Several weeks ago I sent off an email to a couple of friends, suggesting a trip to Wales for a few days riding bikes. For several reasons the plan took longer to come to fruition than anticipated, so rather than catching the last of the milder autumn weather we set off just as the fist wave of winter weather was blasting out of the Arctic Circle.
The best laid plans
Determined to make the most of the weekend (and the cheaper fare), we intended to get the first train out of London to Chester on Saturday, from where we would spend the weekend exploring Wales by bike, before catching a train home from Cardiff on Sunday night. We’d packed light — taking a change of clothes each and planning on a hostel stay overnight. However, if one thing can disrupt even the best-laid plans, it’s a small-minded bureaucrat.
Having had a half hour ride to get the station for 06.30, Lewy and I planned to meet the third member of our group, Hannah, on the train. No sooner had we arrived on the platform however, an officious voice behind us asked for our ‘bike reservations.’ Both of us had tickets, but neither one of us had ever heard of a bike reservation before, despite having regularly travelled on trains with bikes. We attempted to reason with the conductor, explaining that one member of our party was already on the train (despite not having a reservation herself), that it was 6.30 on a Saturday morning and there was a great deal of space on the train. The man was not for turning however, and refused point blank to let us board. Time running out and a mad sprint to the ticket office to try and acquire a free bike reservation ensued. We were just too late — the ticket office could not process the reservations in time. However, after a bit of careful negotiation they did agree to let us on the next train out.
Two hours later we had rendezvoused with Hannah and were cruising out of Chester, toward Wales and the first few climbs of the day. Despite the temperature being near freezing, the weather couldn’t have been better: it was a crisp wintery day, affording us great views of the Welsh countryside. The plan for the weekend was not to put in ridiculous miles, but to have a good time and explore. So when planning the route I’d made an effort to avoid major roads where possible, instead trying to find attractive minor roads and quiet lanes. While this was a great idea in practice, the low temperatures and recent heavy rainfall meant seriously icy roads, necessitating some careful riding.
Just as we reached the top of Horseshoe Pass, Hannah called a stop and decided to call it quits. Her heart wasn’t quite in it and the allure of warming up at her Mum’s house (only a few miles away) was too big a temptation. Sad to see her go, but glad she had a good bail out option, we pressed on, increasing the pace slightly, aware that there isn’t too much daylight in the UK in November!
One quick lunch stop at Bala aside, we made great progress toward Aberystwyth — where we’d booked a hostel for the night — only slowing down slightly when we encountered 23% grades on a ‘short cut’ I’d planned. The sun set as we made our descent toward the coast, leaving us with about an hour to do after dark. On the quiet roads even the night cycling experience was fantastic, with the beams from our lights forming a tunnel in front of us. We clipped off the 20 miles into Aberystwyth in less than an hour, spurred on by the prospect of some hot food and a shower.
First day successfully completed, we hunted down a Chinese for dinner — one meal didn’t quite cut it though, so a trip to find some chicken was on the cards for a second course, before a well-earned bed.
Sunday dawned pale and cold, bruised clouds hanging low above the ocean. Wrapped up warm, we hunted down some bacon sandwiches and admired the sunrise over the bay — a perfect start to the day. Shortly after eight the road beckoned and we were soon headed inland, making our way toward the Brecon Beacons. On a day that would see us climb nearly 9,000ft, we made a slow start — enjoying the views and taking photos, not feeling any need to rush.
Although the morning’s ascents would be nothing like as long as those in the Beacons, they made up for it with some savage gradients. The kind of climbs that I describe as ‘one speed only’ — any faster and you blow up, any slower and you lose your rhythm. The views from the top were always an ample reward, with a golden morning light just beginning to poke through the clouds.
The day nearly had some of its shine taken off by the descent toward Llangdog — fairly steep and on questionable roads; my front brake cable chose that moment to fail. I tried to stop to assess the damage, but only having a back brake on a road thick with wet leaves was a recipe for disaster. No sooner had I touched the rear brake than I began to fishtail down the 20% slope — somehow I kept it upright, but I have no idea how. A few quick repairs later and we were having coffee in Llangdog before tackling the Beacons.
As we climbed up and over the range the views became more and more spectacular, with superb tarmac making for a brilliant descent down the other side. In need of a quick lunch stop, we pulled into the cheapest grocery store either of us had ever been to — 39p for a pasty (just don’t ask what’s in it). Refueled, we had one last climb to tackle before dropping into Cardiff. We crested it just as the light began to fail, enjoying the sun’s last weak glimmers behind us before beginning our descent.
The last few miles into Cardiff were the least enjoyable of the whole trip — built up areas in the dark aren’t the most fun at the best of times, but falling temperatures and rush hour traffic made things worse. Soon enough though we pulled up outside Cardiff Central and made a beeline for the nearest pub, in sore need of a few congratulatory pints.
It was a brilliant trip that very nearly didn’t happen, but we experienced the best Wales has to offer — mountains, ginger cakes, and a load of sheep! To cap it off, we’d had great weather, enjoyed riding on quiet and (mostly) well kept roads, heading home with a feeling that we’d had a weekend well spent. Who said riding bikes in winter can’t be great fun?
Massive congrats to Lewy — this trip was the first time he’d ridden 100 miles in a day. Not only did he manage that, he rode two consecutive centuries (neither of which was flat) carrying gear. Top effort.