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Mark Jacobson's small wheels take on some big hills and bigger weather ...


For late April, the weather sounded possibly settled. Expecting no more than April Showers, a four-hour train journey brought me to Aberystwyth in time for lunch. The sun shone, a cooling breeze came off the sea, and I struggled to find my way out of town, all one-way lanes appearing to head north! I wished to ride southwards.


Gaining the B4576 took me out to quieter ways, narrow lanes edged with hedgerows: the gorse in bloom displayed a golden glow, leaving the occasional white of hawthorn looking rather drab. It grew quite hot out of the breeze. The hills grew steeper, the views better.


Camping first at Ystrad Aeron for two nights gave me an unladen day's ride. The A482 to Lampeter first climbs to Temple Bar, quite a steep shock for an A road. By contrast, the A485 southward through the Teifi Valley was a delight, light traffic mostly cruising below the 40 mph limit. However, at Llanwenog I turned off on to the B4338, directing my little wheels to New Quay, no, not the Cornish one! Having said that, it could well have been, the drop to the harbour as short and steep as for that other county. Here a blue sea under a sunny sky presented an idyllic scene.


Leaving New Quay via the B4342, I went astray at Llanarth but, no matter, the diversion only added a couple of miles to my expectations and gave some really good views over the countryside around. Mydroilyn presented a steep drop and climb out, listed at 12%, and soon afterwards came an 11% ascent. The road settled to normality then, giving me a pleasant ride back to my tent.


Next morning I set off along the B4342 to Tregaron where, forsaking NCN82, I kept to the road as it led more directly to Pontrhydfendigaid and Strata Florida Abbey, by which time a chill had set in with louring clouds. I only accorded the ruins a short visit before returning to the road for Devil's Bridge, where I intended staying over at a suitable camp site. NCN82 turns off the road at Ysbyty Ystwyth, which saves them the serious descent to Pont-rhyd-y-groes, from where the road climbs rather startlingly for some two miles, enclosed by tall conifers, dripping with rain from the now weeping sky. After a long push, I took a breather at the top. For all that, I arrived at Devil's Bridge before noon, so had an early lunch at the Rheidol Railway station. Being early it seemed better to continue on to Rhayader, another 33 miles by my route through the Elan Valley, stopping instead at the camp site there. This decision taken, I set off up the climb to the Arch above Cwmytswyth, while remembering that at some point in during the morning's ride, I had heard my first cuckoo of the year.


The Ystwyth Valley begins with a desolate scene, sloping spoil from former mines down most hillsides. There is one habitation boasting a pottery, not open when I passed, and further on, a remote farmhouse. Rising to the source of the river all one can see is an uninhabited valley filled with the pale biscuit coloured glow of dried bunch grasses and sedges covering the early spring slopes. Reaching the watershed one finds a level bog, water seeping both ways: westward to feed the Ystwyth, eastwards for the Elan. An occasional car passes. Kites patrol overhead.


The reservoirs of the Elan Valley feed the needs of Birmingham. Originally built by the Birmingham Corporation Water Department, they are now owned by Dwr Cymru Welsh Water and the filtration works further downstream by Severn Trent Water. Water flows naturally downhill and the design took this into account. At 2 mph, the water takes about 36 hours to reach the Frankley Reservoir near Birmingham, 73 miles away.


Coming towards Rhayader I could see the road rising rather drastically ahead, so made a poor decision to switch to NCN81 which appeared to run along a rail bed: unfortunately the tunnel is sealed up and the cycle route ascends steeply over the hill top! Furthermore, this short mile stretch to the town has no less than 12 gates, mostly in pairs for the use of farmers whose fields lie to either side. These are a real pain to use when handling a laden bicycle. The journey to Rhayader had been long and tiring, so after making camp, I set out for an early pub dinner.


Next day gave me my hardest ride ever! The NCN81 route from Rhayader to Llanidloes is very pleasant (only three gates!), a narrow lane trending high above the busy A470, whose traffic can be heard far away so as not to spoil your ride. From Llangurig I could hear fledgeling birds squeaking in the hedges; this grew louder and more frequent until I realised that, in fact, the squeaking was from my chain, calling for lubrication! So far the intermittent showers had done their cleaning! From Llanidloes the B4518 is a very 'uppity' road, with lots of ups and downs, the steepest being after it drops to the Clywedog dam wall. From Staylittle, NCN8 having joined after diverting around the Clywedog Resrvoir, turns off to climb the 'mountain', the direct road route to Machynlleth. This long ascent tops 509 m at its summit, before a fierce descent to the Dovey Valley. So, after much pushing came the real difficulty: how to keep the Brompton in check without overheating the rims through prolonged braking (which could lead to a burst tyre), while avoiding a runaway at excessive speed! As it was, I touched 39 mph on one short dip.


