This is my love letter to Wales. I am fascinated with it's rich history and rugged landscape. Within 50 miles I can travel over 5000 years. The Bronze and Iron Ages, the Middle Ages, and the not so distant Industrial Revolution all huddle beside each other amongst the verdant Southeast Valleys. This is where I ride and this is why I write.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Grywne Fawr Reservoir

As part of my goals for 2018, I'm trying to catch up on reporting rides from 2017 that never made it to the blog. The following is my first installment...

Saturday, October 28, 2017 - The plan; Bike & Hike Grwyne Fawr Reservoir. A fabulously remote spot high up in the Black Mountains which features a secluded reservoir and mountain bothy. (Check out: Mountain Bothies for more info.)

It was chilly and just coming on daybreak when Deano and I met in Pontypool to begin our adventure. We headed north along NCN Route 492 for the first 10 miles under grey skies, creaking tree branches, and quiet trepidation.

It's a lovely route, but it's also a slow steady slog and on this late Autumn morning it felt rather gloomy as we reached the forgotten town of Brynmawr. If you ask anyone in the Valleys they will tell you; "it's always windy and colder up there." And despite our enthusiasm, the day looked rather dire.

However, much to our relief and excitement; the day began to brighten as we left Brynmawr, turned east and headed out across Hafod Farm Road.

This short five mile ride ends just above Llangattock and is popular as a starting point for exploring some of the UK's most extensive cave systems. (Check out: Eglwys Faen for more interesting details.)

Additional Features
The route is popular for walkers and cyclists alike for it offers spectacular views across to Clydach Gorge, as well as stunning overlooks to the Heads of the Valleys, Abergavenny, and the Blorenge. It is a must ride for any cyclist. You can check out my report "Mad Explore & Discovery" to see more on this fabulous route.

Clydach Gorge

Left to right: The Skirrid, Abergavenny, and the Blorenge

Also found along this route is the legendary Lonely Shepherd. You can see my report on that ride here: "Bike & Hike: The Lonely Shepherd".

The Lonely Shepherd

We rejoin our story with the two happy boys having found sunshine on Hafod Road along the Llangattock Escarpment...

Deano and yours truly standing before the Black Mountains...

It's a crazy steep ride down from Hafod Road to the village of Llangattock two miles below... I'm talking white knuckle, wrist-cramping steep and not for the feint of heart (22% grade in places!) But once down there are some lovely views as you snake your way up the opposite valley through Crickhowell.

I know this shot of Table Mountain would have benefitted from a better camera.

Here's a great shot of the valley we're about to head up... I don't normally include other folks photos, but this is such a good one, I thought it would be nice to give you a better view.

Sugar Loaf Mountain, Wales. 24 Dec 2003. Photo: Hugh McCann

A few miles up the road from Crickhowell in the village of Llanbedr, is the lovely Saint Peter's Church. It's well worth stopping to explore. We found this tree in the cemetery and surmised that anyone misbehaving would be told to "go sit in the yew tree!" And so I did.

"Get thee unto thy tree
young hooligan.."
"I'll be good Deano... I promise."

We left the village of Llanbedr and continued up the road to discover even less traffic and more wilderness. This is what I love about cycling in Wales; it doesn't take long to get away from civilisation. These fabulous little un-named backroads are everywhere.

Hang on Deano! Wait for me!!!! or as the Welsh say; "I'll catch you up now in a minute."

And it was quite surprising to still see so much colour on the trees this late. Autumn 2017 was the most colourful I've seen since being in Wales. It's a fall feature that I've missed, so it was especially nice to see one this year.

You might be wondering where we are... so here is the overall map. If you select "View Full Version", you'll launch a second tab with a larger map displayed. This makes it much easier to view, especially if you're using a proper computer.

We followed the Llangenny River heading toward Forest Coal Pit. The river itself is a tiny thing tucked deep in the bottom of the valley... you hardly ever see it, but when you do, it's fast-flowing and sparkling.

What should have been some nice photos turned into fuzzy nightmares, but we're going back and I know where to stop!

I didn't know it at the time, but from the look on his face... I think Dean is beginning to suffer a bit. Unfortunately for Deano... this would prove to be true. :(

Canon IXUS 285
My Photography
Back in early October of 2017 I fell off my bike and broke the lovely little Canon camera I had been using for the majority of my photographs used in this blog.

