If you come from the Rockies, you won’t think the mountains of South Wales much to speak about. Similarly if you come from the Alps, you won’t find the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons of South Wales worth a great deal of comment. Even if you come from more Northern areas of Britain you might not find much to remark about riding in South Wales.
If you come from Surrey on the other hand, they may give pause for thought.
Mountain biking, as opposed to riding mountain bikes, requires a bit of circumspection. If the Surrey Hills can bite (and many of us have the evidence to show it), then mountains of any description will take more than a nibble if they get a chance. Rock is unforgiving, the gradient is unforgiving and wide open spaces up on the tops can punish you with any sort of weather, at any time.
A number of us this weekend decided on a change of scene, prompted by Jem and his amazing (but fleetingly elusive) electric bicycle machine. As it turned out, Jem’s Cube e-bike is out of action awaiting some fundamental attention from the manufacturer, which meant we travelled to Wales without him. Tony was also unable to make the date, which meant a group of D’Andy (our Welsh native), Kev (our lucky-weather gnome), Elliott (the giant of Horsham) and Andrew (our man of the country) allowed me to accompany them for a weekend of some trail centre and mountain fun.
It didn’t necessarily look a great deal of fun at the outset. A hot, sweaty week filled with heavy, violent storms in Surrey was not improved when we hit another apocalyptic downpour as we neared Bristol, leading us to wonder what we’d got ourselves into. There was a very real chance we were about to get really wet; however our caffeine-fueled enthusiasm needed more than that to put us off and our only option was to press on.
We emerged, blinking, into a bright, sunny (or at least dry) day and it seemed we had managed to hit a welcome break in the weather as we neared Cwm Carn. Clambering out of the car, the temperature was about 21° with high humidity but it looked as though we were in for a dry – if hazy – day.
After the usual kind of pre-ride faffage involving the Tyre Pumping Ritual, the Car Park Bounce Test and the obligatory Garmin-Arming, we were off. We were at Cwm Carn to ride both the XC trails, and opted to ride the newer Cafall trail first. Andy set off as if the Hound itself was on our tail and pretty soon we realised we were in for a hard day as the high humidity and warm temperatures had us puffing and blowing pretty quickly. With no breeze to speak of we swam our way upward for what turned out to be nearly an hour of climbing; such is the way of trail centres.
Actually I quite enjoyed the climbing, sat in a steady gear at a steady pace. There were one or two minor level or slightly downhill sections but the opening half was very much one themed around gaining altitude. I managed to smack my foot on a rock on just about our first bit of speed and my immediate thought was I’d broken my little toe, but although it hurt like hell at the time and was rather black that evening it didn’t prove to be an issue.
The second half of the ride is really where the action starts and we soon fell into the routine of walking the bikes though the gates, climbing back on and then dropping rapidly out of sight as the trail fell away from us, our tyres audibly gripping the sandstone that helps make Cwm Carn a great all-weather location. I really enjoyed myself on the Five, each crest presaging a steep drop-in that was quickly tempered by the oncoming up slope, slowly building a nice rolling rythmn. It was physical but inhibited a little by unfamiliarity, an approach it is wise to adopt on these trails.
Eventually we arrived back at the car park after a hugely enjoyable run, ready for lunch. I didn’t waste any time indulging in the bacon and egg sandwich from the excellent visitor cafe. Both staff and fellow riders seemed in good spirits.
The temptation to continue eating was balanced by the knowledge of the second XC loop to come, the Twrch trail. Soon we were climbing again, keeping it as steady as possible. Actually, the climbs on the Twrch are a lot more technical, requiring energy and the ability to find a clean line through loose rocks and over exposed roots. As we ground up I made my only real mistake of the weekend, choosing to attempt a short set of rocky steps from a standstill when an easy alternative was available. Fortunately the Five is better than I am but it was a silly effort which could have ruined the day for us all. Taken at speed with flow, no major problems I think, but plopped down semi-unclipped was not clever. Got away with it.
So onwards and upwards, ever upwards, sweating heavily. My gears were playing up with a worsening chain suck issue and eventually I decided to take a couple of minutes to clean and relube the chain, which solved that problem for good – thank goodness I’d packed my lube!
At the top we hit the black trail which is a series of huge rollers, doubles and berms, short and sweet but good fast, rollable fun. As we started to gain the rewards from our climbing, Elliott’s Deore brakes started squealing more and more as the pads succumbed to Welsh gritstone, but it didn’t seem to hold him back too much; his minimalist riding approach of keeping things light – no water, no back pack, no body armour, no jacket – seemed to help!
