Green pastures dotted with sheep, rolling hills wrapped in mist, the odd castle ruins here and there, jagged rock and a soul-searching isolation. This is cycling in Wales. Around every corner is a hill, the incline rarely gentle, the view usually breathtaking, assuming of course, the climb left you with breath from which to take.
Wales is a remarkable land to cycle. A pedaller’s paradise. Be it the austere Brecon Beacons in the south, or the lush and remote Cambrian Mountains at the country’s core, or heading further north to the verdant valleys and mounts of Snowdonia. The beauty comes at a price. If there’s a flat piece of road in this land I’m yet to find it.
Every time I cycle in Wales, I wonder if I could live there. If cycling was all there was to life, then yes. Unfortunately, one needs employment and more blue skies than the Welsh heavens permit. That said, on the couple of occasions I’ve been cycling in Wales the weather has been amazing. A mini heatwave in April (!) cycling Wales end to end (highly recommended) and then recently I was hunting steep hills whilst wearing shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. In late September. Sometimes the cycle gods can be kind.
This time last year I was cycling the climbs of Majorca which was stunning and yet, in terms of scenery, the Mediterranean isle is no match for the Celtic charm of Cymru. Yet again I set off in search of the biggest, baddest hills. The leg breakers, the lung busters, the mashing monsters. Well you get the picture, steep yeah? In Wales you don’t need to look too far for such punishment.
Bwlch Y Groes – Cycling Hellfire Pass
Which takes me to Bwlch Y Groes. A legendary climb amongst cyclists, I wondered how this Welsh dragon would compare to the equally heralded Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, which is without doubt the hardest climb chiselled into my calves. Looking at the gradient, I had little fear and yet, much to my surprise, Bwlch Y Groes was a beast of an entirely different nature.
I warmed up for the climb by cycling up the gentler side of the hill approaching from the north, not the best of route planning I realised half way up, sweat on my brow. This was my first mistake. My legs had certainly warmed up by the time I reached the summit. On the plus side, I descended the hill which gave me a view of the climb proper. This was my second mistake. There’s nothing like descending a hill to make you underestimate the climb back up!
‘This is nothing, pah, this is barely a hill’, I thought to myself rolling down unaware of my dangerously high speeds. ‘I will attack this. The Strava KOM is mine, all mine!’ I continued to think despite almost crashing into a barrier on the descent. So bemused by the climb was I that I actually began wondering what all the hype was about and why I’d driven many an hour to climb this little bump.
How foolish I was.
Half way up and the monster bit. I was not attacking the climb, it was murdering me. Hellfire Pass indeed. So why did I misjudge the climb so spectacularly? The gradient is never severe, at one point it hits 25%, yet the brutal remainder taunts you, fluctuating between 12-15% for 3km, making for an uncomfortable grind to the top on a standard double crank with a gear of 39×25.
I’ve not quite faced anything like it. Sure I’ve tackled the leg breaking hills of the Lake District but whilst these are insanely steep they do offer rest. Bwlch Y Groes offers no such respite. All it offers is a never-ending journey into hell. Heart rate at 99%, you look up to realise you still have a quarter of the climb ahead of you. Will this ever end?
Legs like jelly, arms shaking, it is at this point where you either put your foot down or turn your mind to other things. Like fluffy kittens. Or a hospital bed. I shall not be beaten. Never. Iron will kicked in and I made it to the top, sweat pouring off my face, lungs gasping for air.
It’s been a while since a climb turned my legs to jelly. One day I shall return. A 28 tooth cog packed in my suitcase, on which I imagine Bwlch Y Groes makes for a more enjoyable ride.
Bwlch Y Groes GPX route. The big climb is the first one on my route but don’t miss the chance to venture into the valley just to the north which is home to some incredible scenery and great riding. Hilly of course. Here’s the route on Strava.
Ffordd Pen Llech – Steepest hill in the UK
This cheeky little number is claimed by some to be the steepest road in the UK. There’s a 40% gradient warning at the top. At the bottom is a no entry sign, for this hill climbs the wrong way up a one way street, of appeal to law breaking, leg breaking cyclists like myself.
The reputation of this climb already had my legs trembling and the descent down its hairpins didn’t help too much either. Wow, pretty darn steep and twisty. Imagine a helter skelter built to train kamikaze pilots.
Yet at just 0.2 miles long, this brute was a breeze. Unlike Bwlch Y Groes, this time I overestimated the climb and took it easy when really I should have been sprinting up. By the time I reached the top I was barely out of breath and all set to do it again, only the thought of more hills later in the day persuaded me otherwise.
Disappointingly easy. Certainly not 40% although I’ll gladly take the awe and incredulity of the two families that I passed as they walked up this little leg opener. I’d recommend the video above, if only for the sight of the man reading his newspaper as he walks down the hill!
The Devil’s Staircase
When a hill has a nickname you know you’re in trouble. After Hellfire Pass the day before it was only natural to tackle the devil’s very own staircase. I parked the car ten miles short of the climb thinking I’d take a ride and enjoy the scenery, not realising the 20 mile loop would mean climbing over 1,000 metres. Ouch.
That said, what a beautiful route it was, definitely one of the best cycling routes in the UK. Rugged and bleak, I was very aware of my isolation as I heaved and weaved my way across the single track roads that seemed to lead to nowhere. So alone, you fear a mechanical as much as you fear the cycling bonk.
The climb itself is a classic. It begins with some steep 25% hairpins before slackening off a little into a long stretch of a lesser yet still challenging gradient that laughs at your empty legs. Hard work, but a stunning part of the world you simply have to cycle through.
A tough climb indeed but fortunately I had found my touring legs. You know the feeling, when you’ve cycled past tiredness and cycled up everything the earth can possibly throw at you. You feel invincible. Nothing will stop you.
That’s not to say you are invincible of course. You don’t quite realise it but your body has slowed to a pace suited to your exertions and so can handle anything you throw at it. Suddenly those 25% climbs are a breeze, never mind the fact you’re cycling slower than a Sigur Ros album intro.
Dodgy energy gels
A quick ramble. At some point on the ride I craved energy and so reached into my jersey pocket for a random energy gel. I had no idea what flavour it was until it hit my mouth and promptly reminded me of mint sauce on a lamb roast dinner.
Yes, I was living the dream, a Willy Wonka dream where my cycling gel was in fact a full Sunday roast! Sadly, I looked at the wrapper after the ride. Mojito flavoured apparently. Which is crazier? Sunday roast flavoured gel or mojito, an alcoholic cocktail for er, cycling.
Cycling Wales end to end
Ready for some tough but rewarding days on the bike? Off to Wales you go. Plan carefully. Look for a tail wind. Avoid A roads where possible. And be sure to check the terrain map when choosing your roads. It was a few years back when I planned my end to end trip, which was relatively flat back before I had developed an addiction to hill climbing. Besides, panniers and hill climbing are not the best of bed fellows.
I purposely chose a route that avoided the big climbs. In total I climbed just over 5,000 metres, an elevation gain you could easily double if not triple should you choose to tackle the lumpy stuff. Whichever route you choose, you’ll see some of the best views in the UK. Without trying I have stumbled across so many beautiful valleys I wonder how many more I have missed.
Looking for a route?
Here’s my three-day route avoiding (most) of the hills for day one, day two and day three. I started in Newport because it was easy to get to on the train. I’d do things very differently now. After all, you can’t reach heaven without going up.
Images courtesy of 1-3) Unknown 4) Allan Wellings, Flickr