If you've been following no-mad for a while, then you probably know that 'The Journey' is at the heart of all we do. Whether it is navigation, skills training, whether it is guiding, or providing event support, then the journey is what no-mad is trying to help happen. It could be a 5km walk, or something a bit more arduous, but actually the principles are identical.
This blog could easily be a step by step guide to the amazing cycle network we have in Wales. But, as you'll see, that probably misses the exploration for you, the journeyperson. The aim is not to teach you what to think, it's to help you how to think to complete any journey. Whether you're moving on foot, on wheels, in a boat or in motorised transport there are some really transferable bits that this story will explain to you.
Lôn Las Cymru, or Sustrans route 8, is a special route and you really should be inspired by Sustrans own description of route 8;
"Also known as Lôn Las Cymru, Route 8 runs in sections down the whole length of Wales. It’s tougher even than the famous Sea to Sea (C2C). As such it represents an excellent challenge for anyone looking for a spectacular and adventurous ride."
Linear routes always look good on a map, and this is no exception!
So, planning and preparing for this took about 10 minutes. Seriously. A chat with my Marathon des Sables tent mate, Phil, outlining the route, and that we wanted lots of flexibility was the limit. No training plan, no booking accommodation, just a deep desire to travel the 407km the length of Wales, by bike. Phil by his own admission is not a huge fan of bikes, well wasn't, but decided to buy himself a gravel bike, and that was it really. It was to be an adventurous celebration of Phil's 50th Birthday later this year.
The next bit of planning went something like - "How long have you got?" we decided on three days, logistics between Phil living near Cardiff, and me in Meirionnydd, meant that north to south looked easier, and after having a look at the map, and a few of the climbs it certainly seemed like that was more doable in three days, rather than the marketed south to north.
Packing the kit the night before, just paring everything down to being light, was definitely the right way to go. I'm always reminded of the day in 1986, when I received Lofty Wiseman's huge "SAS Survival Handbook" from the Puffin book club, and reading the text box on page 2. Whilst it might sound a bit 'testosterone-macho', long challenges, I think fits with this closely. If you're pushing you'll certainly feel discomfort, and very likely feel pain. So, staying alive, and moving is the only way to get an arduous journey done.
I'd make one adjustment - only carry or use equipment you definitely need, or will save a life, and only equipment you definitely know how to use! But, "You must know how to maintain a healthy physical condition... must be able to maintain your morale... lack of equipment should not mean that you are un-equipped" is absolutely, 100% essential to remember. More than that, believe. It is you, not your equipment that will let you achieve your goal. Yes, some equipment will make it quicker, more comfortable or safer, but it is you and your belief and determination that will allow you to achieve.
Before we set off, Phil had only ever ridden 30 miles (50km) before, and it had been a while since I'd put any big days in, so this was going to be an adventure!
Leaving home at 5am, Phil collected me at 9, and we arrived at Holyhead at 11:15, unpacked bikes, checked we had the agreed basic kit and off we went.
Phil had all his kit in a rucksack, and I had a bit of kit on my bike and the lighter bits in a rucksack. Around 1.5 litres of water on the bike and a plan to chunk the route down to 2hrs between a snack and drink.
The detail of the journey is really yours to explore. The route is so well marked by that beautiful red "8" or various local network names, Lon Eifion, Taff Trail etc. We only used ViewRanger on a phone to plan supplies ahead, this too could easily have been avoided. For day 1 we had an idea that we could make Barmouth for food in the evening, before bivvying somewhere. However, the reality was that we ran out of sunlight and fell back on a JetBoil to make some hot water for a Pasta in a Pot type tea, some nuts and a bit of water.
The flexibility of bivvying allows for very quick and light, low impact overnight stops. It also, in my mind gives a very useful emergency opportunity - a warm dry bed, anywhere. And, this made for the right approach for us. Far from being expert, Phil had never bivvied before, but managed a solid 9hrs sleep that first night.
Eating a big breakfast in Barmouth the next morning, the enormity of what we had to do was definitely a low point for both of us. We knew we were going to have to get to beyond Builth Wells that night (about 100 miles (160km) away) if we were going to stand any chance of getting to Cardiff Bay before sunset on the third day. Oh, and a couple of the biggest climbs en route.
Dark moments really get eaten away by just finding rubbish to chat about, or getting lost inside your head. Phil and I started food fantasising - I knew with my muscle soreness I was going to need protein along the way, but first up was coffee and cake. This was a real pick up before climbing away from the Dyfi and into the Hafren forest. The section to Builth Wells has little opportunity to refuel, so snacks were the way to go. There were some really uncomfortable parts to this section, but also mile passing beauty that only Wales has to offer.
Snaking into Builth Wells for fish and chips eaten, sat on the pavement, led to a quick dusk refuel from Co-op meant we had to put lights on. We had hoped to avoid any riding in darkness, but we needed to knock another 10km off to make Day 3 possible, plus it would give Phil and I our first ever 100 mile rides in together. This had been a focus for us during Day 1 and we weren't going to pass up the opportunity now!
Waking on day 3, we were both weary, and both feeling a little saddle sore. Finding the "sweet spot" (what we called a place that our bums didn't hurt) became harder and harder. We were aiming for a two hour ride to Brecon for breakfast, so that we were well fuelled for the climb over the Beacons. We both were in 'management mode' at this time, managing our thoughts, discomfort and trying to keep each others morale up. Drizzle making temperature management a little harder. Even when the inevitable blackthorn hedge cuttings caused Phil two consecutive punctures we kept each other spirits up with chatter about songs from Ace of Bass, Celine Dion and the Spice Girls - inane natter to stop us focusing on the discomfort we both felt. A quick stop in Morrison's for snacks to fuel for crossing over Taff Fechan forest and down to Merthyr Tydfil and we were away. Phil opened a conversation on this section with "I can confirm, I'm now in pain". Only 50 miles to go, in pain then!
For me, the section from Pontsticill Reservoir down to the bay probably held the most interest. I'm so familiar with Ynys Môn, Snowdonia and the Cambrian Mountains that whilst I went to new places, I felt I knew the environment, and felt comfortable with it. Cycling over "That viaduct" that I so regularly drive by on the A470 was the start of an enormous joy of Wales' diverse industrial heritage. Hidden from the main road, lots of gems, extraordinary stories of peoples lives, of bygone times, and really only possible to explore by bike, or foot if you have time. One section of the Taff near Treharris particularly blew me away - such a beautiful section of river that I'd never have put so close to the A470. Simply, stunning.
Meandering alongside the Taff, through Bute park, and arriving in the Bay was special, and truly felt like an amazing adventure, and so special to share with a great friend.
So, how did we break the ride up? Best to see that magic strava data:
The sharp eyed will spot there is an extra 3km here - that was a quick addition to a shop in Llanidloes to get water, but as a split, this was about the maximum we could manage without more (any) preparation before. Split into 80km days, staying in accommodation (pandemic allowing) this could be a very achievable tour over 5 days.
Just to finish the story, and bring it full circle - It always impresses me when I share journeys with Phil, we both start smiling, we push to places that are at times seriously painful, but we always end smiling, though maybe looking a little more tired, and a bit more battered. If there is one journey that has epitomised the survival adage, this one more than many of the others proved to me that 34 years on, I've learnt and experienced enough to know that I've got enough of "You must know how to maintain a healthy physical condition... must be able to maintain your morale... lack of equipment should not mean that you are un-equipped" to be able to complete most journeys when nature lets me.
I particularly like one piece of street art near Merthyr Tydfil - go on, get off the sofa and go explore, "Be Brave, Be Inspired, Be Different"!