February 5, 2014
Classic Ride: Pont Scethin.
Up, down, repeat to fade – a North Wales loop with everything a classic ride needs, including a pub at the end.
Words by Tom Hill, pictures by Chris Davies.
We were winding through Wales on A-roads, somewhere between the M56 and Y Bala. The first day of 2014 still bore the physical reminders of the last night of 2013 for both Greg and me. Whisky-induced headaches were shaken off by mid-afternoon and the not-very-long-but-always-feels-longer-than-it-is drive to north-west Wales started.
Despite being not much later than 5pm, it was already pitch black, with heavy storm clouds not even providing differentiation to the darkness between land and sky. This is a journey I’ve done many times over the years, but it felt unfamiliar without even the silhouette of the skyline against the night sky.
The car’s windscreen wipers were working overtime, but still couldn’t shift the enormous quantities of water as quickly as it fell. We slowed to a crawl, blindly following the white centre line, occasionally dazzled by the headlights of oncoming vehicles. A significant number appeared to have canoes on their roof. I mentally ran through how many waterproof jackets I had with me. Probably not enough.
Artificial intelligence, natural trails.
Type Pont Scethin into Google’s search box and before you have reached the ‘-thin’, the logarithms somewhere in a multicoloured server warehouse have already guessed you will be concluding your search with ‘mtb’. For me, this place has all the magic ingredients that keep me returning to the same ride time and again over the years. Views, a huge variety of riding and a real feel of escape are all earned over a modest 12 miles. It is also a route that’s easy to extend; perhaps by starting in Dolgellau and taking in the Mawddach Trail, or by linking it with an up-and-down of Cader Idris on the longer days of summer. What we’re riding today is the shortest version of the ride but it keeps all the best bits, distilled down into the very definition of a classic ride – albeit one a little more suited to short winter days.
It is, however, still a ride with no shelter. Once you leave the compact woods that extend behind the coastal village of Talybont (also known as Tal-y-bont, which makes it easy to confuse with any of the several other Welsh Tal-y-Bonts…), you are completely exposed to whatever weather the Irish Sea happens to be carrying towards you on that day. If there was ever a ride to pack your waterproof on a blue-sky summer’s day, this is it. So, of course we decided that we’d ride it in January, in the middle of several weeks of intense winter storms…
Fast forward a few hours. After revelling in the deep sleep of a man who didn’t get enough the night before, I am feeling more optimistic. Looking out of the window of the bed and breakfast confirms that my sense of optimism is well founded. There are definite pockets of blue sky and the clouds are high, with just the highest reaches of Cader Idris still shrouded. The sky continues to clear as we drive up the coast and pull into the small car park in Talybont. Maybe we’ve got lucky.
It’s the only way.
One disadvantage of starting a ride at sea level is there is only really one direction for you to head when you start pedalling: up. Legs more familiar with sitting in a car, lungs more familiar with having feet up on the sofa and a midriff that is definitely showing an increased familiarity with mince pies; all complain and grumble. My heart, albeit working a little harder than normal, lifts despite the workload. It isn’t half good to be out.
Tarmac gives way to track as we climb from the village to outlying houses, to woods, walled fields and eventually, open hillside. I feel a palpable sense of leaving civilisation behind, of escaping. After the initial kick, the gradient eases, and the width of the track allows us to ride side-by-side, chatting and catching up, feeling as though we’re cheating real life in some way, delaying returns to our respective day jobs, or simply putting off the January blues for just one more day.
Looking inland, the bulk of the Rhinogau are wrapped in grey; bleak enough to prompt a shiver and me to hide a little deeper in my jacket collar. Looking north and west though, the Irish Sea catches patches of sunlight. In the far distance Harlech and the Llŷn Peninsula feel tantalisingly close, yet also a world away. White buildings, blue sea, summer holidays, beaches, ice cream. Not today; keep pedalling towards winter. We peel off the surfaced track at a point indicated by a solitary wooden marker pole and a few muddy ruts, descending to the ride’s namesake. Pont Scethin is an old packhorse bridge across Afon Ysgethin and the trail to it sets the theme for much of the rest of the ride. We pick up pace, popping off lumps of bedrock, ploughing through puddles. Traction is a luxury we are rarely treated to. It’s a bonus if only one of our wheels is making sideways progress, and line choice… well, it’s less a choice, more an interesting surprise to either be fought against (and mostly lost), or accepted and enjoyed.
