Tom Fenton explores one of the ultimate must-do locations in British mountain biking. That highest, pointiest bit of Wales – Mount Snowdon.
Words Tom Fenton Photography Andy Heading
Apparently, an elephant never forgets. And goldfish have three-second memories. But did you know that tortoises have turtle recall? [Ba-doom-tish! Pun Ed]
When it comes to bike magazines, people are more like elephants than goldfish. We remember every article ever written and constantly accuse magazines of rehashing articles. But is that fair? Do writers have goldfish memories and a lack of imagination? Or is it that there are limited places to ride and relatively limited things to do on bikes?
But where, I hear you ask, is this leading? Well, North Wales, if you must know, to write about one of the most ‘articled’ rides there is.
There’s a reason Snowdon is a popular topic. It’s the big tick, a proper mountain, a ride from sea level to the top of Wales and back. A ride up Snowdon is a ride you’ll remember. The climb is tough and unrideable in places, but satisfyingly tricky and reaching the summit feels like a real achievement. At the top, the views are incredible and if they’re not it’s because you’ve hit bad weather and are in for the full mountain experience. Either way, it’ll be unforgettable. And the descent is exactly as it should be. Head down via the Ranger track and there’s not a metre of wasted height, with rocks, switchbacks, fast open sections and slow technical bits the whole way. Basically, it’s ace, and I’ll take any excuse to ride it.
But there’s an elephant in the room. Or on the mountain. The Snowdon bike ban means no riding on Snowdon between ten in the morning and five at night during the summer.
The bike ban is a voluntary agreement asking that cyclists stay off the Snowdon bridleways between 10am and 5pm from 1 May to 30 September. This isn’t actually a bad thing. Snowdon gets busy, really busy. And as stopping your descent every 30 seconds to wait for walkers is no fun – you might as well obey the ban and get a clean run. Not only that, going up at dawn or dusk makes the whole thing more of an adventure.
Crack of sparrow’s fart.
Today, we pick an early start. Dawn rides are ace. Once you’ve dragged yourself out of bed, you’ve done the hard bit. There’s a slight chill in the air, a strange tint to the light and a stillness that makes you feel guilty for breathing loudly. It’s a little bit magical and always worth it.
Joining me in Llanberis at 6am are Andy and Al. They decided to get up at two in the morning and drive through the night. I generally like to be asleep at that time, so I headed over the night before. However, by the time I arrived it had gone midnight and the temperature had plummeted, leaving me wide awake and freezing in my tiny sleeping bag. When I meet Andy and Al at dawn, both raring to go, it appears my plan has backfired… Not that I admit it.
As we cruise through the empty streets of Llanberis, I remember past trips up Snowdon. There was the New Year’s Eve summit bivi with fireworks and ‘champagne’. It rained, the tent leaked, the Asti tasted like, er, Asti and the fireworks were too damp to light. Then there was the trip where I listened to an entire Rage Against the Machine album at full blast on the drive over, exploded out of the car vibrating with excitement and kicked a load of fully-suspended ass, up and down the hill, despite being on my hardtail.
Al can remember a visit to Snowdon too, a trip where he and a mate came over in the rain and walked up in jeans and leather motorbike jackets. Soaked to the skin, they encountered the army carrying out path modifications using dynamite. Forced to take cover behind a rock, they were virtually hypothermic by the time they got down.
A little disappointed that today’s trip will be less ‘memorable’ than Al’s, we begin to climb. Both Al and Andy usually ride singlespeeds, but Snowdon appears to have scared them onto more sensible bikes. However, as they stand on the pedals and begin to stomp powerfully up the initial tarmac climb I figure that they’ve forgotten how to shift. Then I realise they’re in their easiest gears and out of the saddles because the tarmac start is that steep. But, while steep is one way to look at it, efficient is another, and we’re soon high above town and looking for the Llanberis bridleway. I have to sprint to stop Al, who’s ridden straight past the sign marked ‘Snowdon Summit’. You’d have thought it was a clue.
