The week before we left was spent in a predictably 2019 manner, the six of us that would be riding spending our time chatting on WhatsApp, discussing tyre choice, comparing carrying methods for kit on our bikes and mostly talking about the weather. It had been a pretty poor start to summer and in the days running up to the start there had been some biblical downpours across the country. Had the rains passed or were we going to be facing more of the same out on the road?
When I’d come up with the idea for this trip in late 2018 I imagined it would be a scorching summer ride with more concern about sunscreen that waterproofs. I’d spoken to Grass up the Middle regular Steve to pick his brain and he directed me to North Wales local Jonathan who was happy to help with my ideas as I honed in on a route. The plan was simple, to get as much bang for our buck from 3 nights away and the format came together pretty easily.
Thursday afternoon, leave work and get the train from London Euston to Bangor, Wales.
Friday, ride from Bangor to Dolgellau via some big hills.
Saturday, ride from Dolgellau to Bala via some even bigger hills.
Sunday, ride from Bala back to Bangor via some big hills and then get the train back to London.
Craig, Steve, Sam and Dean were travelling from different parts of the country but the basic format was the same, and we’d all agreed that as much as we love a bivvy we wanted to be rested each day and to be able to ride as unencumbered as possible. This meant no to carrying tents and yes to B&Bs. No to lots of spare riding kit, but yes to washing your bibs and baselayer each night. Semi-dirtbag!
So with saddle/frame and bar bags packed light, but prepared for any weather, my brother Andrew and I travelled across the country, to where our group then met at an uninspiring Premier Inn in Bangor. Where even the shoddy service and pretty poor beer at the bar couldn’t stop the excitement.
Waking up for day one of riding you could see it had rained through the night but it now looked to be clearing, finally it was time to ride the route I’d spent so long poring over.
The ride began with everyone settling back into the routine of all riding together again. Spread across various counties its rare that we all get to ride in a group at the same time so it takes a little while for things to settle into their past easy rhythm. But this was helped by the fact that we were riding along a wide purpose built bike path, chatting side by side we could catch up on important and banal conversation. Good company always makes for enjoyable riding, and it was dry.
The morning didn’t contain too much climbing with just occasional teases where a sharp gradient dragged us to crawling pace very quickly. Miles were easily won as we passed through Caernarfon and dropped south towards Porthmadog. The scenery in the distance began to get bigger and more imposing as the miles ticked off. After spending the morning climbing slowly it was almost a surprise to have such a fun descent down to lunch outside a cafe in Porthmadog.
Then it was time to start climbing. All the massive hills we’d seen slowly approaching us all morning were now a lot closer and needed to be climbed in a very backloaded day. Once you headed inland from Llandecwyn station it soon became apparent that we had got a lot of climbing to do so we may as well settle in for the long haul. With almost 3 miles of climbing, the single lane rose as it wound through the trees and then once we passed a gate midway the landscape opened up and the scale that had been hinted at could now be taken in. It’s hard to say whether it was the climb or the view which was more breathtaking. This was not a time to burn matches so everyone moved quietly into their own rhythm as we made our way to the top. It was fun to try and force the pace a little every now and then, but with two days riding coming after today it was not the time to make a foolish charge for an imaginary line. And being anti Strava KOM points or ranking mean nothing to me.
The original route would have taken us left and towards Barmouth but a few months ago Andrew suggested a detour…
Why would you not want to take in the steepest road climb in the world? The sign declares 40% on a one way road that needs to be ridden the wrong way to make it a climb (the truth may be a few degrees slacker but its still a standing battle with gravity and inertia, and the desire to keep lunch down). Catching our breath in the middle of the village none of the locals batted an eyelid at our against the direction of travel climbing, most asked how we’d found it. Bizarrely it was almost exactly how I thought a climb like that would be.
But however bad Ffordd Pen Llech is it is only .2 of a mile in length. The next full mile of climbing out of the village is far longer, almost as steep and feels way worse. Dead legs, gasping breath and an inability to let Dean get away from me, a perfect storm.
Regathering our composure next to the phone box at the top of the village we chat to an old cyclist who lives nearby who is curiously well informed about gravel bikes and 1x drive systems.
From this isolated peak the route becomes flatter via a screamingly fast descent through the trees, hedges and farm walls. With the days two big climbs ticked off we are now onto only slightly undulating terrain and we even go as far as forming a pace line as we roll towards Barmouth. I doubt we’ll trouble any team TT times but its an efficient way to rattle along one of the very few sections of normal road.
Passing the still closed fairground rides at Barmouth we cross the wooden boardwalk and join the 9.5 mile spin along the Mawddach Trail into Dolgellau. Once here we stock up on beer and supplies for Sam to cook up a decent curry at our accommodation just outside the town. Time to wash our kit, stretch tired muscles and get a good nights sleep.
