We tend to have a lot of meetings, whether it’s for trips or to plan Heaven of the South. Meetings are alway in the pub. It’s a rule.
Emails also flew backwards and forwards with packing lists and accommodation ideas. Sam sort of took on the role of main organiser, which meant he annoyed his wife more than we annoyed ours.
We met in Kingswood, loaded vehicles and set off for Leominster. Not because it was a strategic waypoint – no – because it had a Wetherspoons that opened at 8am. The pub was surprisingly busy when we arrived at 8.30am, with young mothers having a social gatherings (!) and old ladies having lasagne for breakfast(!!). It was a real eye opener – as was my first sighting of a real life hunchback. The barwoman let herself down when three pints of cider were ordered – she commented that the group of ‘young’ lads in the corner hadn’t even started drinking yet, thus insinuating that we were both old and pissheads. The cheek of it.
Onwards to Knighton (not Kington, easily done, I had to check). We found a road just outside the town, parked up and disgourged bikes and kit onto the verge. It was a relief to get going after months of talking. We rode down to the bottom of town, crossed the bridge and followed the pink line on the Garmins into the hills. Our starting point in Knighton was at an elevation of 229m – higher than any of the hills we normally ride – and we were in a valley… Within 13km we had climbed to 518m via a mixture of grunting, pushing and riding as we got used to the extra weight on the bikes.
The terrain was mainly sheep shit with a bit of grass sprinkled around it. The urban myth about never being more than 6 feet away from a rat doesn’t apply here – on the Welsh borders you are never more than 6 inches from a sheep turd. Avoiding them is impossible – be prepared to have it flicked all over you. If you use a frame mounted water bottle you’d better get used to the taste of shitty mutton.
After 20km or so I realised that the other riders were purposely slowing down as they spotted a gate in the distance, whilst I carried on like a keen puppy and ended up opening hundreds of the bloody things. Someone needs to count them. There are literally hundreds. By the end of the ride you could hear riders sighing as another gate came in to sight, followed by gentle brake application as everyone tried to drift to the back of the pack…
The sun came out late morning, and by lunchtime we had a sweat and a thirst on. We picked a sheltered spot, and Nick produced a pork pie the size of a football. According to the label it contained 3,000 calories and enough salt to clear the roads in winter. At the 25km (midway) point we dropped down a track into Llanbadarn Fynydd, across the A483 and came face to face with our first river crossing. In my defence it didn’t look very deep. But I’ve been known to be wrong…
The most impressive thing was that Sam managed to get his camera out in time. The sod. I didn’t make it across and ended up pushing the bike across with water up to my mid-shins. My shoes didn’t dry out until Monday, by which time they were in a bin. To compound my misery I looked around to see the other five laughing and pointing. But not moving. Barn consulted his map and realised that there was a bridge 200m to their left, and before that, a pub. I was left to wring my socks out (pointless) and make my way on my own around to the pub. Thankfully, by the time I arrived at the New Inn a kitty had been created, and the first round (but second pint) of the day purchased.
The sun shone as we sat in the pub garden, and knowing that we were due a soaking the following day, we decided to make the most of it. Except Mike, who refused another pint.
“No thanks, I’ll wait until later.”
“Go on Mike, have another.”
“Um, OK then”. We sat soaking up the sun for nearly an hour, talking absolute cobblers.
Back on the bikes, we headed up a nice big climb to pay for the cider. The sun stayed out for the remainder of the ride, and we eventually dropped down a track onto the road towards Rhayader, veering off right with around 2 miles to go, and arrived at the bunkhouse. The owner (Alison) was most genial. not batting an eyelid at six filthy blokes on bikes, followed by a cloud of sheep shit. The bunkhouse was perfect for our needs – a washing machine, comfy beds, excellent showers and a nice big kitchen to knock up pots of tea. The phone signal was fine too – we thought we be without a signal for most of the ride, but this was not the case.
After a tidy up we got changed, hung our now clean kit out to dry and set off in search of food in Rhayader. At this point it became clear that Sam had not read his own packing list – and he hadn’t packed any shorts or alternative footwear to wear in the evening. Still, the sparks from his SPDs showed us the way home later on. We had a couple of pints in the first pub we found, and then went to the excellent Ty Morgan’s, almost next door. Our sheepy vapour soon cleared the restaurant, but we made up their lack of takings with Steve’s cider consumption. A 2 mile SPD spark led walk back to the bunkhouse, and then to bed, awaiting the huge storm that was forecast on Saturday.
Distance: 55km Elevation: 1100m
For once the bloody forecast was spot on. We were all awake by six enjoying a thunder and lightning show out of the window. The mood was fairly glum – until the huge tray of breakfast turned up at eight. By now the rain had stopped and we hopped on the bikes just after nine, full of bacon, coffee and beans, still smelling like the wrong end of a scabby sheep. Alison also gave us a packed lunch each (£5) to keep us going on our longest day.
Sam had become increasingly worried about the state of his freehub – it used to sound like a tin of randy locusts, but now sounded like someone stirring custard. We decided to stop at Clive Powell’s Cycles in Rhayader – the only ‘bike shop’ (ha!) on the route. Sam set off early, and spoke to Clive at 9am about a quick inspection of his freehub. Clive agreed, and then spent 20 minutes putting bikes out on the pavement, shunning all offers of help. When he eventually had a look at the wheel it became apparent that it was the first wheel he’d ever clapped eyes on. A glance at his toolboard revealed the best tools that Fisher Price produce. At one point he started hitting Sam’s axle with a claw hammer, and I told him to stop. He then said “You can use my tools if you want, I’ve got other things to do”. At which point I assured Sam that the freehub would be alright. We popped it back together and set off. Yes, there’s only one bike shop on the Trans Cambrian Way, but there’s no bike workshop.
