Fat mountain biker goes ‘proper’ mountain biking in Snowdonia
This pedal over the mountains behind Machynlleth and Aberdyfi was the personal target that I’d set myself since I started this fat to thin by bike thing back in June last year. If you read my first blog I said about getting back into Snowdonia; this was the route I had in mind while writing that. For me it was a really big deal, a kind of marker of progress and a small insight into my biking and fitness future. Forget about the two road 100s and other road miles, they’re about getting fitter – I’m an MTBer, this is what I’m about.
I’d last pedalled this exact same route back in 2000 with my mate Wilksee and it was my last ‘proper’ MTB ride on proper mountains. I knew it was a big deal as there were some crippling ascents and very technical surfaces to negotiate. Was I fit enough? Last time it had nearly done for me – would the last year of towpath bashing, city commuting and English hills be enough to prepare me for Snowdonia?
There was a nice little warm-up on the road to get to the start of the trail behind Bryncrug. I started climbing at about 0700hrs. I knew that there was an hour and 15 minutes of off-road climbing to get to the top. This was on rocky, muddy, flooded and Land Rover rutted trails too. Maybe I was being over-ambitious. I’m not that far off 47 years old and am still obese. The first 10 minutes were murder! What was I doing?
I resolved that I was going to pedal it all, even if I kept stopping for a rest. At least it would give me plenty of photo opportunities and chances to take in the stunning scenery. Of which there was plenty. Southern Snowdonia is a bit of a secret in MTB circles (outside of trail centres like Coed-y-Brenin, which isn’t too far away). It hasn’t got the rugged grandeur or gigantic elevation of the North, but it is just as challenging and as full of natural unspoilt beauty. I ain’t really a trail centre person anyway, I like wilderness and solitude.
The route just went up and up and up. It got rockier and rockier and rockier. It was tougher than I remembered, or was it age and unfitness? I did take plenty of pictures (read have a rest) and really took it steady, I couldn’t have gone any quicker anyway!
Just when I thought the trail couldn’t get any steeper or rockier, it got steeper and rockier. I tried to pedal it, I really did, but I just ran of skill and spun out on a wet rocky surface and toppled over. I couldn’t get back on and pedal again despite three failed attempts, so my ‘pedal all of it’ resolution went crashing back down the valley and I walked until the trail got easier. I consoled myself with the thought that if I recalled correctly me and Wilksee walked this bit 10 years ago too.
By this time I was well above the tree line and the sun was just starting to peak up past the mountain ahead, and I knew that once the light flooded down the valley behind me then there would be a truly staggering sight. I wasn’t wrong. The myriad shades of green, the purple heather and varying shades of grey on the granite outcrops, all with Cardigan Bay as a beautiful blue-grey background, took my breath away. This was a sandwich stop if ever I saw one. With just a couple of curious sheep for company I had my breakfast and a good guzzle from my CamelBak.
Now I knew that ahead it was, for this trail, fairly level, but this was when the flooded paths started to come into play. By flooded I meant above the hubs flooded and with the bottom of the ‘river’ totally invisible, rocks or tyre-sucking mud could be lurking there just waiting to catch you out.
As you only get wet once, then you may as well get it over with. I rode the first flood of about 30 metres without any dramas, just with the inevitable soaking – so what, it was warm and sunny, enjoy the cooling water I say!
After about four or five of these ‘rivers’ to negotiate the downhill started: granite outcrops, shale, streams crossing the trail and mud all to be ridden before the bottom down by the village of Pennal. But the rivers had one last booby trap for me.
After the first descent the trail levelled out and the longest ‘river’ so far was in front of me. For some reason I didn’t like the look of this one so I tried to find a route around, there wasn’t one, so man up Chapman and get on with it!
I took a run at it, kept in a reasonably easy gear to keep spinning and just work my way through, then the path below my front tyre dropped and I was caught in water as deep as the front wheel in very cloying mud! I tried to keep going but I hadn’t got the strength to turn the pedals the mud was that sticky. I ground to a halt and toppled sideways to my left. I’m sure it would have looked very funny to anyone watching, but as I’d guessed, I was the only person up here, I hadn’t seen a soul since I rode off the main road at Bryncrug. I dragged myself out of the water along with my bike, which the mud was holding onto, and just waded to the end of the river, what a bugger! No harm done though.
