Kim Jones is back this month with another bike ride, this time in the Black Mountains. It’s not for the faint hearted as although it is only 33km you will climb over 1100 metres but you’ll be rewarded with some spectacular views
I turn downhill on an innocuous path I’d not noticed before and am immediately immersed into a world of rocks and thick hedges. The bike bounces animatedly as together we gambol down the track, my heart beating rapidly, as I manage to cling on and stay upright, just. For me this is mountain biking at its best but I need to keep my wits about me. Feathering the brakes in an attempt to return some semblance of control, the front wheel drops into a hole and suddenly the bike stops, dead, unfortunately I don’t. Ah no, no, not again, I’m too old for this.
We part company and I go over the bars somehow landing on my feet where momentum takes over and I find myself almost running down the path doing my utmost to stay upright. Inevitably, I lose my balance and find myself sprawled on the floor looking as if I have just dropped out of the sky. Over the years I have learnt that when this happens, which it seems to far more regularly than I’d choose, it is better to lie still for a second or two and assess any damage before getting to my feet. Often, I have found myself unharmed, and laying in a rather comfortable position, take the opportunity to view my surroundings or study the clouds. Now though, lying on a bed of head size rocks, I roll onto my knees and there in front of me is a pair of green hunter wellies attached to a rather fine pair of corduroy trousers, Crickhowell is not that far away.
I groan a greeting back and struggle to my feet.
“Yes, it is”.
As an older mountain biker, humiliation is something I have learnt to live with. Bruised and battered, I pick the bike up and wade through the river, tutting then smiling to myself as, half way across, I notice a footbridge downstream. I need a coffee!
Like sausage sandwiches and buttered digestives, climbing is good for the soul so by the end of this ride you should be thoroughly cleansed and positively virtuous. Again, don’t be fooled by the distance, at only 33km it might seem relatively short but as I said it does involve a fair bit of upward gradient, over1100 mts of it in fact. If though you’re still hungry for more take a look at the track that goes west and then south from Pengenffordd and up onto Mynydd Llangorse, the descent off this down into Bwlch I guarantee will put a smile on your face.
I’ve suggested a start point at the forest car park (grid ref: 253 285. OS 161) as you finish on a rather fine downhill, but if you are feeling particularly masochistic and want to start with a big climb, there is limited parking just above ‘The Hermitage’. This building has an interesting history, built in the early nineteenth century it was reputedly the home of the mistress of John Macnamara, a rather colourful character by anyone’s standards. In its later years it was used to house German prisoners who were unfortunate to find themselves on the losing side during the second world war.
Assuming you start at the suggested car park (trust me, it’s the better option) the ride starts with a gentle tarmac amble alongside the burbling, babbling stream that flows from the Grwyne Fawr reservoir just a couple of kilometres further up the valley. This is very pleasant as you are for the main, cycling gently downhill, be careful though not to miss the turn into the forestry and the first climb of the day. I’ve suggested following one of the old Brecon Beacons mountain bike loops for this section of the ride but there is a rather excellent track which runs south parallel to the western forest boundary, so you might want to take another route onto the open hill to enjoy more of what is essentially a sheep track. Once on the ridge, if the weather is kind there are some wonderful westward views to the tops of Pen Cerrig-calch, Pen Gloch-y-pibwr and Pen Twyn Glas which I know I am biased, but you have to admit are great Welsh names.
Now for the first descent of the day which I must say is absolutely fantastic, a narrow single track which hugs the side of Crug Mawr before falling off Blaen yr Henbant and into the valley bottom. There’s even a short series of steps which threaten to shake the fillings from your teeth.
As you know I am not overly enamoured with riding on tarmac but the next few kilometres which takes you along a tight narrow road through tall hedgerows is rather pleasant this time of year. The flies can be a bit of a nuisance though, so it’s worth wearing some glasses and perhaps keeping your lips pursed as horse flies while reputedly high in protein are most unpleasant when ingested. Continuing through the lanes, on past the previously mentioned hermitage and into the Grwyne Fechan valley which is sheltered from all that the western weather brings by a fine impressive ridge line that leads off Mynydd Llysiau that is nigh on vertical in places.
