Cycling Holyhead to Bristol in 5 days
Apologies in advance for the essay, but as lockdown has ruined a lot of people's fun I thought you might like to hear of my adventures through Wales last month.
Packing for a 5 day cycle trip:
I am not saying this is the definitive answer, my bike was very heavy and I had to wash my kit half way through, but this is what I took with me:
- Trek alpha 1.2 road bike with rear pannier rack and panniers
- Saddle bag (moved to behind my handlebars)
- Tent: Wild country Coshee Micro V2
- Sleeping bag: 1 season Oex Roam 100
- Roll mat: Mountain equiptment Helium 3.8
- 2 Water bottles
- Battery pack (Goodmans 10,000 MAH+ cables for phone, watch + bike computer
- Front and Back Lights
- Plastic bag with basic first aid: painkillers, allergy tablets, antiseptic, bandage, plasters, tweezers
- Toothbrush + paste, tiny folding hairbrush, tiny shampoo
- Microtowel (could probably have gone smaller)
- Emergency food: gels, flapjack
- Face masks and hand sanitizer
- Phone, debit card and cash (some places in Wales STILL don’t have card readers…or banks)
- 2 clothes pegs and zip ties
- Penknife + lighter
- 3x spare tubes
- Bike pump
- Tyre levers
- Puncture Repair Kit
- Mini Lock
- Dry clothes: Jogging bottoms, t-shirt, fleece, warm socks, underwear, flop-flops
- Bike clothes: Cycling top, bib-shorts, leggings, long sleeved top, waterproof high vis, buff, fingerless cycling gloves
I had all of this before-hand apart from my tent, so was quite cheap for me to put together. I shared some equipment with the other guys, so I carried a pump, but they carried a multitool etc. Another useful thing I would take next time is electrical tape. We used it on multiple occasions to hold together broken panniers, broken brake cables and to strap extra bananas/flapjacks to the handlebars! If I was riding again in the same conditions (which I wouldn’t recommend) I would probably take tiny towel and use the space to squeeze in my winter riding gloves.
I made my way from Bristol to Holyhead by train which was quite a stressful experience; hauling a loaded bike and paniers across train platforms and trying to social distance as best we could. Eventually we got to Holyhead and I cheered up immediately, catching up with friends I haven’t seen in ages and cooking large quantities of pasta in a caravan we booked for the night.
Day 1: Holyhead to Penrhyndeudraeth
(60.26 mile, 1014m ascent, punctures: 2, crashes: 2 (both Sol)
TLDR; Ogwen trail definitely a nice break from traffic, Snowdownia is beautiful, but only if you can actually see it.
We couldn’t leave Holyhead without a photo by the sea, so that was out first stop. None of us were used to riding with such unbalanced, heavy bikes and some had not done any group riding before so we took some time before we were aware of each other and the amount to space we took up in the road. We had decided not to stick religiously to the Route 8 (lon las Cymru) cycle route as it hugs the coast and we wanted to see the mountains of Snowdonia. Instead we took a direct route through Anglesey (a shame really as there is some beautiful cycling there, but there is only so much you can fit in) and headed to Bangor where we picked up the Ogwen trail. This started off with a gentle, tarmacked tree-covered section, free from traffic and relatively quiet (although it was raining). We relaxed and chatted as we made our way along this converted railway line complete with tunnels and the remnants of old platforms. Gradually the path started to climb and gave way to a slate shingle which was a little slippery in the wet, but we all managed on laden road bikes so definitely rideable. We stopped for lunch in Bethesda (https://www.agoriad.org.uk/caffi-coed-y-brennin.html) where I had a pot of tea, beans on toast and a teacake with jam and butter for £5.35!
The next section was probably the most beautiful of the day but the wind had picked up and by the clouds overhead we knew that we were in for a true soaking. The path to Llyn Ogwen was now a proper climb and quite steep in places; out-of-saddle climbing is a completely different game on slate, in the wet, with panniers! Tryfan and Glyder Fawr loomed above us, and we had a breath-taking view down the Owen valley impossible to get to by car.
