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Author: Tim ontyres

A wild wet Welsh gravel tour

A wild wet Welsh gravel tour

325 miles on minor roads and gravel.

Oh boy, 2020. How much I was looking forward to my bikepacking trip in Iceland. Then corona happened and plans were revised. It did not bother me too much, because since I live in Wales I have been blessed with glorious landscapes in my back garden.

My initial plan was to ride south from my home near Aberystwyth, towards the Brecon Beacons, and then to follow the Cambrian mountains north to do some riding in the south of Snowdonia. But plans are made to be altered, and so did this one.

I have a habit of starting off way too fast, and blowing my legs up before the trip is over. To avoid this I decided to take a rather easy first day, by following the Ystwyth trail to Tregaron and onwards to Lampeter. The first bit of climbing of the day was the climb from Lampeter to the Abergorlech Forest, a plantation managed by National Resources Wales. I figured I would be able to find a wild camping spot here quite easily but I was wrong; it took me quite some time to find something suitable. I settled for a flat bit near a picknick bench , not really out of sight from the footpaths but otherwise it was perfect.

The second day I descended the last bit to Abergorlech, climbed out of the valley of the river Cothi and followed the river Dulas downstream until reaching the wide valley of the river Towi. The historical significance of this valley (as a trade route I guess?) was marked by the several ruined castles along the route. A very visible defensive keep on a hilltop in the distance looked a bit too well-preserved, and turned out to be Paxton’s tower, a ‘folly’ built 1806 in honour of Lord  Nelson. A fake castle without any real historic significance.

Folly tower
Folly tower
Castle overlooking Tywi Valley, Built in 1220.
Castle overlooking Tywi Valley, Built in 1220.

 

The route follows the river Cothi to Llandeilo, from where it gradually climbs all the way to the Usk reservoir, where I pitched my tent for my second night of wild camping. This day was certainly more hilly than my first, so I decided to stop early to give my body some rest. I stopped near the Usk reservoir where I found a most awesome camping spot (I even had a private beach!). The weather was great and the spirits were high.

My pitch near the Usk Reservoir
My pitch near the Usk Reservoir

Next morning I woke up with frost on my tent. The morning sunshine was lovely so I decided to really drag my breakfast out, justified with the excuse I needed my tent to dry. The third day was not easy. There is always some guess-work involved when preparing a route, and this time my plan did seem a bit overambitious (I left this section in the GPX file because I know there are better riders with lighter gear who are perfectly able to pull this one off, and because the tarmac alternative is easy to identify for those who want a smoother ride).

a beautiful gravel road that turned into a bit of hike-a-bike.
a beautiful gravel road that turned into a bit of hike-a-bike.

With quite some hike-a-bike I made it to the other side of the Black Mountains and into the Heads of the Valleys. The history of this region is very closely related to the mining industry and this is still visible in the landscape and in more built-up areas. Although I already did a lot of cycling and sweating today, I decided to carry on. Actually, I had no choice because camping options in the crowded Neath valley were slim. So onwards I went, up the hill and into the forest. I always enjoy cycling on forestry tracks, but again, finding a decent place to pitch my tent was hard. I settled for a sheltered meadow near a stream. A good spot were it not for the fact I had to share the place with a gazillion midges. All I can say; I saw the inside of my tent a lot.

On the fourth day the dark clouds started to gather. There was a chilly breeze and rain was predicted for the afternoon. I made good headway towards Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil, from where I picked up the Taff Trail (a bike route following old mining tram ways and canals; so easy going). My original plan was to cycle The Gap route back north through the Black Mountains. But the conditions were horribly wet and I did not fancy doing this remote mountain bike route on my rigid bike with slick tyres in the rain. I continued along the Taff Trail and made a wet descent towards Brecon.

Old mine shaft north of Merthyr Tydfil
Old mine shaft north of Merthyr Tydfil

 

Pontsticill reservoir buildings
Pontsticill reservoir buildings

 

The descent towards Talybont reservoir was wet, but the gravel road was of good quality.
The descent towards Talybont reservoir was wet, but the gravel road was of good quality.

 

Entering Brecon soaked to the bone, I desperately wanted to warm up in a pub, book a hotel even. But these are funny times and there was nothing to do but to carry on. At least it had cleared up.

But the relief of dry weather was only short lived. Rain started to fall again once I left Brecon, and the weather predictions for the next days were not great either. The idea of not being able to shelter in a pub, café, camping or hotel whatsoever made the trip mentally quite straining, and I felt like a wimp of having these feelings on the first day of rain.

