Riding the Trans Cambrian Way

On New Years eve I excitedly entered the Bear Bones two ton ‘o gravel a 200 mile ‘gravel race’ in Wales. I was then disappointed when the event was postponed due to red tape. However I had a back up plan, take a touch more time off and ride the Trans Cambrian Way in both directions.

The original plan was to get back to Knighton and then ride the 45 miles to my aunts in Malvern. However although I am slightly crazy I’m not stupid. So I purchased train tickets to bring me home from both Malvern/Worcester after a week and Dovey Junction after four days. As April approached I knew that a double was becoming more and more unlikely, I just hadn’t ridden enough. Most of February I was wiped out with a cough I just couldn’t shift and getting back into the commute after this was hard with any more than three days riding on the trot rendering me exhausted.

However with all this at the back of my mind I was on the train from Leeds at 6:30am last Wednesday with an open mind. I’d just see how the first day went and take it from there. I knew that I’d pretty quickly know what sort of shape I was in. It took 3 trains to reach Knighton but the journey passed relatively quickly and so at 10am I was ready to depart.

The start.
The start.

All the reading I had done on the route had failed to mention that the first part of it is on the road for a good couple of miles so I was confused and feeling a bit unsure of my course from the start. Also the .gpx file I had was such that it never quite sat on the path correctly which always makes for some interesting navigation. Eventually the tarmac ended and thanks to a local farmer I was on the right track. The first few hills were grassy but steep with gates to open/close. This meant that sometimes just as you were starting to feel like you were getting some momentum you had to stop. One climb was so steep and long that there was nothing for it but to push, this wouldn’t be the last time.

After a while I was up on the ‘top’ and the path was a bit more rolling, so progress should have been quicker. However I then realised that I hadn’t really considered the time of year that I was choosing to ride the route during. Most of the time the ground at this point was like riding through treacle. Not out and out gloop but just wet enough to suck at the tyres. In addition the path was dotted with puddles of varying sizes. I made a bit of an error when riding into the first one that was sizeable which suddenly ended in a dead stop and a wet foot! From then on I was a bit more cautious and often had to stop to walk the bike through them whilst staying dry.

Say goodbye to the grease in your bearings!

What lurks beneath?

Eventually the path started to descend which was easier going, however you had to be vigilante because if you picked up too much speed and then hit a muddy patch the front wheel had an alarming tendency to ‘wash out’ and start to slide sideways from under the bike. I was then back on the road and descended to the A483 at Llanbadarn Fynydd. This then presented the first ‘ford’ or official stream crossing of the route. I knew that if it was high there was an alternative route around it via the road and a quick glance at the map seemed to confirm it. However after some consideration it didn’t look that deep so I reckoned I could get across ok. I however was mistaken, so now both my feet were wet!

Deeper than it looks.

Generally the first day was slow going and I realised that my speed off road was not that quick especially with the boggy and wet state of the trails in places. I pretty quickly decided that based on how quickly I was moving and how tired I was getting a one way traversal of the route was probably the best option. There is a suggested 3 day schedule for riding the route and the first day is Knighton to Rhayader. Even with a middle of the day slump which was something I experienced everyday I had reached Rhayader by 4pm about 6 hours after I set off. I knew though that it was time to start thinking about where I was going to stop for the night.

The section after Rhayader on the route is along a cycle path in the Elan valley and was pretty flat so it meant I actually managed to put in a small burst of speed/miles that I wasn’t expecting. The Elan valley is really pleasant and I could see it would be a nice place to visit in the summer and have a nice stroll. After a short road climb, the route then wound up a farm track/bridleway and back on to the top of the moor. It was time to pitch camp and choose a suitable site. First up I pitched the tarp under the overhang of some trees by a small wood but quickly realised that I’d inadvertently set up camp in a drainage channel so if it rained in the night I might suddenly find myself very wet. So instead I used a fence at the top of the adjacent field to pitch the tarp.

Not a good way to do it.

To be honest it was a pretty terrible idea and relatively exposed with the tarp open to the elements on a number of sides. It did however have a nice view. I got away with it though because when it rained in the night it only did so for a short period and my bivy bag remained waterproof. After setting up camp whilst making some tea suddenly a shepherd appeared on a quad bike checking on the sheep which were in the surrounding fields. I was a bit worried he was going to tell me I couldn’t camp there but instead he gave me a cheery wave and just carried on about his business.