Get on up.
The Llanberis climb is a wide track with odd rock steps and slabs blocking the way. It’s fun. Knowing the other two are good on the climbs, I tell them it’s ‘80 per cent rideable’ and set off. I don’t even get 10 metres before mistiming a wheel lift and almost going over the bars – on a climb. Al doesn’t get any further and Andy, laden with camera gear, wisely decides not to try. ‘Seventy per cent,’ I say.
We climb higher. Al leads the way, pedalling powerfully and smoothly up the rocky slabs. I glance back and Andy’s right behind me, picking careful lines through the tricky sections. We’re soon passing the shuttered-up halfway house and approaching the hardest section of the climb, the bit I’ve never seen anyone close to riding. Once a boulder-strewn slope, it’s been resurfaced with stone steps but is still nigh on impossible. I make it up the first couple before giving up. Andy tries to sneak round the outside, but he too is soon off and pushing. Pushing all the way through the tunnel and all the way up the loose slope beyond.
As we climb, Al spots another rider high above us. Then we meet a couple of runners, a dog walker, and a group of school kids who’ve camped at the top. ‘YOU’RE DAWDLING, BOYS!’, bellows their teacher. I don’t think he meant us.
We’re greeted at the summit by the rumble of a diesel generator and a friendly blast from its exhaust. Prince Charles once described Snowdon as ‘the highest slum in Wales’. A little harsh, perhaps, but with a concrete railway station and associated paraphernalia, it’s certainly not the prettiest mountaintop. But ignore the immediate surroundings and it’s stunning. The sun’s out and the morning mist is just burning off. There are mountains on three sides and the sea on the other. Ridges and valleys climb towards us from every angle. We can spot the different tracks leading up the hill, see where we’re going and where we’ve been. It’s spectacular.
It’s also busy – at 8am. We don’t stop long before turning to rattle down the summit steps. Right away the descent leaves an impression. Rocks dotted across a smooth track means there’s plenty of line choice. Cruise a bit here, pick a fast line there and hop off a rock when you fancy it. But don’t get too carried away, as awkward lines or big rock steps seem to appear the instant you stop paying sufficient attention. Two minutes into a 700m descent and I’m already having a whale of a time.
Looking for the Ranger.
We head for the Ranger’s Path. Apparently the oldest route to the summit, it’s definitely the best way down. There are two other bridleway options – the easier Llanberis track, and the Rhyd Ddu, a mega-technical ridge that’s part ride, part walk. Both are good, but the Ranger occupies the happy middle ground.
Al leads the way and Andy and I sprint after him. Neither of them are slow riders. There are plenty of technical descents I’ve ridden fast and smoothly, ready to give myself a pat on the back for my efforts, only to realise that one of them is right on my wheel on a fully-rigid singlespeed, or something equally stupid. So I stick with them as we head downhill, ready for some fun.
Now ahead of us is Snowdon mountain railway track. A foot or so wide and several inches high, the rusty rails are an intimidating obstacle – but a temptingly hoppable one. I hatch a plan to pull a cheeky overtake on Al as we cross the tracks. But then he brakes, swinging left at the exact moment I pull alongside. Avoiding a collision by a whisker, I yank on the bars in panic and fly sideways over the rails before squirrelling off the track. That’ll teach me.
Al has recently returned from the Highland Trail 550 and his bike is still in epic-ride mode, equipped with weird swept-back handlebars and a suspension seatpost. Remember them? Great for comfort, not control, especially when you stand up and the post extends a couple of inches higher than you’d like. I can see why he didn’t hop.