When you reach Llyn Owen visitor centre, you have to re-join the main road to Capel Curig. After the slow, off-road climb up, we absolutely flew along the A5, which is easily wide enough for traffic to come round and we all had lights and bright jackets so we were visible even in the rain. My previous memories of the stretch from Capel Curig, past the famous Pen Y Gwryd Hotel and down into Beddgellet can vouch for the humbling mountains and beauty of the lakes but we saw none of this as we (slightly miserably) chugged away in the sideways rain and wind. We stopped a few times to rearrange kit and take on more food. Just before the decent we passed another hardy group of cyclists who promised us the sun was shining and the pubs were still open in the valley below.
Now I was thoroughly soaked, with my jacket pooling water at the elbows and my glasses so misted up I couldn’t see the hairpin corners leading down to Beddgellet, but the decent was nonetheless really fun. I can’t say the landlord of the Prince Llewelyn Hotel was overjoyed by 5 sodden cyclists traipsing in, but we needed somewhere to warm up slightly and plan where to stay that night over a few half pints.
Our plan was to wild camp where possible, but I put my foot down with regards to me needing a shower that evening so we ended up cycling 8 mile further down our route to Penrhyndeudraeth and booking a campsite (Blaen Cefn Caravan Park, £10/tent). After thoroughly abusing the campsite laundry room to spread out all our wet gear (we were the only campers in the whole site I might add), we showered and headed for the pub (Oakeley Arms Hotel) where we ate about 4 courses to put off the inevitability of returning to our wet tents.
Day 2: Penrhyndeudraeth to Llani
(66.85 mile, ascent: 1970.5m, punctures: 0, crashes: 1 Sol again (something to do with Ben overtaking))
TLDR; Serious hills, earning my kudos. Definitely helps having Mamma Rees’ homemade lasagne to look forward to.
This was to be our toughest day in both milage and climbing, but as we were headed for our home town of Llanidloes (Llani to us) we knew we had beds (and home-cooked food!) at the finish line. The first set of climbing was a rude awakening straight up from sea level at Porthmaddog, short and sharp testing my limits as we hit sections of 20%. The climb was worth it for the views over Ceredigion bay, and the roads were lovely and quiet, framed by dry stone walls, mossy autumn woodland and bedraggled sheep.
After a quick stop in Harlech for a look at the world’s steepest road* ( 36.63%) and coffee and welsh cakes outside the castle, we team-time-trialled it to Barmouth for a proper pit-stop where we filled our bellies, pockets and panniers with food for the rest of the day.
From Barmouth to Dolgellau there is a traffic-free cycle route which follows the Mawddach estuary, crossing over the mouth on an ancient feeling footbridge. This section is also dead flat, giving us an opportunity to chat whilst doing our best to wind in and out of puddles. I would 100% recommend this section on aesthetics but be prepared to get muddy if you are foolish enough to ride in Wales in September. The cumulative sogginess eventually took it’s toll on Ben’s pannier rack, causing it to snap as we got into Dolgellau. This was “fixed” by taking everything off one side and strapping it to the rack on top with liberal application of zip-ties and bungie cords. My brother Tom met us on his motorbike, having taken a heavy drenching coming over the mountain we were about to climb and raised our spirits with yet more food: homemade veggie sausage rolls.
From Dolgellau, you can either head back out to the coast to go south or stay inland and go over the tops of the hills above Coris which is what we decided to do. This was the second of the heavy climbing sections of the day, and in my mind some of the prettiest. The landscape is wild and open and the climbing was tough but not knee-crunchingly steep; I actually really enjoyed myself. We even got to see low flying jet planes practicing manoeuvres through the valley. If you are ever in the area, this section can be turned into a circular loop heading back to the coast and up to Dolgellau and I think would be well-worth doing.
As we headed down into Machynlleth (Mach) we started checking our watches and working out how much daylight we had left. All of us knew what was ahead: the last (and by far the worst) of the day’s climbs. I had come over the Mach mountain road from the other direction in the past, but never from Mach to Llani. With no time for another stop, we looked at each other grimly, said ‘see you at the top’ and began to climb.