The final run-in is the only part of the Twrch trail I’ve ridden before, ending with a small slabby step which was our last riding of the day as we returned to the car park once again. A quick change in the excellent changing rooms/loos and some snacks and bike arranging on the car racks, then it was off to our Bed and Breakfast in Abergavenny, the Black Lion.
Andy knows Abergavenny well; Abergavenny probably knew Andy well at one time or another and indeed the quiet (relative) gentrification of the town seems to be something that would suit Andy. Our accommodation was comfortable and individual but we really weren’t there long – the heat was too much for being inside so after a bath/shower and some quiet time we were soon off on foot into the town with Andy as our guide.
We soon gravitated to the Kings Arms Hotel which proved to be superb – a couple of pints of the highly quaffable HPA bitter sat outside, then into the restaurent for a main course of venison with spring onion mash for me and some fine fish courses for the others. Delicious, and I was mighty envious of the Sauvignon that Andy and Kev shared, but I was making sure I’d be willing and able for riding the next day. That’s not always been the case for me in Wales!
Our meander round town missed out – perhaps wisely, we’ll never know – the Hen and Chicken and the night club, and washed us up in the Angel hotel, sitting outside in the courtyard with the remains of a wedding party and a nice glass of Penderyn whisky on the rocks. Fabulous evening.
Sunday started with a full Welsh breakfast and plenty of coffee, neither particularly needed but embraced in the knowledge of a long ride ahead of us with the Gap Road. Never underestimate the benefits of saturated fat is my motto in these circumstances…
The sun was most definitely out, the wind had lifted to provide a welcome breeze and there was great anticipation at the prospect of some proper mountain riding. My only concern was the downhills, if I’m honest I was feeling a little under-tyred on my 2.2 Mountain King-shod 26er in comparison to Andy’s carbon rimmed, Butcher-shod 29er and Andrews’s slack angled Banshee. The quick steering of the Five is one thing but out in the open with the potential for rocky, technical riding it’s all about stability and tyres. Not that the Five is a slouch, just that my 2007-era frame has been left a little behind.
But technical riding is only a very small part of the Gap Road. We started from Talybont-on-Usk after a pleasant half hour drive from Abergavenny, past various laybys that Andy knew well and parked right in the middle of town next to the cafe and the rather active Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. Perfect.
Soon we were rolling down the road, then quickly hit with a steep climb up and over a canal bridge and onto the start of a long, steady pull up the old tramway. The ascent was beautifully shaded from the sun and taken very easy as we knew that uphill was going to feature heavily today. We kept to a slow and steady pace and climbed above the Talybont reservoir. A pause to take in the view only served to make us want to explore further, it was idyllic.
Pushing on, we struggled though some sections that were heavily overgrown, getting ripped by brambles and snagged by undergrowth. This is riding I hate and I got well bloodied on a thick bramble but I knew that sooner or later we’d break through to higher riding. When we did it was well worth the pain, as the trail opened out to wide open spaces and views across the valleys and hills. Behind us the Talybont reservoir made a stunning backdrop and every pedal stroke took us deeper into the empty hills.
Rock was everywhere. The grasslands are not much more than a thin veneer of soil over sandstone rock that’s been gouged by glaciation, leaving wide, shallow valleys. Where the rock breaks through, which is just about everywhere, it’s been shattered into rubble by more recent weather and the trail itself is heavily armoured with it. The gradient is for the most part quite gentle, but it’s relentless; you don’t attack these hills, you persuade them to look the other way while you progress ever upward.
We were out in full sun. On another day things would quickly have got quite miserable and exposure will always be a risk riding this route. As it was, we picked up a ‘light tan’ (or got pretty sunburned, depending on your complexion!). With the cooling wind this was only apparent much later in the day!
The steady climbing was broken up with one or two technical climbs up loose, scrabbly gulleys; a taste of the bigger stuff to come, but our progress to the first downhill of the day was preceded by a lovely rolling mile or so over reasonably level and quite flowy trail. After that it was downhill, past a recently deforested section which added to the debris that consisted largely of large, loose rock slabs. It would be oh-so-easy to have a silly off here as it was quite steep but all quite rideable.
The trail then split and we continued downward, missing the opportunity to keep our height and contour round the hill but gaining (a touch unwittingly) the chance to cross the Pontsticill Reservoir by road and ride round to our only cake stop of the day. It’s a balancing act…
Our cake in the Old Barn Tea Room went in straight at the top of the charts for volume with some of the most massive slices of cake I’ve ever been offered. I had a Victoria sponge which I struggled to finish after my large breakfast but fortunately other, more able athletes stepped in to assist. You know who you are. I could have sat there all day but the knowledge that we hadn’t actually reached the main event was at the back of our minds.
