bikebritain News December 15, 2015

Pontypool 2 - to Brecon and Back

Pontypool, South Wales, Weekend 30th/31st October 2015

Following on from our initial foray to South Wales in March, it was felt that the only honourable thing to do was to repeat the experience and explore elsewhere in the vicinity. With personnel adjusted, (Frank replacing Joey in this instance), we set off in high spirits to South Wales. The consensus was that whilst a weekend away would be fun, given our geography and time of year, we would inevitably get wet at some point. 

Frank and I picked Lukey up along the A23 and crammed his bike into the back of the van. We hustled down to Pontypool mid Friday morning, expecting to get an afternoon and full days ride in before returning first thing on Sunday. Traffic was manageable and about 3 hours later we were standing around in the car park at the Best Western Metro hotel in Pontypool, wondering what to do next. After some more faffing about, checking in and changing rooms and then changing clothes, we saddled up and rode off. 

Day One

In between a plan had formed, with Lukey being its main architect. The down side of showing the slightest bit of initiative in this group was that you then got an automatic nomination to map read. I am sure he was delighted. As I recall, the last time we went north it involved climbing up a fearsome hill at a place called Tranch that we now affectionately call ‘Death Hill’. (We found a close relation the following day, but more of that later.) This caused a certain amount of trepidation between Luke and I because it was a HARD slog. It would be nice to gently glide out of Pontypool without fear of my heart bursting through my chest cavity. Luke, feeling the same way, found an alternate route that took us through a place called New Inn on the way Glascoed and Usk. This was a perfect solution. Leading the way (and ignoring the grey clouds gathering overhead), we picked our way through suburbia and with a few map checks navigated ourselves out of town. After 10 minutes we were in countryside and by that I mean there were no houses around whatsoever. Visibility was ok, plus we (I mean Lukey) had a rough idea where we were going. The terrain was undulating, some ups and some downs, nothing terrifying. We coasted to Glascoed and then onto Rhadyr and Usk. There was a lot of surface water around, but it was not raining. It was good to be riding some different and in the light. 

The idea was that Day One would be a warm up, a couple of hours to make the most of the light, but nothing too mad before our ‘proper’ day. I had not settled on a route for the next day, but I had a vague notion that getting to Brecon would form the basis of an ‘acceptable mileage day’, whilst the return leg might fall under the banner of ‘challenging’. We rode onto to Raglan, briefly skirting the town and thereby completely missing the apparently famous castle. Lukey had done a fine job of keeping us off the main roads and we pottered along single track roads that were by and large car free. Running parallel to the A40 we continued towards Llanvihangel Gobion, which did nothing for our (quite poor) attempts of Welsh place name pronunciation.  

At around this time Lukey introduced a couple of slightly comical navigational ‘rabbit tunnels’, one before and one after Nant-y-derry. One of these instances led myself and Frank to ride up and down the same stretch of road at least 4 times until Lukey decided we’d actually gone completely the wrong way and in reality we did, in fact, need to climb a steep hill. Of course by smugly regaling this tale it might infer that I’d been any help whatsoever, which was, of course, entirely untrue. Rather I found it much more effective to make unhelpful comments and not check my own phone, although I am largely putting that down to the utterly woeful Vodafone service in South Wales. And anywhere else I happen to be. We got back on track, successfully scaling the latest dollop of hill put in front of us. We rode down quite an exciting descent called ‘Rumble Street’ which ended with us abruptly stopping at a junction with the A472. A few hundred meters down the road we came off the main road and headed back towards Glascoed and in doing so crossing Berthin Brook. 

From here it was a climb back up to the residences of New Inn. As yet I had not changed from the large front ring and I was reluctant to do so, since October was ‘Big Ring’ month. This would present a challenge. One specific part of Glascoed Lane proved to be quite tricky, but sufficient momentum had been gathered on the approach to just about carry me over the crest of the hill without stopping. Granted I was moving very slowly and breathing very hard, but I didn’t stop. Frank and Lukey followed in (a) a more sensible gear and (b) more controlled breathing. We rode along the rest of the lane and congratulated Lukey on devising a good loop for us. It had been a satisfying start, a decent spin to get us familiar with the locality and warmed up for the main event tomorrow.

We returned to the hotel, slung the bikes in the back of the van and had a fine dining experience in the Harvester across the road. I began to calculate where we’d go in the morning…….

Day Two

Following more meat and lager than was really required, we awoke to find a promising weather overhead; the sky was clearing and the iPhone forecast corroborated this. Indeed, a fine day for cycling. Breakfast and obligatory faffing completed we set off just after 09.30 (which is early for us). I suggested taking the same route out of Pontypool as we had done yesterday, since it was likely we would approach Pontypool from the west on our way back. Using our new found local knowledge we rode confidently to Llanvair Kilgeddin, ready to traverse our way to Brecon. Without the need to check the map we made good time and we were soon on a road I recognised from last time. We were heading towards the firstly the foot of ‘The Tumble’ and later Llangynidr Mountain, both peaks we had ascended previously. The road between Llanellen and Llangynidr was undulating which made for good cycling, whilst traffic on a Saturday morning was light. 

Passing through the Llangynidr Village we crossed the River Usk. The bridge was single lane only and offered a very picturesque view looking both east and west. We stopped and took a few photos and enjoyed some local road rage. Most surprisingly in the battle between Peugeot 106 and tractor, the 106 won. Chatting briefly to one of the locals, it transpired the owner of the 106 was ‘a nutter’.  From what we saw, I’m inclined to agree.  From here on in we would be riding on roads that were new to us. It would be fairly straight forward getting to Brecon, the proposed lunch stop. Heading north we’d pass through Bwlch and then Cathedine before we traversed west again past Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn and onto Brecon. We had been cycling for about 3 hours and it was time to eat. Before doing so, rather than ride along the A40 we located a canal footpath that doubled up as an officially designated cycle route. We took that instead. Carefully navigating the pedestrians and occasional errant dog, this was a much more civilised method of getting into town. Moments later we were stuffing our faces outside Greggs in the middle of Brecon. 

