Matthew Finch takes advantage of the longest day of the year, by leaving the trail centre behind and going for his longest ride.
I awoke to the manic buzzing and beeping of my phone alarm. It was 3.00am.
There’s something enticing and beautiful about the summer solstice. The 21st June – the longest day. A summit mid-way through the earth’s flight around the sun, where daylight hours reach their ultimate peak before a slow descent back towards a December low point. Today, I’d be utilising maximum available daylight on a solo mountain bike mission in the Cambrian Mountains.
It was cold outside for June, 6 degrees Celsius at 3.20am. I let out a shiver as I secured my bike to the roof bars under an almost full moon and noticed the pale blue slither of sky on the eastern horizon – the first sign of sunrise. The neighbouring houses all looked to be firmly in night mode, their occupiers fast asleep for another few hours before the madness of the Friday commute begins. I planned to be halfway up a mountain by the time everyone else goes into battle with rush hour.
Using the OS Map app, I’d plotted a route through, up and around the Elan Valley, deep in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales. 75 km’s long and should take around eight or nine hours with ascent and descent taken into account. The route would take me mostly on singletrack and gravel roads, with just a few uphill sections of tarmac on quiet Welsh lanes. As I drove into Rhayader – my starting point – I felt the familiar butterflies in my stomach, a sensation I’d gotten used to before any jumping off point to an adventure. Not a nervous feeling, just a fuzzy anticipation of what to expect in unknown territory. Rhayader still slept as my wheels took their first rotations. It was 5.47am and now light.
Turning north out of Rhayader, I climbed for around 20 minutes up a mountain pass road until spotting a bridleway sign-posted to the left. A quick check of my OS app confirmed it was part of my route, and I could see an obvious trail dissecting the steep moorland, just across a stream. Being a regular trail centre rider, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not ridden many natural trails. Hauling my full-suspension Canyon over this first stream would prove a sign of things to come. No North Shore boardwalks in sight, I’d have to pick my path over boggy ground and accept the slower pace, along with the accompanying squelchy shoes and sheep poo! But it felt adventurous. I was high on a hill, still before 6.30am and there wasn’t a soul in sight. In fact, I wasn’t to come across another human being until 10.30am.
Eventually, after a slow and soggy pathfinding exercise (seriously, take a map or use a GPS. There are no way markers!), the bridleway began to point downhill and open up onto a south-facing dry grassy trail. I flicked my shock into ‘Downhill’ mode, weighted my dropper post and started accelerating fast into the descent. There were no berms or groomed features. No perfect bike-length rollers to ‘gap’. And the countless rock gardens and drops were blind, millions of years of erosion had not intended them for mountain bike use. But I loved this. Proper mountain biking, and so far, aided by gravity, proper fast!
The next uphill section of trail was unridable. I slung my bike over my shoulders, ‘hike-a-biking’ upwards as the tight path climbed over steep steps and rutted slopes. Pausing for a flapjack, I checked my route before trekking on through this isolated wilderness. No doubt these trails would be buzzing with hikers and horse-riders by lunchtime, the weather forecast being a good one. But at 7.30am the air was cool and still, with only wildlife to share it with.
Reaching the top, I was rewarded with my first view of one of the famous Elan Valley reservoirs. The Garreg-ddu reservoir appeared to be a long way directly below me. I prepared myself for another downhill run, this time a tight and technical, black-graded rocky descent down a very steep and exposed chute. Again, the mountain biking that Elan Valley had to offer was delivering natural, death-grip descents coupled with mandatory ear-to-ear grins. Managing to hold on to the bars, arse parked over my rear wheel, the trail spat me out onto the road at the bottom and I cruised into Elan Village, eagerly anticipating the next section.