Though relatively early in the ride it might be worth topping up your bottle or reservoir as in this current dry weather it is the last opportunity for a while. Personally, I’m not averse to drinking stream water but if that’s not your thing, about half a kilometre after passing a forest block on your right and just as you drop down towards Tal-y-maes bridge there is a spring which offers a welcome alternative to chemically treated water.
Now refreshed and hopefully relaxed after your pleasant trundle up the valley you will be ready and enthused for you are about to climb over 300mts, on grass. Oh, what joy! Sorry, I’m being flippant, this climb (as big climbs go) is rather enjoyable and once done offers the most spectacular views west across the national park to Pen-Fan and beyond to the Black Mountains and their industry of adventure; you can even see the Sugar Loaf poking her head around Pen Cerrig-
calch as you look back down the valley. In fact, the views all the way up the climb serve as a reminder to how beautiful this country is, the incredibly steep sided re-entrant from which tumbles the Nant y Gadair always reminds me of Kyrgyzstan. And if mountain sunsets are your thing there are a lot worse places to come and watch the day’s end and the birth of a new night. If you do, bring your bivvy bag and tuck yourself into a hollow and perhaps spend a night under the stars.
If for some reason you wish to avoid the descent to Blaenau-Uchaf and climb back up, then head east over Pen Trumau and up onto Waun Fach then north via Pen y Manllwyn where you can pick up the route again. This diversion shortens the ride by only a kilometre and offers a different perspective of the hills.
Alternatively, you could drop down to the ‘The Dragons Back’ in Pengenffordd (reputedly the highest pub in the Brecon Beacons) to break the ride with some food and ale. I say drop down, depending on which bridleway option you take it is actually a ‘balls out’ downhill.
Assuming you are going to follow this route then it’s a rather fine descent and whilst the climb up Y Grib is a little like drinking Kumys (a fermented drink made from mare’s milk. Ed) – you’re not sure whether to try and savour it in the hope you might actually enjoy it or get it over quickly as it is really not pleasant – the following single track that contours the hill is a joy to ride.
Once at the track junction of Y Das you are atop what is quite possibly one of the longest descents in the Black Mountains offering a cocktail of stone, mud, grass and rocks under your tyres as you plummet ever southwards towards the reservoir. The rather Gothic looking dam which holds back eighteen hundred mega litres of water was built to satisfy the thirst of an ever-increasing population in the early 1900s and via a pipeline and a holding reservoir now provides the good people of Abertillery with their drinking water. This was quite a project at the time costing over a million pounds and involved the construction of a railway line (which was dismantled once the works were complete) a small village containing a school, hospital and police station – some things don’t change in the valleys and a hostel for the migrant workers.
Here on the northern reaches of the hills and if the conditions are favourable the skies might be busy with gliders from the local club; if this is the case it is worth taking some time out and lying on the grass looking upwards as they perform their aerial acrobatics. If not enjoy the ride home keeping an eye out for the silver flue of the Grwyne Fawr bothy, another excellent spot to take a break. Also, there is again another opportunity to catch a glimpse of the enigmatic Sugar Loaf. Remember, look up not down! I’m not sure why, but the small copse of trees adjacent to the causeway over the reservoir is often troubled with a sense of death. Over the years I have seen many dead animals here, including both horses and sheep, all usually with a broken neck perhaps due to the gate that gives access to the hill. And whilst death brings life it can be, rather a sombre place.
You are now onto to the old railway bed and almost the end of the ride. Initially it is rather bone jarring even with three-inch tyres but it soon smoothes out and offers good views into the valley below. Once, whilst guiding a group along here we were tracked by a sizeable red kite who flew level with us until we entered the forest plantation. I have been quite fortunate with my wildlife encounters over the years but this one was particularly special as I could see into her eyes. Things steepen a little as you drop towards the road where you veer left on a narrow single-track, which pops you out in the car park and the day’s end.
As I said earlier there is an abundance of riding here and whilst people tend to flock to the Beacons the mountain biking here is far better and certainly more abundant, though I think it is fair to say it does require a higher level of fitness. Pick up a copy of OS 161 and head for the hills, you won’t be disappointed.