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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

Bikepacking Mid Wales: 93 miles of gravel, forestry tracks and quiet roads

Bikepacking Mid Wales: 93 miles of gravel, forestry tracks and quiet roads

A long Easter weekend combined with perfect weather: the perfect opportunity to go outdoors. When I go out cycling I always look for the perfect mix between doing the miles and enjoying nature. This normally means I find myself either cursing at cars or pushing my bike through the bog at least once per trip. But not this time, this was 150 km of pure fun!

I was honestly very happy with how the route turned out. Nearly every bit was ridable even with rigid bike and quite some gear. There are bothies along the way to stay for the night, wild camping opportunities were plenty.  If you ever have three days to spare in Mid Wales; have a go at this one, you won’t be disappointed.

 

Day 1

To get the blood pumping, the first hill needs to be conquered even before you left Aberystwyth. You dip down into Penrhyn Coch where you could do the last shoppings of the day and soon start the big climb up to Nant Y Moch reservoir. Consider yourself lucky though, once you see the first lake you have reached the high plateau and won’t be doing any long climbs for a while.

Track from Nant y Moch to Glaslyn
Track from the north-east of Nant y Moch going north.

 

Barren moorland near Tarren Bwlch-gwyn
Barren moorland near Tarren Bwlch-gwyn

It won’t be until a place called Staylittle you hit the tarmac again. A nice quiet road will lead to Hafren forest, the source of both the Wye and Severn rivers. The track through this forest is of really good quality and before you know hit you hit the busy A 44 between Aberystwyth and Llangurig. Don’t worry, you will only need to cross it to reach the good forest road towards Nant Rhys bothy. Rest assured that the hardest day is over.

Glyndwr Way towards Staylittle
Glyndwr Way towards Staylittle

 

The Hafren forest offers perfect wild camping opportunities
The Hafren forest offers perfect wild camping opportunities

 

Day 2

A degraded ‘tarmac’ road makes for a thrilling downhill to Blaenycwm. You turn left and into the beautiful mountain road to Elan Valley. It is a tarmac road, but a quiet one.

Elan Valley

 

Elan valley is a collection of reservoirs that provide drinking water for Birmingham. Submerging Welsh villages to provide water for the English; Elan valley is still a bit controversial. It makes for nice cycling though, and the visitors centre is a perfect place to still your hunger.

From the Elan Valley the route goes up again. On a quiet tarmac road you ride to the highest reservoir: Claerwen. The road turns into gravel and simply makes for awesome cycling. Enjoy the nice views across the lake, before you know you’ll see the second bothy popping up from behind the hill.

Good progress on this pothole riddled gravel road.
Good progress on this pothole riddled gravel road along Claerwen reservoir.

 

Claerddu is probably one of the most luxurious bothies in the UK. It has running water (!) and the Elan Valley Trust supply a more than decent amount of firewood.

Day 3

A rollercoaster ride on a quiet tarmac road brings you past the Teifi Pools. The downhill into Ffair-Rhos is easy and the B-road to Pont-rhyd-y-groes should not give your – by now experienced – legs too much difficulty. The small café in Pont-rhyd-y-groes is a perfect last stop and a good place to reflect on your trip. The last bit to Aberystwyth will follow the flat Ystwyth cycle trail. 

 

Teifi Pools
Teifi Pools

 

Route GPX:

https://www.gpsies.com/map.do?fileId=nqcgmhlmtkmusrvd

The Inbred 26 – Surly ECR crossbred

The Inbred 26 – Surly ECR crossbred

Riding one bike; I really planned doing this. The Trek Multitrack I own can take big tyres as well as a drop bar and I was going to use it for my daily commute to work as well as the odd bike trip off road. But then a wild On One Inbred frame appeared on ebay, and I had to have it.

The frame set was a bargain, never ridden and half the price of a new set. I found a donor bike with a crack frame for cheap as well and planned on using the parts to build the Inbred to safe money. It was still going to be a cheap bike, at least I promised myself. But the donor wheels were worn, the On One fork didn’t take racks, the cranks were beyond saving, and the chain and cassette needed replacement. The brake levers and calipers, derailleurs and shifters, and seatpost I salvaged from the donor bike.