I actually slept pretty well and awoke to the world shrouded in mist. I decided to get moving rather than take the time to make coffee which meant I felt a bit sluggish from the offset but after negotiating another descent that alternated between being rocky and being grassy/boggy/muddy I felt like I was getting into the swing of things. I passed through a gate and could see a farm ahead at the bottom of the rocky farm track I was following.  Then all of a sudden my saddlebag detached itself and fell to one side! The Carradice Bagman quick release clamp I was using had broken and I’d lost one of the pins. Then in addition the zip tie that attached the plastic part to the bag itself had then decided to break. After some unsuccessful attempts to bodge it into place behind the saddle with short straps I elected to just use the long straps I had with me to tie it onto my rack like a rack bag which worked pretty well for the rest of the trip.

The next portion of track was again slow going due to it being very waterlogged with more deep puddles so despite it being relatively flat you couldn’t really get up much speed. The annoying part was that it ran parallel to the road with the river in between and then you had to ford the river to get back onto the road at the end. Crossing the river unsurprisingly resulted in my feet being wet again and in hindsight I wish I’d just ridden down the road instead.

Here we go again.

The track however brought me to the dam of the Claerwen resevoir and this was one of my favourite sections of the ride. After filling my bottles from the ‘not drinking water’ taps in the public toilets at the base of the dam, I climbed the road to the top of the dam and set off along the gravel track that winds along side the reservoir behind. The reservoir was very eerie at first shrouded in mist but the track was a pretty easy ride and as I continued the mist started to lift and the sky brighten slightly. The views across the water are pretty spectacular with slopes rising majestically up from the waters edge. I think it would be a great place for a microadventure if you were in the area as you could park by the toilets then spend a couple of hours walking out along the reservoir before camping higher up on the hill side and enjoying the sunset over the water.

Through the haze.

Eventually I reached the farm at the far end of the reservoir and was surprised to find I was sharing the path with a number of cows. These were a real novelty as I had become accustomed to the thousands of sheep that roam the hills but wasn’t suddenly expecting a cow in my path. They were very friendly though and made a welcome change to the surroundings. The track became a bit more rutted and muddy were it became access to the farm rather than the reservoir but soon brought me back onto a rolling road section. The good thing about the gravel/road sections was that I could get into a good rhythm without having to worry too much about gates, mud or bogs. This naturally led to a bit more speed and the ability to admire the surroundings without worrying about where your front wheel was heading.

Oddly you may think, these reminded me of someone.

The paper guide to the Trans Cambrian Way suggests two itineraries, one in 3 days and a more leisurely one over 4. These itineraries start and finish each day at a town where there is camping and B&B accommodation and usually a pub. This had made total sense when I had cycled through Rhayader on day 1 although all the pubs looked shut to me. However halfway through day 2 the penny dropped that the route doesn’t actually pass through any of the other settlements mentioned in the itineraries! I stopped for a rest about 1pm and had a look at the OS maps I’d brought along for back up. The 4 day itinerary suggests Rhayader to Pontrhyd-y-groes for a short day 2, however working out where I was on the map I was well past that point and hadn’t even known the settlement was close.

Shimano MT91 boots and Sealskinz socks are great, until the water is up to mid-shin level!
Bodged rackbag

Despite having lost time faffing with my saddlebag I seemed to be making good progress but as 4pm rolled around, again I was starting to tire. With about 30 miles under my belt thoughts of finding a camp site became paramount. After leaving the road shortly after Tyllwyd and pushing up a long climb the trail dropped down to the Bryn Diliw forest. I knew that there was going to be some prolonged rain that night so setting up camp under the cover of the tree canopy appealed. I found a nice flat area under the trees but as it was situated between the river and the wind farm I made sure I dug my ear plugs from out of my bag. It doesn’t take long to get in to swing of things for setting up camp. Tarp up, bivy/sleeping bag out and then stove on to boil water for cous cous and peppermint tea. I also started a fire on this night to try and dry out my socks, however I didn’t have much success before it started to rain.

A better pitch than the first night.

The rain started about 7 or 8pm and was constant and heavy well into the night. I think I finally fell asleep about 10pm but until then it was torture listening to it coming down through the trees and hitting the tarp even with ear plugs in. The tarp did it’s job well though and when packing up the next morning there was a neat dry patch on the forest floor which it had sheltered. I took my time packing up although I managed to burn my mouth on the coffee I made which then left me with a weird taste in my mouth for the rest of the day.

