Usual disclaimers: haven’t proof read it (at all), ran out of things to say halfway through, if you want good stuff then pay me :-p (oh and there’s no piccies either, tough, this isn’t a kids book you know!)
On reflection, I think it was easier getting up at 3am than it had been getting up at 6am the pervious week to go for a ride. 3am seemed so ludicrous that my body didn’t really believe it was being dragged away from bed for any more than a brief toilet stop and it was still in a state of confusion as I sat in the living room in the dark, forcing breakfast cereal down my neck while watching BBC News24.
It remained unsure as to whether what was going on around it was merely a dream as I set off in the car for a Ruddy Long Drive to Wales, through dark, quiet streets, inhabited only by the zombie like remains of Saturday night’s revellers. In fact it only truly admitted to itself that it was awake when I made the mistake of turning the radio on to see what companionship I could find in the small hours, only to be met with some of the most awful noise I’ve heard in a long time. Loud screeches, poorly synched bangs and random, self righteous bleatings about how some utterly unimportant bloke was ‘the shizzle wit’ his homies’ left me with no doubts that the world at 3am in which my now fully alert body found itself was not the world I inhabit.
It did have wonderfully quiet motorways though.
The journey down to Machynlleth – the end point of the day’s ride – went smoothly, with me changing between Radio2 until it made me feel sleepy, Radio1 (‘big-up the Birmingham’ apparently) and various loud tracks from my mp3 player almost in time with the continually changing weather – I passed through heavy showers and thick, low lying cloud over and over until any hopes of another bright, sunny day on the bike has been washed completely away.
I met Jason in the centre of the town (you could tell it was the centre, because that’s where the clock tower was – it appears that all Welsh towns worth their salt have a clock tower) and abandoned some kit in the back of his van to eat/wear at the end of the ride, before we both leapt into the Berlingo to drive over to the start of the route. I fired up the new sat nav as we cruised through still asleep villages and slumbering hills, occasionally being sent up insanely steep and viciously narrow back roads in order to cut a few minutes from the route by the rather sharp sounding voice over lady, and we arrived in Knighton at a time of the morning usually reserved for making slight moaning noises and rolling over, while still tightly wrapped in a duvet.
The ubiquitous pre-ride faffage was done at double speed as the early morning sun began to add some warmth to the silence and we rolled away from the official start of the ride, outside Knighton train station, at just after 8am.
Cruising along quiet back roads, through the first few hamlets we stared up at the hills surrounding us, we were already well aware that the easy pace of the beginning of the ride wouldn’t last too long – every report we’d read from others who had ridden the route had spoken of how steep and unrelenting the climbs were, in fact it had been hard to read some of them without using overly dramatic and fearful tones as an internal monologue. We didn’t have to wait long to get our first taste of one, as the first bridleway we arrived at, an almost tunnel like climb through some tightly packed trees, turned into a push after a couple of hundred metres, partly due to the gradient and partly due to a couple of fallen trees providing a bit of cyclocross style dismount/remount action.
It quickly became apparent that the designers of the twisting, turning Welsh roads we’d travelled along to get to the start of the ride had been rallying against the designers of the ancient local bridleways, whose route choices seemed to run along the lines of ‘Find a steep hill, go straight up it. Do not turn. Do not contour. Just go up’ and as we burst out of the enclosing woodland out into the bright morning sun, still climbing skywards, granny rings were employed for the first time.
Glancing across as we winched ourselves upwards at the side of the hill, slicing across the views down the next valley, it struck me just how easily we were climbing. Perched on the tip of saddles we span until the gradient eased and the grass track beneath our wheels became strangely waterlogged, given just how dry it had been for the previous week.
Navigation plays a massive role in any crossing of the Trans Cambrian Way, the twisting and turning route isn’t fully waymarked (and many of those waymarkers are easy to miss while riding) and in many places the route will swap from one grassy, indistinct track across a featureless fellside to another with so little to tell you that it has that even the most hardened, hardcore, mapboard wielding trailquesters have to do double checks with maps and compass’ at regular intervals.
Neither Jason or myself wield mapboards. Basic mapreading skills aren’t a problem, so for the first five or so miles we’d kept to the route with a minimum of fuss, an occasional glance at the OS map shoved in my jersey pocket followed by a nod and a “yup, over to those trees/that fence/up that hill etc” while pausing to open a gate had kept our pace high and done wonders for our confidence about getting round the route quickly. However, as the route progressed over ‘Day 1’ the turnings became less obvious, the shape of the route ahead became harder to envisage laid out over the hills ahead of us and, after chasing a fantasic, swooping piece of singletrack through the heatherclad hillsides for a few minutes it became obvious that we had strayed off the bridleway we should have been on.
I don’t think it took either of us by surprise, to be honest, after a few minutes of gliding and swooping across the narrow line cut across the moorland, tyres roaring over hollow sounding peat and scuffing against the vegetation marking the limits of the trail it had started to enter both of our heads that this was unlikely to be the all-weather, multiuser path we were meant to follow. But staying off the brakes, barely having to pedal, just pumping and railing the bikes was too good an opportunity to miss!
