At the beginning of this year I set myself a few intentions, one of which included doing a long, multi-day off-road ride. I ticked this off my list in July, when we rode the Trans-Cambrian Way.
In case you’ve not heard of the TCW, it’s just over 100 miles, with 3,248 metres of climbing, and takes you from Knighton to Machynlleth, via the Elan Valley.
That’s right. The Elan Valley. I returned to the scene of the crime.
Most people seem to complete this ride in three days, but we felt that wouldn’t be manageable for us. I’m not that fit at the moment, and we decided that since this was basically our holiday for the year, we didn’t want to spend it breaking our backs, and wanted to be able to take our time and enjoy the views. So we did it in five.
This was definitely my biggest challenge to date, comprising day-long off-road riding, through actual mountains, with limited supplies, and bivvying for 4 nights in a row. When we set off I was both excited and terrified in equal measure, and really had no idea if I’d be capable of finishing it. In the lead up to our departure I’d been quite ill, and was still coughing up a storm when we left. Naturally I didn’t let Adam forget about it.
Day 1: Knighton to Llanbadarn Fynydd (16 miles)
We loaded our matching bikes onto the train from Bristol to Knighton, which is on the English side of Offa’s Dyke, near Shrewsbury. Arriving there at around 3pm, we didn’t expect to get very far, and decided to just ride until it started to get dark.
From Knighton station, you stay on the East side of the river and head up through some quiet roads, past a farm, and very quickly end up on some gravelly paths in the countryside. With fresh legs, a low gear, and a relatively light set up, I was feeling good. I left that good feeling in Lloyney, as we stumbled upon an extremely steep and grassy hill that just went on forever. Much whingeing ensued.
I’d said all along that I’d have no shame in pushing my bike up hills if necessary. We were barely 5 miles in, and already we were puffing our way up 130 metres of height. Only 3,118m to go.
It was during this first climb that Adam shouted one of my favourite remarks from the whole trip: “This is a bridleway? What sort of sick fuck brings a horse up here?!”
We couldn’t complain once we got to the top, though. It was one hell of a view.
From there we were able to get on our bikes, and it was reasonably smooth sailing. I learned very quickly that I don’t really like climbing on grass, because it’s practically a sponge and your bike feels like it’s going nowhere. In an attempt to ride on something harder, I made the stupid mistake of crossing a rut without lifting my front wheel, and took a swift trip over the handlebars.
So we were getting off to a great start! Thankfully I came up laughing, and had a mega bruise to show off the next day. In the meantime we continued riding, surrounded by stunning views, sheep that turned tail and fled at the sight of us, and an ungodly amount of the stuff they leave behind.
After about 12 miles we joined Glyndwr’s Way: a 135-mile national trail that we joined, left, and then re-joined several times along the whole route. It took us straight into Llanbadarn Fynydd, a town which seemed to consist of about five houses, a community shop, and a pub. Sadly the latter two were closed when we arrived, but we did have some camping food with us, so all was not lost.
At this point it was about 8pm. We needed to find a spot to sleep, but we were on a very busy main road, and no longer in the remote countryside. Following the Garmin’s instructions, we were directed off the road and across a river, back onto a steep and gravelly incline. We decided to do our first river crossing off the bike, in order to not risk getting soaked immediately before bed, and found ourselves a quiet spot on the edge of a farmer’s field, hidden by some trees.
Day 2: Llanbadarn Fynydd to Claerddu Bothy (36 miles)
As is my way of doing things, the first night was sleepless, but restful. I caught a glimpse of a very starry sky when I got up to pee, and enjoyed listening to the quiet sounds of the night.
Of course, having no sleep did result in me being quite grouchy on the second day. This was probably the biggest test our relationship had endured. I’m happy to say that Adam still likes me.
Anyway. We started out by crossing back over the river to visit the community shop, and have a cup of coffee and some breakfast. We hadn’t expected to get as far as 16 miles on the first day, particularly since we started so late. With a whole day ahead of us, we decided we’d get through the Elan Valley, and aim to sleep in the Claerddu Bothy, just past the Claerwen Reservoir.
