In the sec­ond in a se­ries of multi-day off-road ad­ven­tures, Adrian Miles ramps up the dif­fi­culty with two days in Wales’ Cam­brian Moun­tains

Cycling Plus - - BIKE TEST - WORDS Adrian Miles PHO­TOG­RA­PHY Joseph Branston

We were, in short or­der, cat­a­pulted from all ves­tiges of civil­i­sa­tion into wilder­ness

There was only one thing for it. The shoes were com­ing off. I’d been heav­ing my bike on foot as long as it takes to do an FTP test on my road bike, and at least twice as de­mor­al­is­ing. The day had been a long one and stiff-soled cy­cling shoes were about as use­ful as a 10kg weight strapped around my waist.

Ear­lier that day, there had been prom­ise aplenty. We were in mid-Wales, amid weather that wasn’t quite the mini-heat­wave beat­ing down on parts of the coun­try. And that was just fine by us. The route we had planned was a chal­lenge enough with­out oner­ous heat to han­dle, so were grate­ful for the hand we were dealt.

Af­ter last is­sue’s in­tro­duc­tion to gravel cy­cling, part two of Ko­moot Ad­ven­tures saw us ramp­ing up the dif­fi­culty, test­ing out how far our Bomb­track bikes – and, for me at least, newly­ac­quired skills – could take us. We’d also be ven­tur­ing fur­ther from our homes in south west Eng­land to some­where com­pletely new. Last is­sue’s ride was mainly road with some gravel thrown in – this month we’d flip that on its head.

I was keen to use the skills I’d learned in a de­mand­ing off-road en­vi­ron­ment. We’d un­ques­tion­ably find that with the Tran­sCam­brian Way. Snaking across mid-Wales from the English bor­der to the coast in a most in­di­rect 175 kilo­me­tres, the route is, nom­i­nally, one made for moun­tain bikes, but on an ap­pro­pri­ate gravel bike (wide, big tread tyres/pos­si­bly some sort of sus­pen­sion) you’ll still feel, if not quite at home, then cer­tainly in a neat, well-pro­vi­sioned Airbnb. To do the whole Trans-Cam­brian route would have been stretch­ing the con­cept of gravel rid­ing, so for our two-day loop we’d make it an in­te­gral fea­ture, while also in­clud­ing part of the largely tar­mac Na­tional Cy­cle Net­work Route 8, which runs from top to bot­tom through Wales, from An­gle­sey to Cardiff.

Water world

To in­clude both we’d start and fin­ish in the mar­ket town of Rhayader, close to the Elan Val­ley’s col­lec­tion of hu­mon­gous reser­voirs and dams, which sup­ply Birm­ing­ham with its water. It’s amaz­ing how some­thing with such an in­dus­trial func­tion can also dou­ble up as stun­ning scenery. Like last time, I was joined by Rob Mar­shall, Ko­moot’s me­dia man­ager, and Joe Branston, in­trepid pho­tog­ra­pher, who would once again at­tempt to ride the en­tire 154km route

with a pos­ture-com­pro­mis­ing cam­era bag on his back. I can only con­clude that he has a spine made of steel.

Af­ter a cof­fee in the Ca­ban-coch reser­voir’s vis­i­tor cen­tre we were, in short or­der, cat­a­pulted from all ves­tiges of civil­i­sa­tion into Welsh wilder­ness, with very few vil­lages left on the route un­til we re­turned the fol­low­ing evening. We were car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing we’d need, though a fur­ther cof­fee or two fur­ther down the track wouldn’t have gone amiss. That said, un­like last is­sue’s ad­ven­ture, there’d be no wild camp­ing this time around, no brav­ing it in the two bothy shel­ters on our route – we’d booked in to a warm, dry pub for our night on the road. It would prove a sage de­ci­sion soon enough.

The step-up in dif­fi­culty from last is­sue was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, with progress achingly slow. Ter­rain was al­ways var­ied, with reg­u­lar river cross­ings and hike-a-bike sec­tions keep­ing us hon­est. If I was here to seek out my lim­its, I had failed, for at times, I was well be­yond them! I’d say I was a fish out of water, but for it be­ing a phrase that struck too close to home, given all the rivers we’d had to wade through.

Rocks of all sizes were strewn across the trail, killing any speed we built up. It was no has­sle for Rob, who brought with him a back­ground in moun­tain-bike rac­ing and, in­deed, ex­pe­ri­ence in all things two-wheeled. Joe and I on the other hand… Rob man­aged to not put a foot down, whereas we must have looked, to any passers by, as though we were out tak­ing our bikes for a walk. But watch­ing him seemed to rub off on us, and over the fol­low­ing hours of day one, our con­fi­dence showed signs of green shoots, our bound­aries and knowl­edge for this type of rid­ing felt like it was ex­pand­ing.

A cross­ing to bear

It doesn’t take too long be­fore you start to re­alise what you can cross on your bike – and what you can’t. Small streams can be tack­led with a de­cent amount of speed, pro­vid­ing you stick to your line, but faster-flow­ing rivers de­mand fur­ther in­spec­tion be­fore you com­mit to any­thing rash. I’ve fallen foul of ford cross­ings on my road bike be­fore, so need­less to say that walk­ing is now my first op­tion, even if the­o­ret­i­cally my gravel bike would make light work of it. Rob would al­most al­ways try to pedal across a river, but hav­ing watched even some­one like him, with bags of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence, slip and slide over treach­er­ous rocks, then walk­ing, de­spite all the ob­vi­ous down­sides, was still my pre­ferred op­tion. For me, at least, it’s a toss-up be­tween a guar­an­teed soak­ing of your feet or a pos­si­ble whole body dunk­ing.

