Winter riding in Wales

In January Bex and I went to Wales for a week long mountain bike trip. We'd done pretty much no mountain biking before and the weather forecast was shocking, but we eventually bit the bullet and booked train tickets to and from Wales, committing us to the task.


Limited holiday and ambitious plans meant we caught the first train out of Euston early on Saturday morning. The snow of the previous week had all but melted in central London, but as soon as the train broke clear into countryside we realised a worrying amount was still coating the rest of the UK!


The plan was to ride from the north coast to the south coast via a series of trails and tracks. The route linked together a few purpose built mountain bike trail centres, some forest roads and some normal roads to traverse the country. We'd found an article in a magazine that gave us the details (map courtesy of MBUK).


Our train dropped us off by the Irish Sea. A couple of quick adjustments to the rent-a-bike and we were off. Compass set due south for six days.


Straight away the scenery was ace. A few country lanes took us away from the north coast, but they were about as nice as roads get - great views and next to no traffic.


Soon enough we left the tarmac behind. A forest road took us high up above the road that hugged the bottom of the valley.


Navigating is slightly more tricky when off road due to the obvious lack of signposts, but working out where we were on the map felt quite rewarding (although we realised shortly after I took this photo that we'd taken a wrong turning - the path ahead was a dead end at the top of a hill! Oops...)


No matter which way we turned the landscape was beautiful, despite the grim weather.


The trail centres we came across were definitely a learning curve for us novices - an intoxicating mix of fun and fear. Brain working flat-out to pilot the bike safely through a minefield of rocks, ledges, boulders and logs.


We carried our stuff in a frame bag and saddle pack on my bike, plus a small backpack each for water and valuables - lighter and more suited to bouncy trails than the racks and panniers we've used before.


We didn't carry camping kit with us so we stayed in B&Bs in whichever small town greeted us at the end of each day's riding. Some were nice, others were more like a trip back through time. Dark labyrinth-esq corridors and ancient carpet...


Each night we decorated our room with damp smelly cycling kit - we had two sets of clothes each, one for cycling and the other kept safely clean and dry all day ready for the evening.


One of the more gritty towns we stayed in - many of these places were once thriving mining centres. Today these communities still exist but following the collapse of the mining industry people left to find employment elsewhere, hence I imagine they don't quite have the same vibe as they would've in their prime.


Day three was eventful... The weather (which hadn't exactly been tropical for the first two days) was appalling - 50kph headwinds and freezing driving rain. A few snow drifts forced us to get off and push as we fought our way up the first pass of the day.


Progress had been pitifully slow all day, but as we neared the top of the second pass the wind was getting too much.  It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, and with no cover from the gusts we kept getting blow off the bikes.  The map showed a section of open high moorland to cross at the top of the climb and it was already late afternoon - I was starting to get worried about the prospect of getting caught out in the dark with nothing but cold wet clothes and some crap bike lights.

We made the difficult decision to turn back and return to the previous town for the night.  We freewheeled down the hill, now with a huge tailwind, barely turning a pedal to cover the same ground that had taken hours of full on climbing.  We hunted out a place to stay whilst feeling pretty dejected.


With the 6 day schedule leaving no room for error and the same ferocious headwind forecast for the rest of the week, we had to make a new plan - we simply couldn't cover the distance to the south coast anymore.  We'd really enjoyed the trail centres that we'd cycled through and had already talked about coming back one weekend just to ride a centre, so we decided to catch a train to the final centre on our route and stay there for the remaining days before our train home.

Despite the initial disappointment of failing to finish the challenge we'd set ourselves, it actually worked out really well in the end - we enjoyed loads of top quality riding, and as the trails are generally in forests they were nice and sheltered from the wind we could hear raging above the tree tops.

Bex rides along a trail in Afan Forest Park

The sun even came out as well! This was dream cycling now - that horrible slog up the windy mountain was nearly forgotten.


This centre had five different trails of varying lengths, taking between 3 and 7 hours to ride. We cycled one each day we were there. It's a different type of riding to our usual touring - no maps required, all great fun, and the regular obstacles mean it's never boring.


The trails were mostly on the sides of huge hills. The standard formula seemed to be a lung busting ascent up a track fit for nothing larger than a sheep, a flat section across the slope, followed by a steep, rocky descent to finish back where we started.


Our confidence grew and grew throughout the week as we learnt how to control the bikes over the different types of terrain, which made it even more fun. For me, cycling usually means cars, roads and towns, whether I'm cycle touring or out with friends at the weekend. My favourite thing about this trip was simply being away from all that, just having fun riding bikes.