The bike feels heavy, my legs are heavy, and my quads together with my calves feel as if they’re being violently unwell. And to top it all, my arms are aching (not sure why my arms ache?!). We’ve only just started the climb, and there’s still four hundred vertical metres to go, Damn you Williams*, Damn You!
This was to be our first overnighter for a month or two, and I was rather looking forward to it, that was until this morning, when I awoke cursing the damage that several pints of beer can do on an empty stomach, and we were only in there a few hours.
This is a short overnight loop which starts and ends in Brecon. Since moving here, I have increasingly become an advocate of ‘support your local community’ and ‘shop local’. If you do decide to ride this loop and stay overnight, please get your provisions here (there’s a wonderful market selling fresh produce as well as both a Morrison’s and a slightly less well stocked Co-op) and give something back to the area you are enjoying the benefits of. At the time of writing there is also free parking near the bus station. There’s also a bike shop in Brecon, but for service with a smile, pop in and see Keith at Bikes and Hikes in Talybont which just happens to be en-route.
This morning, the Guardian Angels of the Central Beacons, Pen y Fan and Corn Du which are normally visible from just outside our cottage are obscured by a cold, damp, clinging mist which fills the air. The weather has clearly not read the script provided by the Met Office.
Pedalling away from the town along the towpath we shiver a little, willing our bodies to warm up which seems to take an age. Finally, with some twelve or so kilometres behind us, we leave the mist as we climb out of the valley bottom and are blessed with one of those special winter days. We stop at the junction of the forest road, do we go for a shorter sharper climb or the long haul option and continue on the tramway? My legs dictate the tramway and finally I’m starting to recover which is rather a blessing since there is still several hundred metres of climbing ahead. A buzzard swoops down from a tree somewhere behind and skirts close past me, so close I feel I could touch her. She flies ahead barely two metres above the ground as if guiding me, before peeling off somewhere into the valley below. And with that, the feeling I always get when travelling with the bike, even on short trips like this begins to surface. An overriding feeling of contentment for at this moment I don’t have to be anywhere else, just here, right where I am now.
Over the bridge tonight I will ride where wrapped in nature’s arms I’ll lie.
The sky my roof, the stars my light, ’til morning comes and wakes the night.
We stop for a snack at the stone bench uncertain which route to take: the tramway around to the quarry offers some great and in places challenging riding although the return trip across Waun Rhyd can be a tad boggy. As it’s been a wet week here and we’re on loaded bikes, so we instead opt to continue our climb up to Bryn Cefnog and cross the hill towards Cwm Callan. Once at the finger post and with the climb behind us, we procrastinate a little.
If circumstances had been different we would have been in Ecuador now possibly gazing at Cotopaxi, instead on the eastern horizon sits the Sugar Loaf, similarly volcanic in appearance, but far more accessible and for the moment, a worthy substitute.
Although we had our time in Scotland last year, I miss the simplicity of travelling with the bike, and perhaps more, the kindness of people. That kindness is apparent here in this country too. The people of what we in the west so arrogantly call ‘third world’ or ‘poor’ countries are the warmest, kindest, most generous people I have ever met. I have said it many times, those who have nothing, share everything, whilst those who have lots….
How many people do you know who without expecting anything in return would invite a dirty, travel weary cyclist into their house, and with no common language cook them a meal, provide a bed for the night and then in the morning wave them off with some food? How many?
Travelling by its very nature is often seen as voyeuristic, and I suppose it can be. And for those who just pass through places simply box ticking, it certainly is. But for others who take the time to integrate themselves (if only very briefly) with the communities they pass through and spend time with the people they meet, they will have a different experience, invariably coming away with both humility and respect. My hope is that in some way we can bring what we have learnt on our travels into our own lives; which can only be better for it.
We pick up the bikes and take the old road. Not that many years ago, this track across the hill was a B.O.A.T (byway open to all traffic) and was subject to regular onslaughts from people in four-wheel drives who clearly had no consideration for the landscape they were ‘driving’ through. This resulted in some terrible erosion and some of the pits they left were big enough to hide my Landy. As a consequence, it has been declassified and is now only open to horses, walkers and cyclists. All the holes have been filled and the scars, for the moment at least seem to have healed, and it now offers what is perhaps one of the best open moor crossing in South Wales.
