The Cambrian

Cambrian Mountains Credit: Rachel Cooke

Ridden on 11 April 2009 - 208 km

My past trips to Wales have nearly always been associated with rain and mist, so part of the beauty of this event was simply that the sun shone and the countryside could actually be seen. The rest came from the glorious landscapes as we crossed the Radnor Forest and Cambrian Mountains from Leominster to Machynlleth - and returned on the same route.

With 3860 metres of climbing, this was also the hilliest day's ride I had ever undertaken, another source of pre-event nerves. And riding through fairly deserted territory, with up to ten miles between villages, made me hope more than usual for a day without mechanicals.

Event HQ was the village hall at Monkland, just outside the pretty market town of Leominster. While the 200 km riders went off at 8.00am, I hung back to depart half an hour later with my partner Rachel who had opted for the 168 km event (cutting out the final pass to Machynlleth, but still a mean climbing challenge at 3300 metres in total).

Across the border

It was a gentle start along tiny lanes and past classic black and white timbered houses so typical of the Hereford and Worcester border country. But after crossing into Wales at Presteigne (19km) the roads began to start kicking up, first in a rolling enough manner, then more steeply.

At Pilleth just inside Wales a stunningly located white chapel clings to the hillside and soon we were climbing. On narrow roads we passed through the sleepy white-stoned village of Llangunllo and watched a single carriage train pass by - about a third of the traffic, since in this 16 km section between main roads we would be passed by only two cars. A stiff climb ended that stage, followed by a hairy drop into Llanbister, complete with cattle grid, that tested the condition of our brakes.

After a brief flat interlude on the A483 it was back onto poorly surfaced narrow lanes for an even emptier section through to Pant-y-dwr. After the tiny village of Bwlch-y-sarnau the landscape opened out into a wide plain with panoramic views and sheep in all directions. Then it was on towards Llanidloes through a series of short steep climbs and twisting descents that inevitably led to narrow bridges at the bottom - we had to be careful not to end up in the rivers.

The pretty market town of Llanidloes (72 km) on the Severn river was buzzing with bank holiday tourists but we were still served an early lunch pretty quickly at the control point at the Great Oak Cafe (vegetarian, recommended).

Over the pass

Already far more tired than usual after just 72 km, we set off on what we knew would be a tough section skirting round Lake Clywedog. The views from above the reservoir were excellent, but the percentage gradients were correspondingly high.

At 84 km I left Rachel and another participant to return on the shorter event and hit the mountain road for Machynlleth. As I climbed for several kilometres, a stream of returning riders sped past in the opposite direction, several calling out to encourage me by advising that there was a 'brilliant descent' ahead.

Over the top at about 500 m elevation, and the panoramic views into Snowdonia were spectacular. There's a viewpoint shortly below the pass and I screeched to halt there to admire the outlook. I also wanted to steady myself a little before the long descent - practically 10 km. I am not a good descender and find a steep drop on bumpy roads fairly scary. The front brake blocks took a pounding on the way down, and I was a bit embarrassed by my caution in front of the remaining riders struggling up the pass.

Known for it's 'green' approach, Machynlleth as a town feels slightly like a bit of north London transported to mid-Wales, but given the time constraints I had no time for anything but the briefest stop. The owner at the Quarry Wholefood Cafe was extremely helpful in stamping my card and refilling bottles without a purchase from me. After a quick flapjack and a word with another lagging rider, it was back onto the climb. Having seen the suffering of others climbing up, I stripped some layers off at the bottom and began the work. Passing another rider on the way, it was satisfying to know that at least two people were now behind me despite my time handicap at the start.

Another quick pause at the top to admire the views once more, and the descent was on. This southern side of the pass was wider, better graded and hence less hairy, although I nearly overcooked it on one bend. The descent was over all too quickly and it was time to resume the rolling road to Llanidloes. The 12 to 16 per cent climbs alongside the lake, which had been quite achievable on the way out, were now a desperate struggle after another two hours of tough riding. I rolled into the cafe for a control stamp in a now empty Llanidloes just 25 minutes inside the time limit. Despite that I needed a break and lingered and chatted with another rider - who put my efforts into perspective when he told me he had cycled down from Derby the previous day to enter this event and planned to return home by bike too.

Home run

With 72 km to go, it was still hard work on the hills. 'Once you get to the top it's downhill all the way', an old boy reassured me as I passed him at walking pace on the arrowed climb out of Llanbister, but unfortunately that wasn't true. At least a slight wind was now behind, and the prospect of a fast run in on the final flat section loomed. Knowing the descents from the run out also helped.

My biggest worry now was a mechanical in the middle of nowhere, so I proceeded cautiously on rutted and gravel-infested lanes through to Presteigne. It was a fine evening with virtually no traffic on the roads, and three or four of us rode together picking up pace in the final twilight hour.

Back at Monkland at 8.30pm in a time of just over 12 hours, I had barely ridden in full darkness. The total climb - equivalent to riding twice up Mont Ventoux from sea level in a day - had taken its toll, but helped by the fine weather, good controls and empty roads, I was in better shape than expected. Rachel was already back at our B&B having completed her ride in ten and a half hours.

Highly recommended

The Cambrian audax events were superbly organised by Danial Webb, and will be run again in 2010. If you can't wait until then, Danial can supply the routesheet so they can be ridden as a 'permanent' (visit the 'Permanent' section of the Audax UK website). Provided the clouds lift, this is surely one of the most attractive bike rides in Britain.

There were 34 finishers on the 208 km ride, and 15 on the 168 km version, or 'Cambrian Minor'. The full results are posted on the Audax UK website.