Machynlleth was crowded, with the Comedy Festival on for the Bank Holiday weekend: we were now into May. Traffic could not flow, such was the congestion. After shopping for supplies, I left for quieter ways, finishing up at the Llwyngwern Farm camp site, close to the Centre for Alternative Technology. This proved a bit pricey considering the rather shabby ablution block, dated and in need of a good clean, but it was quiet and I had an enforced stay of two nights, owing to the excessive rain experienced that Saturday and Sunday. The rain came in gusts, with very strong wind, so my ride along the Tal-y-llyn that Saturday morning was almost a wash-out! The afternoon was spent keeping warm in my tent, either listening to the radio, or reading 7DC on my phone! I felt too chilled to walk around the rather open-air C.A.T.

Sunday gave less rain, and I set off for Corris Craft Centre Café, opening at 10 am, in moving on to Dolgellau. On the approach I rose into the cloud layer, with its accompanying rain, a soft rain, delicately falling mist-like. After tea the rain had set in rather more but the continued ascent was fairly easy. Having descended to the B4405 junction, there came a steeper climb followed by a rapid descent to the A470. On hard braking, there was some juddering from the rear brake, so I applied that less. Sure enough, checking once on the camp site I found the blocks worn down and rotated one for an immediate fix, later putting my spare blocks where they could be easy to locate, if needed.


In Dolgellau I first had lunch at the Royal Ship Hotel then back tracked to the Tanyfron camp site in town. Camp set up on the top terrace, not occupied by anyone else, I set off for a dry ride, first stopping to have a chat with a couple who had been camping, and using their very nice Dawes tandem. Taking their directions, I found the start of the Mawddach Trail and began to explore it, getting about half way before a darkening sky encouraged my return. The trail is well compacted but has a sticky surface after rain: this caused the mudguards to clog, which needed attention, and splattered the lower parts of my Brompton with slick grey mud. The rain just held off until back at my tent.


Next morning I packed up, using the Mawddach Trail to get me to Fairbourne as I intended having lunch in Tywyn before finishing up at my final camp site near Pennal, making it easier for my morning train home. Reaching Morfa Mawddach station, after an enquiry I found the new extension to the trail: a short way beyond the station is a level crossing for trail users, leading to the newly laid surface that follows the sea wall to the breakwater. Still a bit rough from lack of use, this made a pleasant ride.


Riding under a very tall stone rail bridge from Fairbourne brought me to the A493 coast road. I had been advised that this is not suitable for cycling as it is narrow and has many bends. On the long gentle climb on this Bank Holiday Monday very little traffic passed by, no one in any sort of hurry. I could enjoy the blue of the sea from whence came a cooling breeze while listening to the bleating of sheep in the lower pastures. At one time this road continued through Tomfanau alongside the railway line but, as the bridge to cross the Afon Dysynni seems to have been washed away, it turns inland to Bruncrug, where I arrived just after 11 am. Only a short while before had the traffic increased! Thankfully, most people seem to be very slow at arising for their day's enjoyment. Immediately came a good, off-road cycle track, probably to accommodate the visitors in the many static caravans spread about. This took me into Tywyn, which was very busy owing to a huge outdoor market. I had tea and then left town, pausing for some time above the Talyllyn Railway station, its lines passing below the bridge. The train about to depart was being set up as a double-header, steam and smoke billowing below.


Not much further along I could leave the south-bound cycle track to turn for Happy Valley, at Caethle. What a pleasant narrow lane, having very little traffic to contend with. First came a hill farm, then one in the valley alongside the river, stone spoil everywhere, so presumably a former slate mine. The lane ended on an 'up', a very steep rise leading to a 25% descent to the A493 at Pennal. Lunch taken, I made camp at Gwerniago Farm. Here are some sloping fields where a level spot could quite easily be found, two steep tree covered hillocks with moss and bluebells under the oaks and, lower down fields with horses, cows or sheep grazing contentedly. I had several pleasant walks about the farm and enjoyed the very modern and ecological facilities.


During the night we had much rain but I was able to pack the tent contents during a lull, then came torrential rain driven by gales force spells, causing me to spend about 30 minutes sheltering in my empty tent. Finally I managed during a pause in the downpour to bundle the tent without losing any part of it, and to ride, struggling against the gusts, to the Machynlleth station for my train home.




Ryton On Dunsmore

Coventry  CV8 3FH


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