Trans-Cambria - the quintessential gravel bike adventure
Trans-Cambria is now a reasonably well known mountain biking route across Wales. Originally planned by the International Mountain Biking Association - there are some original write ups and resources on the internet - the most authentic being Trans-Cambria.org
As with many 'old routes' social media has made the routes more appealing (which is great) and with the fastest known time set by Matt Page in 2021 at 8.5hrs this route is drawing a lot of commercial guiding attention.
A few points -
This is a remote ride on quite demanding terrain.
It's 160km and 4000m + of ascent
It was 'designed' as a 3-5 day mountain biking adventure
So, why does this get a write up on no-mad? Well, two things, first it's a human powered adventurous journey in Wales. Second, it's really having met a few very disenchanted folk who were on guided trips that didn't quite work out that was the motivation. These folk were on larger (10+ riders) groups, fully serviced (luggage transport and full board accommodation) and on very whizzy full suspension mountain bikes. They were not having a good time, having abandoned at the end of Day 1. If you've read "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should" you'll have an insight perhaps as to the reasons. And, if you are looking for a mountain bike guide for Trans-Cambria who we really rate, then check in with Steve at Wheelism
If you're going unsupported and unguided here are a few thoughts from our trip across Wales.
Trans-Cambria is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of a east to west crossing of Wales on a bike. Logistically it's easy with rail connections (it starts and finishes on a different railway platform). Aesthetically it crosses from the border, to the sea across wild and remote areas.
It picks up some great scenery, forestry, architectural and industrial heritage, as well as plants and animals that really fit with a no-mad style journey. It's an adventure, that with a bit of thought is a reasonably achievable, if tough journey.
So what skills do you need?
It's unmarked, so navigational ability is required
It's remote, so personal management (hydration and nutrition) is required
Riding skills and fitness (see beneath)
Bike maintenance skills to get you out of wild places
What decisions do you need to make?
Type of accommodation (assuming you're not bashing it out in a day)
Number of days
Type of bike (see beneath)
Type of bike, riding skills and fitness will all go together with a decision on the number of days you'll choose. But here's some stuff to think about...
There is not one 'perfect bike' for Trans-Cambria. If it has two wheels, is mechanically well looked after, it'll go across the route. There are steep ups, and steep downs, there are long fire road climbs, and long fire road descents. There is flat nadgery (see footnote) riding. There are fords, big puddles. There's bedrock and loose rock, mud and tarmac. So, a low-geared, full suspension mountain bike will get you up and down the steep stuff, but will probably suck a bit too much energy on the other bits to make a two day crossing enjoyable. Likewise, if you're not fluid on a bike then riding a rigid gravel bike on all the rough stuff will be as much fun as riding a piano down a flight of stairs.
The accommodation bit - the normal 3 day route breaks at Rhayader and Llangurig, where there are B&B's. There are also two bothies on the route which do offer an opportunity to break the journey at approximately 80 and 100km.
Supplies are really only available in Rhayader and Llangurig too, though the shop doesn't open in Llangurig on a Sunday so unless you've booked with The Village Tea Room Llangurig on a Sunday doesn't offer much.
Fitness - well, this is a combination of aerobic ability, power and mental resilience. I rode this with my friend from Marathon des Sables. Phil doesn't do technical riding, but he has the most amazing mental strength I've ever met. So, we picked gravel bikes, self-supported and two days.
With a bit of navigation planning, and good camp craft, there are enough places to tuck in for a cozy night. We managed a whopping 9.5hrs of shut eye. If you do choose to wild camp, please familiarise yourself with the BMC Respect the Wild codes and videos.
Logistics - we left a vehicle in Machynlleth, because Mach is our closest train station, but all is achievable with the train. The end of our journey had a flat spin back from Glan Dyfi and to the shops!
Nutrition and hydration - this will help with your planning. I know that I can ride about 4hrs on a hot day with 1.5l of fluid. I am a huge fan of Mountain Fuel and use their energy and recovery sachets for ease - plus the Double Ginger Feel Good Bar is the bomb at breakfast or during the day. There are lots of options in Rhayader to get a bit more fuel in, but as with most villages in Wales, they're in valley bases, so don't over do it or you'll be burping all the way up the next climb.
There is a bike shop of sorts in both villages, but you're better off carrying the obvious bits yourself. I'd suggest not forgetting chain lube - the amount of splashing and dust quickly makes the chain and mech a grinding paste of ming (see footnote), or very squeaky.
Oh, before I forget why is it a gravel bike route? Well, as someone who started riding a Ridgeback 602 EX in 1989 and thrashed it up and down Snowdon, I enjoy riding a gravel bike on rough terrain. The shouts of "Dad, why's that bloke riding a road bike around Coed y Brenin" make me smile. I do love riding a mountain bike, but for me, Trans-Cambria is a two day journey about making distance, and what I can't ride I'm happy to hike-a-bike. This means, like in alpinism, fast and light is your friend, and that means that the adventure of moving unsupported through these more remote areas is safer, and fun by being able to move efficiently.
If you're thinking of upskilling on navigation, campcraft or remote first aid, no-mad would be very happy to help. As above if you're looking for bike skills or guiding, then get in touch with Wheelism.
Here are some fly throughs of the route - including the trip into Llangurig and spin back to Mach. Who doesn't love a FatMap for planning a journey.
Nadgery - rocky or rutty technical type terrain
Ming - in this context NOT a Chinese dynasty, more something very unpleasant i.e. the weather is minging