Gravel biking the Trans Cambrian, Day 1

By Mike Jacobs, February 2021

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During that brief window, where a vague sense of normality came floating back, and you could cycle with more than one other person, Mike Jacobs took on a three day challenge in the Welsh Mountains. If you’re thinking that must mean rain, wind and fog, it’s time to think again...

There was a moment, as I lay in the ford listening to the water wash around my feet that were still clipped into their pedals, that I wondered whether perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Reading articles of US gravel trips, it had all sounded so easy - nice wide roads, gentle inclines, small dusty gravel… but here in Wales, the Trans Cambrian was turning out to be a completely different beast.

 

We weren’t alone in having our 2020 travel plans torn up, rearranged, and torn up again. And as we approached the back end of the year, a window of non-lockdown opportunity appeared, and we grabbed it with both hands. A number of options were discussed, but we kept coming back to the Trans Cambrian Way. Running 100 miles across the width of Wales, and climbing over 10,000ft, it sounded all perfectly achievable over 3 days. Sure, there was talk of lots of gates, and most people seemed to have done it on mountain bikes, but how hard could it be on a fully loaded gravel bike...

 

Loading the kit onto the bikes in the car park of Knighton station, with the sun beaming down from a clear blue sky, it all seemed rather idyllic. A couple of miles down the road a lady with a shopping trolley started a conversation with us as we slogged up the hill past her. “Where are you boys off too?” (In my mid 40s, with more hair on my back than my head, I still get a thrill from being called “boy”!). When we pointed up, she slowly shook her head, muttered something - which could have been “Muppets” - and took herself across the railway towards the village. 30 minutes later, as we pushed our bikes up a steep grassy bank, we began to wonder whether she had a point...

 

The Trans Cambrian is not a way-marked route in its own right - it weaves together a collection of bridleways, grassy lines in fields, forest tracks and minor roads. Most of what we’d read suggested it was an MTB route, but the weather had been dry and there was enough ambiguity to suggest that a gravel bike would be OK. So, we took our Goldilocks collection of bikes (a carbon Open Wide, a titanium Reilly and a steel Croix de Fer), each hoping that ours would be the one that was “just right”!

 

30 miles for day 1 seemed laughably easy, even considering the mid morning start once we’d factored in the drive and the (compulsory) Greggs stop. We’d be in Rhayader in plenty of time to put the tents up and enjoy a late afternoon session in the pub. However, as we sat on the top of a hill still disappointingly close to the start, eating our packed lunches, it was time to set some realistic expectations on timings. Which, it’s fair to say, hadn’t been helped on the first bumpy descent when my (borrowed) tent had worked loose from its stowage spot and leapt for freedom into the bracken surrounding the path. Luckily, I noticed before we’d gone too much further, but it was extra climbing that I could have done without – my apologies to any sheep in the area that were offended by my language!

 

A post lunch time descent took us down to a main road, and the first sign of human habitation in a long time – the Llanbadarnfynydd Community Shop. The shop – opened in 1998 and staffed by volunteers – is a joy. Fantastically stocked, it’s a great place to pick up an ice cream or soft drink to get you through the rest of the day (NB I accept that we had unseasonably great weather, so if you get there in normal Welsh weather they also do hot drinks). Just behind the shop is a river – too wide and deep to cycle, it was time for shoes and socks to come off.

 

There was still plenty of climbing to come, and we started to hit the forestry tracks into Abbeycwmhir Forest. These tracks have a nice gradient, and a pretty good surface, allowing a good rhythm for climbing. The tracks are mostly enclosed by forest, but there is the odd section that has been cleared, allowing great views over the countryside. And then, just over 5 miles from the end of the day, at just below the highest point of the day, you are spat back out onto tarmac for a fantastic sweeping downhill.

 

Once we’d arrived in Rhayader and pitched the tents at the excellent Wyeside campsite, we headed to the Triangle Inn for dinner. Beer slipped down easily, and huge plates of fantastic food were consumed as we reviewed the day. The consensus was that it had been hard – harder than we’d thought it would be. The mix of gradient and surfaces meant it was hard to get into a rhythm that just chewed through the miles. There were sections that we pushed that we could probably have cycled, but at the back of the mind was the fact it was only day 1, and we couldn’t burn all our matches.  And whilst the weather was glorious, the warm sun and steady breeze meant that hydration was a key factor. All this combined to mean that having finished dinner, 8.30pm felt like 10.30pm – but the upside was that we had a few more hours of drinking till it was actually 10.30pm! But sensible drinking, obviously, as day 2 was going to be the longest leg, with the most climbing…

Find out what happens on day 2, in our next instalment

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All credits: Mike Jccobs, 2021

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