Welsh C2C Cycle Tour

The inspiration for this ride was the Wales in a Day Sportive / Challenge ride. I modified the route a little to take in Builth Wells, which was the town Mrs W was working in when I first met her. This took the total distance up to 210 miles. For me it was not the distance which was the challenge, because I covered the route over 4 ½ days rather than one, it was the 4500 m of height gain. In summary, it was a fabulous route but I’ve no idea how anyone has the combination of speed and stamina to do it all in less than 24 hours.

Day 1 – Chepstow to Gospel Pass :: 43 miles

There did not seem to be an iconic start point for the route, and the most convenient place I could find to start was a Tesco Car Park!

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I delayed the start of the day until the heavy rain had passed and I had only drizzle to contend with, I thus started at 1100. By 1145 the drizzle had stopped and the sun became increasingly evident through the afternoon. The highlight of the day (as expected) was cycling along the Llanthony Valley, flanked by the Black Mountains, and then up Gospel Pass. Just before the big climb I took the opportunity to get a pint of knee oil from the slightly tired looking but very friendly and welcoming Half Moon Inn.  At this point I shared the climb with a retired group of cyclists who passed me each time I stopped for a breather and vice versa. Both in theory and in practice this was the toughest individual climb of the ride. The Sportive runs North to South, I was doing the route in reverse as this seemed to make a lot more sense after looking at the elevation profile. Furthermore that normally puts the wind at your back.

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It was very satisfying to reach the top and once through the saddle the views were extremely rewarding. For me this was to be the end of my day because I had the pleasure of Mrs W and Junior as my support crew in our VW camper who joined me at the car park just below the top.   We’ve stayed in some great wild-camping spots in the past but this surpassed them all.

Day 2 – Gospel Pass to Builth Wells :: 41 miles

Day 2 covered the heart of Mid-Wales and was, despite never reaching great altitudes, the hardest day of the tour. The reward was the scenery and the weather. The day started with a two mile descent to the river Wye.

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The rolling hills of this area are beautiful and covered with quiet roads. Perfect cycling country in many ways but unrelenting ascent and decent. The highlight was the section from Painscastle to Hundred House which reminded me of the hill above Llanddewi i Cwn where my wife-to-be first taught me to ride a horse.  I had hoped to reach Llandrindod Wells by lunchtime, but just two miles out I found that my tank was empty and I simply could not pedal another revolution without stopping for food. I was peddling up yet another hill, saw that it was due to get steeper, saw a lovely view over my right shoulder and simply stopped to sit in a gateway by the road.

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Not a bad lunch spot

Lunch was the equivalent of getting £10 of fuel from an expensive petrol station, just enough to get you to somewhere you are happy to really fill up. I knew there was a great chippy in Llandod and headed there for a second lunch! Now with a full tank I discovered that Mrs W and Junior were enjoying some Fine Dining in the Tesco car park just 0.2 miles from my chippy, so a peddled to join them, say hello and help them eat their strawberries. In distance I was now ¾ of the way through my day (perhaps that’s why I ended up with an empty tank at lunch time?) and the rest of the ride was sadly unremarkable but did lead me to Builth Wells, a welcome pint of knee oil and dinner with some old friends.

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Welsh Black – in the home-town of the Royal Welsh Show

Day 3 – Llandrindod Wells to Bryn Penarth (Nr. Llanfair Caereinion) :: 37 miles

The forecast was for rain for most of the morning and my route looked fairly flat, so I opted to join the family at Mrs W’s old church in Llandod and then fit my shorter (37 mile) day into the afternoon. New Life Church had grown and moved to a new building. Ironically they had converted offices in a former Methodist church back into a church once again. After a quick lunch I set off along the A438 which was to be over half my route today. I was glad it was a Sunday and thus the traffic light. I’d like to say I planned it this way but…  Whilst this section was mostly scenically unspectacular I did enjoy being on shallow gradients and being able to enjoy to get my head down and cycle at a very good speed for the 26 miles to Newtown. I am getting on really well with my new handlebars (link to blog), the aptly titled Crazy Bars from Velo Orange. On the front ‘aero’ position you can be both comfortable and use the combined power of your legs and arms. Both comfortable and very satisfying. This has proved an excellent change which has worked out just as I had hoped. 20 miles out of Llandod there was a beautiful sweeping descent with a truly fabulous view of the low ground stretching to Newtown (on Severn) and the rolling hills beyond.