Bring your superhero pants.
From a distance the bridge feels out of place. Viewed from the right angle, the tracks leading to it on either side blend into the browns and greens of the background, leaving a small humpback stone arch standing in near total isolation. It’s also rather picturesque and provides a multitude of photo opportunities that are too good for us to pass up. I’m not complaining though – I can see what is to come.
And so we point upwards again. A brief hail shower reminds us that we are playing against the odds with the prevailing weather, but it blows past as quickly as it arrived and we barely have our hoods up before we’re pulling them down again. Winter sun reflects off the shiny, wet flagging of the trail up through waterlogged ground. In the dry this makes a great technical challenge: it’s the right side of achievable, the wrong side of pain-free, the kind of climb that is a whole-body workout, muscling the bike, bare-knuckle fighting with the tyres. Not pretty, but effective. Today, however, the slabs of rock have a soapy slipperiness to them, and power output required to beat gravity simply leads to spinning wheels and cursing. We walk.
On even the best days, even the superhuman rider will probably face some hike-a-bike here. From this point on in the ride, height gain is the ‘efficient’ sort: steep, but with many contours packed into relatively short distances. As we near the top and the overall high point of the ride, the wind, so far conspicuous in its relative absence, begins to make itself known. We put our heads down and push on, one foot in front of the next. The impressive seascape is still there, but the world has shrunk down to the metre or two in front of me. We are immersed in the simple task of forward progress. Topping out, we shelter behind a wall feeling considerably higher than the mere 572 metres above sea level we’ve gained, but every single one of those metres has been earned. Low cloud envelops us as we crack out the flask of coffee, and I explain what we would be seeing on a clear day.
Following the line of our friendly wall, we begin cashing in our climbing vouchers. Mellow gradients, pace picking up, pick a rut, hang on. Pray. Slip, slide, twitch, brake, DO NOT BRAKE, brake, dab, scoot, breathe sigh of relief. Fun.
Before long we duck below the cloud, which is still tenaciously hanging onto the tops despite the wind. The views are breathtaking. Again, the sun glints on the distant sea, already low in the sky. It lends golden warmth to the rolling fields below. Shadows, luminescence; this beats any cobalt blue summer sky. Far below, we can pick out the track we’ll later use to make our way to the final climb of the day. The light plays tricks with my sense of perspective, a natural tilt-shift, turning the landscape into a miniature diorama.
We continue descending, spray kicking up from rear wheels, creating our own personal weather systems. Waterproof shorts are not just for when it is actually raining from the sky. Boosting off a roller, I land three feet to the side of where I took off. It’s still windy then… Wheels on the ground from now on. Open hillside tightens as we drop through farm gates, hemmed in by drystone walls, sweeping, splashing, manualling along the trail-stream our route has become. Rolling grass becomes rockier, small drops and natural berms cry out for speed; slithery mud requires caution. What was, in more favourable conditions, a flat-out hoon, is once again tentative; more often than not, an exercise in staying relaxed. Like hunting for the bar of soap in the bath, the harder you grab for it, the less likely you are to keep hold.
Fishtailing, tank-slapping, smiling, we tumble past our tight right-hand turn, coming to a halt just in time. An old engraved stone sign still marks the direction of the trail back to Talybont, and as we stop to add layers, it’s framed perfectly by a picture-book rainbow. Bravo, Mother Nature, bravo.
A little off the top, love.
Though a short time ago we were bathing in sun on the hillside, we are now in the lee of long shadows and heat starts to seep out through damp clothes. To make matters worse, the next section of track is normally wet at the best of times… and this isn’t one of those. It’s not a classic piece of trail or something worth riding in its own right, but it carries us in the right direction and passes quicker than I remember, transporting us to the base of the steep, switchbacked climb up to Bwlch y Rhiwgyr (the Pass of the Drovers). Again, in the dry this is a challenging climb, bordering on the impossible. Less technical than the one that precedes it, this is simply steep: unrelentingly so. Again, the sodden ground gives under the rotation of even the smoothest of torqued pedal strokes. Again, we push.