Anyway, I carried on. Soon I was a Sennybridge again. The planned route would lead me over the Epynt mountains, and straight through the Ministry of Defence firing range. I checked beforehand and there should not be any firing going on in the afternoon, so I cracked on. It was a long way up, misty rain interspersed with showers. I passed some kind of gate, with a big red flag just discernible in the clouds. I felt gutted.

Upon closer inspection I found a small sign telling me basically to ignore the red flag as I was on the Epynt Way, which is a public right of way. So I carried on, until the road led me past some barracks. I was really very sure that I should not be there but none of the soldiers seemed to care so I applied the just-go-slowly-until-halted strategy. I felt like a James Bond in bright fluorescent yellow sneaking past enemy barracks. After a soldier told me: “Yes this is a public path but please don’t take a left turn because they are shooting with live rounds”, I managed to make it into the National Resources Wales forest where I managed to find a small patch of flat ground for my tent. It was still raining.

The fifth day was dry (hurrah!). But I already made up my mind. Since my route would lead me near my home I decided to take a rest day. I took the beautiful road to Llyn Brianne and down again into Tregaron. The last stretch home was tough, but I knew I had cold beer in the fridge and that was just the mental doping I needed.

On the highest point on the road from Llyn Brianne to Tregaron, the Brecon Beacons are just visible in the background.
On the highest point on the road from Llyn Brianne to Tregaron, the Brecon Beacons are just visible in the background.

One rest day became two, but after those I was good to continue going north. This route turned out to be much a bit better balanced with loads of gravel through woods and open moorland. I also tried to identify wild-camp spots beforehand which was really useful. The gravel section east of Pumlumon mountain, and between the sources of the rivers Severn and Wye is loads of fun, and the lake north of Llanbrynmair proved to be a perfect camp spot.

gravel section north of Llanbrynmair
gravel section north of Llanbrynmair

 

Some bad weather was predicted for the next day, but I had not imagined it wouldn’t be dry for a second. The route was absolutely great, with loads of rideable gravel and very little hike-a-bike or tarmac. I found a great camp spot just along a byway used by 4×4 a little north of Machynlleth. Outside there was rain and midges, so inside the tent was the only option. Next morning I was greeted with clear skies and heavenly sunshine, it was almost 11 in the morning when I finally left.

 

Ruined building near Machynlleth
Ruined building near Machynlleth
Wild camp spot along a 4x4 route near Pantperthog
Wild camp spot along a 4×4 route near Pantperthog

 

 

I had planned for the last night of the trip to be spent just north east of Nant-y-Moch, and my girlfriend and some friends would meet me there. So it was a short day, and there even was time for a coffee in Machynlleth.

 

After a fair bit of pushing I reached this stunning track/
After a fair bit of pushing I reached this stunning track/
Where the Afon Hyddgen, the Afon Hengawn and Nant y Llyn meet, that is where the best wild camp spot of Wales is.
Where the Afon Hyddgen, the Afon Hengawn and Nant y Llyn meet, that is where the best wild camp spot of Wales is.

I still struggle sometimes with distinguishing public tracks and private roads on maps when preparing a route. So when I was turned back by a land-owner I had no other option than to push the bike up the hill (I have remedied this in the GPX file below). It wasn’t that bad, and I still made it to the camp spot in time. It was great to meet everybody there, beers were had!

In all the trip was about 325 miles and it took me eight days to complete. The only sections I could not ride were the two off road sections south of Sennybridge, for which there are easy tarmac alternatives. I have left out the other unrideable sections in the gpx route below.

 

https://www.alltrails.com/explore/map/wild-wet-welsh-gravel-tour-3f78fa1

Finally, a place to hire bikes in Aberystwyth!

Finally, a place to hire bikes in Aberystwyth!

In the beginning of this year, I changed the flat and populated Netherlands for rugged and deserted Wales. And moving to Aberystwyth (West Wales) I noticed an absence of a bike rental. I could not figure out why. The region is popular with tourists and perfect for off-road and on-road cycling. So, filling the gap myself, I started a small bike rental company in Aberystwyth. And I am very happy to say; I am open for business!

Please go to aberoutdoor.co.uk and start discovering this beautiful region by mountain bike!

A hike around Craig Y Pistyll

A hike around Craig Y Pistyll

 

I did not post much on my website the past months. The reason is I just moved to Wales, and this took more attention than anticipated (I did foresee it would take more time than anticipated, though). I now live close to Aberystwyth and this is a gorgeous area for cycling and hiking! The first hike I did took me around Craig Y Pistyll and can be reached from Bont Goch.

