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True grit: gravel biking through Wales’ ancient Cambrian heart

“You used to be able to ride through here,” I said. “Yes,” replied my friend Mark, “but that was more than 20 years ago.”

We were looking for a dirt road through Cwm Henog forest, to the west of Llanwrtyd Wells in mid-Wales. I cycled around here regularly in the 1980s and 90s when I started mountain biking but things change, even in these remote hills: I simply couldn’t find that old road.

Wales gravel bike map

But we had a good alternative route planned for our three-day gravel bike adventure. We’d head north on a minor road from Llanwrtyd Wells through thick woodland along the Irfon river, then turn left at the hamlet of Abergwesyn to ride over lovely Abergwesyn Common, with impressive crags looming on either side.

Things became more challenging at the Devil’s Staircase, a hideously steep climb up the southern slopes of the Cambrian mountains, where I got off and pushed. I was “bikepacking” on a relatively heavy gravel bike with knobbly tyres and a large seatpack, and carrying a small rucksack.

The route offers the chance to ride past large reservoirs and over dams.
The route offers the chance to ride past large reservoirs and over dams

A gravel bike, if you were wondering, is essentially a road bike that has relaxed frame angles (for a more comfortable riding position), can run wider, knobbly tyres for riding off-road and comes with mudguards and mounts for panniers.

Our route would take in minor country roads, forest roads and dirt tracks in the Cambrian mountains, although our first off-road action didn’t come until we’d sped down the north-west side of the Devil’s Staircase, along the eastern bank of Llyn Brianne reservoir and across the dam’s impressive spillway to hit the dirt road along the reservoir’s western shore.

Mountain bikers relaxing in Llanwrtyd Wells outside the Neuadd Arms.
Mountain bikers relaxing in Llanwrtyd Wells outside the Neuadd Arms. Photograph: Alamy

My knobbly tyres sailed over the rough surface and soon we were in Soar-y-Mynydd, a whitewashed chapel built in 1822, and apparently the most remote chapel in Wales.

From here, we rode on rough tarmac for 10 miles or so across windy moorlands to Tregaron, and rooms for the night at Y Talbot hotel (doubles from £85 B&B), which may have the UK’s most powerful showers – perfect after a day’s biking.

Next day, after a huge breakfast, we had an easy start, riding along the flat Ystwyth Trail, which follows the route of the old Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway beside Cors Caron, a huge raised bog where otters thrive, along with the region’s soaring red kites.

A view from one of the high level gravel tracks.
A view from one of the high level gravel roads

This being mid-Wales, it was only a matter of time before things began to go uphill. At Pontrhydfendigaid, we hit the smooth tarmac of the B4343, then climbed on a potholed road east across open moorland to the far-flung Teifi Pools and eventually, after five miles and 300 metres of ascent, we were back on dirt.

This dirt track wound through some of the most isolated terrain in the UK, between vast expanses of desolate moorland, then skirted the steel-grey waters of the Claerwen reservoir before dropping down to the Elan Valley. Here we enjoyed some shelter from an increasingly strong wind as we descended into the thickly wooded valley and, for the first time in over 10 miles, encountered people again. It’s probably fair to say there are few roads south of Scotland – even dirt roads – where you can travel such a distance in complete solitude.

Gravel Bike Cycling Wales
Descending into valleys offers respite from the winds sweeping the high ground

After a night at the Elan Valley Hotel (doubles from £75 B&B) – opened when the Elan Valley reservoirs were being built at the turn of the 20th century – our final day saw us cycling past Rhayader and down to the Wye, which we crossed on a narrow suspension bridge sporting a sign advising cyclists to dismount. I’d be pleased to see a person riding a bike across that bridge …

From here, a gradual climb saw us wend our way along an ancient moorland bridleway as southerly winds threw big, splashy raindrops in our faces – just as you’d expect in Wales.

By the time we got back to Llanwrtyd Wells and rode past the Neuadd Arms, the rain was hammering down, so we felt duty bound to pop in for a pint. Thirty years ago, before trail centres took over, this pub was a focal point of British mountain biking; maybe the new vogue for gravel biking will bring back those glory days.

Clive Powell in Rhayader hires out mountain and hybrid bikes from £24 a day

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