Following another steep climb up a paved road, I turned right onto a gravel bridleway and pushed on towards the top of the hill. My map told me the distance to the top was short, but the close gradient lines suggested I was in for a tough one! Summiting with a view of the Caban-coch reservoir to the south, I sat down next to some sheep and looked at my watch. It had just gone 9.00am. The flask of tea I’d brewed earlier in the car park should be just the right temperature, so I unwrapped a scotch egg and sipped my tea. I’d already been on my bike for longer than any of my normal trail centre rides, and I had around six hours left! I screwed the lid back onto my thermos flask and set off down another fast, grassy hillside, crossing fords and dodging sheep until the angle of the trail mellowed and the dry grassy surface gave way to a rocky 4×4 road. This road would prove a challenging ascent to the Claerwen Dam and reservoir – a long and low stony path winding its way adjacent to a wide stream, peppered by sections where the water had burst its bank and filled the sunken road. The climb involved multiple stream crossings, where water channels were often two or three feet deep and six feet across. I’d carefully topple my bike to the other side and then haul myself after it. There’s still something childishly satisfying about jumping streams, calculating taking-off points verses speed of approach, two feet just making contact with the slippery grass on the other side!
After some time, I made it to the Claerwen Dam, and the reservoir that it held in place. I didn’t have time to complete a circular route along the water, but I knew the gravel road that ran along it was part of the long-distance ‘Trans Cambrian Way’ – a beautiful and secluded ribbon of Welsh mountain history – so curiosity led me to explore 20 minutes along it before turning back on myself. The track lead me at first along the side of the lake just above water level, then climbed higher up the hillside without ever straying too far from the water. At my highest point before turning back, the gravel trail appeared to weave and wind for miles along the edge of the dark water. I’d need to return another day and follow the trail all the way to the Irish Sea. The summer solstice may have been promising day-light until 10.00pm, but my wife on the other hand, was expecting me home by tea-time!
More Tea Time
Free-wheeling back down the valley, I was soon pedalling along the old Birmingham Corporation Railway line towards the Pen y Garreg reservoir, the northern-most body of water on my route and start of my final single-track mountain crossing. It was 12.30pm and my stomach was rumbling, so I pulled my bike up the steps of the Penbont House tearooms and made light work of a Coronation Chicken sandwich. It seemed appropriate to follow lunch off with scones, jam and cream and a pot of tea. It would have been rude not to!
Well fed and watered, I clocked the time on my watch and made a mental note – I had two hours to complete the route. Jumping back atop my faithful two-wheeled friend, I headed north along the reservoir. So far, I’d ridden 55km in approximately seven hours, gaining over 1000 metres of ascent. Now, I know that’s not going to earn me any Strava KOM’s, but I was really loving this trip and my mind was hard at work dreaming up more epic rides. Unfortunately, as I was lost in bike-packing awe and wonder, I missed a sign informing people that the path ahead was closed! Disappointed to find the blocked trail, a couple of local chaps eating their sandwiches told me of another route to the top of the hill. I’d have to back-track, then turn onto a steep bridleway leading up a narrow valley, which would eventually connect me back on course.
By this point my legs had little left in them, and the push to the top of the valley sapped my remaining energy. I squeezed out another energy gel before the trail rolled over its highest point and beckoned me downhill, over beautiful, dry and rocky single-track. Regardless of my waning reserves, I couldn’t help feeling my spirits lift as I rocketed towards lower elevations, linking up ruts and holes by jumping my wheels between them. The fast track led me back to the high road I had first turned off 8 hours earlier, only now it was baking hot and the tarmac ferried a steady stream of campervans and motorcycles along it. I had one more feature to finish the ride – a long 4×4 boulder track running down along a 5km ridge, offering more than 250 metres of vertical descent. It wasn’t technical. Neither was it singletrack. But it was fast and fun! A bone-shaker of a ride that propels its rider over rock-rollers, loose gravelly turns, and over super-fast rock drops, all-the-while sweet-talking the rider into pedalling faster. This was a ten minute grin-fest, guaranteed to shave a few micrometres off your brake pads!
I rolled back into Rhayader feeling heroic. It was 2.30pm and the town was now buzzing with summer day-trippers. The sleepy pubs from this morning were now alive with punters drinking ales in the sunshine. Sitting outside the Lamb and Flag Inn with a pint, I checked my recorded activity on the Garmin app. 70 km in 8 hours 43 minutes – 5km short of my planned route due to the trail closure, but this had still been my furthest ride on a mountain bike by a long stretch. A truly Epic Ride on the longest day.
And as for natural trail riding… I was hooked!