Andy, meanwhile, has brought his 26in hardtail. I note he hasn’t fitted the bottle cage I bought him at Christmas. True, the gift was mainly so he’d stop making me carry his water (won’t fit in the camera bag, apparently), but I only mention how hurt I am a couple of times. Anyway, he’s used to a big 29er, and the smaller bike feels twitchy and awkward. Conclusive proof that big wheels are better, or just a case of unfamiliar bike-itis? He does seem slower than usual, but who wouldn’t be with thousands of pounds of camera gear strapped to their back? As both his speed and grin-size increase the further we go, it seems he’s just getting used to the bike again. The only wheel conclusion I reach is that Andy’s six-foot-lots make the tiny wheels look pretty silly underneath him.
Pig-mucking, switchbacky fun.
In contrast, I am as happy as a pig in muck. I’ve got big forks, a stupidly slack head angle and a large hill to play with. Rattling through rocks on a big, wide track, I barrel into rock gardens that ping me sideways and lean from line to line, wheels scrabbling for grip on the gravelly surface. I take a wide line round a cairn, essentially out of control but having a great time. Was that a drift? It felt like a drift! (It wasn’t a drift.)
The track narrows to singletrack, just as rocky, but with fewer line choices. I pick my way through a rocky gap and size up a rapidly approaching drop/corner combo. Do I launch the drop and hit the corner off the brakes? Do I hell. I carefully lower my front wheel down the tiny step and creep around the corner.
A couple of corners later and I’m in the swing of things. Ahead is the highlight of the descent: a snaking line of switchbacks and corners. As it comes into sight from above, the white rock of the trail stands out from grassy green slopes, twisting and turning, and you can’t help but get excited. And so you should. Corner after corner, with enough room to pick wide lines and just enough grip on the loose rock to skitter through with a little speed and a big grin.
Then everything changes. The track funnels you down a series of rocky steps in a tight gully and becomes crazily technical. There’s no obvious line, just awkwardly spaced drops past ankle-jabbing spikes. Just roll in and hope.
Al doesn’t fancy it, and I don’t blame him. I remember the first time I rode the Ranger. Determined not to take the chicken line on the grass bank, I had around 20 attempts and 20 crashes before sketching through the gully. How long will it take today? Some walkers appear. I wave them through, but they want to watch. Deep breath… and over the bars I go. Balls. The walkers, sensing blood, hang around as I push back up. Double balls. Now I’ve got to do it. And, miraculously, I do, buzzing the rear tyre as I hang off the back, bouncing downwards and hoping for the best. I’d like to claim there was skill involved, but really I just hung on.
A flattish section gives us a breather. Ahead, the Ranger continues to the road – fun all the way. But we need to get to Llanberis and, as the number of walkers is increasing by the minute, we turn right over a grassy rise. Cresting the top, a small valley comes into view. Through it we can see the Dinorwig slate quarries, the Snowdon train chugging away, and walkers on the track we climbed earlier. But none of these hold our attention, because in front of us is Telegraph Alley – a perfect narrow trail, dropping gradually for as far as the eye can see.
The only downside I can see for single chainrings is that you can no longer describe things as ‘big-ring’ territory. Instead, tracks like Telegraph Alley are just plain old ‘fast’.
It’s smooth, but interrupted by rock drainage bars. If you’re happy hopping them, the trail is flat-out fun. You can see for miles, so nothing takes you by surprise and the speed is intoxicating. If you don’t fancy hopping, it’s still fun as the bars aren’t particularly vicious and there’s loads of room to slow down. Everyone’s a winner!
On that happy note, we whiz into Llanberis. The ride is over. It’S now done (see what I did there?) but, thanks to the early start, the day is still ahead of us. First, we need breakfast, so it’s into the cafe for a couple of mugs of tea and some beans on toast. What next? Sadly, remembering we’ve all got work to do, we should head for home. I get five minutes down the road before pulling a swift U-turn. Snowdon’s left me buzzing and I want more. A quick lap of the nearby Gwydir trail seems like a good option. It’s fast, swoopy and fun, and by the time I’m done I’m a sweaty knackered mess, but as happy as I’ve ever been after a ride.
Then I spot something at the back of the car park. Is that Andy’s car?