Now I've had to resort to using the camera on my Samsung J3 smartphone. Clearly you can see that there are some significant differences. Most notably of which is focus. The smartphone camera certainly does okay in bright light, but under low-light, the sensor is just too small and I lose detail.

Another benefit with the Canon was better image stabilisation. It's a crucial feature to have when straddling a bike in the wind. This leads to a second cause of poor focus.

If you're interested to read about some of my considerations for purchasing a new camera, check out my article: "A Camera for A Cyclist".

And one more try for the river shot - still a bit blurry. Oh well. Then at Forest Coal Pit, we had a choice of roads to cycle up. Most of the mountain bikers choose the forest road; we chose the paved for obvious reasons. (I'm not quite ready for logging roads not on a map!)

Regardless of which path you chose, this is where it started to get interesting... as in steep climbing/interesting. You can easily spot our location from the elevation profile above... we're about to climb that big pointy bit.

It's a soul-crushing climb of varying degrees (between 4% - 10%) for six steady miles to the Black Mountain Car park. (You can just make it out in the photo above.) Needless to say, it's a good place to stop. Plus, it's crazy beautiful.

Across from the car park on the opposite side of the river is a pine forest. I'm not sure if it's natural because they plant a lot of trees in this part of Wales for various uses (paper, fuel, etc), but it's a knock out to walk through.

Once we had composed ourselves and I had snapped a few dozen images we began the hike. There's little cycling to be made from this point - it's leave the bike behind or push her up with ya. There were a few bikes locked up, but we weren't too confident about leaving ours, so on they came. (And of course my images are blurry!)

Word to the wise; when yer cycling buddy stops talking, they may be suffering. Deano pushed on despite having some serious back pain. He hates to give up; so we continued.

Yes, we were heading into the clouds. The temperature really started to drop and the wind was picking up as well. Note, the tops of the mountains were no longer visible!

I feel awful looking back on this photo. Deano was truly struggling and I was most probably hopping about, snapping photos, and jabbering away with little concern. I'm sorry Deano. I should have been more sensitive and had us turn back sooner.

The weather was getting more severe and we were just about to leave the protection of the trees when we spoke with a young family coming down the trail to discover that we had yet another two miles to the top. So we stopped. Dean had enough. He was in serious pain.

We were just at the edge of the tree-line and if we continued on we would be completely exposed. You can see the clouds rolling in over the mountains ahead of us. The wind was beginning to howl. It was a smart decision.

I had planned on making coffee once we reached the bothy, but we had some decent shelter under the trees yet, so I pulled out my faithful Primus stove and made us both a much needed hot cuppa. A couple of sandwiches and a good rest revitalised us for the return.

The ride back down to Forest Coal Pit was fast and fun. We had a strong tail-wind with zero traffic. We owned the road for six glorious miles.... zooooooom!

And then after another rolling five miles we were back in Crickhowell, just like that. In what had taken hours to climb; we sailed back in minutes. Dean called for a pick-up from his wife and we parted ways. I made my way to Abergavenny to find the lazy M&B canal path. I wanted an easy ride home, even if it was longer. (This boy was plum-tuckered out.)

It had been a glorious day - full of dramatic landscapes and weather as well as physical tests of endurance. We spent 10 hours cycling and hiking 56 miles. It was awesome. Were we defeated? No! We will return. YES!! We shall conquer the Grwyne Fawr!

I left Dean in Crickhowell around 5/5:30 and took my time getting back to Abergavenny. I too, was pretty tired and ready to be home, but I hadn't the energy to push myself. I was wanting a relaxed ride home. I had 25 miles to cycle which I envisioned to take about 2 1/2 hours. Easy-peasy.

Thirty minutes after I got onto the canal path it was dark, but no worries; I had a head light. Fifteen minutes later, my "no worries" head light suddenly went out. No click. No warning. Just dark. I was stunned. I thought I had checked the light before I left home?!?! Fumbling; could it be just a bad connection?!?! Nope. Nothing.

Now it was dark. In fact, it was pitch black. I was under a thick canopy of trees along a very dark canal. There were no roads with street lights nearby. No houses. Nothing. It was so dark in fact, that I could not distinguish the path from the canal.

