Return and Rediscovery
Mid-Wales is a land of deep reservoirs, expansive forest, and connecting valley roads, crisscrossed by slippery climbs, tufty trails, and boggy moorland. Over a number of bikepacking journeys, Chris Goodman discovers how repeated visits to a place he first experienced as a student have yielded a growing appreciation for its colours, contours, and history…
Words and images by Chris Goodman.
Back in the late 1990s, I lived in mid-Wales for a year. I was studying for a master’s degree in the seaside town of Aberystwyth, and my academic days were punctuated mostly by drinking beer in seafront student pubs and sailing small dinghies just offshore. I didn’t ride (or drive) in those days, and so my experience of the land between Wales’ Cardigan Bay and England was limited to the tortuous three-hour train journey to Birmingham, my gateway to the rest of the UK.
Fast forward 15 years: I’ve discovered bikepacking and found myself in a field near Pennant on a Friday night, to spend a couple of days pedalling around the Elan and Dyfi valleys with a group of random participants of the Bear Bones Welsh Ride Thing. I had no real idea where we were, or where we were heading, and encountered a landscape that I was not all that acquainted with. Steep, slippery, grassy climbs. Faint singletrack lines cutting across expanses of boggy, tufted moorland. Ancient, rutted drover’s roads. Derelict mineshafts marked only by the tumbledown remains of miners’ cottages. Sharp, black, slate descents. As hard as I found it, I loved it.
Something about this land must have really resonated because since then, I’ve found myself returning to the area again and again, sharing it with a number of different friends. I generally start somewhere new, still not exactly sure where I am or how it connects to where I’ve been before, when I’ll suddenly recognise a road, a lake, or a view. The geography here tries its best to funnel you into what eventually become familiar corridors: the fingers of the shore of the Claerwen Reservoir; the smooth tarmac of the Ystwyth valley; the gravel forestry tracks of Hafren; that roller coaster single-lane road with views over Llyn Teifi. Despite my valiant attempts to escape these man-made and natural thoroughfares by slowly grinding my way up onto tussock-filled moors, or pushing up lumpy bridleways (that might just be rideable with less gear, or that elusive 52T sprocket), I always eventually succumb to the will of the landscape and find myself back on these arteries, often with some relief. They may feel vastly different depending on whether there are cold pricks of rain on my cheeks, or I’m lucky enough to catch golden rays of sun dancing across the tufts of grass. But they are the same corridors, no matter the weather or how I came across them.
And so it was last October, when Cass spotted a potential break in the grey drizzle, that I found myself once again back in this increasingly familiar land to spend a few days riding a modified version of the Bear Bones 200 route from 2017. Arriving in Rhayader a little later than planned, we pushed uphill as the sun went down, pitching camp in near darkness, not anticipating the deep orange hues of the fern that we found surrounding us when we woke.
We both happened to be on Bombtrack Hook EXTs, which were perfect for 95% of this journey, but there were a few instances when we felt a little underbiked. The first slippery, rocky descent that morning was one of them. With both of us used to fatter tyres and wider bars, we needed more care than usual to get down whilst keeping everything upright. Climbing up there the night before had also required a smaller chainring, or a little more leg power, than I had available (hence some pushing), but other than these occasions the Hooks proved capable and fun and well suited to the variable terrain of the route. Every bike is a compromise on a ride that spans different surfaces and gradients, and if anything, the slightly less forgiving nature of a gravel bike compared to my plus-tyred hardtail just highlights the skills I should try to improve.
Our first passage along the banks of Claerwen was in cold drizzle after the sun had gone down, and we searched for the faint track leading to the gloomy but protective stone of the Claerddu bothy in the pitch black. I’d been here before, but only in daylight, and all these bends in the road look the same by head-torch. This was (somehow) my first ever night in a UK bothy, and what a choice: with running water and a gas hob, all my future bothy nights might now be a disappointment in comparison. In addition to the bothy, we spent one night in the Hafren bunkhouse and two wild camped in my Zpacks Duplex, immediately justifying my recent upsizing from the Altaplex that has sheltered me on journeys over the last few years.
Water was a constant feature of these few days, although once the clouds had moved on, it was mostly underfoot rather than in our faces. Stream crossings, waterlogged singletrack, bog trotting… all staple features of an off-road bike journey in Wales. Nevertheless, we were also treated to some exceptional light and glorious views, so much so that we revisited Claerwen at the end of the ride to try to capture something of what we had missed in the dark rain on the first pass.
Another constant was coffee and cakes. This was my first time riding with Cass, and I was glad to find that, as well as being something of a machine on the cranks, he’s just as easily distracted by a good coffee shop and snack stop as I am. I’d almost forgotten quite how memorable the choice of cakes at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre is. Add to that the Cwtch cafe/store, slightly hidden off the road and easily missed just outside Pont-Rhyd-Y-Groes, the numerous options in Machynlleth, and the vegetarian restaurant at the Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT), and we were well fed. Whilst this area is known as the Desert of Wales for its lack of people and infrastructure, there are plenty enough accessible resupply points when travelling by bike, meaning we only needed to carry a day or two’s worth of food.
Despite the variations in gradient, the surface under our tyres, the weather, and our sleeping spot for the night giving each day its own flavour, we soon found that rhythm that appears on day two or three of any bike trip, when you’re suddenly not sure how many nights you’ve been away for, or how many you have left, and to some degree everything blurs into one. Every day was very different and yet each shared some of the same characteristics. All of the stresses of the outside world drifted to the back of my mind, as did the pre-trip apprehensions about bike and gear setup, the weather, and whether I should pack a spare pair of socks. There was just what we had with us, what we had in front of us, and what we found along our way.
My memories of that first short day consist mostly of pushing uphill before dusk. The second involved trampling over golden tussocks whilst trying to avoid boggy, shoe-sucking quag, and grayscale views of the Claerwen reservoir as the night and weather closed in. The contrast with the light the following morning defines the third day in my mind, as we chased photographs of each other illuminated in elusive shafts of gold and then descended into Machynlleth at dusk to hunt for fish and chips. We spent much of the fourth day exploring the Centre of Alternative Technology, catching up with an old friend of Cass’ and stocking up on food from the delis in Machynlleth before taking a long but beautiful road climb to make up a bit of time on our way to Hafren. A cold start on the final day gave way to glorious weather as we snaked through the forest and back down to Rhayader in time to revisit Claerwen in the golden hour.
Despite there being so many unfamiliar places to explore, there can be a sense of satisfaction with returning somewhere familiar too. Each time I find myself riding in mid-Wales, I discover a few more of its contours, colours, and vistas. Yes, there are grander, steeper, higher places to ride, but something about the geography and the sparseness of this region makes it a thoroughly satisfying place to get to know a little bit better by bike. It’s a shame I didn’t know this when I lived here, but I’m grateful for the opportunity now.
We were exploring what was to become the Bear Bones Bash route, for which you can find full details here.