We wake for day two and see that although it has rained through the night it had now stopped once again.
After breakfast we head back through Dolgellau and ride past Coed Y Brenin. This was very much a regular haunt for our mountain bike visits in the 90’s and 00’s. The trail centre provided an intense hit of man-made tech which we used to lap up. I don’t know when things changed but now it seems odd we stayed confined in such a small space on previous visits. Although we have to forgo the fizzy sweets rush of the bermed descents its seems like we were blinkered to the beauty of the local area all around the centre. From the off we are treated to smooth access roads rolling gently through deep shaded pine forests. The tarmac deteriorates and turns to fire road, which then deteriorates to become a rocky climb that we used to ride on mountain bikes. It is testament to the technological advances that our gravel bikes seems just as unphased by this terrain as they did by the full on road riding we did towards Barmouth yesterday. It’s only the previous days climbing in the legs that stops this ascent being a full sprint.
Soon Coed Y Brenin is behind us and we are back on access roads. No cars, no walkers, no other cyclists. Nothing but a strip of tarmac that continues to rise and continues to deliver ever changing views of the wilderness. Having pored over the maps creating todays route I had my suspicions that this would be the day of the vistas, and it really starts to deliver. In my normal London life Im used to things being very close up. Buildings and horizons are never far away, which is fine, but out here it really feels like a reboot for the soul. All you have to do is follow the single lane and keep your legs spinning. Nothing more than that.
The only problem with the route arrives when we try to go through an isolated farm where the farmer and his mate won’t let us pass. I still think we had right of way but they didn’t look like they would be argued with. Thankfully the detour we had to do was no longer and stunning.
It almost feels alpine out here, a little like a mini Croix-de Fer and the long slow climbs takes us up to the exposed top at Bwlch Pen-y-feidiog before descending into the valley on the other side. One of my fears about today was that there was only one place that we could possibly eat. There were no more options for different villages or cafes on the route, so it was very lucky that ‘The Eagles Inn’ in Llanuwchllyn was open. Time for a basket of scampi and chips and a half of local beer (I know whats coming straight after lunch so don’t want a full pint!!!).
What follows is almost 6 miles of steady climbing, this afternoon holds some big big climbs. A few nasty treats pop up as the road sticks to the side of the mountain. Sudden ratchets in gradient before it settles back down to a steadier pace. We pass by ancient trees that line the path. Gnarled, distorted limbs, wrapped in lichen, stick out at improbable angles. Twisted roots burst from the earth as if the trees were trying to climb out of the ground. These then give way to small cliff faces on one side and exposed drops on the other. This is the remote feeling I’d been looking for when I was planning the route. At the top we look about at the countless valleys that open up in each direction. The sky feels huge from this lookout and I feel very small and insignificant, just as it should be.
Despite it being dry the wind is still cool enough to stop us dawdling on such an exposed spot. We zip up, clip in and hang on as the 17% sign lets us know that we’ll be losing this altitude pretty quickly. It is yet another stunning descent, this time down to Llyn LLanwddyn lake. The road closing in as we speed along, fearful of loose gravel, gates, sheep and cars in roughly that orders. Near the bottom a burst of rhododendrons suddenly appear around a bend in the road, their wall of pink flowers incongruous amid the dark green of the pine trees.
We follow the edge of the lake on damp roads through yet more pine forest and having seen the route profile I know whats coming next. Yep, soon we are climbing again, and this time it goes on for about 5 miles. It’s one of the longest climbs of the trip and one that is broken into two parts, initially tarmac and then gravel.
Once we break out of trees we head right, leaving the single lane road and onto the gravel track, this will be our longest piece of gravel, a pointless loop that serves no purpose except to take us even further out into the wild, surely there can be no better reason than that. This track contours up to the highest point of the trip, topping out at Foel Cedig. Following sheep which run before us we ride across the ridge. It has various false peaks but the surface is pretty good and large clouds puff up in the blue sky above us. We are thankful for weather once again and it seems like we are on top of the world up here. No farms or houses for many many miles around. You don’t get this kind of solitude in North East London. Time to descend.
After sliding through a short section of muddy forest road (which is the only section which is too much for everyone’s gravel tyres) we are back on better surfaces. In fact the next mile or so looks like a catalogue of different gravel types, as if the forest rangers are trying out various grades and materials to see what works best. All it means for us is that every 100 yards the gravel changes in texture. Surreal but fun.
Before heading out of Bala to get to our accommodation we stop at a superb beer shop to buy some Welsh beers. A shop this good feels like the perfect full-stop to an incredible days riding. Up there with the best days I’ve had. Steve and Sam volunteer to collect our massive curry takeaway. It seems like we will never make it through this much but somehow there is remarkably little that’s left uneaten by the time we have finished.
