Last night the dragons were out. Even with my eyes shut I sensed the flash of their fiery breath swaddled in my sleeping bag. The echoes of their roars resounded all across the valley from Moelwyns to Manod, until eventually they rumbled away into the distance.
This morning the thunder had gone but it ws still raining, as befits a campsite in one of Wales’ best examples of temperate rain forest, otherwise known as the Vale of Ffestiniog.
The rain eased up before I reached the first climb, past the station at Tan-y-Bwlch. Llyn Mair was quite still, with perfect reflections of the oak woodland on the hillside beyond.
It was too early in the day to see a train on the Ffestiniog Railway, though I did hear one before I started the descent to Garreg. Garreg has a wonderful shop/cafe, the sort that every village should have. I restocked on flapjacks, Anglesey sea salt fudge and other cyclist’s essentials while my coffee was being made. I even practised my Welsh.
After leaving the cafe I saw one of the steel dragons that inhabit the Welsh Highland Railway and took a photo of it.
I also stopped to take one of the down train as it crossed the river at the top of Aberglaslyn pass.
Nant Gwynant was a lovely ride, and one of the highlights of the trip. Unlike most other Welsh roads it had been engineered and is a steady gradient throughout, so much so that it would not be out of place in the Alps. It was easy to get into a rhythm and enjoy the views – first Llyn Dinas, then Llyn Gwynant, the Glyders, Crib Goch and finally Yr Wyddfa itself, peeking through the dragons’ smoke.
After the zoom down Llanberis pass there was a glimpse of a modern dragon’s lair, the entrance to the Dinorwic power station. Inside the mountain is a cavern the size of a cathedral. I remember visiting when it was under construction and seeing a man sitting inside one of the Francis turbines fitting the rotor blades. This modern dragon can breathe xxGW at xx seconds’ notice.
The Devil’s Staircase deserves its reputation as one of the steepest roads in Wales. I thought I might manage to ride the 25% gradient at least as far as the first hairpin, but the laws of physics and biology dictated otherwise.
First the front wheel started skidding on the remains of last winter’s grit-salt, then it gave a few bumps as it lost and regained contact with the tarmac. Finally it was too much. My heart rate was above what is considered sensible for someone of my vintage, so it was time to get off and walk. This was a similar speed to riding, just a little easier.
The Devil’s Staircase is one of three climbs out of valleys between Abergwesyn and Tregaron. Although also steep, the others were rideable. The second was the valley of the Towy and was marked with the Ceredigion boundary sign. There was a handy rock to sit on, making an ideal spot for lunch.
As I was setting up the camera for a selfie of my lunch spot, a road cyclist in bright red and yellow came whizzing past with a friendly “Morning” and charged at the climb.
He was followed by half a dozen other members of Taff Ely CC, so I grabbed the camera and took some shots of the peleton climbing the zig – zags up the side of the valley.
They were leaving the cafe in Tregaron when I arrived (they must have had a long lunch), so I asked if they’d cycled all the way from Cardiff. No, they’d driven to Rhayader and were returning via Cwm Ystwyth and the Elan Valley.
It was a surprise to hear “Good Morning” behind me as I passed Capel-y-Ffin and approached the steepest part of Wales ‘ highest road, the Gospel Pass.
Matt was from near Swindon and had just finished his finals. He was now getting away from it all by cycling to Pwllheli to meet up with family. As he was staying in bunkhouses not camping, he had less kit than I did and a lighter bike (Specialized Allez). This would probably have made him faster up the hills even without the 40 year age difference. He seemed more interested in having company than racing ahead, as today was his easy day and a warm up for tomorrow’s 100+ miles from Rhayader to Pwllheli.
We had a lovely descent to Hay-on-Wye, enjoying the views of the Wye valley. After coffee in Hay we carried on past Boughrood and Erwood, places familiar from canoeing days.
By the side of the road we saw two cyclists sitting on a bench admiring the view. We stopped to say “Hi” and as it was 1 pm this turned into our lunch stop. They were students from Colorado, making their first ever bike tour – from Dublin to Budapest. They had stayed last night at the bunkhouse near Rhayader where Matt was headed for tonight. Small world.
When planning the first day’s ride north from Newport, Llanthony immediately commended itself as the camping destination. Romantic ruins in a valley renowned for its beauty and handily placed for the next day’s challenge of the highest road in Wales.
The route looked straightforward – a couple if detours to see the sights of Newport (they do exist), and a Sustrans route along the old canal.
That was before they announced this year’s Tour of Britain. A mountain-top finish on The Tumble, Wales’ answer to Ventoux and too good to miss. So at Pontypool I swapped the old canal for the old railway to Blaenafon. Definitely not flat, but a better tarmac surface than most roads.
From Blaenafon it was up the easy side of The Tumble – only 2 miles at 11%. After a quick photo of the Keeper’s Pond it was a swift (30+ mph) descent to Abergavenny, but no tumbles.
C2C Cymru – a great idea for a coast-to-coast ride in Wales. But should it be Caerleon to Caernarfon, Casnewydd to Caergybi, or some other combination?
The idea of a Welsh “End to End” had been on my mind for years, something to daydream about when work was tedious. Short enough to fit into a week, it should have a distinctive Welsh character to make it worthwhile. More daydreaming came up with the concept of The Dragon’s Backbone, taking in all the big climbs from one corner to the other.
I was 18 when I set out on my first-ever cycle tour. Myschoolmate Russ and I had youth-hostelled from Queensferry (the north-east corner) to Pembrokeshire (the south-west) and back. A journey along the opposite diagonal would have a nice symmetry to it.
Our route had taken in the Bwlch-y-Groes, which we were told was the highest metalled road in Wales. Recently I’d read that this Bwlch was not the highest road, and that the Gospel Pass from Llanthony to Hay-on-Wye was slightly higher. True enough, electronic OS map has a spot height on the Bwlch at 545 m and one on Gospel Pass as 549 m. Then the Tour of Britain route was announced, with a stage finish on The Tumble. This seemed like too good a chance to miss, as I could take in The Tumble summit (not to be confused with a village of the same name near Swansea) en route from Newport to Llanthony. Add in the Devil’s Staircase and Nant Gwynant for sentimental reasons, join the dots and the route was pretty much there.
The south-east and north-west corners are well-served by rail, so I could easily get from home in Oxfordshire to Newport for a 10:00 am start. So that was it – Casnewydd (Newport) to Caergybi (Holyhead) via Caerleon and Caernarfon.