Over recent years my riding preferences have changed subtly. A love of singletrack shifted to spending more time on road. This then began to move again into seeking out routes that got quieter and quieter, usually as the surface became less and less forgiving for a 25mm slick. Still enjoying travelling longer distances but not being restrained by smooth roads. And Im not too proud to admit that it lines up perfectly with the rising trend for adventure bikes, gravel road, road plus, gnarmac, niche it what you will. With wide tyres, disc brakes and dialled geometry it seems like bike technology has finally come up with what I want, or Ive swallowed the marketing hook, line and sinker.
The other two I was riding with may have had different reasons for wanting to ride but a big part of my motivation was to see how much derring do could be fitted into three days. Trail centres can be lots of fun, as can completing a big loop, but sometimes different is better. The lofty ambition of crossing a country seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Any plans have to be tempered by needing to work (as a freelancer its hard to say no to offers) and having a young family I dont want to leave them for long either. But cycling is the itch I cant leave alone and on occasion needs must to keep sanity if nothing else.
Various plans were bandied about but the final one that kept being mentioned (largely by Andrew who had a bikepacking book with a route) was a trans Wales route that roughly followed the border and Offas Dyke footpath. In the book it was suggested as a 4 day tough ride. We decided that if we shaved a little here and there we could turn it into a 3 day tough ride. Sadly staring at numbers on a route planning website and a wiggling line along a map we didnt realise how tough. That would come when it was too late to do anything else but ride on.
I’ll have to admit that I quite enjoy the lead up to these kind of rides. Lots of faffing on email, discussions over what was needed and what was not needed. We’d already decided we weren’t camping as we didnt want the extra weight and reduced “fun” riding that that would bring. So we’d pre-booked a Premier inn for Prestatyn, a pub in Welshpool and a posh bunkhouse in Glasbury. After a long days riding I was happy not to be roughing it too much (scallops starter and venison main course on Saturday night for the win).
Leaving work slightly early on Thursday the three of us met at Euston station (Dean on his Jones space frame with new Revalate panniers and 650b plus tyres, my brother Andrew on his 2.1” 650b Open U.P. and me on my Mason Bokeh with 2” 650b wheels). It was still just about light as we rolled out of Prestatyn to the Premier inn on the edge of town where we dragged our bikes into rooms before getting some sleep.
Day one of the route was the biggest, compressing most of the books first two days into this one.
It was meant to be 79.4 miles and over 9100 ft of climbing.
Looking at these figures now I feel a bit foolish, but at the time I thought we would be flying with a nice coffee stop mid morning and a hearty lunchtime. It was pretty quickly apparent that this wouldn’t be the case. Leaving Prestatyn the gradients swept through single digits, well into double and that put a halt to any race pace aspirations. But the pay off was the landscape that began to open up. The flat ground at the start soon reared up as we climbed onto the first ridge. From there there was no flat ground for the rest of the day. It is also soon apparent how much variety of terrain there is to ride over on a 10 hr ride. Kind of obvious but its testament to how quickly the terrain in the UK changes that we can see so many different types of path. Narrow road gives way to broken tarmac, field edge to open moor, dappled bridleway to rock strewn path. So much variety that even the massive climbs usually got broken up into a few different sections. Not something I usually see on my SE England rides.
The first scare came at mile 16 when Dean started spraying sealant from his new monster back tyre. Thankfully it closed itself up and we spoke no more about it for fear of jinxing our luck. Along with Andrew burping some air from his tyre on day 2 that was the only mechanical grief we had. I really do love tubeless (once its up).
It soon started to become apparent that we were behind time. Or at least my reckoning as to where we should be. The amazing independent store/ coffee house at Cilcain arrived nearer lunchtime than the mid morning pick me up I had thought it would be. We then headed out towards Llandegla. There was a bit of a disconnect between the trails on the ground and those plotted on the GPS programme. Almost predictably we ended up riding the wrong way round a trail centre (it would probably have made a lovely descent rather than a lung busting climb). And then a drag up to the high point of the day. Elated to make it this far (albeit a bit late) we prepared for a huge descent down to Langollen. It was not quite as planned as the suggested trail was a tiny heather lined rut that required walking pace speed and total concentration. But after a while it opened up a little and the trail began to flow, it turned into a farm track and then into a stunning rollercoaster of a single lane road. Each change allowed for an increase in speed and and a wider grin. Now we were cooking. Now we were in Llangollen. Now it was time for lunch. Now it was half past three. DAMN.