I can only describe Newtown as an ugly town in a beautiful area. It has suffered from a major expansion in the late 60’s, that low-point of domestic architecture. After a rest stop it was a steep climb out of the Severn Valley and less than an hour to that night’s campsite. We had this view to ourselves.

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Day 4 – Bryn Penarth to Bala :: 41 miles

A gentle morning, through attractively names places such as Llanfihangel brought me to Lake Vyrnwy. Built as a reservoir to serve the people of Liverpool the dam is a wonderful example of Victorian utility architecture. Not only does it serve it’s purpose but it does so with beauty. Today when we build such things the design is purely based on function and a two year payback. The Victorians took pride in what they built. It’s worth remembering that it is down to the positive attitude of the Victorians that we have sewer systems and railways that still serve us to today.

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I decided to supplement my lunch with a hot baguette from the café next to the dam. You never know how this will turn out. What I’d say is that next time I’d try the Old Barn Café around the corner. However I had a nice rest and hid from a shower before setting off along the lake. You don’t get to see much of the lake because of the trees on the shoreline, but the draw-off house is amazing.

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Five miles of level riding meant my legs were warm and ready for the climb out of the valley. It’s an odd road which combines steep sections with gentle gradients in between which enable you to recover. If you decide to pedal this route take heart, the climb gets much easier after the first half mile. The first two steep sections made me fear it would be a killer climb, but with this part behind me it was wholly reasonable and allowed me to enjoy the woods I was passing through, a stream next to the road and then the heather and views higher up. Having got to the top I can say it was a lovely climb overall. At the top you officially enter the Snowdonia National Park and are afforded with a glorious heather clad valley to enjoy. A pleasure for the eyes and a rest for the legs.

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It was then pretty much downhill all the way into Bala. A very memorable day with the perfect balance of challenge, easier sections (to get the miles in) and views. I stumbled into Mrs W in Bala buying Welsh Cakes, which were promised once I’d completed the last three miles to our campsite. Quiet, level, tree lined and friendly, I’d highly recommend the Tyn Cornel campsite.

Day 5 – Bala to Caernarfon (51 miles)

What I expected to be the most difficult day, physically, turned out to be modest in comparison with Day 2. In short I would rate it as one of the top five days riding I’ve ever known in the UK, and top ten anywhere in Europe! Whilst I’d like to say that the cloud was ‘just kissing the top of the peaks’ as you’ll see below, it was more of a full on embrace!

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Whilst the climbs over three passes took me to good heights (around 500 m each time) the gradients were kind. The scenery is what I always dream of cycling though. Narrow roads in good condition bisecting a wild empty landscape. It was a breezy day which offered a tailwind for an hour, before a combination and it and my route found it in my face. I normally stop for a short break every 10 miles, but had to cover 15 miles before I found anywhere which constituted shelter. A small copse of trees next to the road. A small amount more climbing took me to the hills above Penmancho and then sweeping down into Cwm Penmacho and the village itself.

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With only myself for company I toyed with renaming it Pen-Macho – for you would have to be a real man to climb the route in reverse. Once again I was glad to have reviewed the elevation profile and ridden the route South to North. It was then only a short distance to the A5 and the Conwy Falls Café. Now this is a café I’d heartily recommend. For £8 I had a giant fish finger sandwich, salad, chips and a pot of Earl Grey. All this lounging in a sofa, the ideal cycling lunch stop.

The next section along the A5 had little to recommend it, but was an unavoidable and essential link to Capel Curig. Once well outside Betwys Coed the mountainscape came back into view. Turning off onto the A4086 was a blessing and took me down a gorgeous valley with the Glyders to my right and Pen-Y-Pass and Snowdon in front of me (the latter hiding its modesty in the cloud).

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It was an easy ride despite the headwind, and whilst rain threatened it never actually fell. Then came Pen-Y-Pass which was neither steep nor felt as high as I imagined and I was soon at the top and having fond memories of the times I’ve climbed Snowdon.

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Again I was greeted with a beautiful gulley descent, but with something of a mean headwind at the top. Having to peddle to may headway downhill never seems fair. I, however, didn’t mind, as I now had just 12 miles left to complete my Welsh C2C and from what I could see it was very nearly downhill all the way. As I lost altitude I also lost the wind and could enjoy sweeping down the river valley towards the coast. Upon my approach to Caernarfon the castle was clear to see and for a cyclist it was far better to navigate by eye that follow the signs which take you via a short section of elevated dual carriageway. Awaiting me in the car park was my support crew, enjoying tea and biscuits in the van.

