It’s Llandegla, Jim. But not as we know it. Greg May slips across the Welsh border for a little mountain fun.
This article first appeared in issue 96 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
Words by Greg May, pictures by Chris Davies.
There is a small town in North Wales called Llandegla. If you were a normal person you’d be excused for missing it as you drove past on your way to other places like Llangollen or Ruthin. But you’re not a normal person, are you? You’re a mountain biker, and the name Llandegla means something to you. Something specific. Well, that’s not what this ride is about. Quite the opposite actually.
To say I was a little confused when I was asked to do a Classic Ride around Llandegla was an understatement. It’s just sort of there isn’t it? What do they need me to write about? Don’t get me wrong, I like Llandegla as a place to ride, especially the food that’s available afterwards. I lived with it pretty much on my doorstep for six months and rode it a lot. Maybe too much if I’m honest. To me, a trail centre like Llandegla is like takeaway food. Something that you really want, and you want it now. Instant gratification. Maybe you order a bit too much – a starter, a main, a dessert – but eat it all in one sitting anyway, then feel sick afterwards.
What I’m getting at is that takeaway is not something I could eat every day. Sometimes I need to sit down and cut up my singletrack, let it simmer, sprinkle on some tight contour lines, and add just a spice of unpredictability to my ride. If it is covered in an inch of the finest Welsh sheep excrement, even better.
The problem with home-cooking a ride is the land you end up crossing – the people who own it, who work it, who live there. They all have rights, and unless you live in Scotland you’re obliged to obey them. In the triangle created by Llangollen, Corwen and Llandegla you have a mass of farmland, mines and common land, all with different and sometimes confusing access rules. It can be a struggle to fit together a legal loop to ride. This was one of the major issues I had while I lived in this area, and one of the reasons I rode at the trail centre in Llandegla a lot. Of course, if you have the local, and passionate, rights of way officer offering to take you out on a loop to show you everything that the area has to offer, you really ought to take him up on that offer. There is a lot more to Wales than trail centres when you dig a little, and there are a lot of people out there who have yet to experience this.
The idea was simple. A route that can be expanded, contracted or tweaked to give a multitude of options, in a very small area. An area that is barely ridden at all. Let me put this into perspective. When we went to do this ride, there were zero Strava segments on this loop. Zero. Maybe there is a Strava blackhole in Llandegla and it sucks them all up. But, there are not many places with the concentration of trails as there are here, with no kudos-seeking junkies riding (and uploading) them. So obviously I am now King of the Mountain on them all. And long may it last.
After a dull and dreary drive down from the grim north via the even grimmer M60 loop around Manchester, I found myself on the outskirts of the Vale of Llangollen. Our arranged meeting point was the Sun Trevor pub that overlooks the River Dee and the canal that runs into Llangollen. As it happens, the proprietors Paul ‘PJ’ Jones and Katy Hellen are both mountain bikers and thrust mugs of hot coffee into our hands on arrival before donning their riding kit. It’s always nice to have a good welcome on arrival and with five riders coming out with us, as well as a pickup truck driven by Hannah from council-run mountain bike promotion site (ridenorthwales.co.uk) in support, it was going to be a very social day exploring some new trails. Incidentally, some of these have only been recently upgraded to bridleways – so don’t worry that they look like footpaths on your 1996 map. These things do change sometimes – and often for the better.
As we milled around waiting to leave, I spent more time looking at the food on the pub’s menu, and the beer behind the bar, than I did looking at the route our guide Adrian was pointing out on the map. I’d smartly neglected to eat anything in my sleep-addled state before leaving the house that morning. Anyway, it’s not like we could get lost when we had the local rights of way officer with us, so I didn’t need to pay attention, did I?
It was at this point that PJ mentioned that he was the only one who had actually ridden the loop. Two days ago. And he’d walked a few sections, in fact quite a few sections, as they were a bit sodden after all the snow they’d had. Bugger. It was around this time that we also noticed that Lucy and several others appeared to be on – to my eyes anyway – summer tyres. This was going to be interesting.
After a quick shuttle to the top of the route – we’d opted for the short version of the route because conditions were, as mentioned, ‘suboptimal’ – we got all the bikes unpacked and ready to roll. It was at this point we realised that we’d all read the memo about wearing blue, bar Jack who would have to use his ridiculous bike handling skills to make up for it. I’d opted to borrow a Canfield Nimble 9 for the day – blue of course – and was looking forward to giving it some beans down the hills. As it later conspired, this was fine, but the uphills were to be a little less so, due to some cackhandedness on my part.
Access for (nearly) all.
The ride started off at a disused slate quarry before climbing up across the eponymous green, sheep-strewn Welsh hillsides I have come to love over many years riding here. This was only one of several starting points for this loop; beware, it does not hold more than five vehicles.
We set off and crested the first ascent before dropping down a wet gully, then climbing the first of many more politely short but steep climbs, just on the edge of traction. Please sir, can I have another? It was at this point that it started to get properly Welsh; we descended onto a bridleway that crossed some farming land and I was promptly covered in a fine layer of sheep crap.
Adrian explained to us that there had been some issues with motor transport across this area and, despite it being a bridleway, the landowner had taken to locking the gates to prevent motorbikes and 4x4s coming through. However, as this was a newly-upgraded section of trail it was going to be less of an issue; the powers that be were working on getting new gates fitted which are friendly to cyclists and horse riders, but that also have a lockable section for access by farm traffic.
