An Older One – The Sarn Helen Trail

Here’s something I wrote back in May about The Sarn Helen Trail in Wales. Not to be confused with some other Welsh C2C routes, I just kinda made this one up as training for the Tour Divide. I kept this story back as I had sent it to a magazine, but after a bit of a run-around, it’s safe to say they probably aren’t going to publish it.

Photos are in the Gallery

Wales is the home of my mountain biking. Way back when I went for my first mountain bike ride, it was at Coed Y Brenin and I had to re-evaluate my ideas of what a bike was capable of. Ever since then, my ideas have continued to evolve. Sometimes the evolution has just been my own, sometimes it has been as the sport has progressed.
In the past couple of years, my personal progression has been on the adventure side of things. Travelling further, and taking the spirit of independence out to see how far I could go. Riding the length of Wales was an attempt to tie these strands together. I wanted to link up the country and join the dots between the trail centres. Trips out West can be like a tourist visiting London: you only see small circles around the trail centres, just as a London tourist only sees small circles around the tube stations. Now I’d get more of a local’s view, get a feel for what happens between Penmachno and Coed Y Brenin, what lives between Mach and Nant Yr Arian.

So I set out to ride a route somewhat based on the Sarn Helen Trail. The plan was to get a train from London to Conwy, and finish by train from Swansea back to London. Most of the riding would be off-road and I had little idea what quality of trail to expect. Experience told me that some rights-of-way on the map were going to be just that, a right-of-way but not necessarily a trail. I’d later find out how true that was. But at the planning stage, I was left to estimate how long it would take to complete. Roughly following a published route that took an 8 day itinerary, I hoped that 3 days would not be assuming too much of my abilities.

As I set out from Conwy, I felt very alone. There was no-one else riding this with me, and nothing I could do to make myself feel like the journey was real. I could still turn around and call the whole thing off, but I wasn’t going to do that. So, I enjoyed the sunshine of the late afternoon and the speedy progress I could make along the country lanes.

Things didn’t stay with country lanes for long. I pushed up loose rocky climbs and let the wheels take their course over rocky descents. Occasionally, a big drop or rock would be beyond me for a laden bike and I would straggle down on foot. It took concentration and with that concentration, my mind was sent out to where I wanted it to be. What looked like a slight rut in the track, actually swallowed half of my wheel and flipped me over the bars. The lake refilled my water bottles. The sheep scampered away as I approached.

All too soon, the light was fading and I watched the world lose colour. My head-torch was foolishly packed away too deep so I persevered through the gloom. MX torn trails were crossed with bright white roots and stinking dark water lurked in every depression. I couldn’t camp in this boggy ground, but I could barely see my way. I knew I could find my light without being able to see, though, and the moon was full so I kept riding/pushing/squelching along.

From nowhere, a ribbon of manicured stone singletrack appeared. I followed it for a way, its light grey stone was a glowing trail in the forest. But the GPS said no. This wasn’t my route. Maybe next time, but stick with the plan for now. Doubling back, I hit a fireroad and, soon, a tarmac road. Roads meant houses and houses meant nowhere to bivvy.

I buzzed along in complete moonlight now. When a car came, I stopped on the verge aware of how foolish it was to ride unlit at night. Villages and streetlights passed and still no place to sleep. Finally, I branched off onto a track. A slate sheepfold stood disused some 30m from the track. It was dark, I was going to be up early, there was no sign of sheep or even sheep poo, so this would be my bed.

The sheepfold was a fine bed and I rose early to get on with the day. Malt loaf for breakfast and pushing up the hill. Riding up the hill, and pushing along no trail. A tiny mistake in plotting the GPS route sent me into the forest on a very vague track. As it became increasingly boggy and headed away from where I wanted to be, I tried to cut across through the trees. They closed in around me and the bike became an anchor. When I found a substantial path, it was a joy. I could ride! A tree fallen across the path seemed like bad luck. Two seemed worse. By the third, I got the impression that this path had been closed off. I had little choice but to press on, though, as the area around was so thick as to need a destructive and exhausting effort if I attempted to move off the “trail”. So I lifted, crawled, and dragged my way through while the path seemed safe and my passage harmless. At the end, I could see the correct path, a mere 20m further up the hill. Frustrating, but there was a whole day more to ride, and I was still going in the right direcion.

The trees grew thicker and taller – I began to recognise Coed Y Brenin. This was good progress and gravel passed quickly underneath me as sun cut down in shafts. This quiet beauty gave way to a Sustrans effort – a railway line reclaimed as a bike path. Spinny. I soon slunk past Cadair Idris. No riding up there for me this time, just a fine backdrop to my journey south.

Rocky doubletrack occupied me now. The weight of a loaded bike pressing onto the big wheels gave me massive traction going up. The movement of my bags on the bike had me picking the smoothest lines down. There hadn’t been a soul in hours and I thought of my friends at work. I thought of them gathering for the Tuesday night ride later that day. And I thought about how those two hours from 7.30 to 9.30 would go for me. They would be a steady flow, not an adrenalin rush. They would be solitary and without the laughs of pointless racing. I thought fondly of that other ride going on, but not for me today.

