The weekend before last it was the turn of the walkers. Many of my guests head for Snowdon (*sigh*) and so did these, but with a difference. One lot tackled the Snowdon Horseshoe, that’s a serious scramble, and my other guests ticked off Snowdon en route to Ben Nevis and then on to Scafell. 3 Peaks in 3 Days.
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 snow’s gone, spring is in the air and normal service has resumed so here’s a reminder about who we are, what we do and why we are here.
We moved to North Wales in 2013 after living in South East London for nearly 20 years. We have always been cycling obsessed. We met while both members of Dulwich Paragon cycling round the lanes of Kent and the North Downs and later getting our arses handed to us on a plate at Crystal Palace Crits. At the time I was the only single female in the cycling club so I had the pick of the club and Richard didn’t. Make of that what you will.
That’s me in 2009, 2nd in line looking a little chunky
After years of city living and spending many weekends escaping London to find good places to ride we decided to make a permanent move. I left my job of running a classical concert venue in central London, Richard re-located his furniture making business and we moved to Sarnau near Bala.
We knew the area well. Richard’s family is originally from near Llangollen and he spent many a family holiday in the Tanat Valley riding his BMX or ancient Peugeot MTB around what is now the Revolution Bike Park. I used to come here most summers with a ragtag group of cyclists from Southwark to attempt the Wild Wales Challenge.
I handed in my notice in March 2013 and by the end of June we were living in Ty Hen. We found the house from a small ad in the local paper. We didn’t immediately fall in love with the place but there was a lot that we liked, including the views of the Berwyn mountains, and we thought we could make it work for us.
The first job was to build a workshop for Richard so he could continue with his business (www.catchweasel.com) and work on converting the derelict outbuildings into holiday cottages. The workshop is the Swiss style chalet behind the house. One of our friends in Bala once said we would make more money from it as a holiday let than a workshop. He may be right.
Work began on the barn conversions in November 2014. We wouldn’t have chosen to start work then but we needed to get going as time and money were running out. It was not a labour of love. It was very, very hard work and I never want to do anything like that again. We finished the Barn in August 2015 (4 hours before our first guests) and the Stable in December 2015.
The cottages are designed to appeal to cyclists as cycling is our passion. We provide secure bike storage, bike wash, workstand and tools and can give advice about the best routes, rides and bike parks. One of the reasons we chose to live here is that we are no more than a 40 minute drive from about eight trail centres and mountain bike trails. One of our first guests described the area as Singletrack Epicentre which is about right and since moving here we have discovered that there are also some great natural trails in the hills behind us and over on the Berwyn. Last year we started to build a bike track in the large, steep field at the front of the property.
The road riding is exceptional with quiet roads, challenging climbs and exhilarating descents. We can go out for a 30 mile ride, pick the right roads and not see a car.
After about a year of living here we acquired a dog. Jac (spelt the Welsh way without a ‘k’) is the photogenic Labrador you see in nearly all of our photos. As we like dogs so much it seemed daft not to allow dogs to stay in our cottages so we made one of the them, the Stable, pet friendly. Dogs love roaming around the grounds and playing in the field and Jac gets on with everyone and everything. We’ve also had cats to stay and Jac didn’t eat them.
Our cottages are not your normal barn conversions. We both have unusual and quirky taste and have a habit of picking things up in junk and charity shops. These have found their way into the cottages along with some of Richard’s creations.
Neutral they are not. They’re also much nicer and much warmer than our house. We wish we lived in one of them.
It’s been 6 months since my last mountain bike ride as my last attempt resulted in an unplanned dismount and a broken thumb. Pain, lack of control (nothing new there) but mainly fear has kept me off off road and on on road ever since. Richard found a sneaky local loop which has tempted me back. 1 1/2 road miles from Ty Beic, a mile long with 200 feet of climbing and a gradual ascent and gentle singletrack descent. Nothing technical and can be ridden all year round. Ideal. Ride it multiple times at speed and it’s a good workout. Perfect for a quick morning spin before anyone else is out of bed or a gentle evening ride before bed.
I first road it last week in snow and ice and again yesterday in mud. I prefer the snow. If Eleanor isn’t too brutal I may go again today.
Shameless marketing warning, if you want to try it for yourself it’s only £65 per night (£32.50 per person) to stay during January to March and there are further discounts if you are a Singletrack magazine subscriber.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!”