Standing on the side of a hill in the middle of the mid-Wales countryside a few miles from the nearest village let alone town looking at my brothers buckled front wheel I was beginning to question whether this whole ‘going on an adventure’ idea was really such a good one. We were only 25km into 160km of mountain bike riding over 2 days and already considering what the best exit plan was.
We’ve both found ourselves becoming more interested in planning bike packing trips and adventures than races and so when I heard about the Trans-Cambrian way it immediately jumped to the top of the to do list. 100 miles of mostly trail across the wild Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales crossing the whole width of Wales in the process from the English border near Shrewsbury and ending up at the sea just north of Aberystwyth. An inspiring route crossing some wild and fairly remote terrain with not much in the way of civilisation for refuelling (or repairing bikes for that matter!)
Whizzing through the village in the dark on our bikes to catch the 5.42am train we were buzzing with excitement. Ahead lay the longest MTB either of us had done and also a first wild camp, our bikes loaded up with shiny new bivvy bags and sleeping mats. A little strange after the initial excitement to then have just over 90 minutes of sitting on a train, felt like a bit of an anti climax but did at least allow us to wake up and watch dawn break out of the window.
Arriving in Knighton the first job was to find a hot coffee and something to eat, embracing the slower pace of a journey like this and not just trying to get there as fast as possible. Suitably fuelled we found the right road and enjoyed a gently rolling few miles of tarmac before heading off road on the trail proper. Our trip happened to coincide with the visit of a steam train along the Heart of Wales line and so it was we found ourselves face to face with a small group of photographers jostling for the best position above a viaduct, who seemed equally surprised to have their morning disturbed by 2 men in lycra huffing and puffing up a hill!
Where it all went wrong
Which (after a good few miles of climbing) brings us to the buckled wheel, a result of a misjudged hole in the ground and a nice tumble over the handlebars. With no phone signal we decided to try and get off the hill and figure out what to do. With a bit of tweaking with a multi tool we managed to straighten the wheel enough that it didn’t rub the forks, amazingly the disc was still straight so breaks worked perfectly. Once we had some signal we figured out there was a bike shop in Rhyader which was on our route and a quick phone call later confirmed they had a replacement wheel. So we decided to take a road route there to avoiding risking fulling smashing the wheel and being completely stuck and headed off to try and rescue our trip.
Huge thanks here go to Clive at Clive Powell bikes for not closing for lunch as planned so that we could get the new wheel and carry on without too much delay. A cracking example of a local bike shop. Leaving Rhyader with a new shiny gold front wheel and tummies full with an awesome lunch at The Lost ARC (fully recommend stopping there for food if you pass through) we were back on the route and headed for the trails again and our planned overnight spot.
Here the trail picks up a cycle path to the Elan Valley before taking a tough and lumpy trail around the reservoir to Claerwen dam, the final part of which you are riding essentially on a river bed with periodic long deep puddles where all thoughts of keep your feet dry are long forgotten. It was somewhere in this section that I lost it, all hope was gone. My legs were tired, my brain was tired from the stress of the day and I threw my toys out the pram and told my brother I didn’t think I could go much further. It wasn’t pretty. Although I was reasonably fit I don’t think mentally I had prepared myself for how tough it would be or how much harder carrying luggage made riding up the hills.
But after fording the river just below the dam and taking a look at the map we decided to at least head for our planned camp spot 15km away. We could always retrace our steps in the morning if we wanted to bail on day 2 and get collected. I inhaled a Snickers and pulled up my big boy pants and off we went. Thankfully the trail around Claerwen reservoir is a stone track so although it had some rolling hills we could finally make some reasonable progress again and the prospect of sitting with a brew and a hot meal was within touching distance.
Teifi Pools is roughly half way on the Trans-Cambrian Way and many people who ride the route head to the Miners Arms near there to stay and eat. However we’d decided we wanted the full Boy Scout adventure so stopped near there in a quiet spot away from the road to camp. There is also a cracking bothy tucked away here that you’d never find unless you were looking for it. We did drop in and grab some water but there was someone staying there already and quite honestly we didn’t want to spend an evening making small talk so decided to stick to our wild camp plan.
Wild camping was fun, of course in this area you aren’t officially allowed to wild camp but if you’re discrete and leave no trace you shouldn’t encounter any issues. We chose a sheltered spot next to one of the lakes and away from view of the road and proceeded to devour our dehydrated meals and wee dram to warm us up. The lake was tempting for a swim but getting cold and wet didn’t seem so appealing after a day in the saddle.
We had a chilly night with a clear sky which made for some incredible star gazing while I tried to take my mind off being cold in my sleep bag. I loved finally ticking this off the to do list and will certainly try and do more it (with a new sleeping bag!). Drinking a strong black coffee and watching the sun rise over such glorious scenery was a real pleasure.
We’d made the decision not to attempt the full day 2 route along the Trans-Cambrian way, not sure my legs would have managed it to be honest. Instead we flew down the road descent and with the use of Komoot find a great scenic and mostly traffic free route to Aberystwyth and our lift back home again. Much of the route was on the Ystwyth Trail which is a great cycle route on an old railway line and meant a pleasant cruise to the coast for a play on the beach with the kids and a large portion of fish and chips.
First attempt at an adventure in the bag, some stunning scenery explored and inevitably a list of possible options for the next trip was the main topic of conversation on the way home. What a cracking way to spend a weekend!
Things I learnt
- I need a new sleeping bag, it’s far too big and heavy and definitely not warm enough any more (it’s 12 years old)
- Water is a challenge on trips like this with few shops on the route. Need to consider some sort of water purifier/filter as we got low a few times.
- It’s fun to do these trips with friends, share the ups and downs and be there for some moral support.
- Wales is a stunning country and mid Wales is definitely an undiscovered gem.
- I need to be fitter! More time on the bike and especially on the MTB to build up the legs for these longer trips.
Bike – Sonder Frontier
Bike bags – Alpkit xxx
Bivvy bag – Alpkit Hunka XL
Sleeping mat – Alpkit Cloudburst
Sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment Sleepwalker (too heavy and not warm enough!)
Food – Extreme Food Chicken Korma and Porridge, homemade nutty flapjacks
Also if you’re interested I made a short video of the trip which is below, hopefully gives you a sense of this glorious landscape.