The road lulls you into a false sense of security at the start, and for about 5 miles you think you might actually be alright, and perhaps your legs are not as gone as you thought. Then at some point you turn a corner and can see the road looming in front of you, rising up and out of sight. The only way I got up it was to pretend to myself that over the crest of each hill or round the next bend there would be a flatter section on which I could recover, but in reality there are no such breaks. In fact, the road gets even steeper as you near the summit; I could see Sol ahead of me zig-zagging his way up a cruel looking section in the distance. At one point it was just too steep for my heavy bike and tired legs and was forced to push for a few meters. Sol and Rhod were stood clapping me as I reached the top, and I grinned knowing from here to Llani was all downhill, and I knew those roads like the back of my hand. There are no photos from this bit of the trip, not because it is not breathtakingly beautiful up there but because we were all too knackered to even think about it.
* heavily contested by a street in New zealand but we will ignore that (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-52215151)
Day 3: Llani to Newbridge-on-Wye
(39.32 mile, ascent: 1124.1m, punctures: 2, crashes:2 (Sol (voluntary nose-dive into moss), Ryan (involuntary, straight into the back of a parked car))
TLDR; very very wet + off roading =slow day
Having spent the night at my parent’s house (taking the opportunity to wash and dry out all of my kit, recharge all my devices and eat the amazing lasagne and crumble my mum had waiting) I was in good spirits meeting up with the others for Day 3. The plan was to again detour slightly from the official Lon Las Cymru route to take in a lap of the Elan valley before stopping near Builth Wells. After falling foul of some hedge clippings on the back road to Llangurig, we started down a track which takes you off the Aber road and into Elan via Sustrans route 818. This was a great find of Ben’s; the first half takes you steeply up through forest on tarmacked roads used rarely by vehicles accompanied by stunning views. Then you reach a footbridge in the middle of nowhere where the maintained road abruptly stops and instead becomes mostly a bank of rocks (only Ben managed to ride it).
I think that this track used to be a road as there is an eroded central avenue of tarmac, but you couldn’t count on this being there along the length, and the decent was definitely an exciting mix of skidding on loose stones, riding through deep puddles and drops not suitable for laden road bikes. Good fun though.
We re-joined the tiny rural Cwmystwyth road, looking very pretty in our daily hour of sunshine! A cyclist’s paradise, the Elan valley is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Mid Wales, although when we were there the visitor centre café was replaced by a burger van where we had lunch, sheltering against the incoming rain and trying to stop our chips getting soggy. As soon as we stopped, we realised how freezing it was-I put on all the cycling layers I had and we agreed to press on in the hope that we would get a break in the weather by the time we had to put up tents.
Just before Rhayader we again picked up route 8. The section between here and Builth is mostly nice back roads but should definitely come with a warning about the off-road section which is more suitable to a gravel bike. Our bikes and nerves took a hammering and I could hear the others swearing and squealing as we all almost come off or crashed into each other. Looking at the map afterwards, I think I would still take that over the A470; we could always have walked our bikes if it came to it and I think the off-road section was only a couple of miles.
We weren’t doing as well as expected on milage that day (with punctures and off-roading) and were completely soaked through (again) so decided we weren’t going to make it to Builth and instead found a place to camp near Newbridge on Wye. We pitched in a wood, making sure to clear the ground of tarp-piercing branches first. I don’t think I have put up a tent in such heavy rain before and although my little tent went up easily enough, it is too small to sit upright in so getting roll mats and sleeping bags set up was a bit more tricky. I have to say my panniers did an amazing job of keeping my warm clothes, sleeping bag and tent dry, and I had my sleeping bag and mat in individual dry bags inside that so everything was protected twofold. A note about wild camping – it is not strictly permissible to camp anywhere in Wales as it is in Scotland, but in general if you are quiet and leave no trace that you were ever there, you will be fine in a small group. Worst case scenario – you are caught and moved on- and even then if you are polite and obey the landowner it is really no drama.