“As the day wore on I was learn­ing more about what I could and couldn’t do. As I bet­ter un­der­stood my bike, en­joy­ment in­creased the deeper we went into ru­ral Wales”

We sur­vived some of the hard­est rid­ing of my lim­ited gravel ad­ven­tures and got re­warded with some friend­lier sec­tions that made the novel choice of trav­el­ling around sev­eral stretches of water. Away from vil­lages and other peo­ple, we felt true iso­la­tion in the best pos­si­ble sense, and could pal­pa­bly feel our con­fi­dence soar­ing.

Speed freaks

Speed is a two-headed beast. Some­times it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing but when you reach what you be­lieve to be your limit your brain changes tack, flip­ping from ter­rific to ter­ri­fy­ing. If only you could switch off that side of your brain, train­ing your­self to rel­ish the higher speeds and crave the dan­ger. Speed is one thing on the road, but at least you can have con­fi­dence in the sur­face. Speed off-road height­ens the is­sues – touch­ing the brakes doesn’t al­ways mean a re­gain­ing of con­trol. Quite the op­po­site.

But as the day wore on I bet­ter un­der­stood my bike, and speed and en­joy­ment in­creased the deeper we went into ru­ral Wales. For Joe, how­ever, it was hard to make that same as­sess­ment, par­tic­u­larly with the ex­tra weight he was car­ry­ing on his back, which by this point was tak­ing its toll. I’m sure he won’t mind me shar­ing his time-out at the top of one climb, where he, how can I best put this... un­teth­ered him­self from his di­gest­ing lunch.

Given the tough, var­ied ter­rain, there was much chat all day about what gravel rid­ing in Bri­tain ac­tu­ally is. The thrust of Rob’s point is that any off-road ride here means there will be sec­tions where you must jump off and push, and that if you set out with that mind­set then you will have a much bet­ter time of it. I’d come to ac­cept this way of think­ing. Hav­ing come from the road, and hav­ing very much a per­for­mance-re­lated out­look on the sport, you re­ally do need to park it at the door on your way out when it comes to gravel. It took me some time to ad­just to this slower pace and new style, and though I’m by no means there yet, I am learn­ing to adapt.

Such open-mind­ed­ness evap­o­rated, how­ever, on the fi­nal climb of day one. My com­puter ini­tially told me we had a 10 per cent climb to ne­go­ti­ate over 3km. De­mand­ing enough, but it then in­creased to 15 per cent over 2km, then 20 per cent one 1km. We were back on the Tran­sCam­brian Way, with our route point­ing us straight up and over a moun­tain. Not a switch­back to be found here. The weather was clos­ing in, misty and murky as the three of us trudged up an unerring hill, with the gra­di­ent go­ing all the way to 30 per cent – not the num­bers you want to see af­ter eight hours in (and of­ten out) of the sad­dle. The higher we got the steeper it felt as grass turned into rock, which gave way un­der­foot. Only elec­tric as­sis­tance would have

got us up with­out push­ing. For­tu­nately, the de­scent was smooth and wind­ing, a de­li­cious dessert af­ter a rot­ten main. On reach­ing our lodg­ings, we’d wash it all down with sev­eral hard-won pints.

Take two

Day two saw us set­ting off in dirty and slightly damp kit, but no mat­ter – we were well into the groove of the ride by now. We opened on NCN 8, which made for much faster progress, trundling over hills and through val­leys. We even found a shop to re­fill our de­pleted food re­serves and chat about our fi­nal ad­ven­ture in next month’s is­sue of Cy­clingPlus. Although there is no shame in choos­ing a pub for our overnight stay, I had un­fin­ished busi­ness with wild camp­ing. We de­cided our next ride would be un­sup­ported and self-suf­fi­cient, maybe knock­ing back the ex­treme ter­rain but ramp­ing up the wilder­ness. We de­cided on the Scot­tish High­lands and be­gan plot­ting our route.

As we con­tin­ued the fi­nal leg back to the Elan Val­ley it felt like we were rid­ing back to­wards civil­i­sa­tion, en­coun­ter­ing more cy­clists en­joy­ing the sun­shine. Tra­di­tional cy­cle tour­ers, moun­tain bik­ers, ebik­ing groups, all ap­pre­ci­at­ing the tran­quil sur­round­ings that Wales has in spades and show­cas­ing just how di­verse this in­cred­i­ble sport truly is.

Above It wasn’t long be­fore the trio found them­selves in Welsh wilder­ness

Above The reser­voirs and dams are master­ful, beau­ti­ful engi­neer­ing

Above right Rob chose to ride through rivers while Adrian, mean­while...

Above Not too posh to push: walk­ing is part of the Bri­tish gravel ex­pe­ri­ence

Top right Re­fresh­ment stops were few and far be­tween Above The Tran­sCam­brian Way proved a test for gravel bikes

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