I have learnt over the years to ride with a certain amount of caution when travelling with a loaded bike, staying within my limits if you like. I’m not sure what happened today though as we’re across the hill in what seems like no time at all. Perhaps it’s because we have finally stopped climbing and now, having shaken off my hang-over I can start to enjoy this ride. Through the stream, still frozen in places despite the late afternoon time and down the old stony track at a rate of knots I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable with on a loaded bike. Onto the forest road and into a Tour de France tuck, the speed really picks up and we must have hit 65kph before stopping briefly at the stone memorial bench for a snack and to take in the panoramic view over Ponsticill reservoir and Garn Ddu to the west.
Interestingly this undulating forest road that parallels both Pentwyn reservoir and the Brecon mountain railway whilst have been created some time ago has only appeared on the Ordnance Survey maps in recent years. Today chased by our shadows, it feels a little like travelling through some post apocalyptic landscape as most of the trees have been felled and the scrub that is left has been stacked in untidy piles alongside the track. Approaching the road crossing at Torpantu my thoughts turn to food and where to spend the night, I could also kill for a cuppa. We didn’t leave until early afternoon and are fast running out of daylight as we drop down through the Taf Fechan forest and stop at Birch Hall Bothy. Sadly, not a Bothy in the traditional sense as its doors are now locked due to persistent vandalism over the years. It’s a real shame because the Forestry Commission restored it in 1994 and it would make a great spot to lay your head for the night. Instead we use the bench and make some tea, waiting for dark so we can pitch the tent. The night comes and with it a dramatic drop in temperature as we cycle up the already frosty road past the car park at Cwmyfedwyn, past the now redundant, recently landscaped lower Neuadd reservoir and pitch below the dam of the upper Neuadd, beneath a clear moonlit sky.
It’s a bitterly cold night and having feasted on some salmon and avocado wraps, and a few sips of Balvenie (I do love nights under the stars), wrapped in our winter bags, we fall asleep under a clear night sky that is occasionally disturbed by shooting stars. We awake to a day that makes you feel good to be alive and lying cwtched in our bags we’re quite content just to listen to the silence disturbed only by one of the babbling streams that tumbles off Tor Glas and spills into the Taf Fechan, here in its infancy on its journey to help fill Pentwyn reservoir. It’s almost musical and we savour the moment for several minutes before climbing out of our bags and lighting the stove.
We’re soon on our way and follow the access track for a few hundred metres, our legs warming with the day. Before turning through the gate and onto The Gap road we go back down to the recently landscaped, now redundant lower Neuadd reservoir to have a look at the work that’s been carried out. I have not ridden here for a couple of years and am saddened at the sight; what was once a grand stone building is now on its way to becoming a saddened ruin; the roof now stripped of its slate, revealing what’s left of the beams the demise of this once proud building is inevitable. This was the site of the old filter house for the reservoirs and has always struck me as the perfect place for a bunkhouse and cafe; situated where it is, it’s a perfect launch point for the masses who continue to abuse Pen y Fan ignoring all the other hills around.
Just beyond this old filter house is another small, corrugated roofed cottage where, once lived a man of fantastic character and looks not dissimilar to Grizzly Adams. Now this gentleman didn’t suffer fools gladly and would often have a blackboard outside, sometimes telling you of the weather forecast and other times with often disparaging comments about some person who for one reason or another (usually, if his board was to be believed plain incompetence) had found themselves relying on the good people of Brecon Mountain Rescue. Unfortunately like the roof of the water building, he too is now gone. I remember him fondly and always made a point of chatting with him when I was passing and remember him one day tearing strips off two young lads who stopped to ask him directions.
“Will that track take us up to the Gap?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Well I think so”.
“Think so? Think so?! You Should know! Incompetent, incompetent, that’s what you are, the pair of you.
Where’s your map, where’s your compass?”
And without giving them a chance to reply told them:
“Get away with you!”.
He turned to me and winked with a wry smile on his face.
I didn’t know his background, but he was certainly a man of the hills, and whilst perhaps he lacked decorum and didn’t suffer fools gladly, he was spot on with his judgement, as the hills often punish the ill prepared.
With a fond smile on my face at the memory we retrace our steps and turn on to the old drove road. Today we cruise up it as if we were riding electric bikes. That rather flippant line was inspired by a gentleman we met in a remote Highland Bothy who was convinced our bikes were battery assisted. Initially I was quite offended, but, forgave him when he offered me a swig of Ledaig from his flask.