Day 3 passed in a bit of a blur to be honest. I wasn’t sure whether I would reach the end or have to camp for another night. I was also aware my train tickets from Dovey Junction were actually booked for the day after. The day started with a 25 minute fire road climb followed by a 2 minute descent and this set the trend for the rest of the day with long fire road or road climbs followed by quick descents. As the day progressed it was noticeable I had to walk more and rode less of the climbs. I’m not sure why but I seem to have a definite lull in the middle of the day where I feel very tired and then perk up again towards the end of the afternoon.

Early on either still in the Diliw forest or possibly in the Hafren forest I had another ford to negotiate and thought I could ride across. Sadly I picked totally the wrong line and my front wheel disappeared into a crack in the stream bed I hadn’t seen. Suddenly I found myself keeling over sideways into the water and had to put out my hands to stop myself! Brilliant, now I had two wet feet and wet hands and forearms as well. I sat on the board walk that was the other side of the ford and rang out my socks. Suddenly a woman out for a run appeared and asked if I was ok, fine thanks was my reply. Then a walker also appeared and said good morning. I wasn’t used to seeing this many people, it was then I spotted that I was next to a car park with a toilet. I prayed for a hand drier but when I investigated the toilets were locked.  I set off again and my gloves and socks did dry out over the course of the day but it wasn’t the most pleasant feeling at the start to be squelching along.

Should have kept left.

I was really starting to tire at times and was constantly worried about running out of water. I’d so far hadn’t suffered any ill effects of drinking water from streams but it did make me nervous. Whilst riding up yet another climb I passed a woman collecting her mail from the mailbox and asked if I could fill up my bottles. Thankfully she said yes and also suggested I visit the local pub further up the climb for a sandwich if I was hungry which was ‘set back on the right’ as she described it. It was indeed set back on the right when I reached the top of the climb but also down the bottom of another hill that was a detour from the route and I just couldn’t face having to ride back up again after lunch.

After eventually working out the right path to follow when I’d inadvertently missed a right turn I came to probably the most technical descent of the route. I’d been very happy riding everything up until this point and felt that my skills course with Ed Oxley had definitely paid off. However I elected to walk down the steep path as there was a pretty big drop on one side. The other side of the valley also involved a pretty tough scramble upwards. I knew I was getting really tired by this point as I’d started to look at the elevation profile of the route on my gps which I only do when I start to feel mild desperation about how much climbing I have left.

The technical bit.

Looking a the profile it suddenly dropped off steeply downwards and for a minute I thought that I was close to the finish. It was quickly clear that I wasn’t but this was the second descent I walked as it was what appeared to be newly laid large chunks of shale on a very steep twisty path down. After a while this gave way to rock and grass and with the surface providing more grip I got back on the bike and enjoyed the rest of the long descent.

The top of a climb…and rest.

 Finally I realised that I was on the last climb of the day and it was literally pretty much all downhill from there. Having thought I wouldn’t make the end that day I suddenly realised that I would be there by 5pm. The final descent was down through a wood and should have been great a nice fast forest road without too many gates to block the path. Sadly whoever had been felling trees in the forest had decided to leave them all in the middle of the path, so after clambering over a few I had to then take a detour off the path and round them pushing my bike through the undergrowth.

Before I knew it I was on the A487 which was a bit of a shock as I had grown used to the lack of traffic on the rest of the roads I’d used. I also remembered that I’d driven this road last year and so there was a weird sense of familiarity. The turning for the station appeared and then I was there, Dovey Junction, the end. The gps said 109 miles for the entire route and it had taken me a total of approx. 54 hours from start to finish. 4205
I had a bit of a weird euphoria moment on the platform perhaps because my body and mind realised that I didn’t have to ride any more. I did have the small matter of the fact my train ticket wasn’t valid for another 24 hours to worry about, but I didn’t need to as it appears that train guards don’t actually read the date on tickets. I also had to contend with about 30 drunken teenagers who got onto the train at Welshpool en route to Shrewsbury for an under 18’s disco. They were in varying levels of inebriation with one lad being paralytic and promptly sick on the floor.

So what of the two ton ‘o gravel? I’m still nowhere near the level I need to be to ride 200 miles off road when it’s rescheduled but I reckon I can get there. Although that would be a 24-36 hour event with probably only a short sleep so I would be carrying less gear as well. Maybe I’ll enter the Dorset Gravel Dash as another training ride.