Off-road mountain biking from North to South Wales
This is what freedom feels like. Three friends, five days, mountain biking in Wales, from North to South, up the hills and down the slopes. Hurtling through river beds, stopping off at ancient ruins and passing through the historic towns of Mid Wales. Watching red kites circling in the sky, grabbing the odd nap in the sunshine, tasting misty rain and learning big lessons in life...
Chucking yourself in at the deep end is not such a bad idea. We kick off our five-day off-road biking odyssey in Snowdonia, starting at the Bedol Inn in at Tal-y-Bont, with a cruel mountain climb. If nothing else it’s a quick way of ascertaining the fitness levels of our party. There are three of us on the ride. Peter is a machine and Rob manages to keep up with him, despite being weighed down by camera equipment. Meanwhile, I settle in at the back of the bunch, taking in the views as I ride. Having reached the top of the climb, our reward comes from the views across Llyn Cowlyd. The deepest lake in North Wales is mentioned in the Mabinogion, the oldest storytelling manuscripts in the history of Britain. It’s a pretty dramatic introduction to the adventures to come.
The paths marked on an OS Map only tell half the story. The boggy conditions underfoot make it treacherous even to walk along Llyn Cowlyd. It takes us the best part of four hours to cover nine miles (14km). We manage to push and carry our bikes up and over the valley and retire to the Bryn Tyrch Inn in Capel Curig for a morale-boosting glass of Purple Moose Snowdonia Ale from Porthmadog. We retire to our lovely log cabin a short drive away in Trawsfynydd to feast on pasta and watch our shoes dry out in front of the fire.
There’s nothing quite like the buzz of a trail centre car park. Coed y Brenin was the first trail centre for mountain bikes in the UK and recently became the first dedicated centre for trail running. The car park is buzzing with bikers and runners of all ages and sizes. Everyone seems high on adrenaline and small talk. It’s brilliant. The visitor centre is a beautifully designed circular space, made of wood and elegantly rusting sheet metal. Coed y Brenin has eight biking trails ranging from gentle green trails along the bottom of the valley to daunting black runs. We spend the day picking our way along the MinorTaur and Cyflym Coch trails – the Gain Waterfall and remnants of the Gwynfynydd gold mine among the welcome distractions.
Don’t miss the venison burgers at Coed y Brenin. Aside from the communing with nature, the adrenaline and the camaraderie, the big plus of spending a day in the saddle is that you get to eat. A lot. We lunched on locally-sourced venison burgers at Coed y Brenin. Later in the day we feasted on Welsh lamb and beef at Y Sospan (The Saucepan), a converted 17th-century jailhouse in Dolgellau, a 12th-century town nearby. Y Sospan doubles up as one of the best-known tea rooms in Wales and is a must for any cake lover passing through Dolgellau during the day.
Sometimes, even the best-laid plans have to be abandoned. The Dyfi Valley is renowned for its mountain biking trails, so we head to the historic town of Machynlleth, where the last Welsh Prince of Wales held parliament in the 15th century. The plan is to ride the 20 miles (32km) or so to the Bwlch Nant yr Arian trail centre. But we’re running late and we have people to meet. Peter, who is the fittest of the pack, sticks to his guns and heads off on the Mach 3 trail, equipped with GPS coordinates, a backpack full of flapjacks and our very best wishes.
e-bikes are the future. The rest of us head for Nant yr Arian to meet Sam and Nathan, who run an Aladdin’s cave of biking called Cyclemart, near Pencader. Sam and Nathan are e-bike evangelists. The latest generation of assisted bikes are full-spec machines which give you that extra bit of oomph when you really need it. It’s not a free ride by any means. They’re a blast around Nant yr Arian, more than halving those tedious climbs to the top of the trails. All the more time to spend marvelling at the breathtaking views across the Melindwr Valley towards Aberystwyth.
“You can see why these bikes are taking off and why they’re perfect for biking in Wales,” enthuses Nathan. “You can explore across much greater distances and still have all the fun you’d have on a normal bike.”