Crossing the river a third time, we rejoined the gravelly path, consulted the map, and then moved on towards Rhayader.
While the majority of day one had been riding on grass, day two was a lot more fun. At this point we still had our tyres pumped up nice and hard, and hadn’t yet felt the need to let them down. We’d made good progress that way.
Admittedly, if I went back and did this route again (and I will), I would let my tyres down here. The fifteen miles to Rhayader included some fun trails through woodlands, and some slightly scarier ruts that would have been easier with softer tyres. Lesson learned.
We soon learned another lesson: the Garmin we have isn’t quite up to scratch when it comes to off-road routes. Case in point:
When we reached the forested area here, the route was telling us to go straight ahead, through the trees. Looking at the map, there does appear to be a pathway that cuts through, so perhaps the Garmin isn’t completely at fault. However, this is what the forest actually looked like when we got there:
While we were a bit unsure, it seemed certain that we were supposed to follow the path straight ahead, so we did. We rode over huge twigs and branches, until the path ran out. We got off, we walked, and we lifted our bikes over debris… and then the landscape dropped away in front of us.
Looking back at the map, I can see now that we should have turned right, and followed the winding road. Instead, we’d gone horribly wrong, but we’d also gotten past the point of no return. It would have been too much work to haul the bikes up back the way we came, and the only way to get back on track was to very carefully walk them down into the valley below.
It took a lot of time, and an equal amount of moaning, but we finally got back onto the path unscathed. By this point we were approaching lunchtime, and Rhayader was still miles away. We reassessed our expectations of the day, and decided that it would be more realistic to aim for Rhayader as a place to make camp.
Thankfully we were wrong! I’m not sure if it was luck, determination, misreading of the map or a mixture of all three, but we rolled into Rhayader at 2pm. Shocked at our progress, we celebrated with a plate of stodgy pie and mash, and then headed towards the Elan Valley. At this point I was really enjoying myself, but starting to feel nervous about returning to the place where it all went wrong the first time.
As we rode through Elan Village and past the Elan Valley Lodge where I’d stayed last time, everything became very familiar. I was actually amazed at how much I remembered the route. Familiarity is very comforting.
It wasn’t long before we turned off towards ‘Puke Hill’. I’d been telling Adam about it, and knew already that I wouldn’t be able to ride the whole thing. I was proud of myself for reaching the same point I’d reached before (when I’d had fresh legs and a good night’s sleep) and decided to push from there. Adam, on the other hand, rode the entire thing. He never ceases to impress me.
From here, the real mountain biking began. I’d been having fun before, but it hadn’t occurred to me how jumpy my bike had felt, with its fully inflated tyres. I finally let some air out and was absolutely dumbfounded by the difference it made. I rode these familiar trails with confidence, and almost wept at how far I’ve come.
Elan Valley was definitely the highlight. It’s just so vast, and beautiful, and the trails are perfect.
By the time we got to the Claerwen Dam, it was starting to get late. We still had about 10 miles to go until we reached the bothy, and we knew we didn’t want to have to make camp next to the reservoir because it would be rife with midges. After some deliberation, we decided we could make it. Once we reached the reservoir, we gave it everything, and raced around the entire thing at what felt like lightning speed.
Suddenly all my inhibitions were gone. Rock gardens that normally would have made me think twice, were under my wheels and behind me before I even thought about it. My confidence was at an all-time high. I was determined to sleep in that bothy.
We made it to the Claerddu bothy, which is off the beaten track and completely remote. I’ve never felt so isolated before, and it was the best feeling.
We cooked up some rice and beans and slept under a roof, and I finally got the shuteye I’d needed.
Despite that, however, we both agreed in the morning that waking up inside felt stuffy, and we were definitely going to sleep outside from then on. Our first bothy experience was a good one, but this was a bivvying trip, and I was still yet to master the art of it.
Part 2 to come. See you soon.