A warm up ride through the Brecon Beacons seemed like a good idea when sat at my laptop, not so much when sat in the saddle. It’s been a while since I last cycled in Wales, how quickly I’d forgotten the only flat roads in this land are supermarket car parks.
I’d been yearning for some cycling touring action all year. That darned thing called life has been getting in the way. In need of a break, it was time to head to the hills of Pembrokeshire, an overlooked county in Wales which has a national park and many an award winning beach.
The diversion – Cycling the Tumble climb
The long drive to Pembrokeshire offered a midway break. I say break, this meant cycling over 2,000 metres in 45 miles. Cyclists eh? I planned the ride around the The Tumble climb in the Brecon Beacons, which Simon Warren’s Greatest 100 Hill Climbs book describes as a 7/10 on his difficulty scale and has featured in the Tour of Britain. Why not I thought?
The climb itself was horrid. Hills, I’ve climbed a few, but not for many a month. Fact is I’m out of shape. It didn’t help that I was also suffering from a minor cold. Fine all year and then BAM!, it takes me out on the eve of a cycling trip to Wales. Cheers flu gods.
Having forgotten pains past, my legs and lungs soon reminded me why I love to hate hill climbs. My heartrate thumped and pumped, my legs trying in vain to follow suit as I dawdled up the 3 mile climb in just under 20 long minutes of torture. I changed my rear cassette last year from a 25 to a 27 and I now wonder how the hell I ever managed without the extra two teeth!
The view’s lovely, but you won’t be seeing it until you hit the top as your stem will be far too engrossing on the way up. Job done, I rolled down the hill and decided to tackle the lump from another side. Oh dear. A 20% ramp awaited followed by a long, twisty climb to the top, taking me almost ten minutes longer to complete than the Tumble!
The remainder of the ride was a mixture of great roads and terrible roads, you know the sort, more holes than road, a single track road reduced to a sliver of a gutter where you can actually ride due to holes, debris, gravel and grass where the road once stood. Once upon a time I hunted for such roads but they are exhausting and terrifying when descending 20% gradients, your arms straining on the brakes all day.
Day 2 – Pembrokeshire coastal loop
Awake, legs stiff, skies blue. This is about as good as I would feel all day. Legs shot, they took over an hour of wobbling about on the pedals before they loosened up. The road had little sympathy. Up it rose. One climb conquered, another awaited at the next bend. Then another. And repeat. Argh.
A snarling crosswind meant I spent much of the day cycling on the wrong side of the road, hunting hedgerows for shelter, the Welsh roads like a maze, wall to wall with very tall hedgerows.
The road surface was much improved however but for a short segment loosely covered with surface dressing. You know the thing – cover a road with lots and lots of loose, sharp stones and then seemingly bugger off! What is this all about? Well here’s the advantages and disadvantages of surface dressing, from which I’d like to add many more disadvantages for cyclists:
- Loose chippings make it very unsafe to ride on. The road moves like a blancmange where there’s a deep layer of stones.
- Chippings from passing cars attack you and the best sunglasses in the world may not save your eye
- They are sooooo slow to ride.
- Bumpy and uncomfortable, you need at least 38mm tyres
- They make cyclists swear very loud
Where was I? Oh yes, Wales! A long day on the bike at over five hours, by mile 15 I was already in shutdown mode – no thinking, no talking to myself, no singing, no enjoying the scenery. Nothing. Just head down, trying not to think of the next pedal stroke. At every turn, wind and climbs. Once my legs warmed up, I felt fast, well relatively so, it was one of those days when 15 mph feels quick after long slogs uphill.
For all of my struggles, I was rewarded with some lovely lanes, a mix of everything from moor-like climbs, twisting valley descents, tree tunnels dooming the road to darkness and balmy coastal roads. Alone in the world, on a bike, happy. Fact of the day: I saw more tractors than cars. It goes without saying in Wales that I saw more sheep than humans.
The end of the ride was a struggle and I found myself fighting the bike with 20 miles to go. The bike won. So slow. Or ‘Araf’, as seemingly every Welsh road enjoys telling you. A cruel finish awaited with a series of steep hills. I prayed for a slow tractor to pace me home but alas it was not to be.
My longest day on the bike this year. Most metres climbed too. Note to self: re-evaluate definition of fun.
Day 3 – A short loop from Pembroke
Time to return home, but not before a quick spin on the southern tip of the county, starting and finishing in Pembroke. I was determined to give this short 25 mile loop some welly despite my stiff legs, which was all well and good until the road went up.
Another chilly day in, er, mid-July aka summer. Despite the clear blue skies I was wearing two layers and still feeling the nip. Yet ye weather gods had been kind once again. This was my third trip to Wales and I’ve yet to see rain in ten days of cycling in this land. Quick, get the Guinness Book of Records on the blower.
Slung low over the bike to avoid yet another headwind, I trundled out of Pembroke past the impressive castle and was immediately hit with a hattrick of short sharp climbs. The duel commenced.
At the headland I turned out of the wind and hit a road that made me stop and pick my jaw up from the floor. Wow. The famed Pembrokeshire coast in all its glory, a wide crescent beach, the sea as blue as the sky, sand dunes either side of the snaking road. I love cycling! I was torn between riding the road hard and stopping to take some photos.
The beauty of this road stayed with me for the rest of the short loop until I hit a couple of switchbacks that guided me through the dark of an enchanted little forest. What a route! The local riders here are truly spoiled. A few more 20% climbs to finish – geez, thanks! – and I was done, another great mini-tour through Wales. What a land to cycle.
Cymru, diolch yn fawr.