Pretty soon, I recognised Nant Yr Arian. Pulling up to the bench at the empty car park, I took a dinner of peanuts and chocolate. It was another satisfying milestone and confirmation that the miles were falling under my wheels. Time to push on, though. There were a few hours to make progress before dark and I knew Devil’s Bridge would involve a fun steep descent followed by a not-so-fun steep push up the other side of the valley. I spun some road, weaved the singletrack down to the river, and hauled back up on the push to another road. It was definitely time for another bivvy, but once again I was in too much civilisation.

In the faded light, I finally found a spot that was secluded and (more importantly) ready to use right now. My sleeping bag was still damp with condensation from the previous night so I wanted to use the tarp and sleeping bag alone. Unfortunately, figuring out a pitch that worked for the tarp in the required space was beyond my tired mind, so after an aborted, flappy, effort I fell back on the bivvy bag. It was a comfortable enough place to sleep, but the proximity of standing water brought its challenges. These revealed themselves during the night, as a reached up to move the edge of the sleeping bag near my mouth and felt a cold slimy surface. I couldn’t have dribbled that much… No. I peeled a slug off and cast it away. More slugs were around the back of the bag too and I sent them all back to the grass. Making a better choice of campsite was a lesson well learned (but hard to effect when you’re pushing on the miles each day).

The morning brought me to a remote section of trail. At first with solid ground, but later things started to get increasingly wet. Frequent bogs sucked at wheels and, more often, feet. I made slow, frustrating progress with no sign of a solid path, just a line on the GPS and the odd post. Dragging and cursing the bike, being knee-deep become common enough. I railed against the MXers who had torn up this sensitive land, I railed against whoever had even called this a bridleway, I railed against my clumsy progress and the miles it would leave me to do. And as things finally began to firm up, I was greeted by a sign “This post has been errected for the purpose of historical investigations only – and [does] not represent any safe route.” You can only laugh.

My sagging will caused the frustration to continue all the way to the River Elan. I was happy to meet tarmac there and happier to enjoy a fine descent into Rhayader. The sun was out, I’d hit another good goal, and my childish tantrums were behind me. Time to crack on to Builth!

Criss-crossing the river Wye and some hills familiar from the Mountain Marathon series, it felt like going to visit an old friend. My first race from Builth had been back in 2002 and it stands as a frequently used venue today. Another two dots were joined together. And the cruising continued. Not easily, but steadily, all the way to Brecon.

In order to save weight, I had taken no cooking equipment and, as I hit Brecon, the smell of hot food was a strong lure. I picked a kebab shop, and ordered up some hot grub. But as I munched chips, the rain came down outside. Should I stay or should I go? I opted to stay. A bed in Brecon and the chance to dry my gear seemed much more appealing than a potentially wet ride followed by a potentially wet night. It was a tough call to make and questioned why I was here: to get from end to end fast? Just for the hell of it? Really, a bit of both and to shake down my bike ready for the next adventure. I knew I would reach Swansea the next day, and that was that.

It was a strange sort of come-down to be standing in the hallway of a B&B. Suddenly lycra doesn’t seem so clever, and bathing doesn’t seem so optional. But the owner was friendly and didn’t comment on either my appearance or my smell. Soon, I was washed and headed out to buy some more food. Being a less than serious athlete, I picked up a single beer with my food. It was outrageously effective – only half a bottle and my head spun enough crazily. I watched TV and enjoyed a preview of the return to comforts of civilisation. Mmmm… bed.

The trail across the Brecon Beacons National Park was absolutely stunning. Fun, rocky, beautiful. The sun was up and it was the very finest day for riding. Today I’d finish my trip, and the trails were sending me off in style. The black sheep count was 3, and time flew by. It didn’t take much zooming out to see Swansea on my GPS screen, so I was happy to keep the pedals turning.

I could see the signs as I headed from a road section to off road. When I was close enough to read them, I found out that the bridleway was shut. There was going to be a lot of road from here to Swansea. I took off along the roads, hoping to pick up my original route later. I spun through mining villages that look charming in the sun but seemed now to offer little to their residents now other than housing and beer. I spun along busy roads and, eventually, rejoined my original route. On the road section. Damnit.

Civilisation was picking up: an Audi had just blared its horn at me for being there. Fat exhausts accompanied small engines. The national cycle network was making me take minutes to travel 10 metres with all their light-controlled crossings. My destination was within my grasp and the real world was invading my adventure. It felt like an anti-climax. Things were not helped at the train station by being told that I had to book my bike on the train yesterday. I’ll just get my time machine…

It wasn’t long before I was back in London, riding from Paddington to Waterloo in the late afternoon sun. A lady on a city bike overtook me, and red-raced commuters thronged around, jumping red lights. I was super-cool, though. Not ready to let the city take me back to its level yet. I cruised and sometimes walked, biding my time until it was late enough to take a full-sized bike on with me.

And then I was home, riding up the alley to my back gate. With clean skin, a sofa, and a proper cup of tea, I could look back on a ride well done. The bike had been flawless, my legs had held up, my camping and navigation had worked. It had been a satisfying few days of old-school mountain biking.

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