Welsh Trail Centre Watery Loveliness

“It’s always nice here in September – the trails pretty much reach their best by then”

I said this in late June to friend who has visited us quite a few times at Ty Beic in North Wales. Taking me at my word, he booked to stay for a week in September. Cue the wettest July, August and September that we can remember. Oh dear.

Well, not all bad. This was a sort of test of our experiment of moving to Bala – the thesis that there is varied year-round riding whatever the weather. Certainly, the natural riding wasn’t going to be very rewarding unless wrestling your bike out of a sucking bog is a favourite part of your XC action. But…

We have trail centres galore – and each one has its own character. Penmachno is always wet – but when I joined Paul for the two loops the water was in deep standing puddles. Luxury! You know Penmachno is really wet when the puddles join up and the whole trail is flowing – not in the overused flowy sense but in the having an actual watery current sense. It was a glorious day – we got wet from below and sunburnt from above.Penmachno viewLlandegla – mucky but only a light spray of filth. Sort of filth that looks like it’s been sprayed onto new bikes for a photoshoot. I hadn’t ridden here for ages and I had forgotten how much fun it can be.Oneplanet llandeglaCoed y Brenin – quite a few times. All rideable in all its majesty and the bike came back cleaner than it went out.Coed y BreninA quick blast round Brenig and Alwen reservoirs – often overlooked round here as there’s minimal (no) gnar, but taken at speed it’s a pretty thrash round some large bits of water (rather than through it).Alwen reservoirLlyn BrenigPaul also picked a couple of outliers – he made the trip from Bala to Nant yr Arian, which he seemed to enjoy and also took a spin along the Llangollen Canal to Chirk, taking in the World Heritage site of the Pontcysyllte Aquaduct. He topped off his week here with a rip round Cannock Chase on the way home to Essex.Aberystwyth mist and bikemonkey trail cannock chaseSo in spite of my useless advice and the crap weather Paul still crammed well over 150 miles of offroad riding into his six days here. Not bad. The experiment in all year round rideability is proving worthwhile.

Super Athlete Makes Glorious Return to 3 Peaks (not)

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.

3 Peaks cyclocross

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.

Simon Fell 3peakscx 2017

the trudge up Simon Fell www.cadenceimages.com

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.

3 Peaks damage

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.

3peakscx2017

the face of composed control. Photo (c) Steve Harling

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.

3 peaks cyclocross 2017

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.

empty sack

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.

3 Peaks medal

The dog ate my hard work or medal, medal, medal

3 peaks bog

muddy

bog boy

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.