The leisurely lunch in the sun was cut a little shorter as we balanced the need to relax and refuel with the need to get going. With spicy meat foods stuffed down it was time to crack on.
Next up was my biggest mistake. I thought I could shave off a little distance by taking a slight short cut Id noticed on the map (Im sure theres a lesson to be learned but I doubt Ill remember it next time). Instead we had a scramble with our bikes up a rock field of a path. I genuinely cant think of anything that would find enjoyment on this. Maybe it could be a short very gnarly DH track. It certainly made for a hellish ascent as we dragged our laden bikes for about half an hour to the summit.
From here there was a scorching descent and another tough (albeit rideable this time) climb. At the top we could see that the day was running away and that we still had quite a distance to go, with no idea what the terrain would be. Already we’d been shown that the suggested road could range from great to not actually visible. It was time to take stock and work out a quick way to Friday nights pub. Google said the shortest quiet road route was “only” 2 hrs riding. Our spirits were still pretty good as we just accepted that this was the only way to do it. There were no bail out calls we could make, no public transport, just get on with it. Keep chatting, keep spinning and keep listening out for a phone saying “turn left in quarter of a mile.”
It was nearly 7:30pm when we got to the Royal Oak at Welshpool. Due to the arrival time it was shower, beer, meal, beer and sleep in pretty fast succession.
Day two was planned as 75.6 miles with over 7600 feet climbing. My legs were feeling fairly leaden as I got up and opened the curtain. The weather report was spot on. It was battering it down. Not exactly the perfect motivation but at least it was what we expected. It even began to ease up as we span long the 10 mile canal towpath that links Welshpool and Abermule. The flat ground and fast spin had spirits back up to full. We decided over breakfast that we were going to change the next section of the route. Instead of heading out to Clun over what could have been any kind of terrain we would head along some quiet roads and join the route a little later. This still meant considerable climbing through the Shropshire hills but at least the road made it rideable.
Picking up the trail at LLoyney we began a five mile offroad section that took us into some really remote countryside. In the hinterland between better known countryside, where any tourists might be drawn, this was just big, open and stunningly bleak. With the drizzle settling in and a conversation on the difference between Smoy and Dreich we winched our way up through the hills. Soaked sheep started at us like we were the idiots as we were here by choice.
We descended and then began the multiple sections that made up the biggest climb of the day. The weather had decided it was going to turn to rain and looked to be settling in for the foreseeable future. Nothing else to do but get on with following the route and ticking off the miles. By this time we’d settled into what seemed the best way to ride a trip like this. Semi-laden bikes didnt encourage excited sprinting or quick direction changes, so it was more a case of steady as she goes. Keeping energy to be slowly released through the day and letting the bike choose the line it wanted to take.
The top of the climb was a huge anticlimax. The trail had disappeared into a bog and it was only by following a very vague sheep track that we were able to push our way to the trig point that was just visible through the mist/ cloud. After reaching this we had even less clue. The GPS track didnt exist on the ground. We had a rough direction but no trail. Nothing to do but push, pull, fall and drag through the clumps of boggy plant. At this point we started passing time by listing our least favourite walks we’d had over the first two days. This kept us going till we found a field edge, a sheeps track, a possible path, a definite path and then a mud filled farm track to follow.
As ever time was slipping away and by the time we had made it to our lunch stop it was gone 4 oclock and the kid serving at the bar was only able to sell us hot chocolate to help thaw out and pork scratchings to refuel. I imagine this is what team Sky deploy in their musettes on a big Pyranean TdF stage.
From here we once again had to defer to Google maps and the quickest way to Glasbury and the bunk house. An hour and a half this time and we spun through quiet roads to get to our destination. The poor bunk room we had was quickly trashed as puddles of muddy water began to pool. Clothes were squeezed in the hope of drying for the next day and semi dry clothes pulled out of what was meant to be dry bags. But all it took was a shower, some food, a local ale and a bit of Welsh Whiskey and we were feeling human again.
