Living in Norfolk can be great for road riding, but has it’s disadvantages when it comes to mountain biking, we’re somewhat lacking in mountains. Whilst Thetford forest provides great entertainment for an evening after work, sometimes a trip further afield is required. As such James and I booked a two day trip to Bike Park Wales and the Brecon Beacons to find some real descents to point our bikes down.
A further issue with Norwich (but probably what also keeps it such a nice place) is how long it takes to get to anywhere else, Wales definitely not being the exception. After getting away from work at 3pm, it was 9pm before we arrived at the hostel YHA Brecon Beacons.
We checked in and grabbed a beer, sat outside the hostel on a warm evening looking down Glyn Tarell trying to work out the list of YHA hostels i’ve now stayed at, I think it’s 15 including some that are now closed. The bunks are quite comical at YHA Brecon Beacons, I’ve never been to a hostel where they have had to cut the legs off to give enough headroom for the top bunk. But that is part of the joy of YHA stays, they all have their own distinct character and makes it interesting to tick off as many as you can.
The following morning, after a hearty cooked breakfast, we headed off to Bike Park Wales. I’ve been before, but this was James’ first trip, so he was as excited as a kid at a sweet shop. We had arrived seriously early, so sat in the sun enjoying a coffee, eyeing up the various bikes rolling up as the crowd grew. Our short travel XC hardtails starting to look out of place amongst the growing number of longer travel full suspension bikes. Every time I do a trip like this I get itchy to buy a new bike with bouncy bits at both ends, even as I write this James is messaging me suggestions of new bikes, like a devil on my shoulder.
We were soon loading up on the first uplift of the day and heading up to ride the descents. BPW runs an uplift service, for £35 (mid-week) you get unlimited uplifts, you put your bike on a trailer and the minibus transports you to the top of the hill at 491m, leaving you full of energy for the approx. 800ft descent (depending on which run you choose). There are a range of runs from a 1km green loop trail at the centre, through blue, red and black to “pro-lines”. We stuck to the blues, but this still left us with enough to do each run a few times to get to know the lines and give us a good day out. Though in retrospect, I wish we’d pushed ourselves and tried some harder lines. I can guess more experienced riders might struggle to learn the lines in a day as they have more choice of runs to go at!
A good value lunch can be had in the cafe (the drivers take an hours lunch break) and we stopped a few times for drinks and ice creams to cool off. 9 runs in total for the day of twisty single-track descents with berms, roots and rocks and we were destroyed. As we’re not accustomed to the combination of downhill, technical trails (even on the blues) along with the 30°C plus temperatures, we were both struggling with dehydration and death gripping the bars, meaning our wrists and arms took a beating. Something that no doubt that would improve with practice (or maybe a new bike…..). The runs were only spoiled when I punctured my rear tyre, even with a tubeless setup, a rock garden put a tear big enough that wouldn’t seal.
After picking up some pizzas, we returned to the hostel and were greeted with the friendly atmosphere i’ve become so accustomed to with YHA stays. A group from Alberbury Young Farmers Club were cycling 600 miles around Wales in 7 days and we were soon chatting to them over a few beers. Their event was for charity, so well done to them for completing the challenge in such scorching weather.
The following morning we headed out for a loop of the Brecon Beacons Gap, a fairly well known mountain bike route in the region, though, given the previous day’s antics, we decided to cut the loop short a bit and follow the less common anti-clockwise selection. Parking near Brecon we followed the roads and bridleway up to the saddle between the peaks of Cribyn and Fan-y-big. On the road section I went to unclip and almost fell off, only just releasing my other foot in time. I soon realised my left foot felt a little loose and upon stopping found one of my cleat bolts had vanished! Tightening up the other held it in place well enough to continue riding and thanks to Keith at Bikes and Hikes in Talybont-on-Usk for the emergency bolt.
Pretty soon we were panting and grinding our way up an 18% tarmac gradient, this soon eased off but tarmac gave way to rocky trail, so not really any easier. Under the scorching sun we made slow progress, walking many sections and stopping in the shade of trees wherever we could, but with such good weather we were rewarded with great views all the way.
After a short stop at the saddle, the bridleway then descends a shallow rocky path (600ft of descent in a couple of miles) towards Pontsticill reservoir. Our hands were still suffering the effects of the previous day, which slowed our downhill progress. However, the lack of technical single track features allows you to just point the bike and let it roll, taking in the views, enjoying the sensation of flying over the rocky trail below and grinning as bewildered hikers look shocked as they puff their way up the slope (a cheery “hello” and “thanks” for moving to the side of the trail keeps things friendly).
After a quick stop at a stream to cool off, we continued on down the descent but turned off before the reservoir and took the old railway line past the Talybont reservoir to Talybont-on-Usk for a coffee stop. From here it was easy riding along the canal back to Brecon for some lunch, riding the tow-path is relaxing, navigation is a doddle and the trails give zero technical difficulty. I wish we had some near home for long multi-day adventures on the gravel bike.
Serious mountain bikers will prefer to do the Brecon Beacon Gap loop in the traditional clockwise direction, as the descent on the Northern side provides more technical riding. However, if you want an easier descent and can deal with more hike-a-bike on the climb, the anti-clockwise loop shown below gives a nice morning out.
If we do the trip again we’ll do the natural trails on the first day, as the solitude, variety and expansive views really make for a more fulfilling day which a fresh body will be all the more able to enjoy. Maybe next time I’ll do the full Brecon Beacons Gap loop. If you’ve not already been, check out Bike Park Wales too, book an uplift in advance though as they sell out, especially in good weather. Now i’ve just got to stop myself from buying a full-susser before we go again.