Although the abuse of the trail system by motorised traffic itself is an issue, this compromise shows the value of the work that the ROW group in the area does when talking to the people who work the land, and helping facilitate the opening of new bridleways by improving the ground and access points.
Best laid plans…
After the first regroup at the top of the first rocky climb, we set off down a newly rock-capped descent down into the valley towards Rhewl. Battering through all in my path, I went to pop over a water bar and noticed that nothing was happening. Dropped chain, I thought, and kept freewheeling.
Eventually stopping at the gate that was 100m past the turn off we were taking, I discovered I’d lost my chain totally. I suspected I’d be making the walk of shame to recover it all the way back to the top of the descent, but as it turned out I found it right at the turn off, as if it knew where it should have been going. Fifteen minutes, three pairs of hands and two chain links later, we had a succesful bodge in place and the chain, now clunking with every revolution, was at least on the bike – although I was going to have to take it easy on the hills.
Thankfully, at this point, the hills became very, very steep and we all ended up walking anyway. As odd as this may sound, this is one of the things I enjoy about riding out in the middle of nowhere: the chance to look around and not down. To see all the things surrounding you and hear the noises that they make. Or, to curse loudly at your mate who chose the route and how if we’d gone to ’degla we wouldn’t be walking, etc. Your call – I’ll happily take the walking up a hillside.
We contoured and then dropped into the valley with a myriad of illegal trail options around us. If Wales ever gets access laws like those in Scotland, this place will be stunning, I kept thinking to myself – all the time fighting the urge to poach some trails that obviously finished in someone’s back garden. We dropped down a bit more before popping out onto the road where Chris the photographer took a nasty spill onto the tarmac. No damage done, or so we thought, and a quick dusting down before we rolled on down to find Hannah waiting for us with the pickup and hot coffee. Service with a smile and in the middle of nowhere. I’m afraid this is probably not a feature of every ride here, but there is a pub and shop about a mile and a half down the road in Nant y Pandy; check their opening hours before you go though, as they may not be open every day.
…and all that.
Caffeinated to the gills, we started up the road climb – and this was the point at which my rear mech went BANG and ping. The bodged chain fix had wedged into the Zee mech and snapped the plates. After some discussion and further bodging, I ended up with a useable singlespeed thanks to the sliding dropouts of the Nimble 9. Half a kilometre further along the road, and with Hannah and the pickup now long gone, the bike well and truly threw its toys out of the pram and I was left to walk up and freewheel down everything.
Thankfully, we’d arranged to meet Hannah again later and not too far away, so we bumbled along with me bringing up the rear. On arrival at the broomwagon, Chris and I decided to swap bikes as he was suffering more than he realised from his earlier crash.
I suddenly had gears, and no excuses not to pedal up things. Maybe I should have opted for the lift? After a few minutes catching our breath at the top of the last big climb we watched a red kite soaring and dipping above us, as interested in us as we were in him. Sliding across the sky with not another bird in sight. Enjoying the freedom of the mountains in their natural form. We pedalled up the last section of climb before heading back towards where we started the loop from. A climb became a fast descent, with little to no traction on offer. A boggy descent became a gruelling climb on the edge of possibility.
It’s what non-manicured trails have to offer that makes riding in the hills worthwhile. The trail we rode, although sodden and slow, would be an amazingly fast, dusty summer trail. But it was still possible in midwinter with a bit of walking. By their nature, ungroomed trails change with the seasons: they test the rider by offering unpredictability for the price of an Ordnance Survey map and some basic understanding of how to use a compass. They can be ridden up or down; there is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just there for the taking.
So try stepping away from the pre-prepared, pre-packaged servings you get from your local takeaway and get out there, find some ingredients and make your own meal.
Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer 255: Llangollen & Berwyn.
The trails we rode are a stone’s throw from the wonderful trail centre at Llandegla. Our local guides estimated that from our start point, you could ride to the back of the trails in between 15 and 20 minutes. This opens up the option of doing something a little bit different.
Our advice would be to head up for the weekend and spend a day gorging on the trails at Llandegla, as well as the cake in Oneplanet Adventure, before heading out into the mountains for the second day. Or, if you’re so inclined, stick the two together for an excellent long summer day out.
Long term, there is a plan to produce a massive, legal mountain bike loop within the triangle of Llangollen, Corwen and Llandegla. This is the brainchild of the folks at Ride North Wales, and it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for when it happens.
Places to stay:
If you’re staying around Llangollen there is an astounding amount of accommodation on offer, from B&Bs to campsites. Currently the Sun Trevor, where we started the ride, is about to start renovations to put accommodation, bike storage and drying facilities in place.
If you’re staying over by Llandegla I’d probably head a little down the road to stay in Ruthin where once again, you have a massive choice of places to stay.
There is an independent hostel in Llangollen – called, funnily enough, Llangollen Hostel…
Again, if you’re staying around Llangollen there are too many places to list. Judging by the menu at the Sun Trevor, it’d be a good place to start. Llandegla’s café is also superb. If you’re down in Ruthin, check out a coffee shop called Annie’s off the main street for some of the biggest slices of cake in town. Beware that Ruthin more or less closes down all its shops on a Monday for no apparent reason.
Oneplanet Adventure, Llandegla, has a fleet of hire bikes and a fully-equipped workshop as well as plenty of spares, clothing and bikes for you to drool over while you’re waiting for your bacon butty from the café.