That evening, after setting up the tents we played cards and ate pizza at The New Inn; a proper local rather than a fancy gastropub. The landlady was very friendly and put the heating on in the back room for us (although that may have been so we didn’t drip on her regulars!).
Day 4: Newbridge-on-Wye to Abergavenny
(45.07 mile, ascent: 932m, punctures: 4(?), crashes: 0)
TLDR; beautiful views of lord Herefords knob.
After a very wet night spent listening to the rain hammering through the trees, we packed up our soaking kit and headed to Builth Wells for breakfast. We stopped at the fountain Café, (https://www.fountaininnbuilthwells.co.uk/cafe) had a nice cooked breakfast, charged devices and patched inner tubes (Sol and Ben had both punctured on the way over). Next we stocked up on maltloaf, bananas and sandwiches for the day’s ride and I also took the opportunity to buy a pair of warm gloves from a bric-a-brac shop which I definitely should have included in my kit list.
The day’s ride was basically pretty flat aside from a Brecon beacon right in the middle. From Newbridge to Glasbury we followed Route 8, which was on-road but quiet. Then we switched to Route 42 which takes an alternative route through the hills over Gospel Pass. It was a hard climb; not as unrelenting or long as the way up the Mach mountain road on day 2, but equally steep in places. The route is also almost free of cars so it was easy to take breaks to recover on the way up. The day we were there it was dry but cold, making for perfect viewing conditions at the top, and the view was really breath-taking (as soon as you actually got your breath back from the climb!). One of the peaks (Sol reliably informed me) was called ‘Lord Herefords knob’, although it also goes by the slightly more respectable welsh name ‘Twmpa’. Due to the winds at the top, we resorted to lying huddled in hollows in the grass to eat our sandwiches, no doubt to the amusement of smug campervan owners in the Gospel pass car park. Just before descending we saw wild horses with their manes blowing majestically in the wind.
The decent was beautiful and good fun, twisting through open grassland and gorse down into the wooded valley, the temperature getting noticeably warmer with each turn. We must have flown past the ruins of Llanthony monastery too but didn’t realise until later- I guess that is one for next time.
We found a nice campsite just outside Abergavenny (£6 a head https://pyscodlyncaravanpark.com/prices/ ) and walking distance from a pub (The Lamb and Flag) where I had Glamorgan sausages and the biggest chocolate brownie I have ever seen. The best bit was that we got our soaking tents up with plenty of daylight spare and they had completely dried off by the time we went to bed. I even got the boys to do a bit of yoga on the grass, although it was quite difficult to balance while laughing!!
Day 5: Abergavenny to Bristol
(47.7 mile, ascent: 664.1m, punctures: 0, crashes: 0 (although Ben nearly had an altercation with a police car right at the end!)
TLDR; Fast, quiet roads with almost no climbing. Riding over the Severn bridge is fun!
I approached the final day with a mixture of sadness and relief; part of me wanted to carry on for another week, but I also had a niggling Achilles which I knew needed a rest. Sol left us for his ride home to Swansea (a much hillier day than ours!). We followed route 42 along the flat river basin through hedgerow lined B roads which later became single country roads. Very pleasant and fast riding, with only one gentile hill at Llancayo; 25 miles flew by without us noticing. Aside from a quick stop to strap my Achilles up and eat some maltloaf, we didn’t really stop until we got to the Severn bridge, which I didn’t know you can cycle across but apparently you can! Rhod knew a great spot for a group photo with the bridge in the background. By then it felt like Bristol was just around the corner, but we still had 15 miles to go, albeit, very flat. Our route (mostly following Sustrans route 4) was not particularly scenic, but did the job of getting us into Bristol on quiet roads and canal paths without having to compete with traffic. After 4 ½ days of being almost exclusively in the countryside, cycling through the city seemed like sensory overload! Rhod had the scent of home in his nostrils so we just followed him through the cycling routes you get to know if you live in a place long enough. Waving bye to Ryan in the city centre it felt like the trip was truly at an end.
I was sad that the trip was over, but the feeling of showering and putting on non-lycra clothes after 5 days of cycling and camping is hard to beat!