It was simply impossible to ride any further... I could hardly see to walk. Yet, I had no other choice. So after a few moments trying to get acclimated (cussing profusely...), I began to slowly push my bike along. I could just barely make out some spots along the way, but only barely.

And thus began my very long walk from just above Goytre Wharf to Pontymoile Boat Basin; a distance of approximately six miles.

At 10:30 pm I stumbled into the petrol station just outside Pontypool City Park, so relieved to find it still open. (Many places close at 9:30 pm and I had been worried for hours that I'd not make it...) My hips ached as if raw bones were grinding at every step. My feet burned like needles were pressing into my souls. My back hunched and stiff drew deep moans from within my chest as I bent to unlace my shoes.

I ditched the bike carelessly against the outside wall and stumbled into the shop. I spent at least five minutes or more trying to read the instructions on the coffee machine for I could not get my eyes to focus. It was so friggin' bright and all the colours burned. I couldn't stop blinking.

I was panting like a dog as I then selected a mountain of heart-attack-inducing snacks and most importantly - the biggest flashlight they had in the shop. I made a fist-pump with a loud YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!! (Emphasising the "s" like Kaa from Jungle Book.)

I'm sure I looked a-fright as I approached the counter. The poor woman behind the bullet-proof glass did not look at all comfortable serving me. As I tried to explain my predicament, her wide-eyes only got wider and she mumbled something to the effect of "uh-huh" as she slid my change back under the window.

And she didn't take her eyes off of me as I gorged myself with sugar and dried beef products, hunched like Quasimodo in the fuelling bay, grinning like an idiot as I lashed my £10 flashlight to the handlebars with four feet of bungie-cord. I heard myself say loudly; "Who says men can't multitask?" and I chuckled with glee as coffee and crumbs went flying with my self-declared wisdom. She didn't smile.

But then... then I was magically on my bike again and it was as if I had never felt smoothness before. The world was transformed.

The road was like butter. I was gliding silently through the air. I was night-flying. And I could see. Glorious, glorious light illuminated my ebony path with silver radiance. No, no, Mr. Pothole... You'll not jar my bones! Step aside Mr. Twig. You'll not trip me tonight. I can see you all coming! Ha! Ha! Ha! Wheeeeeeeeee!

To be perfectly honest, I don't remember much after getting on the road again. Clearly, I was out of my gourd. But my wife informed me that I arrived home sometime after midnight.

What a crazy day. What a fabulous adventure. When are we going again, Deano?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hay-on-Wye & Hereford Epic

On Saturday 17 June 2017 I made my longest single-day ride to date; 135 miles in 19 hours. I left at 5am and returned home at midnight. The weather was fabulous, the scenery amazing, and the trip became an adventure of a lifetime.

I had wanted to make this ride for a couple of years, so in January I committed myself to properly train for it. I slowly raised my endurance over the winter months with several rides of 100 miles or so. I then divided the overall route into eight shorter - and what I hoped would be manageable segments. Then I formulated a schedule. (see: above photo...)

The map above shows the overall route as planned and divided into eight distinct sections. You can click on each of the numbered divisions to view details of that specific section.

Riding a hundred miles on a bicycle in a day is a fairly big deal for me. However, extending that distance to 135 miles was a rather daunting consideration. And yet it's not just the mileage that makes a ride of this length so difficult... it's the time. For anyone who has spent 10 to 12 hours cycling - it can be gruelling; but 19 continuous hours on the road, pedalling yer bicycle... well, it gets a little crazy.

I carried tons of gear including rain jacket and waterproof trousers, as well as additional socks and (2) additional jerseys. Of course, I had my usual "fix-anything" tool kit and two spare tyre tubes along with enough food to feed four men a hearty lunch. But with everything said and done... it was a long, long, hard day. Huge thanks must be given to my lovely wife - Melanie stocked me well with loads of sandwiches and snacks and supported me throughout my training. I couldn't have done it without ya baby.

Section 1. Oakdale to Talybont-on-Usk
Time: 5:00 am - 7:30 am
Distance: 26.5 miles
Total: 26.5 miles

The start of the day was bright and warm and glorious. I rode down the hill from our house to find the Chartist Bridge looking lovely in the early morning sun. The air was crisp and clear with just a touch of humidity.

Once across the bridge at Blackwood, I immediately turned north up the Sirhowy Valley to begin the climb to Garnlydan and Llangynidr Commons. There was not a soul about... no cars, no people walking, no dogs... just me and I owned it all.