The next morning the B&B owner seems disappointed we don’t want yet more meat for our breakfast. Most of us go for scrambled eggs, otherwise it would be possible that we’d actually end up putting on weight after the ride. Strapping our kit to our bikes we realise that yet again it’s been raining through the night, but yet again we’ve dodged the bullet and it’s already clearing.
We start the day riding through along quiet roads and past small farms, the scale feels less epic due to the dry stone walls, it feels more like the Peak district riding through here. The road keeps bucking up with double digit gradients to winch up followed by steep descents. Cracked concrete or perfect tarmac the roads are almost solely single lanes. Broken up with gates which make it hard to work out whether we’re riding through small farms or just land that’s gated to keep sheep and cattle inside.
We stop for a espresso at a cafe next to the A5. As we leave the cafe and cross the A road we hit the only rain shower of the weekend. Our Shakedry’s come out for five minutes and then they are put away again. After the previous weeks rainfall this small shower seems like a miracle.
After two days of riding the legs still feel pretty good, they are tired from the previous days and climbs but also have the feeling that they are getting used to just spinning along. This is also the time you realise how well your bike and clothing works. The most ringing endorsement is not noticing anything at all as you tap out the miles in the middle of a trip like this.
We descend to Betws, a place I usually enjoy for its camping shops and cafes. But today I’m really not feeling it. There are lots of people and it seems really loud and busy compared to the solitude we’ve been enjoying. Thankfully we only pass through and head right. The visitors on foot don’t stray too far from the car parks and it soon gets quiet as the road points upwards, steeper and steeper. This fierce climb passes by the entrance to another trail centre which we’ve enjoyed many times, again it seems odd to be passing by without stopping to session the man made treats, but our road takes us onward’s as it keeps to the deep brooding pine forest that apart from the tarmac cutting through seems totally untouched by time.
Occasionally we pass a farm or a house and I wonder what on earth they do for work out here and how on earth they get home in the winter. I then try not to think of the countless horror films I’ve seen where the unsuspecting victims rock up to a quiet farm just like this. Time to descend and follow the valley along a road I worried would be one of the busiest of the trip. Thankfully everything is relative and although its is busier than the deserted tracks we’ve been riding there are still scarcely any cars.
We decide to miss lunch as we know we are at the foot of a massive climb, Castell to Abergwyngregyn. At nearly 4 miles its one of the biggest and this one really doesn’t mess around. It is brutal at the start with natural hairpins where you have to try and keep momentum to stop from grinding to a halt. A series of anaerobic efforts where you then try to recover as much as possible before the next one arrives. Midway up comes a short flat section where the road takes on a different feel. Out of the tree cover and the irregular pitches of the first half it becomes a far more pleasant affair. Dry stone walls and ever increasing views make it less of an attrition and Andrew and I climb side by side, half wheeling each other as we have since we learnt to ride. Hopefully this will never change.
The surface for the whole climb is tarmac (albeit with the prerequisite grass up the middle) all the way to the top gate where it turns to gravel/ full on offroad. This section used to be a Roman road and you can imagine it having been used for centuries, used for moving cattle, taking goods down to the coast, the history of this worn route is palpable. It also feels like mountain biking used to be when we all properly began cycling in the late 80s/ early 90s. The trail is wide, has rocks, tussocks of grass and massive views out across the North Welsh coast and out to the sea. Nothing else to do but get going on 2 1/2 miles of gravel descent.
Water bars splash the feet and offer a challenge, scrubbing speed as quick as possible and trying not to hit them square on. We’re not sure whether this is what catches Andrew out but he has the only mechanical. Technically its not a pinch flat but a popped anchovy from a cut tyre a few months ago. Thankfully we know the last big climb of the trip is behind us and its actually quite a nice break to sit in the sunshine and offer sarcastic comments as Andrew tries unsuccessfully to avoid sticking a tube into his tyre and breaking the unofficial no tubes rule.
We head off a little more cautiously now but soon we’re all back up to speed each choosing our own line over the rocks and grass that swoop down the mountain. Regroup after the last gravel section, and then let rip down to the little cluster of houses that makes up Abergwyngregyn. Stomachs rumbling we screech to a halt at a cafe for an overpriced panini and drink before the last climb. A mere bump compared to the previous beast, and there is a feeling in the group that all the hard work is behind us. Despite it still being 10 miles to go we have to remind Sam its not time to sprint for road signs.
Dropping towards Bangor we find our final treat, 4 miles of slightly downhill bike path to the coast. Tree lined all the way and dipping under countless disused bridges we are kept secluded from urban life till we pop out onto the sea front in the late afternoon sunshine. And then we join what feels like busy traffic as we get back to the train station where it all began just 3 days ago. Like all good trips it feels like a whole lot longer than that.
Words and pictures – Philip Diprose