Returning home to North Wales reminds Steve Thomas just how great the riding there is.
Over the years (way too many of them, yet strangely still not enough) I’ve ridden and raced all over the world; more than 50 countries in all, and lived in a fair few too. Bikes and riding have been my life, or at least they have since I hit double figures in age terms. Consequently I frequently get asked by fellow cyclists and travellers; “So, where’s your favourite place in the world for cycling?” They all anticipate some remote Nepalese trail, a twisted Alpine mountain or a secret rolling South American paradise to be the answer; but no. Without any question, every single time I stump them with my clear cut and direct answer; “Wales, North Wales.” Although I do pause and then add, “When the sun shines, that is”.
Eyebrows are raised, questions are asked and a sense of surprise abounds – every time; well, unless there happens to be another man of the motherland around that is. Okay, so it may sound a tad biased, but no, not really. In fact not at all – it’s simply that so very few people actually take the time to find out just how bike-perfect this tiny slice of the dark island is.
There are plenty of places that the one-off cycling visitor to the UK knows of and visits, and often rave about. The Lake District in Scotland jumps out, and I have little doubt that Yorkshire will soon be featuring on that list following its great Tour de France showing, which shocked many an unsuspecting viewer. People simply did not believe that such amazing countryside and riding could exist on the over-crowded and rain cursed island, yet it does, and in abundance.
So what does the North of Wales have that’s so special, and that these other honeypots don’t have? It’s what it doesn’t have that is a prime factor in making it such a great place to ride; traffic and notoriety.
The east and central area of North Wales is the least populated area in all of England and Wales, and it doesn’t even register on the regular weekend warrior or sightseeing tourist’s radar. They all head for the jewel in the crown of Wales; the Snowdonia National Park, and as such completely bypass this region, which is perfect for cyclists.
Hometown pride is a great thing; but this is not actually my hometown, it was where I chose to live for a huge chunk of my life, and where I’d still be now if it wasn’t for the dreaded rain that curses the British Isles – in particular the mountainous areas, such as Wales. That said, even on a rainy day this place is special. It has its own unique and dramatic sense of epic, which is great now and then, but not year round – when the sun shines there are few places to rival this area for cycling.
Take a Google Maps tour of the region and you’ll see the reason why this, and indeed other remote regions of the UK, are so good for road riding. There are just so many of them – roads that is; all narrow and twisted and often hundreds of years old, something that just doesn’t exist to anywhere near this extent in the new and developing world. Here you can ride on sweet and skinny roads for hours, and hardly see more than a passing tractor.
On sleepless nights my mind often wonders to the best rides I’ve ever done; rating and ranking them. That top ten is always headlined with a bunch of wild Welsh rides, and even more specifically rides around the remotest area of all – the Berwyn Mountains, a land of dramatic small mountains, lakes, and isolation.
Just a few weeks before the Tour de France made its first appearance in ‘real-Britain’, that huge percentage of the country which is to be found north of London, I made my first visit back to the land that keeps me awake at night; Wales. I’d armed myself for a few days of self-reward; riding those rides I lay awake lusting after, both to satisfy the urge, and also to see whether or not I was actually just romanticising over a lost era, one where I was younger and much fitter and the days were somehow brighter.
My first hit was to be the biggest; my regular old training ride, and one that is now used as the base for a couple of Britain’s best sportive events. It’s always been a tough cookie, with only a very short stretch of flat riding in its three-hour girth. This is common in this part of Wales – the only flat riding here is around the lakes, and to get to them you usually have to grunt over some huge and wild mountain pass.
It was a moody and heavy morning as I panted out of Llangynog, my old hometown; which is a typical Welsh mountain village with two pubs, a few houses and absolutely nothing else. It’s maybe four kilometres uphill to start the day, which is always tough, although the ride out of the Tanat Valley is one of the most spectacular around, and that certainly hadn’t changed.
My chosen ride crosses the Berwyn Mountain range on a wide-open and windswept high moorland road, which has huge and daunting views right over towards neighbouring Snowdonia.
The odd car was all I saw that morning. The ‘easy’ side of the Bwylch y Groes was the major challenge for the day. A narrow road dips and dives through a remote valley before climbing along a rock-strewn hillside and on towards its summit. It’s quite long and steep from this northern approach, and the views are simply top draw stuff.
Approaching the summit and the wind brewed up, as it often does here. In with it so the swirling clouds gapped one another and allowed the sun to appear, illuminating the green and grey camouflage-like hillside in all its glory, and it was even more dramatic than I’d remembered, as was the riding.
I’d first clambered up to this summit as a teenager, riding out to watch the Milk Race – the original Tour of Britain. We’d underestimated the ride and arrived just as the race had passed. As is often the case many a foreign rider had underestimated the climb of the Bwylch, assuming that in a country where the highest peak is just a slap over 1,000-metres tall that there could be nothing to worry about. The result was that a fair proportion of the peloton were forced to their feet on the last part of the seven-kilometre ultra-steep clamber to the summit; a Welsh lesson that few would forget.
Drawn out and mostly downhill, that’s the next section of the ride – my favourite part. The road winds out like a box kite on a windless day, swooping through remote high moorland before reaching the shores of Lake Vyrnwy, perhaps the most picturesque lake in Wales.
