Before that, if you want to do something similar (and frankly much, much harder) then the Epic Cymru even could be right up your alley. I have to say I’m heavily tempted.
Here’s the other view of that week in the rain and on the hills of Wales:
Half a lifetime’s experience of riding with Andy (a long time ago) told me that he was fitter than me, a better rider than me, more confident on a bike than me, and riding a bike ten times better than mine. Strictly speaking the last point is really only since May, but still, you get the general idea.
Thus, I approached a week riding with him with mixed feelings. I was definitely looking forward to it, but was also aware it would be very tiring, possibly demoralising, almost certainly difficult, and perhaps a tad embarrassing when the disparity between our standards of riding became abundantly clear.
Much to both of our surprise, it was not at all bad.
The first day’s riding (for me, second for Andy) brought the shocking revelation that I could keep up with Andy while climbing, which seems to be both a testament to my greatly improved fitness over the last few months, and perhaps to some shared genetic characteristics. The ride took in sweeping, and occasionally wet, hills above Machynlleth, and alternated between broad tracks (oddly, sometimes blocked by locked gates) and sudden, surprising, and excellent singletrack. The (apparently) famous ‘chute’ section brought fun for Andy, and terror and an impact puncture for me, and then it was a pleasant ride back down through the valleys to the main road and the village. It had only been my second ride on non-manmade trails, and a good introduction to the world of cross country (or perhaps ‘real’) mountain biking.
Day two brought a change of plans. Machynlleth had been a bigger ride than we were really expecting, so rather than head out into the countryside again we had a ‘rest day’ - which apparently means riding two local purpose built trails. Cwm Rhaeadr was a trail that I’d never heard of, despite being regularly in the area. It’s a short trail, but consists almost entirely of bits that you’d be looking forward to if they were in a longer trail. The disparity in our abilities became a lot more obvious, as Andy mocked my Zoolanderesque inability to turn right, complained at my snails pace on the climb, and then vanished into the distance. After I had made my leisurely way to the bottom to join him, we headed for Abergorlech and the red graded Gorlech trail through Brechfa forest. This was more like home territory for me, and a favourite of mine, so I was intrigued to see what Andy made of it. It seems that it got the FMFT seal of approval.
After much discussion and steak, we decided to stay put and ride the Doethie valley on day three. It seems it’s regarded as a bit of a classic, although navigation problems have plagued Andy on his previous attempts. We took a route from a book, and set off to climb fire roads out to the furthest point, which brought us onto a track that was unexpectedly closed to motor traffic. We wondered why. Was it because it was steep and rocky? Probably not. Was it the wheel-deep floods we had to skirt across the top (as the green and beautiful scenery slowly unfolded in front of us)? Maybe. Was it the camber that would tip enterprising 4x4s on their side? Possibly. Was it the erosion that had caused one side of the track to disappear into a two foot deep and very narrow gulley, making the road impassable for cars and incredibly dangerous for motorbikes and horses? Yes. Yes it was.
The singletrack that followed got progressively more fun as we descended the valley. At times it vanished under bracken, leading us to ride on blind faith. At times it vanished into bogs. Gradually, though, it became the legendary bit of natural singletrack that was the reason for the ride, and great fun. There were plenty of moments where I had to put a foot down (or wade through mud carrying the bike), but enough of it was rideable for it to feel like an excellent ride.
Day four brought us, in triumphant culmination of a good week’s riding, to Bike Park Wales, the ambitious new project in the hills above Merthyr Tydfil. Broadly speaking, six routes (a seventh has since opened) wind down the hillside, each split into shorter sections and ranging from roller-coaster blues to I-haven’t-a-clue-how-to-ride-that blacks. Rather than pay for uplift, we slogged repeatedly up the climb track, and made our choice of trail at the top. All the trails seem to me to be at the top end of the grading. Blues are reasonably intense rolling bermy jumpy fun. Blue Belle is a particular favourite of mine, offering varied riding and plenty of interest. Reds are technically challenging and built around different features - everyone was pleasantly surprised that I managed to make it down Rim Dinger on my cheapy hardtail without breaking anything. Blacks I haven’t a clue about, I have yet to muster the courage to try them. After what we think must have been a total of 35km of riding that day, we decided enough was enough, had a post-ride pint, and headed home.
I think the week surprised both of us in that we seemed to ride together fairly well. Andy didn’t seem to feel like he was standing around waiting for me constantly, and I didn’t feel like I was being abandoned in the middle of nowhere. Differences in approach are clear though, as my leisurely morning coffee was accompanied by Andy shifting restlessly from foot to foot and declaring that it was time to go. It is also clear that Andy is still a great deal better than I am at riding, but that perhaps I am not as bad as I think I am.