GRAVEL RIDING HEAVEN? ROB HARWOOD HEADS OUT TO WALES
Like many who may find their way to this journal entry, over the past two years I’ve found myself spending more and more time astride my gravel rig. Coming from a road background, the transition to the rougher stuff has been gradual but a thoroughly enjoyable broadening of my two wheeled horizons.
Having explored the Suffolk and Essex Ribinou extensively on our regular ‘ColVelo GraVelo’ outings, we set our sights further afield in the summer of 2017 with a long weekend’s tour of North Cumbria and Northumberland – cross-hairs set on the Kielder Forest. What ensued can only be described as a come-to-Jesus moment. Life beyond the road! No Cars, no angry honks of horns or close passes. Just Fat tyres, fire tracks, solitude and endless, uninterrupted kilometres of lovely gravel!
We continued our explorations locally and have racked up some big gravel days on the rather limited terrain we have at our disposal by linking up sections discovered having poured over OS and Google Maps. Awesome fun and some proper doorstep epics followed, but the chat always turns eventually to the next ColVelo adventure or weekend away.
Inspiration for our latest outing came from a short marketing film for a new bike frame being endorsed by the late, great - Mike Hall. This three minute teaser gave us a glimpse of the wild expanse of Mid Wales. As you’d expect, the accompanying words from Mike painted the area that he called home in a magical light. I couldn’t help but crack open google maps and have a look at the lanes he was describing.
Being very familiar with what the north of Wales has to offer, the ‘Desert of Wales’ as its known is all new to me. But what became very apparent, very quickly was just what a gravel paradise this place is. Ordnance Survey maps littered with those beautiful ‘=====’ symbols, which in these parts almost exclusively denotes Forest fire roads. Ribbons of the stuff.
With little to no persuasion, a motley crew formed and we sorted out some accommodation in the perfectly situated Dolgach wilderness Hostel.
An off grid experience in the heart of the Cambrian Mountains. Quite literally the middle of nowhere. No phones or electricity. Just self-supplied inane chatter, food and booze. Well worth a visit. But be warned, finishing the riding we undertook without the chance of a post ride ‘cold one’ – Tough. No fridge you see.
I mapped a pair of rides over two days with the main event being a 160km / 3,000m+ day mostly off road.
That kind of distance/terrain/ascent combo was uncharted gravel territory for all involved. All of us more used to long road miles on the flat expanse of East Anglia. Those numbers would give you a reasonable day pedalling in the Alps, so quite how it would work out in the gravel hills of mid-Wales was certainly going to be interesting, especially factoring in the weather forecast. Sun, 30+ Degrees Celsius and barely a sniff of wind to cool us… Pass the SPF50.
Sunshine all day was enjoyed!
But when confronted with such a glorious amount of gravelly goodness, and only one weekend to get it done. It made sense (sort of) to get as much in as we could. Day two was to be a mellow circumnavigation of Llyn Brianne over 40 odd kilometres. A leg loosener with some climbing just for the craic.
The weeks leading up to the ride in the fast moving group chat revolved almost exclusively around tyre size, tyre set-up, tyre pressure, gear ratios, luggage choices and water capacity. You name it, we gave it air time. All day, every day.
My rig for the weekend was my tried and trusted Surly Straggler geared 1x 40t Absolute Black Oval Front chain ring & Dyna-Sys SLX 10 speed 11-36 rear cassette – With an indexed Dura Ace 7900 Downtube shifter controlling a 9 Speed Deore XT Shadow rear mech. In a world of Hydraulic brakes and wireless shifting, can we just take a moment to appreciate the positive click/clunk of a well indexed downtube shift? I thank you. I was of course running the Hunt 4Season Gravel Disc Wheelset shod with Panaracer 43mm Gravel King SK’s. Stopping came courtesy of cable actuated TRP Spyres. A fairly budget build, but a build I love. Easy to service and cheap to replace parts. The machine is just a plain gravel bruiser.