The early morning shadows were long across the road and the sky was a deep sea blue as a passed through Georgetown and Tredegar silently like a lark. Sheep stood in the middle of the road and bayed with surprise to see me passing.

Getting up over Llangynidr Commons can be a long slow slog, but I was charged with enthusiasm and made it surprisingly quick. Needless to say; the views were fantastic. Thankfully, I had the good sense to slow down and take a few photos.

I cannot emphasize enough how spectacular the scenery is in Wales. Plus, the ability to get on my bicycle and ride less than 20 miles to experience such grandeur will never cease to awe and inspire me.

At the top of Llangynidr Commons there is an insanely fast descent into the village of Llangynidr followed by a lazy drift up the road into Talybont-on-Usk. Including the time I spent taking snaps, I made it to my first stop 30 minutes earlier than I had planned. Crazy.

Section 2. Talybont-on-Usk to Brecon
Time: 7:45 am - 8:15 am
Distance: 6.5 miles
Total: 33 miles

When I arrived in Talybont-on-Usk I stopped by the community bulletin board for a short snack and coffee. After exchanging glances with the bleary-eyed locals as they wandered into the shop across the street for their morning papers, I climbed back on board my bike to ride up to Brecon.

The route follows alongside the stunning Monmouth & Brecon Canal for most of the way to Brecon. For this particular section I followed the "Taff Trail" - a hugely popular and well-known route of the National Cycle Network. It's a lovely ride.

Entering the village of Llanfrynach just south of Brecon...

Section 3. Brecon to Talgarth
Time: 8:30 am - 10:00 am
Distance: 9.5 miles
Total: 42.5 miles

I cruised along the canal into sleepy Brecon like a cool morning breeze. I could hardly believe the time. The town was silent. There was no one about... no one to witness the grin on my face and the wonder in my eyes as I pedaled past the lime kilns and dark windows of Bullwark Street.

I stopped at the marina for a bit more to eat and finish my coffee for I knew the next section to Talgarth would involve a bit of climbing. Plus, a quick bit of bike porn before I hit the road.

And then the climb began in earnest. Leaving out of Brecon the road narrows, turns into the woods, and goes up, and up again.

Honestly, it's eye-poppingly steep (see the elevation detail above...), but well worth the climb because you come out of the woods onto a high ridge with views across valleys on both sides.

And it's the perfect place to pause, catch your breath... and just gaze at the breath-taking vistas which surround you.

Section 4. Talgarth to Hay-on-Wye
Time: 10:15 am - 11:00 am
Distance: 7.5 miles
Total: 50 miles

I made it to Hay-on-Wye by 11:00 am having cycled 50 miles and to be honest, I was pretty beat by the time I cruised into town. I was in need of a break and some food!

This next section was mostly flat (what I needed!) and continues on NCN Route 8. I think I was still recovering from the previous leg and oddly enough, I didn't shoot any photos.

NOTE: Next time I go to Hay-on-Wye I'll go via Llangorse Lake and skip NCN Route 8 from Brecon to Talgarth. It's a really tough set of climbs. I'm glad I did it, but it's not one I would include if making a long single-day ride.

Section 5. Hay-on-Wye to Hereford
Time: 11:30 am - 1:30 am
Distance: 23.2 miles
Total: 73.2 miles

Fantastic route! I took Hardwicke Road out of Hay (B4348) for the first couple of miles which is a bit of a climb, but then turned off onto B4352 just before Hardwicke. The route then flattens outs as it then follows along the Wye River and is simply beautiful.

The area is very rural with large working farms... and what I really appreciated is that they're not "gentrified" country estates. They appear as if they've just been family farms for generations (dare I say hundreds of years?).

There were a few small hills, but nothing too killa. The main issue I encountered was a section of road being re-tarmacked. For a few miles this proved to be surprisingly difficult.

There was a thin layer of fine gravel across the road for about two miles which was quite slippery. This slowed me down considerably - plus I was forced to stop for any traffic.

I turned off B4352 onto Woodbury Lane at the super-cute village of Moccas. There were loads of cyclists along the road as I came through, so I guess this is a popular Sunday route. The road is very quiet with hardly any traffic and provides some great views of the Wye River. Also of note; there are two interesting campsites along here; Byecross Farm Campsite and Preston Campsite. Both look lovely and shaded whilst perched on the bank on the river.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a quiet road into Hereford from the direction I was coming, so I was forced to ride on the very busy A465. Coming into town proper there are cycle paths, but you need to keep a sharp eye out to spot the little Sustrans signs.