All that remained was one more day of riding.
Day three was meant to be the easy spin down to the coast. 61.8 miles and over 5400 feet of climbing. And it was the day that had no tinkering from the original route. So with this in mind we were feeling cheery as we spun out of Glasbury, with only slightly damp shoes from the day before. All the clouds had lifted and it was as if Saturdays deluge hadn’t happened. From the start we knew that this day had the biggest climb at the start, and it didnt disappoint. The only real mountain climb of the trip was from Glasbury up to Gopsel pass. The first part shot straight up the foothill at a savage angle. Even seated it was hard not to spin out while climbing on road. I think that with my double ring I had a slightly easier gear than the others, and I was more than happy to slip into this and try to twiddle away. With varying degrees of success. Once the viscous drag was done the climb proper opened out. Im not used to climbs that get started after the first climb is done. But I kind of like the mentality that it requires.
Although long, this was actually one of the easier climbs. It had an alpine feel to it that brought back memories of climbs like the Croix de Foix. You could tell that we were now in the popular part of the Brecon Beacons. There were far more riders that we’d seen all weekend. The usual selection of far too serious and nice and friendly. Cresting the pass we were treated to the kind of decent you really dont often get chance to see, give or take a few bumps it is about twelve miles long. From flat out, eyes streaming, huge grins at the top to a gentle gravity assisted spin alongside the Afon Honddu river towards the end.
We’d switched the route a little as we were no longer confident in what terrain the original route would take us on. But the quiet roads were perfect for our weary legs. It gave us a chance to spin and chat as the miles ticked off.
Soon enough we were in Monmouth. It was our planned location for a lunch stop and for the first time this trip it was also actually lunchtime as well. The sun was out and life was good, even knowing that there were still two fairly stiff climbs left as we were now following the planned route for the rest of the day. Its testament to how quickly you get used to long day riding as there was no grumbling, no real trepidation just a case of rolling down the road and seeing what surface you’d find when it started going up. Thankfully in this case however steep and narrow it got it was still just about rideable. Penultimate climb ticked off we were plunged back down to the river Wye and the valley floor. A beautiful route along took us on the opposite bank to the A road. It really was a great route keeping the cars zipping along one side and us traveling in the same direction but at a far more sedate pace. Finally we didnt have to clock watch and we were even afforded a break as we sat by the riverbank shooting the breeze. But somehow we missed seeing Tintern Abbey which I think we must have ridden past.
It was with satisfyingly beat legs that we got up the last climb (which of course had a missing path followed by a steep rock strewn push) and we were on the final stretch. Sweeping down hedge lined roads hoping that nothing was coming as quick the other way. A quick cheeky nip along the final footpath to get to the end of Offas Dyke and we were done. As is often the case it was a bit of an anticlimax, not helped by the fact that we weren’t in Chepstow but in Sedbury on the other side of the rive Wye. But rolling into Chepstow itself we realised it wasn’t much more exciting, so we changed our plans and decided to chance it by getting an earlier train to Newport and seeing if we could get an earlier train back to London. A new ticket and a lucky break that no one stopped our bikes being loaded on meant that we were able to get a train that got us back two hours earlier. Getting in at 10 o’clock meant a far better nights sleep once I’d unpacked as much of my bike kit as really needed to be done.
Rose tinted lenses take very little time to colour your opinions of a ride. Already I was forgetting all the pushing and the amount we’d bitten off more than was possible. All I could remember was how much different terrain we’d covered in three long days of riding. Swooping, powering, gingerly mincing. How good it is to ride with old friends who get the same from a trip like this as I do. How the weather had been exactly what Id expect from a weekend in Wales in June, absolutely everything. The weekend had been a total success as it had proved that you can indeed fit quite a bit of fairly wild adventure into 3 days even without having to head to the Lakes or to Scotland. The bit that you usually drive though on your way to a trail centre is well worth a visit.
If you’d like to ride the route we did then let me know.
Although I’d suggest you made a few amendments before you head off.
Words and pictures – Philip Diprose