I planned this route like I always plan my routes; by using Basecamp mapping software. I found this technique not quite perfect for planning hikes and decided to plan my hikes with Ordnance Survey maps (you know, the paper ones), in the future. This way, I am better able to determine if the paths I follow are open to public.

DSCN1955 DSCN1959

Llyn Graigpistyll

Craig Y Pistyll

Why your bombproof touring bike costs exactly 594 euro

Why your bombproof touring bike costs exactly 594 euro

A new touring bike for your trip around the world has quite a price tag. You want something bombproof and the big (and small) bike brands make you believe only the best is good enough. What’s more, they probably try to trick you into choosing for the latest technologies. But these technologies become a problem when you are in a country that runs a bit late… bike-wise. In this post I will show your perfect touring bike will cost you a fraction of a new bike, while not compromising quality, by converting an old school 26 inch steel mountainbike to a round-the-world touring bike.

1: The Frame (100 euro)
Frames can break, new frames as well as old frames. This often is a result of a collision or a fault in the fabrication process. If you look for a frame as a basis for your touring bike, have a look at old mountain bikes with the following qualities:
– Is made out of steel: this is easier to repair (weld) when something breaks while on tour. Look for the higher-end frames and chose chromoly frames over hi-ten steel ones. The higher the quality of the steel, the more attention is paid to the production process and the less likely faulty welds will ruin your day.
– Takes 26 inch wheels: these wheels are stronger than 28 inch wheels and more prevalent in faraway places, so easier to replace.
– Has eyelets on the front fork: this makes mounting a front carrier a whole lot easier.
– Has no front suspension: front suspension is another moving part on your bikes can break, and it has a negative influence on efficiency.
– Is in good condition: a visual examination tells a lot about how the bike has been treated. You don’t need to be an expert to discover rust and dents on the frame.
Candidates
– Giant Terrago: There is quite an abundancy of these bikes being offered second hand in Germany and the Netherlands. The 1995 – 1996 models appear to made of chromoly steel. Almost every model has eyelets on the front fork. Many are being offered for well under 100 euro. Look for the models with the grip shift gear levers; although they don’t get much love on the internet fora, they are pretty reliable and simple of design.
– There are plenty of late 80’s mountain bikes with mid-fork eyelets, but somewhere around the beginning of the 90’s, manufacturers got rid of them. You may opt for an older mountain bike but this would possibly mean you have to upgrade the gear and brake levers, and derailleurs. That is why I would suggest looking for mid-90’s bikes with at least a 7 speed cassette, grip shifts, and cantilever brakes, because you still can get cheap replacement parts for these systems. There are ways of working around the mid-fork eyelets, I will discuss this in the ‘racks’ section.

2: Rear wheel (150 euro)
The back wheel takes the majority of the weight of rider and his gear. Because, on a derailleur bike, the cassette causes for an asymmetrical wheel, the rear wheel is not as strong as the front wheel. To prevent broken hubs, spokes and rims on this weak link in your noble stallion, you want a strong rear wheel built by an experienced wheel builder. Get some advice from your local bike shop on whether or not to replace the front wheel too.
Tip: Go for a Ryde Sputnik rim, Alpine iii spokes and a Shimano Deore LX hub. Use your old rear wheel to practice the art of wheel building on. That might be a valuable skill on the road.

3: Crank and bottom bracket (20 + 16 euro)
To bombproof your bike, I believe using a square taper bottom bracket is the way to go. They are cheap and last forever. Tip: combining the Shimano BB-UN55 bottom bracket with the Shimano Altus FC-M311 Crank Set will give you a combination that will get you around the world without problems.

4: Cassette and chain (15 + 20 euro)
Of course you want to start off with a fresh chain and cassette. Before you chose the number of teeth on the biggest cog of your cassette, you might want to check if your rear derailleur can handle this. Find the number of your derailleur and google till you are sure. Also take in mind the front chain rings.

5: Cables and brake pads(26 euro)
Cables are prone to rust and should be replaced before your big trip. Doing this yourself is pretty straightforward; if everything works you were successful, if not, keep op on trying.

6: Pedals (30 euro)
Many old mountain bikes come with cheap plastic pedals. Tip: the MKS Sylvan touring pedals are strong and can easily be taken apart on the road if something goes wrong.

7: tyres and tubes (50 euro)
I have seen people doing just fine with all kinds of tyres. I used the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres, which turned out to be a bit overkill in the end. The single puncture I had in 6 months is a testimony to this. Choose your tyres according to the amount of off-road you plan to do. Tip: a Schwalbe Marathon tyre will set you back about 20 euro.