Once at the top we are blessed with a view of the descent along the western slopes of Bryn Teg laid out before us, Cwm Cynwyn, the valley to the east is hidden under a blanket of cloud which dances around as the sun creeps into the valley.
The climbing now done, it’s time to savour this rather wonderful rocky descent. I guess it would have been sensible to at least have had a cursory glance before set-ting off as it seems to be a little steeper and certainly a lot more broken than I remember. Unable to get my weight back as far as I would like due to the rack, I ride the first fifty metres with the back wheel only occasionally in contact with the ground. Not wanting to stop, the bike bounces animatedly as together we gambol down the track, my heart beating rapidly, and I manage to hang on and stay upright, just. Around the bend and the gradient eases, still up on the pedals I drop my ankles and elbows and settle into the bike. Now I’m in control and the speed increases. This time of the morning the north and western slopes of Cribyn are still to be blessed by the eastern sun, which has yet to poke her head over Fan y Big’s ridge. With the temperatures as they were last night, there are a few areas still coated in ice, which is fine in itself, but when it is hidden under running water it becomes an entirely different proposition.
Generally speaking back wheel slides can be good fun on a bike as, more often than not you can usually rein things in, but when the front end goes, it can be unplea-sant and often painful. Unfortunately, it turns into one of those descents.
The front of the bike veers rather alarmingly to the edge of the track, teasing me with an unnecessary view into the Cwm, and I prepare myself for what is almost certainly going to be a painful landing when much to my relief I find purchase and we are back on track; unfortunately, only momentarily as the same thing happens again. This time though I find myself sliding towards a rather large rock outcrop, now this really will hurt. Again, by an incredible stroke of luck I manage to bring things under control and we continue our rather haphazard and shambolic descent. It happens once more, this time I only narrowly avoid contact with the ground and I breathe a sigh of relief when finally I emerge out of the shadows, a gibbering nervous wreck.
I really am too old for this! I stop to wait for Tracey whilst my heart beat slowly returns to a steady rhythm.
The next two kilometres are a joy to ride and are over all too soon as we finish with a flourish, stopping at the gate to drink the last of our water. Many years ago and before it was declassified I met two rather eccentric gentleman and their Citroen 2cv here. I was curious as to where they were going and was rather surprised to discover that this was an annual trip for them, and this wonderful car, whose only upgrades were an electric fan and raised suspension. They were on their way up and over what we had just come down. Marvellous.
Once through the gate there’s a short stony track before you hit the tarmac. Now, you have a choice here; you can either stay on the tarmac to Cantref or, if you’re feeling particularly maso-chistic and take pleasure in self harm and are feeling underwhelmed by the ride so far, you can take the narrow rocky track that tumbles between two overgrown banks. I must admit that normally I do enjoy this, but on a loaded bike there is no pleasure in this for me. Aside from being assaulted by various holly bushes which lie in wait, ready to pounce and scratch your face, there are various rock steps that can cause problems on a rigid bike. I’ll leave it to you, but please remember, you have been warned!
Having taken the soft option we largely freewheel through quiet lanes between high hedgerows. It’s eerily quiet here, just the buzz of our tyres disturb the otherwise still day. And the stench of death. I smell it before I see it; a badger lying in the ditch alongside the road, looking serene and peaceful at rest, his broad shoulders garnished with three holly berries on a small branch as if in blessing. I look up and around, wondering who or what laid the wreath, but there is no sign of anyone or indeed anything and certainly no evidence of a holly tree. Something has been taken from the morning and my thoughts are sad, but death gives life and this animal will provide nourishment to others.
Onwards we go towards the last climb of the day from Cantref, this time on tarmac. It’s relatively short though and the ride nearly over as we take the old, stony drove road back into Brecon. It doesn’t matter how often I ride this descent, it always seems longer than the last time; odd.
We pop out by the bridge over the Usk, still high after last week’s rain and head into town for coffee and cake, it’s been a grand two days riding.
This route is ideal for short days being only 41km in length, and although there is nearly a 1000mts of climbing it can be ridden in an afternoon. We split it and rode it over an afternoon and morning just to have the excuse for a night under the stars. As always take a map with you and if you have the time and inclination there are many shortish extensions you can add to this loop.
*Williams (not his real name) is a really good friend of mine who on occasions, has a tendency to lead me astray when it comes to alcohol.
MAPS REQUIRED: OS 160 & 161. Or if 1;25 is your thing, Ol 12 & 13.