With yesterday being the first day of summer for many and to be finally posting a blog about a trip we did back in March is probably all I need to say about how busy the last few weeks have been. Such is modern life I guess and why, when those brief moments of adventure come, its best to grab them with both hands and not let go.
Wanting to once again break away from our own back yard adventures, we hatched a plan very much centred around riding the ‘Gap Road’ route in the Brecon Beacons, often found featured in mountain bike magazines and on tear-out route cards as an introduction to the wilder side of riding or a nice alternative to the manicured trail centres that are situated close by. To make it more of a weekend we threw in some additional, easy miles of waterside riding courtesy of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal.
Approaching the outskirts of Abergavenny, the mountains we’d seen from a distance 20 minutes or so previously suddenly looked rather imposing indeed as they disappeared into low lying cloud. It was a very visual reminder of why the Surrey Hills, my own stomping ground, are just hills!
Setting off from the village of Llanfoist we were quickly canal-side but not before a sharp incline and a set of steep steps had us shouldering the bikes and gasping for breath. Not quite the leisurely start we had envisaged but it did afford us some great views of the Black Mountains in the distance and an excuse to pose for a quick start photo before embarking on the first section of our trip – a few miles of leisurely towpath to the village of Talybont-on-Usk.
Thanks to the quality of the surface, it was easy going if somewhat monotonous pedalling. Breaking that monotony were incredibly picturesque stretches of waterway (including the wilder, bigger River Usk which ran in parallel at many points) and whilst Spring was in its infancy, there were signs the landscape was starting to wake from a long, cold winter. No greater sign was the number of narrow boats we passed. Not a huge quantity but I got the distinct impression their owners were tentatively running them back in after a winter under wraps. Passing several small marinas and hire companies, there was a busyness about people on the canal, clearly preparing for a season of enjoyment and profit making!
After a few photo and fuel stops we arrived at the outskirts of Talybont-on-Usk where we left the relative sanctuary of the canal and picked up the Tram Road, a rock-strewn, rutted, rhythm-sapping trail which took us parallel with Talybont Reservoir. It was slow going but with a dogged determination we steadily rose above the huge body of water to our right.
Once we were above the tree line and out onto the exposed mountain top, it really provided the first real taste of the unforgiving nature of the landscape. I could only imagine what it must be like in the depths of winter with a biting wind blowing. Taking in the panorama – the reservoir well below and behind us – we chilled quickly so we were back on the bikes picking up signs to Dolygaer.
We continued to climb gradually for the next mile or so, dropping in and out of the wind and with sign posts rather disappearing I was in the hands of Andy who knew which tracks we needed to get us across the mountain. Finally the gradient took pity on us and after a flat grassy bridleway we were heading downwards, dodging ‘baby heads’ and concentrating on picking the best line, whilst avoiding a few bikers making the climb up.
After a quick stop to fix a small slice in my rear tyre – grateful I had my tubeless repair kit – we were back on track with one thing on our minds. Cake. Well, actually two things. Tea and cake. The track down to the Pentwyn Reservoir was fast and flowy and being back on tarmac roads we made good progress to The Old Barn Tea Rooms, a carbohydrate-serving oasis of plenty. We timed our arrival perfectly for a free table and before long we were tucking into sandwiches, scones and proper leaf tea with a proper silver strainer. It all seemed a little incongruous with what we had planned for the rest of the trip but we didn’t care.
Just before we both entered a serious carb coma, we dragged ourselves out of the tea rooms and back out into what had become a relatively benign March day by Welsh standards. That said the clocks were still to change and we were conscious we still had to find somewhere to spend the night. For the latter we were heading for Taf Fechan Forest which on paper looked our best bet for the night, providing plenty of cover and making for the most comfortable terrain to bivvy on.
After scouting out a couple of options we settled on a small level pitch next to the Taf Fechan river, sufficiently off the road and away from prying eyes. Feeling relatively confident the water levels weren’t going to rise three feet in the night, it didn’t take us long to get tarps up and our kit sorted out, before making some headway with collecting dead wood for a small fire. It was rather evident from the not-so-inconspicuous party of three large tents next to the road, the string of fire pits along the river and sadly an unhealthy amount of rubbish too that this was a popular area for wild camping and I dare say one to avoid in the Summer months. No doubt the midges would be pretty unwelcoming too.
Neither of us could really stomach the food we’d brought with us after over-indulging in the café, but by nine o’clock we were vaguely hungry so forced some hot food down us, if only so we weren’t under-fuelling ourselves for the next day.
After a comfortable night on the soft, mossy bank of the river we were up early for porridge and tea before packing things back onto the bike. A fairly painless exercise nowadays. Today we would be climbing from the start, working our way up to Craig Cwm Cynwyn, dissecting the peaks of Cribyn and Fan-y-Big and ultimately leading onto the Gap Road trail.
It was a murky morning. Mist and cloud seemed to merge together as we broke clear of the forest onto the thin ribbon of road taking us ever higher. We climbed just over 1,000 feet in the first three miles – three-quarters of the day’s total – and much of it in poor visibility and in silence as we both found a steady rhythm to propel us forwards.
The only deviation in the constant climbing came as we navigated through a ravine-like channel. I’m sure anyone familiar with the Gap trail will know what I mean. It’s basically depicted on the OS map as a series of very closely packed lines! Andy disappeared from view pretty quickly so I took the plunge and, after one prolonged sketchy moment where I was doing my best to control a fish-tailing, fully loaded monster, I came to rest at the bottom, simply glad to have made it down it one piece.
We pushed on to the top, increasingly encased in cloud and increasingly feeling the might of the wind and its chill. A photo stop at the top was bitterly cold and there were a few patches of snow still visible through the murk. At this point I should have put on everything I had to wear for the descent, but I opted for just an extra gilet under my Gore Phantom which proved a bit of a mistake.
The track down was strewn with boulders and rocks of fairly unforgiving sizes and the terrain was generally loose and sketchy. That said, despite my ‘sans suspension’ approach to riding these days my Stooge – with its 3-inch front Maxxis Chronicle – performed exceptionally well and I felt super stable all the way down. After a while the track ironed out and eventually turned into grass as we threw caution to the wind and enjoyed the super-fast descent to the gate.
Favouring country lanes from here rather than picking up the ‘Three Rivers Ride’ route, we were soon in Pencelli and back on the towpath of the canal. From there it was a fairly brisk spin back to the car and an opportunity to get some warmth back in our bodies away from the exposed nature of much of the day’s riding.
Our loop was around 52 miles in the end. Certainly enough for our fitness levels back in March and one I’ll certainly be looking to repeat as a day ride in warmer weather. The Brecons seem the perfect location for something like this. Close enough to be convenient but rugged and wild enough to feel like you’ve had a real adventure and tackled Mother Nature head on.