Words Tom Fenton Photography Andy Heading
On 23rd January 1974, lights blaze in the night sky. Seconds later, a huge jolt shakes the earth and an explosion rips through the air. Hills shudder, buildings tremble and dogs bark. Is it a plane crash? Then men in black suits appear in local villages and army Land Rovers block the lanes amid rumours of flying circles of light…
Almost exactly 43 years later, the sun shines as a car speeds through those same villages and down those same lanes. If this were a film, the stereo would be blaring and three good-looking youngsters would be singing happily along, unaware that they are shortly about to have a close encounter with the little green men. But, as this isn’t, the radio’s tuned to Radio2 and the car contains three slightly bleary-eyed blokes poring over a map.
“Where are we?”
“Dunno, but I bet it begins with loads of ‘L’s.”
Even Steve Jones, our Welsh place-name pronunciation guy, is struggling. But he knows where we’re heading and he can pronounce it: Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, south of Llangollen, in the Berwyn Hills – site of the so-called ‘RosWelsh’ incident.
Big, bleak and sparsely populated, it’s easy to see why the UFO fans thought something might be roaming the empty slopes of the Berwyns. Stretching over a sizeable chunk of north-east Wales, their rolling hilltops are bare save for the odd sheep and a deep covering of heather. The peaks top 600m and include Cadair Berwyn, the highest point in Wales outside the national parks. It’s a wild place with whole load of wildlife: red kites, pine martens and who knows what else.
Everything about the Berwyns is big. Big hills, big landscapes, big skies. Big climbs, big descents, big distance. The classic ride here is a huge 50-kilometre loop, with rocky tracks, brake-burning grass descents and unbelievable scenery. Its highlight is the Wayfarer, a wide trail that heads over the very heart of the hills. It’s one of the Wales’ classic big cross-country routes and what we’ve come to ride.
When I say ‘we’, I mean Steve, who has a penchant for bikepacking; photographer Andy, who’s won the massive Iditarod race across Alaska; and me, with a thing for 24-solos. We like long rides. And so, with a fantastic big loop in front of us, perfect weather and empty mid-week trails, we decide… not to do it.
Instead, we’re doing a there-and-back ride along the Wayfarer. Obviously, this is only because we’re short of daylight and need to get photos for the mag.
However, I’ve only ever ridden the Wayfarer one way – the way that fits the big loop and gives the easiest climb and most technical descent. This’ll be an opportunity to check it out the ‘wrong’ way.
Spinning, spinning, splashing.
Spinning away from Llanarmon, we quickly find ourselves in a beautiful landscape. Trees give way to open hillside covered in the rust-coloured January bracken. Grey slabs of rock speckled with white lichen are dotted here and there and, even in the middle of winter, patches of green grass and gorse poke through.
It’s amazing what you miss when you only ride a trail one way, especially when that way is downhill. I’ve ridden this trail multiple times, staring at my lines through corners and over rocks and completely failing to spot half of this scenery. Now, I do what I never do and slow down to admire the view as we roll happily out into the hills. They’re stunning.
My reverie doesn’t last. The Wayfarer becomes more technical the higher you go and it’s not long before my attention reverts to the trail. As things become more interesting, Andy wants a photo or two and we stop for a few shots. At first, this isn’t a problem, but Andy is a sucker for a water-splash and soon spots a nice deep puddle. One run turns into two, and then three… “But with more speed,” he says. Steve and I are soon soaking. “It’s such a nice puddle,” says our dry photographer.
Today the Wayfarer is in typically ‘Welsh’ mode and submerged beneath hub-deep puddles. Andy must be in heaven and soon spots another shot. But this time he can’t get the angle. It appears he’s going to have to stand in a stream if he wants his shot. “It’s such a nice stream,” says Steve. Andy decides he’s got enough photos.
But now he wants a couple of shots with us right on the side of the trail, where the light is best. After the first run, Steve and I realise it’s also where the gorse bushes are and collect several spikes with our knuckles. This time I attempt mutiny and refuse to ride the line again. Steve tries a more subtle approach, attempting to distract Andy with new photo opportunities, pointing out that we’re in Wales and haven’t yet got a sheep shot. Maybe we’ll spot the alien mother sheep.
Contacting the Mother-Sheep.
Soaking wet and thoroughly prickled, we get back to the climb – and it’s a good one. Never overly steep or technical, there are little tricky bits here and there, but nothing major, and we’re soon approaching the top. This is where the climb is hardest, which is as it should be. A couple of rocky corners require good line choice, and loose rock means you’ve got to concentrate to keep traction. Steve, used to riding a rigid singlespeed, is relishing the grip and gearing of his enormous XL full-suspension 29er and powering upwards. It’s a struggle to keep up with him but luckily, it appears that he’s only going that fast because he thinks he’s holding me up and so when I slow down, he does too. Close one.
