Back to the future




If the Welsh Tourist Board had a brief flirt with accuracy, the slogan’d pretty much write itself: “Come to Wales, bring a waterproof. And a mountain bike“. While accepting this may reduce the size of western charging cohort, it perfectly fits my view of this rather brilliant if incessantly moist country.

Key attributes of any ride in Wales; a) you will get wet b) you will carry your bike c) your tyres/shoes/eyeballs will be full of sheep shit d) you will get amusingly lost and e) outside of the poo creators, you’ll see no other mammals for the entire day. Obviously these rules apply only to proper riding, not that FC ghetto Scalextric nonsense harvesting a bumper crop of sheepy sign-post followers.

Unexpected early October sunshine had three of us piling into Matt’s rather natty demo van* and heading into the wilds of mid Wales where the hills are steep, the views inspiring and the people few. Such was our keenness, even the traction beam of an early morning pig ‘n’ chicken butty was mightily resisted as we assembled three bikes representing all the current wheel sizes currently being hawked by evil MTB marketeers.

Assuming you’ve taken my previous advice not to read the bottom half of the Internet, here’s a summary of where such idiocy takes us; the tallest of us rides at 26 inch bike, the shortest a 650b and the middling one a 29er. We all use to ride 26s, and Matt (tall) was the fastest downhill, Dave (shortest) was second with me bringing up the rear. After spending *ahem* a few pounds on lovely new builds, our slavish adherence to our own ‘best‘ standard has changed absolutely nothing in the pecking order. Other than opening up entire new motherlodes to be mined by rich piss-taking.

So having efficiently arrived at our start location in the lovely town of Rhayader, our attempt on a classic old school XC loop was put on pause while some similarly classic dithering over if a certain individual needed a wee took a while to resolve. Prostrates satisfied, off we span on leaf splattered trails in sight of the River Elan. Synaptic resonance reminded me of the last time we’d tackled this route in a snowstorm. And the time before than in a thunderstorm. I couldn’t help but glance warily at blue sky and wonder what precipitation lay in wait for us this time? Maybe a falling satellite?

3 kilometres in and we were lost. Not exactly lost, as the three of us could confidently identify our current location. Which was at river level when the route called for some proper climbing into brooding hills mocking us from our lowly position. Double back and double up on a steep climb surfaced by first a worn out road and latterly by a rocky track which provided a Welsh warm up of gaining a couple of hundred metres in not much distance.

The already dog eared guide notes** suggested the next section might be a carry. Optimism in print there as we shouldered bikes and discovered exactly why this stunning pocket of densely packed hills was picked to provide clean water for the brummies. Even after a dry summer, it was still boggy underfoot with little used trails packed full of stingy vegetation. We’d picked a route from a guide book some fifteen years hence which enthusiastically catalogued a ride of endless awesomeness with two of the best descents Wales could offer.

And fifteen years ago, you could imagine mesh helmeted riders clad in purple spandex poking themselves with bar ends and bouncing uncontrollably down rocky descents by the hundred. Not so now with all sorts of magpie shinyness attracting the contemporary mountain biker to the path of least resistance. We shouldered bikes and un-glooped ankles from un-gentrified bog, while they bought macchiatos and compared carbon composites. Their loss.

We topped out close to the stunning view at the start of this post. Opening up a a gully of rocky steepness requiring 100{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} focus entirely lacking due to an eyeball dragging juxtaposition blending man made reservoirs with lines of endless hills. I had to stop and take pictures giving me ample time to arrive at the crux already cleaned by Matt. He shouted that my line was all wrong – no change there – before hiking back up to show me the way. I decided ‘the way‘ was way above my pay grade and walked down mocked by those ghostly hardcases of old who’d made up for their lack of bike by a dollop of skills.

No matter, fun all the same which wasn’t quite the case on the climb out of the valley mostly completed with a nose on the stem, arse giving you the full ‘D-wing in the showers, reaching for the soap‘ experience. Lungs on fire, legs weakening by the pedal stroke, massive vistas putting the boot in your self-worth, this feels like proper mountain biking. Hard, uncompromising, potentially unrewarding but God what a privilege to have this to ourselves on a perfect day.

Back on top at 500m above sea level, we abandoned the route guide and headed for a half-remembered plunge down the ridge on a trail nothing like singletrack but everything like giggly fun. Fast, open and apparently without danger right up until the point a deep bog nearly ended it for me. Lost now, we pushed quietly through a dilapidated farm yard clearly modelled on Deliverance, and dropped onto the old train track built to take hard men into the mountains to build the stupendous engineering masterpieces of the Elan dams.

Dave – much broken from a horrible road crash last year – lobbied for the flat way home around the mountain. We talked him out of it promising only one more climb and a fantastic descent to finish. Selling job complete, we skirted the reservoir and pitched upwards onto a climb I remembered as being fairly lumpy but reasonably short. I was half right with the soft grass under-tyre adding pain to an overdose of lactic acid. Ten minutes later it was done leaving me on a bleak summit surrounded by 360 views and bugger all else.

I dumped the bike and stood there for a while. As close to being at peace as I ever get with none of the daily compromises foisted by life in general and work in particular. For a second or so, as a chill wind whistled through what’s left of my hair, I was tempted to use the word ‘spiritual’ at which point a tanker rumbled into view on an unseen road putting paid to that pretentious nonsense. Dave and Matt then put up with my insistence to ride through ‘that bog again‘ for the digital soul stealer before a final road climb topped us out on a double track full of puddles and anticipation.

The first kilometre was flat but fun dropping wheels into ‘how bloody deep is that going to be’ small lakes before gradient triggered dropped seat posts and grin inducing velocity. Nothing on this track was scary but it was fast and steppy so perfectly suited to popping off drops and drilling rock gardens. Modern mountain bikes may flatter the lightly skilled but by Christ they are stupidly good fun on tracks like this. And it was a track that went on for approximately ever. Time was marked by Dave’s freewheel right up my chuff and the chain slapping the swing arm as lumps turned to jumps.

Done if not dusty, we rolled back into town and straight into the pub. Where we talked about bikes, things we’d done and things we were going to do. We didn’t talk about wheel sizes or shock configurations or tyre pressures. We didn’t talk about how our lined complexions suggested a raging against the dying of the light. We didn’t talk about what happens when this all stops.

And that’s not just displacement blindness. It’s a recognition that while we can drag our ageing bodies into high places, the reward will be a million times greater than the effort required to do so.

Go to Wales, you get to see this kind of stuff

* which – if I was tended to the selfish – he’d best buy for our trip to the alps next year. Short of adding a drinks cabinet, it’s damn close to chauffeured mountain biking.

** Navigation via my GPS was discounted on the not unreasonable grounds that – despite it’s obvious efficacy in all things finding places – it was in gloved hands of an idiot.

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