With lockdown restrictions largely lifting in spring and an occasionally roasting hot summer here in the UK, the team made the most of their riding time 2021.
Now entombed in the gloomy depths of December, we’ve decided to end the year on a high note and look back at our best rides of the last 12 months. From epic gravel-flavoured adventures to fun homely loops, the team has packed in a tonne of truly memorable rides.
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Robyn Furtado – a Gower gravel adventure
Fresh out of last winter’s lockdown, the main thing I wanted to do in spring was go cycling in Wales.
The route I decided on was an off-road circuit of the Gower Peninsula. The Gower is well known for its gigantic, remote beaches, but I’d never seen anyone cycling there, so I was interested to approach it on two wheels.
I went with my partner, Sven, who hasn’t done much gravel cycling. I sold him this route as ‘the easiest gravel adventure in Wales’, so it had a lot to live up to.
We started in Swansea, and quickly climbed out of the city onto the moors. The first few miles were surprisingly squelchy and not completely straightforward, with more than a few bogs to wade through, not to mention several wrong turns and three fences to throw the bikes over. Things did improve, however, once we’d cleared the first five miles.
As we headed around the peninsula, the scenery got more wild and hilly, with quiet, lovely lanes and a well-located pub for a lunchtime nap.
We climbed up onto the moors at the southernmost point of the peninsula on a formidable double-track climb, which opened out to wide, beautiful vistas across Carmarthen Bay and beyond. We cruised along the top of the moor for a while, before plunging back to sea-level through flowering gorse bushes and the odd panicked sheep.
The route officially climbs up again, back over Rhossili Down, but as the path was closed that day, we took a bridleway along the edge of Rhossili beach instead. There was a ridiculously steep path back up from the beach to Rhossili village, which took a lot of pushing and panting to get up, but was worth it for the views back over the beach.
We camped at Oxwich, ending the day in very British fashion – by eating our body weight in chips, hiding from the hungry seagulls, and watching a rainy sunset.
The full loop is around 50 miles, with 3,500 feet of climbing and would make a good weekend bikepacking trip or a long day ride. The area is stunning, and always within reach of a pub or cafe.
I mentioned I was writing about the trip to Sven, and he said it was: “a great weekend” completely unprompted, so it must have lived up to the hype!
Jack Luke – the best day of my Welsh tour
My four-day tour from Newport to Bangor in August marked a high point in my riding last year.
There were no dull roads on this route but the penultimate day, which took me from Machynlleth to Llanllyfniwas, was the highlight of the trip.
The day kicked off with a long drag out of Machynlleth through a bosky valley towards Aberllefenni. I’d been on these exact same roads just weeks before at Grinduro and it was a real treat to revisit them.
From here, I turned northward up Cwm Hengae and over the stupendously steep pass at the head of the valley. I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I pushed my laden bike through some of this.
The vertiginous descent into Dolgellau was over in a flash, and this is where I joined NCN 8. From here, I enjoyed a lovely estuarine trundle on a disused railway path and over the rickety rail bridge to the charmingly naff Barmouth.
NCN 8 follows the route of the caravan-choked A496 for a few miles from here. The expanding views of the moody Snowdonia massif framed by white breakers in Tremadog Bay were a welcome distraction.
From Llanfair, the route climbs high onto quiet roads on the slopes that run right down to the coast. The views from here are fantastic, but various questions about the microwave (or popty ping, if you prefer) that had been embedded into a drystone wall occupied my thoughts for at least the next 10 miles.
After crossing the causeway to Porthmadog, I rejoined quiet roads that skirt the southwestern edge of Snowdonia National Park before joining a traffic-free route near Pant Glâs. A gentle last lap took me to the delightfully old-school Basecamp Wales hostel.
The riding in this part of the world is exquisite and I really cannot wait to be back.
George Scott – Rapha’s A Day in Hell
This year’s riding followed a similar pattern to 2020: a strong spring and steady summer, before falling off a cliff through autumn and into winter. It’s no surprise, then, that my ride of the year came back in April.
Spring, it seems, appeals to my inner instinct as a cyclist. It’s no surprise, really – there’s, quite literally, a spring in the pedal stroke after the desolate winter months and the natural world around is awakening after its off-season slumber. In recent years, some of our best weather has come in the spring, too.
Rapha’s A Day in Hell is my pick for 2021. Traditionally held on the same weekend as Paris-Roubaix (though this year’s pro race was moved to October), A Day in Hell is Rapha’s ode to the Hell of the North. It’s a low-key event, free to enter and with courses plotted in locations around the world, each paying tribute to Roubaix with a mix of road and light off-road riding.
It was also one of the first opportunities to ride in a group after lockdown. Having met a motley crew of riders from the BikeRadar team, we set out from south Bristol for 80 miles of rolling Cotswold lanes, canal towpaths, gravel detours and hardpacked, bone-rattling dirt tracks. Throw in a couple of stiff climbs out of the Bath valley and the route had a little bit of everything.
Conditions in the build-up had been kind and it made for fast off-road riding on terrain that is otherwise easily churned up by the farm traffic common in this part of the world. In many respects, it’s the type of gravel riding I’ve been drawn to over the past couple of years.
The wide variety of terrain also meant we had a broad selection of bikes in the group: road, gravel and cyclocross bikes were all represented, and everyone was either over-biked or under-biked at some point in the day.
A wintry shower and nagging headwind may have tested the legs on the return to Bristol, but this was a ride that sticks in the memory for all the right reasons.