At the top of the climb is the memorial that gives the trail its name – a silver plaque to ‘Wayfarer’. Wayfarer was a cyclist named Walter McGregor Robinson who, in the 1920s and ’30s, rode all over North Wales, writing and giving talks about his adventures. A popular bloke, in 1957 his friends erected the memorial in his memory and left a logbook in a tin box to be signed by anyone following in his tyre tracks. Realising that, for the first time ever, there’s actually a pen in the box and that it works, we sit down to sign the book. But what to write? I know Andy won’t be able to resist taking a photo of it, so it has to be good. Unable to get past ‘Tom, Steve & Andy…’, I ask for help, but Steve’s mouth is full of banana and Andy’s got his face inches from the shiny memorial plaque, trying to work out if he can get a reflection shot. “You’re the writer,” he mutters. Unable to argue, I scrawl the lamest of lame comments and am about to stuff the book back in the box when I turn and nearly break my nose on Andy’s lens.
I knew he wouldn’t be able to stop himself, but how the hell did he get that close without me knowing? He could make a killing working for the tabloids.
Where are the rocks? Oh, there.
At this point we realise that, despite the blue skies and glorious sunshine, it’s absolutely freezing. We put on every spare layer we have, which isn’t much, and set off down the western side of the Wayfarer, planning to drop to Llandrillo and loop back around and up the same way. This is by far the less technical side of the trail, although Steve and I are sure there are a few little rocky sections that’ll be interesting.
It quickly becomes apparent that there are no little rocky sections. Whether the trail’s been smoothed, or whether our memories are deceiving us (we last rode the climb in the pitch black), we can’t find any sign of them. But it doesn’t matter as it’s great fun. The trail is fast and smooth and the drainage ditches and bumps are the perfect size to launch off and pump between. When I say perfectly sized, I mean small. We don’t want to get carried away.
Towards the bottom we drop into shade and the air grows colder. Not wanting to hang about, I tell Andy that the riding beyond, while fun, isn’t particularly photogenic. This is a lie, but I’m so cold I can no longer feel my feet. And so, slightly ashamed to cut short the shortcut, around we turn.
The climb back feels hard and I can’t get warm. Andy and Steve can’t either. Keen to keep moving, we barely pause at the top and get straight into the descent. Inevitably, Andy wants a couple of shots, but the bitter January air has a magical effect and he nails them first go. Then he utters some equally magical words – he’s got his photos and he’ll see us at the bottom. This is unheard of. An uninterrupted top to bottom run? We get moving before he changes his mind.
The top is the most technical part, snaking through a big rocky S-bend. With a bit of line choice you don’t need to brake too much and I follow a smoothish line through the inside of the first bend and around the outside of the second, sweeping past Andy who’s picked the completely opposite and much-slower route. As I forgot to mock him for his bad line, I’ll do so now. Loser.
Running (with water).
Easier now, the track’s running with water, which has left a smooth line down the trail, switching back and forth from side to side. Tucked behind Steve, I follow closely as he hops across the rolling transitions, taking off on one and landing on another. It looks like he’s finding all the fun lines and so I stick on his wheel. Pretty much flat out now, Steve’s sending water several feet into the air with his back tyre.
Temporarily blinded, I drop back. It’s awesome watching his rear wheel vanish in a cloud of sunlit spray until that spray parts to reveal a huge rock that Steve’s hopped…
Only avoiding a massive crash through panic braking and pure luck, I realise that Steve’s dropped me. I can’t have that, so I give chase. The riding’s not technical, but it is fun and we hammer down over loose rock, neck and neck, sending stones and water flying until Steve clips a rock and, with loud but very brief hiss, empties his rear tyre of air.
It was probably inevitable that someone would puncture. Secretly glad it wasn’t me, I join Steve and examine his wheel. There’s no sign of sealant or damage to the tyre. Maybe it burped the air? Out comes Steve’s really mini mini-pump and, after a bout of frenzied pumping, up goes the tyre. And then, with a cruel ‘psssssss’, down it goes again.
His tyre, happily sealed at 10 psi, can’t handle 20 – the great tubeless tease. Tube in, I offer to pump, more because I’m freezing rather than any actual desire to help. But Steve has the tyre back up in no time and we’re soon on the move.
Virtually back now, the puddles we rode through earlier are beginning to ice over and we decide we’re all glad we didn’t head out on the big loop. It would have been Way-far-ther than we wanted. [Ouch! Punning Ed]
And the Wayfarer there and back works. When people suggest you should ride a trail backwards, I normally chuckle smugly. Why would I do that? I ride a trail a particular way because it’s the best way. Well, it turns out that some trails are worth riding the ‘wrong’ way. We’ve had a cracking time climbing the descent, and descending the climb was surprisingly decent, if you follow me. And climbing the climb and descending the descent was as good as ever. It’s been a great day out.
But, given the choice, I’d ride the Wayfarer as part of a big loop. If you like huge rides, then it’s a true UK classic, with great riding, scenery and a bit of adventure. It feels like a tribute to Wayfarer – with the trail named after him making a fitting finale. It just seems right. You could say it’s out of this world.