We paused as I started to trace our unofficial route across the OS map and let the utter silence surround us. Only the existence of a stream down to our left offered any sort of navigation aid and the sheer size of the wilderness around us seemed to well up, exemplifying just how dangerous a place to get lost this could be in the wrong circumstances. We didn’t feel as if we were at any sort of risk, with the whole day’s light ahead of us, warm, calm conditions gently pushing white fluffy clouds above our heads and the knowledge that retracing our steps wouldn’t be hard to do, so a bit of re-routing seemed in order, which (after a bit of pushing) brought us out at a road I knew we had to cross.
I may have worried Jason a bit, as we headed along the road to rejoin the route after our unintended extra loop, by replying “Oh I’m just looking for a nice copse of trees” when asked what I was using as a guide to get us back on track, especially as the hills around us were constantly dotted with copses that, to the untrained eye, were very much interchangeable. It wasn’t a glib response; I’d driven along this road a few weeks earlier to check out part of the route that had concerned me, due to the IMBA’s official notes describing several of the turnings as “indistinct tracks”, so knew exactly what I was aiming for and once we’d found the small patch of trees in question the next few miles flew past as we dropped down to the first town we’d seen since setting off a couple of hours earlier. Well, I say “town”, “Pub and a village shop” would be more accurate. Not that it mattered, there was no need to stop as we were just getting into our stride, through a watersplash that I failed to clear, resulting in wonderfully clean shoes (my feet were already soaked from the oddly wet moorland crossings)…or that’s how I chose to interpret dunking my feet in the icy cold stream and then up some well signposted access tracks until we hit yet another crazily steep, open and grassy climb straight up the side of a hill.
Granny rings were deployed for the second time as we ground our way over the hillside before dropping down through what were described as Hamlets, but appeared to be little more than the meeting points of two roads. Navigation once again became an issue when we found several gates across the paths we were convinced we were supposed to follow had been padlocked shut, often with large “No access” signs up (and on one occasion some rather worrying Police tape wrapped around the barbed wire to either side). We lost more time double checking the map, the route description and confirming our location against the two as the sun above us was replaced with drizzle and occasional rain showers, before agreeing that the faith we had in our position wasn’t unfounded and we pushed on, ignoring the – presumably illegal – demands of the landowners.
For some reason, despite having never been there before, I was convinced that the next descent would be good. So far much of the height we’d gained had been lost down tame tracks and minor roads so as the trail in front of us dropped into some woodland and began to roughen up we both began to grin. The track steepened, loose rocks part-filling the meandering rain ruts across the trail kicked at wheels as we skimmed over naturally formed berms and floated over exposed tree roots, reaching in from either side as the tightly packed trees loomed in around us. Tyre tracks from other riders suggested that this descent was decent enough for people to include in “normal” riding, rather than just long distance epics and we flew down it at speeds that we probably shouldn’t have done, given how far we had to ride and how far from salvation we would find ourselves, if anything terminal were to go wrong.
We hit a fireroad at the bottom of the track feeling much happier, buzzing with adrenaline and laughing to each other about how unimpressed we would have been, had we tried the ride on cross bikes, as previous riders of the route had suggested would be possible.
More padlocked gates were leapt over and one of the most utterly ruined tracks I’ve seen was pushed up. The combination of greasy mud surface, created by the now incessant drizzle and ruts deep enough to swallow a bike whole made the climb unrideable, despite it not being overly steep. At one point I had to literally climb out of the rut I found myself in when my attempt to ride was thwarted by what appeared to be a mud wall, but turned out to be the unworn side of the track!
We trudged across the next, ruined, field before the route made use of some well surfaced fireroads and led us to a long minor road right the way down to Rhayader and the end of what was classed as “Day 1”.
We stopped briefly on the outskirts of the town to change maps around in my pockets while it wasn’t raining and to check what we hoped would be easier route finding along the shores of a couple of reservoirs. Everything seemed fairly straightforward and, buoyed by the realisation that it had only taken us 3hrs 1min riding time to complete the first day, we rode out through the town along a family oriented cycle path.
We reached the shores of the first reservoir fairly quickly, mostly thanks to someone propping many of the gates across the cycle path open, did some u-turning to get us over a bridge onto the ride side of the reservoir and proceeded to climb up, pointed in the right direction by a yellow arrow painted on the road, the steepest climb of the day so far.
As you would expect, the chilly drizzle from earlier had mumbled it’s excuses and buggered off, leaving us baking in the sun as we leant as far forward as possible over the bars to keep the front wheel on the ground. I imagined how most people, riding the route over the prescribed 3 days would have hit this shortly after setting off on day 2, with little warm up and just how uncomfortable that would be as I shifted my grip on the bars and watched beads of sweat roll of my forehead and bounce on the gravel below. Just behind me, Jason muttered how he “wasn’t expecting to find Hardknott Pass” on the shores of a man made lake as we crested the top and, following the handwritten notes on the official IMBA map, turned off left along a treeline down to a farm.