So I accidentally build a new bike, more or less. But it is a bike with which I am really happy. It fits well with my style of cycle-touring, which is halfway between pannier touring and bikepacking to remote places.

Frame: Inbred 26, dropout/derailleur version, size Large

Fork: Surly ECR (447 mm axle-to-crown / a2c)

Front wheel: SunRingle MTX 29, with 32 Sapim Race double butted spokes and a Shimano XT hub.

Rear wheel: SunRingle MTC 33, 36 Sapim Race double butted spokes and a Shimano Deore hub.

tyres: Maxis Arden 26 – 2.4

Crank: Sunrace M9 with square bottom bracket

Rear rack: Bontrager Disc

Front rack: Nitto M18

On One Inbred -Surly ECR fork
On One Inbred -Surly ECR fork

 

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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Bike trip nostalgia; a Scottish adventure in the spring of 2015

Bike trip nostalgia; a Scottish adventure in the spring of 2015

From 30 April to 6 May, my girlfriend and I went cycling in Scotland. We planned on going from Inverness to Ullapool offroad, and back on the tarmac. And we succeeded.

Day 1: Groningen – Amsterdam – Inverness
I don’t like airports. I always have the feeling everybody knowns their way except for me. Luckily Suzanne, my girlfriend, is a good guide in these situations. Getting the bikes and boxes to the airport by train was difficult. And we had a lot of stress before we had everyting checked-in. In Inverness we asked a cab driver to bring the bikeboxes to the adres where we would spend our last night of the holiday, for cycing while carrying them would be dangerous. The host of our first night’s b&b was not very sure we could go from Inverness to Ullapool offroad, and now I began to doubt too.

Day 2: Inverness – Schoolhouse bothy
We had a nice breakfast and were only just in time to catch the train to Garve. We disembarked the train and headed north via the A835. The white mountains we saw from the plane dominated the landscape and we knew we had to find a way through them the coming days. We went right when our Garmin told us so, and headed to Loch Vaich. While we took a moment to enjoy the view over the valley after our first ascent, we met a Frenchmen who looked much more professional than we did. With next to nothing in terms of gear, he flew down the hill like a butterfly. I followed more akin an elephant, hauling 44 lbs of gear on my touring bike with skinny tyres (42-622 schwalbe mondials).
Down by the lake we had a lunch and we discussed our options, fearing our plan maybe was a bit too ambitious. We went on though, and managed to climb out the valley. The views were much more beautiful then we had imagined and even the light hail coming down didn’t bother us.

 dsc_0405

We followed the Glean Mor upstream towards a place called Croick, and found refuge in the Church. Here Suzanne found a working radiator and we made some tea.

By then we knew our plans to reach the Schoolhouse bothy of Duag Bridge were feasible, but we soon discovered we were not going to get there with dry feet. We reached the bothy at seven, and found the Frenchman again. Only the smallest room was available to us, which turned out for the better for the small room warmed by our body heat and our camp stove. We spend a comfortable night.

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Day 3: Schoolhouse to Loch an Daimh
We had enough food with us to do another bothy and the plan was to take it easy this day. We followed the advise I was given months before when discussing the route with a guy from Inverness. We took the Corriemulzie track, which was beautiful.

img-20150503-wa0027

We then took a foot path north. On this path, cycling was impossible and pushing the bike became dangerous when on the left hand a ravine emerged. With the bike on my right and the ravine on my left I feared the bike might fall on me, dragging my in dephts below. Suzanne wanted to go back and by her voice I could tell she would not accept a no from me. Afterwards I was very happy Suzanne dragged my out my irrational reluctance to take the same way back.
We went back the same way, had lunch in the Schoolhouse again and set off to Knockdamph bothy via another path. The dreaded watercrossing of the Abbhain Poiblidh turned out to be easy and we soon reached a moist and cold both called Knockdamph; where even the newspapers wouldn’t catch fire. The night was cold, and the place was haunted.

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Day 4: Knockdamph to Ullapool
We left the bothy with little love lost. A backwind blew us west, and when we had to break going uphill wel knew: this is a strong wind. In Ullapool we soon found warmth and wifi in a hotel lobby. We called home to let people know we were ok, and we made a reservation at the youth hostel. There we found an employee visibly sorry to tell us we could not have a warm shower untill four o’clock. We killed time in Ullapool by eating fish n chips, checking out tourist shops and having a whisky.

