Getting motivated to head out into the wilds of Wales can be difficult at the best of times. Like much of the rest of the country, the weather lately has been particularly appalling; the number of days without rain over the past two months could be counted on one hand. My coping strategy in these conditions was to head out infrequently and for short periods and spend the rest of my time indoors dreaming about all places I’d like to go on my bike when the weather was nice.
…back at the end of November, I tossed my bike helmet into the ring for the third time to ride the Highland Trail this coming May. Having dragged my feet and moaned incessantly about the weather for the past two months, there was no escaping that at the turn of the New Year, I had less than 5 months to prepare. Five months might sound like a long time, but then the Highland Trail is a long ride.
However, those with jobs and/or children will appreciate the challenge posed by squeezing a training plan into the few hours spare around work responsibilities and family duties. Rather than searching for reasons not to ride my bike, my strategy was to search for opportunities to ride my bike that best accommodated the prevailing weather conditions.
Which brings me to last Friday morning. The view out of the window was typically wet as I strapped the last of my Wildcat Gear bikepacking luggage to the bike, pulled on my winter boots and zipped up my waterproof. I was about to embark on what seemed like an ambitious ride northwards from Brecon to the start of the Bear Bones Bikepacking winter event at Llanbrynmair; this year’s incarnation of which was called the Bach to Bach.
I headed westwards in weather conditions that one would describe as fickle at best; sometimes sunny, others driving rain. From Brecon, through Abercamlais and lanes towards Trecastle. I picked up the Roman Road beyond Trecastle and rode over the top and began my descent down to Halfway Forest. Turning north, firm gravel trails brought me to Llanwrytd Wells where a cup of coffee and warm pasty from the Spar provided brief respite before the crux of my route.
I took the lanes to Abergwesyn before turning up through the forest to gain the grassy flanks of Carnau. I wheeled my bike over the saturated ground as the sun edged closer to the horizon behind me. The sky had cleared overhead, and although not exactly bathed in sunlight, I had a feeling of satisfaction with the solitude around me.
I made the descent in the dark, which was a tricky experience with the ground so wet, but such are the riding qualities and handling characteristics of the Shand Stoater, I managed a lot more than you might think.
With the clear sky and darkness, the temperature dropped to zero as I took to the mountain road towards Cwmystwyth. The bothy at Nant Rhys was already occupied when I arrived, but I was glad of a warm fire and some cheery souls at the end of a good days riding.
I woke at about 6 AM. I could hear the raining hammering down outside. I shuffled about the bothy sorting my gear, not in any particular hurry to leave, but accurately aware I had yet to get to Llanbrynmair for 2pm to officially make the start. Having done everything I could possibly have done in getting ready, I stuck my head of the door bracing myself for the rain only to find it had stopped.
Riding northwards out of the bothy I followed quiet forest roads up past the Roman Camp to the wind farm high on the hill; a gruelling climb into wind and rain to attain a height of just over 500 metres. A long descent brought me to Ponterwyd and the start of the ride northwards again around Nant-y-moch. The overnight rain had swelled the many tributaries that feed the reservoir, not all of which had bridges to cross them.
After a quick excursion upstream to try and find a spot where I could hop over, I returned to the ford and took my shoes and socks off to make the crossing. On the far side, as it was nearly 11 O’clock, it was time for a smackrel of something while I waited for my feet to dry.
Once on my way, the track eases and eventually dived down towards Machynlleth. At Forge, I took lanes east and with a small diversion to pick up one of the event checkpoints, I made it to Llanbrynmair for 1 PM with 170 km of riding under my belt.
The Bear Bones winter event is known for it’s goodies; some sort of article to equip you for the cold of mid Wales in January. In previous years, such items have been a nice metal fire lighter, a fleecy buff or a synthetic pack-towel. This time is was a thermos flask. Given that I had ridden there, I suppose it was almost predictable. After a bit of rearranging, I squeezed a flask full of tea into my Ocelot frame bag for the return journey.
With the rain looking highly likely to set in for the afternoon and most likely into the night, I elected to head south in the company of Scott and Zippy, who had arrived late at the start for other reasons. Another night in a bothy seemed like a good choice, and word was there was a gathering of usual suspects at Nant Syddion. We got our head down into the wind and rain and headed south through Hafren and over Sweet Lamb to cross the A44. An ascent of the Roman Camp climb for the second time that day was something of a test, but eventually the gradients turned in our favour and we arrived at the bothy in the dark and rain at about 6 PM, surprised to find ourselves the first there.
With the fire going, others arrived in dribs and drabs with tails of woe and tussocks and a nice social evening was had over cheese, salami, port and bombay pot noodle.
Sunday was all about riding home. With 216 km on the clock, and over 5,000 metres of ascent, plans to head south and then over the top of Strata Florida seemed un-necessarily punishing, so I elected to take an easier route of mainly tarmac back to Rhayader and then south on Sustrans Route 8 towards Brecon; the ancient coach road being a particularly pleasant deviation from the generally quiet lanes.
Rain was forecast again for the afternoon, and sure enough before I could reach the comfort of home, I had to pull my waterproofs on for the last time at Erwood. I finally rolled up at home at 3 PM, weary but with a distinct feeling of accomplishment at achieving 315 km and over 6,000 metres of climbing.