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Big Ride: Bala

| Cycling Plus | 08/04/2013 17:55pm

Bala is an outdoor Mecca, says Guy Kesteven. The birthplace of mountain biking trail centres, Coed y Brenin, is just over the hill. A vast watersports-friendly lake tickles the edge of the town, with rapids-laced rivers feeding into it from all sides. The mountains of Snowdonia form the jagged skyline to the east and north. The sense of frontier wildness and raw natural beauty stirs the soul; if this was the Lake District it’d be teeming with outdoor enthusiasts.

There’s some stunning riding out here in the hills, but the main roads are blood red on the map for a reason – what traffic there is a murderous mix of trundling tourists and warp speed Welsh locals, so staying off them is an absolute priority. Unfortunately that rules out a nice neat loop including the ‘more arrows than Agincourt’ descent/climb at Dinas Mawddwy, but it’s an appendix worth doing as an extra if you’ve got effort to spare towards the end and your wits about you.

Tightening screws
We sneak past a convoy of Ifor Williams sheep trailers waiting for market like a bleating Blitzkreig and pull off onto backroads straight away. The steady climb north-east out of Bala is just how your grandad taught you to tighten screws. Two hard turns up then back off through the next dip carries you gradually up the landscape equivalent of worn medieval steps. Grey slate chapels have the accentuated white brows of wise old men above the doors and windows. Small squat farm buildings hunker down into field folds for shelter against weather that’s turned everything metal a deep rusty red and everything wooden a live mossy green.

Soon even these vestiges of civilisation fade away as you crest onto the moors, which are bleak or breathtakingly wild depending on your point of view. The only signs of mankind but yourself and the ribbon of grey tarmac threading through the hills are the big pylons gently humming through the mist. The tops are still under thick cloud, but patches of the craggy landscape are picked out in random rotation by spears of golden light as the cloud cracks open and then closes like a lazy strobe.

Lake Celyn slides into view and the decision to not take the main road was definitely the right one. Chains of frustrated cars looking like sulking bridesmaids to fat motorhomes form simmering knots of sketchy overtake inevitability. On our route, though, I’ve only seen the one car and that was waiting politely off to the side of the singletrack road. I swoop past a green tin chapel with freshly painted sills making it look straight out of a Hornby scenic set as a handful of houses huddle below the towering wall of an abandoned quarry.

Snaking over a bridge lined with rickety railings, signposts for Trawsfynydd and Ffestiniog mean there’s no doubt where I really am as I sneak across the main road and chew a good gear up the Alpine gradient into the forest. Arms drape over the bars David Millar-style as speed picks up over the summit, deep wheels sucking me along the snaking road as I watch out for wandering sheep. Then it’s back onto the hoods on the drop and a climb past the roaring ravine falls and stunning views of Rhaeadr y Cwm.

Jagged crags backdrop the twisting, tuck-and-weave descent off the tops, as I carve through a landscape sculpted by both the elements and our ancestors, as the rich Roman and historic remains studding the map reveal. The twin blocks of Trawsfynydd power station are relics of a more recent past. While the last of its nuclear fuel was removed over a decade ago, its decommissioning will be going on for a long time yet. The two big main blocks are visible from miles away, but with blunt mountains smouldering under the clouds across the plateau to the west it’s still a beautiful area.

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