8: racks (110 euro)
Don’t skimp money on the racks. According to a good friend of me, ‘it is nice if she has a great rack’. I never took him for a bike enthusiast. Anyways, give this part of your bike some attention, I have seen plenty of racks brake. Things to take into account:
– As you use a mountain bike, you might run into problems of your heels hitting the rear panniers. A solution would be carrying your stuff in small ‘front’ panniers on the rear and use a luggage roll on top. Tip: the Tubus Cargo rack (70 euro) has a wide platform.
– On the front, things are a bit more complicated. If your bike of choice of has mid-fork eyelets on the front fork, all options are open. If not, you have four options. 1) Have metal worker add eyelets; you risk ruining a perfect fork, might be expensive. 2) Install a new fork. You can pick up a new 26” fork with eyelets for as little as 20 euro, but I don’t know about the quality and you’ll need a new crown race installed too. 3) Use racks that don’t use mid-fork eyelets. Old Man Mountain makes nice front carrier but these can be a little expensive. 4) Use Tubus clamps (10 euro). Not the best looking option but I have never heard of any of these clamps fail (you can bring a back-up clamp for your own peace of mind). Tip: an affordable way that worked great for me was the Racktime TopIt made by Tubus (30 euro). I did not use front panniers with it, but it took my tent in a roll bag on top without any problems on even the worse roads.

9: the saddle
Calm your ass down! Take your new oldie for a spin and discover whether the current saddle is working for you. If not, do like everyone else and go with the Brooks B17.

10: tools (57 euro)
Crank extractor tool: 10
Bottom bracket tool: 15
Chain whip: 10
Cassette removal tool: 13
Mounting paste: 10

Here you have it, your bike that can take you anywhere. And because you build it yourself, you have learned new skills that are vital for your keeping your bike going.

Civilizing the Trek Multitrack 750

Civilizing the Trek Multitrack 750

The bike I used on my big trip east was quite Spartan. No fenders, friction shifters front and back, make-shift bottle holders and big 47-622 Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres. It worked a treat, but is a bit overkill on the roads here in the Netherlands. Hence, time for a make-over.

New parts
The Dura Ace barcon shifters lost indexing halfway my big trip and worked well in the friction mode. But I had some Shimano lx triggershifters collecting dust so I installed a triggershifter on the right/rear side.
The headset kept coming loose no matter what, I think it was the wear on the thread of the steerer tube of the front fork. I do not like the old style headsets (the double bolts you have to span with the big headset spanners), especially for big trips as you have to bring heavy headset keys. Therefor I opted for a new front fork; the Surly Crosscheck front fork, the 1″ version.

problems
This poses some problems. The old threaded headsets were made for 1″ steerer tubes. The new threadless headsets use a 1 1/8″ steerer tube. Using a 1″ threadless system will place you somewhere between two worlds. Surly is the only manufacturer that sells 1″ threadless forks (Surly Crosscheck) for hybrid bikes (for big tyres), and Cane Creek makes a beautiful 1″ threadless headset in their 40-series. With some online searching you should be able to find 1″ threadless headset spacers. Now the only part you still need is a stem that fits your 1″ steerer tube. And as far as I know, you cannot buy them new. So you have to make do with what you can find second-hand, or use a shim.

Installation
So there are some problems, but you can work around that. The installation of the headset is never a job I like but the following tricks will make it a bit easier.
– Use a tube with the right diameter to hammer down the crown-race which is to go on the for crown. You can use the 1″ headset spacer between the tube and the crown race, the spacer will probably be more exact in terms of diameter than the tube you can find.
– Hammer the headset cups out of the frame from the inside.

Fenders
I used SKS Bluemels with a width of 45mm. The rear fender rubs the front derailleur a bit, but shifting is not compromised. There is enough room between the fenders and the 35-622 Schwalbe Marathon Racer tyres.

trek multitrack 750 with surly crosscheck fork
trek multitrack 750 with surly crosscheck fork

trek multitrack

trek multitrack

trek multitrack 750

The route

The route

The route I planned in advance turned out to be overly ambitious. It was March when I started, so basically still winter. The days were a bit short and cold. Combined with the lack of training that caused for a rather painful double knee injury. The injury forced me to skip the hilly route through the south of Serbia and Bulgaria, I opted for the flat Danube river route instead.

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Europe

Europe

Edirne, April 19

I’ve been on the road now for a month and a week. Cycling from the Netherlands to, well in the direction of, China. It has been a great trip so far but I almost had to give up in week two and head home. But I’m still rolling!

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