After a few attempts at commuting to work on my mountain bike, I decided it was time to try a proper ride as I felt that surely I knew everything there was to know about cycling. So, I bought a map of Wales, yes a paper map, and plotted a course which I thought would be suitable. All on roads, of course, as I didn’t really believe there was all that difference between my steed and a road bike. I didn’t know the area and the nature of the terrain so I opted for a loop around the Elan Valley and its stunning reservoirs, which give Birmingham clean water.
I booked a B&B in Rhayader in at Gigrin Farm, which doubled up as a Red Kite feeding farm. It had the smallest room I’d ever slept in but was cosy and, although spartan in its offerings, it suited me fine. No space for my bike so it had to ‘sleep’ in the car.
I proved to be quite an amusement (i.e. ridiculous) to the hosts, not many lycra clad guys around the area, at least back then, and I could sense from their looks the many questions as to why I would entertain the idea of dressing up like that.
The plan was to head down the Valley, coasting the reservoirs, then up towards the village ominously called Devil’s Bridge Falls, then head south and across to Beulah for the final leg up to Rhayader.
Up to that point in my cycling experience I had not done any sort of climbing and this trip would surely confirm my belief that I could ride anywhere by now. Little did I know.
I started late, I'm not a morning person and I was enjoying the fresh air coming through the windows while watching the kites gathering for their daily feed just opposite my room.
The first part of the course was pleasant and encouraging as I headed down towards the reservoirs, and almost straightaway stopped to take it all in. The views by the Elan Valley Trust hut were simply stunning. The sinuous little river flowing into the man made lakes gave it an almost alpine feel. I couldn't get enough of taking it all in. Then, back on the bike I went off road for a little while, following the trail around the waters. Here I met an elderly couple on their bikes; they had stopped as one of their bikes' gears were all over the place. They looked stressed out so I stopped to have a look and as they asked me if I knew of a nearby bike shop, I offered my help and went to work on the rear derailleur. That mechanical impromptu lost me a good 20 mins but, as I managed to fix the problem, it boosted my cycling confidence and inflated my ego. Thus, as I was feeling buoyed by this good deed, I eventually re-joined the road and started pedalling with a bit too much enthusiasm, totally impervious to the notion of conserving energy for later.
Then came the first climb, nothing serious but unfortunately it came as a column of tractors filed on the way to a rally of some sort, and had to follow this snail-paced procession, only seldom managing to overtake in these narrow roads.
Leaving late and losing time by the reservoirs, I only reached the tiny village of Cwmystwyth in the early afternoon so I decided to miss out Devil’s Bridge Fall and detour towards Tregaron in search of a pub for a spot of lunch. After a short but scenic climb, which followed the course of a rather quaint ford, I spotted a pub called the Miners Arms and was hoping they’d still serve food. Luckily they did and ordered a hearty Sunday lunch. Ordering drinks was not a simple experience. Used to the slightly more forgiving London jaunts, I asked for a pint of lime and soda as I didn’t want to risk drinking beer when I wasn’t even half way through my ride. I might as well have asked for a pint of kryptonite and I would have received the same cold and puzzled stare. Around these parts, English is not the main language and the barmen started to quizzing one another in Welsh as to how to go about this drink. In the end I settled for a coke and a red face out of embarrassment.
With my stomach full, I set off again in slightly higher spirits. A few kilometres down the road, entering Pontrhydfendigaid, I saw a sign for Strata Florida Abbey. The name was way too interesting to pass by so I made the decision for a small detour to see what this was all about. The Abbey, or rather the ruins of this former Cistercian monastery, was only about 800 metres away from the main road and was worth a visit. I propped my bike against the ancient walls and had a quick browse around the courtyard.
I then rejoined the route and proceeded towards Tregaron.
What followed was a humble lesson in what happens when you overestimate your preparation and underestimate the course.
Getting to Tregaron proved harder and harder as the undulating terrain was sapping my energy. What were mere humps became alpine climbs and my speed dropped to ridiculously slow speed. The extra weight of the bike didn’t help and the first seeds towards getting a road bike were sown.
Once in Tregaron, I turned left towards Beulah in what became the road to hell. It all started going up more and more and twice I saw signs for 16% gradients. I was not prepared for that, but between zigzagging and walking I eventually made it to the top. Then more landscape, more undulations, more desolation. After a long while and an exceptional amount of swearing, I reached the Devil’s Staircase. Luckily I was going down it, although the 25% ramps made for an extremely slow and scary 5 minutes.
The landscape was bewildering, yet breathtaking. The lack of trees, due to both deforestation and extremely windy weather (so I was told by the locals) gave the environment a somewhat sinister outlook. You did feel like you were in the middle of nowhere. This was enhanced by the lack of humans about. I started to doubt my enthusiasm for the ride and as there were no houses nor people about I realised how far I still had to go to get back to base.
When I finally reached Beulah, I opted to ignore my previous plan to head east towards Builth Wells and decided to cut the route diagonally to Newbridge-on-Wye. This implied more solitary riding in more isolated roads but as the evening was creeping in fast, I felt I had to cut the ride short. When I finally arrived at Newbridge my spirits finally lifted at the sight of houses and cars. From now on I would have 12km to go on a very gentle gradient following the right banks of the river Wye all the way back to Rhayader. This was the extra energy boost I needed.
Finally, the sign to the Red Kite Centre and the unfortunate 10% short climb to the B&B, but by then all I had in mind was food, take a shower and hit the pillow.
I was beaten on the day but determined to raise my game.
ride length: 82km
ride time: 4h15m
average speed: 18.3km/h
total elevation gain: 2,163 metres
highest point: 495 metres