However, after approximately two (harrowing!) miles I spotted NCN 46 crossing the main road. This turned out to be an excellent route. NCN 44 crosses at the Wye River, which then follows the river directly into the centre of town. Easy peazy! and it was lovely too.

Cyclists were everywhere. The sun was out. It was warm. Hereford seems to be a very bike-friendly city. I love how they made the road serpentine through the high street to calm traffic. Plus look at that cycle lane... AWESOME!

I sat outside the cathedral and had a much needed long lunch. I couldn't have asked for better weather; the sun was out and the temperature perfect (23°c/73°f). I wandered outside the church grounds, but didn't venture inside. Time was a bit tight, so that will have to be something for my next visit!

I cycled for a while through the very lovely city park and ended up exploring more than I had planned because it's quite large. Wandering without a destination sometimes leads you to the most fascinating discoveries.

Section 6. Hereford to Abergavenny
Time: 2:30 pm - 6:30 pm
Distance: 30.8 miles
Total: 105.4 miles

However, getting out of Hereford turned out to be somewhat harder than I had envisioned. After leaving the city park, I got completely turned around and ended up going the wrong way. It's inexcusable really since I had a very reliable GPS system as well as paper maps! But there ya go... no amount of technology can fix the inept.

I have no idea where this leads, but I'm a sucker for paths that look like this... I must ride them! (See: previous caption for lesson in irony.)

Once outa town, the route wasn't difficult, but I was starting to feel tired. I found some nice long flat sections, but my misadventures in the park - coupled with late afternoon traffic leaving Hereford had taken more out of me than I was prepared for.

By the time I got to Kilpeck at 4:00 pm (87 miles) - I was wiped out. I stopped at the inn, sat at the pub and drank two cold Coca-Colas, one after the other attempting to regain some composure. (No excuse for not taking any photos of the church btw...)

Back on the road, dragging myself somewhat and with the sun getting lower; I still had to admit that the day was simply spectacular. Stopping to take a few snaps also provided a good opportunity to rest.

Seeing the Skirrid looming ahead was a welcome sign that I was nearing Abergavenny. My mileage was just hitting the century mark and I was dragging. I could feel my shoulders humped up and I was looking down at the road more than I should. What a day!

Section 7. Abergavenny to Pontypool
Time: 6:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Distance: 14.7 miles
Total: 120.1 miles

Getting to Abergavenny meant that I could get up on the canal path - which despite being longer than taking the road... it's flat. I was plumb worn out. I knew leaving out of Pontypool that I'd have a few hills. I needed to save myself for the last big push.

I took another long stop for dinner before heading to Pontypool. It was 6:00 pm and I had cycled roughly 110 miles over 13 hours by this point. I had another 25 miles to finish but with 15 of those being traffic-free miles along the canal path, I was somewhat enthused.

Sometimes you look all day and not find a great shot. Then sometimes when you're not looking... head hanging down... you find a lovely image.

Section 8. Pontypool to Oakdale
Time: 9:30 pm - midnight
Distance: 16.2 miles
Total: 136.3 miles

I left the canal at Pontypool and rejoined the old road to Hafodrynys tired to the bone. I'd been on the road and on the bike for 16 hours. One last long leg to go...

What little remaining energy had to be conserved for a few big hills at the end. Just turning the pedals round for another 2 hours. No thinking... just get home.

It was just past midnight when I pulled up in the back lane. I had left out the gate 19 hours earlier. My legs were like jello. My arms and shoulders ached. The bottom of my feet burned. My butt was just numb.

Melanie was long gone to bed. I made it into the shower and then crawled under the blankets and slept like the dead.

It took me a few days to recover from my ride. I sat inside and tried to write about my adventure. I started and stopped and started again. Filtering my content down to what might be readable became very difficult for me. Then I just gave up for a while.

It's the end of October, four months have passed, I've had a week of rain and I finally got back to writing this report. Looking on the trip now feels almost like a dream though I remember it vividly.

I hope you've enjoyed your time here. Thanks for stopping by and beware the evil cows!
cheers - cm

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