With rumours of rugged coastlines, mountainous national parks and medieval castles, Wales had been on our must-visit list for a long time. Said to be a great place for mountain biking, with a very engaged and lively local scene, we were eager to visit. It therefore took little convincing to make discovering Wales by bike our next mission.
We decided to take our own mountain bikes with us, and rent a campervan to travel around various locations, with the main focus of our itinerary being a three-day guided MTB tour through the Cambrian Mountains in Mid Wales. Here's how we got on...
Getting to Wales
After making all the relevant arrangements, we set off towards the end of the summer for our Welsh adventure. From Stuttgart in Germany, we booked a flight to London, which included bike transport, and our bikes were packed in appropriate bike transport bags. From London we made the very easy commute via train to Cardiff, where we picked up our campervan.
Read more: Getting to Wales from outside the UK
Self-organised vs. guided tour?
We had been following tour provider MTB Wales on social media for some time, and it quickly became apparent that a tour through the least populated area of this small and beautiful country would be the ideal opener for our three-week holiday.
Whilst we could have set off on our own, from previous experience this isn't always easy with a mountain bike, and also involves an incredible amount of research and planning. So why not leave it to a local?
We didn't regret our decision for one minute. Our guide, Phill, is well known locally, and is committed to the environmentally friendly development of mountain bike tourism in Wales. He even helped developed the Trans Cambrian Way mountain bike route. It soon became apparent that we were going to seriously enjoy ourselves on this trip!
Mountain biking through the Cambrian Mountains
From Knighton on the English border, the Trans Cambrian Way winds through the heart of Mid Wales, crossing one of Europe's oldest mountain ranges, the Cambrian Mountains, finishing in Machynlleth in the west. In three days we would cover around 109 miles (175km) and about 4,000 metres in altitude.
The staged tour leads through wonderfully lonely landscapes: steep, uphill climbs through the meadows, panoramic plateaus, wide gravel roads and single trails flowing downhill. It is physically challenging, technically demanding in places and leads through deserted, lush green landscapes.
The cruising speed on the bike is perfect for covering longer distances, and still immersing yourself deeply in the remote areas and unspoilt nature.
Whilst we didn't meet any other mountain bikers on the Trans Cambrian Way, we did come across many sheep, some of which looked at us puzzled, but were not bothered by us strange-looking earthlings on two wheels.
The second day stage was a real challenge: 47 miles (76km) and 1600 metres of climbing is quite a lot. All in all, including breaks and breakdowns, we were on the road for about 10 hours. But the effort was definitely worth it, because on this part of the trip the Cambrians offered everything in terms of beauty and uniqueness: the Elan Valley, the Broken Road and the Sunken Road, the reservoir and endless expanses. A highlight was certainly the river crossing.
On the morning of the third day, we were very tired, but looking forward to the finale. The final stage is peppered with some single trails and ends with the Mach 2/3, a technical descent created by locals in Machynlleth. The big grins on our faces said it all: this stage was clearly our highlight of the Trans Cambrian Way.
Top three learnings
- Rain is liquid sun! During the second half of the first day of our three-day MTB tour, we got our first taste of Welsh rain! It poured! To the extent that the heavy downpour became the topic of conversation with everyone! No one here flinches at a short shower or a fine drizzle, so when even the guides started to pull their rain gear from their rucksacks we knew we were more in the 'raining cats and dogs' territory! In Wales they take it in their stride, and our guide commented dryly that 'rain is liquid sun!' We like that!
- Through the puddles is always the best decision! The weather forecast for the second and longest day of the tour was perfect: a pleasant 17 degrees, a mix of sun and clouds, no rain. So it irritated us initially when our guide explained in a very matter-of-fact manner we would definitely get wet today. However we soon understood that rather than an unexpected change to the forecast, this was be due to the fact that we would face many puddles and cross a few rivers. He advised us not to even attempt to avoid them, and stated without hesitation that 'going through the middle of the puddle is always the best decision!'
- It ain't over till it's over! After about 30 miles (48km) and 1200 metres climbing on the third and last day of the tour, we had almost reached our stage destination. A magnificent enduro descent still separated us from the destination of Machynlleth - one of the highlights of the tour. At this point we realised that a group tour requires the full attention of all participants from the first to the last kilometre. One of the riders on the trip, Nick, had disappeared about 2km before the finish. Following some short-term panic, search action, phone calls and attempts to find him, we decided to ride off to the town to continue with our search efforts. Whilst waiting at a set of traffic lights, we saw a figure calmly riding towards us... Nick! He had taken the wrong turn, and had ridden on alone assuming he'd catch up with us - and he was right! All's well that ends well as they say.....
The Trans Cambrian Way is not for mountain bike rookies. To have fun here, it is clearly an advantage if you are saddle-fit for 6-7 hours, and advanced in terms of fitness and riding technique. We were on the road with our MTB Fullies with 120/115 mm or 150 mm suspension travel. Of course, this is also possible with a hardtail, but a full-suspension bike is more fun! A spare set of brake pads and rain gear should definitely be in your daypack. For us, the three-day tour was an unforgettable experience that whets our appetite for more MTB adventures in Wales!
We've put together a few recommendations for places to stop for food, and campervan hire:
- The Royal Oak, Pencelli - Super pub grub, top burgers - both veggie and meat options.
- The Lost Arc, Rhayader - Cosy café with an unusual menu and lovingly decorated interior.
- The Crown Inn, Rhayader - Restaurant with good pub food
- Coed-y-Brenin Forest - Trail centre with eco-visitor centre with café and bike shop
- Campervan Mazda from GoBongo - Private campervan hire company, very friendly and helpful.
For more information about Andrea and Bernadette and their adventures visit the weltweit-draussen.de website.