Reluctantly, we got back on the bikes and were immediately hit with a brutal road climb away from the reservoir. The combination of breakfast and cake had me feeling quite unwell as I winched up in last place and I was thankful of the next mile or so that proved to be quite easy. Soon after that we could see the start of the Gap Road itself.
This is not a climb to hide itself. It’s there right in front of you, stretching out across the horizon with a clear trail sweeping up to it from some two miles out. After negotiating a very steep and technical drop where a bridge has collapsed into the stream bed, something that nearly ended in tears for an unclipped Elliott, the climb settles in to a long grind to the top.
It wasn’t until about a third of the way up that the sugar from the mammoth cake kicked in and rather than surge away and suffer a painful collapse I was able to relax into the steady rythmn that this climbs really needs. You don’t conquer it in thirty seconds of effort, you try once again to surprise the mountain ahead of you into giving up its’ height. And slowly, slowly, you succeed.
For some reason I really enjoyed this climb. A steady pulse rate, lots of concentration picking lines for maximum traction, and the awareness that the country is opening up around you while Pen y Fan and Fan y Big rose either side of you was inspiring, especially knowing that the view north would be even better. And when we reached the top… big country. Through the Gap you could see Brecon ten miles or so away, while Fan y Big loomed up to the right. Looking back you could see the thread we’d just picked out, up from the the Pontsticill. We paused for photos, congratulations and a quick snack but I could have basked there for longer. Given my sun burn, thank god we didn’t!
Saddles were immediately dropped when we got underway again for the daunting and most hazardous part of the day. This is not impossible to ride, but very foolish to attempt without getting your bike right. I’ve seen pictures of the immediate descent from the Gap as quite clear steps but erosion seems to have now scattered the trail with more of those loose boulders and rocks. Picking a line down requires some momentum to get over the large rocks, but also careful control so as not to go too fast, as the gradient is pretty sharp.
It takes only a minute or so to drop significant height and although there’s a long way to go there’s plenty of opportunity to stop and take in the view. This is no time to be thinking about Strava segments or anything else, it’s about stopping and realising you are looking at a truly wonderful view.
After that we headed off for the long run to the bottom. It requires concentration all the way down but not much effort as gravity does you job for you, but I managed to provide myself with a clear warning when, after popping a front wheel up I got myself into quite a tankslapper at speed, which I thankfully held. By the time I’d reached the second third of the descent my Fox Shock was cavitating badly as my suspension got the hardest sustained workout it’s had in a very long time. It felt fine but it shows how much work our excellent bikes were doing for us.
The moraine at the bottom (some of it quite big) provided ample opportunity for D’Andy to pop off as we regrouped before we entered the worst part of the day for me. D’Andy excitedly called it Baby Head gully or something similar but it turned out to be a mile or so of heavily overgrown, near invisible path (actually a rocky stream bed) in the style of Death Star over on Pitch. It was horrible and I couldn’t ride it for toffee. Clearly the approach was to acquire and hold some momentum but for me it was unrideable. I hate having to dab; here I had to straddle the bike like a Dandyhorse while my undercarriage underwent a rude pounding. I can’t think why D’Andy loved it so much!
By now we were well and truly on the ride home. Easy miles followed to Llanfrynach, interspersed with bits of tarmac that made what we’d recently ridden feel very tame. Finally, two or three miles spinning comfortably along the bridlepath next to the Brecon canal gave us the perfect warm down and reached a conclusion – with us back at the cars at Talybont-on-Usk – shortly after we’d reached our boredom threshold.
The ride was 23 miles in total and felt like a proper mountain bike ride. The consensus – which my Garmin was not part of – was about 2500ft of elevation, which is plenty.
(Video shot by Andrew)
I loved the whole weekend and felt it went really well, with my favourite being the Gap Road despite being very nervous at times with those rocky descents. The company was great and I really appreciated the fine beer and food that Abergavenny offered. But of course, the weather was the star; a slice of luck we hadn’t anticipated but had much hoped for. Fortunately Kev’s magic climate zone kept us all reasonably well protected over the weekend. Apart of a few drops here and there, he’s barely been rained on in Wales all year; remarkable.
Thanks hugely to D’Andy for organising and shepherding us around, a great weekend. Check out our Gap Road photos on Flickr, thanks to Kev and Elliott.