The route home was simple. Head south, then east. However that did not quite tell the full story. The heading south part was easy (though not quite as straight forward as we first imagined). The east part would definitely not be easy. Returning home meant crossing four valley’s and the ramps, in places, looked savage. We should still be home in be home in light though…..

Enter the confluence of staying on the back roads and google maps…….

Lukey had identified a back road that ran parallel to the A470 that joined at the top of the hill. Given that the A470 was the main road in these parts, this seemed like an excellent suggestion. Indeed it was an excellent suggestion until the road became a very narrow track and then a rutted path and then a hilly stony track and then a very hilly grassy track. Unfortunately these details were omitted from google maps that showed a perfectly usable road. All of this was not helped by my own adage of ‘You never go back’. Most of the time this is a good view to take, though it has its down-sides. Today, on this ride, was one such instance. 

The road became a track at a farm, in full view of the A470 which was just across the valley. Hoisting the bikes over the gate it quickly became evident that it would be a miracle if we didn’t get a puncture and we weren’t trampled to death by the herd of cows that were standing in our path. On reflection it was more their path than ours. We definitely weren’t meant to be there. After some ‘skilful’ negotiating past 3 really quite large cows, we continued on. The path was a rubble track with moss and grass growing across it. It was very heavy going. Frank was making quite good progress with Lukey and I some distance behind. We were all trying to find the path of least resistance, literally, but to no avail. We made it to a gate, which marked progress of some sort, but the ‘road’ was still nowhere to be seen. Local sheep had gathered to see what was going on, as had a couple of walkers, who looked surprised 3 men with road bikes were on the ‘path’. We still had some way to go.

We continued and the track got steeper. It was now a grassy trail which was marginally more comfortable to ride on but caused more wheel spinning. It was hard to maintain any momentum at all. Soon we were all pushing. The lack of grip got too much and I wheel spun to a halt, narrowly avoiding a zero speed unplanned dismount. Much discussion ensued over the relative rights and wrongs of the route. Lukey stoically maintained he was only as good as the information google provided and as such should not be held to account for the cyclo cross portion of the ride. Eventually we were reunited with the A470 (at the Storey Arms Outdoor Education Centre). However, it was now after 3 PM and I reckoned it would take at least 2 hours to get home from here. Luckily we had one almighty descent into Merthyr Tydfil to enjoy.

Mud flicked off our tyres as we shot off down the hill. Their condition resembled more like mountain bikes than racers. It was an enjoyable respite from the off-roading we had just finished but tougher climbs were ahead of us. From Merthyr we were going as easterly as possible to Tredegar, but that included many ups and downs. Some of the residential roads looked practically vertical to me. I was still in the big ring, but knew it was only a matter of time till I had to change down. I toiled up the first hill and then the second and then the third. We rode along the hill top out of Merthyr and I’ve never seemed so much rubbish – as in refuse – discarded at the side of the road. It was dirty up there. We rode past an open excavation through a valley created by spoil either side. We were 500 meters up and had a commanding view of the neighbouring valley’s. 

It was hard going. I wasn’t used to the steepness and my legs were getting tired. In fact we all were. Up and down we went. The light was now failing. We would not be home by dark! Upon reaching Ebbw Vale we rode south towards Abertillery. This is where I suspected it would get really jazzy. In order to avoid a road that we knew would result in climbing a devilishly steep hill we elected to cut across the corner of the valley at Brynithel. This would mean we would need to zig-zag our way through the village and climb to St Llltyd…….

Again I recognised the road from our past ride, although we had been cycling north that time. We easily found the zig-zag road and scaled the side of the hill. It was all going rather well until I realised the tiny road that branched off to the right and disappeared into the heavens was the road we were looking for. With one last effort I hauled the bike up……and then, some way up, finally had to gear down. Trouble was the legs and gone. I had geared down too late. I was already going almost backwards. Frank over took me and plodded upwards. Rounding a bend we met traffic and more hill – neither of which I was keen to see. By now I was barely pushing the pedals round. I stopped. Frank continued. I think this was where Lukey stopped too. Gravity got the better of us. Slowly Frank drew away. It was almost dark now, and I tracked his progress via his blinking rear light. Eventually the hill eased off and a few minutes later we regrouped. 

The surface (if you can call it that) on Blaen-Y-Cwm Road was truly awful, made worse by it being pitch black (apart from our front lights). Hills seem harder when you can’t properly judge the top and there were still some peaks to scale. However we were rewarded with a descent of crazy proportions exiting a small place called Pantygasseg. The descent was more like a vertical drop. It would have been fun to do in the light. There was no way you could release your brakes for anything more than a few seconds such was the acceleration. The descent was a relief and we arrived in Pontnewynydd just up the road from Pontypool. Halloween was in full swing and we got a few cheers from a couple of witches at the side of the road. It was unclear if they had dressed up specifically or it was their natural attire.  A short ride down the A472 and we were home having ridden 135km, 2.1 km vertical. 

So there you have it. Another couple of excellent routes ridden ‘around’ Pontypool. The valley’s had provided some stern challenges and the reverse of Pantygasseg Road needs to be attempted next time. 

We’ll return in March 2016.

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