The central beacons
A crack of light made its way through the black-out curtains, just enough to make me open a bleary eye. I blinked. I picked up my phone – 8.03. Time to stir. A peer out through the dawn light revealed a grey sky behind Dinas Castle, and behind the dark peaks of the Black Mountains were hidden in cloud. It did not appear optimistic.
We shook off the remnants of a Friday night in the pub and got on the bikes. Fortified with a huge Welsh breakfast we roared up our first climb to Groessford and over the top down the lane to Talgarth, carefully dodging half-decomposed leaves that made every blind bend on the descent especially treacherous. Somehow we survived and zig-zagged through the town, soon heading southwest on the back road to Brecon. And what a road! Autumn was in full swing in the hedgerows, brightly coloured leaves spilling out onto the road, and the road spread out before us, undulating ever upwards. At Llanfilo we attacked a savage hill with too much gusto and failed, our back wheels eventually losing traction, spinning until staying on the bike because too difficult and dangerous. We passed a shepherd whose collie was afraid of cyclists and had to be hauled past us, wriggling in his arms. Ahead the peaks of the central Beacons were hidden by clouds, and we rolled into Brecon with drizzle in the air.
The hills had delayed us and there was no reason to linger. We avoided the fast but dangerous road south through Libanus in favour of a branch of the Taff Trail that promised a quieter route. We zipped along a good road, climbing the valley, watching as the main road converged towards ours, hoping that our track would take us right up to the pass. No such luck: at Blaenglyn the road ended and we found ourselves on a wet, rough track, fine on a mountain bike but no place for the thin wheels of our road bikes. For the final two kilometres we nervously slipped, slid and occasionally pushed our way slowly up the valley. Sheep stood and chewed, judging our poor choice. Eventually though we safely came out at Storey Arms and immediately crossed the road for a warming brew. Our first 33km had taken us three hours. Gruelling even for us.
But from here we set to work – ‘let’s put the hammer down’, Graeme said, and we flew into a headwind down from the pass, heads hunched low, drafting behind one another to make the most of our efforts. At Brecon Reservoir we turned onto the road over Penderyn Moor, cursing the drivers who sped past our outstretched right arms. But when we turned, we left the busyness of the arterial route behind. On a good road we climbed, lifting ourselves into the wind and cloud. It’s hard to describe the feeling of a good climb to someone who hasn’t experienced it: it is work and effort but there can be a very zen-like quality too. Every stroke of the pedal lifts you, physically and metaphorically, the road rises to meet you, and you feel a sense of almost jubilant exultation. The landscape grows and unravels beneath you, the wind blows more strongly, but somehow you float above it all.
The road flows for a few miles across the top of the moor before dropping down to Penderyn. The wind was strong and blew the drizzle into our faces, but we were strong too, taking it in turns to hit the front to allow the other to take some respite behind. As one faded, the other hit the front, the aerodynamic effect so strong that the one behind barely had to pedal. We hollered inaudible encouragement into the wind and went as hard as we could, adrenaline driving us on into the wind. It was glorious.
Too soon we reached the Ystradfellte turning and I hollered once more to stop Graeme, who had overshot it. We shared a drop of whisky then turned north, rolling on easy roads with the wind at our backs until we reached the village. With 50km now in the bag we celebrated by draining two pints of Mosaic Pale Ale at the New Inn before climbing out of the valley and onto the windswept moor above. My legs were now starting to hurt – we had climbed almost a kilometre vertically at this point – but the wind was at our backs now, and every time I failed a gust of wind would magically push me on. I loved the view of the road ahead, every turn and straight visible, the whole climb laid out in front of us, following every spur and cwm of the landscape. We paused briefly to acknowledge the rock of Mena Lina before finishing the climb just above what is locally known as The Elbow, where the road disappears over the norther escarpment in a steep and tight turn.
The road was now fast and effortless, the only strain being on my braking fingers as we descended as quickly as I dared. We hit the valley floor all too soon as the road rolled once more. The backroad we had chosen again hit a snag as we were forced to push our bikes across a right of way over a farmers field, but it wasn’t long before we were descending again, fast and straight, on a smooth road with great visibility, down and down and back into Brecon.
We stopped briefly by the river. I was carrying too much weight in my belly and starting to flag. Up ahead we had one more big climb, but the light was fading and we still had some work to do to get to it. We took the canal route for awhile then crossed the A40 to the lanes around the villages: Groessford, Llanfihangel and Langorse. We fortified ourselves with one final pint and contemplated the climb: 200m up to skirt the base of Menydd Troed and back around to our inn. I hoped i had enough left in the tank.
As we started the light on the hills above was a gorgeous golden-yellow, which warmed to an orange as we climbed. We settled into a decent pace, the last light of the day helping to induce that perfect climbing mentality. It was hard. My legs were gone, but there was no choice but to ride, so ride I did. We approached the top, and I reckoned we had about 30m of climbing left. The sky was now crimson, and by the time we got over the highest point it had quickly bruised to a deep purple, and then it suddenly went very dark. But we were almost there.
Back on the main road we quickly rode up to the pass above Pengenfford, then it was just a short freewheel to the pub. Huge lumps of Welsh lamb steak cooked on hot lava skillets awaited up, washed down with local beer. We had ridden just under 100km and had climbed 1800m, and we needed fuel and hydration for the next day.