How To Tame A Dragon
Think cycling up Snowdon is tricky? Try doing it twice on the same day. In the first of a new series of epic rides, Pearson reports on a Welsh mountain classic, as well as some of the finest other off-road routes in the UK.
By Mike Higgins
All the gear and a great idea.
Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa is irresistible. Though not quite as elevated as Ben Nevis in Scotland, the 3560ft (1085m) Snowdon massif in North Wales is more accessible. Each year more than half-a-million flock to it, from hikers to day trippers; so popular are the trails over the massif that in 2003 the Snowdon Voluntary Cycle Agreement was drawn up, by which cyclists agree to stay off the mountain’s trails from 1 May to 30 September between 10am and 5pm. All of which rather suggests that riders shouldn’t bother with Snowdon. But we should. Because there is perhaps no more grand day out than a double ascent and descent of [Britain’s] second-highest mountain.
We plumped for a late April weekend, giving us nearly 15 hours of daylight, a theoretical term in North Wales: Snowdonia receives 120 inches of rainfall a year. Our departure point was the Llanberis Path, a wide and mostly rideable mixture of slab paving, hard pack and looser sections. This path is the longest and least demanding approach to the summit. Up we span in the shade as the rising sun lit the greens and dun browns of the far side of the valley. At its head, high in the distance, was the junction with one of the other popular summit paths, the Ranger – which we’d be riding both up and down in a few hours.
We levelled out on the saddle beneath the summit and took in the narrow ridge of Crib Goch just to the east. Then the riding proper began. Even on a dry, clear morning such as this, the Rhyd Ddu path, the south-westerly trail off the summit, is to be taken very carefully. We freewheeled gently past the summit Visitor Centre then on to the path itself which takes you first to the left of the jaggedly rocky ridge line, and then steeply down, to its right – a drop of over 300m lies on either side of the ridge. We walked the first section, and gingerly rode the second.
The views are always worth the early start.
From here the vertiginous ridge line softened into a gentle flank to our left, but a plummet down to Cwm Clogwyn remained, metres to our right. Nevertheless, it’s a joyous descent, swooping down loose, rocky terrain. Buzzing, we rolled into the hamlet of Rhyd Ddu itself and the Cwellyn Arms for brunch.
After a short northerly spin up the valley road on the eastern shore of Lyn Cwellyn, we turned right after the youth hostel and began the climb – at first gentle, soon anything but – of ascent number two, the Ranger Path. Bikes were shouldered as the path steepened in a series of boulder-strewn switchbacks (make sure your riding shoes can take the punishment of a two-hour hike-a-bike) but we took consolation that every rock we were labouring over, we’d be flying over soon enough. [The descent] delivered on all its alpine promise: steep in places, fast, rocky. There are reasons to balk at riding Snowdon, but on a day like this, it’s irresistible.
Note: The writer completed his ride of Snowdon on a mountain bike. If you’re taking a gravel bike, we recommend fitting in the widest tyres your bike can take - even switching to 650b wheels to use some MTB tyres if you desire. Depending on conditions, you’ll likely need good handling skills on some of the trickier sections. If you’re not sure, remember there’s no shame in walking – in some places you’ll have no choice.
Featuring some of the most spectacular geology in the British Isles, the backdrop alone is worth the considerable effort to get there (1.5-2hrs by train or car from Inverness): titanic glacial valleys on either side of which tower imposing peaks. And it’s the rocks that in part give the riding its character: the sandstone will give your tyres plenty of grip (but look out for tyre-shredding shards of quartzite). Between the A890 road to the south and A896 are more than half-a-dozen trails bookended by the peaks of Beinn Damh in the west and Carn Breac in the east.
ELAN VALLEY, WALES
If you don’t fancy Snowdonia, the Elan Valley, in mid-Wales, offers a wide range of riding against a historical backdrop of Victorian dams, old railways, reservoirs and woodlands. Base yourself in the nearby town of Rhayader and choose from trails for all abilities – from easy blues all the way up to the 37-mile (60km) all-dayer, Elan Epic.
The Elan Valley reservoir - of Dam-Buster fame.
For more gravel routes in Wales click here.