Max Wilman – a chilled Hampshire retro mountain bike adventure
I recently developed an obsession with retro mountain bikes – there’s just something about the way they look and the way they feel.
Being totally under-biked for a ride can really make tame trails much more enjoyable. The lack of suspension also makes mile-munching blasts a lot more fun compared to riding them on my mountain bike, and are a refreshing change from my standard 15km winch-and-plummet trail rides.
With that in mind, my best ride for 2021 had to be a 39km exploratory route around Hampshire that I created over the summer.
In planning my route, I deliberately picked out places I’d spotted driving by in the car and had earmarked for a future visit.
I set my endpoint as Crooksbury and let Komoot do the heavy lifting for the route planning.
However, a must-have stop along the way was Bourne Wood. These woodlands are frequently used by the film industry and have featured in both Jurassic Park and Gladiator.
They look and feel very primal, and are a real beauty to behold while passing through. Well worth the visit.
Crooksbury Hill itself is a rather short but steep hill, with some natural singletrack trails. The terrain isn’t overly technical, but a few roots here and there mixed in with the steep gradient made for some very interesting descents on a bike with 26-inch wheels, rim brakes and no suspension. Not to mention the old geometry, which pitches your body over the front wheel.
The rest of the ride consisted of other smaller hidden gems, including a natural mile-long sandy pump track, river crossings and a well-needed pub stop for a cold pint before the last leg.
This is a ride I will most definitely be revisiting, and if you are a Hampshire dweller yourself and into some spicy gravel-style adventures, then this is one to check out!
Stan Portus – Mysterious Britain part 2
Earlier this year, my friend Hugh introduced me to the book Mysterious Britain by Janet and Colin Bord. In the early 1970s, the duo travelled the country to photograph and document ancient and mysterious sites, from standing stones to holy wells and earthworks.
We decided to start planning rides based on sites featured in the book as a change from riding the same handful of routes and to learn more about the often eerie countryside we find ourselves flying through.
The first ride we planned started in Swindon and took us to the Avebury stones, but it’s the second that was a real highlight for me.
Looking at Mysterious Britain’s chapter on ley lines, we planned a route around a line that joins Salisbury Cathedral, the ancient settlement of Old Sarum and Stonehenge.
We met in Salisbury on a blisteringly cold November morning and rode north out of Salisbury.
The first landmark on our ride was Old Sarum. It’s believed the settlement dates back to the Iron Age and it also held a castle and cathedral. Now all that remains is the earthworks just visible from the road.
The cold was made more bearable by the bright autumnal light that lit Stonehenge as we approached it from the south.
From Stonehenge, we rode west before soon turning south and heading into Cranborne Chase, a designated area of outstanding beauty.
Much of our ride took in the gentle ups and downs of Cranborne. The bright sun washed away much of the landscape’s colour and few people appeared on the roads.
About halfway through the ride, we passed the Fovant Badges. While too contemporary for Mysterious Britain, these regimental badges carved into the chalk hills are in the same tradition – in some ways – as many of the carvings featured in the Bords’ book.
We continued to head south down to Wimborne St Giles before turning back north toward Salisbury.
By this point, my legs and lungs were suffering after a spate of no riding induced by illness. But this made reaching Salisbury and the Cathedral, the final point on our ley line, even sweeter.
Matt Baird – West Kernow Way
Slow television and slow cooking are big right now and this is my entry to the genre: slow cycling. My average speed over two days on the WKW hovered at an average of 12km/h as I ambled my way around the far southern and western reaches of mainland England, powered by pasties, my only time constraint being the setting sun and meeting my dad at a designated pub for a post-ride Korev.
If that makes the West Kernow Way sound easy, then I’ve misled you. Cornwall is a hilly devil, with each quaint harbour village on route – hello Mousehole, Coverack and Cadgwith – involving a lung-busting climb to enter and/or exit.
The terrain under my gravel tyres also hampered progress, with rugged coastal tracks, muddy paths and, in the case of the Loe Bar, a 1km stretch of dense sand that forced me to instantly dismount, all in the varied mix.
Yet the WKW is more road-friendly than Cycling UK’s fellow King Alfred’s Way, with plenty of smooth and empty asphalt breaking up the off-road sections.
It’s also easier to dip in and out of than the KAW’s epic 350km loop, with the WKW’s 241km figure of eight designed to be ridden over three to four days. Penzance, where I’d booked a dodgy travel tavern in a mid-October Cornish heatwave, acted as a natural base. Bar the plumbing system of said hotel, Penzance was an unexpected gem – don’t miss the art deco pool or Turks Head Inn.
That figure of eight also makes it easy to cherry-pick the highlights, and my two days of riding saw me take in Land’s End, St Michael’s Mount, Lizard Point, the Porthcurno beach/Minack Theatre combo for a rest from all the climbing, and possibly my favourite section of the lot, the Botallack tin mines, where I went full Poldark on a bike.
I also had the route to myself, experiencing joyous escapism that was in stark contrast to my summer holiday in Cornwall in mid-August.
My only regret of my two days on the West Kernow Way was not having ridden in Cornwall before.
I’ve regularly tried – and largely failed at – surfing, coasteering, open-water swimming, trail running and paddleboarding in its south-western environs. But I’ve never actually sat on a bike saddle within its 3,563km² area. That all changed with the launch of the West Kernow Way, and I’m itching to get back to complete the sections I missed in 2022. There must be a pasty shop that I didn’t sample as well…
A full feature on Matt’s Cornish adventure will run in issue 392 of Cycling Plus. Why not subscribe today?