 

Day 5: Ullapool – Dingwall
We took the A835 back to the east coast. First part was difficult with wind, rain and gradient against us. After some 8 miles the climbing was over and we entered the highland again. The landscape was wonderfull and the wind again in our backs. We had a nice lunch near Garve and became over-confident. We left the tarmac and went offroad again. The hill appeared to have not end. We reached a B&B with a superb view. I left Suzanne and cycled all the way down to get wine and beer. I was not going to enjoy the view with a glass of water!

Day 6: Dingwall – Inverness
We felt exhausted, spend a long morning in the B&B and took the train to Inverness. We didn’t like Inverness in the rain and soon cycled a wet and nasty route via the A96 to our last B&B. Our room was great had a stunning view over the bay.

 

Day 7: Inverness – Amsterdam – Groningen
Our host proposed to take us and the already boxed bikes to the airport. This saved us from a lot troubles. A quarter to nine we were at the airport and five minutes later our bikes and luggage were checked-in. The contrast with Amsterdam airport couldn’t have been bigger. We left the boxes in Amsterdam and had an easy trip to Groningen. The feeling we actually did it, this adventure, without any experience, was a great feeling. It was difficult at times but in the always the beautiful landscape pulled us through.

The Beast

The Beast

I like to go just about anywhere a bike could go. Tarmac, gravel roads, jeep tracks. And to get there, I figured I needed a fast bike to go the distance, and big tyres to cope with bad roads. Hence my creation; the beast

 

Frame: Cube Aim Pro 29er

Fork: Exotic aluminium rigid

Wheels: shimano lx hub, DT Swiss Alpine iii spokes, rigida sputnik rims

Drivetrain: shimano slx 2×9

Cranks: Shimano FC MT60 with 36 and 24 tooth chainrings

Brakes: Shimano LX V-brakes

Headset: Cane Creek 40

Stem: Xtreme Pro High Rise 40 (80mm)

Bar: Deda RHM01

Brake Lever: Tektro RL520

Gear Lever: Shimano Dura Ace 7700 9 speed (rear derailleur indexed, fron derailleur friction)

Bottom Bracket: square tapered 68mm case, 127,5 axle length

Seat: Specialized Henge

 

With the Cube frame I found a frame that is both light, cheap and versatile. It can take a rear rack, V-brakes as well as disc brakes. For all other parts, I have chosen tough over light, and simple over complicated. For me it is the perfect adventure bike.

DSCN0170small

Bikepacking made cheap: two tips

Bikepacking made cheap: two tips

Traditionally, cycle touring is seen as a relatively cheap way of spending a holiday. However, if one has the ambition of going faster, further, and higher, this will demand more of your gear. Light and strong gear often has a price tag. Often, not always. There are ways of saving some money. Let me give you two tips.

 

Saddle Bag

DSCN0174

The dry-bag pictured above is an Ortlieb 13 litre, PD 350. It contains a sleeping bag, down jacket, wool longsleeve, a pair of socks and three pairs of underwear. I use a harness I made myself to strap it under the saddle:

saddlebag

To add some rigidness I used a section of a normal household bucket I had laying around. In order to prevent the dry bag from slipping down, I put a screw through the eyelet (pictured on left of both pictures) and into a zefal bottle cage mount. This system is very cheap and works really well. When strapped tight the bag has no tendency to wiggle. After my girlfriend gave me a crash course on how to use the sewing machine, I was able to get it done myself. It ain’t pretty, but if you ride your bike the right way, this piece of equipment will get covered in dirt to hide any cosmetic flaws.

 

Timontyres Anything Cage

stovecage

A bottle cage, even an aluminium one, can easily be bended to contain much larger items. In my last trip I used one to carry my pans and stove. Although I needed to add some straps so my stove kit wouldn’t fall out, it worked just fine.

Sometimes I want to make stuff myself because what I need can’t be bought. Sometimes I make stuff myself because what I need is too expensive. Sometimes I do it just for the fun of doing it. But always I learn something new along the way, skills that can be important when something breaks down when I am in the middle of nowhere.

Cheers!

Tim