Sure, the world has some fantastic places to ride, but Wales is special. You may say I’m biased. I live in Wales. But, still, you can’t afford to miss out — regardless of what you ride.
Road, mountain bike, touring bike, adventure bike or anything else, it’s a gorgeous part of the planet overrun with green climbs, descents, epic views and wide open spaces. It’s landscape gone mad.
In fact, a big central chunk of Wales is so wild and remote it’s officially a desert. Overall, there are three times more sheep here than people. Which is good. I know which one I’d rather make a jumper from.
If you ride, you Simply Must Visit (as travel features put it) Wales Before You Die. Quite who’s visiting beauty spots after they die I don’t know. I don’t like to think about it. However, what you don’t want to do is Ride Wales While You Die. This beautiful land has pitfalls that can take even the most cautious cyclist by surprise. These tips might very well save your life…
It’s pretty green ‘desert’ — blame 19th-century travel writers — except when you’re above the clouds… Uninhabited land stretches from Rhayader to Llangurig across Powys, mid-Wales Steve Williams/Immediate MEdia
1. Beware of the dog(s)
Many Welsh farmers consider the road to be an extension of their farm, as well as an ideal place for their dogs to sleep. So beware. It’s impressive just how hard a sheepdog can accelerate while barking and biting.
Even more impressive is seeing two of them work together to corral you, flailing, through a hawthorn hedge, then stand guard as you drown in a tractor rut next to a field filled with gently waving crops.
2. Prepare for solitude
Wales is the size of Israel, but only has a third of its population. It’s sparse. In fact, at three million, the Welsh account for just 4.8 percent of the total UK population.
Consequently, it’s easy to cycle into truly desolate areas, where the only man-made things have either been long abandoned or look as if they have but, to your increasing unease, haven’t. Is someone (or something) watching from that wheel-less car?
Although Wales has some seriously lonely lanes, it’s worth braving it to get off-road. The Trans-Cambrian Way, for instance, stretches 183km from Knighton on the English border to Aberdovey on the west coast, taking in 3,800m of climbing and some absolutely spectacular empty-world silence along the way.
Just remember… in Wales no one can hear you scream.
In Wales, no one can hear you scream (even if they do, they’ll assume you’re trying to pronounce something and move on) Steve Williams/Immediate Media
3. Avoid the quad bike insanity
Where you find farms — the National Assembly says there are just under 35,000 in Wales — you find quads.
These four-wheeled chaos-machines combine none of the safety or weather protection of a car with none of the agility or fun of a dirt bike, and as such are popular with farmers, who frown on modern nonsense such as safety or fun.
Though quite small, it’s possible to fit staggering amounts of people, animals, hay bales and equipment onto a quad bike. Or you can simply give it to a 10 year old, his six brothers and two sisters. At the same time.
A fair amount of rural lanes only exist because they lead to farms, and tend to go straight up very steep hills paying lots of respect to field boundaries, and none at all to gradient. That makes them brilliant if you’re looking for mostly quiet, challenging (and often filthy) road climbs to beast yourself on — and Strava makes rooting them out easy. Just prepare to get face to face with a quad.
If you don’t fancy road discs yet, Welsh lanes will change your mind… Steve Williams/Immediate Media
4. Don’t underestimate the ferocity of feathers
Wales enjoys some seriously impressive birds of prey. It’s possible to see buzzards, kestrels, falcons and all kinds of owls. Barn owls hunt night and day — I once saw one glide down a grassy verge at head-height before turning right at the junction for Brecon — and with wingspans of almost a metre, you’ll never even know if you take one to the forehead.
Then there are the red kites, which are twice the size of a barn owl. If you see anything more impressive in the air, it’s going to have an afterburner and guns. Kites eat carrion and small, weak prey — if one’s circling you, pop an energy gel and try to make yourself look big, pronto.
With a six-foot wingspan, you don’t want one of these on your face. If it drops its feet and raises its tail, pedal hard and duck… 'Red Kite (Milvus Milvus)' by Noel Reynolds / Flickr creative commons
‘Red Kite (Milvus Milvus)’ by Noel Reynolds / Flickr Creative Commons
5. Wales’s woeful weather
While rocky Snowdonia is hella pointy, Harlech in Gwynedd has a 40 percent road climb and there are long, fierce ups-and-downs everywhere — including classic trail centres such as Afan Argoed, Cwm Carn, Bike Park Wales and Coed-y-Brenin — it’s not unusual for high areas to be flat-topped, treeless and exposed for miles. In Wales, even fir trees look up and think: ‘nope’.
In the Brecon Beacons, for instance, you can crest climbs into winds so vastly unfettered it feels like falling out of a plane. In 2013, windspeeds in coastal Aberdaron hit 109mph, and if that’s not enough to blow you back to yesterday, they’ve reached 88mph in Swansea Bay (enough to activate the flux capacitor and send you back to the future).
Ah. And then there’s the rain. Wales boasts three of the top five wettest places in the UK, but that’s why a) Wales is so beautifully green and mossy and Lord of the Ringsy, and b) it’s strewn with dramatic Victorian reservoirs, tumbling white rivers and waterfalls, which you will often get almost to yourself.
As a place to ride, to experience, and to just breathe in, it’s spectacular. Check it out. Or don’t! More Wales for me. But if you do come… bring a jacket and stay warm. Before you die!