Which is where it all went wrong, again.
After several, confused minutes of wandering round the farmyard, peering off over walls at hills and moorland that shouldn’t have been there, had we been at the right place, we decided to retrace our steps rather than get progressively more lost. We paused to get a grid reference of our exact position on Jason’s GPs gizmo, which put us, according to the map, in the middle of some trees that didn’t have a gravel track running through them…only they did, we were on it, and it didn’t seem newly built. Devoid of an answer, we hatched a plan to drop down to the waters edge – from there it should have been easy to either spot the correct track running along the shore or head back to the road on the other side and use the alternative route mentioned in the ride guide, but even this didn’t work out as, still obsessed with getting to the bottom of where we were on the map, rather than getting to the bottom of the lumpy grass path we were dropping down I tried to read the map while holding the bars with one hand. My front wheel hit something hidden away in the undergrowth and flung me off to the side of the bike with my leg caught up between the front tyre and downtube of the bike, scraping away a nice chuck of the top layer of shin-skin and leaving me sprawled in front of two walkers wandering the other way. The only two walkers for miles. I was not happy.
I took my frustration and stinging shin out on the road, when we reached it, and we blasted our way round the edge of the first reservoir, trying to make up some of the time we’d lost, only to miss a turning and find ourselves at the foot of an impressively large dam wall, an impressively large dam wall that we should have been at the top of. More backtracking (luckily not so far this time) got us up where we were supposed to be and in view of the track we’d missed shortly before. A short series of “oh”s and “I get it”s emanated as the route behind us became apparent, followed by a few “well this bit should be easier”s as we realised that the track ahead of us around the second reservoir would involve no navigational tests at all.
The shoreline trail, a wide access track tracing all the intricate inlets and coves at the waters edge, became an excuse to throw the chain into the big ring and hammer along. Our pace seemed to be quickening over the course of the day and at this point we were flying. The wind on this more exposed point of the route had picked up, but made little difference as we made short work of reaching the end of the water and rode out across the bleak Welsh Desert, leaving frantically flailing sheep and even cars behind in our wake.
The simple navigation remained in place as we crossed over from the barren grasslands that give the area it’s “desert” title and began to see more trees, cultivated fields and farms appear and pressed on across trails that were still totally submerged in water – and probably never dried up, even in the height of summer. The spray, coming up from our wheels as they exploded puddles while we tried to keep the pace high was joined by rain, leaving us soaked through and shivering as we reached a road junction. Unwilling to get chilled further while double checking or exact whereabouts on the map (which itself was bearing the brunt of the rain and starting to fall apart, despite being sealed up in a plastic bag), we followed one of the yellow arrows painted on a telegraph pole that part-waymarks the trail and found ourselves at a farm gate, with a rather impolite notice telling us to ignore our maps and that a new route had been created back down the road. More backtracking led us to a newly constructed bridlepath that seemed to serve no purpose than taking us round to the left of the farmhouse, rather than to its right as the skies darkened and the rain began to fall harder and harder.
We plunged into a tightly packed wood, made so dark through a combination of leaden skies and thick intertwining tree canopy that we were barely able to see the slippery wet rocks making up the ground in front of us, getting colder and colder as the temperature dropped.
A myriad of trails leapt off in every direction as we tried to work our way through the trees, causing us to stop more and more frequently to confirm we were heading the right way which, in turn, let the chill in the air work its way through our clothes and send our extremities into rain sodden numbness. Each stop grew longer as the map became more waterlogged and tracks on the ground failed to materialise in print. We made the decision to follow a national cycle route sign and make our way to a road where we could re-evaluate our position with less effort and reached the village of
Ysbyty Ystwyth after another long descent that didn’t help the warmth situation at all.
After consulting the rather limp looking map again, shivering madly, we found a route back onto the trail that seemed to be mostly uphill and headed off along it as quickly as possible, hoping to use the incline to get a bit of heat going. With our heads down we climbed for a good few minutes until, with a sense of horror, we realised that we’d missed a turning and were now several miles off course, with a disintegrating map and little chance of getting our temperatures up again, should the weather continue to deteriorate.
I could tell how we could get back to the route and we both knew it would be possible to complete the ride if things went our way, but we both knew that it wouldn’t take much to turn the ride into something much more dangerous and that, because of our navigational errors, we’d be pushed to set a decent time. Tough descisions were made, accompanied by a bit of swearing through juttering, shivering teeth we opted to drop out from the route and make our way back through Aberystwth to Machynlleth along the roads.
The pace didn’t drop on the ride back to the finish. There was no sense of tiredness as we rolled down from the hills towards the coast, just anger at how we’d let the route get away from us. We flew through town after town, slowing only as we passed Dovey Junction train station, where the official end of the Trans Cambrian Way was, to wonder what could have been and imagine what will be in the future, when we return, better equipped and more knowledgeable.
We’re also working on a way to make the start a bit more of a comfortable time that 3am too…