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Big Ride: Bala

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

Ghost forest
We dodge main road traffic on the pavement bike path before sneaking off onto the singletrack road back into the hills. The bracken is rusty with autumn rain and sheep kneel to eat the last of the fresh grass before winter comes. Broad megalithic dry stone walls have thick mossy coats fermenting over the top in blues, greys and vivid greens. Field boundaries follow the rocks, not any sort of systematic grid or geometric principle.

Make sure you’re not drawn down the tempting twisty hill towards the bridge and National Cycle Network 82. The road down through Coed y Brenin is certainly a stunning, seemingly endless singletrack descent, but it drops you out into main road no man’s land. Instead cut left, following the flat river valley as it twists and rises into the wide open mountainscape. Don’t worry that there’s no sign of the woods the OS maps shows, as they’ve obviously been felled a long time since. Now it’s a moonscape of stream-sculpted moorland mounds and grassy flanks with a few tiny Christmas trees peeping over brows in an apologetic attempt at regrowth.

The contour lines on the map certainly aren’t lying though, and with 300m of climbing in under 3km this is the first serious climb of the day. Glancing over my shoulder the view is genuinely epic, with the river glinting in the sun as it curves away towards a brilliantly lit notch between the big western mountains. Winding over the summit the rewards of your effort are clear to see – the ribbon of singletrack tarmac rollercoasters down in one giddily long cascade after another as open moor drops down into bouldery pastureland. Just keep your eyes peeled and your mouth shut, though.

There’s half a dozen gates to watch out for and the sheep’s rear veneer will be lethal in the wet. Once you’re through the first farmyard and into farmland the world changes again, with steeper hills and shorter sight lines down the wooded roads making early braking a wise precaution. My Scott Foil glides across the flats to the end of Lake Bala on adrenaline and advanced aerodynamics, but there’s still plenty of work left on our planned route.

Killer climb
Crossing the Twrch river in Llanuwchllyn we swing off and up round the switchback. It’s a reasonably gradual rise and the road surface is surprisingly good. Rolling hills carpeted in vivid grass peer over the top
of Devon-deep hedges as they contour gradually upwards under the watchful eye of occasional slate cottages. Autumn leaves drop into the white-whipped stream in the valley bottom and the centre of the road turns greasy green as I shudder across cattle grids with fairytale waterfalls cascading through the woodland.

If your brain hasn’t realised already, your legs will certainly be making it clear that you’ve done a serious amount of climbing now. The end of the valley turns truly Alpine to prove it too. Gorse clings desperately onto the slopes rising at a neck-straining angle on your right while an Armco safety rail stops you dropping off the far edge. The road rises in a series of short kickers interspersing the longer tempo sections. It’s exposed too, which isn’t kind when the weather closes in, stealing both the last bit of body warmth and views as I tap a ragged tempo over the top and drop to the three-way junction.

Dam fine descent
Straight ahead the optional road to Dinas Mawddwy drops dizzyingly, with no less than 11 steep gradient warning arrows on the OS map and 345m of height change in under 2km. The weather has drawn the curtains in on the already fading light, so I have to forgo the challenge today and test tyres and nerves on the fantastic twisting descent to Lake Vyrnwy instead.

It’s a flat- out charge through the golden leaves over the dam and back round the other side and then one last long climb up through the woods alongside another typically wild Welsh stream. It’s a fantastic Alpine style ‘pick a gear and commit’ climb with several false summits and cursing crux sections before we break clear of the trees and onto the final descent. The devil may care descent is equally Alpine in its speed, exposure and demands for commitment, and it’s a fantastic way to cash in hard won climbing chips.

The last sun of the day even stabs through the grey again to soothe tuck-tourniqueted shoulders and climb-cramped calves as I roll back into Bala. This isn’t a particularly long ride, but it is amazingly rich in terms of remoteness, epic views and silent solitude, whether you choose to drink it in over a long day or hammer it out in a few hours.

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