I’d crossed Wales and achieved 4500 m of height gain with only one hill (end of Day 3) beating me. I simply cannot imagine how people could ride the whole route in 20 hours. I had underestimated my fitness (how often can you say that!) and think I could have done the route in three days. It is certainly a route I’d recommend and I certainly plan to go back and repeat day five at some point in the future, ideally when the cloud is restraining itself from embracing the mountain tops. I can see a long weekend in Snowdonia coming up in 2019 if my support crew are willing.

My/our day ended well, catching crabs with Junior off of the quay, followed by dinner in the only Italian restaurant* I’ve ever know to offer the option of gluten free pasta which was great news for me, less so for the clams in my sauce.

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*Villa Marina

Crazy Bars Review

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In my last post I outlined why I wanted to try moving from conventional drop bars to a pair of alt bars on my touring bike.  Two rides in and I’m really pleased.  They have fulfilled their brief which was to:

  • Give me a slightly more upright position to reduce / eliminate neck pain at the end of a long ride.
  • Allow multiple hand positions despite being more upright (std straight bars would not offer this.
  • Offer a good position for putting power into steep climbs using the strength of both arms and legs.

Tick, tick tick. And as a bonus the new stem needed has given an ideal place to mount my GPS, which used to be mounted on top of my bar bag in a very ad hoc and unsatisfactory manner. In the unlikely event of Velo Orange (the makers) reading this there are just two changes I’d make.  I’d add 25 mm in length to the forward facing bars to be able to get a whole hand onto these bars rather than part onto the bar end shifters and I’d cut 25 mm off the end of the raked back bars (though I guess I could do this myself without much bother.

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It took ca. 30 miles to get used to them.  Perhaps the oddest thing is that, for me, my most frequent hand position is not one close to the brakes.   Whilst this was to be expected, it takes some adapting too.  I am used to riding on the hoods with the brakes within reach.  Now for steep descents and in town I move my hands to the raked position, in town this is fine, but its a bit odd to be so ‘non aero’ on steep descents.  A surprise was my favoured position for honking it up hills and that is to have my hands out on the aero position, if I’m spinning I have my hands right to the top of the bars (which is when I think a little extra length of the tilted section would be ideal)  but when I’m up out of the saddle I just more my hands back a little to the level section of the aero bars.  I thought I’d be right out on the wide swept section for this, but it feels really powerful to be in the former position.  Resting my hands on the intersection seems to take the place of when I’d normally hold the flats.  I’ve got flats exactly as before but the intersection just feels better.  I use this position to recover after a long climb before I start applying the power again.  Overall I spend the greatest proportion of my time at the ends of the aero bars.  It feels like a really good position to put in lots of power.  My average speed was up, but whether this was the position or just the excitement of new equipment it is hard to say.

I cannot sign off without giving a mention to the cafe above, where I had lunch.  This is just off the A65 in Hellifield – Hazy Dayz  This was a pivotal part of today’s route and I was delighted to find they offer a free pot of tea to any cyclist the orders food.  Great all day breakfast too.

Hellifield 44 mile route map

Crazy Bars

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In August I plan to ride a Welsh Coast to Coast. From South to North following the route of the Wales in a Day Sportive. The animated route published on YouTube really sold it to me. The original route is 185 miles over some very hilly terrain so I plan to split it into 40-50 mile sections and add a loop into Builth Wells, the town in which I met the lady of my dreams who is now Mrs W. Along with Junior, she will be my support crew and have their own fun in the daytime whilst Daddy cycles over the hills returning in time for some playground time and dinner in the VW camper.

Originally I liked the challenge of riding this on my high racer recumbent to follow on from my ride on the Pennine Cycleway in 2014. I love my ‘bent for touring because it is so comfortable, but despite all the hype I would have to agree it is harder work up really steep grades because, whist more biomechanically efficient, you cannot get the extra oomph of getting out of the saddle and using also the power of your arms in a good grind.

I am no longer in my 20’s (by a country mile) and my big gripe with my touring bike is neck ache from the use of the dropped bars. So inspired by Matt Hobley I started looking into alterative or ‘alt’ bars. Normally reserved for off road touring and bike packing there are a number of options out there, including but not limited to Jones Bars and Surly Moloko Bars. But my choice has been some Velo Orange Crazy Bars. These are lighter (aluminum, no loop) and also better suited to a traditional bar bag. I get to keep my bar end shifters (a must) but gain some space to mount my GPS in a sensible place for the first time. The aim is the multiple hand positions essential for healthy long distance touring but a more upright posture.

First long test ride is set for tomorrow…