He’s not wrong. Peter, who makes it to Nant yr Arian on his trusty hardtail (squeezing in a 20-minute snooze on the way) bombs around the trails to his heart’s content.
Give yourself time to commune with nature. In glorious weather, we see the sky fill with dozens of red kites for the daily 3pm feed at Nant yr Arian. It’s hard to believe these birds, with a wing span in excess of six feet (2m), were ever an endangered species. Their continued existence is thanks in part to the foresight of landowners in this area setting up a protection programme. From near extinction in the 1970s there are now over 600 breeding pairs in Wales.
Make sure your adventures are not all on two wheels. We stay in the Hafod Hotel overlooking Devil’s Bridge (featured in spooky Welsh noir BBC4 series Hinterland). But with weather this good the pull of the seaside draws us to nearby Aberystwyth. As the sun sets over the Victorian promenade and pier of this thriving university town we devour Patagonian meatballs in Gwesty Cymru and delicate Welsh pizzas at Baravin. These are just two of several good places to eat and drink in Aber. We’ll be back to try the rest another time.
Don’t forget to take in the sights. You can’t really stay at Devil’s Bridge without visiting the waterfalls and the curious three tiers of bridges spanning the Mawddach river, dating back to 1901, 1753 and the original 11th-century structure. The latter was built by Satan himself, according to local folklore. Having worked off our sumptuous breakfast we head off towards the serenity of Strata Florida and to the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey that marks the start of our ride. This is where generations of the influential House of Dinefwr are buried, as well as one of the greatest Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym.
Remember to embrace your inner child. With blue skies above and countless streams to splash through, we belt our way from Strata Florida along the Doethie Valley across largely dry river beds whooping and hollering with childlike enthusiasm. There are times when we end up cycling through water up to our knees. In November this would be grim work, but today it’s joyous. This is completely unconfined wild biking, with no soul to be seen along the way. This is what freedom feels like.
Cheating has its rewards, sometimes. We take a wrong turn and end up spending 90 minutes practically wading through marshy long grass carrying our bikes. Wisely, we choose to find a more reliable route by road. This is technically cheating, as we vowed to plot our way through Wales across country. But there are no regrets in following the road around Llyn Brianne, an enormous reservoir supplying large parts of South Wales. We drink in the stunning views and bask in the sunshine.
When it gets dark – eat. Sometimes you just can’t climb off the bike. The glorious sunset keeps us in our saddles past dusk, even though we’re running on empty. We eventually reach the ancient Carmarthenshire town of Llandovery. After a quick shower we’re welcomed by the good folk at The Indian Lounge. It doesn’t take long for our fuel gauges to hit full once again –the restorative powers of garam masala should never be underestimated.
Sometimes it rains in Wales – we’re OK with that. After several days of sunshine, it’s almost a relief to feel the misty rain on our faces as we head off to the last leg of our journey at Afan Forest. Nobody voices any apprehensions about charging around the place they call little Switzerland in the wet. It’s all part of the fun.
When you go off piste, take an expert with you. The beating heart of bike riding around this area is Ben Threlfall, who runsthe Afan Valley Bike Shed. There are five trails and over 62 miles (100km) to explore – all you have to pay is a £1 parking fee. It’s ridiculous. Ben recently started an Afan Off Piste service, where he guides visitors around some of the routes less travelled. Visibility is so poor we can barely see 20 yards (18m) in front of us, never mind the unforgettable views down the Afan Valley. Nobody’s complaining, though. These are the kind of rides you could spend a lifetime looking for. We crash through woodland and career down steep, stony paths. It’s not for the faint-hearted; but having Ben to guide us makes it another unforgettable experience. We warm up with hot chocolate and a shower, adrenaline still coursing through our veins. Ben sums up the trip better than any of us. “I’m guessing you’ve seen a lot over the past five days. But even after four years living in the Afan Valley I’m always finding new places to explore.”