All of the Colvelo rigs ready for two mega days of gravel riding
I’ve been running the above mentioned wheelset since March 2017. With roughly 4,000km ridden on them so far and the lion’s share of that being off road, they haven’t skipped a beat. Just continued to take a pounding and tick along perfectly. For £299.00 you’ll be hard pushed to pick up a gravel/CX specific disc wheelset that’s this light and this robust. Chapeau guys. This wheelset is blinding.
Controversially, and in the interest of full disclosure, my wheels were tubed not tubeless!!… I know, I know!!! Heresy on this site. While I suffered no issues or punctures running a 32psi front and 35psi rear, I’ll more than likely go tubeless for the next adventure when running some fresh rubber. I get it, it makes total sense for gravel and rough terrain. My only defence... With one set of wheels and the Surly occasionally being roped into road riding/touring duties, swapping between 43mm knobbles and 33mm slicks is just a bit cleaner/easier with tubes. Maybe I need a second set of hoops.
The morning of the big ride followed what can best be described as a night of excess. Last count was eighteen empty bottles of red wine with a decent amount off empty beer bottles and whiskey tumblers strewn about for good measure. Some certainly indulged more than others. The stage was set for some serious (self-inflicted) suffering right out of the gate. Not ideal when your water stops are limited and it’s hotter outside than the surface of the sun. And it’s not even 8am yet. Hey-ho. Here goes nothing.
The ride was a beastly beauty. A true gravel test piece. Moving from dusty, twisty fire road to the odd slither of tarmac, to rocky single track which was equal parts grovelling/climbing and smashing descents. Just never ever flat. Tough for us Essex boys.
We know know why Rob loves to get out here!
Concentration picking lines was required all day, which is itself was tough when you considered what breath-taking scenery was on display at every turn. With any luck my dodgy iPhone photography conveys the majesty of this wonderful part of the UK.
We learned some lessons as we went. We spent what felt like an eternity in the first 30km trying to keep the group together after a spate of punctures and mechanicals saw us strewn across the hillside from the first incline of the Strata Florida out of the Hostel door to the ruins of the 12th Century abbey that gives its name, and where we scheduled our first stop.
Once the giddy excitement had settled and we knew we were in for a long old day of it, the group ticked along well together as we passed Ffair Rhos and on to the rough tracked banks of the Claerwen Reservoir and on to the Garred-ddu-Reservoir. We faced some pretty technical sections here. I was scared to look at my frame after taking some huge clangs to the bottom bracket as rocks and boulders ricocheted around.
The Road climb after the Pont Ar Elan Bridge was almost a welcome relief after the pounding we’d taken to that point. The stop in the town of Rhayader was well timed to say the least. Bidons were running low in the stifling heat and one riders’ Di2 had all but given up the ghost completely. What he needed was a Dura Ace Downtube shifter. I didn’t have the heart to tell him this at the time.
We’re not sure if it had taken a knock in the van on the way down from Essex. All we know is a big shout out to Clive Powell Mountain Bikes is needed for his help with some tools and compressed air to get things running again. Our chap was staring down the barrel of a very expensive cab ride back to our hostel in the middle of nowhere.
Riding on the exposed gravel in the Welsh countryside.
After Rhayader we made a beeline for Llangurig before winding our way up, and south west via the windfarms that stand on the tops towards Cwmystwyth on some sublime fire roads. Probably my favourite 20km stretch of the day. Some road link up got us back to the starts of the big loop at Strada Florida, and all that stood between us and the end of the route was a 6km gravel climb and the rapidly fading daylight. Legs were heavy, but the stoke levels were high as we rattled the last 30km off in a fraction of the time it had taken us to drag it out in the morning. Rolling into the hostel around 9pm, we were all a little beat-up but a great day was in the legs and ready to be discussed over a homemade Thai curry and a few more bottles of red. A truly spectacular day out.
I can’t recommend this area to ride highly enough. It has everything you need for a weekend away with your gravel machine. It can be as technical and lung busting or as mellow as cruisy as you want to make it. Crack out an OS Map, plot a route on the endless fire roads and tracks, going where ever the hell you please and enjoy some of the finest gravel riding the country has to offer.