Out of Rhayader we went, up a bit of a climb, and then headed out towards the Elan Dam. By now the rain had returned with a vengeance. Visibility dropped and full wet weather gear was donned for the first time. Puddles were getting longer and deeper – progress was down to a crawl. Spirits remained high – we all seemed to be waiting for one of the others to drop it in a big, boggy puddle. Ah, the cameraderie. The base of the Elan Dam is 16km from Rhayader, but it took us ages to get there. Nearly two hours of very technical, wet riding. But it was worth the wait. The Dam is a spectacular piece of engineering, with the reservoir supplying the needs of Birmingham. Sam’s arse in this photo shows you the real scale of the Dam. We climbed up the fire road to the top of the Dam and grabbed a spot of lunch. Everyone agreed that Alison’s baps were terrific.
Fairly easy riding for the next hour, around the edge of the reservoir (10km long), and then north west, and gradually climbing to over 500m at the 38km point. The views at this point were breathtaking, probably the the best of the trip. Just green rolling hills as far as the eyes could see, in every direction. Once we were past the reservoir we didn’t see a soul for hours and hours. By 1.30pm the sun had come back out – we’d seen the last of the rain for the entire trip. Over the next 10km we dropped back down to 250m, into Cwmystwyth. In the woods before Cwmystwyth we had a Deliverance moment. We came across a house on the edge of some woods, where an elderly gent was mowing what passed for a lawn, wearing a crash helmet. The track passed through the ‘driveway’, partially blocked by two absolutely ruined Nissan Micras. We sped up, and didn’t look back. The track through the woods had been decimated by logging, but we eventually got through, humming ‘Duelling Banjos’ under our breath.
Along the valley bottom we rode past long disused mines, and then peeled off left at Blaenycwm. We knew what was coming. By now it was a hot, sticky afternoon, and we had a huge climb between us and the pub where we were staying. Cider is like catnip to Steve – he shot off up the hill muttering ‘Stowford, Stowford’ under his breath. The climb was a pig, back up to 500m, and then after another few km, over 600m. The elevation profile on Mike’s Garmin 500 showed us that the final 10km into Llangurig was all downhill, and we arrived in the Bluebell carpark with huge grins on our faces. Our biggest day, done.
Cider was ordered. And it was wonderful. Steve (or ‘Kitty Steve’) whispered that the cider was 7.2%. We didn’t have any more of that particular vintage. The Bluebell was just what we needed – comfortable rooms (though not luxurious), within spitting distance of the bar. The food was hearty and well needed, the (weaker) cider helped us rehydrate. A 60th birthday party was in full swing, with an octagenarian singer belting out ‘a bit of Tom’ until 11pm, by which time we were all soundly asleep.
Distance: 75km Elevation: 1600m
Sam sent a group text saying that he didn’t require a breakfast. Later we learned that he had also jettisoned last night’s dinner. Anything to save a few grams riding that big Kona. The breakfast was good and plentiful, and seeing Steve walk through a bar without buying a pint is something I’ll never forget, even if it was 8.30am.
Our clean kit delivered to one of our rooms, and we got ready to set off. And then we watched Sam fart around for half an hour, fixing the same thing twice and mumbling under his breath. And then he lost his jumper. Oh, how we laughed.
Day three was supposed to be the easiest day, even with the burden of Sam to slow us down. The weather was overcast but mild – perfect for a blast to the coast. The first part of the ride was through the Hafren Forest with much the same terrain as the previous two days – moorland covered with sheep crap. We made a small detour to the shop in Staylittle for an ice cream (nice, friendly owner) and then climbed gently up to around 500m and came across the most precarious bridleway I have ever seen. A narrow track with a gradient of around 30% on lumpy slate, with a 3m drop to a river on the left – I can’t believe a horse has ever negotiated it. Once we reached the highest point of the day’s ride we had to wade through a couple of km of boggy marshland. Nick managed around 10m, and then his back wheel disappeared down a watery hole. From this point (Foel Fadian) we could see what we’d be riding for the next hour – huge swooping downhills. Grins were starting to form.
With a gradient of up to 45% on loose slate lumps the size of house bricks, the downhill was amazing. It had the added bonus of playing a tune as you rode over it. Not being able to shift our weight over the back of the bikes because of the seatpacks made it hairer than it might have been, but we made it past the first part without any injuries, or more amazingly, no shredded tyres. These were the best views of the entire weekend. Probably made even better by Barn telling us that it was all downhill to the coast (Mike’s useful elevation chart on his Garmin had crapped out. Apparently you have to charge them…)
We stopped for lunch and were promptly devoured by midges. They laugh in the face of all known chemicals.
On, downwards we went, and then…..upwards. And up a bit more. And then a 150m climb than Barn had apparently missed on his map. Or maybe he held it upside down…..
Eventually we did descend through the forest to the main road, with the GPS counting down the mileage. Steve could smell cider on the horizon. For some reason the finish line is at Dovey Junction – probably the least inspiring place on the entire ride. The finish was quite an anti-climax, so we shot off back towards the Black Lion for a celebratory cider. It was shut. The one thing we didn’t check was a pub opening time. Luckily the landlord sorted us out with a couple of cold bottles whilst he was tidying up outside. The taxi turned up. And then we started planning next year’s ride….
Day three was meant to be the easiest day, but I found it a lot harder than the first day – maybe fatigued from the long second day? We ended up with one puncture, one broken spoke and a dodgy freehub that made it through the ride. I’d say we were insanely lucky on this front. Thanks to all the other lads on the ride – a great bunch. And also thanks to the wives…..
Distance: 52km Elevation: 1100m