The next descent was the real yahoo, over a firm surface of gravel, ruts, berms on the bends and errant sheep! It was fabulous fun, although very knackering, as anyone who has done a very fast lengthy off-road descent will tell you. Out of the saddle, feet level, arms and legs as human suspension (the best kind) and concentrating very hard on the trail in front. I even got in a few small jumps over some small boulders, what a blast. It was just as well I had front disc brakes as there was a closed farm gate just around a bend that I hadn’t remembered! That could have been interesting with V brakes!
Onto the lane now, the first mountain stage over, but what a lane! A full on downhill to Pennal that got me to 45mph on my full suss Marin. And that was just coasting!
A small bit of main road then off to the next crippling ascent to the Bearded Lake. It started off on Tarmac and a local guy who I said good morning to laughed at me when I said I was going to the Bearded Lake and shouted at me to ‘get in your lowest gear now!’
That caused some disconcertion as for some reason I couldn’t remember this bit of the ride from 10 years ago at all. Ah well, I’ll soon find out! Just around the bend I saw what the local guy had meant. A Tarmac wall stretched out before me, and some local wag had made a sign saying ‘first gear’ and nailed it to a wrecked trailer. I could have done with a gear lower than first gear – although I pedalled this bit, it was at the mind numbingly slow speed of 3mph, I’m sure I could have walked it quicker. I was delighted to see a gate ahead as that meant I could stop this agonising battle with the Tarmac wall.
Through the gate and it was now a forestry section, again uphill but at least I could see where the tree line ended, which meant the trail would only get harder.
It didn’t disappoint, added to the fact that the sun was really starting to come in to effect, and again I had second thoughts as to the wisdom of me doing this ride just over a year on from being 22 stone 4lb! But the top of this particular climb was nearly in view. As were the panoramas over the Dyfi Estuary and south down the coastline past Borth, Aberystwyth, Newquay and beyond. To the North the Lleyn Peninsular was easily visible as were the mountains of northern Snowdonia, all preceded by the area’s largest mountain Cadir Idris. Just magnificent. And this is why I love wilderness mountain biking. And this is why this route is so close to my heart, it has everything you could want out of MTBing in Britain. Okay at 20 miles it isn’t the longest, but with a bit of map reading you can lengthen it or shorten it easily to suit your fitness, ability or time constraints. Perfect.
What can I say? The general wisdom is that every great ride should end with a screaming descent, and this route has it in spades, from the farm at the top of the valley all the way down into Aberdyfi, you don’t have to pedal much at all and with Cardigan Bay spreading out in front it’s one for the memory banks. Okay, I lied a bit about the finish as I had a road pedal of 4 miles to Tywyn, but Aberdyfi is a good place to finish with its tea shops, pubs and cafes, plus a terrific sea view I always classed the ride as finishing there.
So, I’m back pedalling in the mountains after a 10-year gap. What a waste. If ever I knew why I wanted to get fit, and why I hated myself while I wasn’t, then this ride just underlines everything. It wasn’t fast, at just under 4 hours, and with my off it certainly wasn’t technically accomplished, but I’m back as a full-on MTBer.
When I sat at the top having my sandwiches and soaking in the view I tried to think why I stopped pedalling and, even with the inspiration of the mountains, I failed to find a reason. It’s quite emotional actually (well for me) that all I could think of while surrounded by Wales in all its glory was what might have been. How many times would I have pedalled this route if it hadn’t been for my morbid obesity? What other routes, maybe even better than this one, have I missed and may never see when I was young enough to really enjoy them?
All I can do in reality is just crack on and make up for lost time on my bike. Maybe I’ll never find the answers I’m looking for, but up there in the mountains is a good a place as any to find them. Up the top of another Snowdonia mountain there may lie my epiphany.
This entry was posted on Friday, November 12th, 2010 at 9:00 am and is filed under Blog, What Mountain Bike. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.