It was early summertime and the wild wooded banks around the lake were alive with vibrantly deep purple wildflower, beside the sun dappled route ahead. Come rain or snow I’ve ridden this route so many times, and it always has something seasonal on the specials board; but on this occasion it couldn’t possibly have been more appealing. It was almost as if it had missed me and was trying to lure me back for good, and it came damn close too – despite the fading memoirs of those wild and wet winter’s days. The weather didn’t really seem to matter in the grand scheme of things anymore; maybe it is time to go home and revive the dream that continues to haunt me.
Getting to North Wales is surprisingly easy, and although it is quite an expansive region to get around it’s unlikely to take more than two hours by car to get from one extreme to the other here.
The best international gateway airport is Manchester, which is just 1.5 hours by road from the Berwyns, while Birmingham is 12-20 minutes further, and London is around 3-4 hours away by road.
The easiest option by far is to rent a car, as public transport is sporadic here. Most major rental companies have outlets at the airports, and you can expect to pay around $30+ a day for a car.
Bikes and trains don’t always mix in the UK, and there are not many stations in this region either. If you do decide to go on the rails you must bag your bike and check out availability in advance. Gobowen is the best gateway for the Berwyns (you’re into the mountains within about 10km, and 30km from their heart).
For Snowdonia you can get to Llandudno Junction and then hop a connection to Betws y Coed. There are also stations all along the coastline.
For details check out www.nationalrail.co.uk
When To Go
The weather in Wales can be pretty fickle to say the least. By far the best time to visit and ride is between April and October, although it can rain at any time.
At the end of August the hills come alive for a couple of weeks as the heather blooms – which is amazing. Springtime (April-May) also sees varying wildflower, and the Welsh daffodils are also briefly in bloom, while October is simply amazing for autumnal colours.
Bank Holiday weekends (first and last weekend in May, Easter and the last weekend in August) are crazy weekends for travel and rooming in the UK – avoid them, and go mid-week for the best conditions and deals.
Eat, Sleep and Drink
Overall you should expect to pay around the same as at home for rooms and consumables in the UK, although in the more remote areas of Wales (such as the Berwyns) things will be cheaper; while in Snowdonia they will be slightly more.
There is a distinct shortage of lodging options in the Berwyns, as so few people visit. There are many small pubs and B&Bs dotted around, and the best areas to stay are Llanrhaedr ym Mochnant, Llangynog, and the well facilitated lakeside town of Bala – which also has a number of bunk houses and campsites.
For the northern reaches Llangollen is a great base, with plenty of sleeping, eating and drinking options.
Camping is a great option during the summer, and even when it’s wet if you’re kitted out. There are some great sites with amazing views and facilities, and they cost around $12-$20 per night.
Snowdonia can get very busy during July and August, especially Betws y Coed. The Welsh ‘low-key outdoor capital’ of Llanberis has some decent options at cheaper prices, while campsites and Youth Hostels can be found all over.
The Welsh coastal regions are quite dramatic, and have some great riding too. The Llyn Peninsula, and also around Towyn-Barmouth are amazing, and well facilitated.
Where To Ride
You could easily ride superb routes for a number of days in each corner of North Wales – here are the prime rib cuts;
Berwyns – Llanrhaedr ym Mochnant, Lake Vyrnwy, Llangynog. The quietest, and probably the best riding.
Between Llanrhaedr, Llanarmon DC and Oswestry there is a maze of superb roads to ride, all hilly, narrow, quiet and tough.
Llangynog, over the Berwyns to Bala, over the Bwylch y Groes or Hirnant Pass to Vyrnwy and back through Penybontfawr – absolute classic wild mountain riding and scenery.
Clwydians – from Llangollen over the Horseshoe Pass, around Llandegla and through the back roads right over to the Sportsman’s Pass; superb big long climbing days.
Snowdonia – the most dramatic, and also the busiest area. Best to ride mid-week. The Pen y Pas – Llanberis – Caernarvon-Bedgellert – Nant Gwynant Pass loop of Mount Snowdon is amazing, but can see some traffic in places.
The coast – there is superb close to coast riding to be had all over, just be sure to avoid the main roads. The Llyn Peninsula is particularly pretty.
It’s essential to avoid the busy main roads; they are very dangerous, especially the main A5.
Get hold of the relevant Ordnance Survey Landranger maps and head to the hills. Try and stick to the minor and B roads and you can’t go far wrong.
Bike Shops etc
Bike shops and facilities are a little sparse in most rural areas, although with the growing number of mountain bike trails things are improving.
In Oswestry there is a decent shop on the main car park (Stuart Barkley Cycles). In Bala is RH Roberts Cycles (basic), in Betws y Coed is Beics Betws (behind the Post Office), and in Porthmadog is KK Cycles.
The Welsh Bit
It has to be admitted that overall the Welsh and the English are not too fond of each other – extremely so in certain remote pockets such as Bethesda and Bala; where you would not want to be English on a late weekend pub night – Aussies are all good though.
The Welsh language has almost nothing in common with English, and is widely used and also now heavily taught in schools. Most road signs have place names in both Welsh and English, but everybody speaks English (except when they choose not to).