I was supposed to be at the Tour Divide – then I was supposed to be at the Grezestien Trophy – then I was at nothing. So, with a week annual leave booked off I opted to try something ‘local’.
I’d read about a route that traversed the length of Wales from Conwy to Swansea called the Sarn Helen trail. A combination of walking trails, 4×4 tracks and an old roman road something that MTB books and magazines had touted as an 8 day epic ride. With not unimaginable distances per day, ~120km, the route looked like it would go easily in three days if I was to pack light and ride it slightly different to the normal – early start/late finish. This was in no means a racing ride, it would probably go in a single 30-35 hour push, more of a touring individual time trial. TITT?
A quick internet trawl turned up an article from Aidan Harding who had done the SH back in 2010 as preparation for the Tour Divide -more or less the position I was in now, but a year out. Aidans ride had aimed for around the same time I had and I figured the most obvious way was to use his route as well. Consistency and all that. Nothing to do with me forgetting to copy the files onto my GPS the night before….
Day 1: A leisurely 9am start had me on the train from Manchester to Conwy Castle as I was aiming to start later in the day. Extraordinary Welsh weather forecasts had showed that the next 4 days was going to be dry and with temperatures in the mid to high 20’s. Little was I to know, it was going to be much warmer than that. So I packed the new shiny Salsa Spearfish* with more kit than needed, but none the less the same kit I’ll be using on the Divide next summer. I may as well keep it similar I figured. With the bike and kit paired up I think I now have the perfect blend of off road capability and all weather kit. The Fargo is excellent for longer gravel/fireroad rides, but the new Spearfish is just lush. Honestly, this is one of the best full suspension bikes I’ve ever owned. Hands down.
The opening miles were on tarmac winding their way up, over, down and round valleys. With no wind and oppressive heat I started to go through my water supplies a little faster than planned. Rationing within the first 3 hours, not ideal. Eventually the climb led up the Lyn Colwyd and more water than I could shake a stick at. Tempting as it was to jump in I refilled and then started along the excellent valley trail before climbing up and out over a steep trail – read push. At this point I had my first crash of the trip.
Sneaking a “dry” line ended up in an OTB moment as my wheel buried itself to its hub. No time to un-clip I ended up pinned below my bike all my weight on my now aching wrist. Game over…. maybe. Hopefully not. After finally extracting myself I hobbled my way down to Capel Curig and some food. A quick icing with two cans of coke and a massive scone and jam treat and I was on the road again. A momentary lack of perception leads to crash – a note to stay a little more in the moment.
At this point the real climbing began. Into the real guts of Snowdonia and up, up, up. Always climbing the heat kept pounding down. Searching for ridable shade at any opportunity took over as I climbed into the woods behind Penmachno. Then it started. Initially just a few water filled MX ruts, then full on hell. Kilometer after kilometer of flooded knee deep ruts like Gaia herself been repeatedly run over by all the MX and 4×4 drivers in the world. There is a place for motorized fun in the mountains, but on wet peaty forestry trails it is not. Well done for screwing it up for everyone else.
After an hour of pushing, carrying and cursing I was spat out above the trails I know in Penmachno. The road came as a wonder as my speed crept above 2kph for the first time in hours. The sun was starting its trend downwards as I rolled into the Glanaber Terrace and entered what felt like the start of Mordor.
The traverse across the slate slag heaps and the following “trail” are a blur. I constant feeling that I don’t belong here, that I should just turn around and leave. Why keep going on, this is just shit and you hate it, leave, go find a nice pub for the evening. Cresting the trail near Lyn Pysgod I felt like it was over. I knew the road down towards Blenau and figured I’d just turn right and head for a friends house in Llanberris. She’d have gin and some floor space.
I’ve no idea if it was the near crash with the chav and his Imprezza, or the food in the Co-op in Ffestiniog but I decided to keep rolling. A quick call to Pauline to let her know what I was at and I was on the road again. 7 hours in and less than half what I wanted to do for the day. It was going to be a long day with my aim for the evening being to sleep somewhere near Dolgellau.
But it changed, hilly roads not withstanding, the trails became ride-able, faster, dryier. As the temperature dropped my pace climbed. Riding along trails parallel to the road to Coed Y Brenin the lights had to come out of the bag. Hammering round sections of the MBR trails the wrong way in the dark with a huge grin on my face. Back in the night, where I belong, loving every moment of it. The trails flew beneth my wheels and I could feel myself getting back on target. 10pm flew past and then 12am and the next day.
As I drop onto the road to Dolgellau I stop to debate the turn. I can go left to a hostel I know will have space, or up the road, try Kings or just push on? I ride on, past Kings stopping only to get some water, before climbing all the way to my highpoint in the fields at the top of the valley. 1:30am, tired, I crawl into my bivi ingesting my dinner of Babybel and two Penguin bars.
Day one: 8hours 50mins ride time; 106km; 2,486m of climbing; 10hrs 50mins on the road.
*Huge thanks to Shona at Keep Pedalling for sourcing the Spearfish for me, and to Ison Distribution for making a price I couldn’t refuse.