Bwlch y Rhiwgyr has the feel of a bigger mountain pass. It is an impressive notch in the ridge line, and marks a logical shortcut for drovers who would otherwise have had to travel a long way round the headland with their cattle. Once more we are treated to distant views of the rest of our route, stretching out in an almost-straight line, running parallel to the coast. Downhill all the way home now, boys; downhill all the way to the pub…
A ribbon of perfect singletrack is cut into the side of the pass. I pick up speed, swoop right, left and hit terminal velocity into a jumble of lines, bedrock, rubble and slick grass. Cold, wet brakes are less than optimally effective, but scrub just enough speed. Multiple lines converge back to one, before opening out onto gently descending grassy fields. Despite the time of year, the grass is greener than green, and as closely sheep-cropped as Greg’s accidental number one haircut (never ask your fiancé to just tidy up the back…). It has the feel of the Yorkshire Dales, at least until we look beyond the field boundaries to see the coast framing our journey. Momentum is easy thanks to a tailwind, and the last of the sun is psychologically, if not physiologically warming. There is no need to push hard. We can enjoy the pleasure of being outside on a bike, with good friends, knowing that the ride is all but done and warmth and dry clothes are almost within reach.
Fate working in mysterious ways.
The bridleway spits us out back in Talybont. Next to a pub. The perfect ride tick list is complete. It would be rude to pass up this kind of opportunity. I wander up to the door, only to discover our luck has run out. It turns out that there is a downside to grabbing a mid-week, mid-winter’s-day slice of escapism; the bloody pub is closed.
No matter: a short drive down the coast is Barmouth. In the summer, tourists are packed into its narrow streets; it’s a vibrant seaside town, with all the associated traditional tack of ice cream, candyfloss, buckets and spades. Today the streets are silent, a winter ghost town. We pile into the fish and chip shop with the hunger that only comes from trying to stay warm all day. Eating our spoils overlooking the harbour (is there a more mouth-watering culinary combination than hot chips, salt, steaming vinegar and cold air?) is the right and proper ending for a day which has been framed by the sea.
The drive back to Yorkshire is once again conducted in the dark. It is an evening for flicking between radio stations, indulging guilty pleasures and out-of-tune singing along to 80s rock. The weather forecast is full of doom and, particularly, storm warnings for the west coast. In fact, watching the news while cleaning my bike the next day, I see the harbour wall that played host to our chippy tea being battered by massive waves. Winter rides are so often about gambling against the odds.
More often than not we lose and have to tough it out while hoping for better conditions next time. We feed another coin into the seaside penny slot, because someone has to win, and soon it might be us. Sometimes we get lucky, the window of opportunity in our lives coinciding with a window in the clouds. Pont Scethin is a ride I will return to again and again, no doubt sometimes in ‘better’ conditions. It will be hard to top the serendipity of rolling two sixes this time, though, which somehow – despite the wet and cold – promoted the day to one of my truly classic rides.
Height gain: 2,600 feet
Duration: Allow 3-4 hours or so. This is best enjoyed with plenty of stops to admire the view.
The loop is traditionally (and best, in my opinion) ridden clockwise. Much of the ride is on unsurfaced grassy tracks, so it can get a bit sloppy in wet conditions (which, in Wales, can be 12 months of the year). Having said that, it’s still mostly rideable even when wet, you’ll just end up pushing a bit further on the climbs.
Map: Ordnance Survey OL18: Harlech, Porthmadog and Y Bala.
Staying there: There is a proliferation of bike-friendly B&Bs in the area, helped by the proximity to Coed-y-Brenin. We stayed at Coed Cae, on the A496 between Dolgellau and Barmouth. Ask the owners about their handbiking adventures up Cader Idris while you’re there…
coedcae.co.ukDafydd and Sian Roberts, owners of the original Coed-y-Brenin cafe, now run The Old Skool Mtb B&B in Bronaber.
Food and drink: Talybont has a small store for last-minute riding provisions. Barmouth is ten minutes drive away once you’ve earned your chippy tea. Start and finish the ride in Talybont, and you will almost literally ride into the beer garden of the Ysgethin Inn. It has a good selection of real ales and does proper pub food. Win – as long as it’s open.
Bike shops: Beics Brenin at Coed-y-Brenin has a good stock of all the usual consumables.
Other stuff: Make a weekend of it, buy the OS map and get exploring. There are plenty of bridleways criss-crossing this part of Wales. Or, if you are feeling less adventurous, Coed-y-Brenin’s trail centre fun is worth a visit. Y Bala is nearby if you fancy trying water sports and if all is lost, there are always the penny slots in Barmouth.
This story first appeared in issue 87 of Singletrack. Subscribe, buy print and buy digital!