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.

Cross is not just for girls